The sense of deja vu for Michael Gove must have been overwhelming. As he spoke to The Mail on Sunday on a stormy evening in West London, Donald Trump’s doctors were preparing to move the US President to hospital – having previously insisted that he was ‘in good spirits’ and displaying only ‘mild symptoms’ of Covid-19.
The echoes of Boris Johnson’s own ordeal in April were obvious, an experience which Mr Gove recalls as ‘terrifying’, but which he also uses to justify his new stance as the authoritarian enforcer of Covid restrictions.
Mr Gove, the former idol of the free-market, libertarian wing of the Tory Party has become one of the leading Cabinet advocates of the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, infuriating the hospitality sector and alienating his backbenchers who claim that he has turned Britain into a ‘nanny state’ which dishes out ‘socialist’ handouts.
Describing the virus as a ‘remorseless Darwinian enemy’, he is defiant. ‘I think what we’re doing is making sure that we can safeguard the lives of people who are genuinely vulnerable,’ he says. ‘I’m a natural libertarian but the key thing is, in a virus situation, it’s not a simple matter of your own freedom to act as you wish.’
Michael Gove, the former idol of the free-market, libertarian wing of the Tory Party has become one of the leading Cabinet advocates of the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants
Explaining his ‘authoritarianism’ further, he says: ‘Our actions have an impact on others.
‘The decisions that we take about our own lifestyle, the state should be very wary about interfering in, but where there is a direct effect on others and, in particular, when behaviour can lead to the most vulnerable in our society facing risks to their health that none of us would want to see visited on our own friends and relatives.
‘That means we all have to exercise a bit of restraint. To be fair, those who have been critical of some of the detail of the regulations accept there does have to be some constraint on freedom at the moment for people to have the greater freedom of being able to lead their lives at the end of this pandemic as effectively as possible.’
Mr Gove, who is rivalled only by Chancellor Rishi Sunak among Cabinet Ministers for his reach, influence – and ambition – in the Government, also insists the curfew and ‘rule of six’ restriction on gatherings is already starting to contain the second ‘spike’ in infections.
‘It is definitely helping,’ he says, before carefully qualifying ‘it is too soon to put out the bunting’.
‘The lesson of the virus is it can’t be bargained with. You can’t say to the virus, “Look, we’ve put in all these measures, come on, give up”.’ He is careful not to take credit for the controversial 10pm policy, however. Despite multiple reports that he led the charge to bring in the cut-off, as a way of avoiding a ‘circuit breaker’ national lockdown, Gove says the idea came from senior civil servants reporting to the Covid taskforce: ‘It was the right thing to do but it wasn’t my idea.’
Glen Owen and Anna Mikhailova sit down with Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Environment Secretary George Eustice led attempts within the Cabinet to introduce a more graduated cut-off point to prevent pub-goers from spilling out together in close proximity, only for Mr Gove to insist on a hard guillotine at 10pm.
‘I’m not in favour of guillotines, that would be going too far,’ he jokes. ‘You can’t go into what people discuss in Cabinet committee meetings but the policy was agreed.’
Likewise, he dismisses any talk of splits in Cabinet over the strategy – which some say have left the Treasury ‘tearing its hair out’ over the devastating impact on the hospitality industry – saying: ‘We are all on one page.’
He has seen the impact of his restrictions first-hand at his favourite Italian restaurant in Kensington, which has found it ‘very, very tough’ to survive.
But he says: ‘It’s better than the alternative, which would be to see the virus grow at such a rate that we would see businesses close in even greater numbers.’
As President Trump enters the toughest phase of his battle with coronavirus – ‘I wish him well but of course because it’s a month out from an election and, because Trump is Trump, the speculation will be all the more furious’ – Mr Gove is at pains to dismiss claims Mr Johnson is still struggling with the mental and physical effects of Covid. The Prime Minister is now back at ‘120 per cent’, Mr Gove says. ‘He’s fitter than ever and his wit and his jokes are sharper than ever. He’s the person with the most energy in any room he’s in.’
Mr Gove insists the curfew and ‘rule of six’ restriction on gatherings is already starting to contain the second ‘spike’ in infections
The US President has raised questions about the origins of the virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan, with some members of the scientific community suspecting it could be the result of an accident at a laboratory in the area.
Has that been ruled out by the Government? ‘I haven’t been in a position where I could comment with any authority on that, but there has been no one who has been working on that basis. That stuff is either above my pay grade or beyond my expertise, or both.’
As one of the architects of Brexit in the Vote Leave campaign, Mr Gove has been working closely with Mr Johnson’s Brexit negotiator, David Frost, over plans for the UK’s exit, concentrating on preparations for the failure of trade negotiations with the EU.
What chance does he think there is of a deal? ‘I’m not a betting man,’ he says, pointing to the pessimism over agreeing a Withdrawal Agreement a year ago.
‘We got the Withdrawal Agreement through. Now when it comes to securing a negotiated outcome, I’m hopeful, but we’ve got to be ready for every eventuality.’
Deal or no deal, he is ‘concerned’ about how prepared businesses – and the country as a whole – are for January 1. ‘One of the things that we’re trying to do is to make sure everyone appreciates things will change as a result of being outside the Single Market and the Customs Union. We will have huge freedoms but it is also the case that there will be new customs processes for which business need to be ready.’
Mr Gove, who grew up in Aberdeen with his adoptive parents, is passionately worried about the growing threat to the Union from Scottish independence campaigners, and has been meeting business leaders and politicians to ‘make the case’ for the Union.
He says the Margaret Ferrier scandal – the MP was stripped of the SNP whip after travelling from Glasgow to London despite developing Covid symptoms, and back again on the train after testing positive – has ‘brought out’ concerns over having a separate contact tracing regime in Scotland.
Environment Secretary George Eustice (pictured) led attempts within the Cabinet to introduce a more graduated cut-off point to prevent pub-goers from spilling out together in close proximity, only for Mr Gove to insist on a hard guillotine at 10pm
‘We originally suggested to the Scottish government that we should have a cross-UK approach, and they thought no,’ he says.
‘I think I can understand why, but what it has reinforced is the fact that there are millions of people living and working at different points in their weekly lives across the UK, so working together on something like that I think is sensible.’
Mr Gove, 53, says he works too hard to keep a diary of his extraordinary time in power – in the manner of the ‘fascinating’ but ‘skewed’ diaries of Sasha Swire, which filleted his former friends David Cameron and George Osborne – and spends what little downtime he has watching football with his son. His QPR app sits proudly next to the NHS Test and Trace app on his phone.
Until then he will be juggling responsibility for Brexit, no deal preparedness and Covid.
He is animated when he describes his desire – shared with long-term ally Dominic Cummings – to shake up the Establishment with reforms to the BBC and the Civil Service.
‘One of the things that I’m trying to do with the Civil Service is to say we have the best Civil Service in the world but we need more people from Middlesbrough and not just Magdalen College.
‘We need more people who have the sort of life experience that means they understand the impact of the policies they are responsible for might have on people from challenging circumstances.’
His day is long. ‘I get up before seven and sometimes votes go on in the House of Commons until ten, but I try to get home before eight, have something to eat, work on my [ministerial] box. Most weekends are taken up with several hours of work but there are different ways of having time off. So, eating with the family, helping my daughter with her homework.
‘Maybe I should have a problem sleeping but it’s the one thing I don’t have a difficulty doing.’
He admits his workload drives his wife, The Mail on Sunday’s new columnist Sarah Vine, mad. He is, though, happy that ‘the best columnist on Fleet Street’ is now ‘working for the best newspaper’.
Does he try to influence what she writes? ‘She’ll sometimes ask me why on earth the Government is doing X or Y and I’ll do my best to explain,’ he says.
‘Then she tears the argument to shreds in the paper.’