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If Michael Gove and Boris Johnson want to reform the country, they must first reform themselves

Leadership requires you to choose between concrete futures and not merely to sketch out grand visions.

By Stephen Bush

In the autumn of 2000, a worried Bill Clinton told Tony Blair that George W Bush was doing so well in the presidential race “because he criticised one thing on the right”. The odd high-profile deviation from Republican orthodoxy allowed Bush junior to present as a moderate: the natural successor to Clinton, rather than a repudiation of his legacy.

In the UK, British politicians pull a similar trick when they want to be described as “thoughtful”: citing someone from outside their tribe. In the longest and most detailed description of the government’s political aims, Michael Gove, who is in charge of Whitehall reform, scored a hat-trick. In a speech to the Ditchley Foundation on 28 June, he quoted the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, referenced the Keynesian economist Robert Gordon, and praised Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic president who led the US out of the Great Depression.

Gove’s Ditchley lecture (republished on the New Statesman website) laid out the central intellectual preoccupations of the government: Whitehall has too many generalists and not enough specialists; too many arts graduates and not enough scientists or mathematicians. Policy is not sufficiently evidence-led; the system of British government is risk-averse; and bureaucracy is overly concentrated in London and dominated by Remainers.

The contradictions are obvious. The majority of science graduates, like most arts graduates, voted to remain in the EU. It is not obvious how you could prioritise both increasing the number of statisticians and engineers in the civil service and maximising the number of Leavers, just as it is not clear how government policy-making can be more evidence-driven and less cautious at the same time. The presence of a contradiction doesn’t mean that a principle isn’t sincerely held. But leadership requires you to choose between concrete futures and not merely to sketch out grand visions.

The combination of extravagant Govian plans and strong strategic leadership from Downing Street has worked for the Conservatives in the past: Gove and David Cameron together made significant changes to the education system in England, and before Cameron left office the partnership was beginning to bear similar fruit in the criminal justice system.

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But the story of Conservative politics and the Brexit referendum is the triumph of Govian grand visions over hard Cameroon trade-offs. In Gove’s world, you can have the benefits of EU membership without the concomitant loss of national autonomy – except, of course, you can’t, and the failure to accept that has been the cause of much stagnation and internal strife.

Theresa May had ambitious ideas about helping the “just about managing”, but her government never managed to turn them into a tangible policy, or to reconcile it with the party’s old orthodoxies on the economy. For the past half-decade, the Conservative Party’s humours have been unbalanced.

Under Boris Johnson, the party has recovered its Cameron-era knack for winning, but not yet its Cameron-era ability to turn dreams into action. In his big speech on 30 June, Johnson also cited Roosevelt in hailing his government’s plans – to use infrastructure spending to close the gap between the nations and regions of the UK and to escape the coronavirus recession – as “Rooseveltian”. Yet while Gove’s speech was all grand vision and no trade-offs, Johnson’s speech had neither.

The problem was summed up by the question one Conservative MP asked me afterwards: “So, does the Prime Minister think the last ten years of economic policy have been any good, or not?”

The answer seems to be both: that ­austerity is not the path to growth, but also that it was wrong to refer to Cameron’s ­economic policy as austerity, ­rounded off with the claim that in any case the ­government ­cannot afford to extend the furlough scheme for much longer – an ­argument that implicitly makes the case for further austerity.

For this government, it seems that reforming the state means never having to accept a trade-off. A reformed Whitehall means that you can have a planning system that commands local consent and allows more house building, a balanced budget without cuts or significant tax rises, and the benefits of EU membership and the benefits of Brexit. Appearing to maintain all of this keeps the Conservative Party in equilibrium.

The most important line in Johnson and Gove’s speeches was not from Roosevelt, or Gramsci for that matter. It was from Gove: “reforming how government works requires ministers who can reform themselves”. Cameron was a product of his environment: he had been a special adviser to a chancellor of the Exchequer and a home secretary, and a close confidante of two Conservative leaders. That made him, as one former Downing Street aide recently said to me, “the complete package”. He did not have to reform himself to do politics and to deliver policy: he had been shaped into a leader capable of doing so over many years.

Johnson and Gove have not. As secretary of state for education and then justice, Gove was encouraged by Cameron to come up with bold schemes. As mayor of London, Johnson was blessed with a job in which he was able to deliver good news and to blame the bad on someone else – usually, but not always, the national government.

Now neither politician has the freedom to set out grand visions full of contradictions. They must reform themselves before they are able to reform the state and the country, but it remains unclear if they ­really have the energy or the inclination for the task. If they do not, the Conservative Party’s ­humours will ­remain unbalanced.

This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis