Artillery Row Portcullis Sketch

We’re all trying to find the Gove who did this

Why can’t the Conservatives take responsibility?

“Reports of the death of Conservatism are greatly exaggerated,” announced Michael Gove to, if not shouts of delight then at least nods of approval. He was speaking at the Onward think tank, one of the outfits that forms around Westminster to provide salaries for people who don’t currently have a job in government.

The evidence Gove cited was Rishi Sunak’s tremendous success in delivering the catchily-titled “Windsor Framework”. This has been viewed as a triumph in Westminster, where MPs and journalists alike are a-quiver at the prospect of being able to go back to ignoring Northern Ireland. 

It seems churlish to point out that “fixing problems your own government created and then lied about” is not a very high bar to set yourself for political resurrection, but the Tories are in quite a deep hole at the moment, so they’re probably grateful for any straws they can clutch.

The prime minister had gone across the water to sell the deal himself, holding a meeting with voters at a Coca-Cola factory in Lisburn. He talked at length about how awful the previous “oven-ready deal” had been, not just for businesses, but for ordinary people: “Someone sending their granddaughter a birthday present in a parcel,” he said. “Someone doing online shopping. All of that was about to need tonnes of customs hassle, and that was ridiculous.” His audience could only be grateful that it was impossible to imagine having a grandchild in continental Europe. 

The prime minister was keen to explain how fortunate the people of Ulster were: “Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position, unique position in the entire world in having privileged access to the UK home market, but also the EU single market. Nobody else has that, no one. Only you guys. That is the prize.” People complain about radicalised Remainers, but honestly, no one is as rude about Brexit as its supporters. Perhaps we could negotiate a ceasefire, with Alastair Campbell putting his Twitter account beyond use if Sunak promises to stop going on about how great it is being part of the single market. 

The prime minister was positively bouncy

The prime minister was positively bouncy, buoyed up by the welcome he’d received in Parliament the night before, and the eager profiles explaining that this was the turning point of his time in office. He clearly enjoys this sort of event, thrilled at the chance to discuss tax incentives with an audience member from KPMG. 

The questions went wider than Brexit. Someone asked about child poverty. “I have two girls,” he began in reply, and briefly we wondered if he was going to reveal a hitherto unsuspected liquidity crisis at home. Maybe the cost of living crisis has hit stabling fees. Instead he was simply explaining that fatherhood had given him insight into the importance of making sure children had food and clothing. “The best way to do that is to — ” (marry an heiress?) “ — make sure their parents are in work.”

Back in London, Gove also had ideas about how to make Britain better. This was an urgent task, he explained, because the place is an absolute hole at the moment. 

Onward are a leading proponent of what has been christened “Hot Dog Toryism”, after the meme in which a man dressed as a hot dog earnestly explains that he just wants to help identify whoever it was that crashed the hot dog-shaped car he’s standing next to. Gove’s speech was a masterclass.

Much of it was devoted to trying to understand just how the country had got into such a mess. Had you noticed that a lot of people have a low opinion of Parliament? Does it trouble you that Britain appears to be for sale to extremely wealthy foreigners who struggle to explain how they came by all this cash? Have you noticed that everything is falling apart? Were you dimly aware that the police have essentially given up trying to investigate large numbers of crimes? So is Gove, and when he finds out who’s been running the country over the past decade, he’s going to have some pretty tough questions for them. 

The good news, he explained, was that the answer to all these problems — and very much, not in any sense the cause of them — was the Conservative Party, and specifically the brand of Conservatism espoused by Sunak and Gove. A nit-picker might point out when it was given the choice the Conservative Party had rejected Sunak and his works, but Gove was not at home to Mr and Mrs Inconvenient Realities. 

Conservatives believe in “obligation and duty, prudence in economy and realism in policy”, explained Gove, a man who was in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet. The public are angry about “civic dilapidation”, added a man who was also in the Cabinet when it championed austerity. There’s something amazing about Gove’s ability to detach the words he says from the things he has very publicly been doing. We need to restore “an ethic of responsibility”, concluded Gove who, and I cannot stress this enough, served under Johnson without complaint at a point when the prime minister’s office was one of the most law-breaking places in the country. 

Over in County Antrim, Sunak had emphasised the importance of getting the Stormont Assembly running again. “A lot of what we’re doing relies on there being a functioning government,” he explained. Same here, prime minister. Same here.

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