28 February 2012

The Blue Angel: Talking up Gove again

Not quite what Marlene Dietrich sang* in The Blue Angel:

but it seems to be the tune coming from the UK commentariat. For example, Toby Young, in the first Sun on Sunday on 26 February:
… Up until now, the only other senior Conservative identified as a potential successor to Cameron is George Osborne and all the talk has been of a Boris v Osborne bun fight in the next Parliament. But could Michael Gove be emerging as a dark horse candidate? We learned on Friday that more than 300 volunteer groups have applied to set up free schools next year, adding to the 96 that have already been approved.
… It's precisely because the policy has been such a success that Michael Gove is now being talked about as a future Prime Minister. Of course, it won't do him any favours with his Cabinet colleagues – he might as well paint a big fat target on his back. …
… in a three-way contest between Boris, Osborne and Gove, my money would be on Gove.
The day before, Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph had heaped praise on Gove (“a highly intelligent and resilient man”) and his education reforms, but had made only a very oblique comment on his political prospects:
Mr Gove offers an attractive combination – complete loyalty to the Cameron modernisation, but a Thatcher-era conviction politics as well. It is extremely powerful. Unfortunately, in the present Cabinet, it is virtually unique.
Anyway, Young wasn’t right to say “Up until now”. Another Gove enthusiast, John Rentoul in the Independent, seems to think that a Bagehot article last summer in The Economist marked the start. It was, apparently, written by Janan Ganesh, familiar to some from BBC1’s Sunday Politics. But August is a difficult time for commentators to find something to write about, and “what if the PM went under a bus” is a long-established column-filler. As August, so early January, but, nonetheless, Rentoul sees Patrick O’Flynn’s piece in the Daily Express, Michael Gove has suddenly become the heir apparent to David Cameron, as another straw in the wind.
Since then the wind has turned into a gale. Iain Martin headlined an interview with Gove for Standpoint magazine, Will Michael Gove Go All the Way to No 10?, and then, on 22 February, followed it up with a post for his blog, The Rise of the Iron Laddie Can Gove get to Number 10? (Ironically, Private Eye had made the same pun about Cameron nearly a month earlier: Issue 1306 page 22). At the same time, John Rentoul blogged Michael Gove could be prime minister, describing Iain Martin’s post as “a superb write-up”. Another Rentoul post, surrealistically titled Why Gove must be reincarnated as an olive, followed on 26 February, together with his column in the Independent on Sunday. The latter took a slightly less hyperbolic view, drawing attention to the deficiencies of the other leading Conservative members of the Cabinet, and concluding that:
Compared with all these, Michael Gove is the most successful minister.
A clue to his appeal to Rentoul (Blair’s biographer) follows:
In a virtuoso speech to the parliamentary press gallery last week, without notes, he said he was proud to be a Blairite, a species that could survive only in the hothouse of government, and which was "now extinct in the wild – that is, in the Parliamentary Labour Party".
Against all that, he has one weakness. He is not a retail politician on television. But if he goes on doing a good job of government, that is the kind of perception that can be turned round, and his peculiarities of manner could become strengths of "a character".
and Rentoul concluded:
… The other day I suggested that Gove should be moved to sort out the disaster of NHS reform. But that may not be the limit of what he can achieve.
Playing to the gallery seems to have paid off, with conservativehome’s Left Watch in the form of Paul Goodman leaping to Gove’s defence, The Left's next target is Michael Gove, after an article in the Guardian, also on 27 February, by David Leigh: The schools crusade that links Michael Gove to Rupert Murdoch, "The education secretary has close ties to Rupert Murdoch and would be a key figure if he attempts to move into the UK schools market".

Most people recognise Murdoch’s astuteness about the possibilities of innovation, and would want his advocacy of new technology in the classroom to be considered, but the teachers among the Guardian’s readership may be less enthused.  Whether Gove is wise to have got as close to Murdoch as the article suggests is another matter. Then, as David Davis’ article, Crony Capitalism, in the current Prospect Magazine shows, this has been habitual behaviour at the top of the British political class.  Goodman concludes:
Guardian and New Statesman journalists would be asleep on the job were they not criticising Tory Cabinet Ministers. So this is not a complaint but an observation. It is also, in its way, a warning. Gove is currently what the Australians called "a tall poppy". While Andrew Lansley trudges on with his health bill, the Education Secretary seems to soar skywards. There is no shortage of those who would like bring him down.
And by later in the day things had been cooled down a bit, with Fraser Nelson on the Spectator Coffee House explaining that Gove had told him in 2008 “I’d never run for leader”, and Tim Montgomerie, back on conservativehome’s ToryDiary, assuring his readers that “Michael Gove rules out leadership bid, concluding he doesn't have "right sort of character" for the job”. Apparently Gove was going to give a major speech on 1 March “on social mobility. However, he cancelled it because of the growing leadership chatter. He didn’t want this.” according to “his closest adviser”.

Rentoul went so far as to put a meme on Twitter, #MG4PM, but it seems to be a long way from trending and we will just have to wait and see whether Gove-mania gets a second wind. The man himself may well be left wondering if, with friends like these, he needs enemies. In the meantime, it might be worth rereading Bagehot/Ganesh’s conclusion about Gove:
The last politician to mix conservatism and cosmopolitanism so vividly was Michael Portillo, the former Tory minister who, neatly, was the subject of a sympathetic biography by Mr Gove in 1995.  That book was called “The Future of the Right”; there are some who see Mr Gove as the inheritor of that mantle. They worry that other candidates to lead the Tories one day, such as Mr Osborne and Mr Johnson, share with Mr Cameron a patrician incomprehension of the striving classes. But Mr Gove forswears any such ambition. Even if he did not, his conspicuous intellectualism and uncompromising worldview might count against him. Some politicians are just too interesting to reach the very top.
Harking back to a post here last August on birth order in top politicians, it may be worth remembering that the the last first-born child to lead his party to win a general election was Harold Wilson in 1974. According to the Economist: “Mr Gove was adopted when he was four months old. All he knows about the woman who bore him is that she was a student.” It isn’t clear whether there was an older child in the family. Gove worked as a journalist, which might help explain the enthusiasm of the commentators for one of their own.  But as far as I can tell, the last PM to have been seriously engaged in journalism was Winston Churchill!

More seriously, it’s worth considering one of the points made by Toby Young:
I'm a big believer in free schools, having led the efforts of a group of parents and teachers to set one up last year. The distinctive characteristics of our school – strong discipline, small class sizes and traditional subjects – have proved a winning formula, with more than 2,000 parents applying for our next 120 places. It's precisely because the policy has been such a success that Michael Gove is now being talked about as a future Prime Minister.
Well, up to a point Lord Copper. The fatal problem with the grammar schools was their 35% or less participation rate. Of course this didn’t mean 65% disappointment – some parents wouldn’t have been concerned and anyway didn’t “apply” in Young’s sense. But his data suggests that there will be over 1880 disappointed applicant parents, ie about 95%. Raising large-scale expectations which can’t be met might be regarded as a risky undertaking for any politician, even one so "highly intelligent and resilient".

*In Josef von Sternberg’s first talkie, Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930), Marlene Dietrich plays Lola-Lola, a cabaret singer at the eponymous nightclub who causes the downfall of a hitherto respected schoolmaster at the local gymnasium (academy).  A plot which is very unlikely to appeal to the Education Secretary.  In the English version of the film, The Blue Angel (1930), Dietrich sings:
Falling in love again
Never wanted to
What am I to do?
Can't help it


ADDENDUM 4 March 2012

Now here’s a strange thing in the form of a Tweet on 3 March from John Rentoul. I will use the method the Modern Language Association recommends for citing a tweet:
Rentoul, John (JohnRentoul). “"Being somewhat peculiar myself, I sympathise with people who are a little bit odd" Toby Young http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100106034/yet-another-attempt-to-smear-michael-gove-by-his-nemesis-on-the-ft/” 3 March 2012, 5:19 p.m. Tweet.
Gove has been in an argument with the Information Commissioner about the release of emails under the Freedom of Information Act, following a story in the Financial Times on 20 September 2011. Their education correspondent, Christopher Cook, was the subject of Young’s post on his Daily Telegraph blog (as Rentoul’s Tweet) later that day. A month earlier Cook had written a profile of Young in the Lunch with the FT series. Young’s comment quoted by Rentoul was about Cook, (not Gove!) and his blog ended:
I met Cook at last year's Conservative Party Conference, an encounter that led to him penning a profile of me in the FT. I have to confess, I find his weird, stalker-ish obsession with Michael Gove almost endearing. Being somewhat peculiar myself, I sympathise with people who are a little bit odd. But his journalism should be taken with a large dose of salt.
Something Young wrote interested me:
Cook abandoned his fledgeling political career soon afterwards, joining the FT in 2008, but he remains close to Willetts and worked on The Pinch, his book about the baby boom generation published in 2010.
because David Willett's The Pinch was the subject of a post here last year.

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