Low politics, backstabbing and spin: The tawdry inside story of the Michael Gove/Theresa May feud

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

It is a tale of low politics, vaulting ambitions, back stabbing and spin with a smattering of sex.

It should have been a story of how a modern liberal democracy deals with fundamental extremism and the Islamic infiltration of schools in Birmingham.

First of all to reassure those of a squeamish nature the sex does not involve Theresa May and Michael Gove but more of that later.

The bitter spat broke out into the open last week when Gove moved his tanks on to the lawn of the Home Office and aimed them fairly and squarely at May and her most trusted advisers over the issue of fundamentalism and her failure to deal with it. Within a matter of hours the tanks were left smouldering after the launch of a counter attack by the May brigade and the main casualty was the lack of publicity for David Cameron’s carefully prepared Queen’s speech and the unity of the Tory Party.

However, the causes of this war go back a lot further – to a speech May gave at the back end of last year in which she gave her visions of a future Conservative Party that to Gove reeked of the start of a leadership campaign.

In Cabinet, with the encouragement of some of his colleagues, he smacked her down. Despite being a friend of Cameron’s, Gove tells all that if the PM does leave office the natural successor is George Osborne. The reality is the clever, scheming Gove fancies the job himself.

May is his main opposition. She is the darling of the Tories, having deported Abu Quatada, put the Police Federation firmly in their place and is generally reckoned to be a roaring success in the Home Office.

Last week Gove saw an opportunity to strike. He is experiencing a little local trouble with his schools in Birmingham which were accused, now proved by Ofsted, of festering Islamic fundamentalism. Fortuitously, the education secretary had been invited to lunch with the hierarchy of the Times, his former employee before entering the world of politics.

Normally these affairs are sandwiches and tea, or maybe a glass of wine, and a general discourse about the minister’s department and a wider look at the world of politics. It is always expected that the politician leaves a titbit of a story but Gove went a lot further. Who knows whether he felt comfortable with his old mates and let himself go or was more calculating, but he launched an exposition blaming May and the Home Office for the root causes of his Brummie schools problem and then made the fatal mistake of naming Charles Farr, the spook with the job of reining in extremist Muslim groups.

Quite rightly the Times saw this as a big story and faithfully reported that May had failed and that her man Farr was not up to the job – and this is where the sex comes in.

Farr is in a relationship with Fiona Cunningham, one of May’s closest and most fervent advisers and Gove’s attack was a double whammy at her man and her employer.

With a speed that can only be admired, she spiked Gove’s guns by releasing a letter that had been sent to his department days before in which the Home Office had laid out in bare terms their disquiet that the education department had failed to act for years on warnings coming out of Birmingham about Islamic extremism in state schools.

Cameron had to act and within days an inquiry by the most senior civil servant Sir Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary, revealed the inside story of the May/Gove war. The prime minister, on Sir Jeremy’s recommendation, told Gove to write personal letters to May and Farr apologising for his behaviour and Cunningham was told to take a glass of whiskey and a revolver into a room and resign.

On the face of it Cunningham, an adviser who has helped her boss become a formidable politician, is the main casualty of this whole tawdry affair. Well-based rumours in the back corridors of the House of Commons suggest otherwise.

Cunningham, it is said, was on the brink of leaving and had already told May that she was departing to a well-paid PR position in the private sector long before the War of Gove’s Lunch. Now she will go with three months salary and bigger reputation as a formidable operator.

So who is the real loser? May has had her Teflon coating damaged and poor Charles Farr, the man who did nothing, will probably never realise his ambition of being head of MI5.

Michael Gove now must wish he had never agreed to lunch at the Times. He was due a promotion from education but now Cameron cannot move him to a more senior position for fear of alienating May and her supporters.

Even his chums at the Times realise his problem and say he should be moved to be in charge of the Tory manifesto for the next election. This is a long way from the job of prime minister.