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29 November 2023

Why ministers like Michael Gove are so rare

The Levelling-Up Secretary’s apology to the Covid inquiry was the most explicit form of contrition from any government figure.

By Freddie Hayward

Gove has a history of going where other ministers dare not. At the Covid inquiry yesterday he apologised to “the families who endured so much loss as a result of the mistakes that were made by government in response to the pandemic”. “I must take my share of responsibility for that,” he said. This was a recognition of the government’s failure to prepare for a pandemic and to lock down on time. No cabinet minister has made such an explicit apology for failures during Covid.

Gove has form here. In the past, he has apologised for: cladding regulation, leaks about Grenfell, that video of Tories dancing together during lockdown, and for betraying Boris Johnson. In 2012, he apologised to his old French teacher, Mr Montgomery, for “clever-dick questions” and indulging in “pathetic showing off”.

Why is Gove so at ease apologising? Someone close to the Levelling-Up Secretary told me: “He’s a former journalist. He gets the importance of the public mood. He understands that sometimes an apology is the only way to bring people together and therefore move forward.”

It might be more practical than that. Gove’s ability to avoid embarrassing blunders in interviews through the precision of his language provides space for a candour that other ministers shy away from, scared they will be caught out. He approaches those media appearances with a playful confidence. Even when he took a solemn oath at the inquiry, Bible in hand, he sounded unserious and mischievous. Gove spoke like a game-show host outlining the rules at the start of the programme, not as if he was delivering evidence at an inquiry into the deaths of 230,000 Britons. His explosive hand movements made him look like a monochrome jack-in-the-box.

The Covid inquiry is investigating all of Britain’s response to Covid, from money given to households to the immigration system. Public hearings are not expected to end until summer 2026. That broad remit has allowed it to become a clearing house for personal feuds and undignified private conversations.

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Gove’s appearance was no exception. At one point, the lead counsel Hugo Keith KC – wearing a double-breasted grey suit, an eroding hairline and a sceptical face – leaned over his standing desk and asked Mr Gove about his text to Mr Cummings in March 2020, which read: “You know me, I don’t often kick off but we’re f**king up as a government and missing golden opportunities.” Gove apologised (again) for the language while explaining that he thought lockdowns should have come earlier and harder. Likewise, he was clear that he thought the tiered restrictions in October 2020 were flawed.

Gove thinks robust exchange is central to politics. But he was careful not to bad-mouth his former colleagues. He defended Boris Johnson’s leadership style, claiming the former prime minister was not incapable of taking decisions. He was merely human, Gove implied. And this was his theme. “I would not want to overstate my knowledge or my prescience,” he said. Politicians were “human beings” who were “fallible”, and “every decision was difficult and every course was bad”. Critics worry that politicians are not normal. That they aren’t like us. Perhaps the more concerning thought is that the opposite is true.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: The immigration dilemma]

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