Mischief with the real Tory 'heir to Blair'

The Conservatives' schools spokesman says he's ready to press ahead with the former PM's agenda
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The Independent Online

Michael Gove and I are Blairite ultras. If anyone in the Shadow Cabinet personifies David Cameron's claim to be the "heir to Blair", it is the Conservative education spokesman.

He promises to complete the schools reforms that Tony Blair was unable to push through his own party in his last two years: removing the local authority veto on the creation of new schools and allowing state schools to be independent in every respect except admissions. For people like me, Gove is the most plausible "progressive" in the Tory leadership – certainly outdoing George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, who gave a speech on "progressive Conservatism" a fortnight ago.

Some might think that Gove is engaged in simple political mischief, seeking to exploit divisions in the Labour Party. And he certainly is mischievous when we meet in the House of Commons, in between interviews about the A-level results that had been published that day. He says that "my great friend Stephen Byers", the Blairite outrider and former schools minister, had "introduced me to some research which showed that support for choice in the public sector rises further down the socioeconomic spectrum, and that the people who are most enthusiastic about choice are working-class women". He praises Andrew Adonis, the Blairite minister, "moved into an important job, but out of education", and the work of Sir Michael Barber, head of Blair's Delivery Unit, in seeking to compare the performance of the English schools system with those of other countries.

And when I ask if it is wise to paint himself as a Blairite, given the former prime minister's latter unpopularity, he says: "He's not as popular as he deserves to be, and he's emphatically not as popular within Labour as he deserves to be – amazing ingratitude on their part. But if someone were to look at some of the views that I've argued and say, 'Tony Blair said that', it would be fatuous of me to deny it, and dishonest, so therefore I may as well acknowledge it because it is true.

"If you take the Blair view on public services reform, and particularly on education, I think it's right, and it is a pity that that trajectory was stopped. If you take the Tony Blair view on foreign policy, in terms of support for democracy abroad, then I certainly agree with that as well, but if you take certain other Blair policies, and Europe is the most conspicuous, then you can say I fall very, very far short of the high standards he set."

As I say, full of mischief. But this is a serious matter. He could be Secretary of State for Whatever Cameron Decides to Call It (education might be a good idea) in a mere nine months' time. And when he talks of the power of comprehensive state schools to lift children out of poverty, he sounds as "progressive" as any Labour or Liberal Democrat educationalist.

When I ask if the A* grade at A-level that is to be introduced next year will increase the advantage of private schools, he says that "behind the question lurks the suggestion that that is just the way things are and that it is futile to rage against Nature; then I would say you can't accept that".

He goes on: "While it is undoubtedly the case that, if you have children who grow up in plush, comfortable and attractive middle-class surroundings, children with parents who read to them every night and lots of exciting opportunities to visit the Natural History Museum and go abroad and visit Rome at the age of seven, or whatever – yes, they have opportunities. But it is also the case that you can take children from dysfunctional and deprived backgrounds, send them to a superb school, and provide them with teaching that enables them to compete on as near to a level playing field as possible; and which certainly allows them to go on to university – and to go on to the best universities – and succeed thereafter."

Of course, it is not only the Labour Party that is divided on schools policy; many in the Conservatives have not yet come to terms with what I regard as Blair's great "progressive" achievement – that of forcing the Tory leadership to shift decisively away from academic selection.

Gove is still wary of the grammar-school lobby in his own party. He got the schools job because Cameron thought he could sell the "no more grammars" policy better than his predecessor, David Willetts. I ask about support for selection in the Tory party, and mention Dominic Grieve, the justice spokesman who led the revolt against Willetts, and David Davis, the defeated leadership candidate who attacked Gove's policy recently. He responds: "There are at least two statements in there, and many more traps. There are people who take a different view, but that is not the view of the leadership; it is not my view." He even suggests – a hint of mischief returning – that the Tories have always supported the comprehensive principle.

"Ken Baker," he says, listing Tory education ministers, "he believed in it. Edward Boyle believed in it. Margaret Thatcher believed in it."

It is typical of Gove to mention Boyle, 1962-64, not so much forgotten as long unknown; he was a liberal Tory who "conceded" the case for comprehensives rather than "believed" in it, and became unpopular with the party grassroots as a result.

Gove suggests that John Major's policy of "a grammar school in every town" was an abberation: "In the period from 1995 to 1997 John Major allowed himself, in order to present a manifesto around which his party could cohere, to make one or two mistakes, although it is impertinent for me to criticise John Major.

"It is also the case," he volunteers, gratuitously criticising the manifesto drafted by his leader, "that our policy at the last general election, of allowing people to opt out of the state system in education and health, reinforced that caricature as well."

Now, however, the party is firmly set against any extension of selection – the choice Gove hopes to offer parents will be on condition that new schools are open to all abilities – so we Blairites are happy to have him on board. But what about public spending? Cameron has guaranteed the NHS budget but has made no promises about any other department.

Gove is careful and utterly Blairite in his ability to avoid being drawn into specifics. He points out that, when the Tories abandoned the policy of sticking to Labour spending plans, Cameron ringfenced the education, defence and aid budgets as well as the NHS, but only until 2010, on the assumption that there might have been an election before now.

He says the implication is clear. "Looking at the priority areas, of course health's up there, then international development," he continues, "but you can see that education and defence are important. All of us are going to have to look at how we can get better value for money, but I am determined to ensure that the money that goes to the front line in the classroom is protected."

A hope and a prayer, in other words.

David Cameron admitted in his Economist interview last week that, if elected, getting the deficit under control would "make or break my government". Gove's Blairism suggests another possible source of tension: foreign policy. Once again, Gove possesses a brilliant skill – a Blairite skill, almost – of suggesting that any differences in the Shadow Cabinet are more apparent than real. Gove and Osborne are well-known supporters of muscular interventionism, often identified, as Blair was, with US neo-conservatism. Earlier last week Osborne said: "I think I might leave the foreign policy stuff to William Hague. Erm, Michael Gove and I stay silent on foreign policy issues."

Gove says: "Cabinets and shadow cabinets are formed by people who agree on much more than they disagree on. Those disagreements are likely to be more matters of nuance than anything else, and George and I recognise that each of us has important jobs." Interestingly, he mentions Hague but also Liam Fox, another muscular interventionist, as a team "who are experts in the field, who are doing a brilliant job and therefore there is no need for us to say anything more".

But surely, I ask, you would have an obligation to argue your case in cabinet? "Obviously, one of the biggest issues that would face the next government – and if the Conservatives should be lucky enough to be elected it would hit us with tremendous force – is what we do in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how we deal with the ongoing conflict and the broader threat. The implication of your question is that I would have to argue for my policy but the Conservative Party position is not at variance with it."

But what about Cameron's description of himself as "a liberal conservative, not a neo-conservative"? Gove, who is happy to be called a neo-con, replies: "Of course, people said, 'Ah, that's very different from –'. Actually, everything David has said or done on foreign policy, I have thought, 'Yes, absolutely'. He's given the strongest possible support for our mission in Afghanistan; he's stressed that it needs to be better resourced and with better clarity about what our troops are doing; he's emphasised the fact that Afghanistan is not a discrete conflict but part of a broader struggle against Islamist fundamentalism; and the case he's made has been impeccable."

Another broad, mischievous grin. And then, having stayed in London for the A-level results (unlike his opposite number, Ed Balls), he sets off on holiday with his family to the Scottish island of Colonsay.

Life and times: From the press to the front bench

1967 Born in Edinburgh. Adopted as a baby by Ernest Gove, who ran a fish-processing business in Aberdeen, and his wife Christine, a lab assistant at Aberdeen University. Has not tried to trace his birth parents. Attended fee-paying Robert Gordon's College.

1985-88 Studied English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. President of the Oxford Union.

1989 Journalist on Aberdeen Press & Journal, sacked for going on strike. 1990-91 Scottish Television, with Gordon Brown's brother John; later BBC On the Record and Today.

1996 Joined The Times, eventually assistant editor. 2001 Married Sarah Vine, fellow columnist at The Times, in Venice. They have two children. Has written a biography of Michael Portillo and Celsius 7/7, a "neo-conservative" polemic.

2005 Elected MP for Surrey Heath. Became housing spokesman.

2007 Conservative spokesman on schools. 2009 Repaid £7,000 in expenses claimed for furniture.