What is Boris Johnson’s government for? The answer, we’re often told, is ‘levelling up’. So far this has been a slogan without much meaning. More than two years on from Johnson’s election victory, it has been left to Michael Gove, as the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to define the concept. He intended to set out his plans before Christmas, but Covid stopped that. It nearly stopped this interview, too. Under the government’s rules at the time, Gove is in self-isolation because he met Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s deputy prime minister, who then tested positive for Covid, possibly the Omicron variant. It means we have to speak over a computer screen.
Most cabinet ministers are, at best, lukewarm about the case for the government’s new Covid rules. Gove has the opposite worry. He fears that more measures might be needed sooner rather than later. He is, as so often during the pandemic, on the hawkish side of the argument. Some find this persona difficult to reconcile with the old Gove, who argued for less state control and more individual responsibility during his time as a Times columnist and then education secretary. So what kind of Tory is he?
‘It is very difficult to describe exactly what one’s type of conservatism is,’ he muses. He gives it a try. ‘The first thing is that I believe in the fallen nature of man.’ He talks about the value of tradition and Edmund Burke’s ‘little platoons’, before saying: ‘I believe in the vital importance in recognising that — while the state has an absolutely critical role in the life of the nation — the most important things in all our lives are those which governments can’t or shouldn’t really seek to intrude on. The most important things in all our lives are family, relationships, faith and the personal.’
Gove’s answer seems odd given his willingness during the pandemic to back legally binding restrictions on precisely these things — but we’ll come to that later. His concept of Toryism is relevant because it’s shaping what could be the new conservatism. ‘There is a fundamental obligation for people in public life to address inequality,’ he says. ‘It is part of the civilising nature of government to temper the way in which the market can sometimes, for all its efficiency, generate inequality and leave people behind… It’s key to how we look at Disraeli and Salisbury, with the legislation that they put in place with public health and on housing.’
He reaches behind him for a book, Tory Radical: the Life of Richard Oastler, and reads from the sleeve. ‘“A national figure fighting with boundless energy and imagination for the parliamentary enactment of the ten-hour day.” There we are. In that sense, I’m a Tory Radical, I suppose.’
At a recent cabinet away day, Gove asked ministers to define, in a sentence, what ‘levelling up’ should mean. Now he offers his own answer: ‘Making opportunity more equal.’ Gove admits ‘that there is no perfect model’ to achieving this goal, but he points to the Basque country, Pittsburgh and east Germany as examples of where things have been done well. The examples he’s most keen on are the formation of the Dutch Republic and Renaissance Florence.
In recent weeks, Gove has written a blueprint that has been circulating around government: what he calls the ‘Medici model’. He has shown it to cabinet members who have, in turn, sent copies to colleagues, passing it around like a secret plan of Johnson conservatism. He flashes it on the screen. It features handwritten buzzwords (‘Productivity’, ‘Place’, ‘Quality of Life’, ‘Leadership’) which lead to subcategories covering everything from safer streets to university pride. His plan is, he believes, the modern interpretation of the methods the Medici family used to transform Florence in the 15th century.
Gove doesn’t think that levelling up can be reduced down to one thing — better infrastructure, for example. He points out that Florence scored on many fronts. ‘The human flourishing at the time of the Renaissance in the cities of Italy was as a result of a number of different factors coming together… It was the home of new methods of banking. It was the home of breakthroughs in architecture, in art, in literature and also in city governance. Obviously, we need a different Medici model now, but these are the key elements of it.’
Much of Gove’s plan would once have been called ‘industrial strategy’: developing industrial hubs and helping smaller companies have better access to finance. He notes that ‘small businesses get less debt and less equity finance outside the golden triangle of the south-east’. But is this within the competence of government? Is there a formula? Gove turns to literature for his answer. ‘To quote Anna Karenina, or rather the first line of the novel, often misquoted: “All happy families are happy in the same way, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” All successful economic regions are very similar. They all have universities and cultural institutions of prestige. But all regions which are unhappy are unhappy in different ways, whether they’re coastal, post-industrial or rural. We need to make sure that levelling up is space-specific.’
He wants to extend devolution to rural areas, saying he likes the idea of a governor of Wiltshire. ‘Power exercised as close as possible to the people who are influenced by it is a good thing and a core Conservative principle… You may have the wrong mayor at a certain time, that doesn’t invalidate the model as a means of driving policy innovation.’
The issue that sank Gove’s predecessor, Robert Jenrick, was planning reforms. Tory MPs blamed the party’s defeat in June’s Chesham and Amersham by-election on Lib Dem opposition to housebuilding plans. Gove regards the mortgage market as a bigger problem than the planning system. ‘People are paying more in rent for a property than they would do if they were servicing a mortgage. The amount that you would have to pay as a deposit to get that mortgage, I think, is out of kilter with the real risk.’ Will he intervene? Would he like to see the return of 95 per cent mortgages, blamed by some for the last financial crash? ‘Ultimately, it is a matter for the Bank of England. But you can’t look at ownership without access to mortgage finance.’
This has not been an easy year for Gove. He and Sarah Vine, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday columnist, have decided to divorce after 20 years of marriage. Might his life have been simpler if he had stayed in journalism? He just replies in one word: ‘Yes.’ His normal high-speed speech slows as he observes that ‘politics exacts a very high price from people’.
‘The choices that any of us make as politicians inevitably have ramifications, not just in what we’re seeking to achieve, but on our friends and family. If you are in the arena, in amongst the heat and dust of political conflict, it is the case that other people can sometimes be hurt too… I probably shouldn’t say any more.’
At Christmas, Gove hopes he can see his parents in Scotland, as well as seeing Sarah and their children. During a trip home in August, he was videoed dancing in a nightclub in the early hours. The image captured Westminster’s imagination. It was a one-off, he says. ‘I was in Aberdeen. If you are in the place that you grew up in, particularly the place you remember as a student, sometimes the years melt away. Particularly on a bank holiday weekend. I haven’t been clubbing particularly energetically since then. My social life, such as it is, is incredibly middle-aged so my main principal leisure outlets, I have to confess, are watching football from the stands and playing bridge at home.’ Who does he play bridge with? He won’t say. ‘It might harm the professional career of at least one of them if it got out that they were playing bridge with a Tory minister.’
Even playing bridge might be forbidden if Covid restrictions tighten again. Gove offers a wartime defence of his enthusiasm for the government’s ‘Plan B’, saying that Winston Churchill regarded some of the domestic measures he had to enact as ‘in the highest degree, odious’. There are times when there are rules which are ‘necessary to deal with a particular situation, crisis or emergency — but which we should drop at the first opportunity’. There is a big difference, he says, between temporary vaccine passports and the identity cards Tony Blair wanted to be permanent. He says he is against mandatory vaccination, an idea Johnson has flirted with.
As our time draws to a close, we start to discuss the question of what does or doesn’t qualify as a rule-breaking party. Gove posits that if at 9 p.m. he opens a Guinness at his desk and sips it as he goes through his Red Box, he would argue that he was still working. ‘Probably in an impaired way, after a while. But if someone across the room is doing exactly the same, does it become a party? I think they are still working as well. The key thing is there are appropriate authorities that can look at it. I’m not the person who should be making hypothetical retrospective judgments.’
Isn’t the problem, though, that the police were asked to make these judgments in many grey areas? Shouldn’t any future Covid restrictions be advisory? ‘These are profound philosophical questions which I am ill-equipped to answer at this point. I’d better go.’
Polite to the last, Gove insists on finding a reference he was looking for earlier. ‘The quote that I was searching for when we were talking about devolution is the one from John Motley in his Rise of the Dutch Republic: “Local self-government is the life blood of liberty.”’