Michael Gove’s decision to veto a second term for Baroness Morgan at Ofsted, as revealed by The Independent on Saturday, is a small stroke of the brush in a much bigger political picture. The small stroke reflects the ambiguous relationship between ministers and quangos. In the current fractured schools system, with a variety of providers, Ofsted plays an increasingly important role. It holds schools to account, almost independent of government. Like other quangos, it functions in a weird semi-independent world, responsible to ministers but theoretically separate from them.
Quangos have proliferated because ministers like to keep a distance from some front-line activity while retaining influence over what these bodies are up to. The previous Labour government used quangos extensively too, and sometimes ministers sought to choose supporters of their party. In this case Gove wants a new figure to lead Ofsted, supposedly independent of him, but even closer to his way of thinking than Morgan was. The ambiguity in the relationship between minister and quango is dangerous but nothing new.
Gove’s small stroke changes the political landscape because it signals the end of the Tory modernisers’ dream. Gove has been the most committed Tory supporter of Tony Blair and other so-called Blairites. Without qualification, he says he is a Blairite. He does so partly to make mischief, but also because there is genuinely quite a lot of common ground between Blair, his close allies, and Gove. Apparently Gove has discovered that there is not enough for the love-in to continue or else Morgan would have stayed in post.
At the beginning of the romance, before the last election, Gove had high hopes that the inter-party cross-dressing could take many forms. He tried to persuade Andrew Adonis to become a minister in a Tory government. He hoped that a significant section of the Labour party would be unqualified supporters of his policies. He had the same hopes about the Cleggite wing of the Liberal Democrats.
Gove was a sincere enthusiast of the partnership when the Coalition was formed, seeing his convivial and fruitful relations with senior Lib Dems as another step towards his Tory version of the Blairite revolution. David Laws was a particular favourite. In opposition David Cameron and George Osborne had sought to persuade Laws to defect. Gove’s appointment of Sally Morgan to Ofsted was a natural part of the sequence. Morgan had worked for Blair for many years and was a supporter of academies and free schools.
In appointing her, Gove was also following the New Labour strategic textbook. Blair was keen to show that he led a big tent and encouraged the appointment of non-Labour figures to key bodies. After 1997, the likes of Chris Patten and David Mellor were offered posts of varying significance as part of a big tent that included Tory defectors to Labour. Gove sought to do the reverse with Morgan.
By any orthodox measurement Morgan has been a success in her post. She is highly respected within Ofsted and has worked well with its chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw. Indeed, Gove says she has been “superlative”. But there is a tension between Gove’s New Labour-like hunger for a big tent and his impatient ideological drive. The same applies to Cameron and Osborne. All three wanted to copy the New Labour centrist approach while implementing some programmes that out-Thatchered Thatcher. As a result there has been no new great bulging big tent for them. There has not been a single high-profile defection to the Conservative party since Cameron became leader. Some of the reforms that they saw as a natural extension of Blair’s have been severely criticised by Blairites, and Laws is currently furious with Gove.
In his speech yesterday, Gove continued to frame his objectives within his familiar narrative. He claimed to be a progressive who sought the highest standards in schools, not least for those in poorer areas. Morgan’s departure therefore can have only two implications. The first is that Gove plans to move much further in policy terms soon, perhaps to embrace selection more openly or profit-making schools. The second is that his broader political strategy has changed. He must have known that removing Morgan would alienate Labour’s Blairite wing and the Liberal Democrats who admired her work. This awareness did not deter him. He is becoming more overtly tribal as the next election moves into view – a minister highly regarded by Conservatives marches as one with his party and no other.
Gove must have assumed that the publicly self-effacing Morgan would go quietly. She did not. After giving much thought to the matter, she offered a single interview to the Today programme and lit the fuse. Gove is a journalist but Morgan played the media much more effectively. The subsequent explosion will make it more difficult for him to appoint an ideological soulmate as Morgan’s successor. His hopes for a Tory version of Blair’s political cross-dressing are also smothered in the flames.
Has the message sunk in?
In 2004, the government’s chief scientific adviser, David King, warned that climate change posed a bigger threat to the UK than terrorism.
The claim seemed to me at the time to be preposterously hyperbolic. Very quickly the comparison becomes vividly precise.
Thankfully terrorists have failed to break through the various costly barriers erected after 9/11 and 7/7. In contrast, the wild weather pushes aside the pathetic, puny obstacles that stand fleetingly in its way, and wreaks havoc.
Increasingly since King made his dramatic claim, the weather has become the main news story in the UK, and not only in the winter. The floods in the summer of 2007 were as dramatic as those now afflicting parts of the country.
A pattern is forming. Each wild outbreak of extreme weather prompts speculation that the turbulence might be a one-off. Then there is another violent eruption.
The government and the rest of us must treat the threat as if it were one posed by terrorists. Far more investment is required to protect the parts of the country vulnerable to flooding. Emergency services must respond more quickly. The Environment Agency needs the resources, and the nimble resolve to meet the challenge.
The threat posed by climate change and the separate needs of a growing elderly population urgently require more public money. We should not forget the need when the pre-election tax-and-spend debate focuses solely on the virtues of cuts.