Educating Hugo

Professor Gove invites a lowly barrister to his advanced seminar in political ethics


“Mmm. Mmmmm. MMMMMMmmmmm.” Michael Gove was giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry. Urged to give brief answers, he approached it instead like a week-long seminar on British Government Structures Since 1066. He treated Hugo Keith, the inquiry counsel, as though he were a promising, if sometimes slow, undergraduate, and made encouraging “mmm” noises as he asked his questions.

Some were short “mm”s, delivered as Keith paused for breath. Others, when Keith approached a particularly tricky issue, were loud, enthusiastic “MMMmmmm”s. Was it intended to put the lawyer off his stride, to suggest that Gove, not Keith, was the one running proceedings? Or was that just a happy side-effect?

There is no substance in nature smoother than Gove. You could use his words to free a gearbox jammed with sand. Very early on, he broke away from an answer to make an address to the nation. “I want to take this opportunity if I may, my lady –” that was to Baroness Hallett, the inquiry chair “—to apologise to the victims.” Mistakes had been made, he said. “I must take my share of responsibility for that. Politicians are human beings, we are fallible. We make errors.” Unspoken was a sense that some had made more than others, but that Gove was too modest to say which category he fell into.

Gove and Keith share the quality of becoming more polite the ruder they wish to be

Lesser politicians attempt to simply deny difficult facts. Gove covers reality with an ungent so thick and opaque that it becomes impossible to make out the contours beneath. “It is certainly the case that under Boris Johnson there were strong personalities in Number 10,” he explained, with a slight trace of sadness at the fallen state of the world. But Gove himself is not such a man. Perish the thought! Why, at one point he apologised profusely – to Hallett, to the inquiry, and then to the world at large – for having used an obscenity in a private message three years ago.

Asked about Johnson’s hither-and-thither decisions as the pandemic raged, Gove raised his hands and held them apart. “He preferred gladiatorial decision-making to inquisitorial,” he explained, waving his fingers as though they were opposing warriors in the arena of ideas. Somewhere, deep beneath the gloop of Gove’s words, we could dimly recall being told to go to work one week and stay at home the next by a prime minister who would ridicule public health measures the day before he introduced them.

But nothing was so straightforward as it seemed. Every question required a lengthy reply about why it wasn’t quite right. “I would put it in a slightly different way,” Gove would say. “Just broadly to contextualise…” His quibbling was awe-inspiring. “I think ‘hiatus’ would be false,” he said at one point. “There was a diminution.”

Gove and Keith share the quality of becoming more polite the ruder they wish to be. As the day wore on, they became so icily civil that it began to feel like some 19th Century play about an Edinburgh ladies’ tea circle where it is only from reading commentaries that we learn the two central characters declared war on each other in the third act.

Speaking of declaring war, over in Westminster, the only topic for discussion was Rishi Sunak’s decision not to meet the visiting Greek prime minister, because he’d had the temerity to restate Athens’ long-held view that the Seventh Earl of Elgin should have left the front of the Parthenon where it was.

And that’s that. There’s simply no way a government can change a law

The decision to create a full-blown diplomatic row over something that has always been an area of polite disagreement has left even the prime minister’s supporters expressing bafflement. One theory is that it’s a “dead cat”, to distract people from Sunak’s weakness on the domestic front by reminding people that he’s also crap abroad.

Or is this a bid to have the only kind of war we can now afford? In Falklands 2 – This Time It’s Curatorial, a tiny task force will sail to Athens to demand the Greeks take back the obviously correct claim that offering a meeting with Oliver Dowden is an insult.

Or perhaps, as one hopeful Tory pollster claimed, it was a brilliant political trap for Labour, where  millions of voters who had turned their back on the Tories over their failures running the NHS, the schools and the police would be won back by an argument about ancient statues.

As it turned out, it was mainly an opportunity for other Conservatives to flail around. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, keen to talk about a row she’s having with teaching unions, instead found herself explaining that it was impossible for Britain to return the Marbles to Greece. “The Elgin Marbles are actually protected under law,” she told ITV. “And under that law they have to stay in the British Museum.” And that’s that. There’s simply no way a government can change a law.

Over on Times Radio, William Hague was boldly defending Sunak against charges of petulance, something that required a determined denial of the available facts. “He is a big guy,” Hague insisted, a claim that wasn’t even true metaphorically. “He’s not the sort of person to just get in a strop.”

But he is. Those of us who have watched the prime minister over his year in the job have noted his snippiness and his tendency to get wound up when people are insufficiently grateful for all his hard work on our behalf.

Or perhaps he’s just spent too long around Gove. Back at the inquiry, Keith’s cool demeanour had cracked. “Mr. Gove, I’m very sorry,” he said, in something close to a snarl. “In light of the time and – dare I say – your propensity to comment politically, can I ask you please to just answer the question?”

Gove was all consideration. “Mm!” he replied, in an especially helpful tone.

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