The shadow education secretary tells Ed West that a Tory government would take a different approach to our schools Michael Gove is so close to power he can almost smell the Government dispatch box. In 18 months, barring the mother of all comebacks by Gordon Brown, this eloquent, earnest-looking Aberdonian will be putting Ed Balls out of gainful employment. All the future Secretary of State for Children. Schools and Families has to do is not say anything stupid in an interview. And he is not about to do that.
"The attitude for any political party never changes, whether you're behind or ahead — you always have an enormous amount to do," he says, in the coffee room of Portcullis House, the sixth-form common room for MPs opposite Parliament. "Of course the media climate can change, generous one week and hyper-critical the next. There are good and bad patches with the occasional favourable coverage you don't deserve. You have to treat triumph and disaster just the same, maintain a level-headed recognition that nothing stays the same forever."
That statement seems almost Gove-esque: articulate, levelheaded, moderate. The general consensus is that Gove is a rising star, or maybe it is just that, being a journalist himself, he is more popular with the media than other politicians.
Gove was a leader writer and carnpaignMg journalist for the Times, covering the Brussels bureaucracy (like fellow hackturned-Tory MP Boris Johnson), Northern Ireland, terrorism, small business and street crime. His coverage of the murder of Catholic headmaster Philip Lawrence was particularly noteworthy. He has also written for the Times Literary Supplement and Prospect, and books about the Ulster peace process and Islamic terrorism.
He landed the plum Tory seat of Surrey Heath, entering Parliament in the Tory partial revival of 2005. But this is his second stab at politics— before landing a job in Fleet Street he was rejected by the Tory party on the grounds of being "not a Conservative".
By the time David Cameron promoted him to become schools supremo in his shadow cabinet in 2007 Gove had become, through regular appearances on The Late Review or The Moral Maze, one of the small group of Tory MPs who are recognised outside of political circles and actually liked.
One of many things said about Cameron's Tory Party is that it is stage-managed and looks-obsessed. Certainly Gove looks pretty wellgroomed to me. Has he had a focus group-sanctioned makeover?
"No," he says. "I don't know what a makeover would do to me but no. If anyone had given me a makeover I would want my money back." So no he's not stagemanaged, he says. Exactly what a stage-managed politician would say.
Born in Edinburgh. Gove was adopted at an early age. His adoptive father is still in the fishmongering business and his mother works with deaf children (his adoptive sister has hearing difficulties). He was baptised and confirmed in the Church of Scotland, and helped out in Sunday school, but he describes himself as a "Christian first" rather than a Presbyterian. At Oxford he attended Anglican services at St Thomas chapel, "not out of any doctrinal positioning", and he was married in an Anglican service on the Cote d' Azur, where his in-laws live (Grove's wife, Sarah Vine, is a successful journalist in her own right).
"I consider myseN a Protestant and more broadly a Christian," he said. "That's broadly where I'm coming from in these areas." But he certainly does not bang on about it.
"I think there's a slight disabling factor if you have a discussion, for example, about certain right to life issues people sometime assume you take the position you do purely because of religious belief.
"When I try to make arguments, I try not to bring faith into it. Some people say that's wrong. Inevitably they are shaped by religious experience. My argument is that it's more important to say that you don't need to be a believer."
It is no secret that his opposite number, Ed Balls, is not entirety loved by Catholics or by anyone who cannot afford the private school education he enjoyed. Gove, who is incidently the only member of the shadow cabinet to have been educated in both the state and private sector. and in. England and Scotland, is more sympathetic.
"The whole questions of admis sions became a hugely controversial area because Ed deliberately chose to attack faith schools, and in my judgment that was unfair," he says. "The evidence subsequently uncovered showed they didn't deserve to be treated that way."
Balls claimed that Christian and Jewish schools were "cheating" on admissions by slyly letting in more "middle-class" children than less successful neighbours.
So will Gove — and this is the big question for Catholic parents and teachers — allow schools to control admissions? Er, no.
"Schools have an absolute right to say that the ethos of this school demands that the parents acknowledge and the children accept the doctrinal basis on which the school was founded," he says. "But the crucial thing is we mustn't have selection by ability. If you do have Roman Catholic or Church of England or Jewish schools they have to be comprehensive schools. That means they can impose a set of lades over who is eligible. But once you cross that eligibility criteria it has to be all abilities."
I suggest that this is putting theory before practice. In reality better schools will always have slightly more so-called "middle-class" children. Interfering with school admissions will not change that.
"I don't think that is true," he replies. "I don't think the good ones will necessarily have more middleclass kids. There are aspirational people in every class, but I certainly think the current system we have can favour the privileged wealthy middle class. That's one of the reasons we believe it's appropriate to have organisations, including the Catholic Church, setting up new schools, because that can provide alternatives."
Gove's grand idea is the "Swedish model", whereby groups of parents can get together and establish their own schools, choosing how to spend the government grant themselves. It will encourage smaller, better-run and more independent schools, but critics say it will be expensive —the groups will have to find the buildings, for one.
"Our ideal is where parents choose schools rather than schools choosing parents," Gove says. "My view is the overwhelming majority of parents are aspirational. We want to give parents greater choice.
"Let's imagine in your circumstances that an organisation took over an old building and set up a really good school in the area, to provide you with an alternative. Wouldn't it better if that school were properly comprehensive and accepted every ability? You don't have to have an academic selection for a school to be successful. I suspect that in some of the schools you worry about it's not the intake problem, it's where heads and the teams around them that aren't committed to academic excellence and discipline."
He also rules out grammar schools.
The other big contention Catholics have with Gove (and Cameron) is that he voted for the Sexual Orientation Regulations. The law is likely to force some Catholic adoption agencies to close, which will mean hundreds of children — all of them hard cases who would have been placed with experienced, heterosexual foster parents anyway — will have no family to look after them. How does he square that?
"It's an area where there are lots of issues," he says. "I think it is prejudiced to say you won't place children with people in effect because of their sexual orientation. The Church is wrong on questions of sexual orientation. The emotional impulse towards love, caring, commitment should be supported, whether that's homosexual or heterosexual. We should not say because someone is homosexual they are incapable of entering into a committed relationship. I know there are some people who say it's against natural law, but that's my judgment."
I suggest that, while some Catholics would agree, the law was illiberal and against the founding principles of Edmund Burke's party.
"It's entirely fair for individuals to say this amounts to an attitude I find unappealing,he says. But he adds that he does not believe people should be "tick-box liberals or conservatives".
I suspect that many fear that Cameron's Tories are tick-box liberals. Either way Gove will be one of the central intellectual figures in the party. He has ideas. Whether they work is something we shall find out. Either way I suspect that a Tory government would have a very short honeymoon period.
"There are two ifs," Gove says. "If we win — and I can't get myself into the position where I assume we do — then you cannot allow yourself to be bewitched by the need to maintain popularity. You'll end up not taking some of the necessary decisions in order to get things right long term. It certainly was the case that Tony Blair spent too much time husbanding his poll leads to get things done."