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17 Sep 2021

Politics and Society

By far the most intriguing move (from a policy perspective at least) in the reshuffle was the new brief for Michael Gove. He leaves the Cabinet Office and the grand title of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for what would normally be regarded as the backwater of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG – a rebrand may be in the offing). He takes with him, in what Whitehall officials might term a ‘miniMOG’ change, the Cabinet Office team that coordinate with the devolved governments.

While it is clear that Liz Truss has been promoted, and that Dominic Raab has been demoted, commentators are divided on what to make of the Gove move in political terms – is it up? Down? Or sideways? Personalities are always the lens through which the first ‘hot takes’ on cabinet moves come. But the key question on this move is whether it will make any difference on policy.

Robert Jenrick’s tenure at MHCLG was tainted by the whiff of dubious decisions: his quashed planning decision at Westferry, where he gave approval against official advice to a (relatively small) Conservative donor, and the perception of political bias in the distribution of some of the Towns Fund cash from his department.

Meanwhile his flagship planning reforms were blamed for the loss of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, and were already being watered down in the light of opposition from the  government backbenches.

The decade of austerity, combined with the pandemic, has exhausted local authority reserves and this year alone Croydon and then Slough have filed Section 114 notices, suspending all non-statutory spending. So Michael Gove inherits a rather beleaguered department.

Meanwhile he also inherits an ambitious housing target which many Conservative commentators see as key to rebuilding support among younger voters priced out of the housing market. He also has the fallout from Grenfell, not least the cladding scandal which threatens the future of swathes of leaseholders.

That is all rather par for the course for this job. But the Gove remit runs much wider.

First, the briefing makes clear that these changes put Gove in charge of ‘levelling up’ – which so far has been an appealing slogan but with no substance behind it. A levelling up White Paper is due to put much more meat on the bones of the Prime Minister’s rather vague speech in July.  Neil O’Brien – the MP tasked with making sense of levelling up, joins Gove as a junior minister.

It is not clear whether the White Paper will be pushed back further to let Michael Gove put his fingerprints on it – but it is clear that Gove, in conjunction with the new Downing Street delivery unit, and his new department, will be expected to start to show some concrete progress by the next election.

So we now have a minister for levelling up – but the Whitehall question is whether Gove will find this easier to drive from a department rather than from the centre. The track record suggests that in the not-exactly-collegiate environment of Westminster it is very hard to drive a cross-cutting agenda from a line department. That was true of the Brexit department – and why Boris Johnson sidelined the Department for Exiting the EU and brought Brexit preparations and negotiations into the centre.

It has been true on climate change, where the big progress has been confined to whatever department has responsibility for energy generation, with little happening to cut emissions from transport or buildings which are the responsibility of other departments. Michael Gove’s experience at Defra will have shown him the limits on where he could push an agenda when it ran up against scepticism from the Treasury.

In many ways Gove might have found it easier to push forward levelling up from his old berth in the Cabinet Office, sitting a green baize door away from the Prime Minister, than from the towers of Marsham Street, despite all the extra resource he has at his disposal.

But the good news for him is that the Prime Minister has appointed him to deliver the PM’s own flagship policy: at the very least Boris Johnson needs to put his muscle and authority to corral foot-dragging colleagues into line. If that happens, this change could work, particularly if levelling up turns out to have a lot of components that fall within MHCLG’s own responsibilities – like pushing forward the devolving power to local areas.

MHCLG has, until recently, been a resolutely England department – with responsibilities for English local government, housing and fire safety. That changed when it was given lead responsibility for the Shared Prosperity Fund, which the government has introduced to replace the structural funds. Even so, it is not a natural home from which to run the coordination of UK relations with the devolved governments – which it apparently now will after that responsibility moves with Gove from the Cabinet Office.

And that comes when relations have been soured by Brexit and the Internal Market Act (and the central administration of the Shared Prosperity Fund) and with the battle lines being drawn between Westminster and Holyrood on a possible future independence referendum.

Gove’s brief will be to save the Union – to make clear to Scots that they are better off in, and raise the profile of HMG’s activities north of the border. But to many in Scotland and Wales, moving intergovernmental relations to a department which has always had a tricky relationship with English local government may simply look like another attempt to reduce their status to little more than souped up local authorities.

Out of the centre, Gove will have much less of an overview of what is going on across government, and therefore be less well placed to spot and defuse potential landmines before his colleagues step on them. Again he will need the PM to back him up as he tries to manage HMG’s relations with those governments.

Michael Gove now has the resources of a department to define and push through two areas that will be critical to the PM’s electoral success – levelling up and saving the Union. But, by taking these responsibilities out of the centre, the Prime Minister may find that Gove’s success depends critically on the extent to which he is prepared to put in his own effort.

By Jill Rutter, Senior Research Fellow at UK in a Changing Europe.

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