It doesn’t really matter whether Dominic Cummings’ Times interview was unhelpful to Michael Gove. Labour has just been about as helpful to the Education Secretary as it possibly could be without announcing that it supports everything he does, right down to the detail of the history curriculum. Education questions this afternoon was the perfect opportunity to exploit the gift of an interview in which Gove’s trusted former adviser attacked David Cameron and the Number 10 operation. But the attack never really came.
Kevin Brennan asked about Cummings’ line that he signed into government departments and Number 10 as ‘Osama bin Laden’. Gove’s reply was, as predicted, ornate and beautifully defensive. Then nothing until late in the session when Lisa Nandy and Karen Buck asked about Cummings’ access to departments.
Instead, Tristram Hunt used his slot in topical questions to ask about the oversight of academies and free schools following the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal. He asked:
‘In 2010, Mr Speaker, the Department for Education was warned of threats to schools in Birmingham. For four years, his department, on his watch, failed to act. The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is now urging the government to provide greater public assurance that all schools in a locality, regardless of their status, discharge the full range of their responsibilities. When will the Secretary of State accept that micromanaging schools from behind a desk in Whitehall doesn’t work and we need a proper system of independent, local accountability?’
‘Well, um, er, Mr Speaker, I suspect that that question will not just be shown on the Parliamentary channel, but also on UKTV Gold, because it’s a magnificent repeat! These were precisely the questions that the honourable gentlemen asked last week in his statement. The truth is that we took action that the last government never did to deal with extremism in schools and we’ve also taken action not least to introduce no notice inspections which will ensure that her majesty’s chief inspector has powers that he was denied under the last government to deal with problems that started under the last government.’
Hunt argued that he still hadn’t got an answer. He then criticised Gove’s schools model, arguing that his own backbenchers were starting to suspect the Birmingham case was showing the flaws in this model. Gove’s response was to tease him again about the quality of his questions and the quality of Labour’s schools policy. And that was that.
Now, if Hunt had judged that Cummings’ gift was in fact some kind of poisoned chalice, then why not use Labour backbenchers to drive home the point about oversight? Labour has, he claims, a clear policy on this matter, so why not repeat it until everyone is sick to death of it? There’s no harm in asking the same question repeatedly if you’re dealing with as skilfully slippery a character as Michael Gove.
Either way, a smattering of MPs asking the least interesting question about Cummings, which is whether he’s still visiting government departments and whether he used a joke pseudonym to sign in, is not an effective attack. Labour’s backbench message discipline was very poor indeed today. Its frontbench attack was worse still. A combination of the two made it impossible for anyone to write this up as a ‘pressure on Gove’ story, either on the matter of his former adviser’s comments, or on the matter of supervision of academies and free schools.