Talking nonsense in portentous tones, David Cameron had this to say about his decision to move Michael Gove from Secretary of State for Education to Chief Whip. “The Chief Whip is one of the most important jobs in Government and I wanted one of my big-hitters, one of my real stars, one of my great political brains – someone who has done extraordinary things for education in this country – to do that job, to deliver the Government’s programme and to help secure the future for our country.”
Of course the Chief Whip has nothing at all to do with governing. So it cannot be one of the most important jobs in Government. It is a purely party post based in the House of Commons. It has no policy content. So in his new role Mr. Gove will have no part to play in “delivering the Government’s programme”. Indeed if one switches one’s attention from the Prime Ministerial spinning to the details, the real situation become apparent. Mr Gove’s salary will drop from £134,565 to £98,740 a year. He will no longer be a full member of the Cabinet.
So Mr Gove, a brilliant, committed, passionate crusader for good education, albeit sometimes wrong-headed and infuriating, has been driven out. But people experienced in running organisations, whether they be charities or schools or hospitals or commercial enterprises, know that you should treasure the brilliant maverick. Indeed, really creative people often come with large disadvantages as well as virtues. They are often difficult to manage. They may even be a bit dangerous. The trick is to find ways of neutralising the bad bits but keeping the good. Unfortunately such techniques are unknown in politics, where the short term is everything and patience a rare quality.
What did for Mr Gove were some pretty flimsy electoral calculations. One senior minister has been quoted as saying, “There are half a million teachers in the UK and 300,000 teaching assistants.” These people are probably rightly assumed to have a hearty dislike of Mr Gove. And this political operative added: “If you can get just an extra one or two extra percentage points with these groups, it [could] help you pick up two or three marginal seats.” But do the maths. Two percentage points of 800,000 is a mere 16,000 extra votes or roughly 25 votes per constituency. That is the true measure of the Prime Minister’s regard for Mr. Gove: he has been thrown overboard because a slight advantage might be gained in some marginal constituencies. Or not. Nobody knows.
What else did Mr. Cameron have to say about his reshuffle? “This is a fresh team with the ideas, the energy, the policy and the ability to take this country forward, to complete the long-term economic plan and secure our future. I think it is a team that reflects modern Britain and it is by reflecting all of modern Britain that we will get the best for our country.” Of course in no other walk of life is having a team that “reflects modern Britain” taken to be the unique formula for success - except Tory party thinking in 2014.
The Prime Minister’s words are another example of meaningless spin. For in the 10 months remaining until the general election, the new ministers will have scarcely have had time to master their briefs let alone “take this country forward” before they have to leave Whitehall and hit the campaign trail. As a typical member of the political class, Nicky Morgan, the new Secretary of State for Education, naturally has no experience whatever of education or of leading large organisations. In the real world, she has never run anything larger than a team of lawyers. Now she takes responsibility for an organisation employing 5,000 people. What will happen is that the Department’s civil servants will “carry” Ms. Morgan until she goes electioneering.
However Elizabeth Truss, who has some experience of education, having worked until now at the Department for Education as Education Minister responsible for childcare, is being promoted not within the Department that she has got to know but instead she is to become the new Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is not claimed that she has any expertise relevant to her new task.
Meanwhile, having completed his reshuffle yesterday, the Prime Minister flew off to Brussels to introduce Britain’s new European Commissioner and seek to secure for him one of the top economic portfolios. He is Lord Hill. Who is he, I wondered, not knowing the name although I follow these things? There was a Charles Hill, I remembered, who later became Lord Hill. He had become famous as the so-called radio doctor during the war when I was a boy. He offered homely medical advice in a rich, melodious voice. Surely he couldn’t still be alive? He isn’t. No, this Lord Hill is yet another member of the political class and very like Mr Cameron in background. He is a former lobbyist and PR consultant; he was also a special adviser to Kenneth Clarke and No. 10 adviser to John Major.
When they heard about him in Brussels, one of Mr. Juncker’s allies said, “Like everyone else, we had to look on Google to find out who he is.” Being Brussels, perhaps Lord Who will get an important job. But nobody could call him a strong candidate. Thus Mr. Cameron, in his manner, labours on to secure the “future of our country”.