Michael Gove

Gove proves ultimate shapeshifter while Eustice leads masterclass in banality

As the body count continues to rise and the government’s failures become more and more obvious – just imagine how many more people might have died if Matt Hancock hadn’t thrown his protective ring around care homes from the very start – you can sense ministers and scientists increasingly socially distancing themselves from any sense of responsibility.

Head meet sand. What contact tracing app that was supposed to be the key to ending lockdown? Oh that one! We never meant to imply it was that important. Or that it would necessarily be ready when we said it would. Rather it was just an adjunct to some other measures that we haven’t yet thought of. So we are in a game of musical chairs for the morally bankrupt. Which means that Michael Gove is in with a definite chance of winning.

Gove is the ultimate shapeshifter. The politician who, more than any other, bends reality to suit his needs. Tonight, Matthew, he will be whoever he wants to be. All failures and shortcomings rewritten as outstanding successes. His two attempts to become party leader? Massive triumphs.

Listening to the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster – there is no Brexit secretary any more – answer an urgent question on the third round of Brexit talks that had ended in deadlock you would have had no idea the UK was in the middle of the biggest public health crisis for a century. Or that the economy was contracting by the day and that there were now 10 million people on the furlough scheme, many of whom could be out of a job within months.

Rather it was as if the clock had been rewound six months to the Brexit culture wars of late 2019. There wasn’t even a nod to the fact that it might be prudent to even consider the idea of extending transition by a short period, just to see what kind of state both the UK and the EU might be in come December. And whether we might cooperate with one another. Rather, we were fighting an ideological war in which everything Brussels did or said was bad and independence day couldn’t come soon enough.

How dare the EU insist on making the demands it had always said it would make and had been largely agreed in the political declaration of the withdrawal agreement? And how dare Brussels demand we keep a level playing field on standards, hygiene and workers’ rights when ours were already far higher than the EU’s? Apart from the ones we were were going to lower to get a free trade agreement with the US.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves did try to talk Mikey down. Though appealing to his reason is never the best tactic, as the Govester isn’t strong on rationality. She rightly observed that seven months wasn’t long to try to iron out all the remaining details – the cabinet can’t even agree among itself whether customs and border checks will be needed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and that adding to the uncertainty in such uncertain times was potentially catastrophic.

Gove had no answer other than to accuse Labour of having no clear plan and that he was sticking to his own regardless. Get Brexit Done. Which had been rather Reeves’s point all along. That not having a clear Brexit plan and hedging your bets over the length of transition was the only sensible option under the circumstances.

In the end the Speaker had to interrupt Mikey mid-rant but Gove continued in much the same vein for the rest of the half-hour session. Why were people so obsessed with the coronavirus? It was just an EU plot to thwart Brexit. The people had voted for Brexit and that was what they were going to get. Regardless of how many people had to die or lose their jobs in the process.

As if to reinforce the idea that the government was fed up with everyone going on about the coronavirus – what was the big deal about 50,000 deaths and the disappearance from public view of Boris Johnson? – the environment minister, George Eustice, was sent out to take the Downing Street press conference. Because no one is more likely to make people reach for the off button than the most forgettable of cabinet ministers. More so even than Thérèse Coffey, who at least has some unintended comedy value. Earlier in the day she had unwittingly told the BBC that there were plenty of unfilled jobs. I guess she had the Cabinet in mind.

Eustice did the prime minister proud by giving a masterclass in banality. He had come with nothing to say and was determined to make sure he said it. So he raced through the same slides that have been shown at every other press conference, before lamenting there were no foreigners to pick soft fruit these days – who would have guessed? – and begging Brits on furlough to support the national effort. It still hasn’t dawned on the government that EU workers were quite handy for doing the low-paid work Brits couldn’t be bothered to do.

Within minutes the minister had put almost his entire audience to sleep. That meant few heard him saying it had been a brilliant idea to stop testing and tracing in March because it made the current levels of testing look all the more impressive. And it had been absolutely right to fill care homes with residents who hadn’t been tested because zzzzzzzzz take back control zzzzzzz making our own laws zzzzzzzz and they would have died sooner or later anyway zzzzzzzz. Come the end, I couldn’t even be sure if Eustice was still awake. Another day had passed in which no one had taken responsibility for anything.