Michael Gove can’t mask the government’s incompetence

PUBLISHED: 13:22 16 July 2020 | UPDATED: 13:48 17 July 2020

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove emerges from a shop near St James's Park in Westminster, London having bought coffee and a sandwich. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove emerges from a shop near St James's Park in Westminster, London having bought coffee and a sandwich. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE on how the cabinet minister can’t make a case for a flailing government.

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Michael Gove toys with his latest mask. Illustration by Martin Rowson.Michael Gove toys with his latest mask. Illustration by Martin Rowson.

Brexit is finally back near the top of the Covid-infected news agenda and by happy coincidence BBC2’s launch of the mini-series, Mrs America, has introduced younger viewers to the redoubtable Phyllis Schlafly. Scourge of second wave feminism and a 1970s forerunner of today’s conservative populism Schlafly’s story gives audiences a glimpse of an even more topical figure in the age of casual lying: senator Barry Goldwater.

Yes, Michael Gove, at this moment I’m particularly thinking of you. Fluent and smooth-talking, famously courteous and with a friendly word for everyone, your Labour Cabinet Office shadow, Rachel Reeves (“a great person”) and trade secretary, Liz Truss (“one of my best friends in cabinet”) before making your No Border Lorry Parks statement to MPs on Monday, you even managed to squeeze in some praise for retiring union leader, Dave Prentis, as an admirable public servant.

Hardly surprising that the Reverend Gove is also the man they send out to explain away Boris Johnson’s gaffes (“taken out of context”) even when he’s muddling the message over compulsory face masks for Andrew Marr. “It’s best to trust people’s common sense,” says Mixed Messages Mike, who was snapped maskless 48 hours later. For weeks the opposition, Edinburgh and Cardiff too, begged for mask clarity from No.10. So did business, even the Institute of Directors. The WHO bemoans its absence. Only lapdog pundit and ex-MEP, Dan Hannan, argued that Brits are staying at home in vast numbers, not because they are fearful and confused, but because the government’s earlier “Stay at Home” messaging was just too brilliant.

Rugged Goldwater was a ‘libertarian’ too, just like you, Maskless Mike. He wouldn’t have worn a face mask either, they’re for commies and cissies. Any more than Boris or Dettol Don Trump would wear them. Whoops, no. Another pair of U-turns there.

“That black mask makes you look even more handsome, Mr President, just like the Lone Ranger. No, like not Johnny Depp, Sir, like the Lone Ranger. Ignore anyone who claims to remember that the 1950s TV star’s mask only covered his eyes. It’s fake news.”

Oh dear. Back in 1964 we thought the oddball senator from Arizona was a blip, not a trend when – against all expert prediction – Goldwater accidentally became Lyndon B Johnson’s Republican challenger for the White House. Unlike Donald Trump in 2016 he was comprehensively trounced by LBJ, who was (I must admit) a brutal practitioner of the darker arts of politics in progressive causes and his own. Hillary Clinton was a child by comparison, a better person but a hopeless retail politician.

Why invoke this near-forgotten right-wing hero now, Barry the Baptist to victorious Nixon (1968), to Reagan (1980) and George W Bush (2000)? Because, far worse than anyone before Trump (2016), Goldwater simply made things up, then denied having said them, even when confronted with evidence from the TV footage, the interview tape, the book he wrote himself.

The Cold War, the UN, federal infrastructure projects, the welfare state, senator Goldwater was happily for them all – until he was against them. He shrugged off his inconsistencies and the faithful never wavered.


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No wonder, Richard Rovere’s 1966 biography – a friend loaned me a copy – was called The Goldwater Caper. It reminds me of the Johnson Caper, comically chaotic Keystone Cop stuff if lives and livelihoods were not at stake. In 2019 Boris was lucky enough to face only Jeremy Corbyn, not Lyndon (No Relation) Johnson. A corrupt politician less pious than Jezza, but one who did a great deal to raise the condition of poor Americans, black and white, before sinking in the Vietnam quagmire inherited from Jack Kennedy. As long ago as April the Covid quagmire claimed more American lives than the 60,000 US military personnel killed in Vietnam (at least one million Vietnamese died too). Our own abject management of the crisis now puts Britain’s Covid-related death toll close to that level. This week’s estimate from the Academy of Medical Sciences suggests that, if a Covid second wave combines with a cold winter and bad seasonal flu, 120,000 more may die here. That’s edging towards Second World War levels.

Yet the plan to exit the EU’s single market and customs union on December 31 – with or without a trade deal, Australian or Canadian variety – moves jerkily forward as if everything is under control and for the best of all possible worlds. Gove is the frontman for what unkind critics might call Project Complacency. Three times already this week he has set out his stall, on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, in that Commons statement on Monday and in a Sunday Telegraph article whose sunny optimism was reinforced by fantasy “Rishi tax cuts” headlines – though not on the gloomy business pages.

If we set aside the painful details of the 206-page Border Operating Model document for business to worry about – and it does worry about 215 million annual customs declarations and a £7 billion bill – the article best sets out Gove’s position, untainted by uppity questions from Andy Marr, Rachel Reeves or those pesky Scot Nats. From its opening proposition to its final three-word flourish (“Let’s Get Going” is very Cummings) it is an astonishing piece of cheek. Try this: “Leaving the EU is a bit like moving house. Instead of being lodgers under someone else’s roof we are moving to a new place in the world where we’re in control… the reasons for moving are stronger than ever.”

Sorry, but the housing analogy is dead on arrival. We weren’t EU tenants. Britain was an owner occupier with a share of the freehold, a common arrangement. And we’re not moving anywhere, though Brexit enthusiasts like James Dyson and Ineos’s Jim Ratcliffe have that luxurious option. Totalitarian China’s control of Huawei always posed a strategic risk. Tuesday’s undignified U-turn on its 5G kit at Washington’s insistence shows that being ‘in control’ is illusory in a world of big blocs. And the global environment, politically nationalist and economically protectionist, is far more ominous than in 2016. Brace yourself for retaliation.

“Taking back control means we can put in place the right measures for our Covid recovery. TBC means we can spend the money we send to Brussels on our own priorities… the NHS, spreading opportunities more equally and strengthening our Union. We can build a new partnership with our European neighbours and develop new economic partnerships across the world.”

Wow! Where to start? Not even Dan Hannan can blame the EU for our “Covid recovery” failings which will devour any money notionally saved from EU budget for many years. We reportedly spent £15 billion on emergency PPE masks and aprons, £10 billion on track-and-trace. “Strengthening our Union” sits ill with the new Irish Sea customs border (details shortly) and poor Covid coordination with Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh where support for iScotland has reached 54%. Whitehall is further alienating the regions by grabbing repatriated state aid powers – and much else – to itself. Those “new economic partnerships” (there are more than 20 small ones in the can) will depend on first sorting out a deal with the EU – as otherwise upbeat Turks quietly admitted this week.

“The deal the PM struck last year and which the country backed in the election ensured we left the EU in January and means we can look forward with confidence to the end of the transition on December 31. But… we need to make sure that all the practical arrangements for our new future are in place.”

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Actually Brexit hardliners are busy moving the goalposts again. The usual suspects, Bakers, Cashes, Francois, rebadged as the Centre for Brexit Policy, most of whose MPs supported only three days of discussion on the withdrawal bill and voted for it anyway, this week declared it a “poison pill”. They issued a long list of changes (check their website) which they want, to make Boris’s deal “sovereignty compliant”. They appear to think it is a unilateral matter for Britain. But those practical arrangements Gove invokes require the consent of others and greater international solidarity than is currently visible.

“That’s why we’re investing £705 million to make sure our borders are ready for full independence… on January 21 2021…. and lay the foundations for the world’s most effective border by 2025.”

Why does it always have to be a world-beating border when North Korea has such a head start? Did Leave voters ask to spend £705 million on a locally-unpopular lorry park to be suddenly sprung on Ashford in Kent for imports and export bottlenecks? Or for lots of extra staff to police the border and check the paperwork you promised wouldn’t be needed ? No, they didn’t.

“Modernising our borders means we can introduce a migration policy that ensures we’re open to the world’s best talent… scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs, the very best NHS professionals… (but not) organised crime and other security threats.”

Did Gove know that Priti Patel was poised to exclude the health workers most urgently needed from her points-based, £20k-salary-floor points system – the 120,000 care working vacancies that exist already? Yes. She didn’t have the guts to face MPs, as Gove did, but presumably she told colleagues. The theory is that Rishi Sunak will incentivise the training and (higher) pay of growing numbers of unemployed
Brits to do this difficult work, though this year’s arduous fruit-picking season offers little comfort. Let’s hope they’re right and that only drug cartels and jihadis are deterred by the fall in sterling as the economy struggles to recover.

“Alongside the investment we are making in infrastructure we’re also launching a major new information campaign.”

That sounds like the easy bit. Team Johnson is good at slick PR launches, even if they don’t quite fit the realities on the ground. As Covid PR has repeatedly reminded us, ministers have often been late and chaotic in both messaging and policy substance. But there is a website gov.uk/transition to help business and citizens cope with the challenges 52% of referendum voters signed up for. When I checked there was advice on travel insurance (I’m afraid the loss of the European health card is going to cost us proper money) but Brits living in Spain will have to wait until those Frost/Barnier talks end to know where they stand. Ditto business. “Sign up for emails,” we’re advised. Good oh. But no, your pet won’t easily go to France again.

“Helping firms to adjust will enable them to more easily access the new opportunities being an independent nation will bring, such as those presented by trade deals with the Japan, Australia, NZ and other growing Pacific economies, as well as deeper ties with North America…”

As we should all know – but don’t if we read most newspapers or watch TV news – most of the above depend on how the UK resolves its EU talks, as they repeatedly explain. But the biggest “Pacific economy” is China and it’s now mightily cross over Huawei.

As for the US, even if Trump loses in November – by no means assured – the US will strike a hard bargain. Comforting thought?

The lethargic UK telecoms industry and its hapless ministerial overlords are quite capable of fouling up our existing 4G comms even without having to unpick 20 years of Huawei software. No need for cyber warfare, Mr Xi, leave the blackout to us and those Tory backbench rebels. They love feeling important and are already moving goalposts they planted themselves.

Tory nationalists need a new enemy in case voters tire of blaming the EU. You’ll do.

“We’re negotiating hard to get the best possible trading relationship with the EU, but we won’t back down on the essential principles the country voted for when we chose to leave.”

This is jaw-dropping cynicism from a practised cynic, the sly smirk which accompanies the eloquently evasive answer gives the game away. The country didn’t vote to leave the single market or customs union, Gove knows that perfectly well. It rejected Theresa May’s hard Brexit manifesto in 2017 and voted for Boris in 2019 because he’s a better liar, Jeremy Corbyn was a nitwit and they wanted to move on. Didn’t Johnson tell them he had an “oven ready deal”?

Rachel Reeves’ jokes are less polished than Govey’s, she’s an economist, not a columnist. But her quip about Boris not even remembering to turn on the oven is one she should keep repeating. Women voters will get it, even if the blokey team which dominates the cabinet and No.10 machine may not.

In a rare outburst even novice columnist, George Osborne, complained this week that public trust and
solidarity, so evident at the start of the lockdown, has faded. So much so the mask wearing among the English is exceptionally low.

The sacked chancellor says the rot started with Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle eye test. Score-settling aside, it serves to remind a new generation of ministers that, once lost, trust is hard to retrieve. The Brexit zealots have had four years to devise the plan it should have drafted ten years before. Instead it waits for others to come up with something, then says it isn’t good enough. With just five months left, it’s finally Johnson’s turn to get the treatment.

Michael Gove puts a gloss on what is basically palliative care, the Brexit pathway. A snappy three word slogan if “Let’s Get Going” flops, Mixed Mike? How about “Get a grip”?

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