Mehdi Hasan writes:
Spare a thought for Vince Cable. The disgruntled Business Secretary, whose "nuclear option" turned out to be more of a suicide vest, is the odds-on favourite to be the next minister to leave the coalition cabinet, according to the online betting exchange Smarkets. Or perhaps it will be Ken Clarke. "Is it time to give this disloyal, pro-Europe old bruiser the boot?" read the headline in the Daily Mail on 12 February. Paddy Power has him as 7/2 favourite on its "next to leave the cabinet" list. Then there's Tom Strathclyde. Tom who? The Leader of the House of Lords, exposed as an old-fashioned Tory adulterer by a Sunday paper last month, is second-favourite on both the Smarkets and Paddy Power lists.
Away from the betting shops, Tory MPs and peers congregate in the bars and tearooms of Westminster to whisper about the future of William Hague, his personal life and his foreign policy (or lack thereof); about the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman's disastrous decision to sell off the nation's forests; about Cheryl Gillan's "Where's Wally" performance at the Welsh Office and the persistent rumours of her impending departure from government. But isn't it strange that Michael Gove's name never comes up in conversation, or in the various lists and bookies' odds? That he doesn't appear to be "at risk" or "vulnerable"?
By any objective measure of ministerial ineptitude, the Education Secretary would come out near the top. On 11 February, in the latest in a long line of "bad news" linked to the coalition's education reforms, Gove was defeated in the high court over his decision to scrap part of England's school-building programme, and his failure to consult on it. It is worth quoting from the stinging verdict of Mr Justice Holman: "In my view, the way in which the Secretary of State abruptly stopped the projects . . . without any prior consultation . . . must be characterised as being so unfair as to amount to an abuse of power." Yes, "abuse of power". Strong stuff.
In a sense, Gove was a Cameroon before Cameron. He helped to persuade his good friend "Dave" to run for the Tory leadership in 2005, having tipped him for the job in a newspaper column in 2001. Gove continues to exert a huge influence on Cameron. I am told that the Education Secretary, a dyed-in-the-wool neocon hawk on foreign policy and all things Islam-related, was a key driver behind the Prime Minister's recent speech in Munich - though I have yet to understand how his enthusiasm for faith schools fits with a passion for "muscular liberalism" and ending "state multiculturalism". For now, Gove is Teflon. His membership of the Cameron inner circle, the so-called Notting Hill Set, makes Gove untouchable; so does his fawning constituency in the media - he is a former Times columnist and assistant editor. In the words of one seasoned observer, he is the "golden boy" of Cameron's cabinet. Gove, however, has the reverse Midas touch: everything he touches turns to dust.
Consider his record at the Education Department since last May. To begin with, he claimed more than 1,000 schools had applied for academy status; it then emerged that only 153 had done so. Under cross-examination by his then Labour shadow, Ed Balls, he was forced to apologise repeatedly in the Commons after giving MPs incorrect information about which school rebuilding projects were to be axed. Last October, he caused an outcry when he announced that he would no longer fund School Sport Partnerships, only to do a U-turn in December. He announced the axing of a £13m annual grant for free books that benefits 3.3 million youngsters a year, only to perform another U-turn over Christmas, amid accusations of "cultural vandalism".
Despite his gift of the gab, Gove has a habit of making gaffes. In a Commons debate on 19 January, he told MPs that it "would be wise" for people in Hull to vote Liberal Democrat - and not Conservative - in the May local elections. "He is not as clever as he thinks he is," an irritated cabinet colleague tells me, adding: "But he does have the ability to make the absurd sound intelligent." Gove aspires to be, in the words of the ultra-conservative historian and author Andrew Roberts, "the most radical education secretary since Shirley Williams". (Gove has turned to Roberts for advice on the history curriculum.) "There is a contradiction at the heart of the Tories' policy on education," the shadow education secretary, Andy Burnham, tells me. "They talk about freedom and autonomy for schools and parents but their approach is more top-down and prescriptive than ours ever was."
The Education Secretary, in Whitehall, decides on the status and funding levels of academies and "free schools". Gove's English Baccalaureate takes choice away from students by specifying a narrow range of GCSE subjects that will qualify them for the award. The current Education Bill will grant the Secretary of State more than 50 new powers. So much for people power and the "big society". Burnham, like Balls before him, has pursued Gove relentlessly, concentrating in recent weeks on the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the payments of up to £30 a week given to students from low-earning households if they stay on at school.
In opposition, Gove made an explicit pledge: "Ed Balls keeps saying that we are committed to scrapping the EMA. I have never said this. We won't." Gove has since scrapped the allowance - but Burnham has received legal advice suggesting that the earlier pledge may have given rise to a "legitimate expectation" by students that these payments would continue. Those students who are set to lose their EMA midway through a two-year course could have a legal case against Gove. To lose one judicial review might be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two would be careless indeed. "Losing the review last week was a huge error," says a senior Tory source. "If any other minister had, they'd be in serious trouble."
Cameron, however, values loyalty and protects his friends. But he also sees himself as the "heir to Blair". The former Labour prime minister was willing to cut his friend and confidant Peter Mandelson loose in the second year of his government, in 1998. Would Cameron ever do the same with Gove?