Who, in this nest of vipers, stole a stack of Michael Gove’s private emails?

Published in The Mail on Sunday (September 25th, 2011)

Shortly after the last General Election, Michael Gove was travelling by train to an important conference in Birmingham and trying to make last-minute changes to a keynote speech. But as the new Education Secretary hammered away at his keyboard and attempted to send the results to colleagues, he was driven to despair.

He was unable to move data, switch files and synchronise his bulky government-issue laptop with departmental systems. Although famously courteous, Gove was on the brink of screaming and swearing in fury. Finally, he borrowed a computer from an aide.

He probably feels like screaming and swearing again after the leaking of private emails between him and his political advisers ended up in the Financial Times. The story alleged that his team hid sensitive information from civil servants and the media by using private email accounts such as Gmail rather than official departmental ones.

It is the latest in a succession of stories in the paper against Gove, who has emerged over the past 16 months as one of the most impressive members of the Coalition, determined to achieve real change to improve schools and raise standards. Such determination has earned him the enmity of significant swathes of the educational establishment, which still holds parts of his department in its grip. He has also annoyed some in his own party with his forthright style – not least the author of the Financial Times stories, a former Tory apparatchik.

As Gove was revealed to have written in one email: ‘AAAAAARGGGGGHHHH!!!!!!’

Such outbursts were not uncommon in the early days of the Coalition. New Cabinet Ministers and their advisers found their work frustrated by the limitations of outmoded technology, worsened by Whitehall’s tight cyber-controls that are even stricter than those in place at the White House.

New BlackBerries would not connect to office computers. Government laptops were barely portable given the attached encryption technology. And they could not access internet sites requiring passwords, barring them from email accounts, social networking sites and software tools used in daily office life.

One hassle, however, made them smile. They could not use auto- complete, which finishes email addresses as you begin to type them, because it had been disabled on the orders of Gordon Brown after he accidentally sent a furious early morning email to Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng. He had meant to send it to his ally Wendy Alexander.

Many senior Ministers and key aides carried on using private email accounts, especially given the headache of changing over all their email addresses. Some still rely on them. But Gove had additional reason not to switch systems. When he walked into his expansive office in the education department, he found himself in a nest of vipers.

At the heart of a poorly managed department was a cadre of Labour loyalists and educationalists clinging to old ideas. They opposed his plans to restore school discipline, expand Tony Blair’s academy programme and introduce free schools to challenge the orthodoxy that failed so many of the poorest pupils.

Like Iain Duncan Smith, the other impatient radical in the Cabinet, Gove made careful preparations in Opposition, building alliances and testing his highly ideological plans against a range of intellectual opinion. In office he moved fast, introducing the Coalition’s first piece of legislation, but the first few weeks were disastrous.

I talked to him after a series of botched announcements on school building programmes. For such a confident character, he seemed shaken and was clearly worried about the depth of internal opposition to his plans. ‘I am trying not to even think this might have been deliberate,’ he said.

While the vast majority of civil servants in his department kept any political views hidden behind their professionalism, there was a cabal of those who did not. Among these were some described as ‘raging loyalists’ to Gove’s Labour predecessor, the equally combative Ed Balls.

The press office included the girlfriend of Damian McBride, the former Downing Street official who resigned after sending emails discussing the idea of spreading false rumours about senior Conservatives. She left immediately after the election, but inevitably retained friendships with former colleagues, said one official.

More recently, it emerged there was someone identified by maverick political blogger Guido Fawkes as a mole in their inner sanctum.

Special advisers are the most trusted aides for any Minister – party appointments who provide political advice and personal support. Gove’s team share his desire for rapid change. Unfortunately, the assistant in their office was a Labour activist.

One insider said they discovered Matt Gillespie had applied for a job with a Labour environment spokeswoman, but when challenged Gillespie said it was because of his passion for green issues. He left shortly afterwards to work for John Denham, the Shadow Secretary of State for Business.

While in the education department, Gillespie would have had copies of many of the team’s most sensitive emails. And, coincidentally, it is their private emails that have been turning up in a series of embarrassing stories written by Chris Cook, the FT’s education correspondent.

Cook is an interesting player in the drama. He used to work alongside George Osborne’s team in Opposition, a smart policy wonk brought in to provide statistical ballast. Former colleagues described him as ‘prickly’ and ‘not cut out for politics given his inability to compromise’.

He himself admits he is a ‘grumpy misanthrope’. He rapidly moved on to join the education team, then under David Willetts. He left, however, soon after helping draft a disastrous speech on grammar schools that provoked one of David Cameron’s biggest headaches in Opposition and led to his boss’s effective replacement by Gove.

‘Now it’s payback time,’ said a senior Conservative source. ‘He clearly feels bruised after Willetts was sacrificed and replaced by one of Cameron’s crew.’

Cook denies he is engaged in a vendetta, telling friends he is deeply upset by such allegations and informing the education department’s permanent secretary the source of his stories is not Gillespie. Gillespie, too, fiercely denies being the leaker.

Whatever the truth, the saga is a sign that war still rages in this key department, pitching a cadre of ideas determined to shake up schools against the inertia of the Civil Service and the hostility of the Left.

Gove is unlikely to abandon the fight, however rough it gets. He has, after all, already been rebuked by the Prime Minister for the ferocity of his attacks in Cabinet on William Hague and Liam Fox over their initial hesitancy in supporting the Arab Spring. He also went out on a limb to oppose the immigration cap, ironically in alliance with David Willetts, the Universities Minister.

He remains, however, very close to David Cameron, is consulted on all the PM’s most important speeches and supplies many of the best jokes. Their wives are also good friends.

Unlike so many politicians, Gove does not seem to want higher office, aware of his own foibles and fallibility. What drives him is simple: the lottery of his own life, which saw him adopted at the age of four months by an Aberdonian fish merchant who worked hard to provide the best education possible for him.

This gave him a desire to ensure all children enjoy the same quality of education that enabled him to go from a humble background to Oxford University, senior posts on The Times and the top of politics.

One of his oldest friends told me this is all Gove has wanted to do since his Oxford days. ‘My suspicion is Michael will leave frontline politics after he has finished with education, going back to journalism or writing books.’

That would be a shame. The Cabinet would lose one of its most dynamic Ministers, the Tories would lose one of their most fearless politicians and the educational world would lose the one man who might force them out of the complacency that has failed too many children for too long.

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