Enemies swirl around him as Gove faces the music

By Ian Dunt

Michael Gove faced tough questions in the Commons today as he tried to close down criticism of his school rebuilding announcement.

Mr Gove’s coalition partner, Simon Hughes, who is deputy leader of the Lib Dems, distanced himself from the education secretary over the weekend.

Meanwhile, his Labour counterpart, Ed Balls, asked a series of written questions of the secretary of state which seemed to suggest that he had a mole inside the government.

Sketch: Bully Balls beats up nerdy Gove

There was also danger from his own backbenchers as Tory MPs gear up to oppose cuts to their local schools.

Mr Gove told the Commons last Monday that the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme would be scrapped, and many rebuilding projects cancelled.

But the list of cancelations published by his department was inaccurate and many schools celebrated the survival of their plans only to later find out they were to be cancelled.

The education secretary apologised to the Speaker in a particularly stormy Commons session and visited local councils to repeat his apologies.

“The initial shock of discovering that [parents’ and teachers’] initial school building programme had been cancelled will have turned to outrage at the seemingly arbitrary. way the sec of state has made and announced his decisions,” Mr Balls told him today.

“The honourable gentleman must now know there is widespread anger on all sides of the House.”

Mr Gove replied: “The Rt Hon gentleman says there was anger across this House and there was. The anger across this House was towards the way the Building Schools for the Future programme had been run by the Rt Hon gentleman.

“From the moment I took office everyone involved in this process said to me ‘make sure that you ensure that this faltering and failing project ends’. And that’s what I have done.

“I inherited a mess from the Rt Hon gentleman and we are clearing it up.”

Some Tory officials are understood to be irritated with Tim Byles, Partnership for Schools (PfS) chief executive, which was in charge of the BSF programme.

Mr Balls wrote to Mr Gove asking if he had received advise from his department or from PfS recommending consultation with local authorities before arriving at a decision on cancellations.

He was also asked whether he had been advised not to publish the list and whether he had received official advice on claims arising from the cancellations.

The highly specific nature of the questions has prompted many Westminster insiders to suggest Mr Balls might be benefitting from a mole in the government.

Andy Coulson, Conservative communications chief, is said to be upset about several stories finding their way into the Sunday Telegraph, not least of all the full text of the Queen’s Speech, although it is unclear if the two suspicions are connected.

“I have now received a reply which does not answer any of my questions, it merely attaches a new list – list number five – which has 20 more additional cancelled schools in addition to a month ago,” Mr Balls told the Commons.

Meanwhile, Mr Hughes was furiously trying to disassociate the Liberal Democrats from Mr Gove’s difficulties, saying it would be “a nonsense” to build new institutions for the education secretary’s ‘free schools’ programme when rebuilding work on existing schools was being cancelled.

“It would be a nonsense to take money that could be used for improving existing schools to create new schools… The will of the local community is for existing schools to continue,” he told the Daily Politics.

“There is not the money left to go ahead with the programme that Labour left.

“We need to make sure that wherever possible where schools desperately need to be rebuilt or replaced they are, but in the end the most important thing is the teaching, is the quality of the headteacher, the management.”

Mr Gove said he would meet with Lib Dem councillors concerned about his announcement.