Michael Gove has been accused of cynically using the “Trojan Horse” schools row to push an ideological anti-Islamic agenda within the Government.
Whitehall sources revealed that behind the scenes the Education Secretary has been pressing David Cameron for months to widen the Government’s definition of Muslim “extremism”.
And they suggested that he has used allegations of a plot to “take over” a number of schools in Birmingham to press the Prime Minister to agree tough new measures to secularise schools in Muslim areas.
One said: “Michael Gove’s views are so incredibly black and white. It’s either his way or no way. He seems to think that anybody who strictly follows Islam is not really integrated.
“And he thinks anybody who holds conservative Muslim views is a bit of an extremist. He has been using Birmingham to pursue an ideological agenda that he’s had for many years.”
Mr Gove’s stance is understood to have caused unease among cabinet colleagues including the Home Secretary Theresa May and the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles.
In particular both were angry at his decision to appoint Peter Clarke, the former head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism department, to investigate the Trojan Horse claims using ministerial statutory powers. They believed they had an agreement with Mr Gove that his role should be voluntary. Ms May and Mr Gove are said to have had a number of “spats” in cabinet committee meetings.
A Downing Street source told ITV News that Mr Cameron was “keen to establish the facts” about the row.
Some in education circles are also questioning whether the problem in Birmingham is as significant as claimed by Mr Gove. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers – who is representing several Birmingham headteachers – said he did not believe the allegations had the “widespread impact that some of the stories have suggested”.
The disagreements between Mr Gove and Ms May became public today after Mr Gove appeared to brief a newspaper that the Home Office was failing to “drain the swamp” of radicalised Islam. But this prompted a furious response from the Home Secretary, who authorised the leaking of a private letter in which she appeared to blame Mr Gove for the scandal, demanding to know “why nobody [had acted]”.
One source said that part of the dispute between Ms May and Mr Gove was personal – in part fuelled by leadership ambitions. “They are trying to outwit each other and have had some real spats in the past within Cabinet, where Michael has just ripped into Theresa and has tried to set her up to look stupid.”
There was also a warning that the dispute was undoing some of the good that came out of the united response to the murder in Woolwich of Lee Rigby. An ally of Ms May said: “Woolwich was considered to be a high-water mark in terms of community involvement.
“A lot of people were very optimistic. The Prime Minister’s response was very positive until tragically the point where Michael got involved. Since then things have gone the pan. Twelve months ago was the high point but now we have a whole community that feels completely marginalised by what’s going on.”
The Home Office and Department of Education put out a statement saying: “There is no difference between the Education Secretary and the Home Secretary, who are both working energetically together to tackle the challenge posed by any form of extremism.”