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9th May 2024

Michael Gove on how the Tories can win the next election

Michael Gove


When I hear the pessimistic talk about the upcoming General Election, I think back to the 2017 vote during which the Conservatives went more than 20 points ahead in the polls. Everyone thought that it was going be a landslide. In fact by the time we got to election day, we ended up forfeiting our majority and managing to govern with the support of the DUP.

At the moment people are telling you that the next election is a foregone conclusion since Labour are 20 points ahead, and that there is an automatic inevitability regarding what will happen in the next election. However, there’s a lot we can still do: we can ensure that Labour are facing the kind of scrutiny that they have managed to evade for the last four years and see that the holes and weaknesses in their policy prospectus are held up to effective attack.

Of course, if we are going to do that, we have got to move the conversation on from some of the introspective chatter to which Conservative MPs can sometimes be prone. We need to start by being proud of our achievements.

For instance, the education reforms that we brought in in the early years of Conservative-led government were bitterly contested. We were told that those reforms would make no difference and that we were on an ideological jolly that would end in tears. Thirteen years later, and we have seen a decisive move towards higher standards for all of our children and for those of us who care about social mobility. One of the most striking things, is that it’s not just the case that school standards have improved – it’s also the case that the poorest children have benefitted most.  When we came to power in 2010, more boys from Eton went to Oxford and Cambridge than boys eligible for free school places. Now we have a dramatically increased number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds at our best universities than at any time since the Second Wold War.

It is not just strength and confidence in our record that we need. We also need to make sure that we go into the next election with a manifesto which is based on hope. We have to show that as a party that believes in capitalism that the next generation has the chance to acquire capital and a chance to acquire the homes that they will grow their families in and pass on to the next generation. We also need to make sure that we have policies on the provision of infrastructure – on liberating industry and enterprise, on having a tax structure that makes sure that people will put in that extra effort in order to make this country great.

Thirdly, we need to make sure that people understand the risk of Labour as well. In many areas Labour are weak, where their policy mixes are either entirely toxic or entirely absent and it is our responsibility to make sure that at the next election rather than it being simply a referendum on this government, it becomes a choice between the chance to extend opportunity and a Labour party who will put everything that we have achieved in the last 13 years in jeopardy.

Let’s take the welfare system as an example. Under the Conservatives this has been reformed though universal credit, and this was another policy which was vigorously contested by the opposition. It has resulted not only in operational success but it also meant that during the Covid-19 pandemic we were able to get help to those who most needed it remarkably quickly. Under Labour between 1997 and 2010, a million more people became unemployed. By stark contrast, we have created more than a million new jobs while we have been in power. To my mind the best thing that any government can do is to provide people with a route to independence; ultimately, the enduring way of tackling poverty is to ensure that people have the skills and the support to make their own life and make their own choices, rather than being dependent on the state.

One of the problems that we have sometimes as Conservatives is that we risk being seen as administrators and not evangelists. That’s a criticism which is often levelled at ministers. The word narrative is overused, but politicians do need to tell a story. They need to explain why it is that we are taking this difficult decision, or moving in that particular way. We need to have a vision of how individuals can flourish in the country we want to build and that means being able to respond instinctively and coherently to new challenges.

Everybody in Westminster is fascinated and interested by politics.   Most people in the public at large are wise enough not to waste too much time paying attention so when we do have their attention during a General Election campaign, we have got to be clear. During the Brexit referendum, the “Take Back Control’ slogan encapsulated a set of arguments which you could then unpack in a variety of areas which allowed you to then make the arguments that you needed to make. The best simple sentences are the product of careful thought and the careful thought can then be unpacked once the simple sentence is valid.

Of course, we need to do all this while also facing inflation. It is simply the case that as inflation increases, interest rates increase, and access to capital becomes more difficult for people. That has ramifications in my Department: house builders themselves will build fewer homes during an economic downturn because they want to keep the price of the product that they are selling from falling too far. We should not be passive in the face of those challenges. Firstly, we have to make the planning system work, and balance the desire that people have to protect the quality of life which they have in particular communities. One of the big challenges that we have in England particularly is that our cities – which is where many young people, of course, want to live and work – are much more geographically spread out than comparable cities in Europe or in the US. There are a huge number of brownfield sites and buildings which are suitable for turning into new housing. Many of these are currently either prevented from being turned into new homes by the obstruction of the Mayor of London, or by difficulties with the effectiveness of the planning system.

In tackling all of these things, we have got to have a series of solutions that deal with the geographical challenges that the housing market faces in different parts of the country. More than that, we also need to change some of the incentives: at the moment the incentive is very much for many local authorities to turn down housing. We need them to welcome it by making sure that they get a bigger share of uplift that comes from planning permissions being granted: it’s only when you create those incentives that you can begin to let local politicians and local people see the double benefit that comes from new development.

An emphasis purely on quantity is the biggest problem. If you have someone who is thinking about a new development – whether that is digging an existing brownfield site in one of our great cities or expanding a settlement – if they think about that development in terms of making it beautiful then it gives real life to a community and creates an attractive destination. Take Poundbury as an example, which I’m aware not everybody likes. But the King deliberately set out to build a new suburb with Leon Krier who is a very distinguished neo-classical architect to help. He got in landscape architects like Kim Wilkie and he thought: “We are going to make it beautiful.” As a result now, even though it was derided by the fashionable end of the architectural community, houses in Poundbury fetch more on the open market than houses in Dorchester itself.  It is rare that you have a new development attached to an existing town where the new homes are more attractive and more valuable.

We managed to do this in Edinburgh in the 18th century. We managed to do it in parts of London. We have been less good at it recently but it seems to me that while not everyone would wish to live in Poundbury and it’s not necessarily to everyone’s taste it is certainly far more to their taste than many of the developments that have been created elsewhere.

We have time now to reflect on some of the mistakes we have made, and be honest with the electorate about what they are. But we also need to be clear about what we have achieved and what our values are. We don’t have much time but we do have just enough to be able to do that and for me it’s bracing to think about the essence of the argument. Keir Starmer does not have a programme or a platform. He does not have a thought-through sense of where he wants to take this country.  So this election will be tough but we are absolutely capable of winning it.

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