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by Kirsteen Paterson
02 September 2022
Michael Gove was ‘savage’ in briefing against opponents, SNP’s Mike Russell says

Michael Gove

Michael Gove was ‘savage’ in briefing against opponents, SNP’s Mike Russell says

Members of devolved governments would say "you've been Gove'd" after "charming" Michael Gove briefed against them, Michael Russell has claimed.

The phrase is said to have been created by former Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews because Gove gave "savage" briefings against ministers from devolved governments.

In an interview with the Institute for Government (IfG), Russell recounted his experiences as a Scottish Government minister and cabinet secretary.

He held several portfolios before standing down at the last Scottish Parliament election and was education secretary at the same time as Gove held the same role in the UK Government.

Russell told the IfG: "I've spent a lot of my political career shadowing Michael Gove in one thing or another, regrettably. But one area where he had very little influence on me was when I was education secretary and he was education secretary. He did not deal with higher education; I dealt with the whole gamut. But on the schools side, there was virtually nothing. So we could have conversations, but they were irrelevant. 

"I always felt sorry for Leighton Andrews and the Northern Ireland education minister, John O'Dowd, because they had the exams system in common [with England]. 

"Leighton Andrews used to have a phrase, 'you’ve been Gove'd', because whatever you did, Gove would be charming to your face and would then go out and brief savagely against you and that’s just how things were and how he is."

The claim is published today as the IfG releases a series of interviews as part of its Ministers Reflect series. Participants include ex-health secretary Jeane Freeman and former Northern Ireland finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir.

Asked if he was able to have "some meaningful influence" over Brexit as Scotland's constitution, Europe and external affairs secretary, Russell said: "I wish I was able to say that we had."

Russell, now the SNP president, said having David Davis as Brexit secretary until 2018 made "a small amount of difference here and there in holding back the extremists, the voices of Brexit populism and exceptionalism".

However, he went on: "Once that [Boris] Johnson gang had taken over, it made no difference at all. And I think the difference between the May and Johnson administration[s] is that there was a recognition under May, no matter how limited and grudging, of the legitimate interests of the devolved governments and their rights, whereas there was nothing but contempt for devolution from the Johnson government, expressed at every level even by the territorial secretaries of state. 

"The Johnson Tories, willingly or unwillingly, were absolutely on the hook of Brexit. Those who weren’t true believers, or who weren’t riding the tiger for reasons of ambition, were terrified of those who were pursuing it. They thought their entire political futures, probably did, depend on feeding the beast. And you went on feeding and in the end the beast ate them, but they went on doing that. And that beast – the Brexit beast – hated the very idea that Westminster was not sovereign in all things, and could not bear to be gainsaid by the devolved governments." 

Rusell went on: "I won’t say who he is, but I remember one of the older style of ministers coming up to me at the end of an early JMC [Joint Ministerial Committee] meeting, in the exchequer room, you know the room that has the exchequer table in the middle. Just as he went past me – [the meeting] had been particularly fractious and I had been particularly argumentative about the issues – just as he went past me, he turned and said very quietly, 'keep going, we need you'. 

"I remember going off to the loo again, I think in the basement of the House of Commons, where we used to have these awful no-deal meetings, which were just absolutely grim, [a senior UK minister] turning to me as we went into the toilet and saying, 'it is a madhouse, run by the inmates'. About his own colleagues.

"There was a huge, huge dissatisfaction but [also] a fear amongst many prominent senior Tories that they could not oppose what was happening."

Michael Gove was contacted for comment.

Full transcripts of the interviews are available here.

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