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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Poetry corner or much ado about nothing...?

The gentleman appreciates beauty in many spheres of human endeavour

Normally we look to Michael Gove for the  flash of cold, ideological, steel. Instead we got Mills and Boon. The Education Secretary proclaimed himself “in love” with Diane Abbott. But only, it should be said, after  Ms Abbott had  thrown herself at the Education Secretary.

How else to explain her intervention after Gove’s  statement on GCSE reform was repeatedly laced with words like “rigorous” and “academic”: “Does he agree with me that an emphasis on rigorous education and an emphasis on attaining core academic subjects is not, as is sometimes argued, contrary to the interests of working class children and black and ethnic minority children?”

In the Latin whose return to Britain’s schools the Education Secretary has championed, this is a “nonne” question — one expecting the answer “yes.” Or perhaps Yes! Yes! Yes!  What he actually said in his ecstatic reply was: “I am in love. She is absolutely right. If I had been a member of the Labour Party” — a prospect even more improbable than this cloying new romance — “I  would have voted for her  to be the leader.”

Whether because of his new infatuation, poetry was much on the Education Secretary’s mind. As in the following  erudite exchange with Labour’s Chris Bryant who could not understand  “why he thinks that learning vast quantities of “The Wreck of the Hesperus” or “The boy stood on the burning deck” or “If” will make young people better equipped for the work environment.” Gove: I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates beauty in many spheres of human endeavour” Bryant: ”Truth is beauty, beauty truth.” Gove: “And he is quoting Keats now.”

Certainly the Education Secretary was at his most benign. He  congratulated his shadow Stephen Twigg –who had joked that  that  he was  “cutting back on resits for students, but he affords himself a fourth attempt at GCSE reform” on “his witty and discursive speech.” And when  Labour’s  Barry Sheerman –while welcoming the new developments — warned that “he sometimes falls into the trap of being more in favour of disruptive innovation that building a consensus for change” Gove was positively  unctuous. “Those are very generous words from an experienced politician that I shall take to heart,” he said.

So was this a  new Gove? Probably not. Even amid all the poetry, the steel occasionally flashed. Labour’s Geraint Davies,  worried that Welsh  students  could be disadvantaged by having different qualifications, punctured the consensual mood by suggesting  that he  should have “tried harder to get a compromise”  instead of “leaking the contents of his meetings with the Welsh Government”to the press. “Into every life a little rain must fall” Gove said with a sigh, before squarely blaming the devolved administration for its failure to “preserve rigour.”

It wasn’t clear whether Gove was quoting the 1944 Ink Spots hit or — more likely —  the poem by Longfellow which inspired its lyric. But either way he got the words—and the metre — slightly  wrong. The line is “Into each  life a little rain must fall.” Rigour, Secretary of State. Rigour.