Michael Gove: Minister on a mission

From Bibles in schools to a new royal yacht, hardly a day seems to go by without the Education Secretary popping up with a new big idea. So what kind of a Conservative is he really?

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When the Cavaliers came back in the 2010 Tory restoration, a new atmosphere gave a lift to the spirits of the House of Commons. The Roundheads took their glowering seriousness into opposition and a sense of courtesy, and even gaiety, danced into the place. It lasted much of that year. David Cameron was talking to the Commons in a way none of us had heard before; he answered a Labour MP's suggestion with the words "That's an excellent idea and I'll do exactly as the hon Lady suggests". The obverse Labour response would have been: "I'm pleased the hon Lady has joined the national consensus that we on this side of the House have been building."

Michael Gove had a particularly Cavalier moment early in his ministerial career. That first summer, there had been a complete hash made of the school building cancellation announcement and the Labour MP Tom Watson – 15 magnificent stone of angry suet – jabbed a big fist down the benches of a roaring Commons and called him "a miserable pipsqueak of a man". This was strong, even by the standards of the West Midlands. In reply, Gove gave thanks for the opportunity to apologise to Watson's constituents. He responded to his anger with the words "I understand the passion he brings to this issue and how hard he fights for his constituents", and offered to go and apologise personally to the constituents "who had been misled".

That, too, was new. It was nothing like a New Labour apology; not one of those "If anyone misunderstood me that is obviously something I regret". There wasn't anything limited in it or self-exculpatory. It's a difference; they're not all the same. A proper apology is something that people do to remain human – and professionals do them rarely, if ever. At the heart of this particular Cavalier ethic is a sense of the amateur – those who do things for the love of it, rather than for the ancillary benefits of position, power and destroying people who disagree with you.

There is also a downside to amateurism in the world of professional politics. Inspirational ideas embarrass the brand. A £60m yacht for the Queen is not an idea that fits well into the Age of Austerity. Inspirational, yes. Playing into "out of touch with ordinary people's lives"? Certainly. As does sending a copy of the King James Bible to every state school.

Clever, cultivated (he was a long-time regular on BBC2's Late Review), Oxford-educated, and well constructed to raise the hackles of those who don't like that breed (roughly speaking, everyone else), Gove has come from the centre of the British middle class. The adopted son of a Scottish small business family, he grew up in Aberdeen, first attending a state primary school, but then the fee-paying Robert Gordon's College. He read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and became president of the Oxford Union.

Initially, he was drawn to politics, but after university he became a journalist and joined The Times in 1996. Gove began as a leader writer and was then successively comment editor, news editor and Saturday editor, a progression which suggests that he was being groomed as a potential editor. He married a fellow Times journalist, Sarah Vine, with whom he has two children. Gove had prospered by his talents and eventually meshed with the Notting Hill set of upper-class Conservatives – Cavaliers by birth and background – and had been accepted by them. That is no small feat, even in modern Britain.

A success in his chosen profession, it wasn't clear at all when he decided, at the age of 37, to stand for parliament that he'd be any good at representative politics. I went down to report on his 2005 election campaign for the safe seat of Surrey Heath and found a novice with oversized lips mixing with "ordinary people" in a school hall. It was clear his ability to make conversation with "hard-working mums'n'dads" (copyright Ed Balls) was painfully limited.

But he made it. He got elected. He was appointed shadow Education Secretary, up against the Roundhead's Roundhead, Ed Balls. In my minority view, Gove was to lose systematically to Balls on the floor of the House. His dancing, Oxford Union manner never had the weight to counter the minister's heavy tread, his big-booted sense of seriousness and purpose, his crafty professionalism. More than anything, Balls's most prominent concern was the overriding purpose of every professional politician: to destroy his opponent.

Gove never managed to counter Balls's most annoying rhetorical strategy. Every criticism of grade inflation, of discipline problems, of falling standards – that was "to run down the hard work of teachers and students".

But while in opposition he did have the inspiration to draft his Academies Bill, and in Government had the weight and presence of mind to get Cameron's approval to rush the Bill through that first summer. Try to do that now, the Lib Dems would be doing to it what they have done to Tory attempts in Health and Welfare. As a result, he has created the Coalition's only major structural success. Almost half of all secondary schools are now free of local authority control, and free schools have taken the sting out of the Tory right's demands for more grammar schools.

Will freedom mean back-door selection? Who knows? Victorian public schools were comprehensives – there was no academic selection to get in. The only essential ingredients for Gove's system are: a) good teachers; and b) the freedom to teach. That is such a daring idea it's amazing he's made so much progress with it.

He is a radical in the most conservative of professions. He is taking on the most organised resistance. The teaching unions loathe him and all his works – and in their passions they clearly misdescribe him: an elitist intent on privatising education; the author of a "bullies' charter"; and, by making it easier to sack bad teachers, he is "intent on destroying the teaching profession and state education". A Conservative dedicated to preserving his class interests and doing down working people, ethnic minorities, the vulnerable. If this fairy tale fails, it's because it clearly isn't true. Let's not argue about it. By his works shall he be known – in three years' time, he expects a significant tranche of free schools, many in disadvantaged areas.

But, as an amateur and a radical, he is engaged in the most difficult exercise of all: deflation. Making exams harder will reduce grades. Making inspections tougher will show more schools doing less well. No professional would take this suicide mission on. The amateur spirit – a belief in education for its own sake, and a love of learning, of knowing things for the pleasure of knowing them – is there at the core of Gove's structure. That can be deduced by watching him.

But who knows how he will turn out in the end? Is he a neocon as his enemies say, or the disciple of that greatest of Conservatives, Edmund Burke? He sees himself, obviously, as the latter. Burke's 18th-century premise was that progress should be step by step, and self-adjusting as it evolves. The opposite – characteristic of Continental intellectuals and the left – is a large system created and imposed from above – the National Health Service, comprehensive education.

The introduction of free schools has been properly Burkean. They've started slowly with 30-odd in the first year or so, and seem to be popular enough for another 70 to be up and running by the end of this year. Good or bad, they aren't destroying public education, as their enemies claim – not yet and not unless all schools become free schools.

Set against that, there is Gove's appetite for "liberal intervention" in the Middle East, or anywhere else in need of Western democracy. Rousseau would certainly approve of flying in a new political system to Iraq – but that is everything distrusted by Burke.

So will he abandon Burke, as affairs develop, and succumb to the temptations of international opinions? Or will he stay within his current circumference? Only time will tell, as events work on him.

A Life in Brief

Born: Michael Andrew Gove, 26 August 1967, Edinburgh.

Family: Adopted at four months; his father managed a fish-processing business in Aberdeen and his mother was a lab assistant. He is married to The Times journalist Sarah Vine; they have two children.

Education: Studied at Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen; English literature at Oxford University.

Career: Joined The Times in 1996. Became MP for Surrey Heath in 2005; made shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in 2007. Appointed Secretary of State for Education in 2010.

He says: "Yes, I am in a hurry. Whether it is too much, we will see."

They say: "He has the precious skill of making people who don't agree with him like him and respect him." Peter Stothard, former editor of The Times