The longer a Prime Minister serves in Downing Street, the more public trust in him tends to run down. David Cameron has been in Number Ten for six years now, and this weakness was exposed on Thursday evening. In the first of Sky News‘s EU referendum events, Faisal Islam and a turbulent studio audience went after the Prime Minister on trust – over immigration, over Turkley, and over sharing a platform with a man he had only recently condemned, Sadiq Khan.
Michael Gove is not Prime Minister, and voters are less used to him. But the game plan for Islam, yesterday evening, was fairly straightforward. For if the Justice Secretary is less exposed on trust, he is more so on ideology. There is a predisposition among many floating voters to see the Leave case as ideology-driven rather than pragmatically shaped – captured by Arron Banks’s proclamation that were families to lose £150 a month through Brexit it would be a price worth paying for democracy.
Gove is nothing to do with Banks: Vote Leave, the organisation whose campaign committee he co-heads, gained the designation to run the Leave campaign rather than Banks’s LeaveEU. But the cap fits – at least, among some who remember his radical term as Education Secretary, and follow his confrontational ideas about how to deal with Islamist extremism. Islam duly went after the Justice Secretary as a man prizing fixed ideas above peoples’ security, doing so with scant regard for the truth and, furthermore, with no support from any heavyweight body of opinion.
But if Gove had the minus of appearing on a Friday evening, he had the distinct plus of having seen Islam at work on the Thursday. He was ready. First, Islam duly got first blood, mocking the Justice Secretary over Donald Trump’s support for Leave. Next, the Justice Secretary was level with his interviewer, counter-punching: “I’m not asking the British people to trust me. I’m asking them to trust themselves”; “You’re on the side of the elites. I’m on the side of the people” and, perhaps most swiftly of all, when asked about Brexit and unemployment: “73 members of the European Parliament will be losing their jobs.”
By the end of the interview, the balance of the applause was for Gove: astonishingly, Islam was actually booed at one point by part of the studio audience. And by the end of the session itself, the Justice Secretary was in command of it, winning applause from sections at the end of each answer. He wasn’t heckled; he wasn’t jeered – indeed, he was scarcely interrupted. Oratorical skill? Tricks of the trade? Doubtless in part. But there is a deeper explanation: while Cameron looked as though he was enduring his hour, Gove actually seemed to be enjoying his.
It would be wrong to claim that the Prime Minister he doesn’t believe in the cause he is promoting. He is clearly completely committed to Britain’s EU membership. None the less, there is to this observer always a sense that, during a difficult TV interview, his main aim is to get through it in one piece. Which he usually does – and who can blame him? But with the Justice Secretary yesterday evening, a relish for debate zinged off him. The clapping that he won for each answer was a telling counterpoint to the absence of similar applause for Cameron only 24 hours earlier.
I would laud the evening as a triumph for Gove, and will, but have four reservations. First, Remain would be entitled to complain that while Cameron got a studio audience which was yearning to put the boot in, Gove did not. Second, his opponents will make the most of his admission that Brexit could cost jobs (just as saying in could cost jobs) and of his concession that another independent audit could be done of the EU-costs-£350-million-a-week claim.
Third, very many voters persist in seeing the latter as an ideologue, an elitist, an insulated enjoyer of privilege, a clever clogs who needs to be taken down by a whole row of pegs. The latter may not have been much moved. And last: no-one much will have been watching. It was a Friday evening. People had other things to do. You and I may not have done, dear reader, but we are both rather unusual, in that sense at least.