New Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s manner normally manages to stay just this side of “jolly hockey sticks” (meaning, according to one dictionary definition, “a woman… of a high social class who is enthusiastic in a way that annoys most people”).
But teachers rejoicing at the departure of Michael Gove may worry at her spirited response to the Tory Richard Fuller’s astonishing suggestion that Mr Gove had not been “radical enough” on free schools. “It is always exciting to be tempted to be more radical,” she mused dangerously. “My commitment to free schools is absolutely undimmed.”
Luckily, this eccentric criticism of Mr Gove was not generally shared on the Coalition benches. Rarely can a ministerial first outing have been so dominated by an absent predecessor. Ms Morgan herself lavishly praised “one of the great reforming Secretaries of State for Education”. The Schools minister David Laws went out of his way to “pay tribute” to his advocacy “of higher standards in education” – all the more warmly, doubtless, now he is liberated from his frictional relationship with his ex-boss.
Labour’s approach to the “legacy” on which Ms Morgan vowed to “build” was more circumspect. Equally relieved, perhaps, at the departure of a man who, however shamelessly, had tended to get the better of him in the Commons, even the shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt insisted he wished to “pay tribute” to his departed opponent by saying he was “full of ideas” but then added: “They just happened to be the wrong ones.” The shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan advised Ms Morgan to “change the locks” of her department’s Sanctuary Buildings headquarters to ensure that Mr Gove and his Rasputin Dominic Cummings did not “sneak back after dark”.
Touchingly determined to make a fresh start with the new Secretary of State despite this cross-party banter, Labour’s Keith Vaz, himself “a firm supporter of free schools”, warmly asked Ms Morgan, a constituency neighbour, to open one for Sikhs in his constituency. We may never know whether he would have extended the same invitation to her predecessor.
Mr Gove himself was not present, even when David Cameron arrived as the Commons chamber began to fill up for his statement on Flight MH17 and Gaza after education questions. Was the new Chief Whip on strike in protest at his removal from Education, given his non-appearance at Thursday’s questions on parliamentary business? Eventually, he turned up, late, after Mr Cameron had already started speaking. Thus generously ensuring that his presence should not distract for a second from his successor’s debut.