Ever since Boris Johnson and Michael Gove joined forces on the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, their political fates have been closely entwined.
From that famous photo of them looking shell-shocked at their victory the morning after the referendum result, through Gove’s knifing of Johnson in the subsequent Tory leadership race, and onto their complex relationship as PM and Cabinet minister, theirs is a fascinating dynamic.
Although their views on how to handle Omicron differed recently (Gove backed more restrictions before Christmas), they are more in sync on Brexit itself.
And today, the Levelling Up Secretary echoed the PM in dismissing calls to cut VAT on energy to help ease energy price rises, a policy that was once a key Vote Leave selling point.
In case you missed it, six years ago Gove and Johnson penned a joint article in The Sun, arguing that “when we vote Leave we will be able to scrap this unfair tax”, adding this crucial promise: “and fuel bills will be lower for everyone”.
The pledge looks particularly hollow given the spike in prices millions have endured, with more to come in April. But the PM himself last week distanced himself from his own 2016 pledge, saying that a VAT cut would be “a bit of a blunt instrument” and its blanket nature would mean savings for those who don’t need it.
Gove today stuck firmly to that line, arguing that “a balanced approach means that when we can support, we provide support most for those in the most difficult circumstances.” Help will be targeted at those in most need, he suggested, but not via a VAT cut.
However, there is another “Brexit bonus” that hasn’t quite materialised as expected either, and one that is all about “levelling up”. The Government plans to replace EU cash for poorer areas (known as structural funds) with a new “UK Shared Prosperity Fund” (UKSPF), due to launch this April.
But buried in the recent spending review was the hard reality about its funding. As a member of the EU, the UK received £1.3bn a year for structural funding. The Treasury has allocated the new UKSPF just £0.4bn for 2022/23, £0.7bn for 2023/24, and £1.5bn for 2024/25. That’s quite a shortfall.
Moreover, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments, which used to oversee the EU cash for their localities, have been given no guarantees of their role in the new set-up and may be subject to a more centralised approach by Whitehall. With English councils still in the dark too, it feels like it will be London that “takes back control” of this spending, not local areas.
They are not as eye-catching as reneging on a promise to lower fuel bills, but the delays and lack of cash for the very areas that backed Brexit risks further undermining confidence in former Leave voters.
It’s also a reminder that no matter what Johnson and Gove pledged six years ago, it’s Chancellor Rishi Sunak who holds the purse strings by which “Levelling Up” will be judged.