Michael Gove’s new role in government is to act as Boris Johnson’s crumple zone – the part of the vehicle of government designed to absorb the shocks of the bumps on the road to no-deal Brexit.
In one of the new prime minister’s more brutal moves, Gove – who as a departmental minister had warned of the serious consequences of leaving the EU without an agreement – was put in charge of no-deal planning.
So when the Yellowhammer document detailing what might happen in a no-deal scenario was leaked to The Sunday Times, Gove was the obvious minister to go on TV to reassure a nervous nation.
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But did he pursue the right damage limitation strategy? He said the paper warning of a fuel crisis and medicine shortages was an “old document” that set out “the absolutely worst case”, and insisted that the government had since taken “significant additional steps” to prepare.
The implication was that the document was an overhang of the fearful defensiveness that had gripped Whitehall while Theresa May was prime minister.
But yesterday it was established – and not denied by the government – that the document was dated 1 August. In other words, eight days after Johnson became prime minister, and just two and a half weeks before it was reported.
And anyone reading the Sunday Times story can see that the document was explicitly intended by its authors to be a “realistic assessment” rather than a “worst case”.
Perhaps Gove thought that public opinion on Brexit was so polarised that people would believe what they wanted to believe. Therefore his job would be merely to give the supporters of a “do or die” Brexit something to reinforce their assumption that the story was part of the Remainer media’s “project fear”.
But this may have been a miscalculation. There is always a middle ground in public opinion, and it might have been better to have acknowledged that the document was recent and to have claimed that it showed Gove was getting to grips with his ministerial brief.
He could have said it was the job of civil servants to identify the possible problems of a no-deal exit so that government could deal with them before 31 October.
And instead of claiming that the document described “what the very, very worst situation would be”, he could have pointed out that it was full of “coulds”, “maybes” and “possibles” – and that his job was to make sure that these risks were minimised.
Instead, the unravelling of his claims in his immediate response has meant that a bad story for the government has run on for another day.