IF the first test of how to be a good minister is to avoid your workforce going on strike, then Michael Gove well and truly flunked that exam when he first became Education Secretary.
He didn’t seem to mind one jot though. With the skin of a rhino and Thatcherite self belief, the fact that his policies sent thousands of teachers to the picket lines.... well that was just par for the course.
While a toxic trail of low morale, disputes over performance related pay and pensions might have ended the careers of many politicians, he was rewarded with a place in the first Conservative majority cabinet in a generation as Justice Secretary.
While teachers might not like him, David Cameron depends on Mr Gove who was soon put to work fronting rehabilitation for prisoners, giving more powers to governors and building new jails. As a new poll by the influential ConservativeHome website shows this reformer to be the favourite to be potential leader, ahead of Boris Johnson (who has fallen by 13 points), George Osborne and Theresa May, perhaps the Conservative Party needs to encourage Mr Gove to go for the top job.
It would be easy to say that he has emerged on the leadership scene because of doubts about May (even the grassroots may tire of her leadership bid by 2020), Osborne (two disastrous budgets under his belt) and boisterous Boris (loved or loathed).
Yet, by 2020, Mr Gove should be one of the main contenders on his own merits. What a pity he doesn’t think the same way.
Rishi Sunak, Conservative MP for Richmond, who regularly cited Mr Gove as an inspiration during his General Election campaign, said: “I don’t think he is personally ambitious which makes him an incredible resource for everybody else which is why people at the top of the party go to him to discuss things. It’s a key thing about what makes him such an influential figure.
“Even if he’s not leader I would imagine that he would be in a very senior position because of his formidable intellect. He has a very deep moral mission.”
This view is shared by Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake who noted: “He’s very popular with colleagues, and quite popular across the House of Commons as well. I’m sure he would make a very good leader and a very good candidate.” He has a belief and passion for whatever he’s looking at.”
But as history has already taught us, a venomous dislike of Mr Gove from the teaching profession would be a gross understatement. As an education reporter, I spent so much time hearing from people about how they loathed Mr Gove that I started to believe that these critics had a point. His bright-eyed, half-smiling and slightly ruddy youthful face certainly irritated me, always reminding me of Harry Enfield’s Tory Boy. I could never quite tally his own humble beginnings as an adopted child in Aberdeen to his more traditional approach to education.
Yet one comment stood out during the cross-fire of the teachers’ strike and that came when Mr Gove said: “In this fallen world, I suspect we will never achieve perfection. But that won’t stop me trying.”
Mr Gove’s “perfection” is a Britain free from poverty. He might grate in his approach, he might infuriatingly end up at Rupert Murdoch’s wedding, but his raison d’etre is infallible. Whether that’s financial poverty or poverty of aspiration and life chances, he said the Tory party must be “warriors for the dispossessed”.
“He believes in that heart and soul,” said Mr Hollinrake. And in my own opinion, school standards did need driving up to stop millenials like myself being fooled into thinking a GCSE in health and social care is the equivalent to a GCSE in physics.
Both are valid qualifications, but clearly one is academic and one is more vocational. My point is this: when it comes to higher education or future life chances, some students might have their hopes dashed when they realise their qualifications aren’t quite the passport to the future they envisaged.
That system was a disservice to young people like myself, hence I was fully behind the introduction of 5 A* – C grades in Ebacc subjects as a gold standard. I know from my own parents that social mobility was only achieved through a rigorous education. If that is Mr Gove’s message, then I’m on board.
Now in his more natural home at the Ministry of Justice, Mr Gove is fully able to explore his liberal Conservative views by showering the leadership with his intellectual heft that helping prisoners find work and educating them will pay off. He’s not afraid to pick out the most appealing parts of Blairite thought, and utter his name.
While highly visible as Education Secretary, his face barely away from the media, his spell in justice has been characterised by a lower profile. In fact he’s so quiet he didn’t even front his own landmark prisoner rehabilitation speech held at the Policy Exchange in February – David Cameron did it for him. But while staying in the shadows might work for him personally, I think it could soon be the time that he comes to the fore once again.
At a time when Tory infighting over Brexit seems to have reached fever pitch, Michael Gove’s reputation has remained intact. As Mr Sunak points out, his conduct has been respectful throughout, with only the taxpayer funded pro-EU leaflet mildly irking him as inappropriate at a time of austerity. And unlike Boris Johnson, there has been no sticking-the-knife-in late afternoon text messages to Mr Cameron followed by a doorstep TV interview.
Despite Michael Gove maintaining that he has no wish to become Prime Minister – not least because of his alleged fear of flying – there may be calls from the party for his service long before this Parliament is out.
If Britain does leave the EU on June 23, an outcome that could see Mr Cameron resign or face a leadership challenge as he become embroiled in scandal over his family’s tax arrangements, it is surely going to be pro-Brexit candidates going head to head.
We know Boris Johnson is chomping at the bit, but what Britain would really need is someone who is calm under pressure. Someone with a liberal long-view, who strives for “perfection”, who puts the country way before their own personal ambition. The best candidate to occupy that spot is Michael Gove.
Kate Proctor is the Westminster Correspondent of The Yorkshire Post.