Michael Gove is Environment Secretary and is MP for Surrey Heath.
To be Conservative is to believe in the importance of the special worth of each individual, liberated to become the author of their own life story – supported by strengthened families, communities and historic institutions. That was the answer I gave ConservativeHome this week, when asked by this website’s readers and editors for my definition of conservatism.
It is rooted in my experience in Government – as Education Secretary, Justice Secretary and Environment Secretary – but also in my own life story. Because I wasn’t born Michael Gove. As I explained to supporters at my leadership campaign launch in Westminster this week, I was born – 51 years ago – Graeme Logan, to a mother I never knew. I was taken from her and spent the first four months of my life in care.
In a life-changing moment, I was then adopted by my amazing mum and dad, Ernie and Christine. I still remember my mum explaining to me what adoption meant, when the right moment arrived. She said: “Son, you didn’t grow under my heart, you grew in it.” Without my parents’ love – unstinting, total and selfless as it was – I know for sure that I would never have been able to be where I am today. I would never have had the chance to serve in Government; or to stand to be Prime Minister, ready to lead the country I love.
Being adopted makes me all too personally aware of how much in life depends on chance. When I was the Shadow Education Secretary, I remember reading about a school that I could have gone to, if I hadn’t been adopted by my mum and dad. It was a school where only one child, in an entire year, got the five good GCSEs that are a passport to a brighter future.
I thought then: what if my life had started there? What would my future have been? It’s because I know how fragile fortune is – how much depends on others, and how everyone has something to give but too few get the chance – that I am in politics.
It is also why I am a Conservative. I had a clear mission as Education Secretary that reflected this too. I wanted to make sure that every child, whatever their background or circumstances, was given the chance to shine. I make no apology for driving through reform as fast as I could. There was no time to waste – because children only get one shot at education. Now, thanks to the reforms I led, 1.9 million more children are in good and outstanding schools.
For the same reason, I was just as dedicated to getting results when I was Justice Secretary. Prisons exist to keep the public safe. But at the same time, every prisoner should be given the chance of redemption and to turn their life around. As I saw it, education behind bars, and the right support from prison staff, is the only way to reduce reoffending and ultimately reduce the number of victims of crime. My reforms put that into action.
As Environment Secretary, I am also in a hurry to change things. Our planet is in peril. I don’t want the next generation to inherit a world which is dirtier, more dangerous and less beautiful. I want to ensure that the earth, which is our common home, is handed on to the next generation cleaner, greener and healthier. So I’ve taken action to help end plastic pollution, clean up our air, improve animal welfare and support our farmers better in everything they do.
Right now, no leader faces a bigger challenge than delivering a true Brexit. On this, I feel a personal responsibility. I led the campaign to leave the European Union. I made the argument to audiences of voters in the heat of the TV debates. And I knew when I made the decision to lead the campaign, it would involve personal sacrifice – putting a strain on friendships and my family.
Yet I wanted to stand up for the working people who wanted real change. People like my mum and dad, whose fish merchants in Aberdeen went to the wall when I was a teenager because of the European Union’s policies. They were not alone. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy meant lost jobs and broken dreams for many people in my part of Scotland – thanks to decisions taken in distant committee rooms, by people we never elected and couldn’t remove. It was this experience that led me, after careful thought, to campaign to take back control – and against the odds we won.
But three years after the referendum, we still haven’t left. I share the frustration of so many that we are still in the EU. I feel it every single day and it is one of the reasons I am standing – to deliver on the result that we won in 2016. But it’s not enough to just believe in Brexit. You have got to be able to deliver it. I believe my experience in Government – mastering those detailed briefs, making my case around the Cabinet table and beyond, winning support, driving through reform, means I am in the best position to deliver Brexit.
Britain needs a Brexit that takes back control of our money, laws and borders. A Brexit that means we are out of the Common Fisheries Policy, out of the Common Agricultural Policy and out of the political structures of the EU. The UK should build a new relationship with Europe, based on a Canada-style free trade deal with Europe. That must be our urgent aim.
I am determined to deliver – and deliver quickly. As those who know me best will confirm, I am not someone who lets the grass grow beneath my feet. But there is one thing I will not do – I will not risk a general election before we deliver Brexit.
If we did do that, we’d effectively be handing the keys to Number 10 Downing Street over to Jeremy Corbyn. Gone would be the chance to deliver Brexit. Gone would be the opportunity to make Britain the best country in the world for education and science; the chance to strengthen the Union, cut tax and regulation, promote competition and free choice and spread prosperity across the country. Gone would be the chance to invest in our schools, increasing funding per pupil in real terms, to improve transport links in the South-West Midlands and North of England, and to reform social care to provide peace of mind for every family.
That is why we cannot risk Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. There is so much we can do to make our country even better. I have shown in every role in Government I’ve had that I have a passion for making people’s lives better. I have demonstrated that I can bring teams together, reach across divides and deliver real change. I have led from the front, undaunted by criticism and resolute in the need to solve complex issues. That is what this country needs, right here, right now.
It is a serious time in the life of our nation. The stakes have never been higher. And the consequences have rarely been greater. It requires a serious leader, who is ready to lead from day one. To deliver Brexit, to take the fight to Labour and to debate and argue fearlessly for what we, as Conservatives, believe in.