‘Is there anything Gove can’t do?’. Thus reads the headline of yesterday’s Daily Mail feature on the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities.
The eventual name change is an improvement on ‘Department for the Union and Levelling Up’, which was floated last week, both because it keeps ‘housing’ nice and prominent and it avoids the suggestion of a ‘department for the Union’, which is not a great idea.
Nonetheless, he will retain command of the constitutional brief on top of new responsibilities. This has been formalised into a problematic new title: Minister for Intergovernmental Relations.
Before digging into that, it’s worth noting that the breadth of Gove’s new responsibilities is concerning. Putting meat on the bones of ‘levelling up’, fixing the housing crisis, and defending the Union are all huge challenges that warrant someone’s full-time attention. The new SoS might have earned a reputation as an energetic reforming minister, but there is danger in dissipating that energy across too many briefs.
There is also the more specific problem that the man whom the Prime Minister has entrusted with overseeing the Government’s constitutional strategy is out of step with what has, to date, been the meat of that strategy.
Boris Johnson might have disavowed his comments that devolution has been a ‘disaster’ (correct though they were), but he has driven through controversial legislation, such as the UK Internal Market Act (Ukima) and the Subsidy Control Bill, which rebuilds the British Government’s role in governing the nation, to the predictable fury of the devocrats and their intellectual outriders.
Whitehall sources suggest that Gove was one of the chief internal critics of Ukima. He has also reportedly clashed with other Cabinet ministers when trying to get the Government to seek legislative consent motions (LCMs) from the devolved legislatures for the Subsidy Control Bill. Does the new title mean he has Boris Johnson’s imprimatur to make such demands for his colleagues?
If so, it’s a new avenue for devolution to jam the mechanisms of government. If not, it’s just a recipe for more arguments.
The title also risks abetting those attempting to recast the United Kingdom as a sort of confederation. Even in actual federations, you don’t often see relationships between federal and state governments described as ‘inter-governmental relations’. The whole thrust of ‘Ukima unionism’ was about rebuilding a positive, pro-active role for the British state in every part of the country. Where is that agenda now?