Michael Gove reassures the Commons on cladding – and saves Boris Johnson’s bacon


Michael Gove could easily have fallen flat on his face on Monday. Literally. He’s a clever man, but with a touch of slapstick – he began the day by getting stuck in a lift at the BBC, as well as phoning in to LBC to admit that he doesn’t know (no one knows) how many buildings are affected by the dangerous cladding it is his job to fix.

Yet even that phone call, which the minister could easily have been conducting from a bath into which he had accidentally poured a packet of cement, was reassuring. No one knows what they’re doing in Government. Gove at least gives the impression that he knows what he doesn’t know, and that brings comfort.

In fact, his statement to the Commons on Monday afternoon saved the PM’s bacon.

Grenfell Tower burned down nearly five years ago: not only are thousands of leaseholders still stuck in high-rise housing that is just as unsafe but the position under the previous minister, Robert Jenrick, was that the leaseholders should largely pay the costs of fixing it, which is wickedly unfair.

Mr Jenrick got the sack; Mr Gove took his place. Seeking to make amends and relaunch the government in one go, he told MPs that leaseholders will now not be liable for costs and the contractors responsible for the mess will pick up the tab.

“To those who sold dangerous products, or who cut corners, or sought to profiteer from the Grenfell tragedy – we are coming for you,” he said.

‘I understand her scepticism’

Labour couldn’t argue with that. They tried. What if the contractors won’t budge, said Lisa Nandy, the shadow housing bod. It’s the Treasury that will have the final say on any punitive windfall tax, and if the public ends up paying, the cash will come from Gove’s budget, robbing Peter to pay Paul. The bottom line: why should we trust the Government when it’s taken several years to take serious action?

“I understand her scepticism,” said Mr Gove – an odd move, you might think, but smart. By being ultra-polite and conceding past error, he spent 90 minutes drawing a line between his new order and the one that came before – effectively throwing Mr Jenrick under the bus, not with a hard push, mind, but the gentlest of shoves.

Eventually, Mr Jenrick stood up, glum in a black suit, like a provincial undertaker, and congratulated his successor for doing the right thing – triggering laughter and cries of “shame” from the opposition.

Mr Gove rushed to his defence. “If you knew what I know about how hard Robert worked to try to achieve justice,” he said angrily, “you wouldn’t be trying to make a cheap point… I’m not having it.”

“Let it go, Michael!” you might think. “Thangam Debbonaire’s not worth it!” But by defending Mr Jenrick’s honour, Mr Gove handed a rival back his dignity and closed any rift between them.

Watching this, one can better understand how a man who famously betrayed the PM came to be an indispensable part of his team – because he is a talented bureaucrat (even some Labourites acknowledge it) and he is emollient, the total opposite of the ideologue the Left paints him as. He’ll go far, will Michael. So long as he doesn’t tie his shoelaces together.


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