Awkward... Michael Gove and Theresa May have been at loggerheads

Everything you need to know about the May-Gove extremism row in five minutes

Everything you need to know about the May-Gove extremism row in five minutes

This article has been updated following the publication of Ofsted’s report into Golden Hillock School – scroll down for the latest developments

What’s this story about, anyway?

Parliament spent yesterday focused on the Queen’s Speech. But the story of the coalition’s last ever big reboot has been overshadowed by a nagging tale of Tory-on-Tory infighting within government over one of the most controversial issues affecting this country: how, and when, to deal with Islamic extremism?


It’s that man again, isn’t it?

Yep, this is all about Michael Gove. The education secretary went on the offensive in a chit-chat with senior Times figures. He was the source quoted in the newspaper’s original story, it’s now emerged. The ‘source’ was quoted as saying that Islamic extremists have taken over and subverted the governing boards of madrassas and supplementary schools in Birmingham.

What did he say? And was it genuinely divisive?

Judge for yourself. After comparing this extremist takeover to the way Militant Tendency infiltrated political parties, the source stated: “Some have been wary of drawing attention to this, as it might be seen as Islamophobic. That is why there has been a reluctance to acknowledge what has been going on. Tony Blair recognised this space. Within government there has been a pushback against doing that. Charles Farr always believed if extremists became violent we should deal with it.”

Wait – who’s Charles Farr?

He’s the director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, which operates within the Home Office. Gove said of him: “It has been characterised by others in government as just beating back the crocodiles that come close to the boat rather than draining the swamp.”

I expect the Home Office wasn’t very happy about that.

Indeed they were not. And their response might just have been coloured by the fact that Fiona Cunningham, a key media adviser to the home secretary, is in a relationship with Farr.

How odd. And awkward.

What was especially odd was the way in which May hit back. At 12:24 in the morning on Wednesday, as the Queen prepared for her Speech with the nightly beauty sleep, the Home Office account tweeted a link to a letter which May had sent to Gove the previous afternoon.

Unusual behaviour for a government press office. What did the letter say?

Most of it was about a slightly separate issue – ongoing work to set up a voluntary code of practice for supplementary schools.

Which ones are they again?

Sunday schools and the like. There’s about 5,000 of them in the UK. They offer out-of-hours educational opportunities for kids, basically. Many of them are religious. And May used her letter to suggest that a draft voluntary code of practice for them should make clear it rejects the mandatory veiling of women.

That sounds reasonable. Even if the timing of the letter seems a little passive-aggressive.

The killer is the final paragraph, which transforms the letter from a fairly boring scribble into a vicious killer missile of an attack on Gove and his department.

Egad! What does it say?

Here it is in full:

The allegations relating to schools in Birmingham raise serious questions about the quality of school governance and oversight arrangements in the maintained sector, not just the supplementary schools that would be signatories to this Code of Practice. How did it come to pass, for example, that one of the governors at Park View was the chairman of the education committee of the Muslim Council of Britain? Is it true that Birmingham City Council was warned about these allegations in 2008? Is it true that the Department for Education was warned in 2010? If so, why did nobody act? I am aware that several investigations are still ongoing and those investigations are yet to conclude. But it is clear to me that we will need to take clear action to improve the quality of staffing and governance if we are to prevent extremism in schools.

That’s a lot of questions for Gove to answer.

Exactly. Normally it’s journalists who ask difficult questions like that. Or, occasionally, shadow ministers in antsy letters.

Letters just like this one.

Yes – the style seems to be deliberately echoing their hostile tone. And others have leapt into the fray against Gove too. Former prisons minister Crispin Blunt was quoted as saying yesterday morning: “Ironically, Michael Gove’s strategy of draining the swamp would actually mean addressing the whole issue of faith education in our schools altogether, and I think the Home Office is gently pointing out it’s practically impossible to behave in the way that he wishes.”

I don’t suppose the PM’s very happy about this.

It’s certainly overshadowed the Queen’s Speech. And all the reports emerging from Downing Street are that David Cameron is fuming. He dragged Gove into No 10 for a telling-off on Wednesday morning, but given the rest of his week was a bit distracted. He’s got a horribly busy 48 hours ahead of him – the G7, followed by a meeting with Barack Obama, followed by the D-Day anniversary events tomorrow.

I read somewhere by some really good writer that it’s the biggest test of his statesmanship yet.

Oh yes – whoever wrote that is obviously astute, insightful and intelligent. All it means for Gove and May, though, is that they have to wait a little longer before getting it in the neck from the boss. Cameron wants full details of exchanges between the two departments on his desk for when he gets back.

Is there more to this than meets the eye, then?

Of course. Gove and May are both key figures in the battle to succeed David Cameron. It’s a rather slow-burning struggle of course – although a disappointing showing in 2015 might just see Dave’s departure from politics. In which case, the winner of rows like this will be in a much-improved position in the leadership struggle to come.

And who is the winner?

May, and by a mile. She picks her battles carefully and usually avoids briefing against colleagues at all. That she’s chosen to do so in such a decisive, bold way here shows just how furious she must have been. She saw Gove blaming her for something which she thinks is his fault. And so she responded by hitting out, knowing she is now the clear frontrunner to take over the Conservative party should any terrible fate befall its current leader.

That means there might just be a loser here.

Yes. Gove is now considered vulnerable in the coming reshuffle.

I expect Labour are loving all this.

They absolutely are. This is what shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has to say:

“For two such senior ministers to launch a vitriolic public blame game in this way is appalling and irresponsible when they should be working together to sort out such serious problems. Too often both Michael Gove and Theresa May resort to public blame games rather than taking any responsibility themselves or working together with others.”


Wait, what? I thought this story was supposed to have faded away by lunchtime?

No, no. Not following Ofsted’s publication of its report into one of the ‘Trojan Horse’ schools in Birmingham.

Hang on, back up. I don’t understand what horses have to do with it.

That comes from a letter sent to officials at Birmingham council last autumn. The letter referred to ‘Operation Trojan Horse’, the name for the attempt to infiltrate 21 schools in Birmingham by Islamic extremists.

And so that’s what Ofsted have been investigating?

Exactly. Today’s report into one of those schools Golden Hillock in Sparkhill makes clear that “too little is done to keep students safe from the risks associated with extremist views”.

I don’t suppose the school’s very happy with that.

Absolutely not. The Trust running the school has declared Ofsted’s report a “misrepresentation”, but that’s not going to be much of a defence. Or stop it being placed into special measures.

Where does this leave Gove and May?

It turns a defeat into a rout for the education secretary. Gove’s mistake was in highlighting this whole issue as a problem the Home Office has to deal with. But now the Ofsted report has confirmed that it’s the Department for Education which hasn’t been doing enough to protect these children. This has happened on Gove’s watch.

So what’s he going to do about it?

Kick it into the long grass – if he can. Gove’s asked a retired police chief to look into the Trojan Horse schools and report back this summer. A spokesperson says: “It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”