Last weekend Michael Gove was down in Portsmouth. Just two days earlier he had seen more than a fifth of his schools closed by strikes, but the then Education Secretary found the time to lead a road trip of young Tory activists to the south coast to drum up support for the party. In many ways this was a preamble to his demotion during yesterday’s reshuffle.
The battle in Education is largely won. Regressive intransigence of the teaching unions, striking teachers and opposition in the wider population could disrupt only a small minority of children last week. Labour offers no serious alternative. Nothing will stop this government’s reforms from being implemented.
Of course, Gove would have loved to have stayed to finish the job, yet the fight – the thing he is best at – is all but over. Now, as the Prime Minister’s undefeated heavyweight champion, Gove can prepare for his next opponent: the Labour Party.
His new title is Chief Whip, though with no legislation of great significance to push through in the next ten months and party discipline relatively strong, that seems nominal. Gove will be the Minister for Attacking Labour. Week after week he annihilated his shadow Tristram Hunt at the despatch box. Imagine what he will do to Chris Leslie, Rachel Reeves and Emily Thornberry on TV and radio.
Is it a demotion? Financially, yes, though that is irrelevant. From now on Gove will attend the Prime Minister’s daily meetings in Downing Street. He will be the only member of the government other than the Chancellor who regularly does so.
Leading the attack against Labour in public, at the heart of Number 10 in private, and armed with the Chief’s black book of his colleagues’ secrets, Gove is perfectly positioned for one of the very top jobs post-2015, either in Coalition 2.0 or if his close ally George Osborne eventually becomes leader. Strike him down, and he will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
The Gove headline aside, the reshuffle is being defined in terms of David Cameron promoting women to his government. Downing Street’s brightest minds did not twig that taking the position of Leader of the House of Lords out of the Cabinet and then giving it to a woman would result in Lady Stowell earning some £20,000-a-year less than her male predecessor for doing the same job.
Finally cottoning on, Number 10 belatedly promised to top up her salary out of party funds. Disaster averted, but it betrayed the truth we all already knew about Cameron’s window-dressing. “It’s only by reflecting modern Britain that we’ll get the best for modern Britain,” the PM groaningly told the nation at the top of the Ten O’Clock News.
Scores of men were fired; a few of them were even quite good at their jobs. Remaining in place are Helen Grant and Sayeeda Warsi, the latter of whom, joyously for her colleagues, will still be attending Cabinet. The likes of Nicky Morgan and Liz Truss undoubtedly deserved their promotions, yet seeing Grant and Warsi retain government jobs must cause promoted women to wonder if they got there on merit.
Labour, meanwhile, seem unsure whether to attack the government for doing too little, too late on women, or to accuse Cameron of a lurch to the Right. “Three quarters of the Cabinet are men,” complained Gloria de Piero, while Michael Dugher insisted Cameron was “running scared of his own right wing”. Neither of these attack lines have much going for them. Together they just look muddled.
Token jobs may be patronising but handing out even more, as Labour would do, is worse. While two right-wingers left government, Owen Paterson and David Jones, in truth both wets and dries were axed and promoted. A reminder that for all the problems the Tories face, at least they’re not Labour.