Political nemesis to indispensable ally: Michael Gove is now arguably the most important minister in Boris Johnson’s government.
LONDON — One of the many lessons of British politics over the last decade is not to write off Michael Gove.
The longest-surviving member of the British Cabinet has been variously promoted and demoted by David Cameron, sacked from Cabinet altogether by Theresa May before later being invited back, and now occupies a key position in Boris Johnson’s top team despite sabotaging his boss’ first run for Tory leadership immediately after the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Gove’s turbulent career now includes more years of top-level governing experience than any member of Johnson’s Cabinet, including the prime minister himself and many of the civil servants running Whitehall departments. Along the way he has proved his ability to deliver tangible — albeit sometimes divisive — policy changes at the departments for education, justice and environment.
It was this experience, officials say, that persuaded Johnson he needed him in his team and he was duly handed oversight of the Cabinet Office, responsible for coordinating the delivery of the prime minister’s policy agenda.
Despite his reputation as Westminster’s great political plotter and maneuverer, his current position of strength was not achieved by the art of a Machiavel, officials said. More of Mr. Fixit.
“One of the reasons why Boris Johnson has looked to Michael Gove to lead that is because he clearly trusts him to get it done and to make changes happen” — Alex Thomas, director at the Institute for Government think tank
“No. 10 appreciate his ability for detail and decision-making,” said one Whitehall official familiar with relations between No. 10 and the Cabinet Office. “Despite the ups and downs, he is somebody they fundamentally trust. Regardless of politics, personal issues, being in or out of favor — fundamentally he can do the job.”
Relations between No. 10 and the Cabinet Office are also enhanced by the Cummings factor. The keystone of Johnson’s Downing Street, chief adviser Dominic Cummings, was Gove’s aide (from 2007 to 2014) long before he worked for Johnson, and the two remain close.
As the Johnson administration prepares to reassert itself after heavy criticism of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, Gove, along with Cummings and the popular new young Chancellor Rishi Sunak, sense an opportunity not just to push through policy changes but also to rewire how the British state functions.
Much of the thinking underpinning this sweeping ambition for change has its roots in Gove and Cummings’ experience running education, which was then given political potency by the Vote Leave campaign, where all the current leading figures came together. Diagnosing a “gulf” between the people “who run government departments” and the public they serve, Gove this weekend promised the “structure, ambition and organization” of the British state must change.
Gove’s favorite saying is about to become a maxim for every official in the U.K. government: “It’s later than you think, action this day is required.”
In an 8,000-word speech on Saturday, Gove set out a manifesto for the Johnson, Gove and Cummings approach to governing. While the prime minister is expected to outline his new policy agenda Tuesday, Saturday’s speech by Gove contained the blueprint for delivery.
At the heart of the reform will be what Gove called “rigorous and fearless” internal scrutiny of the effectiveness of government actions. Work to deliver that scrutiny — via a new committee structure and a more important role for the government’s network of non-executive directors — is already underway.
The urgency of “action today” will be instilled via new “operations” committees — chaired by Cabinet ministers and modeled on the daily cross-government meetings Gove chaired last year on no-deal Brexit preparations.
The model was deployed again earlier this month to sure-up the government’s widely-criticized coronavirus response and will now be replicated across several policy areas, officials said.
While the prime minister will chair “strategy” Cabinet committees to set the direction, ministers will follow the Gove mold and chair “operations” committees in each policy area, tasked with holding Whitehall departments to account and ensuring the prime minister’s priorities don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy.
Personnel changes are also coming. The first saw the civil service’s top official, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill — a Theresa May appointee — confirm on Sunday he will leave his role in September. Another major appointment is due this summer that will reinforce the new scrutiny Whitehall departments are under — that of government lead non-executive (or lead NED).
Typically an establishment figure from the world of business (the outgoing lead NED, appointed in 2015 by David Cameron, is Barclays chair Ian Cheshire) the expectation among officials is that Johnson — advised by Gove and Cummings — will instead select someone well-versed in politics and government, and sympathetic to this Brexiteer administration’s goals.
“Why do I think of Star Wars? The master and the apprentice” — Government official
The new cross-government position is likely to be modeled on the job being done by former Labour MP and Vote Leave co-convenor Gisela Stuart, who has already taken on the lead NED role within Gove’s Cabinet Office; hired to provide robust feedback on what the department is getting wrong and how it can better serve No. 10’s policy aims.
“We know it’s a government that wants to reform and to some extent revolutionize the way government works,” said Alex Thomas, a former director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs under Gove, and now a director at the Institute for Government think tank. “One of the reasons why Boris Johnson has looked to Michael Gove to lead that is because he clearly trusts him to get it done and to make changes happen. We can expect to see increased challenges to the civil service, its effectiveness and ability to deliver.”
“It was striking even before the coronavirus crisis hit just how broad and significant was Michael Gove’s range of responsibilities,” said Thomas. “[He was entrusted with] Brexit implementation; the constitution and government reform, any one of which would be a significant remit for a minister. Now he’s added to that a central role in the pandemic response. The breadth of those responsibilities is very striking.”
Fingers in many pies
Much of Gove’s speech on Saturday appeared to reflect Cummings’ priorities, including the focus on bringing in diverse skillsets to Whitehall (“we need to ensure more policy makers and decision-makers feel comfortable discussing the Monte Carlo method or Bayesian statistics”) as well as its overall assessment of the current political moment as one akin to the 1930s, requiring a radical change in the relationship between government and the governed.
“He and Dom are still very much allied,” the government official said, while noting that Gove’s relationship with Johnson is also strong — despite their history.
Ties between No. 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury are also close. Cummings heaped praise on new Chancellor Sunak in a call with government special advisers last week, while Gove is also said by officials to be in lockstep with the young minister who was something of a protégé from Vote Leave days.
“I see a lot of synergy between the two,” the government official said of the Gove-Sunak relationship, noting that while Gove’s leadership ambitions are probably over following two failed attempts at the top, Sunak’s are alive and well. “If you are very helpful to the next potential leader, that won’t do you any harm,” the official said. “Why do I think of Star Wars? The master and the apprentice.”
The scope of Gove’s role looks set to grow further still. His brief includes constitutional reform and safeguarding the union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — issues that will soon come to the fore, as the end of the Brexit transition period ushers in contentious new rules governing trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. Meanwhile Scotland faces an election to its national parliament in May that could give First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a mandate for a second independence referendum.
Hot on the heels of Brexit, coronavirus and Whitehall reform, the union could be the story of 2021. Once again, the minister at the heart of it will be Michael Gove.
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Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/michael-gove-british-cabinet-boris-johnson/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication