The first round result of the Conservative leadership election is not a surprise. In a parliamentary party dominated by Remainers and terrified of uncertainty, Theresa May, the big beast, the safe pair of hands, was always going to top the poll by miles. The more interesting question is that of who will oppose her in a vote of largely Eurosceptic party members after tomorrow, when Tory MPs vote on the last three left standing.
At the moment Andrea Leadsom is coming second, and on course for that challenge, even though her first hustings to the whole parliamentary party exposed her as someone who had made a great girl-power team with Labour’s Gisela Stuart during the referendum campaign, but had no depth beyond the demands of that high-octane moment.
Let us not forget that Boris Johnson is now out of the frame because he just didn’t get around to responding to Leadsom’s ultimatum for the offer of Chancellor in return for her support within the time-frame she had demanded. If he had, if he’d just sent her a note or a text, instead of witticising his way through a convivial evening with friends, it would now be impossible to call whether he or May would be our next PM. But it was at the point of that fundamental political failure on Boris’s part, to do his job for his team, that Michael Gove realised the hero of the referendum was letting everything they’d fought for slip away through lazy arrogance, and took over. He had to. They only had a week.
But for this act of decisive and principled leadership Gove is now traduced as a back-stabber, even by those who had resented Boris for being a privileged, grand-standing opportunist. Crabb has pulled out, offering his support – while not having the bad taste to dictate to his supporters – to May. So now Michael Gove has a hill to climb: in order to come second tomorrow he must convince Leadsom’s supporters to defect – assuming that Crabbe’s supporters will back May. That’s not set in stone, because some might switch to the radical, reforming Gove, as they should, but that’s not to be counted on.
Boris, who has now declared his support for Andrea Leadsom, is fond of drawing classical allusions, mostly by simultaneously flattering and patronising his readers in the Telegraph, so how about this one? He is Coriolanus, the hero who disdained the good opinion of the voters, and went off in a huff to fight for their enemies, who then murdered him. Has he got any kind of deal for promotion out of Leadsom, or has he acted solely out of pique, as Coriolanus did? Meanwhile Michael Gove, the man who did his best to rule himself out of an office he didn’t want, is now Cincinatus, who reluctantly took over because he was the only man whose leadership could save Rome.
And Leadsom? The ancient Greek dramatists made much of the fault of hubris, the over-weening arrogance that precipitates a fall. Clearly it applies to Boris himself. But a week ago Boris was the front-runner, a hugely popular national figure on course to make a serious bid for No 10. How come a junior minister who was only elected to Parliament six years ago felt she could dictate terms to him? Sure, she’d been a great double-act with Stuart in the debates, but almost everyone was still saying Who is she? And they still are. Her conversion to Euro-scepticism is recent, and career-driven, but she now has the zeal of the convert, vowing to invoke Article 50 immediately upon her victory, which is just silly when there is still much settling down of popular emotion, let alone of markets, to be ridden out.
Michael Gove has solid Cabinet experience, in which he made enemies by getting things done. And he has never wavered, throughout his career, in his fundamental objections to Britain’s membership of the EU. The MPs now occupying the moral high ground as though it were their ancestral home, claiming distaste for his ruthlessness in side-lining a slacking figure-head, are actually thinking “If he did it to Boris, he can do it to me”. But the truth is that he won’t – as long as they do their jobs.
Mrs Leadsom’s supporters are deluding themselves if they think she, a light-weight new-comer of recent and limited celebrity, can mount a serious challenge to Theresa May in the party vote. The time has come for them to accept that Michael Gove is an honourable man who did the best for his party and his beliefs, and stop pretending to be shocked by a dramatic and bold initiative in politics. He is a true leader, and they need him. They should have the courage to switch and back him now – for it would demand of them only a tenth of the courage he showed last week.