Back at the despatch box agane

Michael Gove enjoys another chance to cause chaos

Artillery Row Portcullis Sketch

Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. Michael Gove, whose career in frontline politics was declared dead just months ago by no less a person than Michael Gove, was at the despatch box on Thursday. He’d been on his feet for less than ten minutes when he received a bollocking from the Speaker. Some ministers are chastened by such moments. The worry with Gove is always that he enjoys them.

The Levelling-Up Secretary, as he is once again, was there to explain why he’d decided to give permission for a coal-mine in Cumbria. He does this sort of thing perfectly well, but you can’t escape the thought that he’d present the other side of the argument equally fluently. On this occasion he had points to make about steel production and so on, but it was hard to escape the thought that Gove, a newspaper columnist at heart, just really likes provoking people. 

Lindsay Hoyle rose to his feet, furiously waving a piece of paper

And getting told off. When Gove had finished, Lindsay Hoyle rose to his feet, furiously waving a piece of paper. The convention in parliament is that ministers’ statements are given to the opposition and the Speaker in advance, but Gove had said far more than was written down. “We do not work like that,” Hoyle said. He announced a five-minute recess, to get a copy of Gove’s actual words. 

Twelve minutes later, we were back. Gove had, it turned out, been ad-libbing, and an even angrier Hoyle said he’d have to finish his statement after Business Questions, to give the record-keepers at Hansard time to transcribe his words. “This is not the way to do good government,” the Speaker grumped, though it’s unclear what evidence he’s seen that the Conservatives have the slightest interest in that.

And so, with the House suspended, to Netflix, where we could watch the first chunk of Harry & Meghan. People once went to prison after hacking Prince Harry’s phone. The smarter thing, it turns out, would have been to give him a producer credit and ask him to transcribe his own text messages to his future wife. The internet has allowed the cutting out of all sorts of middlemen, and the summit is surely the fifth in line to the throne making millions from a documentary about himself. 

But life is short, and I feel that if you’re going to be the subject of a six-hour documentary, you ought to release “Let It Be” at the end of it. After twenty minutes I decided to respect Harry and Meghan’s desire to be left alone, and switched back to parliament.

“May I start by wishing everyone a Happy Christmas Jumper Day?” Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House, began. She had chosen to mark the occasion by wearing a plain navy top under a plain navy jacket. It’s at moments like this that it’s worth remembering that in the recent leadership contests, Mordaunt was The One With A Personality.  

After a grovel on behalf of Gove, Mordaunt offered an interesting line on the NHS procurement scandal, first praising the businesses that “did their bit” to produce protective equipment before attacking “companies that were, frankly, profiteering”. It’s the right distinction, although it would be an easier one for ministers to make if one of the people under investigation wasn’t a Conservative peer. 

Finally, we returned to the Gove show. His Labour shadow, Lisa Nandy, took her turn to give him a kicking, saying he was delivering “chaos in this chamber and chaos in the country”. Where, Nandy asked, was the government’s sense of leadership and ambition?

The minister rose and, after offering Hoyle a brief apology, turned back to his opposite number: “I think we all know where the ambition and where the leadership is, and it’s sitting right across from me.” Nandy laughed heartily at that. If we had feared that the smack of parliamentary discipline would leave Gove downbeat and subdued, we couldn’t have been more wrong. He’s just grateful to have the chance to deliver chaos at all.

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