Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Michael Gove whips up plenty of bonhomie for debut

Gove has been released from the Trappist silence of his role as Chief Whip

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Indy Politics

He’s back, and oozing bonhomie. Released from the Trappist silence of his role as Chief Whip, Michael Gove used his first post-election Commons appearance to lavish praise all round. Once, he gallantly defended his old boss Rupert Murdoch from “the chilling atmosphere” generated by a certain hacking enquiry. But he announced that thanks to the “able leadership shown by our judiciary – in particular, Sir Brian Leveson – we are now in a position to reform access to justice” Peace offering or joke? With Gove you never know.

Admittedly it isn’t difficult for a Justice Minister to be consensual if he chooses since few MPs are openly in favour of crime. So Labour’s Keith Vaz noted how “impressive” the Lord Chancellor had “looked in his new robes.” Gove praised the “exemplary” job the newly re-elected Vaz does as Home Affairs Select Committee chairman. Since that mainly consists of tormenting Gove’s arch-enemy Theresa May, this was probably sincere. “When it comes to cutting a sartorial dash, there are few who can match him.” Gove purred less convincingly. This was bordering on the camp.

Vaz was, Gove said, “absolutely right” to raise the problem of drugs in prisons, an issue worrying other Labour MPs. Jenny Chapman said the Chief Inspector of Prisons had complained that Pentonville lacked a “drugs supply strategy”. Since Pentonville presumably needs a drugs non-supply strategy, this was an unfortunate turn of phrase, which wouldn’t pass Gove’s strictures to civil servants on verbal clarity (as revealed in the Independent on Sunday).

The most bizarre of these insisted on “make sure” rather than “ensure.” Yet with reckless abandon, Gove used the banned e-word at least 10 times, as in “It is vital that we ensure that the advice that civil servants give to ministers... is protected.” This concerned his intention to “review” Freedom of Information – ie have less of it.

Lest anyone thinks that Gove – who famously resisted a FOI ruling that he should release some emails – was trying to prevent ministerial embarrassment, he explained touchingly that there was a “duty of care” to civil servants to keep a “safe space” for their policy advice. Especially when it is overruled, presumably.

The female lead in Gove’s team is Caroline Dinenage, who trips, even shimmies, to the despatch box. Asked by the SNP’s Richard Arkless if the ministry was a living-wage employer she hesitated before saying she thought so, and then added: “I am looking at that moving forward.” Ouch. You have to hope that wouldn’t get past Gove’s syntax police.