Michael Gove and Teresa May go to war over alleged Islamic extremist plot to take over Birmingham schools

Gove blames Home Office for allowing extremists to stay but Home Secretary says Education Secretary failed to act

Whitehall Editor

David Cameron has been forced to intervene in an extraordinary public row between two of his leading cabinet ministers over how to tackle Islamist extremism in schools.

In briefings to journalists, the Education Secretary Michael Gove appeared to blame the Home Office of failing to “drain the swamp” of radicalised Islam in the UK which had led to an alleged “Trojan horse” plot to seize control of classrooms in Birmingham schools.

But his accusation led to a furious response from the Home Secretary Theresa May who authorised the leaking of a private letter in which she appeared to blame the scandal on Mr Gove demanding to know “why did nobody act?”

When the damaging row became public late last night Downing Street was forced to step in – demanding both ministers put out a joint statement stating they were “working together” on the issue.

Mr Cameron is understood to have spoken to both ministers overnight to shut down the dispute ahead of the Queen’s Speech.

“It clearly wasn’t the best timing,” said a Government source.

The row began after Mr Gove is understood to have briefed The Times about his concerns about Islamic radicalisations in school.

The Education Secretary is well-known for his neoconservative views and is believed to feel that the problem of radical Islam has not been taken seriously enough by the Home Office.

He is particularly critical of Charles Farr, the former intelligence chief who runs the office for security and counter terrorism within the Home Office.

A Department for Education source was quoted by The Times saying that Mr Gove believed that some schools in Birmingham had been targeted by “a group of people who are ideologically Islamist” and were “extreme without being violent”.

“They have set out over time to take over and subvert governing bodies of schools using entryism in the same way as political parties have been taken over, such as Militant Tendency,” the source said.

“Some have been very wary of drawing attention to this, as it might be seen as Islamophobic. That is why there has been a reluctance to acknowledge what has been going on.

“Tony Blair recognised this space. Within Government there has been pushback against doing that. Charles Farr always believed if extremists become violent we should deal with it. It has been characterised by others in government as just beating back the crocodiles that come close to the boat rather than draining the swamp.”

But the comments led to a furious response from the Home Office who leaked a letter from Ms May to Mr Gove.

In it she questioned whether Mr Gove's department was warned about the allegations in 2010 and asked: "If so, why did nobody act?"

Raising a series of questions about the handling of the allegations, Mrs May asked Mr Gove: “How did it come to pass, for example, that one of the governors at Park View was the chairman of the education committee of the Muslim Council of Britain?

“Is it true that Birmingham City Council was warned about these allegations in 2008? Is it true that the Department for Education was warned in 2010? If so, why did nobody act?

“I am aware that several investigations are still ongoing and those investigations are yet to conclude. But it is clear to me that we will need to take clear action to improve the quality of staffing and governance if we are to prevent extremism in schools."

In December, the cross-Government task force on tackling extremism and radicalism recommended a voluntary code of conduct to prevent children being exposed to "intolerant or extremist views" in religious "supplementary schools" providing lessons outside mainstream education.

But Mrs May said the Birmingham allegations showed the potential need for a mandatory code and urged Mr Gove to include that option in his consultation on the plans.

She said: "The publication of a code of practice for supplementary schools was an agreed Extremism Task Force commitment and we agreed at the conclusion of the ETF's work that the code should be voluntary.

"However, since the publication of the ETF report in December there have been serious allegations of extremism in some Birmingham schools and accusations about the inability of local and central government to tackle the problem effectively.

"In this context, I am not convinced that a voluntary code is sufficient and I believe it would be sensible to include the option of developing a mandatory code in your consultation document."

She said the Birmingham allegations "raise serious questions about the quality of school governance and oversight arrangements in the maintained sector, not just the supplementary schools that would be signatories to this code of practice".

Following the publication of the letter, a spokesman for the two Cabinet ministers issued a joint statement from Mr Gove and Mrs May, saying: "The Department for Education and the Home Office take the problems in Birmingham schools and all issues relating to extremism very seriously. Michael Gove and Theresa May are working together to ensure we get to the bottom of what has happened in Birmingham and take the necessary steps to fix it."

And a source close to the Education Secretary said: "Michael Gove thinks Theresa May is a superb Home Secretary.

“We will continue to work well with the Home Office and other Government departments to combat extremism in all its forms. Ofsted will publish their findings next week and Peter Clarke will publish his report in July.”

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