Home truths for Michael Gove

Parliamentary discontent with the government’s handling of EU crime and justice measures, in particular the European arrest warrant, rumbles on today in the House of Lords. Timothy Boswell, chair of the Lords European Union committee, is tabling a ‘statement of regret’ ie ‘We’re flipping peed off with the handling of this’, with the cross-party support of the whole committee.

Given that the Lords, like the Commons last week, will give their approval for the United Kingdom to opt back in to these measures, does this really matter and what does it tell us about the nuts, bolts and personality battles of this government?

First, good whipping matters. Last week, government business managers got things badly wrong and the government and home secretary looked bad. Meanwhile, Labour whips working with Yvette Cooper did a great job and highlighted the failure of the government to deliver their promises to parliament. Competence counts when you are asking people to choose a government – good work.

Having done both the chief whip’s and the home secretary’s job, who do I blame? Largely the chief whip. Michael Gove is proving himself to be an unhappy and ineffective chief whip. This is because whipping is about relationships, political instinct and understanding, but also about painstaking organisation and knowledge of parliamentary procedure and the views and plans of your parliamentary party. This is not the job for someone whose previous careers as education secretary and journalist have largely been about formulating and expressing strong views – leaving others to do the legwork.

Second, the animosity between Gove and Theresa May is having a real and detrimental impact on the government’s effectiveness. While I was chief whip, the Home Office was handling some difficult arguments with parliament on extradition during the passage of the Police and Justice Act 2006. I can remember trekking over to John Reid’s office in the Home Office to plan our approach. He had to make sure whips had the key arguments; I had to tell him who needed to be talked to and what the key parliamentary moments were. Most fundamentally, I would never have dreamed of ‘allowing it to be known’ that I was not really behind the government’s plans as Gove clearly has with his strange briefing on removing the European arrest warrant. The country’s ability to keep out foreign criminals and return UK suspects from other EU countries is too important to be handled by people acting more like ‘ferrets in a sack’

Third, if parliament was ever a supine body willing to rally unquestioningly behind government proposals, it certainly is not now. If you promise parliament that it will get a vote on something, it will notice if you do not deliver.

I learnt from bitter experience that discontented backbenchers understandably will not take vague reassurances from government on trust. One of my worst days as home secretary was losing an opposition day motion on Gurkha settlement rights. During the run-up to the vote, we had negotiated a range of concessions and a way forward. A failure to communicate this in time meant enough rebels to give David Cameron and Nick Clegg a notable coup.

Listen up all you blue-sky thinkers. Big ideas are important, but they are nothing without the political organisation to deliver them. Gove is learning this lesson the hard way.

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Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary, writes the Monday Politics column for Progress, and tweets @Jacqui_Smith1

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