Has Michael Gove been demoted or not? It’s not unusual for Downing Street to try to minimise any sense of wounded pride among ministers who have been moved from one job to another, even when, as in the case of Dominic Raab, the fact they have been demoted is obvious. It’s also not unusual for politicians or their allies to insist that they haven’t been demoted even when the fact they have been demoted is obvious. And, of course, sometimes this is true: when David Lidington lost his departmental role following the resignation of Damian Green in 2017, he became more influential, not less.
But what is unusual is for no one to be quite sure whether or not someone has been demoted. Yet the question of whether Gove’s move to the rebranded Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (formerly housing, communities and local government) is a sideways move or a setback is genuinely up in the air, with close allies of both Boris Johnson and Gove divided on the issue.
One close ally of Johnson said that the story of politics in the last decade was “schemers never flourish: you’re always better off focusing on the day job: true for George Osborne [whose career was essentially ended by referendum defeat], Gavin Williamson [whose career has at the least been put in considerable jeopardy by Johnson] and Michael Gove”. Another, however, described the reshuffle as the “the march of the people who get things done”, name-checking Liz Truss (rewarded for her successful stint at International Trade), Nadhim Zahawi (for his involvement with the vaccine roll-out) and Gove.
On the one hand, Gove’s empire has been considerably shrunk: his huge list of additional functions, which made him essentially the de facto deputy prime minister, has been pared back. Given the various difficult policy inheritances – the cladding crisis, the consequences of a decade of cuts to local government funding with more planned – you can see why one Govian describes the move as “a hospital pass”.
But the other way of looking at it is that Gove now holds the fate of the government in his hands. Rightly or wrongly, “levelling up” is the standard by which the government has decided it wants to be judged, and Gove is the person in charge of delivering it. In addition, Gove retains a considerably larger list of responsibilities than the secretary of state for local government has had in recent decades. In other ways, the role is a throwback, recalling the much larger department for the environment that existed throughout the Conservatives’ last prolonged stay in government in the 1980s and 1990s, and the “super-ministry” run by John Prescott in New Labour’s first term.
That Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s outspoken former chief economist and the head of the Royal Society for Arts, has been seconded to the department for six months to work for both the Prime Minister and Gove adds to the sense that what we’re really seeing is the recreation of an old super-ministry, as does the appointment of a new ministerial team. Neil O’Brien, a former special adviser turned MP and one of the party’s most respected rising stars, has been made a junior minister. While Kemi Badenoch, seen by Downing Street – like many of those promoted in this reshuffle – as someone who has proved they can deliver projects and drive change, was made a minister of state.
What we’re seeing is not so much a minister being demoted, but a department being elevated up the pecking order. It’s not that the local government brief has been short of doers in the past decade: Eric Pickles was probably the second-most transformative Conservative cabinet minister in David Cameron’s government, surpassed only by Michael Gove in his remaking of the state. But the Pickles vision inevitably shrank the department behind him; as a result of the changes brought in by Pickles, local government is a very, very different (and in many ways smaller) beast than it was when he became secretary of state.
But in other ways, it is Pickles’s legacy that looms large here: with the big question being whether the government can meet its stated intention to “level up”, while at the same time planning to continue and deepen Pickles’s work of remodelling local government.