Michael Gove — refugee traffic controller

In a crisis a great politician shall arise

Michael Gove was in his happy place. Not strolling through the Cotswolds in late Spring, or listening to Rachmaninov at the Royal Festival Hall. No, the place Gove goes to feel totally at one with himself is the despatch box in the House of Commons.

Many people would regard the prospect of spending an hour defending Boris Johnson’s government with horror, a thought that would only be increased if they learned that Labour’s Lisa Nandy was cracking her knuckles one by one as she prepared to lay into them. Not Gove, though. He relishes it.

Maybe he thinks he deserves the pain. Maybe he enjoys it. Or perhaps he knows that there is nowhere else on earth where he is so perfectly in the moment, being the Best Gove That He Can Be, as when he’s stood there, Gove-ing away.

On Monday, he was dealing with refugees. You might have thought that refugees were a matter for the Home Secretary. But Priti Patel, who has spent two years failing to keep refugees out of Britain — until a fortnight ago, being mean to desperate foreigners was very much the way you got ahead in British politics — now turns out to be equally bad at getting them in.

So bad, in fact, that one wonders whether, back when the Home Office was still trying to stop refugees from coming to Britain (a time I call “February”) they might have done better if they’d tried to help them. Forget setting up a giant wave machine at Dover, Patel should just have announced a secret help desk at Calais that would give a visa to anyone who could find it.

Anyway, Patel’s job seems to be being taken away from her and given to others. Does this make Gove the Second Home Secretary? It’s not clear. But how happy he was in the role.

He had come to announce a means by which people can sponsor Ukrainian refugees and take them into their homes. Already MPs were queuing up to host them, Matt Hancock among the first. It seems unnecessarily cruel to ask people to choose between living in a war zone and the spare room of Hancock’s love nest.

Somewhere in central Europe a chemical plant turns out Essence of Gove in tiny bottles

To listen to Gove, everything was worked out. Bureaucracy had been swept aside, a website had been set up, the jet was on the runway, the whole thing was ready to go. Nandy had a few questions. Applicants, she said, still seemed to be facing a 50-page form, requiring them to upload water bills and mortgage documents and other things you might not grab when you flee for your life. “We are lagging way behind the generosity of other countries,” she said. “We could keep essential checks but drop the excessive bureaucracy.” She undermined this somewhat by then demanding more checks on the places where refugees will live: less bad bureaucracy, in other words, but more good bureaucracy.

Gove called on her to “rise above partisan politics”, which is a bit much from a man who lives for it. He was in his element. When a Tory was supportive, he was Oily Gove: Sir Roger Gale was “a model constituency MP and a humanitarian”. When an opposition MP asked questions about specific issues, he would give us Thoughtful Gove. He explained the difficulty of balancing conflicting pressures while his hands illustrated the point, one held up, palm out, to signal the need to slow things down, while another beckoned onwards, as he described the need to accelerate a different process. He looked like a traffic policeman directing very small cars.

Only once did he give us Angry Gove, after Tan Singh Desai suggested the government’s response on refugees had been slow and inadequate. “I’ve had it up to here with people trying to suggest that this country is not generous,” Gove said, red of face, slapping the despatch box, as Tories behind him gave little yelps of pleasure. “And all this stuff about ‘hostile environment’. ‘Hostile environment’ was invented under a Labour Home Secretary!”

The government benches cheered this argument that the Windrush scandal and every subsequent immigration mess was the result of a succession of Conservative Home Secretaries unable to overwhelm the mean-spiritedness of a Labour party that left office 12 years ago.

Gove had earlier accused Nandy of “manufacturing synthetic outrage”. He would know. Somewhere in central Europe a chemical plant turns out Essence of Gove in tiny bottles, possibly as a by-product of refining oil. It is an entirely artificial product.

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