23 September 2021
By John Watson
In this column we have repeatedly called for Boris Johnson to replace some of the loyalists in his cabinet with people of more administrative ability, so it would be churlish not to comment when he appears to have done just that. What, then, should we say about last week’s “night of the long knives”?
We all had our “little lists” of ministers who we thought were due for the chop and the replacement of Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab came as no surprise. In both cases the thinking must have been to replace them with stronger talent. Nadhim Zahawi, the new education secretary, certainly comes with a reputation for competence and we will see how Liz Truss does at the Foreign Office.
This is all very interesting but it is not the headline point. The really important appointment is that of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. It sounds modest, doesn’t it? The department is some way down the list below the big four and carries no entitlement to the use of Chevening or any other flash country house; but don’t be fooled for a moment. By making Gove, its most energetic reformer, custodian of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, Johnson has served notice that efforts to energise the North are his central project and he will stand or fall by whether it succeeds. In the same way that a general puts his best troops in the part of the line which he thinks will be crucial so a government deploys its top man in the position which it believes that really counts.
This is certainly an appointment which puts ability above loyalty (remember the famous stab in the back) and it is politically risky for Johnson too. If it fails in the North, the administration will wholly lose momentum but if it succeeds who will get the plaudits? Johnson or Gove, the man with the lean and hungry look sitting just behind him?
A glance at Saturday’s letter page in The Times shows that the importance of this appointment has not been missed. A letter from Lord Heseltine opens by stating that he had previously advocated Gove being put in charge of devolution, and a letter from Andy Burnham, the very highly respected labour mayor of Manchester, concludes:
“While Michael Gove and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, I am encouraged by his appointment. He always brings energy and intellect to his ministerial brief. If he is ready to do the same with levelling up, then Greater Manchester is ready to help him make it happen.”
You cannot imagine a Republican saying that about a Democrat Secretary of State, can you? If Gove and Burnham work together, something very real could be achieved. Go for it, Gentlemen, the nation is agog.
Actually this isn’t the only area where the Government appears to be regaining momentum. While France was negotiating about sausages at the G7 summit, the US, the UK and Australia were putting together the AUKUS agreement under which, amongst other things, Australia will purchase from one of the other two parties at least eight nuclear powered submarines. China of course isn’t pleased at such an aggressive reaction to their increasing domination of Far Eastern waters but the French government is furious, both at having been left out of discussions and because, as a corollary of the agreement, Australia has cancelled an order to acquire diesel powered submarines from France. “Traitors” shout the French, furious for their shipyards, and one can see why they’re so disappointed. However, nuclear submarines are far more effective than their diesel equivalents so the Australian government had a choice of buying leading edge technology from America and the UK or buying a fleet from France which would already have been drifting towards obsolescence and which an enemy would blow up at the opening of hostilities. It is not hard to see how they came to the conclusion that the former was the wiser course.
Add all this together and you get a picture of movement. The Government has finally taken steps to move its attention from the pandemic and Brexit to the rest of its agenda. How successful it will be remains to be seen but at least it should make politics far more entertaining. Confrontations between Gove, anxious to spend money on his projects in the North, and Sunak, struggling to keep borrowing under control, should be like something out of Jurassic Park. Political initiatives are always nerve-wracking and the refocussing of this government promises to be no exception; but to be fair, an administration which took a cautious approach to the current crop of challenges would be fairly nerve-wracking too.