There are a large number of characters from classical literature who have wielded the knife and slaughtered their own allies. Shakespeare’s plays alone produce several such charmers: Macbeth, Richard III, Cassius and Brutus spring immediately to mind. It is a reflection of modern British politics that there is a temptation to draw parallels between these wicked monsters and some of our elected politicians. You could argue that such comparisons are unfair, because even the most prolific of our virtual knife-wielders have not actually killed anyone. They have merely trashed the reputations of their colleagues with much more enthusiasm than is deemed acceptable in polite society.
But there are problems with this benign reading. The sole purpose of knifing their political colleagues, is for the assailant to scramble over the prostrate reputation of his colleague in order to clamber a little further up the greasy pole. And the purpose of doing that is simply to acquire more power. Regardless of their ruthlessness in office, some politicians manage to achieve progress in the real world and actually do a lot of good. On the other hand, some do lasting damage to the country. The trick is to find the ones which achieve good results for the country.
Michael Gove is a highly intelligent man. He is charming and courteous to a fault. He is a voracious reader and has lots of ideas. His time as Secretary of State for Education was productive whilst being marked by some controversy. He is noted for his ability to get a command of his brief very rapidly – and hit the policy statements almost on the day of his achieving office. It is widely appreciated amongst his fellow MPs that he is a subtle Machiavellian strategist. He can be a brilliant speaker when fired up and the cameras are upon him. No-one watching and listening to this speech can doubt his ability to command the heights of Parliamentary oratory. Indeed, this speech is probably Michael Gove’s finest eleven minutes. Just looking at the expression on Jeremy Corbyn’s face, whilst he is being systematically demolished by Gove, is well worth the time spent.
As a result of his undoubted talents, Michael Gove has put his name into the Conservative Party Sorting Hat as a potential leader and Prime Minister. So far, he is attracting a lot of support from his fellow MPs. It is a temptation to allow him all credit and give him the job for his magnificent speech alone. If nothing else, it would be a blessed release from the dirge-like exchanges between May and Corbyn that we are used to.
But there is just a little worry; a background hint; the tiniest question mark that Michael Gove is not the saviour the country needs to get us out of the dreadful mess that Theresa May has got us into.
The office of Prime Minister requires a considerable amount of talent. It needs the ability to be able to have swift and plausible answers to all manner of things. It requires leadership to unite a fractious Parliamentary party. Management skills are needed (along with a collegiate bent) to keep the Cabinet on course. Those indefinable qualities which require a Prime Minister to be plausible under the spotlights of a television studio are vital. Above all, it requires a considerable demand for the exercise of sound judgement and fundamental honesty. This is especially necessary at times when the country is facing new challenges. Sound judgement is a quality that Theresa May is lacking. Indeed, her time as Prime Minister and Home Secretary has been marked by a succession of extremely poor choices; all of which have been completely unforced and which have led us into the morass in which we now find ourselves.
Most British Prime Ministers have managed to run the country reasonably well. But only during a national emergency are the qualities of a Prime Minister really put to the test. The ability to lead the entire country out of a mess is a rare gift indeed. Churchill managed this during World War II, and Thatcher managed it during the Falklands crisis. Most other Prime Ministers since the war have been managerial types who have done little more than cruise until their death, resignation or eventual political defeat. The rest of the political and Civil Service establishment have simply propped them up for long enough to pass muster.
In making our choice of a potential party leader and Prime Minister, we have to weigh up our knowledge of the candidates. The abilities of a politician to perform the duties of a Prime Minister can only be guessed at, because the only true test of a Prime Minister is that of becoming one. Our judgement therefore has to fall back upon the close examination of the candidates’ performances in Parliament, their achievements in whatever offices they have held and their reputation and characters as they have progressed up the greasy pole.
In the case of Michael Gove, opinion is divided. Some journalists are enthusiastic to the point of saying that he is “too good to be our next Prime Minister”. His wife, Sarah Vine, is also enthusiastic about his Prime Ministerial qualities – and loyal to a fault, despite her misgivings over his driving abilities. From both of these hagiographies we can conclude that Mr Gove is an honourable man whose only true ambition is to save the planet from environmental disaster and plastic straws.
But we should be wary of the lavish praise of journalists and spouses in testing the qualities of our candidates. There is an uncomfortable, sometimes unhealthy, relationship between journalists and politicians. Both are dependent upon the other for publicity and this explains why so many journalists become advisors to ministers; and sometimes even become politicians themselves. Some politicians reverse the process and become journalists. Michael Gove himself used to write for The Times. Moreover – I put this as delicately as I can – Sarah Vine sleeps with Michael Gove, is the mother of his children and could be said to have an interest in the elevation of her husband.
During his time as Secretary of State for the Environment, Mr Gove has declared that this government will be the greenest government to date. This is a worthy goal, but will it be achieved?
One of his first declarations of intent was his triumphant announcement of the beginnings of a New Northern Forest. There is already a National Forest of 200 square miles in the former industrial landscape of the Midlands. However, this new forest will stretch along the M62 and connect Liverpool to Hull with a corridor of trees. All of this sounds splendid until we consider some reservations that planting new trees in positions where there have been no trees for a very long time, may actually have unintended consequences. Nevertheless, Mr Gove’s undoubted enthusiasm for this worthy cause signals his honourable intentions.
A more troublesome scheme was a licence application to introduce five adult Lynx into Kielder Forest in Northumberland. It happens that Lynx have been extinct from these islands for about 1200 to 1400 years. But an enthusiastic group decided that Lynx are just the thing to “rewild” the Northumbrian landscape. Their promises of ecological transformation fell rather flat when it was realised that Lynx do not restrict their diet to Roe deer as advertised, but will also happily take sheep as well. When sheep farmers realised what was being proposed, they strongly objected to the scheme at a public meeting held to persuade the local people of its merits. It is clear that the application by Lynx UK was an overly optimistic assessment of the potential risks posed by Lynx to sheep farming in the uplands. What is extraordinary about this little story is that the application for the licence took Michael Gove eleven agonising months to make the decision to refuse it. I am guessing, but I reckon that one of Mr Gove’s predecessors, Owen Paterson (who is a decisive and no-nonsense sort of chap) would have taken all of ten minutes to make the same decision.
The decision not to release Lynx was undoubtedly difficult for Michael Gove. Especially as there’s nothing like being seen with cuddly, fluffy animals to raise a politician’s profile. With that in mind, the rewilding lobby produced the ideal thing for Mr Gove, in the form of European Beavers. As Beavers don’t eat sheep, these were just the tonic for a photocall-starved minister. More recently, Michael Gove has burnished his green credentials by granting a licence to reintroduce Sea Eagles to the Isle of Wight. Once again, sheep farmers will be in the front line of the depredation made by these magnificent birds. Once they start to breed successfully, it is unlikely that they will confine themselves to the Isle of Wight. Just across the water is the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, which is home to many flocks of sheep. Michael Gove’s decision will have far-reaching and long term consequences.
One of the more important functions of Defra is the administration of farm payments under the Common Agricultural Policy. This function is a devolved matter and in England it is administered by the Rural Payments Agency – a quango subsidiary of Defra. For many years, the RPA has been grossly inefficient and usually late in paying famers. For example, RPA farm mapping has often failed to match up with the farmers’ own maps. The rules are increasingly complicated. Bureaucratic application of those rules are predicated upon looking for errors in the farmers’ form-filling; and to find excuses to penalise and deduct money. The situation is so bad that the EU regularly fines the UK for the failures of the RPA. Whatever your views of farm subsidies, there is no doubt that these payments are essential for farmers to continue in business. Late payments and arbitrary deductions and penalties are especially damaging to the smaller family, hill and livestock farms.
This problem still continues and Michael Gove’s arrival at Defra has done nothing to improve the competence of his Ministry.
Natural England, another sidsidiary of Defra, has been limping along for some time now. It may be that they have been squeezed for funds in Philip Hammond’s drive to cut government spending. But whatever the reason, their competence is beginning to make the RPA look like a model of efficiency.
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the control of certain pest species such as Carrion Crow, Magpie and Woodpigeon is permitted under what is termed a ‘General Licence’. In the early part of this year, a newly formed activist organisation called ‘Wild Justice’ launched a legal challenge to Natural England about the way in which these General Licences were administered. Natural England panicked and gave only a few days notice that General Licences were to be withdrawn on 25th April. This made any attempts to control those species illegal. It happened right at the time when farmers were lambing, crops were emerging and gamekeepers and other land managers were attempting to control corvids. The result was loss of lambs, huge numbers of predated nests of waders such as Lapwing and Curlew, and loss of emerging crops such as oilseed rape.
Woodpigeon damage to oilseed rape – Photo via Alamy.
The so-called conservationists who instigated this legal action at a time when it would do maximum damage to attempts minimise predation to nests, appear to be completely unconcerned with the consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, despite Natural England promising that a replacement scheme would be in place within days, at the time of writing (six and a half weeks later) Natural England has still not issued revised regulations to replace the General Licence.
Another subsidiary of Defra, the Foresty Commission, has also thrown up a story of incompetence. This one started back in 1990s with the advent of Ash die-back in Poland and Eastern Europe. Whilst the alarm was raised in the early 2000s, the Forestry Commission continued to grant licences to import ash saplings from European tree nurseries, despite the risks. As a result, Ash die-back has spread all over the UK with apalling environmental and economic consequences. Defra claim that they have instituted ‘world leading’ research into Ash die-back. But this is very, very late in coming. The research is to find ways of isolating resistant strains of trees. This is a very long term project whose results are unlikely to manifest themselves within a decade, or perhaps even two. In the meantime, approximately 90% of our Ash trees will be lost to the disease.
For some time, dating as far back as 2007, there has been the option of using fungicides upon diseased trees, or trees at risk of disease. Defra produced a list of potential products for testing. But for some reason, the possiblity of using a pesticide to halt or slow up the advance of the disease across the entire country, was dismissed. In 2018, Michael Gove met people anxious to help control Ash die-back with a novel copper sulphate compound. But the option of testing and then using a direct method of control (in much the same way as copper is used for control of fungus in vineyards etc) was emphatically rejected. Once again, it took Michael Gove months to make a decision on this. It is as if Defra (and Michael Gove) actually want to see the British countryside and its trees completely devastated.
Other ways in which ministerial judgement can be assessed by the onlooking public, is to look at ministerial appointments to committees. In March 2018, Ben Goldsmith was appointed Non-Executive Director of Defra. Ben Goldsmith is brother of Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and son of the late Sir James Goldsmith. He is also a millionaire in his own right. Ben Goldsmith happens to be a donor to the Conservative Party and Michael Gove’s own Surrey Heath constituency. His appointment to a position of influence within a ministry might therefore raise an eyebrow or two. Moreover, his appointment was overseen by Sir Ian Cheshire, who is also chairman of Ben Goldsmith’s investment firm. This story of a neat little circle of mutual backscratching is here. It should be noted that appointing a political donor to a public position is especially useful for a minister with long term plans for leadership of the Party. Conservative Party donors have considerable influence in Conservative Central HQ. This in turn ensures allies for the minister at the very centre of the party.
Ben Goldsmith’s qualifications for taking on his job at the heart of Defra appear to be that he is environmentally conscious. In fact, he is severely critical of British farmers, especially hill and sheep farmers. He is also a vocal advocate of rewilding, critic of grouse moors and has been very supportive of the scheme to reintroduce Lynx to Kielder Forest. In other words, he is opposed to many traditional forms of managing the British countryside.
Another issue with his appointment is that his business as ‘green investor’ is dependent upon the continuance of certain environmental friendly practices – as shown in this quotation from Menhaden Capital Investments:
In other words, Ben Goldsmith’s business is affected by the policies and legislation promoted by the very ministry of which he is now non-executive director. This is a clear pecuniary conflict of interest. But Michael Gove has ignored this and appointed Ben Goldsmith anyway. Whilst we may endeavour to make allowances for Michael Gove’s honourable enthusiasm for all things ‘green’, many people would describe the foregoing sequence of events as ‘corrupt’.
Appointments to public bodies and quangos are a way for ministers to influence to course of events well beyond the timespan of their own incumbency. Tony Blair was a master of this process. He appointed many Labour supporters into the heart of government influence. David Cameron did not bother to redress the balance; and Theresa May has done likewise. We are therefore still blessed with a strong Leftward lean in the way government business is conducted.
Michael Gove, as ever honourable in his intentions, has learnt the lesson and has successfully inserted members of the green ‘blob’ into Defra. Another of his appointments has been that of Tony Juniper, formerly executive director of Friends of the Earth and Green Party candidate in 2010. Tony Juniper is a lifelong green activist and arrived on his first day in office as Chairman of Natural England, to land right into the middle of the General Licence fiasco. His first Twitter statement on the subject of General Licences was “It wasn’t me”. Clearly, great things can be expected of Mr Juniper.
Overall, we are looking at a pattern of decisions from Michael Gove: Lynx, Beavers, Sea Eagles, Goldsmith and Juniper which are all pointing to an agenda which is biased towards urban sanctimony and righteousness. Conversely, his failure to get on top of tree disease, agricultural payments and the General Licence suggest a flippant disregard of those who actually work upon the land and who know how it actually works. Economic and environmental losses in the countryside are easy for a politician to cover up, because they are invisible to the majority of voters and the press. In any case, these things often only manifest themselves long after the politician’s career has moved on. When we add to these failings his application of a modern form of political simony, we are left looking at a serious loss of good judgement. Notwithstanding all this, we must still allow Mr Gove the possibility of honourable intentions.
Aside from his performance in Defra, we must consider Michael Gove’s political actions over the last three years.
First came the referendum in 2016, when he announced his support for the Vote Leave campaign. This created friction between the Cameron and the Gove families, who were otherwise very good friends. Michael Gove then campaigned vigorously for Vote Leave with Boris Johnson. The country voted to leave the EU and David Cameron resigned as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.
The ensuing competition for leadership of the Conservative Party was fascinating. Before nominations for candidates were actually received, Boris Johnson was the favourite to win. Michael Gove was expected to back him, as it was a logical extension of their Vote Leave campaign together. Gove himself repeatedly declared that he would not compete as he felt he was not Prime Ministerial material. And so things proceeded with apparent smoothness in the days leading up to the nomination of candidates. But it would appear that behind the affable façade, plots were being hatched and were growing by the day. A mere two hours before the nominations deadline, Michael Gove announced his withdrawal of support for Boris Johnson and his own candidacy. Thus, Boris Johnson had the ground shot from beneath his feet and withdrew.
Michael Gove retired early and most of his votes emigrated to Theresa May. She then accumulated sufficient votes to become favourite to win. The other front runner, Andrea Leadsom, finally capitulated – and so Theresa May swept through and took the title. Note that this meant that the membership of the Conservative Party was not given a choice. It is now clear that Gove’s tactics cleared Boris Johnson out of the way and gave Theresa May a clear run.
Two years later, all things Brexit were apparently proceeding fairly smoothly until the Cabinet conference at Chequers in early July 2018. The Department for Exiting the EU had prepared a draft agreement which they had thoroughly researched and considered that it complied with the results of the referendum. This was immediately trashed by Theresa May and Ollie Robbins, who supplied their own draft withdrawal agreement. The Cabinet voted by a majority to accept the May/Robbins draft. Michael Gove voted with Theresa May. Despite resignations from David Davis (Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) and Boris Johnson (who was by then Foreign Secretary), this draft morphed into the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’. This has since been presented to Parliament three times and has been rejected three times, because it is so bad.
There is a lingering suspicion that this huge and cumbersome document was drafted by the EU itself. Certainly, it was not drafted by Ollie Robbins and his little team over the breakfast table. It amounts to “Brexit In Name Only”. And yet Michael Gove has voted repeatedly in favour of it. His protestations of being a life-long Eurosceptic are beginning to look rather contrived. His unfailing support for Theresa May has carried Cabinet loyalty to the stretching point of his own credibility. His betrayal, at Chequers for the second time, of Boris Johnson is beginning to look like the long game of “Anyone but Boris”. This is a game which is being played by the greater part of the Parliamentary Conservative Party. The excuse which is offered on his behalf by Gove’s supporters is that he is terrified of a “No-Deal Brexit” and so will be happy to lock the country into indefinite negotiations in order to get “the right deal”. Once again, there are echoes of Theresa May – and Michael Gove’s slavish following of an agenda which smacks of the Civil Service managing a problem when they should be preparing for opportunities. Is he an honourable man, or is he a creature of his civil servants?
We are then left with asking the following questions about Michael Gove and his suitability to become Prime Minister of the fifth largest economy in the world:
- Can he make a decision about a straightforward issue, quickly and efficiently – and without sitting on them for months at a time?
- Given his abilities with straightforward decisions, can he make complex decisions in good time?
- Can he be relied upon to make appointments of people without clouding the issue with vested interests?
- Can he make a decision for the country without virtue signalling and pandering to fashionable memes?
- Is his judgement of people clear-eyed and honest?
- Can he be trusted not to resort to endless Machiavellian manoeuvres in order to promote his own ambitions?
- Can he be trusted not to betray his own colleagues?
- Can he achieve Brexit by 31st October 2019?
- Can he win a General Election for the Conservative Party and keep Jeremy Corbyn out of No. 10 Downing Street?
- Can he be trusted not to betray his own country?
Samantha Cameron is not the only person to accuse Michael Gove of “treachery”. As he bounces enthusiastically along the corridors of power, he leaves trailing in his wake a faint sulphurous whiff of betrayal. Much of the rest of the country has spotted this. Were he to win the leadership election, he would be unable to unite the rest of the country. At the next election, his intelligence and charm would be insufficient to overcome the questions which are now building up from his time in Defra.
And so the rest of the country, when asked the questions listed above, will answer an emphatic “No” to all or most of them.
Michael Gove is not suitable to become our next Prime Minister.