‘So what?’ Tory disdain for Gove cronyism row hits new heights

By Alex Stevenson

Conservative politicians are adopting an attitude of indifference as Michael Gove faces a barrage of cronyism claims from Labour, Lib Dem and education sources.

Liberal Democrats went on a full media offensive yesterday in an attempt to show they are against the 'Torification' of the schools system, after the education secretary confirmed he would replace Ofsted's chair Sally Morgan when the contract expires this autumn.

Morgan, a former aide to New Labour prime minister Tony Blair, made clear on Saturday she believes the Tories are making a series of appointments on partisan grounds.

Gove has insisted her replacement is nothing but "good corporate practice" but schools minister David Laws, a Lib Dem, was said to have been "absolutely furious" about the decision.

It follows the recent appointments of Conservative supporters to head the Care Quality Commission, Monitor and Natural England quangos.

No 10 pointed out the coalition had appointed a number of prominent Labour figures like Alan Milburn and John Hutton to significant roles, however.

"Look, there's lots of people with good talents out there," Conservative backbencher Nick de Bois said.

"I have no problem if a government that's elected with firm views and ideas about what it wants to do – in this case in education – puts people in place with talent that happen to be Conservative supporters."

Tory disdain for criticism from within the government could strain coalition tensions ahead of a difficult time for David Cameron and Nick Clegg, as the two parties prepare to go to war in what is expected to be an unforgiving and bitterly fought European election campaign.

Gove himself was supremely calm in dismissing the row in his sofa appearance yesterday morning.

"I think the only pattern you can see is appointment on merit and a desire to make sure that we've got tough and tenacious figures to concentrate on improving the education system," he told BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show.

"At the end of an individual term I think it's appropriate to consider whether or not we might need to have a new person."

Labour has focused on the fact that recent departures from senior quango positions – including the chairs of English Heritage, the Charities Commission and the Arts Council – have all been women.

"What is your problem in your government with women?" Harriet Harman asked Gove on Marr yesterday.

"It's like raining men in the Tory party."

Gove may be more wounded by an article from former Ofsted chief Sir David Bell warning the education secretary: "Don't believe your own hype."

The article suggested Gove's ideological battle against 'The Blob', the amorphous education establishment which opposes his attempts to inject competition and traditional standards into England's schools, "might not be as deep-rooted as the education secretary believes".

Bell wrote: "There is a far wider group of non-Blobberati voices across the schools sector, higher education, industry and the voluntary sector, who offer an intelligent critique of where we are now.

"These people have been broadly supportive of successive governments' education reforms and, as a result, are not so easily dismissed. They believe in improving our education system but they also advocate sensible debate. They should be listened to by politicians of all parties."

His comments come a week after another former Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw said he was "spitting blood" at the idea that right-wing think tanks could criticise the school standards watchdog.

Gove is pressing on with his own agenda this week, with a raft of education announcements including promises to extend the school day to ten hours and enforcing community-service-style litter-picking to improve discipline.