U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove will appear before Parliament today to explain a spat with Home Secretary Theresa May that led to the resignation of one of May’s most senior aides.
Fiona Cunningham, May’s special adviser, quit at the weekend after an argument over combating Muslim extremism played out in the U.K. media. Announcing the results of a review, Prime Minister David Cameron’s office stepped in on June 7 by saying Gove had apologized for talking to The Times newspaper and that Cunningham had resigned for her response.
The vehemence of the public clash between May and Gove, both listed by bookmakers as potential candidates to replace Cameron, is a new development for the four-year-old coalition, whose public splits are typically between its Conservative and Liberal Democrat members. It points to souring Cabinet relations less than a year before the next national election.
“The extraordinary thing about this is not just that it’s two Tories, but it’s so personal,” Sean Kemp, a former adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, said in a telephone interview. “It crossed all sorts of lines. It wasn’t really about the politics.”
The dispute went public in a June 4 front-page article in The Times, which said May’s department was failing to fight extremism. Gove acknowledged speaking to the newspaper, while Cunningham reacted to the story by releasing a letter from May to Gove questioning his own department’s failure to act on warnings in 2010 about schools in Birmingham, central England.
The political scrap follows allegations of a plot by hardline Islamists to take over schools in the city in a bid to radicalize students. Schools in the area have now been inspected by education regulators, who will present their assessment this week, while a report by former Metropolitan Police counter-terror chief Peter Clarke is due this summer.
Sixty five percent of 2,134 adults polled by YouGov for yesterday’s Sunday Times said they believe hardline Muslim groups have attempted to take over schools. Thirteen percent blamed the government for allowing the alleged plot.
One of the British government’s strongest conventions is the doctrine of collective responsibility, which requires all ministers to support government policy once it has been announced. It was developed in the 18th century, as a way to stop the monarch playing ministers off against each other. Today, its main function is to enforce a united front in the face of media questions.
The opposition Labour Party sought to take political advantage. The row “has highlighted the chaos at the heart of the government’s efforts to tackle extremism and the damage done to the prevent program by the Home Secretary’s and Education Secretary’s inability to work together,” said Yvette Cooper, who is May’s Labour counterpart.
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