Part of the charm of Michael Gove is that one never quite knows what he is going to do next. He was not expected to become, as we learned yesterday afternoon, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.
At first glance, this looks like a disappointment. He has not been appointed to one of the great offices of state, either the Home Office, for which he lobbied hard, or the Foreign Office.
At second glance, he has been handed a portfolio where he will have more scope for creative reform than would have been the case in either of those departments.
The perilous issue of planning, imbued with decisions taken in the late 1940s and tensions between the haves and the have-nots, falls to him to resolve.
Are the Conservatives the party of One Nation, or just of the propertied classes, who believe that aspects of the status quo which favour them must be preserved?
This question of national unity runs through other aspects of his brief, mentioned specifically in the notice of his appointment:
“He takes on cross-Government responsibility for levelling up. He retains ministerial responsibility for the Union and elections.”
One of the dangers of the reshuffle was that responsibility for the Union would be forgotten or downplayed. It has not been: it remains in the hands of a Scot who is a passionate and knowledgeable Unionist.
Gove understands the paradox, recently expounded on these pages by Paul Goodman, that the Union depends on making a success of localism.
So does levelling up: it cannot become a synonym for the tepid egalitarianism with which after the Second World War an over-mighty centre sought to justify its power.
Local prosperity, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, cannot be attained by pulling levers in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.
Mayors can convene local leaders and enlist local energies in a way that ministers cannot. Westminster and the rest have long tried to do far too much, and have undermined local pride and initiative.
Levelling up must not mean imposing uniformity from Whitehall, as so often happened after 1945, with the great industries of the United Kingdom, and its great towns and cities, subjected to the dead hand of central control.
The United Kingdom will flourish best when its constituent parts are free, and no minister is more likely to rejoice in freedom, and in its corollary, variety, than Gove.
Consider this striking passage:
“An exotic background has never been a barrier to success in the Tory Party. Although it is supposedly the party of patriots, and of the family, the leaders it has selected include a Jew, a bachelor, a woman, a Canadian, an American and a clutch of unsuitable Scots.
“Of its historic hierarchy of influences and great names, Burke was in origin an Irish Whig, Disraeli a Jewish adventurer, Churchill half-American and wholly promiscuous in his party allegiance, Bonar Law and Macmillan were both of colonial stock, Heath was the unmarried son of a Broadstairs builder, Thatcher a grocer’s daughter, and John Major the son of a circus trapeze artist who faced financial ruin, and whose forebears lived in America. They may all have had hearts of oak but none was a prototypical John Bull.”
These paragraphs are taken from Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right, published in 1995 and written by Gove.
Several points at once emerge. One detects in the as yet obscure young author – he was 28, and working as a reporter on the Today programme – a certain impudent brio; a delight in the knowledge that improbable outsiders have often risen to the leadership of the Tory Party; and a willingness to take the risk of backing, in Michael Portillo, what turned out to be the wrong horse.
Not that it was by any means clear in 1995, or for many years afterwards, who was the right horse, let alone the Right horse.
Gove himself ran, in the Conservative leadership elections of 2016 and 2019, as one of the Right horses, and on both occasions finished third.
The term “obscure” had long since ceased to apply. The nation has recently rejoiced to see some grainy footage of him dancing in an Aberdeen night club.
He has served longer in the Cabinet than any other minister, and since the summer of 2019 has been responsible, as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, for a bewildering range of important tasks.
Whenever a tricky problem was in the news, Gove was as likely as not to be asked to tackle it. On Tuesday of this week, he was put in charge of the task force charged with sorting out problems in the supply chain.
An old friend says of him:
“He is now a true man of affairs – a man of business, more than ideology. He is now unfazeable – there is nothing anyone in the blob can do to faze him. He is wiser, but also sadder.”
No parliamentarian has a more abundant gift for raising Tory spirits. His winding-up speech on 19th January 2019, delivered at a low point in the fortunes of the Theresa May government, still provokes a kind of incredulous laughter at the sheer rudeness, and accuracy, of the ridicule he poured on Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.
Gove put fresh heart into despondent Tory footsoldiers by showing them that despite the disconcerting processes of modernisation, despite every concession made by their party to the spirit of the age, an old-fashioned Oxford Union speech still has its place in the Tory armoury.
A ministerial colleague says of him:
“He is very brilliant, kind, thoughtful and intelligent – one of the most amusing people in politics, and one of the politest. From what I’ve been saying, you’d think he was a saint. The flaw is that he is still at heart a student politician – he loves the mechanisms of power, which stops him being able to do the great things he might do.”
During the Conservative leadership election of 2016, Gove knifed Boris Johnson: an act which in a student election might have enabled the assassin to seize the crown, but which in the glare of national publicity looked unforgiveable.
And yet he was soon forgiven; was brought back by May as Environment Secretary to strengthen the Government after the debacle of the 2017 general election; and has been treated by Johnson with magnanimity.
David Cameron could not find it in himself, when he published his memoirs, to be magnanimous about Gove’s decision to back the Leave side in the EU Referendum:
“One quality shone through, disloyalty. Disloyalty to me and, later, disloyalty to Boris.”
A friend of Gove says:
“Cameron treated him more harshly than Boris Johnson. There was a class element – Michael owes so much to us, we made him. But they didn’t make him. He’s a bloody talented bloke. And it’s a myth that he lied to Cameron. Michael always was a Brexiteer. He didn’t fess up because he knew it would be an unbearable clash.”
Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, from whom recently to his sorrow he has parted, had become good friends of David and Samantha Cameron.
Yet in many ways, Gove has more in common with Johnson. Both of them delight in using humour to subversive effect, and both have a gift for spotting and encouraging talented people.
They like being surrounded by very clever advisers, and have known each other for a long time. Dominic Cummings was Gove’s accomplice long before he came to work for Johnson, and the same is true of such figures as Simone Finn and Henry Newman, still at the heart of the Downing Street machine.
Gove was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, taken into care, and adopted at the age of four months by Ernest and Christine Gove. They sent him to Robert Gordon’s College, where he blossomed into an accomplished debater, and from which he won a place to read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.
He at once recognised the brilliance of Johnson, three years older than him, and backed him to become President of the Oxford Union. Gove went on to win that distinction himself, and proceeded to make his way in journalism, ascending to a high level on The Times and winning the esteem of Rupert Murdoch.
In 2005, he entered the Commons as MP for Surrey Heath and a member of the gilded Notting Hill set, clustered round the new leader of the party, David Cameron.
He became shadow Minister for Housing, and soon afterward shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the somewhat authoritarian title conferred by Gordon Brown on Ed Balls.
Gove was now senior to Johnson, who had entered the Commons in 2001, but had suffered various disasters at the end of 2004, realised he was going to get nowhere much at Westminster as long as Cameron was leader, and went off to run for Mayor of London.
Cameron protected Gove during the expenses scandal of 2009 (when Gove was found to have ordered a number of expensive items from a shop owned by the Tory leader’s mother in law), and after the election victory of 2010 made him Education Secretary.
In that post Gove won his spurs by taking on and defeating the educational Establishment, but by 2014 he had become so unpopular with teachers that Cameron moved him to the post of Chief Whip.
After the Conservative victory of 2015 Gove was appointed Justice Secretary, a role in which he won golden opinions. The following year he broke with Cameron by backing Vote Leave, a decision which paved the way for Johnson to come out as a Leaver.
Perhaps someone will one day write a joint biography of these two statesmen. For the success of Johnson’s domestic agenda, his ability to demonstrate progress in the fields of housing, levelling up and defending the Union, now depends to a great extent on Gove.