The first move announced in the Cabinet reshuffle was in the justice post. Chris Grayling is off to become leader of the Commons and Michael Gove is to become justice secretary and lord chancellor.
Gove is one of those figures with an army of detractors marching in his wake. I can't ever remember teachers particularly liking an education secretary, but I've never seen them hate one with such passion, apart from perhaps David Blunkett. There's therefore been a bit of 'here we go' greeting the announcement. That's premature. Gove's appointment is cause for cautious optimism. He is a far more impressive and respectable choice for the post than his predecessor.
The education secretary's free schools project is not, as some of its critics suggest, some act of wanton vandalism in the name of improving standards only for those who least need them. It is a sensible project conducted with too much zeal to be successful. Gove got a bit lost in his ideological fever and couldn't countenance the safety nets required of such a project – such as planning to ensure they are established where they are needed and maintaining the training and standards of teachers and the education they provide.
He is also clearly disposed towards private involvement in a way you can't get away with in education but can in justice. He shares the problem common to many advocates of private involvement in public services, which is that they wilfully ignore evidence where it does not correspond to their inner conviction.
But Gove's instinctive pull towards decentralisation is to be valued in the justice post. One of Grayling's worst attributes was his constant attempt to impose rules from Whitehall. Governors and prison guards were overruled at every opportunity, not least on the draconian incentives and earned privileges scheme, which contained the prison book ban and countless other travesties. Returning power and discretion to governors would be a good first step to fixing things on the prison estate.
Gove will take over as justice secretary and lord chancellor
In an ideal world, there would also be community boards of local residents, police, probation, social workers and even inmate representatives to hold them to account, but Tories rarely favour these systems of accountability, preferring to rely on market mechanisms. It's too much to hope for, but any step towards greater local control is to be welcomed.
It's important not to overstate Gove's record on decentralisation. After all, this is a man who effectively ended up writing the history curriculum from his desk in Whitehall. Like most decentralisers ambitious enough to make it to a Cabinet position, he's not the type of man who finds it easy to relinquish control of his favourite projects when he gets there. That's the weird dramatic irony of decentralisation – anyone with the power to do it is not disposed toward doing so. But at least the instinct is there.
Gove is also likely to recognise the fundamental supply-and-demand problem creating the prison crisis. If you are cutting funding you cannot increase the prison population, or you'll see a breakdown in relationships with staff, prisoners kept in their cells 23-hours a day, an end to effective rehabilitation programmes and a spike in suicide and violence.
Prison numbers need to be cut, with incarceration reserved for violent and persistent offenders and community punishments used elsewhere. Hopefully Gove's sky-high reputation in the Tory party and the press will allow this to happen without the backbenchers and red-tops losing their heads about it.
But Gove's chief quality for the post is intelligence. As the last parliament continued, it began to seem as if there was a streak of hateful ignorance in Grayling's actions. It seemed almost like an act of wanton sabotage – a lashing out against imaginary enemies. The former justice secretary barred experts from the decision-making process – or even from investigating the reality of life behind bars. He seemed to treat lawyers as a bit-part villain in a morality play about people who were too clever by half. We can hope and expect that Gove will enter into the position with good grace and less insecurity.
The prison book ban saw Grayling targeted by protests
He will have been tasked with dismantling the Human Right Act and replacing it with a British bill of rights. The Tory attack on human rights is one of their worst qualities as a party but it is worth us being cautious here. The Human Rights Act does not really matter. What matters is the European Convention. Gove may go about this process in a way which divides opposition, cleverly getting through what Grayling was too combative and strategically inept to do. Or perhaps he will listen to better angels – I'm obviously thinking of Dominic Grieve here – and keep the convention intact in the bill of rights through some legally sophisticated muddying of the water. I wouldn't put either past him. Human rights advocates will need to keep their eyes fixed on this one.
There are plenty of reasons to be wary of Gove, but we should welcome this as a silver lining amid days beset by cloud. For the last few years, Britain's system of law – the envy of the civilised world – has been torn apart by a man who seemed actively opposed to its existence. Its prisons have fallen into chaos and churned out more criminals for the future. Citizens' access to legal redress through legal aid and judicial review has been stamped on and discarded. The basic moral principle of equality before the law has been treated as an expensive and effete indulgence. Gove is an improvement on Grayling merely by virtue of not being Grayling.
The many, tireless critics of Grayling's time in the Ministry of Justice can afford to hold their fire against Gove. But they should keep the gun in a safe and easy-to-access place. They may need it.