June 10, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
So let’s just be clear. Cabinet Ministers are allowed to disagree with each other. In fact, if they want they are allowed to disagree with each other quite vociferously. But, it needs to be done in private. What is astonishing about this week’s row between Education secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May was how public it became. I suggest that it became so public because it isn’t really about the issue that they disagreed on, but the future leadership of the Conservative Party. (May is one of the favourites to be the next leader, Gove a massive supporter of one of her main future challengers, George Osborne) No wonder David Cameron was reported to be so incensed.
So let’s see what should have happened: According to the ministerial code – ministers are free to argue in private but adds that they need to be ‘maintaining a united front when decisions have been reached’, and ‘the privacy of opinions expressed in cabinet and ministerial committees, including in correspondence, should be maintained’.
Yet we have ended up with Gove publicly apologising to May as well as to her counter-terrorism adviser Charles Farr, May’s special adviser being forced to step down having issued a negative briefing about Gove, and calls for May to apologise for allegedly authorising the publishing of a letter she had written to Gove about what she felt was his department’s failure to act on a particularly difficult issue. Political reporters have told stories of receiving calls from special advisers to both very late at night last week (very rare – they are normally chasing the advisers), and David Cameron has stepped in to ‘knock their heads together’.
It is the nature of the issue they are clashing over which means that May and Gove would serve Britain better by working together with each other. This is the alleged “Birmingham schools plot” – which started with an anonymous letter being published detailing an ‘Operation Trojan horse’ which was a template illustrating how state schools could be taken over and pushed into adopting a more Islamic culture – by replacing governors and school leaders with staff more sympathetic to their religious agenda, teaching boys and girls separately, and using assemblies to put forward extremist Islamist views. The letter could well be a hoax, which is making it difficult to investigate, but Michael Gove has decided to investigate it anyway.
As part of this, Gove has argued – and did so vociferously at a recent meeting of the ‘Extremism Task Force’ that for over a generation there had been a reluctance in Whitehall to confront extremism unless it had developed into terrorism. He has suggested that the Home Office should try and ‘drain the swamp’ rather than wait ‘for the crocodiles to reach the boat’.
May seems to have taken this as a personal criticism (it was not, it was about previous home secretaries too). She wrote Gove a letter questioning school governance and oversight arrangements – pointing out that Birmingham City Council was warned about the allegations in 2008 and the Department of Education warned in 2010, and wanted to know why nobody had acted. This letter was leaked and published in the Times. It should not have been – which is why Theresa May’s adviser had to go.
The best case scenario here is that two very powerful politicians are having a genuine disagreement about whose responsibility it is to confront any religious extremism in schools, which is actually a very difficult issue. The worst case scenario is that both are simply saying it’s not their problem – and using this row to discredit each other…with May particularly sensitive to criticism should the Tories perform so badly at the next election that Cameron has to go. She is a genuine contender for the next leader (and should be, rarely has a Home Secretary lasted this long and retained their credibility). Gove isn’t, but supports one of her main rivals, Osborne.
No-one is the winner here. Well, perhaps apart from Boris!