For some time now, “every deed and utterance of a prominent Tory” has been viewed by journalists as being in some way connected to a leadership bid, says Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times. The “squabble” between Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Theresa May, the home secretary, over extremism in Birmingham schools is no exception.
Last week, The Times leaked criticism by Gove of the Home Office’s “alleged laxity on Islamism”. May responded with a letter “damning his own record” and this was followed by the resignation of her aide and an apology from Gove.
The theory goes that May wants to replace Cameron; Gove would rather Osborne did, and this “skirmish is just a tactical detail of that strategic enmity”.
The “drab reality” is that May and Gove “disagreed over Islamism, because they disagree over Islamism”. That Gove is a “licensed agent” of the Treasury is a “cockamamie idea”.
It overrates Osborne’s “omnipotence as a puppet master” and underrates Gove’s independence of mind.
As for May, nobody in Downing Street doubts that she wants the top job, but if personal ambition accounts for some of what happens in politics, it does not account for everything.
And if May were making a long-term leadership bid, her chosen tactic would not have been to overshadow the Queen’s Speech and take on Gove, “one of the heroes of the right”, says Steve Richards in The Independent.
Ultimately this saga is more about ideology: the current Tory leadership has a “confused and unresolved attitude” towards the role of the state.
This debate may well be “bound up with some very important electoral mathematics”, says John Harris in The Guardian. The Tories have got an “ongoing problem with ethnic-minority voters”, who comprise an increasing share of the electorate in many key seats.
In that sense, Gove’s “zealous neoconservatism” (he believes that terrorism and supposed radicalisation are cultural problems as well as security issues, which should be dealt with by ‘draining the swamp’) “may not be the cleverest political option”.
May’s approach is more cautious. She wants to deal with the problem, but not at the expense of alienating communities.
Her admirers credit her with being “craftily pragmatic” and being sensitive to the way the “political winds are blowing”. If the general election “spells trouble” for the prime minister, May is in with a chance. In the event of a contest, a poll of Tory members last week put May top at 35%, Boris Johnson at 23% and Gove at 8%. However, May does have a problem.
In keeping with her “apparent lack of clubbability”, her supporters do not appear to “form any clearly identifiable faction”. If she is “ever going to get the top job”, she needs to win some more influential friends.