Faintly stunned Liberal Democrats report that Michael Gove is an absentee chief whip. He is simultaneously there at the coalition whips’ meetings but not there: a ghostly presence; a bored, miserable figure who has not forgiven or forgotten David Cameron’s decision to demote him from his beloved Education Department.
It’s dangerous to humiliate a man and then give him the power to humiliate you. Even in the fag end of a fixed-term parliament, which long ago ran out of useful business to conduct, a government needs a good whips office if it is to stay out of trouble.
The Cameron government does not have one and is always tripping over its own feet. Defectors run off to Ukip without warning. Labour outmanoeuvres Gove and embarrasses Theresa May by forcing a debate on the European arrest warrant – the last subject the Home Secretary wants discussed. No one believes the government can lose a routine debate on the regulation of pubs relationship to tied breweries. It loses nevertheless.
But Gove isn’t just staring out of the window watching the pigeons circle Westminster. He’s not doing his new job but he’s still trying to do his old one. Toby Helm the Observer’s well-informed political editor explained that Gove is sabotaging the career of Nicky Morgan, his successor as Education Secretary. He vets her work, frustrates her initiatives and suborns her civil servants, with the connivance of at least some of the people around Cameron.
It is a sign of the shrillness of the increasingly demented Conservative Party, that Gove and his allies can dismiss as backsliding Morgan’s desire not to treat every teacher in the land as an enemy. It is a sign of its weirdness that it can bristle with suspicion when she says she wants to encourage children to take up sport and develop their characters. Only a Tory culture that has lost its moorings to reason can dismiss PE and character building as wet liberal fads.
Above all, Gove’s behaviour reveals the decadence of this government. The education of the young is a great national interest. But Cameron plays with it like a student politician who thinks that nothing matters and argument is just a game. If he believed in Gove’s reforms, he should have kept Gove in charge and urged him to explain a little more and hyper-ventilate a little less.
Cameron moved Gove on instead. He is therefore duty bound to stop him trying to wreck his successor’s polices. A well-ordered administration would tell Gove to try to master the whips office, a task that appears beyond the poor chap, and to forget about the past. As it is, Cameron does neither one thing nor the other. Perhaps he’s trying to make ammends for demoting a former friend. But whatever the reason, Cameron is allowing Gove to paralyse the Edcuation Department.
If I were in Cameron’s position, I would worry less about Gove and more about Morgan. Few ministers would tolerate Gove’s behaviour, but it is particularly galling for a woman politician. Too often Cameron treats them as beards or arm candy. He wants to impress sceptical women voters by appointing female ministers, but he is wary about giving them real power. The point has not been lost on Ms Morgan. The Observer reported:
‘A close ally of Morgan, who is also the minister for women, insisted that she was determined to make her own mark and that, “if they thought she would just be a Stepford minister” without her own ideas and views, they had seriously misjudged her.’
Maybe the next time you hear from Morgan won’t be in the carefully worded reports of the Observer’s political desk, but when she lets rip with a public denunciation of Cameron’s sexism and tokenism. I’m sure Cameron will be as surprised as everyone else. What with one thing another he cannot rely on his own whips to warn him of an impending trouble. By his own folly, he has ensured that they will be the last people to know.