Former Conservative leader Michael Howard has launched a rare attack on David Cameron, branding his decision to sack Michael Gove as Education Secretary a ‘mistake’ and ‘a great pity’.
Lord Howard said that the ‘radical change’ Mr Gove had implemented in schools made it ‘inevitable’ that he would become an unpopular figure.
While he had a ‘high regard’ for Nicky Morgan, who was appointed Education Secretary in last week’s dramatic Cabinet reshuffle, he said Mr Gove should have been left in place.
Lord Howard has always been studiously loyal to Mr Cameron, having helped smooth his path to the leadership.
He propelled him to the front line by making him shadow education secretary and, when he stood down as party leader in 2005, announced a ‘long contest’ to allow support for Mr Cameron to build.
His intervention, in an interview with the ConservativeHome website, reflects dismay on the Right of the party at the demotion of Mr Gove to Chief Whip. Senior MPs claimed last night that Mr Gove had expressed an interest in becoming Defence Secretary when Mr Cameron made it clear he wanted him to move, but was told the job had been earmarked for Michael Fallon.
Downing Street insisted that claim was ‘nonsense’. However, the Prime Minister is known to have become increasingly exasperated with Mr Gove’s private and public arguments with colleagues, most notably with Home Secretary Theresa May over the definition of Islamic extremism.
The Tories’ chief election strategist Lynton Crosby, meanwhile, had highlighted polls suggesting Mr Gove’s unpopularity had spread far beyond the teaching profession. Yesterday a poll by YouGov showed 29 per cent saying the Tories are the best party on education – the highest for two-and-a-half years.
Lord Howard compared Mr Gove’s four years as Education Secretary to how own in the Home Office, when he clashed with judges and prison reformers for pursuing a tough approach on crime and arguing that ‘prison works’.
‘I think if I’m going to criticise the reshuffle, which I think on the whole is good in many respects, I have to be fairly limited in my criticism,’ the former Tory leader said.
‘So I will content myself with saying that I do think it’s a great pity that Michael Gove was moved. I do think that if you are to introduce radical change and drive radical change it is inevitable that you will be involved in controversy and it is inevitable that you will be unpopular, and I can speak from experience in that respect, on the basis of my time at the Home Office.’
New Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, left, arrives in Downing Street yesterday for her first Cabinet meeting since replacing Michael Gove, right, who is now the Conservative Party’s chief whip
Lord Howard also suggested that Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, was not yet ready to lead the Conservative Party and should serve as a minister.
‘I think he is probably more disciplined now. But what he has yet to do is to demonstrate that he is capable of doing one of the big jobs in government, which I think is different from being Mayor of London,’ he said.
‘I think the probability is that he is capable. I think everybody assumes he’s going to come back at the next election, but I’m not in a position to know or to judge,’ he added.
Lord Howard, who attended a grammar school, warned colleagues agitating for the party to toughen its policy in the area it would be ‘practically very difficult’ to open new grammar schools.
He said: ‘I’m certainly in favour of keeping the grammar schools we have, and of allowing them to expand, which is the policy of the present government.
‘You have to face the fact that in 18 long years of Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher, grammar schools were not restored or reintroduced. So I think there’d be some practical difficulties.’