Gove’s character exposed in Laws’ account of dysfunctional DfE

Janet Downs's picture

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.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 12/12/2017 - 12:38

Laws appeared to be at least as clueless as Gove when it comes to education and in my personal view even more generally obnoxious. His loosing his seat at the last General Election was hugely gratifying.

He did the Lib Dems no favours either, as he was one of the neo-liberal 'Orange group', moving the Party firmly away from the progressive and humane politics of former leader Charles Kennedy, who took the Party to its greatest parliamentary success in modern times at the 2005 General Election.

The move to the right led by Laws sucked in the Party Leader, Nick Clegg, leading to the disastrous coalition government that brought us austerity, Brexit and reduced his Party to a politically insignificant, Cleggless rump.

I am not surprised he remains a good friend of Gove.

agov's picture
Tue, 12/12/2017 - 14:19

Not to mention that this odious person now seems to spend much of his time pretending that the disastrous and appalling policies (that had been agreed and accepted by the Liberals) of the coalition government (of which he and the rest of the Liberals were an integral part) were nothing to do with him and the rest of the Liberals.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 12/12/2017 - 14:41

Quite so, we agree.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/12/2017 - 08:55

agov and Roger - you're right to point out that  the Lib-Dems were part of the Coalition which passed damaging policies.  I personally think Clegg acted as a brake to the more extreme policies which the Tories may have liked to have passed.  That's a subjective view I know.

Whatever your personal feelings about Laws, the diaries are evidence of the dysfunctional nature at the DfE during Gove's tenure.

It's true that Laws' diaries will suffer from personal bias.  And at the same time they reveal how Laws remained in thrall to Gove despite highlighting Gove's dangerous faults.  Laws is no longer in Parliament but Gove remains.  And the diaries are a pertinent reminder of how Gove operates.  

agov's picture
Wed, 13/12/2017 - 17:52

"Clegg acted as a brake to the more extreme policies which the Tories may have liked to have passed"

Alternatively, they acted as clueless dupes who could be blamed for 'preventing' things Cameron and Osborne had no intention of doing anyway. How so deeply sad that the Liberals got the wipeout that virtually everyone (apart from the idiot misruling class) expected in 2015 and so couldn't prevent the insincere/lying Cameron/Osborne promise to hold a referendum on the hated EU.

"the diaries are evidence"

Well, perhaps, but then it wasn't Gove who had to resign because of a sleaze scandal.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 14/12/2017 - 10:05

agov - it would be unwise to dismiss Laws' account because of his misdemeanours.  No-one, as far as I know, has sued Laws for libel for anything he's written in his two books about the Coalition.  They will, of course, suffer from bias, but the books expose the dysfunctional nature of the DfE under Gove and his 'Jekyll and Hyde' personality.  The books should act as a warning.

agov's picture
Thu, 14/12/2017 - 22:12


Not entirely sure British libel laws are universally accepted as a criterion of truth. As there is no question of my ever reading this person's books I am cannot know whether he relates 'facts' or opinions.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 16/12/2017 - 10:00

agov - don't be put off because you don't like David Laws.  The Diaries reveal what went on behind the scenes - not just what happened at the DfE during Gove's tenure but boring Cabinet meetings, the tedium of canvassing, the major players (Cameron - shallow, a 'soundbite' person;  Osborne - a political gameplayer uninterested in 'bread and butter' issues; Clegg -  outmanoeuvred;  Wilshaw - pissed off with Gove especially when Gove and his team subjected the Ofsted chief to mock questioning before Wilshaw's appearance at the Select Committee to ensure Wilshaw remained on-side.  It had the opposite effect.  And, as noted before, it unwittingly also reveals Laws' personality - how he was beguiled by Gove's 'good' side.

agov's picture
Sat, 16/12/2017 - 16:18

So that would be your guarantee that no-one will ever publish memoirs contradicting Laws' account of 'factual' occurrences?
As to specific 'revelations' -
(i) Many or most people tend to find meetings boring. Why would Cabinet meetings be any different for them? Have you never read CP Snow? On the other hand, politicians tend to be from a different mould. But then, we are only talking about Liberals, who don't really count.
(ii) Canvassing need not be boring if you are accompanied by others who you can chat to in spare moments, or by just concentrating on getting it done. I suspect it would tend to be a fairly normal and unobjectionable process for those involved in, and therefore presumably interested in, politics but again there is that Liberal problem.
(iii) Cameron - Gee, who knew?
(iv) Osborne - Obviously quite good at that game though: is Laws jealous? Not particularly interesting (even if it is true) that he is not interested in b&b issues, only that he deals with them (if only in a way acceptable to his party, government etc.).
(v) Clegg - like he was ever not going to be.
(vi) Wilshaw - wasn't all that covered in the press at the time? Except for the mock exam, but so what?
(vii) Beguilement of Laws - can't understand why anyone would care at all.
(viii) Laws' personality - I suppose he can derive satisfaction that apparently some people think he has one.

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