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.
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