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Hapless is one of those words it is hard to shake off, Michael

Posted on 9 July 2010 | 2:07am

Michael Gove cut a rather sad figure with Apology Number 1, in the House of Commons, and an even sadder one with Apology Number 2, at a local government conference where he looked lonely on stage, and the normal liveliness had vanished from his effervescent Scottish tones.

The conference was just unlucky timing, coming directly after the first apology, over which people seemed willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that this was just one of those Whitehall cock-ups that happen from time to time. After all, a Secretary of State cannot be expected to know every detail of every school over which he presides.

However, he does need to know the people who should, and he needs to know that he can trust them not to drop a ball quite so spectacularly. Whether this was a failure of civil servants, polical advisers or both, he should get his head above the parapet and take the hit himself, whilst quietly finding out who was responsible, and then engineering a few changes.

The problem, however, is the sense within and without his department that he is more or less making things up as he goes along, and all to fund and promote their barnpot idea for so-called free schools.

Free schools was always going to be a controversial policy, with a strong appeal only to a minority. Promising new and improved buildings for education for what might be termed the many not the few was always likely to be seen as a more sensible use of resources, and the scrapping of such programmes fraught with political sensitivity. So if ever there was a case for checking, double checking and triple checking his announcements, this was it. It all suggests a bit of a fly by night operation, and if he does not learn the lessons of it pretty quickly, one of the most awful words in the media-politico lexicon will start to stick – hapless. It is a killer.

He is going to have to do some of the most difficult and controversial things dreamed up by the new government. In an ideal world he would have broken the back of them during a goodwill-fuelled honeymoon. But he has eaten into his credibility reserves and made himself an easier target. We will find out fairly soon if he is but the latest journalist turned politician who discovered journalism is a lot easier than politics.

Meanwhile, to those with a sick bag handy, I draw your attention to Martin Kettle’s love in with David Cameron in The Guardian today. No room for the schools fiasco, or what it says about their values; not a word on the Thatcherite-plus cuts planned for public services; nor the evident politicisation of the so-called independent Office of Budget Responsibility.

Instead, a whole column devoted to Cameron’s good manners, from which we now are asked to judge him as a prime ministerial titan. Go on David, just invite him down to Chequers and have done with it; then he’ll write the thank you letter and you can have a great politeness love in and we can all rejoice that an education at Eton teaches good manners, even if it means you want ‘ordinary’ kids to learn in portakabins.

*** Buy Prelude to Power here at Amazon.

  • danrus

    Keep it up Alastair, no-one else seems to be holding this Govt to account except Johnann Hari

  • Cuse

    Alastair – Michael Gove is the walking personification of this sham government. A man burdened by his own astonomically high opinion of himself; hideously at odds with his deomnstrable clown-liness.

    And as for the Guardian – I stopped buying it long before it came out for the Tories – sorry, Yellow Tories, sorry, re-Thatcherisation of British politics.

    It’s been like a love-lorn teenager when it comes to Dave for the last 18 months now. It’s a shadow of what it used to be – a genuinely positive, progressive force in a sea of Right-wing media poppycock. It’s circulation figures reflect this, with a 10% drop in June year-on-year. The frightening thing is that both the Mail and the Telegraph are to the left of the paper these days – and I say that without even attempting to be sarcastic.

    I’d suggest anyone behind genuine progressive politics (and judging by the weekly increase in the Labour membership – there’s a lot of us about!) stops buying the Guardian and spends their time reading a decent paper instead.

  • Paul Kingman

    I totally agree ministers cannot know everything but as you say this was a big deal, for the govt and for all the schools concerned. It is so amateurish it is beyond belief to get it so wrong. I think the ott support from the press is one of the reasons they make mistakes. They think they can. Even Kettle was praising Gove’s manners – as if somehow it excuses leading schools up the garden path then dashing all hopes

  • Steve Dresser

    You really should have stood as an MP Alastair, you’d have my vote every day of the week.

  • Keith Hall

    Guardian people have to justify delivering a Tory government by backing Clegg. It is so transparent.

  • Iain

    Unfortunately this is pretty typical of the way the DfE have been operating under Gove. Announcements about the closure of educational Quangos have been released to the media before the organisations’ management boards have even been informed. This kind of behaviour is clearly wrong, so I hope DfE amend their ways after this spectacular pratfall.

  • Nicky

    Absolutely idiotic article by Kettle. He should remember what Percy Bysshe Shelley said: ‘Sometimes, the Devil is a gentleman.’ (A warning to the naive not to be taken in by empty blandishments.) Regarding Chequers, he doesn’t know the staff there and for him to repeat idle gossip isn’t what one would expect from a senior political journalist.

    By way of contrast, I’ve read (from reliable sources) that GB has always been very solicitous about other people’s feelings, taking time out of a punishing work schedule to write to or phone them.

    There’s some kind of agenda still going on which equates Brown with Hitler in the bunker. It started as a joke, then journos and bloggers began to actually believe it. Utterly ridiculous.

  • Trickie Dickie

    QT last night: the hostility to LD’s was palpable. Michael Moore skewered with ” minister for Scotland in Westminster not Westminsters minister in Scotland” OUCH!

    D Miliband on top form….Neil put back in his box and Portilo looked like a prep school classroom assistant in comparison.

    The momentum is starting against this coalition don’t stop now. The first resignation in days and the next surely not long to wait now. Pressure on Teather is huge following this debacle. She already looks like she is about to crack.

    Big week coming up on the finance bill our team must be on their game. All hands to the pumps…get out there!
    Heads up high and fight for those who realy need a labour opposition to temper these ideologs.

    OBR is in trouble pressure Oik and Danny boy. Ask how the OBR can be independent when it bases forcasts on policy judgements not even revealed to the public (where did the information come from?) Prejudging Huttons report and printing jobless figures while you wait is not independent. Buddy boy off in a puff of smoke with the mirrors tucked in his briefcase.
    IMF down rating growth
    IFS predicting worse growth figures.
    Quarterly figure for first quarter very good above target 0.7 (Labours last figure so memorise it and see what happens in the last quarter)
    M&S shareholder revolt on the cards ….salary and perks of the board out of control Remember Sir Stupot Rose and the gang of bosses trashing the NI plan?.
    Time to kick back the no money left jibe…..20bn under spend on AD’s 178bn. Not a saving but very good news…enough to slience the market without this austerity nonsense.
    12bn increase in the deficit, this is the OBR down rate of growth between election and budget due to austerity hike.
    Easy to create a larger structural deficite if you massage the figures with an OBR in your pocket on manual control.

  • Jacquie R

    No doubt the Guardian will be festooned with protests over Martin Kettle’s eulogistic, unashamed and provocative article. But there is an important element of truth that would be dangerous to ignore.

    David Cameron is shrewd, charming, bold, pragmatic and imaginative. I was at a small function he addressed a while before he became leader. Despite my Labour cynicism, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his polite but uncompromising distancing from traditional Tory attitudes and his persuasive and liberal arguments. I wasn’t at all surprised later when he became “the heir to Blair”.

    Although I gather he is more ideologically to the right than he comes across, Cameron has the ability to be seen to be on one’s side. Despite the furore that is going to come through his wielding of the axe, I predict that he will stay calm at the helm and his personal popularity will not suffer. Come a crisis, I would expect it to soar.

    And he’s planning on becoming part of the furniture. It’s said that, although he will oppose it in public, Cameron is really in favour of the proposed AV voting scheme because it could keep the himself and the coalition in power for a long, long time.

    I think Martin Kettle has done Labour a favour by praising Cameron. When we select our new leader and new direction, we need to know what we’re up against.

  • olli issakainen

    Martin Kettle claims that David Cameron is better PM than Gordon Brown was! But the truth is that Mr Cameron does not unfortunately understand economics. Had he and Mr Osborne been in power during the financial crisis, they would have turned it into depression with banks going down and people losing their savings because the Tories opposed the fiscal stimulus and bank nationalisations.
    I would rather have a PM who has gone to Gestapo´s manner school than one, who has good manners but does not get economics.
    David Cameron is not authentic. He is a manufactured personage. He wears a mask and is role-playing. It is an old PR trick that if a product does not sell, you rebrand it.
    But the detoxified Conservatives are having a war on public sector. Mr Cameron´s political project is to fulfil Thatcher´s dream.
    At the Tory party conference in October 2009 David Cameron attacked Big Government. It is more government that got us into this mess, he said. Everyone else on this planet knew that banks caused the financial crisis.
    As for Gordon Brown, I think he is currently writing a book on financial crisis. I hope Mr Cameron reads it!

    Ps. I am not registered on the Clarets Mad messageboard, so I post my comment here as I guess it is also of interest to AC. The Tour de France is indeed the biggest event for sports in the world. Almost 15 million people line up to watch it. The Tour´s spectators, of course, do not pay.

  • Chris lancashire

    First of all, Gove has had the good grace to admit an honest mistake and apologise for it. Even you will admit that was the rarest of events under New Labour. Second, he has at least put an end to the equally “barmpot” BSF project which was bloated and wasteful – we’re all for new schools – when they are needed and when they can be afforded – not Balls’ grandiose replace every school, needed or not affordable or not.

    Lastly your totally graceless remarks about Kettle’s article say a lot more about you than they do about Kettle – or Cameron for tha matter.

  • Colin

    I’ve long been amused by the permanent look of surprise on Gove’s face; its as though he’s astonished that people are actually listening to the bollocks he comes out with.

  • MacK

    I recall another conservative politician with very good manners. His name was Neville Chamberlain. He nearly ruined his country too. And then, there was Alec Douglas Home, another well mannered toff who was a disaster. Incidentally, I heard David Milliband say on ‘This Week’ last night that one of the schools which Gove announced was to be closed was one which had already been built and had been opened by David Cameron. Can this really be true? If so, how embarrassing for Cameron. I gather that Gove thinks that schools should make children learn the kings and queens of England by rote. A fitting curriculum for the new Dame schools. (er .. free schools)

  • Graham Jones

    Blimey! The Guardian’s getting worse by the week. What a pointless article! Yes, Mr Cameron is a polite chap, who covers his statements with sugar, but he is not a leader of a progressive party, he is the poster boy of the most right-wing political programme to hit our shores – and he has no mandate!. He is only interested in his own self-preservation, and doesn’t care about the public; only how he is perceived by them.
    Now he is pretending to ask the public what they want, when he is really trying to manufacture a mandate, with a bit of crowd-sourcing from his online army. What would a real conversation with the public sound like? – Where would you like the cuts folks? (Actually we wouldn’t, at least not until the economy is strong enough.) Sorry, I didn’t catch that, where did you say there was waste? (Well, now you mention it Prime Minister, the posse of spin-doctors you employ at a ridiculous cost to the tax-payer would be a good start.) Oh, I promised not to sack ANY doctors – NHS, and all that frontline stuff! (Now you mention that too Dave- can I call you Dave? – why are you cutting frontline services in schools? And why is Michael Gove still in a job?) Oh, it’s all Labour’s fault, don’t y’know? ………. (F*ck off, prime minister!).
    Why not copy and paste the entire Labour manifesto onto the new website – Sounds like a good idea to me.

  • Mick Halloran

    Worth reading Martine Kettle on Blair/new govt c.May’97:

    What’s in a name?
    Martin Kettle, Saturday 10 May 1997 10.59 BST Article history

    A nice touch, that, for the new cabinet to agree to call one another by their first names, though Labour memories are short these days and people forget that, at Tony Benn’s prompting, it also happened under Wilson after 1974.

    Under most Conservative prime ministers, the protocol of cabinet meetings has always required ministers to address one another as office-holders rather than human beings. Now, though, it’s call me Tony and call me Mo and even the Cabinet Secretary has to get used to being addressed as Robin.

    But this change is much more than just a nice humanising touch. It’s a sign of something potentially much deeper and wider. It’s indicative of the largely unanticipated falling down of walls since May 1. It’s a sign that the Blair government’s commitment to modernisation may not merely be about removing anachronisms in the Labour Party it is also about removing anachronisms in British life. And if it is really open season on those, then the contents of the Queen’s Speech may be less important than the outburst of freedom about which Michael Foot enthused yesterday. We seem almost to be living in a cultural revolution.

    Names are an extraordinarily potent starting point for any cultural revolution. How we address one another is always a resonant matter, and the right has always favoured formal hierarchies which emphasise class and other forms of power, while the left has always tended towards democratic informality. Whole volumes of etiquette still exist – and are regularly consulted – to ensure that language and title are ‘correctly’ used in order to maintain networks of deference and support the mystique of authority.

    This is not just about politics. Nothing strikes the modern ear more strangely than the way that children in pre-war novels and early films speak to their parents. The days when a child would respectfully address its parents as ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ – let alone call its father ‘Sir’ – have disappeared now. Families, like the cabinet, are mostly on first name terms nowadays.

    Even in schools, most teachers use first names, rather than the surnames, which were still in use when I was at a grammar school in the 1960s. Forms of address have become more familiar in almost every aspect of life and the repertoire of names has grown much broader as traditions have dissolved.

    The exceptions, however, are the great institutions of state – the law, the church and the parliamentary system. Here the world of honourables, worshipfuls, gallantry and reverence survives almost untroubled by the coming of the democratic age. Partly because of a reverence for tradition, but partly also out of an instinctive desire to preserve themselves from reform, the language and ritual of these institutions now set them apart from the greater informality of almost every other aspect of contemporary life.

    The cabinet sits at the apex of one of these institutional networks, and it is in a position to set the tone for parliament and the running of government too. So I hope that the Prime Minister – no, I hope that Tony Blair – will take a scythe to anachronistic formality there too. His reforms of prime minister’s question time show the mood that he is in.

    In the same spirit, it is time to get rid of a parliamentary term which to many people has become simply a contradiction in terms. Let’s have an end to ‘honourable members’ and let parliamentarians simply refer to other MPs by their names. Cleaning up politics is about these things too.

    By taking his stance on the side of informality, Blair has revealed himself as a cultural radical, a man of his generation, the first prime minister to have matured in the rock-and-roll era. Blair has sometimes been accused of being a closet Conservative, though the charge has rightly been heard rather less often since he became prime minister, but it is not a charge which makes any sense in relation to his attitude to the ancient institutions of state. He is the most disrespectful prime minister towards the traditional trappings of power that we have ever had.

    HIS attitude to the House of Lords embodies this essential disrespect and iconoclasm. No part of the Labour election manifesto displayed more sang-froid than the plans to reform the upper house. Blair is insouciantly relaxed about the prospect of Lords reform, the immensity of which daunts some of his closest allies. He promotes people to the Lords with an almost carefree indifference towards ancient protocols. He is quite happy to offer a peerage as a way out of a political difficulty. He is as much untouched by the lure of the Lords as any politician in our history.

    And if that is his attitude to the Lords, then what about the pinnacle of the state, the monarchy? The last time before this week’s cabinet that forms of address became an issue in public life was when the royal marriages collapsed. To Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson, titles and forms of address mattered enormously. To Tony Blair they hardly seem to matter at all. He has no intention of seeing the monarchy dismantled, but one senses that, personally, he wouldn’t bat an eyelid if it was. In a cultural revolution, almost anything is possible. And that’s the most promising sign of all.

  • HypoThetical?

    Surely the point of all of this chatter is what will new this new governments “policies” actually look and feel like to everyday people? How will they affect our life day to day? What will the untold stories be of how these cuts lead to changes in policies that are not actually announced, or planned but happen anyway? The problem is that no one really knows…not even the governement…

    Lets take one example. Most people agree that football hoolaganism is a ghost of the past. Somehow it’s just disapeared. Right? Wrong. The truth is that it has only gone away because of the changes in law, and in the way those laws were then implemented by the Labour government. Football banning orders – think ASBOs but for football thugs – have ensured the issue is well contained without over burdening the criminal justice system. It relies on intelligence led policing. It relies on internet infiltration of the hooligans own forums/chatrooms. And it requires liasing with special branch about vile right wing thugs who flit between groups such as the EDL and football groups for fun, using the fan groups as cover to plan their next offensive. It’s policing at it’s very very best. It’s personel intensive and very time and cost sensitive.
    Anyone remember the Borg?? It’s just how it works. All over the country police officers working as one collective, sharing info, resources, traveling to each others matches to identify what is known as “the risk.” Resistance is truly futile….It’s how a nation can work when it has a strong centralised base. And good legislation with enough resources to implement it.

    But just imagine the following.
    A football intel officer of a league club being told by very senior management that he has to decide now, with no credible intelligence, (which can change and shift with the tide anyway) what games for the entire season will recieve the highest police category of risk, because the division can only “afford” so many games in the said category.
    Imagine how that officer would feel if, when they expressed their fears that they would not provide the same level of performance under those working conditions that the rules had changed. Imagine being told that their number one priority was now saving the division money. Imagine them being told that they could no longer travel to away games to monitor the risk element. (And that if they did think it essential, they could only do it by breaching health and safety laws in terms of hours worked and driving, to save accomadation costs.) Imagine that officer being told he MUST not arrest anybody in breach of their banning order, even if at a game, unless they are causing trouble. And imagine thet same individual being told that because they now have extra unspecified tasks because of another officer leaving and not being replaced, that they have to do two full time jobs. And imagine finding out that this is happening to your counterparts up and down the land.
    And imagine how football hooligans would feel when they realise that those officers they have come to know and hate so well could do bugger all about anything. That if they breached their bans no one would give a monkeys and that for most games there would be the barest numbers of police possible anyway. And imagine how much quicker and faster they could organise themselves with unmonitored Twitter etc etc, something that hooligans who have gone in generations before did not have advantage of.

    But don’t worry. Policing football games and ensuring public safety must be a front line service. Of course it is. As is counter-terrorism. Letting my imagination run wild again…always assuming the worst.

  • Paddy

    Trickie Dickie: Are you the same Richard the Dork that posts on the Spectator.

    What utter drivel you write.

    The party is over. Deal with it.

    There will be no resignations.

    Why don’t you be a nice little boy and get on with your job in the NHS.

    I thought you socialists were supposed to be nice and caring. So why don’t you wish the coalition well instead of being so jealous.

  • Richard

    Whilst Gove quite rightly shouldered the blame, (q.v. 13 years on “accept no blame at any price” government as practised by your chums), the ijits compiling the lists in the Education Department were, I am sure, headed by appointees of New Labour.

    As New Labour required only that money was sprayed everywhere, they will hwve to learn new skills. Accyracy and budgetry control for example.

  • Trickie Dickie

    Paddy is throwing a Paddy.
    What a strange way to behave on someone’s blog.
    Dragging arguments from one to another quite distasteful.
    Apologies Alistair This guy is obviously disturbed.
    I hope he won’t hang around too long.

  • alan

    Good blog today AC have to agree with most points you make,its just too hot though to get worked up about things this evening for once.

  • Liz

    I really don’t like Gove because he is a nasty neo-con. However the country is in a mess and according to Private Eye, Gove is axing the PFI programmes. Thanks to Labour we are in debt to the tune of hundreds of millions every year for decades to come. The education dept has to pay £700 million every year for decades to come. £700 million could run 70 large secondary schools in one year. That is the scale of the debt which is not even on the governments books! Heaven help us when figures are published showing how much the NHS PFI schemes have been costing us and they too will have to be paid for decades and were never on the government books.
    I was a Labour supporter until they abandoned their principles for power. And everytime I hear a Labour politician criticise the coalition my stomach turns. They have left this country morally and financially bankrupt. They should all hang their heads in shame and some should find a stone to crawl under!

  • Dr O Ojedokun

    I quote from Olli, as he seems to be one of the few out there to dicpher the character called David Cameron.

    “David Cameron is not authentic. He is a manufactured personage. He wears a mask and is role-playing. It is an old PR trick that if a product does not sell, you rebrand it. But the detoxified Conservatives are having a war on public sector. Mr Cameron´s political project is to fulfil Thatcher´s dream.”

    By the way I have just purchased AC’s book, it is beyond good, it is making excellent reading, i recommend it to all.

  • Alan Quinn

    How about another description? Lightweight comes to mind, Gove’s original scheme to give parents money to build their own schools was ill thought and potentially disastrous. Who would check these parents backgrounds to see they are suitable? Who would give them the financial advice for the school budget if there was no LEA? Where would the SEN provision come from with no LEA? Where would the parents get the time to run this school? Would employers be forced to give time off? Finally, as a long standing governor, I know that parents are only interested in the school as long as their kids go there, how would schools cope if half their management team suddenly departed when their kids left that school? I bet Fiona has a longer list than this Ally, we could have buried Gove over this barmpot proposal but as all too often Labour didn’t. We have to be better.

  • Trickie dickie


    PFI is actually a Conservative idea taken up by Labour. Its origins go a long way back to Maggie T.
    The media love to put them down without giving people the detail….hence the hospital costing 300m to build and 1bn charged over 30 years to the govt…seems like a 700m over spend until you realise the full deal.
    For 1bn we the people get a 300m hospital that the builder funds the full cost of. In return they charge us the people 1bn over 30 years (think of it like a big mortgage) included in the deal is all the running cost for maintenance and refurbishments to a standard agreed with us the people. at the end of 30 years we own the hospital outright. Calculations on the cost if we paid for this upfront directly, staffed, managed and maintained the hospital over 30 years would be 2.5bn. So which is the better deal?
    Oh and the off the book argument is its normal practice for all companies and as the funding is out of future money so not a present reportable commitment on the accounts…..just like big companies who never report their pensions is only ever a factor if the comany goes into bankruptcy.

  • Harriet Major

    When I read your 24 hour news scenes in ‘Maya’ I laughed out loud at the sheer absurdity of some of it. But having watched the news of the hunt for Mr Moat, I realise you were not being satirical but factual. Extraordinary nonsense hours on end