Voices: Michael Gove, the one great Tory reformer, has been set his ‘mission impossible’

“Guess who’s back? MG’S BACK.” For those not on the inside of the Westminster bubble, “MG” is how many of those who have worked with him refer to Michael Gove – and this is the kind of phrase that did the WhatsApp rounds as the reshuffle unfolded last week.

Rishi Sunak’s decision to return Gove to government, to his previous stomping ground in the Department for Levelling Up, caused a great flurry of excitement among political and policy geeks.

The reason is that he is the rarest of rare things in the current generation of Conservative politicians – a doer. He’s someone who doesn’t just talk the talk (by, for example, throwing fuel on various culture war bonfires) but also walks the walk. He gets s*** done.

He’s someone whom civil servants – generally not Tories – often like working with too. With the exception of his reign at the Department for Education alongside Dominic Cummings, his other departmental spells (at the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Environment and now the levelling up department) have been marked by many mandarins fawning over his commitment to good policy and successful delivery.

It’s easy to forget that before Brexit destroyed his liberal copybook he was the Conservative who wanted to reform the prison service – and in the process accepted that throwing away the key wasn’t always the best criminal justice solution. You’d get the same story from many civil servants in the Department for Levelling Up, especially those concerned with the sorry state of housing policy: he was good to work with and interested in evidence and solutions.

But it is the modernising wing of the Conservatives – what’s left of the Cameroons – who most admire him and his reforming zeal.

And so, as I’m someone who is very keen for Labour to win the next election, he is the politician I most worry has the potential to upset the smooth procession of the current polls. Could he possibly deliver something – anything – in the red wall between now and 2024 that means the voters there give the Tories another shot? Obviously, this is what Sunak is hoping.

The short answer is that it’s extremely unlikely. Two years is a vanishingly small amount of time to deliver tangible change in any community or public service. Gove, admittedly, does have his levelling up white paper, which he published before the Johnson and Truss governments crumbled, but it’s still little more than a set of ideas.

But what is it that the voters in the towns and small cities made politically famous by the 2019 landslide – Bury, Doncaster and Middlesbrough – want?

They have made it clear in poll after poll and focus group after focus group that what they want is not complicated. They want their high streets to be brought back to life and they want less crime and less anti-social behaviour; they want safe parks and pubs and communal spaces where they can meet friends and family; they want more police and more jobs and better transport and parking.

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Like I say, the ask isn’t complicated. But the delivery sure is, and Gove will know it.

So all he can truly hope for is to set a tone, to offer hope and firm commitments. And maybe – just maybe – a few shovels in the ground that promise shiny new buildings. But even the simple stuff – a few well-maintained hanging baskets and flowerbeds for example – is really hard to deliver at scale and at the speed Gove and Sunak will need.

As such, it seems rather like the one great reformer of the past 12 years of Conservative rule has just been set his “mission impossible” – and that the voters of the red wall are likely to judge “levelling up” an empty phrase or an unfulfilled promise.

The question, therefore, is: if Gove is set to disappoint, can Labour persuade voters that they can succeed where the Conservatives have failed?

Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First