David Cameron axes Michael Gove in reshuffle after toxic poll warning
Education secretary demoted to role of chief whip in reshuffle that promoted women at all levels of government.
David Cameron gave a ruthless display of prime ministerial power on Tuesday when he demoted his close friend and ally Michael Gove, as he removed a series of obstacles blocking the Conservatives’ path to a general election victory.
Amid warnings from the Tory general campaign director, Lynton Crosby, that private polling showed Gove had become a toxic liability among teachers, the prime minister moved his education secretary to the lower role of chief whip.
The man who had been praised by the prime minister as a pioneering reformer responsible for a new generation of free schools lost his full cabinet post, leaving him to joke about his prospects.
“I’m happy to be in this role,” Gove told the PM programme on BBC Radio 4. “Demotion, emotion, promotion, locomotion, I don’t know how you would describe this move, though move it is, all I would say is that it’s a privilege to serve.”
But his former special adviser and friend Dominic Cummings, who played a key role in designing the free schools programme, accused the prime minister of surrendering to the establishment, which was wary of Gove. Cummings blogged: “We got away with subverting every W/hall & No10 process, & it took DC 4 yrs to surrender.”
The prime minister, who has often been criticised for a lackadaisical approach to government, showed that he had learnt from his political hero Harold Macmillan when he wielded the No 10 carving knife in a manner rarely seen in recent years. Macmillan famously sacked a third of his cabinet in 1962 in the “night of the long knives”.
Amid fears that the Tories’ poor poll ratings among women could present a serious threat at the election, the prime minister sacked a series of middle-aged men to allow him to promote women at all levels of the government.
But the progress was incremental as the number of women in full cabinet posts increased from three to five.
Liz Truss joined the cabinet as environment secretary and Nicky Morgan was promoted to replace Gove as education secretary. A further three Tory women – Esther McVey, Lady Stowell and Lady Warsi – will also attend cabinet, but not as full members.
Downing Street was forced to embark on some emergency repairs on Tuesday evening after Lady Stowell, who replaces Lord Hill of Oareford as leader of the Lords after his nomination as Britain’s next European commissioner, saw the post downgraded from a full cabinet post with a £22,000 reduction in pay. The change came after the post of leader of the Commons was upgraded to a full cabinet post to accommodateWilliam Hague. No 10 announced that the Conservative party would top up Stowell’s pay.
Two new male cabinet ministers were also unveiled. Stephen Crabb became Welsh secretary and Michael Fallon, a veteran rightwing survivor, was appointed as defence secretary in succession to Philip Hammond, promoted to foreign secretary after Hague announced his decision to leave politics at the next election.
Cameron said: “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.”
Below cabinet rank a raft of women were promoted, but not quite to the extent that some advance briefing suggested. McVey, a former TV presenter and a member of the 2010 intake, remains as employment minister, although she will now attend cabinet. Anna Soubry, a combative former lawyer, was promoted to defence minister, with Claire Perry going to transport as parliamentary under secretary.
But the day was dominated by the surprise fall of Gove, who had been seen as an indispensable member of the inner Cameron team even before his election to parliament in 2005. The prime minister insisted that, as chief whip, Gove would play a central role as in his core political team in the runup to the election. He would also break with convention for a chief whip by taking to the airwaves to explain overall government policy.
Cameron said that Gove would be one of the government’s “big hitters”. Speaking in the Downing Street garden, he said: “I can tell you, if you are prime minister, the chief whip is one of the most important jobs in government. I wanted one of my big hitters, one of my real stars, one of my great brains, someone who has done extraordinary things for education in this country, to do that job, to deliver the government’s programme, to help secure the future for our country. I am pleased that he is doing that job. He will do it brilliantly.”
Gove said the prime minister had given him the option of remaining as education secretary or taking on the new role as chief whip. “I thought hard about it because naturally it is a wrench to leave the job that you have been doing for four years and which I love,” he told Channel 4 News. “One of the things that convinced me that the prime minister was right to offer this job is that it is critically right that we have the right people, the right ideas, the right policies in place across the board.”
But Cameron allies said while the prime minister is wholly supportive of the Gove reforms, he had been determined to move him out of the highly sensitive post for two broad reasons. He had become convinced that Gove’s confrontational approach to teachers had made him toxic, and he was furious with the way in which his close friend had become embroiled in spats with cabinet colleagues.
The final straw for Cameron, who gave the impression to some colleagues he had even entertained the idea of sacking Gove altogether, came when he briefed against Charles Farr, head of counter-terrorism at the Home Office.
One Cameron ally said: “Dave was deeply pissed off with Michael. He was really annoyed by the spat with Theresa May. There was also the issue of his former special adviser Dominic Cummings who turned on the prime minister in his blog. That caused a frisson in No 10. … the party wants to run a highly disciplined election campaign – there can be no place for a rogue elephant.”
There were signs that George Osborne rallied to the defence of Gove, a strong supporter of the chancellor as a future Tory leader. Gove’s position as chief whip, working with his new deputy and fellow Osborne ally Greg Hands, marks a considerable extension of the chancellor’s power base.
Cameron also faced embarrassment when an attempt to lure Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, back into government fell apart when he regarded the offer of Foreign Office minister of state as inadequate. Fox said in a statement he wanted to be able to speak on the economy,Europe and immigration. “I do not want to be distracted from what needs to be said on these matters at such an important time politically and look forward to discussing them from the backbenches in the lead-up to the general election.”
In a further sign of European rumbles, the former cabinet memberKenneth Clarke, whose departure was announced on Monday, said it would be unthinkable for the Conservative party to advocate pulling out of the European convention on human rights, saying it was the basis of British values of liberty and justice for which Britain had fought the second world war.
Clarke voiced his concerns in the wake of the dismissal of attorney general Dominic Grieve, who had repeatedly defended the convention when cabinet colleagues had called for defiance of the Strasbourg court. Jeremy Wright replaces him.
- The Guardian,