The story is familiar to anyone who has read David Laws’ book Coalition: the Department for Education (DfE) under Michael Gove was dysfunctional and out-of-control.
Laws’ latest book, Coalition Diaries 2012-2015 exposes the madness in more detail. It’s a day-by-day account of the mischievous briefings, the misleading press releases and the misappropriation of education funding by Michael Gove to prop up the free schools programme.
Time and again the DfE official line was that academies and free schools were doing better than local authority (LA) maintained schools. But time and again this was not the case, Laws reveals. Statistics were spun; data manipulated.
Behind much of the mischief was Gove’s special adviser, Dominic ‘Dom’ Cummings, Laws claims. Chief HMI Sir Michael Wilshaw blamed Cummings for the ‘drip, drip’ of negative media stories about Ofsted. Sir Michael’s assessment of Cummings revealed in Laws’ diaries is scathing: Dom was an ‘arrogant little shit’ who looked like a ‘tramp’.
The rapidly deteriorating relationship between Ofsted’s chief and Ofsted’s chair, Dame Sally Morgan, is described in minute detail. As are the rows when Gove met opposition. These disagreements weren’t confined to Sanctuary Buildings where Treasury officials were once barred entry. Laws describes how the Prime Minister was fearful of going against Gove. And on one occasion a quarrel erupted in Selfridge’s toy department when Gove was overheard frothing into his phone at someone called ‘Michael’.
Instead of making friends and influencing people, Gove made enemies. Not just the usual suspects – the unions and the ‘Blob’ – but those who should have been his friends. By the end of Gove’s tenure, Laws writes, the DfE tent had shrunk to Gove, Cummings and Toby Young, the free school founder who later became director of the New Schools Network, the charity promoting fee schools.
There were two Goves, Laws writes. One ‘good’ and one ‘bad’. But Laws also reveals Gove’s pedantic pomposity. The long, very long, letter which Gove sent to his civil servants telling them how to compose correspondence is reproduced in full. Its main advice was to be brief.
The book also reveals how Laws is in thrall to Michael Gove. Yes, Laws describes his character faults – his desire to win, his unwillingness to compromise, his obstinate protection of pet policies. And he describes Gove’s wit, intelligence, charm. But Laws doesn’t seem to realise that charm can be a veneer hiding less palatable character traits.
When Gove was eventually dismissed as education secretary, a move which Laws describes as a rare moment of steel by the PM, Laws writes how he wished to remain Gove’s friend and have dinner with him soon.
But Michael Gove is not a person to be friends with.