I often think that if you were to wake Michael Gove up with a bucket of ice cold water, and a shout of “Michael! You’re now Secretary of State for [whichever department you might choose]”, he would be able to give a fairly good Today Programme interview on his new legislative and policy agenda about 15 minutes later, regardless of the brief in quesiton..
In part that’s because he is the owner of an endlessly curious mind – too curious, some of his Cabinet colleagues might say. Remember the occasional rows in the Cameron years when Gove would offend other ministers by offering, uninvited, his views on what their department really ought to be doing? He genuinely has given some critical thought to most parts of government, even when it isn’t his job (or place, I hear ministers mutter).
But it’s also because he is an energetic politician who believes that Government is a tool which exists to be used, and which ought therefore to be set to work in pursuit of worthwhile objectives. We saw that most famously in his years as Education Secretary, where he and his team drove through a remarkably radical reform programme largely by sheer force of determination and insistence.
He knew that he had a limited time to get things done, limited political capital with which to do it, and a pressing responsibility to countless young people who deserved a better future. So he went and did it, regardless of who was standing in his way. In assessing this revolutionary zeal, back in 2013, I called him Vladimir Ilyich Gove.
It’s fascinating to compare and contrast his performance as Environment Secretary against that background. The energy and creativity is still there; at times it seems that DEFRA is the source of a majority of new Government announcements, and he makes much of the new policy running in an administration hamstrung by its lack of a majority and greatly occupied by Brexit.
But there’s a change in tone from before. As I noted at the time of his ‘Green Brexit’ speech, he has sought to be more collaborative with the existing lobbies in the sector than he ever was during his famous days of doing battle with Blobs.
His embrace of various green causes – reducing the use of plastics, for example – and experimentation with more statist policy tools – levies, deposits and bans – displays some of the unpredictable radicalism that he has customarily used to surprise and outmanoeuvre his opponents, and there’s a strategic case that this is one of the few fields in which something pitched directly to younger voters is being successfully communicated.
But it’s fair to say some of Gove’s own supporters have also raised an eyebrow or two at times at his newfound willingness to work more with the grain of the sector he oversees, and less to bulldoze his way through. At the same time, he has not been one of the central combatants in the Brexit ‘War Cabinet’, and has been less willing than some of his fellow Brexiteers to lay out red lines and Leaver demands at the top table. Those who once tried to caricature him, unfairly, as someone trying to force absolute purity on his Party have largely had to fall silent for want of material.
So while still energetic and imaginative, he appears to have become more peaceful and less prone to conflict. What lies behind that change?
Some wonder if he has simply cooled with the experience of years of Whitehall street-fighting, perhaps still a bit bruised from the still-raw scuffles of the leadership race.
Some argue he recognises that a hung Parliament and the passage of time both reduce his capacity to simple overrule vested interests in every case, which combined with the scale of the Green Blob requires him to be more collaborative simply in order to get as much done as possible.
Others suggest this is part of a new role into which he is growing, an emergent elder-statesman position now that he is no longer a leadership candidate.
Last, but not least, among his more cynical colleagues there are also those who believe it’s a new approach aimed at refreshing his reputation and position in order to enter the next leadership race, whenever it might come. He certainly retains strong support at grassroots level – while all the noise is about the rise of Rees-Mogg, Gove has stolen into second place in our next-Tory-leader survey.
It could be any or several (or none) of the above, but a new Gove is indisputably upon us. His capacity for reinvention and innovation, even in unpicking and resetting his own approach to things, is fascinating. That attribute could yet deliver us still more surprises.