Sketch: Bully Balls beats up nerdy Gove

Weedy Michael Gove takes on Bruiser Ed Balls and lives to tell the tale.

By Ian Dunt

You know you’re in trouble when there’s a queue of journalists trying to enter the viewing gallery for your Commons questions.

Departmental questions don’t usually merit that much attention. Michael Gove, slight and seemingly perplexed by everything, glanced up once or twice. He knows the media well, and he knows too that big numbers in the reporters’ gallery means the story isn’t dead yet.

Ed Balls approached the despatch box, his burly, overgrown body oozing malice – the school bully sizing up the school nerd. Gove is ever so slight, his weedy body quite incapable of threatening the shadow secretary of state for education. Even if he could, he couldn’t take on his whole posse. Behind Balls sat the second-in-command, Tom Watson, whose gigantic body funnelled blood into a startlingly shrivelled-up face when he launched a violent tirade against Gove last week.

“You’re a miserable little pipsqueak,” Watson screamed at the speccy geek before being forced to apologise by the Speaker. He did so with little genuine regret, and only out of “deference” to John Bercow.

I sat desperately waiting for Bercow to call on Watson today, so he could do that special thing with his face again and be horrible and mean. When he was eventually selected, his contribution was reasonable, moderately expressed and therefore entirely unworthy of mention.

Balls had just emerged from a BBC interview in which he insisted some people had a problem with him because he was “a bit ordinary”. Of all the many, many disrespectful things I have heard of Brown’s old confidant that has never been one of them. He isn’t ordinary at all. He’s quite mad. But mad or not, his thirst for the leadership is still fierce, and he began the session by barking about the “widespread anger on all sides of the House”.

His letter to Gove, asking a series of questions on whether he had been advised not to release the list, had been replied to with answers which did nothing to address his points, he said, rather believably. But it did come with another list – a fifth list. About 25 minutes later the shadow secretary stood to tell the House he’d found the first mistake in it.

Gove’s performance was less than impressive. He tried to step back from the despatch box as he made his points, he waved his hand, he presented us with a commanding image of the notable and feared orator. It was like a mixture of Mussolini and the bloke from the Mr Muscle ads. From far enough away, it appeared impressive. The parts were all there but they couldn’t add up to a satisfying whole. In his eyes there was that slight fear, the fear that comes with one’s first head-on rush with a scandal.

Osborne had it during the Corfu affair. Sometimes it breaks you, sometimes it makes you. Sometimes it all just becomes water under the bridge. Gove’s scandal is severe enough to end his career, but it won’t. It’s too early in the new government’s honeymoon, and the press remain warm to the coalition project. If this had happened during Brown’s time in office it would have undoubtedly led to resignation.

Gove’s main point – his only point – was that Labour had done a terrible, “wasteful” job in office. He claimed to welcome an inquiry into the issue, by the public account committee, but this later appeared to be something of a ruse, a bit of theatre to pretend that these error-strewn lists are a symbol of a department ruined by Labour which Gove is just now trying to sort out. It was all terrible distasteful, but no more so than usual.

The trouble is: if the nerd isn’t clever, he’s nothing. And Gove keeps on making mistakes.