It’s Got to be Gove – at least until Friday

It’s Got to be Gove – at least until Friday

This is a short one, because its relevance is only for 24 hours from the time of writing.

On Thursday, tomorrow as I write, Tory MPs will decide which two of the three remaining, as it were, candidates for the leadership will be put before the membership.

Obviously Theresa May will be one of them, so the choice between the other two is what matters now.

Andrea Leadsom has been in Parliament for six years, and has no Cabinet experience. She has admitted that her City CV could be “misleading”, though a former colleague went rather further, and she has, alone among the candidates, refused to disclose her tax details. The most charitable explanation for the latter is that there’s something in there that is perfectly innocent, but would take time to explain, over and over, and she doesn’t want that distraction from the political issues. If that is true it’s a miscalculation on her part, and it looks ugly. But within government she also has the reputation for being baffled and clueless under pressure, as indeed she was in her hustings to the parliamentary party. And she is a recent convert to Euroscepticism who briefly shone on platforms with Gisela Stuart at her side. Most people still don’t have a clue who she is.

Michael Gove has been completely consistent in his views on the EU throughout his career in journalism and politics, has held two Cabinet posts, and has been a zealous reformer in both. His background is transparent, and he is the most articulate conviction politician in Parliament. 

Apparently, facing a huge majority in the vote of MPs for their candidate, Theresa May’s supporters are encouraging the “spares” to vote Gove, because they think he will be easier to beat in a vote of the membership than the novel and female Leadsom. They reason that he is disliked by the blue-rinse backbone of the constituency associations, among whom Boris was only slightly less popular than Bruce Forsyth, for taking a knife to their cuddly toy. 

They may be right. I don’t care. What matters is that the candidate opposing Theresa is the authentic voice of principled, intellectual hostility to the EU project, and someone of proven competence and steel. The membership must have a real choice set before them. It’s Got to be Gove.

 

Gove must win the minds of Leadsom’s supporters for the good of the Party and the Country.

Gove must win the minds of Leadsom’s supporters for the good of the Party and the Country.

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.

 

Michael Gove is a hero, not a villain. Boris knifed himself.

Michael Gove is a hero, not a villain. Boris knifed himself.

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.