THE SHOCK demotion of education secretary Michael Gove was the biggest surprise in a far-reaching ministerial reshuffle by Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday.
Edinburgh-born Mr Gove, 46, was stripped of his department and hit with a £36,000 pay cut to become Chief Whip, responsible for party discipline and ensuring MPs vote with the government.
He replaces old Etonian Sir George Young, one of several government ministers widely thought to have been sacked for being “stale, pale and male”.
But Mr Gove, a former journalist, was also handed a key role in the next ten months as “the minister for television” in the Tory campaign to win the general election in May next year.
The new Education Secretary for schools and colleges south of the Border is 41-year-old Nicky Morgan.
She is one of two women to be promoted to the Cabinet, just ten months after she first became a junior Treasury minister.
Ms Morgan will be joined around the Cabinet table by new Environment Secretary Liz Truss.
Ms Truss went to primary school in Paisley, was a Liberal Democrat in her youth and at 38 is the youngest ever female Cabinet minister.
She replaces Owen Paterson in a move which has infuriated some on the right of the party.
While Mr Paterson – who was widely seen to have failed in dealing with the floods crisis and badger cull – was a darling of the right, Ms Truss infamously described the traditional wing of the party as “the turnip Taleban” when some members of her South West Norfolk party tried to deselect her over allegations about her private life.
Despite briefings that the reshuffle would bring in a much greater proportion of women, the only other new women around the table will be employment minister Esther McVey and new Leader of the Lords Baroness Tina Stowell, who will not have full Cabinet rank.
Anna Soubry, who had been tipped for the Cabinet, was made No 2 in the Ministry of Defence.
In preparation for his attempts to renegotiate the UK’s settlement with the European Union, Mr Cameron made the eurosceptic Philip Hammond his new Foreign Secretary, replacing him at defence with the Scottish-born Michael Fallon, widely respected as “a safe pair of hands”.
In other significant changes the Prime Minister appointed his former Leader of the Lords, Lord Hill, as his new European Commissioner.
Lord Hill was a significant figure in John Major’s Maastricht negotiations in getting opt-outs on joining the euro and the social chapter.
Mr Cameron also sacked Dominic Grieve as his attorney general and replaced him with Jeremy Wright in a move which is seen as a signal that the Tories will promise to ditch the Human Rights Act and European Convention of European Rights after the next election.
The head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, is also to go and be replaced by a new chief executive of the civil service.
The previous two reshuffles have been perceived as largely influenced by Chancellor George Osborne, however, Tory insiders noted that this one “has the mark of the Prime Minister” with close allies of Mr Osborne such as Mr Gove losing out.
Mr Gove told Sky News he was given a choice of whether to stay on or move to be Chief Whip.
But it is understood that his fate was sealed after a recent spat over immigration with Home Secretary Theresa May, in which the two publicly briefed the press against one another.
The row saw Mrs May lose her special adviser Fiona Cunningham.
There were also concerns that he was a toxic figure in education after alienating the unions with his radical reforms.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT said: “Michael Gove has clearly lost the support of the profession and parents for justifiable reasons. His vision for education is simply wrong.”
But the Tory chairman of the Commons education committee, Graham Stuart, said Mr Gove would be remembered as “one of the greatest education secretaries this country has ever had”.
Privately, some Tory MPs are questioning Mr Gove’s suitability for being in charge of party discipline in the House.
He lost his temper following last year’s government defeat on Syria and publicly berated Tory rebels as they left the chamber.
The Chief Whip has the key role of preventing rebellions and keeping party discipline made more difficult because the Tories are in coalition with the Lib Dems with the leadership suffering a string of humiliating rebellions on Europe, gay marriage and military action in Syria.
Mr Gove – who also suffers a pay cut from £134,565 to £98,740 – dismissed claims he had been demoted.
He said: “Demotion, emotion, promotion, locomotion, I don’t know how you would describe this move – though move it is.”
He added: “If the Prime Minister asks you to play a critical role at the heart of government helping him to ensure that the right people are in place and the right policies are being implemented in order to make this country a fairer and a better place, that is just an enormous compliment and a privilege.”
Asked if the change represented a “punishment” for Mr Gove, Mr Cameron, who has grown frustrated with back-bench rebellions in the Commons, said: “I can tell you, if you are Prime Minister, the Chief Whip is one of the most important jobs in government.
“I wanted one of my big hitters, one of my real stars, one of my great brains, someone who has done extraordinary things for education in this country, to do that job, to deliver the government’s programme, to help secure the future for our country.”
Media-friendly Gove new face of the Tories
BEFORE the Coalition government was formed after the 2010 General Election, Michael Gove was better known to the public as a television luvvie than a frontline politician.
Born in Edinburgh and brought up by adoptive parents in Aberdeen, Mr Gove began his media career on the Press and Journal in the 1990s before going on to work for the Times, Spectator and as a columnist for Scotland on Sunday.
However, his preparation for his new role as the “minister for television” came in his regular appearances on television and radio shows since those days.
His first appearance was playing the chaplain in a family comedy A Feast at Midnight released in 1995, but in later years he was a regular on Question Time, On the Record and Newsnight Review on television and the Moral Maze and the Today programme on radio. Mr Gove is also very close to media mogul Rupert Murdoch whom he described as “one of the most impressive and significant figures of the last 50 years”.
He was a fierce defender of press freedom at the height of the Leveson inquiry and hacking scandal.
It means that while Mr Gove is an outspoken member of government who has riled colleagues such as Home Secretary Theresa May, he is a popular figure in the media with strong connections to the people who will be putting him on the spot over the next year as he fronts the election campaign.