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Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have always had much in common, not least their shared expression of grey-faced shock the morning after the Vote Leave triumph in the 2016 EU referendum. Both Oxford Union-presidents-turned-journalists-turned-MPs, both responsible for what Remainers remember as “the column that went wrong” of Brexit, both had a prickly relationship with Theresa May.
Despite Gove’s famous political knife crime in the subsequent Tory leadership race, Johnson actually handed him the job of Cabinet Office minister three years later when he finally got to No.10. The role was an important one, and since the 2019 election Gove has effectively been appointed Brexit secretary, in charge of sorting the nuts and bolts of the UK’s future relations with the EU.
Much closer to Dominic Cummings than Johnson, Gove still has a big role in shaping ‘the centre’ of this government even after Brexit trade phases kick in next year. But he still lacks a big spending department all of his own, and everything that comes with it. Although his admirers like to see him as on a par with Rishi Sunak in importance, the Cabinet Office will never be the Treasury.
Don’t forget too that in his first Cabinet appointments last summer, Johnson gave the plum post of foreign secretary, and the prestigious title of first secretary of state, to Dominic Raab. That title took on huge new significance when Raab became stand-in prime minister during the PM’s Covid illness. Any illusion that Gove was ‘the real deputy PM’ were shattered quite quickly.
So, maybe those Gove barbs back in 2016 - that Johnson could not “provide the leadership” or unity needed to be PM, that he wasn’t really a true believer in Brexit - have indeed never been forgotten. Johnson, after all, did provide both the leadership and unifying skills his party sadly lacked under May and then went on to win a thumping majority. Even Gove’s closest friends would struggle to argue he could have pulled off such an audacious feat as smashing the ‘Red Wall’ last December.
Today’s events confirm the rawness of their power relationship. While Gove was on the defensive in the Commons - trying to explain how Pet Passports would work next year and that Kent would not become a lorry park costing business £12.8bn in red tape - Johnson was on the offensive. Yes, just a day after Gove had appeared to contradict the PM on face coverings, Johnson put him firmly in his place on the issue.
Gove had gone on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday to declare that the wearing of facemasks should not be made mandatory. Only on Friday, Johnson had hinted at forcing the public to comply, saying “I do think we need to be stricter in insisting people wear face coverings in confined spaces”. But here was one of his senior cabinet ministers saying it should instead be a matter of “basic good manners”.
Well, compulsion is on its way, with Matt Hancock set to annouce on Tuesday that face covering will be mandatory in England from July 24. As with Brexit, Gove may have purer credentials as a libertarian unkeen on the state regulating our behaviour, but once again Johnson sees the task of getting the public on his side. Getting people out and about and driving the economy, while stressing safety, is seen by No.10 as the priority.
Today’s latest King’s College London study suggesting Covid-19 antibodies don’t last more than a few weeks, severely undermining any hope of a “herd immunity” strategy, emphasises the case for extra vigilance. Mass mask wearing could do more to clarify the government’s vague slogan “Stay Alert” than the actual slogan itself.
The expected new compulsion will be seen as another sign of Gove’s lack of clout, or that the PM never lets anyone forget who is the boss, or both. The lingering suspicion among the Cabinet Office minister’s allies will be that he is yet again being treated like a “performing dog” by another Etonian PM who sees him as not really ‘one of us’.
That was the complaint against David Cameron by Gove’s pals, back in 2014 when he was demoted from his beloved role of education secretary. The pair’s kids were at school together, Gove was the captain of their school quiz team, their families went on long walks, yet ultimately (even before their final schism over Brexit) Cameron ruthlessly plonked him in the job of chief whip, a role for which he was pretty unsuited.
At the time, Gove joked that while others talked of “demotion, emotion, locomotion” it was “exciting to be given a role at the heart of government”. And here he is again “at the heart of government” but without any real authority. The “performing dog”, given the grunt work of sorting that new Brexit arrangement of customs, borders and the Northern Ireland sell-out, may be forgiven for thinking he’s in line for his very own pet passport out of government at some point next year.
The danger is of course greater than any harm to Gove’s personal feelings. The risk is the mixed messaging, not just over the past few days but over the past few weeks, will leave the public cold when the PM wants them running hot down to the shops. Why are masks compulsory now, when there are fewer cases and deaths since lockdown started, but they weren’t at the height of the pandemic?
Sadiq Khan spent weeks calling for compulsory masks on transport before it was finally agreed. Nicola Sturgeon enforced it in Scottish shops last Friday. Yet Rishi Sunak served meals last week without one, then the PM finally wore his own £2 mask two days later. There is also the practical problem of who in shops should actually police this mask-wearing. Although police will have the power to issue fines, where does that leave security guards in supermarkets?
On the wider issue of where people should work, the confused and chaotic messaging was again evident in the past few days. Justice secretary Robert Buckland neatly summed up the problem in one interview with ITV: “The guidance is work from home if you can..That’s still there….[But] the message is, yes, come back to work.” Okayyyy.
Maybe that’s why the black and white clarity of face coverings is what appeals to No.10. Even this government can’t tell people to wear them and not wear them at the same time. Can it?
Quote Of The Day
“We in Scotland intend to take him exactly at his word, although perhaps not quite in the way he intended.”
The SNP’s Pete Wishart ridicules Michael Gove’s ‘Let’s Get Going’ Brexit slogan.
Monday Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson used a visit to London Ambulance Service to say an announcement on whether face coverings should be compulsory in shops will be made “in the next few days”.
Chris Grayling, Sir John Hayes, Stewart Hosie, Diana Johnson, Kevan Jones, Julian Lewis, Mark Pritchard and Theresa Villiers were approved by the Commons as members of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
The UK’s post-Brexit border regime will take place over three stages next year, with most businesses able to delay filling out any customs declaration forms until July. Up to 12 inspection sites will be built near ports like Dover. Labour’s Rachel Reeves warned the new red tape could cost business £12.8bn.
Labour revealed it has received the draft findings of the Equalities And Human Rights Commission’s report into anti-Semitism in the party.
Home secretary Priti Patel unveiled the new health and care visa of her points based immigration system, but sparked a row when it emerged care workers would not be included.
BT’s chief executive Philip Jansen told the BBC would be “impossible” to remove Huawei from the whole of the UK’s telecoms infrastructure before 2030.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.