Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry by Owen Bennett (Biteback, £20)
Michael Gove possesses a streak of genius. Before writing this review, I watched again his demolition of Jeremy Corbyn in the Commons in January.
Nobody in the present House does that kind of speech better. Gove is the Prince Rupert of debate. With merciless dash he cut the Leader of the Opposition to pieces and left him a bedraggled laughing stock.
Tory MPs loved this performance, and were reminded that in the leadership contest which must soon come, Gove would deserve serious consideration.
He started well in that contest. Oddly enough, it was a line in this biography which tripped him up. The Daily Mail, which had bought the serialisation rights, lighted on a few lines on page 348, and made them the story.
Owen Bennett had discovered that while Gove was preparing for the tricky questions he might be asked at the launch of his previous leadership bid, in 2016, a member of his team had asked him if he had ever taken drugs, and he replied, “Yes, cocaine.”
He was told not to give that answer, and the story only became public, thanks to Bennett, on the evening of Friday 7th June 2019, when the next day’s Mail appeared. By the following Monday, when Gove held his campaign launch in Millbank Tower, the fuss had not died down, and his early momentum had been lost.
In the final ballot of MPs on Thursday 20th June to decide which two candidates would fight it out in front of the membership, Boris Johnson received 160 votes and Jeremy Hunt 77, while Gove came in third with 75.
Bennett’s book ends abruptly at this unsatisfactory moment. We do not get Johnson’s victory a month later, or his appointment of Gove as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in charge of preparations for a No Deal Brexit.
So the book reads like a work in progress. The author reports the known facts of Gove’s life, and concludes:
“given the volatility of UK politics, it is impossible to say if the 2019 leadership contest will prove to be the final opportunity for Gove to achieve his ambition. The man in a hurry could still be the future of the right.”
Those rueful words echo the title of Gove’s own first book, which appeared in 1995 under the title, Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right.
Portillo was not the future of the right. He declined to stand against John Major in 1995, in 1997 lost his seat, returned to the Commons in 1999, but in 2001, when he did at last contest the leadership, came a close third in the final round of voting by MPs, so was eliminated. Iain Duncan Smith, who was only one vote ahead of him, went on to defeat Ken Clarke.
Bennett says of Gove’s book that
“it details Portillo’s life studiously and competently, but is hamstrung by the fact that it feels like – and is written very much in the style of – a prequel to another, more interesting book in which the central character goes on to become Prime Minister.”
The same could be said of Bennett’s book. As a portrait of a remarkable figure, it does not work. Although he got the cocaine story, few people close to Gove have spoken to him, and not much light is cast on the paradoxes and mysteries of Gove’s character. The volume contains many tributes to Gove’s wit, without very often illustrating that quality.
We get his touching love for his adoptive parents in Aberdeen, Christine and Ernest Gove, and theirs for him. He did not wish to contact the mother who had given birth to him, for he thought this would suggest he felt unfulfilled by the life he actually had.
But he knew from an early age he could not follow Ernest into the fish business, and would instead work with words. Christine said of him, “He really just couldn’t pass a bookshop. I had to get books for him all the time.”
He was so gifted the Goves tightened their belts and paid for him to go to Robert Gordon’s College, in the centre of Aberdeen. Here he blossomed into a brilliant schoolboy debater, an activity run by his English teacher, Mike Duncan, who nurtured his love of literature.
Duncan has recalled that while preparing for debates, Gove was “usually pretty clear and logical”. But there were times when, in the heat of battle and filled by the urge to win the argument, the pupil ran off the rails and the teacher felt inclined to say to him, “Your judgment’s gone out of the window here.”
Gove went on to Oxford, where he read English at Lady Margaret Hall and soon made his mark as a debater. Johnson, who is three years older, was already a star of the Oxford Union debating society, which is where Gove met him:
“The first time I saw him was in the Union bar. He was a striking figure with sheepdog hair and penny loafers, standing in a distinctive pose with his hands in his trouser pockets and his head bent forward. He seemed like a kindly, Oxford character, but he was really there like a great basking shark waiting for freshers to swim towards him.”
Bennett quite rightly reproduces, with attribution, that description, given to me by Gove when I was writing my life of Johnson. Gove remarked in that interview that Johnson was “quite the most brilliant extempore speaker of his generation”:
“Boris has the capacity apparently to lose his way in a sentence, like a child in a nativity play. You want him to succeed, and when he does you share in his triumph.”
And as Gove cheerfully added: “I was Boris’s stooge. I became a votary of the Boris cult.”
David Cameron was also at Oxford at this time, but played no part in the Union, and Gove does not appear to have met him.
A generation of politicians starts to come into view, and in due course Gove did become close to Cameron, who recognised him as man of outstanding ability, encouraged him to switch in 2005 from The Times to the Commons, rapidly favoured him over Johnson, and protected him when Gove’s publicly-funded extravagance was exposed during the expenses scandal of 2009.
It might by now be said that Gove was Cameron’s stooge, preparing for and then in 2010 taking charge of the Education portfolio.
But such a scheme, with Gove as a frustrated Jeeves who yearns to take over from Wooster, would run the danger of being too neat. As early as 1998, Gove had met Dominic Cummings, at a breakfast organised by Business for Sterling, and Cummings, who came to work for him at the Education Department, acted, among many other things, as a severe irritant in relations with Number Ten.
In 2014, Gove was shocked to find himself removed from Education and shunted into the by no means suitable role, for a man with a love of telling fascinating things to journalists, of Chief Whip.
Cameron was preparing for the 2015 general election, at which he managed to win an overall majority. The price of victory was high. He had neutralised UKIP by promising to hold an EU referendum, and this in turn led to a seemingly irreparable rift with Gove, who came out for Leave.
So it would be possible to write a life of Gove in which he wearies of being anyone’s stooge, and tries repeatedly to strike out on his own. In the summer of 2016, after he, Johnson and Cummings had led the Leave campaign to victory, Gove reluctantly agreed to back Johnson for the leadership, but within a few days denounced him and decided to run himself.
He did so despite having repeatedly assured everyone that he knew quite well he was not cut out to be Prime Minister.
His campaign was a flop, and the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, sacked him from the post of Justice Secretary, conferred on him after the 2015 general election, in which he had won golden opinions.
After she had received a huge, indeed slowly terminal shock in the 2017 general election, she brought him back as Environment Secretary, and again he won golden opinions.
He stuck with May to the end, then this summer tried once more to strike out on his own, but found himself overwhelmed by Johnson, who had left the sinking ship rather earlier.
It is possible that Johnson now has Cummings and Gove in exactly the right posts, where they can act as indispensable auxiliaries in the disruptive task of driving through Brexit against opposition from a timid, lily-livered Establishment. It is also possible that this is not the case, and there will be a car crash.
If one judges Gove’s life by the conventional but vulgar measure of whether or not he has become Prime Minister, he is, so far, a failure. But as a man whose talents have flowered in the public eye, has reformed great departments of state, and has reduced dinner tables to paroxysms of laughter, he is a conspicuous success.
These events are still too near to be placed in the right relation to each other. Bennett does not attempt that task. He tells the story straight, as if it were one long newspaper report, and Gove becomes almost humdrum.
Future writers will be indebted to Bennett for setting out the present state of knowledge. But one trusts that in the future there will also be someone who can capture Gove’s flair, audacity and wit. We are left hoping, one day, for an outrageously indiscreet autobiography.