Michael Gove: The modest moderniser

In an age of philistinism, the shadow Education Secretary is a rare politician who will own up to being knowledgeable

One of the more interesting debates to take place on the fringe of next week's Conservative Party annual conference will address the question of who was the greatest Tory of them all. Four names are on the shortlist. Given the sort of audience that will be assembled in Birmingham, you can confidently predict that the winner will be Margaret Thatcher, with Winston Churchill as runner up, and an honourable mention also for Disraeli.

But one brave soul is proposing to stand on the platform and tell those Tory activists that the Conservative they should be revering above all others was not a prime minister, or even a minister, but the philosopher Edmund Burke. They will never buy it, but all credit to Michael Gove, shadow Secretary for Schools, for a valiant attempt.

In an age when it is fashionable to be anti-intellectual, Mr Gove is a rare politician who will own up to being knowledgeable, and who dares to let it show that he likes books more than football. This is despite a recent makeover, in which he dispensed with the glasses and smartened up his appearance to make himself look a little less like the slightly dishevelled policy wonk that he used to be.

Gove will need to hang on to this passion for learning if, as the opinion polls suggest, there is to be a Conservative government within two years. He is in line to be the first Conservative to run the schools system since Gillian Shephard was education secretary in the last three years of John Major's government. The line of succession is instructive, because Baroness Shephard, as she now is, was the only education secretary ever to introduce vouchers into state education. They were dropped by the incoming Labour government, without any audible clamour for them to be brought back.

Gove is now preparing to sail back into these politically dangerous waters, with a scheme borrowed from Sweden. There, a little over one in 10 pupils are being educated at the state's expense in schools that are not run by the state. It is not called a voucher system, but it works along similar lines. The state lets parents choose where to educate their child, and stomps up an annual sum equivalent to what it would cost if the child were at state school. The resulting competition is credited with having forced up standards all round.

Gove is a proselytising supporter of the Swedish system, which he wants to import to Britain, but with the added element that if a group of parents wants to start a new school in competition with the state, government will not just shoulder the running cost but put up capital too. Touring the country earlier this month, he talked enthusiastically about 3,000 new schools "with an independent ethos", and with no defined catchment areas.

This is very New Conservative. It recognises that parents who cannot afford private school fees can be as ambitious for their children as those who can. It frees them from the power of the local education authority, with its rigid catchment areas and admissions criteria. It consigns to history the old Tory argument about whether to bring back grammar schools. It is free market enough to appeal to the Tory right, yet it is borrowed from Sweden, homeland of social democracy. But Gove's critics warn that it could be hugely expensive – wasteful even. Overall, there is no great shortage of school places in England and Wales, and adding 3,000 new schools or even a fraction of that number must create a large surplus.

However, some think that Gove will not be asked to put into practice the schemes he has devised so enthusiastically – or that even if he does a spell as education secretary, it will be a relatively brief posting on his way to something grander. Though he has said he has no ambition to be prime minister, he is surely destined to be a major player in a Cameron cabinet. He is already one of the trusted advisers who take part in the rehearsals that precede Cameron's appearances at Prime Minister's Questions. In these sessions, it is reputedly Gove who acts out the role of Brown.

He was also one of the first to rally to Cameron's cause in the leadership contest in 2005, at a time when it seemed nothing could stop David Davis from rolling to victory. The Cameron campaign was launched in the office of the think tank Policy Exchange, which Gove co-founded and chaired for three years.

That launch had the look of a quixotic gesture by all concerned. Policy Exchange, which has since grown to be the most influential right-wing think tank in the country, was then a refuge for frustrated Tory modernisers who had been cut adrift when it became clear that their hero, Michael Portillo, was never going to be leader of the Conservative Party. No Portillista was politically more adrift than Gove, who first found fame as the author of a book called Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right which has long since been remaindered.

Given how directly he was hit by the collapse of the Portillo project, it was a remarkably bold move that Gove made in 2005, when he gave up his day job at The Times to become Conservative MP for Surrey Heath in 2005. Like Boris Johnson, he is a rare example of a successful journalist who has become a successful politician. At The Times, Gove was successively comment editor, news editor and Saturday editor, a career pattern that suggests that he was being groomed as a potential editor. In Parliament, he rose at dizzying speed, to join the shadow cabinet just two years and two months after entering Parliament.

Though he is identified with the Notting Hill set, that group of Tory modernisers around David Cameron, who were born into wealthy families and have moved effortlessly into leadership, his own background is less exalted. He was born in Edinburgh in 1967, but he has no idea to whom. As a baby, he was adopted by an Aberdeen couple who are the only parents he ever knew. The man he regards as his father ran a fish processing business, and his mother was a laboratory assistant. They scraped together the money to send him to a fee-paying school. His sister Angela, also adopted, went to Aberdeen School for the Deaf. He learnt sign language to speak to her.

There is something else besides his family background that sets Gove apart from David Cameron. While Cameron pursues a foreign policy that is calculated not to frighten the voters, by giving the impression that he will stand up for British interests without a repeat of the Iraq war, his friend Gove is an unashamed neocon.

His book, Celsius 7/7, published last year, won critical acclaim mainly because Gove writes beautifully. His argument was that there is a phenomenon called "Islamism", a totalitarian movement in the mould of fascism or communism, and which should be fought with the weapons of war. Those who attribute the rise of Islamism to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or any other Western action, Gove argued, are like those who say that the Versailles Treaty gave rise to the Nazis – appeasers, in a word. As for the Iraq war, Gove is in no doubt that it is on the way to being a huge success story for freedom and democracy.

The book, in its way, sums up Michael Gove: well expressed, modern, sweeping in its scale, thoughtful, and with a modesty of style that obscures the hardness that lies underneath.

A life in brief

Born: 26 August 1967, in Edinburgh.

Family: Adopted as a baby, he grew up in Aberdeen. Brought up as a Protestant by his adoptive parents, a fish merchant and lab assistant. Later married a fellow journalist at 'The Times', Sarah Vine. They have two children.

Early life: Schooled in both private and state schools, he left Aberdeen to study English at Oxford University, where he became president of the Oxford Union. Always interested in politics, he was rejected at an interview for the Conservative Research Department because he was "insufficiently Conservative".

Career: Turned to journalism instead, eventually becoming a senior editor at 'The Times'. In 2005 he left to run for safe Conservative seat of Surrey Heath. Now the shadow Schools and Children Secretary. Has written two books staunchly supporting neo-conservatism, as well as a biography of Michael Portillo.

He says: "The only sustainable ethical foundation for society is a belief in the innate worth and dignity of every individual."

They say: "I don't think being a nerd means you can't be deeply frivolous. Michael's more of a swot than a nerd. He's the kind of man who comes on holiday with 5,000 pages about the rise of the Third Reich." Nicholas Boles, director of Policy Exchange

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