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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Michael Gove claims he doesn’t bruise easily – but no one threw any punches

Does that Right Hon Gentleman agree that No 10 is ‘very out of touch’?

Asked early in his ministerial questions slot about whether he was “embarrassed” by free-school failures, Michael Gove said on Monday, with typical aplomb, that “I don’t mind embarrassment personally,” adding thoughtfully: “Just as well, some might say.”

Hmm, we thought. Not even after the morning’s injudicious public ravings of his former – and maybe not so former – henchman and No 1 fan Dominic Cummings?

The questions were pretty obvious. As in “Does the Right Honourable Gentleman agree with his closest ally and adviser for six years that the Prime Minister lacks ‘the slightest sense of purpose?’ Or that the PM is a ‘sphinx without a riddle’? Or that No 10 is ‘very out of touch’ and there is no ‘grip or focus’ at the top? Or that the PM’s chief of staff is ‘a classic third-rate suck-up kick-down sycophant presiding over a shambolic court?’”

Strangely, they weren’t asked. Presented with the best opportunity Gove’s opposite number Tristram Hunt is likely to have before the election to test the Education Secretary’s professed unembarrassability, he instead repeated his justified calls for “a proper system of independent local accountability” in the aftermath of the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham.

Doubtless this was for high-minded reasons: advisers are just a beltway issue, no interest outside the Westminster village etc.

Except that Gove had not actually denied that Cummings, a key enforcer of his education reforms, had been in last week to discuss the handling of “Trojan Horse”.

Instead he loyally – to Cummings that is – told shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan that “all sorts of people from time to time seek to visit the Department for Education in order to exchange ideas with old friends and colleagues”.

And Gove could at least have been asked about Cummings’ view that British education should be “voucherised”. Or that his Department’s civil service staff should be cut by at least 75 per cent.

When Labour’s Karen Buck, to her credit, asked about the recent visit to the department by this particular “old friend and colleague” Gove glibly – and in her case wholly unfairly – accused her of diving down the “rabbit hole of Whitehall process instead of standing up for her constituents”.

This was nonsense, of course. But he escaped without serious challenge. The goal was open. But the shot never came.

You have to hope that England do better than this in Sao Paulo on Thursday.