Michael Gove’s history with David Cameron is more complex than some think. The Prime Minister has taken an unflinching view of Islamist extremism (rightly deciding that policy should aim to tackle ideology as well as acts) but he has a pragmatic distrust of fervour, even in the cause of liberal democracy. So it is that Gove has never seriously been considered for the Foreign or Home Office. The Prime Minister also shuffled him from Education, a job he was born to do, to Chief Whip, one for which he was unsuited, cutting his pay in the process. There were also signs before the last election that Gove was chafing against the narrow though effective security-focused message crafted for Cameron by Lynton Crosby. The man who is now Justice Secretary urged his Party to become “warriors for the dispossessed”. He wants the Conservatives to have the One Nation sensibility which the Prime Minister is now re-emphasing, and which he himself is helping to deliver through prison reform,
None the less, the tale of his friendship with the Prime Minister goes back a long way, has survived these twists and turns, and has been sealed with the wax of personal and political loyalty: remember how he confronted Theresa May in Cabinet after she laid out her credentials as a future Party leader. He will thus have agonised over the announcement he will make tomorrow, when he will dispossess himself from Cameron’s inner circle by declaring his support for Brexit and become, this site hopes and believes, a warrior for its cause. Those of us who have not been senior politicians cannot begin to understand what it means to wrestle with such a clash of loyalties amidst such jarring pressures and take such a decision.
Gove is so prenaturally eloquent that I have sometimes felt he could persuade me of almost anything, so intellectually fleet-footed as to disguise some startling about-turns (he was once a supporter of capital punishment ) and so much fun as to deceive me occasionally into thinking that he sees everything as a game. But this is simply not so. There are causes to which he has stuck fast – the state of Israel, traditional schooling as a gift that the poor should not be denied, press freedom – with the intellectual courage that sometimes marks the physically awkward (he tries to avoid flying and learned to drive late). One of those causes is Euroscepticism. He told journalists four years ago that Britain should leave the EU if Britain’s relationship with it did not change. And since Cameron’s negotiation hasn’t changed that relationship, he is being true to his word. Unlike one of his predecessors, he won’t now lose his job – though he would clearly have been willing to resign if necessary – let alone his head. But there is a parallel with Thomas More, “the King’s good servant, but God’s first”. Gove is Cameron’s good servant, but Britain’s first.
His decision may mean little to most voters – his popularity ratings are low – but it will move some of his colleagues. He is the first Cabinet Minister other than those previously known to support Brexit to come out for it. His first mover courage will impress. It will provide cover for some who wish to act likewise. His loquacity, wit and ferocity will help to set the intellectual tone. Above all, he will put Sajid Javid, the most Eurosceptic Cabinet Minister yet to declare, in the spotlight – and still more so Boris Johnson. The Mayor has talked the Brexit talk over the last few days. Now we will find out if he can walk the walk. Gove has shown what he is made of – iron rather than jelly. In the case of Boris, we are about to find out.