My regard for Michael Gove has never been higher. As I write he is taking abuse from all sides, vilified as a scheming, cynical back-stabber who has hi-jacked the standing and popularity of a trusting friend to satisfy his own ambition, and I’m not buying it. Here’s why.
Yesterday Liam Fox described the whole Gove/Johnson/May drama as “the politics of the Oxford Union”, and, though a Glasgow man himself, he is absolutely right. For any Oxford graduate with close experience of that splendid institution, or of the Oxford University Conservative Association with which so many of its members have traditionally overlapped, will probably recall at least one instance of an over-confident front-runner, who had lost the confidence of the troops, being deposed by their closest supporter at the 11th hour in a brutal coup for the sake of the slate/faction/electoral machine they had aspired to lead.
That intense and ruthless environment has attracted and honed the skills of a great many brilliant young people with political ambitions, as well as others, like me, who were in it for the debating, and had no desire to enter Parliament. It was there that I first became friends with Theresa Brasier (now May), then Boris Johnson, and then Michael Gove (why I was in it for so long is another story – you can let me know if you want to read it), as well as another 30-odd current MPs. And I have followed their careers, first as a Central Office hack, then as a journalist, with a keen personal interest.
I have always liked Theresa. She is warm and charming and made of steel. She’s very bright, has an energetic enthusiasm for her job, and has got better at it the higher she has risen. She will – barring a colossal upset – be a first-class prime minister, and I shall congratulate her without reservation. But that’s not the point here.
Michael is accused of using and backing Boris while secretly planning to knife him all along, and in order further to damn him with the charge of shameless hypocrisy his former employer, The Times, yesterday printed a selection of statements from his own mouth, some from just this past month:
“I don’t want to do it and there are people who are far better equipped than me to do it. And there are people who have advocated Leave, and people who have advocated Remain who are far better than me to do it.” – Telegraph, May 2016
“I don’t think I have got that exceptional level of ability required to do the job.” – Telegraph, June 2016
“The one thing I can tell you is there are lots of talented people who could be prime minister after David Cameron, but count me out.” – Sky News, June 2016
I think he underestimates his own abilities, but there’s plenty more in the same vein, going further back.
Now one charge nobody is hurling at Michael just now is that of stupidity. He’s very clever and articulate, and knows what he’s saying. And here we have none of the locutions usually employed by the man who’s keeping his options open, no “I have no plans to stand for the leadership”, no “I’m not going to make predictions about future circumstances”, none of that waffle. It is quite obvious that the man genuinely didn’t want to end up in this position, and did his best to box himself out of it. So what happened?
During the referendum campaign we saw Boris at his best – full of energy and bounce and charm and wit, a rallying orator, a larger-than-life personality throwing his considerable all into the cause. It was obvious that Michael, the man who didn’t want it anyway, should back crest-of-the-wave Boris as Leave’s candidate to oppose Theresa for the top job. But in the week after the referendum we saw Boris’s other side – smug and dismissive in victory, dithering and back-pedalling, and, most importantly, so convinced he had No 10 in the bag that he didn’t even turn up to PMQs, let alone make any effort to charm the considerable number of Tory MPs who resent his fame and easy success. Securing votes on his behalf became impossible. It was precisely the attitude that cost him the presidency of the Oxford Union the first time he ran for it, 31 years ago.
After David Cameron’s announcement of his intention to resign, Michael had maintained that the next PM should be someone who had campaigned for and believed in Vote Leave, not a compromise Remainer like Theresa, who might water down the implementation of the popular will. But with Boris a busted flush, in a parliamentary party dominated by Remainers, there was now nobody with the public profile to have a cat-in-hell’s chance of beating Theresa even in a vote of largely Leave party members – nobody except Michael. There was only one more thing he could do for his passionately held belief in a Britain truly divorced from the anti-democratic and stifling regime of the EU, and he did it, reluctantly but honourably, and all the more nobly for knowing that he would be branded a rat of the lowest order as a result.
I’ve been living abroad for five years now, and this past week I was mad as hell that I wasn’t still in Westminster. I started writing this blog to do my little bit for the Leave campaign, and very little it has been. Its influence on the result must have been infinitesimal. But this is different. In the attempt at least to ensure that the Leave voice remains loud and powerful, even in the administration of a PM who voted Remain, it is vital that Theresa’s eventual opponent in the vote of party members gives her a serious run for her money. And that depends on the votes of just dozens of currently uncommitted MPs, all of them vulnerable and sensitive to the will of their constituents and associations. I have no idea who most of my readers are, but there must surely be among them many with the ability to influence those votes, and I urge them to do so, by backing the man with too much integrity for his own good – Michael Gove.