STEPHEN GLOVER: Why has Michael Gove – one of Britain’s brightest politicians – turned into such a zealot for lockdowns?
Michael Gove is to the Tory Party what Mikhail Suslov was to the Soviet Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s. Chief ideologue and brainbox.
But whereas Suslov was a hardliner and extreme authoritarian, Mr Gove was, until recently, seen as a social liberal and libertarian. One did not associate him with the expansion of State power.
Covid has changed all that. Somehow the pandemic has transformed the once broad-minded Cabinet Office Minister — it may sound an unimportant job, but he may well be the second most powerful man in the Government — into a sort of Tory Suslov.
Mr Gove reportedly argued strongly at a meeting last Wednesday for putting the whole of London into the extreme Tier Three, which would have devastated the capital’s already shaky economy.
Michael Gove is to the Tory Party what Mikhail Suslov was to the Soviet Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s. Chief ideologue and brainbox. But whereas Suslov was a hardliner and extreme authoritarian, Mr Gove was, until recently, seen as a social liberal and libertarian
Even Health Minister Matt Hancock, generally seen as the Cabinet’s leading extremist, did not go that far.
On Saturday morning, in the pages of his old newspaper, The Times, Mr Gove warned in a mammoth essay that every hospital in England risks being overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases if rebellious Conservative MPs fail to back the Government’s tough new restrictions in a vote that will take place tomorrow.
We can’t, of course, blame the chief ideologue for everything going wrong in our country. He is not personally responsible for the arrest by police last week of an elderly lady peacefully protesting outside Parliament. She was dragged, spread-eagled, into the back of a van.
Nor are the unsettling arrests of peaceful protesters in London on Saturday something we can lay specifically at his door. He is not directly accountable for the invasion of a church in Milton Keynes last week by nine police officers, who threatened the pastor. It turns out he was not breaking the law.
Mr Gove would probably be as appalled as any of us by these grotesque infringements of what we had believed to be our ancient liberties. But the fact remains that he is more responsible than anyone else (apart from Boris Johnson) for repressive laws which legitimise heavy-handed police behaviour.
He is not directly accountable for the invasion of a church in Milton Keynes last week by nine police officers, who threatened the pastor. It turns out he was not breaking the law
This surprises me. No, it shocks me. For whereas I had always assumed that Mr Johnson’s libertarianism was pretty shallow — a question of temperament, driven chiefly by his desire to do whatever he wants in life — I had thought Mr Gove’s was grounded in principle.
His essay in The Times is as good an example of sophistry as you could hope to find, seasoned with pieces of idiocy and obduracy which, despite his cleverness (or maybe because of it), Michael Gove has made his own.
For example, his central argument that hospitals would run out of beds without the new tier restrictions is not borne out.
He claimed, I think accurately, that across ‘the UK about 16,000 beds are filled with Covid-19 patients, which compares with almost 20,000 at the April peak’.
But he didn’t add that as the infection rate is already falling, reduced bed occupancy is likely to follow soon. Nor did he say that the proportion of beds filled by Covid patients is small.
In March of this year, the NHS had 101,255 general and acute beds available in England, plus 15,392 in Scotland and 10,563 in Wales. Balanced? Or slippery?
Even more bizarrely, he argued that overflowing hospitals could precipitate an economic collapse, asking: ‘Would families seek out crowded bars and buzzing restaurants if they knew that they could be infecting friends and relatives who could not be treated if they fell ill?’
For whereas I had always assumed that Mr Johnson’s libertarianism was pretty shallow — a question of temperament, driven chiefly by his desire to do whatever he wants in life — I had thought Mr Gove’s was grounded in principle
Maybe not — if hospitals really were bursting. But it seems a silly argument given that the tier system which he champions is likely to do so much damage to the economy from next Wednesday.
Nowhere in his piece did he address the enormous harm which tier restrictions are bound to cause. According to the respected Centre for Economics and Business Research, they will cost England a staggering £900 million a day.
Mr Gove also did not honestly consider in his article the baffling inconsistencies of the new system, which lumps together areas with low and high infection rates. His justification for these anomalies is that ‘we are a small, densely populated country where the virus has proven it can spread with ease’.
Try telling that to the owner of a pub or restaurant which has been closed in a part of the country where there are relatively few cases.
This is monstrous — an arbitrary extension of State power such as we have probably never seen in peace time since the dawn of the democratic age.
Thanks to the dodgy calculations of the perennially incompetent, insufferably presumptuous Department of Health, some 16.4 million people in 88 boroughs have been shoved into the most extreme Tier Three, even though the infection rate there is lower than in some areas of Tier Two.
He is not personally responsible for the arrest by police last week of an elderly lady peacefully protesting outside Parliament. She was dragged, spread-eagled, into the back of a van
How can the supposedly enlightened Michael Gove bring himself to support such overbearing behaviour? It is as though when he gets the argumentative bit between his teeth, he charges on irrespective of common sense and human realities.
In this mood, he will seemingly seize any argument that comes to hand. In his essay, he justified the Government’s harsh measures by invoking European Union countries which he claimed had acted similarly. This from the brains behind Brexit, the chief benefit of which was supposed to be that we didn’t have to follow the EU herd!
Even his credibility can be jettisoned when his back is against the wall. After Dominic Cummings had driven to Barnard Castle during the lockdown, allegedly to check his eyesight, Mr Gove so lost his sense of proportion that he declared during a radio interview that he had ‘on occasion’ driven to test his own eyes.
Admittedly, he can be persuasive. Indeed, when in a fix, No 10 sometimes despatches Mr Gove onto the airwaves in the knowledge that he will be able produce a sinuous argument to suit any occasion.
Back in April, he praised Johnson’s ‘strong, inspirational’ leadership after reports that the Prime Minister had missed five important COBRA meetings as Covid-19 spread.
This was the same Mr Gove who in 2016 pronounced that Boris was not fit to be a leader.
It doesn’t seem to worry him that the Government sometimes changes a policy he has just robustly defended. Not long after The Times essay had appeared, the PM embarked on yet another partial climbdown, intimating a change in tier rules and their possible abolition from February 3.
There’s no doubting Mr Gove is a man of deep convictions. The trouble is that those convictions can veer off in other directions. I won’t be surprised if one day he re-embraces his inner liberalism.
Just now, though, the man whom many people, myself included, once thought the cleverest and most reliable in an intellectually wobbly Cabinet turns out to be the most dangerous.
Michael Gove could have been the voice of sanity during this awful pandemic. As it is, because of his zealotry, the chief ideologue of Covid has become the biggest threat to our hopes of getting out of the mess we’re in.
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