“You have no enemies, you say? Alas, my friend, the boast is poor. He who has mingled in the fray of duty that the brave endure, must have made foes. If you have none, small is the work you have done.”
Fans of Netflix’s The Crown may remember this poem, by Scottish poet, journalist and novelist Charles Mackay, from one of the weekly encounters between Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher. The new Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, has already acquired many enemies of his own over the years and now Boris Johnson has more too, following his recent, ruthless Cabinet reshuffle.
Much has been made in media comment of the all-too-brief innings of Housing Secretaries and the still shorter times Housing Ministers seem to stay in bat. However, Gove’s appointment comes at a time of major national upheaval and could have significant consequences for the development industry.
Firstly, it looks unlikely that the Planning Bill will proceed in its current form. The displeasure that it was causing on the Conservative backbenches and the criticism it has received from leading figures such as Theresa May showed that it was not going to clear the Commons. Tory opposition has been widespread and deep – starting with opposition to the proposals for ‘planning by algorithm’, organised among Conservative-run local authorities a year ago. Their case was bolstered by the result of the Chesham & Amersham by-election and the deeper advance of independents in the Home Counties in this May’s local elections. Charles Mackay may have a point that “… small is the work you have done” if you have no enemies, but a Prime Minister simply cannot afford to lose too many by-elections and have tens of thousands of traditional Tory voters get out of the habit of voting Tory.
Secondly, it is notable that Gove’s mandate stretches beyond the MHCLG brief as it was under Robert Jenrick, and includes the crucial responsibilities of ‘levelling up’ and saving the Union. Planning reform is a fundamental piece of work for Johnson who understands the importance of the transition to home ownership for the Conservative Party’s continued electoral success. While we would expect some aspects of the Planning Bill to survive – the emphasis on high-quality design being a good example – there are signs that the Government may try to tackle the challenge in a different way. Some Conservative MPs, who have recently discussed the issue with Gove, have noted the emphasis he places on the fact that only 15% of house price inflation from the past two decades is the result of a lack of supply. Taking this route would enable the Government to back down with honour on the issue and, instead, look at changes to the rules on credit and buy-to-let. Maybe we will also see a further tightening of the rules around the provision of affordable housing.
Thirdly, Gove has a record of delivering in challenging environments. He combines a reputation for charm and ruthlessness (an article in the New Statesman referred to him as ‘the polite assassin’) and these qualities enabled him, notably, to push through significant reforms to education during the Coalition Government. He will need the same qualities in spadefuls if he is to reconcile the differing interests of the coalition (traditional southern Tories along with new supporters in the Midlands and North) that brought the current Government to power.
The Tories will have to work hard if they are to keep their current, unlikely coalition of supporters together. Up to 2019, the Party’s ‘Thatcherite’ pitch was paying ever-diminishing dividends and had not delivered a decent Parliamentary majority since 1987. Gove’s job is, therefore, crucial to Johnson’s success and survival. The Prime Minister has a lot invested in a man who once ‘knifed him in the back’. If Charles Mackay were still around today, he’d undoubtedly find his poetic skills tested to their limits to portray the complexities of that relationship in verse.