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LONDON — Boris Johnson is putting his political chips on his former nemesis, Michael Gove.
Plagued by the fallout from Brexit, and consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the prime minister has turned to the former Times journalist and long-time Cabinet minister to make his “leveling up” rhetoric a reality. Oh, and he’d like Gove to save the United Kingdom from being broken up too.
In some corners of Downing Street, and more widely in Westminster and Whitehall, it’s become conventional wisdom that the Brexit-backing former education secretary is the man to turn to to get things done.
Even political opponents have warm words. Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham told a fringe event at last week’s Labour Party conference Gove was “good news” for leveling up — Johnson’s vaguely-defined promise to crack the long-standing problem of unequal funding across different regions of the U.K.
A fortnight on from the prime minister’s mid-term reshuffle, Gove is settling into a new super-ministry — the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities — and has been given the swanky new title of Minister for Intergovernmental Relations.
Certainly, Gove can talk a good game. He is often the minister sent out by No. 10 in a crisis to cooly defend a policy disaster or government screw up on the morning media round.
It’s that ability to turn the narrative to his advantage that partly explains his place at the heart of Johnson’s government, despite knifing the current PM in the back during a post-referendum leadership race.
But is his reputation for shaking up departments and pushing through radical policies actually justified? Colleagues, as well as current and former civil servants, question how much impact he has really had after more than a decade at the highest levels of government. And some ask whether his political star would have shone so brightly if the government was more blessed with ministerial talent.
Gove declined a request to comment.
A government official said of the criticism: “This is lazy revisionism. Across the political spectrum, Gove is widely acknowledged as one of the best departmental ministers of recent decades. His record at Education, Justice and Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] speaks for itself.”
And they added: “The PM has recognized this by appointing him to a new super department and asked him to lead the government’s central mission to level up every corner of the United Kingdom.”
Education, education, education
It was in Gove’s first role as education secretary under the former Prime Minister David Cameron that he really got his reputation for pushing through radical change — sometimes against the reluctance of civil servants.
Working with the now notorious former Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings, Gove brought in sweeping reforms to the education system, taking many more schools from local authority control to be run by more autonomous academy trusts, directly funded by central government.
He also pushed through major reforms to qualifications and funding, and launched the “free school” program — a policy whereby parents or teachers could set up their own schools creating around half a million new school places.
David Laws, who was an education minister under Gove — albeit from Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats — said Gove had “impressive traits.”
“I think certainly what he sets out to achieve within the departments [he runs] he genuinely tends to achieve,” Laws said.
But Laws, who is now head of the Education Policy Institute think tank, questioned whether “the changes are achieving the things that [Gove] would want them to achieve.”
“Actually, by the time we left the department about one in three academies were in a state of concern in relation to their performance, according to the DfE’s [the Department for Education’s] own data,” Laws said.
He cited the mixed results of mass academization to improve schools. “While there are some great academy chains, overall academy and local authority groups of schools tend to have quite a similar performance. So some of the changes he’s presided over, I think have not had the radical impacts that he would have hoped for and expected,” Laws said.
Gove, who was moved from education amid concerns he had become a hate figure for teachers, bolstered his reputation in his next two big departmental jobs.
As justice secretary and lord chancellor, Gove got “a lot of the judges and legal Twitter on-side” with warm words on rehabilitation and the justice system, according to one former civil servant who was working in government at the time.
But the ex-official believes Gove “did little in the way of actual reform, simply applying his strong rhetorical skills to tell a story about justice.” That was mainly due to his short tenure. He was in post for just over a year before the EU referendum brought the Cameron government to an abrupt halt.
Gove’s supporters, however, argue he set a number of important reforms in motion, including redesigning prison education, giving governors more control, selling off Victorian prisons like Holloway and introducing sobriety tags to keep criminals off alcohol.
Theresa May brought him back into government as minister responsible for the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs after the disastrous 2017 general election in which she lost her majority.
Here it was a similar story: Gove maintained that “cherishing” rhetoric, said the former civil servant.
At the time of his departure from Defra in July 2019, George Monbiot, an environmentalist who writes for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper, found himself shocked to be mourning Gove’s departure, branding him the best environment secretary Britain’s had “for decades.”
The editor of Farmers Weekly Andrew Meredith observed that Gove had artfully capitalized on rising public interest in environmental affairs on his arrival in the department — one that is often seen as a political backwater.
Consultations and announcements on banning plastic straws and ending the ivory trade mean that “even the most strident environmental lobbyists” found themselves “agreeing with a startling amount of what an arch Tory was saying,” Meredith wrote. Even the farming unions were “quietly delighted by the improved status of the department, despite the failure to fix long-term rot at the RPA [Rural Payments Agency] and Natural England.”
But, like his time at the MoJ, Meredith pointed out that Gove left “incomplete nearly everything he has set in motion.”
Gove’s supporters stress that plenty can be attributed to his tenure. They point to the subsequent Agriculture Act, which replaced the system of EU subsidies with payments taking the broader public good into account. They say the recent Environment Bill; Defra’s 25-year environment plan; its air quality plan; and new food labeling laws can all be attributed to Gove’s time at the top.
One of the leading advocates for Brexit, Gove captured the Brexiteer mood during the 2016 referendum campaign with his assertion that “people have had enough of experts” getting it “consistently wrong” — earning him ridicule and disdain from Remainers.
In his most recent role at the Cabinet Office, he has had a big role in handling — and spinning — the fallout from the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU as well as coordinating the government’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
In the event, that plan was not needed because of the Christmas Eve deal last year between London and Brussels to avoid a cliff-edge departure. But Katy Hayward, a fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank, and an expert on the implications of Brexit on Northern Ireland, said Gove’s preparations were inadequate.
While grace periods on new checks for businesses negotiated in the lead up to the withdrawal were “very helpful,” they were not enough in themselves. “Obviously, we’ve seen the consequences of that, in that the grace periods have been unilaterally extended now.”
She added: “It was a delivery of sorts, but it is always about confronting the reality of the challenge here, and then the sort of the nice presentation of it, or the polishing of it, that Gove tends to do rather than actually engaging with the enormity of the changes that are required, and he didn’t necessarily do that.”
Gove was initially given the job of co-charing the joint committee set up to oversee the implementation, application and interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement and in particular the delicate Northern Ireland protocol — something his supporters are at pains to point out he did not negotiate himself.
Gove did build a relationship with European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič which was “quite a constructive one,” according to Hayward. But he had little opportunity to make an impact before being replaced by David Frost.
“That would be the only thing I could really point to [in terms of delivery.] Possibly that’s as much as could have been expected,” she said.
Levers of government
Gove’s most recent time in the Cabinet Office has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, with his department coordinating the response across government.
His individual performance may be hard to assess until the public inquiry that Johnson has promised. But the U.K. had one of the worst death rates in the world with around 160,000 deaths attributed to the disease to date.
Laws, the former ministerial colleague in DfE, agreed it was hard to judge Gove’s performance given the low visibility of the Cabinet Office role. “We don’t entirely know what his influence has been on both [COVID-19 and Brexit preparations] because what we have tended to see is the result of collective decisions across government [that] other big figures may have been involved in.”
While there were reports Gove repeatedly argued in favor of tough lockdown measures to protect the National Health Service, Laws points out it’s “difficult to be certain” as “most of those discussions are private in government.”
“There’s a sense he’s had quite a big influence, but it’s much less easy to discern,” he said of Gove. “And I think, probably more frustrating for him, because I think he’s a better person on the pitch with a cricket bat, with the crowd watching him — not working away in the dressing room helping other players to limber up and play their game. I think it must have been a slightly frustrating time to be in a very important job, but one that’s largely behind the scenes.”
The politically difficult issue of requiring COVID certification to attend events was also part of Gove’s remit. But a current Cabinet Office official is skeptical about Gove’s performance on the issue: “Is he very good or does he just surround himself with yes men and taskforces?”
The same official was equally skeptical of Gove’s work on countering pro-independence sentiment in Scotland. “How many Union taskforces and units have we had, and where is the plan for the Union?” they asked.
Opinion poll data shows Scotland is still almost evenly divided on the question of independence, although No is narrowly ahead of Yes in most recent polls — and the pro-independence Scottish National Party was denied a majority at elections earlier this year despite predictions to the contrary.
While Gove’s record may be mixed, and in some cases untested, even the skeptics say they can see why Johnson turned to him.
“I think he would be a big beast in any post-war Cabinet,” the first former civil servant quoted above said.
“This is not a Cabinet of titans. We all know the reasons for that. The need for Brexiteers, a loss of talent in 2019. But I think it would be an unusual PM who didn’t make room for Gove. Given his political talents, it is a risk not having him,” they said.
Esther Webber contributed reporting.