After a brief stint steering the helm at the Whip’s office, a position many thought the Tory heavyweight occupied to dilute the political poison his image threatened to inject into what was (or so it once it seemed) one of the tightest elections in a generation, nobody was quite certain that Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Education, would make a return to one of the top Offices of the State. Make a return, however, he certainly has.
Within hours of Cameron’s swift reappearance at No. 10, Gove, who began both radically and relentlessly reforming Britain’s education system just hours after the Rose Garden formalities of 2010, was given the top job at the Ministry of Justice. Immediately, the talk began that he would be responsible with scrapping the Human Rights Act, a task many claim is an insurmountable one. However, agree or disagree with the principles behind ditching the Act, Gove is quite possibly the most likely of Cameron’s bunch to get it done. He swept through the education system like a man who knew no bounds. Under his reign, more than 100 free schools opened, AS levels were scrapped, alongside the A*-C grading system of GCSE’s, a rigorous new curriculum was introduced which was to be examined by demanding and increasingly tougher exams, free school meals for all infants. Even Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Britain’s school inspection unit OFSTED, was sent to the principal’s office under Gove’s watch.
His reforms were controversial to say the least. Many went on strike, teachers claimed they had been driven out of education and heads heckled and passed votes of no confidence. Bernadette Hunter, former President of the National Association of Head Teachers, claimed that those within education felt like they were, at times, “at the whim of a fanatical personal trainer”. It’s true that it will take a long while before we can truly assess the impact of Gove’s reforms on those it matters to most – the children. However, what is also already clear is that controversy hasn’t been the only result of his time in the Department. Schools, transformed into academies, now operate with considerable amounts of autonomy – more than ever before, exam results in 2014 showed a rise in pupils achieving A*-C grades, despite the tougher exams, and pupil premium is helping to close the attainment gaps between children from disadvantages backgrounds and those who are more lucky with access to good schools. Even Tristram Hunt, Gove’s opposite, said that Labour would not reverse the bulk of the reforms he had enacted.
Gove now looks likely to fix his eyes firmly on the issues facing prisons, rehabilitation, courts, victim support, human rights and much, much more. The Conservative Manifesto proposes to continue to review the ‘legal aid systems’, expand ‘payment-by-results’ in prisons and, most controversially, scrap the Human Rights Act. These will, there is no doubt, prove to be controversial. If those within the professions Gove now has to work alongside don’t like the sound of them, if they are to mount any kind of adequate opposition, then they need to be on their toes. We know that, at his best, Gove wasn’t afraid to be confrontational with the education profession – there seems no reason that he will be any different and immediately warm to, for example, the law community – the reforms in his Department were after all often dogged by the use, or the threat, of judicial reviews.
The public will prove crucial to both Gove’s success and the might of his opposition. Reaching out for sympathy came easy to many in education – teachers are often held in much the same regard as nurses, doctors and the emergency services. Those in the law community have a tougher task on their hands; many in society paint a much harsher picture of them. But support is what they must have if they want to fight Gove, if they want to win.
Of course, all this assumes there is a fight on. True, there might not be – it cannot be forgotten that the same Conservative government who proposed these reforms just weeks ago managed to win 99 more seats than Labour last Friday. We cannot also judge opposition to Gove and the proposed reforms by having a quick scan over Twitter – the election result proves it is no true gauge of public opinion. Nonetheless, it is already perfectly clear that some issues, particularly that of the Human Rights Act, will most likely lead to long and bloody battles.
But don’t expect Gove to give in early, sit back in Whitehall and ponder over the Conservative’s extraordinary victory. Like it or not, transformation, the nature of which we do not know of just yet, is most likely on its way and with it, so is upset. Gove is back and he doesn’t make ripples. He makes waves.