Michael Gove featured heavily in today’s PMQs. Ed Miliband began his questions by asking whether the prime minister would condemn the education secretary’s recent comments that the Leveson inquiry was having a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.
But it was during the inevitable debate on the health bill that Mr Gove played an unspoken, but important role.
Ministers seem to be changing their tone in a subtle way when defending the NHS reforms, taking on some of the tactics deployed by the education secretary when he was pushing through the Free Schools agenda.
Instead of talking up how radical the plan is, the government is now downplaying it. We hear that the bill is about “evolution, not revolution”, and more strikingly that it is building on what Labour did while they were in government.
It was this latter point that the prime minister stressed today, reeling off a list of former Labour health secretaries or advisers who back competition in the NHS (which is not the same as backing the bill, mind). He added:
They used to support freedom and choice for patients. They don’t seem to do so any more.
Some commentators have recently pointed out that Andrew Lansley’s plans have been no more radical than those being carried out by Gove, who has overseen a massive expansion of academies and the invention of free schools.
The difference is, the education secretary didn’t feel the need to legislate to do everything he has, and more importantly, he always billed his changes as building on the legacy of Tony Blair, his great political hero. It is for this reason, say some, that Gove managed to get his changes through under the radar, whereas Lansley’s have blown up spectacularly.
The new tone suggests Number 10 have heard that analysis, and agree. Lansley himself is reading from the same script – he made similar comments to MPs yesterday when called into the chamber for an urgent question on competition.
The new tactic might not work as far as rescuing public support for the health bill goes. But by reminding the public that Labour brought in competition in the first place, they may make sure the opposition doesn’t open up too much of a lead on this issue. You could call it the “If we’re going down, so are you” defence.