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15 March 2022

Don’t kid yourself, Michael Gove: the hostile environment is peak Tory

How dare the communities secretary attribute it to Labour?

By Jonn Elledge

A moment from parliament has gone viral on social media. In it, an enraged Michael Gove tells the Commons that “the hostile government was invented by a Labour home secretary”. Of course, we know that this statement – issued on 14 March during his statement on Homes for Ukraine, the government’s scheme to welcome more refugees to the UK – couldn’t be further from the truth.

The first absurd thing about his claim is the self-righteousness with which he makes it. He begins his rant with the word, “Look”: this, older readers may recall, was a Tony Blair trick, code for, “I, a pretty straight kind of guy, am going to level with you here”. What comes next, we’re meant to believe, is just basic common sense. And then, as he gets into his stride, the communities secretary starts to smack the dispatch box. “We’re going to disagree politically and all the rest of it,” he says, “but I’ve just had it up to here with people trying to suggest this country is not generous.” On the latter clause, he strikes the box seven times. We all use physical gestures for emphasis at times, but at some point this surely crosses the line into abusing perfectly innocent inanimate objects.

Oh, and that’s the third clue that Gove wants us to think that he really, really means this. By the time his rage reaches its crescendo (“Can we just chuck it with the partisan nonsense and get on with delivering?”) he’s turning puce. Really, it can’t be good for his blood pressure. 

However much Gove means all this, though: it simply isn’t true. This country has not been generous, in either this crisis or those that preceded it. The UK has taken smaller numbers of Ukrainian refugees than pretty much all of its neighbours, and much smaller numbers than those further east. On top of that, a significant part of our political discourse for the last few years has been focused on stopping small boats full of desperate people from crossing the Channel. The Home Secretary has threatened to set the Royal Navy on them. That’s not “generous”.

Of course, the most straightforwardly untrue part of Gove’s rant was his statement that “the hostile environment was invented under a Labour home secretary”. It wasn’t: the policy was introduced by Theresa May in 2012. What Gove seems to be thinking of is that it was a Labour immigrant minister, the serially gaffe-prone Liam Byrne, who first used the phrase “hostile environment” in 2007. 

But as horrendous as the New Labour government’s record sometimes was, there is a huge difference between speaking the words and making it policy. You might just as well give Rishi Sunak the credit for being a tax-cutting chancellor because he describes himself as such, even though he’s merrily going around raising everybody’s taxes. (Indeed, the Joe politics correspondent Ava Evans has asked the pertinent question of whether Gove’s misdirection counts as “misleading the House”.)

Gove’s rant is simply based on an entirely false premise. It assumes that the only people mean-spirited enough to suggest the government is not trying its damnedest are Labour politicians motivated by partisanship. But we have ample evidence that the government is not trying its best to help refugees. Someone close to the Home Office is briefing that unchecked refugees pose a security risk; that department and Downing Street are making efforts to pass the blame to each other. More than that, we have polling to show that the anger and disappointment is not confected by Labour but felt by the general public. Even if it weren’t the opposition’s job to critique the government, it is not simple partisanship that means ministers are now under fire.

The single most irritating thing about Gove’s rant, though, is that his description of Labour’s “partisan nonsense” is in reality a highly accurate description of Boris Johnson’s own government. This government has a talent for finding dividing lines that put the Labour party on the wrong side of the debate – but not so much when it comes to implementing policy or actually governing.

Gove’s rage may have been real, or it may be confected. Either way, if he really wants to criticise a party more focused on “partisan nonsense” than “getting on with delivering”, he should look to his own front bench.

[See also: The final act in the Gove-Johnson psychodrama]

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