Michael Gove
Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for EducationReuters

UK Education Secretary Michael Gove is at the centre of a row over the alleged Tory politicisation of public bodies. The controversy threatens to embroil prime minister David Cameron and spark one of the most serious coalition splits to date.

After it was announced that Gove had sacked Labour peer Sally Morgan as head of the independent schools inspectorate, Ofsted, it was claimed the government was blatantly placing Tory supporters into key positions before the general election.

Gove's deputy, Liberal Democrat David Laws, was so opposed to the move he let it be known he was "absolutely furious" over Morgan's sacking and would oppose it every step of the way.

Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has raised the whole issue of appointments to public bodies with cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Hayward.

Meanwhile, deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman claimed the government had "a problem with women" and was failing to put any women in top posts.

There were persistent claims, denied by Gove, that Cameron was behind the move and that they were lining up Tory donor and Department of Education board member Theodore Agnew for the job.

Gove's rows with Ofsted over reform
Gove's decision not to renew Morgan's three-year contract came after he was involved in a series of rows with Ofsted over his radical education reforms, recently over allowing free schools to employ unqualified teachers.

The body's senior figure Sir Michael Wilshaw has also accused Gove of briefing against the organisation in an attempt to undermine its credibility.

The education secretary has flatly denied his decision to remove Morgan was political and claimed he had appointed her in the first place. Any decision on a replacement, he said, would be based on merit.

But the move was seen in Westminster as the latest high-profile and potentially divisive move in a campaign to bring key public bodies under Tory control as the election approaches, in order to help drive the Conservative agenda and avoid controversy.

Tories have replaced Labour figures at the BBC, English Heritage, the Charity Commission and the Arts Council as well as in key positions in the NHS.

Downing Street, on the other hand, has insisted that the government has a record of appointing Labour figures such as Alan Milburn, as social mobility tsar, Baroness Amos at the UN and Lord Hutton to review pensions.

There is nothing new in sitting governments appointing supporters to public bodies and Labour did more than its fair share. However, Cameron once made great play of the fact he would operate a less political system.

It is feared, with the general election approaching, that this policy has been reversed and there is a desire to avoid opposition to key reforms in areas like health and education by placing supporters in key jobs.

Morgan claimed: "There is an absolutely determined effort from Number 10 that Conservative supporters will be appointed to public bodies."

But Gove told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "From time to time you need to refresh the person who is head of a particular public body in order to bring a new pair of eyes to bear."

Morgan, he said, was a "brave and principled person" who had "done a really good job".

However, he refused to rule out the job going to a Tory such as Agnew, saying the job would be allocated purely on merit.

Speaking on the same programme, Harman said: "There is a common denominator here. My concern is we have a cull of senior authoritative women all being replaced by men."

What makes this appointment so sensitive is the reforms Gove is pushing. Most recently he has called for tests for four-year-olds, flexible school holidays and a new, disciplinarian approach in classrooms.

His wider reforms on free schools and the curriculum have already led to accusations that he is trying to take schools back to the 1950s and have met with opposition, including from Ofsted.

Gove has a reputation for bulldozing aside criticism and even, in some quarters, of encouraging negative briefings against opponents.