The new sofa government

Tony Blair was well-known for thinking the way to make policy effectively was to get around the civil service machine. He disdained the idea of decisions being made by Cabinet as a whole and instead ensured that decisions were made between him and all the relevant ministers on a sofa in Downing Street so that cabinet would only have to rubber stamp it. That model of government was dying during Gordon Brown’s premiership and has receded further with the advent of coalition government, but some adherents remain.

One of these is the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove MP:

There is, however, little doubt in Westminster that the Department for Education, under Gove’s leadership, has become a law unto itself. I have heard advisors boasting of their complete independence from Downing Street. The Education Secretary has surrounded himself with senior staff – both as special advisors and civil service appointments – who are loyal to him personally and committed to his urgent political agenda of liberating (as they would see it) as many schools as possible from local authority control as quickly as possible.

When Gove first became Education Secretary he and his immediate entourage saw the Department as hostile terrain, captured by the vested interests of the educational establishment and peopled with closet Labour sympathisers. That feeling was reinforced by leaks and briefings that felt like acts of deliberate sabotage. But Gove is a powerful and shrewd political operator. He has, in effect, broken resistance inside the DfE and created a parallel machine for delivering his policy agenda. There is more than a whiff of Bolshevism to the Gove style of politics. He is conducting a schools revolution and feels he cannot be held back by reactionary civil servants or weak-minded, pushover junior ministers or, for that matter, journalists who don’t get it. The ends, in his view and the view of his inner circle, justify the means. With that culture of raw expediency, it is hardly surprising that the odd Twitter excursion gets a bit, er, political.

This is sofa government taken to its logical conclusion: a parallel operation, outside of civil service machinery with its protocols and restrictions on things like consultation and accountability, with special advisers in particular (temporary civil servants appointed by politicians) becoming highly aggressive partisans. We saw an early predecessor of this in Damien McBride, in his incarnation as special advisor to Gordon Brown when he attempted to get a smear campaign set up against a blogger. Now it seems they’re not even outsourcing it and Gove’s special advisors Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete are running a partisan twitter account smearing critics (even journalists).

Trouble is, this style of governing is only going to work well if Michael Gove is right. If our leaders were always right, they wouldn’t need to consult others or have civil servants who are prepared to tell a minister his ideas are not likely to work. That doesn’t mean rule by civil servants, or journalists, or the Establishment*, but at the very least it means wise ministers would listen to competing views and make an informed decision, even if its the same one they would have made before. A particularly wise minister would build a consensus on their policies where possible and, having judged their own ideas on their merits, retreat where they have been proved wrong. But the arrogance of Michael Gove (and Tony Blair) was that he believes he is above that. His decisions are the correct ones and should be taken as quickly as possible and any opposition should be attacked until they stop objecting.

But what if it goes wrong? What if some of his reforms weaken the education system or let standards slip? Or when he moves on to another department, will his views be sensible there? Gove will only have himself to blame if things come tumbling down around him. He could have asked a wide range of people whether his ideas would have worked, then invited scrutiny to improve his proposals, but he didn’t. And it’s quite possible that we’ll pay the price for that, which is a shame.

*whatever that might be
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