WD-Govey: the tool for every job

The man with a thousand uses is deployed to sort out the cladding scandal

You know that a problem is bad when Michael Gove is sent out to deal with it. He’s the Conservative Party’s WD-40: protecting, cleaning, lubricating and penetrating, he’s a man with a thousand uses, so long as you don’t mind a slight oily residue.

His subject on Monday was the cladding scandal, which saw flat-owners told after the Grenfell Tower fire that they had a highly flammable substance attached to the outside of their home, and that they were going to have to pay a small fortune to have it removed.

This issue has been rolling on since 2017, in which time Her Majesty’s Government has managed to hold one general election, negotiate two Brexit deals, and deliver three doses of vaccine for a disease that didn’t exist until the end of 2019. People who live in blocks of flats could be forgiven for thinking that the problem would have been addressed with more urgency if it chiefly affected detached houses in the Home Counties.

It is to the credit of Conservative backbenchers that they have forced the government to move on the issue. Indeed, the failure of Gove’s predecessor, Robert Jenrick, to find a solution may have been the chief reason for his ejection from the Cabinet.

Gove’s ministry has been renamed since Jenrick left. It is now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, or DLUHC, which sounds like a desperate guess on Wordle. It could also be thought of as the department for throwing money at election-losing issues, which creates a tension when someone has to decide where the money comes from.

In this case, Gove had come up with a cunning plan. The money will come from developers. “Those who profited, and continue to profit, from the sale of unsafe buildings and construction products must take full responsibility for their actions and pay to put things right,” he said, the very picture of outraged toughness.

WD-Govey is deployed to stop unpleasant noises, not increase them

It wasn’t just building firms that were wrong ‘uns, though. Gove went on to condemn “the injustice of asking leaseholders, often young people who have saved hard and made sacrifices to take their first steps on the housing ladder, to pay money they do not have to fix a problem they did not cause”. Pressure of time prevented him from identifying the government that had, until that very morning, been doing this. Behind him, Jenrick glowered.

For Labour, Lisa Nandy expressed relief that, after “a road paved with broken promises and false dawns” the government was addressing the crisis. Why, she asked, did he think developers were going to agree to stump up? “There is a March deadline and a roundtable, but there is not a plan.” The Treasury, she pointed out, had agreed to allow Gove to “use a high-level threat” of taxes if they didn’t play nicely, but had insisted the decision would remain the Treasury’s.

Other ministers might have been combative in response, but WD-Govey is deployed to stop unpleasant noises, not increase them. “We do have the absolute assurance that we can use the prospect of taxation to bring people to the table,” he replied, and thanked Nandy for being “entirely fair”.

It quickly became clear that Gove wasn’t going to disagree with anyone. He found himself “almost wholly in accord” with Jeremy Corbyn. His Liberal Democrat opposite number had “done a great job” of highlighting the issue. His words were so oleaginous you could have preserved sardines in them. With this much consensus around the issue it was a wonder it had taken so long to get to this point.

The answer to that question came, in large part, when Jenrick rose to speak. It was a study in bitterness. Welcoming moves on medium-rise buildings, he noted, “it is a pity that the Treasury did not agree to that proposal in January of last year, but such is the way with this issue.” There was a time when he and Rishi Sunak were best buddies, but ambition is a cruel mistress.

Gove, in reply, said he wanted to “pay tribute” to Jenrick’s work. This was greeted for some reason with scepticism from Labour MPs, and Gove affected outrage. “If they knew what I know about how hard Robert had worked to try to secure justice, they would not be trying to make a cheap point about it,” he said, every inch the Religious Studies teacher who is not so much angry as disappointed. “No one currently in this chamber has worked as hard to try to help those people. So I am not having it.” He was ticked off as heck, and he was unlikely to take it much longer.

Esther McVey, who served as housing minister under Jenrick, somewhat undermined the suggestion that he had been the leaseholder’s champion by suggesting that she’d been unable to get movement on this issue. Gove smiled sweetly and replied that she had been right, and others wrong.

But that was as close to an argument as the session got. By the end of the statement it was clear that, once again, WD-Govey had saved the day. He’s the tool every prime minister needs.

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