20/12/2017 20:23 GMT | Updated 21/12/2017 09:00 GMT

The Comeback Kid: How Michael Gove Is Saving The Tories

He's gone from zero to hero in six months.


Michael Gove has a mantra: “You always have less time than you think.”

That might explain why he has been so energetic in his first six months as Defra Secretary.

CCTV in all slaughterhouses, a proposed ban on bee-killing pesticides, reintroducing beavers into the UK, making the sale of products with microbeads illegal, a ban on ivory sales  – all measures pushed forward by Gove since rejoining the Cabinet in June.

His work hasn’t gone unnoticed by environmentalists and others who fall under Defra’s sprawling remit, with many praising Gove for being accessible, informed and decisive. 

It is certainly a marked change from a year ago, when Gove was on the backbench naughty step for his betrayal of Boris Johnson.

His banishment came after a brief stint as Justice Secretary – in which he never got the time to implement any radical changes; a disastrous period as chief whip – he got locked in a toilet on his first day and nearly oversaw a Government defeat on the European Arrest Warrant; and a controversial four years as Education Secretary.

But he is now winning plaudits for his environmental and animal welfare work, and it is coming at just the right time for the Tories.

After the disastrous election campaign, those at the centre of the Tory Party knew they needed to talk about more than Brexit if they were to stand any chance of winning back younger voters.

Sajid Javid is desperately trying to ignite a house building revolution at the Department of Communities and Local Government, but the Tory spinners realised pretty quickly after the June result the party needs to show a more caring image on issues such as animal welfare.

Theresa May’s announcement during the election campaign she supports a free vote on reintroducing fox hunting was picked up as evidence of the ‘same old Tories’ being on the ballot paper.

Laura Round, from the liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue, explained: “One of the main reasons the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority in 2017 was their failure to appeal to younger and socially liberal voters, especially in metropolitan areas.

“Bright Blue research shows that the Conservative Party could woo these younger voters by championing environmental policies. 

“For instance, our polling found that 77% of under 40s would be proud to vote for a party that banned the sale of all ivory products in the UK - a pledge that was missing from the party’s recent manifesto.”

Since the election, the animal welfare and environmental agenda has gone into overdrive, with much of it pushed forward by two of May’s closest advisors: former MP Gavin Barwell and ex-BBC Westminster chief Robbie Gibb.

Small groups of MPs have been invited in for briefings, where they have been told the environment is one of seven new policy principles which will be focused on.

One senior Tory told HuffPost UK: “It’s been a Number 10 strategy for some time. Robbie Gibb wants to make the Tory party the animal welfare party.”

Steve Back via Getty Images
Theresa May's Director of Communication Robbie Gibb wants the Tories to rediscover their love of animal welfare.

The message is clearly being embraced by MPs, who enthusiastically bombard Twitter and Facebook with graphics prepared by Conservative HQ flagging up the Government’s green achievements.

Yet even the very best salesman need a product to sell, and Gove has more than obliged with a string of policy announcements and well received interventions.

One Defra source told HuffPost UK that some of the wins – CCTV in slaughterhouses, banning microbeads – had been brought to the cusp of fruition during Andrea Leadsom’s year heading the department, but Gove was able to get them out of the door.

“Andrea nearly had the CCTV policy signed off just before the election. Good policy ideas have been around the department for several years but have not been able to get across the line,” they said, adding: “Gove’s a big hitter, a big figure in Government.”

Gove’s enthusiasm for pushing through policies is not just motivated by a desire to notch up the wins. More than one source told HuffPost UK Gove’s passion for the environment and animal welfare is as much a driving force as his political motivations. 

Defra has gone from being one of the more looney departments to one of the most important. RSPCA's David Bowles

Yet while Downing Street are happy for now to keep Gove on a long leash, next year might see them yanking the chain to bring him to heel.

In her update to MPs on the completion of phase one of the Brexit talks on Monday, the Prime Minister revealed the UK’s continuation in the common fisheries policy during any implementation period is still up for negotiations.

Yet with the EU determined to stop the UK having any say in the decision-making process during the two-year implementation period, fish quotas affecting British waters could be decided without a representative of UK fishing present.

As the Brexit campaign revealed, fishing is an issue close to Gove’s heart, as he claimed he had watched his father’s family business “going to the wall” because of Brussels-imposed quotas.

A Defra source revealed to HuffPost UK Gove’s determination to take back control of fishing policy hardened after watching summer blockbuster ‘Dunkirk’.

“This shows why we should care for our fishing industry – it was there in our hour of need,” Gove apparently said after seeing how 850 private boats, many of them fishing vessels, sailed across the Channel to help rescue Allied forces.

It could be that Gove cashes in on his new-found Downing Street admiration to insist the common fisheries policy is taking out of the implementation agreement.

Getting The Message? There is a pro-green blitz from Tories on social media.

As well as giving Tory MPs something to talk about that isn’t Brexit, Gove’s flurry of activity has been welcomed outside Westminster.

David Bowles, head of public affairs at the RSPCA, says the Defra Secretary has “certainly hit the ground running”.

“Defra has gone from being one of the more looney departments to one of the most important,” says Bowles, adding: “He is the most accessible Secretary of State we have had in a decade – he’s always open to address and evaluate the evidence.”

Gove’s willingness to engage is repeated by different groups who come under his department’s remit.

Ian Wright, the Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, describes Gove as “one of the Cabinet’s heaviest hitters” and says: “It’s clear he’s very passionate about the UK food and drink industry and this is reflected in the way he and his team have engaged with us across a wide range of issues.”

A spokesman for the National Farmers Union said the organisation has already had “several useful meetings” with Gove, adding that he has “also spent time meeting many of our farming members throughout the country.”

Even Green MP Caroline Lucas has sprinkled a few drops of praise on Gove.

She told HuffPost UK: “Though Michael Gove and the Tories are at least trying to be taken seriously on protecting the environment, their record suggests they still have a long way to go on these issues.”

Lucas said the Government’s backing of fracking, its lack of support for clean energy and cuts to subsidies for solar power, and continuation of the badger cull were examples of where the green revolution was falling short. 

“So while we of course celebrate wins like the phasing out of coal, including animal sentience in future legislation and banning microbeads, we’re yet to be convinced of the Government’s commitment to green issues.”

The question mark over his trustworthiness, that doesn’t just go away. Tory MP

Gove’s determination to get under the bonnet of the department means he has been determined to engage not just with those at the top of the various industries but those directly affected by his decisions.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries told HuffPost UK about how Gove came to her rescue during an emotional meeting with farmers from Mid Bedfordshire constituency.

The Government had just announced its intention to ban neonicotinoids – the pesticide linked to a decline in the bee population – and while environmentalists cheered Gove’s decision, farmers fear it could lead to failing crops, a message emotionally conveyed to Dorries.

The MP sent Gove a text message asking for some reassuring words to tell the farmers, but instead of a written reply, she got a phone call.

“I said, ’Michael, I’m going to put you on speaker phone,” Dorries recalls, adding: “It was like the Secretary of State stepped into the room. He spoke to them all and listened to their concerns.

“That was a powerful moment and everyone of these men trusted him.”

Trusting Michael Gove? That’s a risky business, as anyone involved in Boris Johnson’s campaign to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister will attest.

Dorries was one of those who backed the now-Foreign Secretary for the top job, and her shocked reaction his decision not to stand in the leadership race provided a memorable moment from those chaotic few days in June 2016.

Johnson’s announcement came just hours after Gove announced he would be putting himself forward for the top job, claiming the former London Mayor could not “provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”

“I was pretty gutted by what he did,” says Dorries. “I know some people who were angrier with him than I was.”

One Tory MP who backed Johnson for the leadership told HuffPost UK that while they were pleased to see Gove – “a big reformer” – back in Cabinet after a year on the backbenchers, they still hadn’t forgiven him for his betrayal.

They said: “Water under the bridge? That would have to be a lot of water and a big bridge.

“It was a very, very high profile and effectively aimed act of disloyalty. It’s not the kind of thing you can just ignore.

“At some point in the future there will be a time when people will go ‘Am I going to put my career in his hands and share a level of personal and professional intimacy with him? I don’t know how I feel about that?’

“The question mark over his trustworthiness, that doesn’t just go away.”