Is it really all doom and gloom for Blairites? Perhaps they should realise they have a champion in Michael Gove

His transformation from hated Thatcherite to darling of the liberal left is well under way

I declare an interest, in that I have known and liked Michael Gove since I worked with him at the BBC in the early 1990s. I listed him as one of the 10 most interesting British politicians two years ago and so he remains. Two years ago David Cameron agreed with me. He thought Gove was so interesting that he would have to be sacked. Being interesting as Education Secretary is asking for trouble. So now we have Nicky Morgan, who is trying the opposite approach. 

After a period as chief whip, Gove was appointed to a “delivery” job, as Justice Secretary, after the election. I was reminded of when Neil Kinnock told me a shadow cabinet reshuffle was like a jigsaw: “I couldn’t quite make the jigsaw come out the way I wanted, so I had to put a piece to one side.” That piece was Tony Blair, then 35, who was shadow Energy Secretary for a year before he could be slotted into the job Kinnock wanted for him, shadow Employment Secretary. 

Now Gove has been slotted into a job that Cameron wants for him. Just as Blair did at Employment, confounding expectations of Labour as a party in hock to trade union vested interests, Gove set about countering the image of the Conservatives as the punitive and authoritarian party. Just as Blair distinguished himself sharply from the Old-Labour Michael Meacher who had gone before, Gove used his predecessor Chris Grayling as a foil. 

Grayling was the hard man of the Tory right who took prisoners’ books away from them, forcing them to take drugs instead. He was the one who sold British prison services to Saudi Arabia. And when the Treasury asked him to cut legal aid further he offered another 9 per cent. Then along came Gove and reversed those decisions, one by one. 

Gove might have overdone it a nudge. You can tell when a personal spat has gone too far when politicians write a joint article for the national press. Hence the “Michael Gove and Chris Grayling” joint byline in The Daily Telegraph last week, united in declaring “there is no contradiction between being tough on crime and smart on rehabilitation”. 

Gove’s transformation from hated Thatcherite hammer of the teaching profession to darling of the liberal left is not complete, but it is under way. A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday this week found that Gove’s favourability rating had improved from minus 38 to minus 29 in the past three months. 

But let us not worry about opinion polls. Look what they did for us last year. Let us heed the sage advice of Philip Cowley, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, who commented on the polls pointing both ways on the EU: “There’s a very simple solution for anyone wondering which of the polls are right about the referendum, which is learn the lesson of May 2015, and don’t base your analysis or coverage on what the polls are saying.”

Let me base my analysis of Gove by saying how right and admirable I think he is. Prison reform is one of those unfashionable questions from which ambitious politicians shy. Although that does mean referring to opinion polls again, to note how unpopular it is to emphasise rehabilitation rather than locking criminals up. 

What is remarkable – and again, admirable – about Cameron is that he was a special adviser to Michael Howard when, as Home Secretary, he declared: “Prison works.” It was one of the most short-sighted and foolish slogans of modern politics. Prison works only in the shortest of terms, by taking people who might damage others out of circulation. In any longer view, prison is an efficient way of ensuring that criminals remain criminals and that petty criminals become serious criminals. That Gove and his friend the Prime Minister understand this is to their credit. 

The paradox is that Gove, the most Blairite member of this Government, is pursuing public service reform in a field that Blair himself never dared touch. Gove accelerated the Blairite revolution at Education, putting rocket boosters under the academies programme, and now wants to apply similar methods to prisons. 

When I say “similar methods” I mean above all clarity about objectives – in this case, cutting reoffending rates – focusing on “what works”, and open feedback, such as league tables. 

Gove has appointed Sir Michael Barber, who was head of Blair’s Delivery Unit, to the Ministry of Justice board. When Sir Michael came to talk to the “Blair Years” class at King’s College, London, this week, he said: “I am very glad that Michael Gove is now doing prison reform. New Labour could have done that.” 

Actually, they couldn’t. Blair had made his name by being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. As a Labour politician, he had to deliver on the first half of that slogan. I still remember The World This Weekend interview in which he unleashed the phrase in January 1993. Nick Clarke asked if he would allow the prison population to rise. “You’ve got to be prepared to punish those that have committed criminal offences,” he replied.  

It needs a Conservative politician to cut against expectations in the other direction, by being liberal but effective on prisons. That is the opportunity that Gove has spotted, with the full support of a prime minister who is looking to leave a compassionate Conservative legacy. 

In many ways, Cameron is an unsatisfactory “heir to Blair”. His record on public service reform is a mess. Look at the NHS. He abolished the Delivery Unit when he became Prime Minister, before reinventing it as the Implementation Unit two years later. It is now, under Oliver Letwin, backed up by ministerial Implementation Taskforces. But Cameron is like Blair in realising, late in the day, that he needs strong Blairite ministers to deliver change. 

All eyes are on Michael Gove this week as he agonises over Europe. Never mind such trivia. We should have our eyes on Gove and wish him the best in finally trying to bring some humanity and effectiveness to our prisons.

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