Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Tristram Hunt throws the (EngLit) book at Michael Gove


It is a truth universally acknowledged that an ambitious minister possessed of a large department tampers with the legacy of the country’s most celebrated woman novelist at his peril. A point not lost on the new shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, who today challenged Michael Gove to confirm that pupils studying only English Language will be “excluded from studying great works of English literature”.

This was hitting Gove where it hurts. For although the Education Secretary has trumpeted the importance of pre-20th century novelists to the English Literature GCSE,  EngLit isn’t in the core curriculum. And grammar-heavy English Language, which is, won’t have any set texts.

Accusing Gove of introducing “the soft bigotry of low expectations into our education system” (ouch), Hunt asked him why, while Gove had “enjoyed studying the works of Jane Austen and Wilfred Owen” at his Aberdeen alma mater, “is it not okay for kids in Harlow and Blackpool today?”

What a power struggle of eggheads this promises to be. With an Education Secretary purportedly committed to intellectual rigour in the country’s classrooms up against a Cambridge PhD, it always threatened to turn into a parliamentary fusion of Mastermind and Brain of Britain. Though Gove’s pushback was more er… pub quiz. “Tragically, I was not able to take English GCSE, because I was in Scotland. As a historian, the hon. Gentleman could perhaps do with studying geography.” This was pretty feeble, since Hunt had not actually said Gove had studied GCSE rather than the Scottish equivalent.

And then a rarity. A “point of order” which was actually interesting. Tory John Whittingdale was upset that allegations made under the ancient protection of absolute parliamentary privilege to the select committee he chairs  – Culture Media and Sport – by the former FA chairman Lord Triesman of corruption against four members of FIFA during the 2018 World Cup bid, are to be challenged in the courts.

One of those named – the man from Thailand – has won leave to appeal against a High Court dismissal of his attempt to sue the Labour peer. If witnesses could not be confident they were immune from such legal action, Whittingdale said, it “will severely damage the ability of select committees to obtain the information they require”.

Speaker John Bercow said his counsel had written to the Court expressing his own “grave concerns”.

This has all the makings of a first class constitutional row. And it could even unfold on TV.