He could go either way but, on balance, Gove’s Eurosceptic convictions are likely to trump his Cameroon loyalties. His friendship with the Prime Minister, which stretches back the best part of 20 years, will probably prove less telling than his belief, made plain during Party Conference in 2012, that Britain should quit if major reform was not forthcoming. Or, as he was reported to have said at the time, “Give us back our sovereignty or we will leave.”
But how he decides to declare will be less important than what he then decides to do (assuming, that is, he plumps for Brexit after all). The Justice Secretary could resolve his conflict of loyalties by declaring for Leave and then maintaining radio silence. Such a course would perhaps square the circle of doing what’s right, by his lights, and keeping faith with his friend, or at least not embarrassing him repeatedly during the campaign.
However, it would also silence him on a matter about which he yearns to speak his mind – on the presumption, as I say, that he wants Britain to leave without the big renegotiation that he knows isn’t happening. If Brexit is worth breaking with one’s leader over, it follows that it is also worth telling voters why during the referendum campaign itself and the run-up to the vote.
What he does and how he does is not important because Gove would be a populist gain for Leave. This would not be the case, to put it mildly: on at least one measure, the Justice Secretary is unpopular with voters. But his brains, eloquence and agility would help to frame the debate. What he said on Newsnight or the Today Programme would have an impact on the BBC elsewhere, Fleet Street, and discussion more widely.
Gove may be Cameron’s friend, but their political relationship has not always been plain sailing. The former didn’t want to be prised out of his post at the Education Department and sent to the Whips’ Office. And the forthright expression of his views on Islamist extremism have helped to keep him out of contention for the Foreign and Home Offices, at least to date.
Furthermore, he strained against the narrowness of Lynton Crosby’s security-focused election campaign, wanting a wider pitch that stressed social justice and reform: less than eight weeks before polling day, he called on Conservatives to become “warriors for the dispossessed”. This will none the less be a very hard decision for him. This site hopes that it goes the right way.