Michael Gove makes Cabinet power grab with ‘colossus of a department’

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Michael Gove - Ben Stansall/REUTERS
Michael Gove - Ben Stansall/REUTERS

Michael Gove has dramatically expanded his Whitehall empire, emerging as the biggest winner of Boris Johnson's Cabinet reshuffle.

The full scale of the former Cabinet Office minister's new domain became clear on Saturday night as Downing Street announced the appointment of Andy Haldane, the former Bank of England chief economist, as a new permanent secretary in Mr Gove's former department.

Unusually, Mr Haldane will report jointly to the Prime Minister and Mr Gove, despite the Prime Minister's ambitious former leadership rival now leading a separate, rebranded Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Mr Gove will also, said No 10, said "drive cross-Whitehall efforts to deliver a programme of tangible improvements in every part of the UK", effectively giving him jurisdiction for the levelling-up agenda across government.

He has also been handed the additional title of minister for intergovernmental relations, which will see him continue to lead talks with the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish administrations on Mr Johnson's behalf, despite the Prime Minister remaining minister for the union.

Mr Gove is now likely to lock horns with the Treasury as he seeks to carve out a billions of pounds in funding for the levelling up agenda in Rishi Sunak's autumn spending review.

Mr Gove will oversee the publication of a Levelling Up white paper setting out policies intended to "improve livelihoods, spread opportunity and drive economic growth."

A 'colossus of a department'

A senior Government source described Mr Gove's new role as an "underpriced move of the reshuffle", following claims that he had been demoted.

"It's a colossus of a department," the source said of the new levelling up department.

Mr Johnson has also allowed Mr Gove to retain responsibility for policy relating to elections and the Union, two key areas which formed part of his portfolio at the Cabinet Office.

News of Mr Gove's expansive brief comes after Mr Johnson appointed Dominic Raab as Deputy Prime Minister amid tense talks about the former foreign secretary's move to run the Ministry of Justice.

Separately, an ally of the Prime Minister suggested that Nadine Dorries had been appointed as Culture Secretary as part of efforts to help the Government to communicate with the public. Ms Dorries is a novelist whose books have sold more than 2.5 million copies.

"Very few people can communicate as clearly as her," the ally said. "She says things as she sees them. That's a priceless quality. And 2.5 million readers cannot be wrong."

Meanwhile, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, was understood to be preparing to "double down" on a series of controversial policies, including a crackdown on small boats crossing the Channel, after Mr Johnson endorsed her approach during her reappointment meeting in No 10.

On Saturday night, Downing Street announced that the housing department will be renamed the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, following the departure of Robert Jenrick in Wednesday's reshuffle.

At the Cabinet Office, Mr Gove's formal title was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a role now taken over by Steve Barclay, the former chief secretary to the Treasury. Strengthening the union and constitutional issues, including elections, formed two of the nine responsibilities of the role listed on the gov.uk website on Saturday night.

Mr Gove, now the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, said: "I’m thrilled that the PM has asked me to lead the Levelling Up agenda, the defining mission of this Government ... We have a unique opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives.”

On Saturday night a poll by Opinium showed that more people still oppose the Government's social care plan, which includes hiking National Insurance payments, than support it. The survey of 2,000 adults found that 36 per cent backed the policy compared to 41 per cent who opposed it.

Come and visit my decaying hometown, Mr Gove

By James Frayne, the founding partner at policy research agency Public First

Despite its modern tram system and history, Nottingham’s future remains uncertain until big investment is made - Chris Hepburn/Photolibrary RM
Despite its modern tram system and history, Nottingham’s future remains uncertain until big investment is made - Chris Hepburn/Photolibrary RM

Michael Gove is a reformer with a record of success. It is good news the Prime Minister has put him in charge of levelling up. With three years until the next general election campaign starts, the Government must rapidly demonstrate progress.

In plotting his strategy, Mr Gove’s first stop should be Nottingham – a city which should make politicians question whether relying on big infrastructure can really level up the country, as many in government seem to think. A report by the Commission on Prosperity and Community Placemaking will ring a similar alarm about the futility of betting on infrastructure alone when it is published this week.

I consider Nottingham home. Born in a hospital long since demolished, I spent 20 years travelling on its green buses on weekly family visits. With the series of lockdowns, last month was my first visit for a year. While people remain as low-key-friendly as ever, with bus drivers endlessly refusing hard-pressed parents’ cash to pay kids’ fares, it was a depressing experience.

A shadow of its former self

The centre has deteriorated so much it bears no resemblance to the wealthy city it was in the late Nineties. The Broadmarsh Centre – always the lesser of two shopping malls in the city – is being knocked down, with the giant bus station which adjoined it already gone. No great losses in themselves. However, consequently, an array of adjacent shops are boarded up as they relocate to areas of higher footfall or close for good.

On the historic market square – scene of great Nottingham moments such as Torvill and Dean’s triumphant return from Olympic success – the massive boarded-up Debenhams casts a gloomy shadow. Beautiful city centre pubs struggle and one of Nottingham’s best restaurants has just radically downsized. Always the glamorous centre of the East Midlands, Nottingham feels less safe, less affluent and less fun than little, industrial Derby.

Back to levelling up and the warnings Nottingham provides. In fact, there are two. Firstly, and most obviously, on pace: the Government must get a move on improving town and city centres – and high streets, particularly. These are, after all, the beating hearts of our cities; they provide places with their identity and reflect and define civic pride. Nottingham’s centre has declined so far and fast it is hard to see how sufficient progress will be made on the current trajectory. (The same is true in many other towns and cities: Stoke, Walsall, Wolverhampton – the list goes on.)

Given it is the home of Robin Hood, Nottingham on paper should be thriving, not declining - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph
Given it is the home of Robin Hood, Nottingham on paper should be thriving, not declining - Andrew Crowley for The Telegraph

Secondly, it should emphatically warn the Government about relying on big infrastructure. Nottingham has a superb tram system, an expensively refurbished train station, great road and rail links, plentiful clean buses and easy international airport access. It has the beautiful River Trent and one of the world’s most famous former citizens in the shape of Robin Hood to attract tourists. On paper, the city should be thriving, not declining.

The reality is this: big infrastructure alone cannot arrest a city’s decline. It cannot keep shops, restaurants and pubs open; or alleviate homelessness; or prevent open drug use; or clean graffiti; or pick up litter in parks and shared spaces. It cannot make people feel safe or entertain them.

Presently, those advocating big infrastructure spending to level up the country are in the ascendancy. While they have a strong case – indeed, it is perfectly possible Nottingham would fare much worse without great infrastructure – they are ignoring the reality that cities such as Nottingham just are not that nice to be in anymore and residents are hiding in their nicer suburbs.

Go back to basics to level up

Temperamentally, politicians like big projects. On levelling up, however, they need to begin with the basics: better tax policies to encourage shops to open and stay open; liberalised trading laws to allow these shops to set their own hours; assertive police and security to make people feel safe; street cleaning, litter picking and planting trees and flowers to make places nicer to be around; restoring monuments and historic buildings to foster civic pride; encouraging markets, festivals and carnivals to encourage a sense of community. This week’s new report by the Commission on Prosperity and Community Placemaking looks to be essential reading.

There is a risk that the Government is set to create a whole load of towns and cities with smart trams and trains rattling around empty cities. Crucially for this government, there is also a risk they create towns and cities all with Labour MPs, mayors and councils because the Conservatives never managed to make any progress.

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