The best way of understanding yesterday’s character assasination of Boris Johnson by Michael Gove, and the collapse of the former’s over-a-decade-long journey towards the Conservative leadership, is to grasp at the start that Gove has never been Johnson’s man. Nor has he been yearning to be Prime Minister himself. His candidate until recently was George Osborne, with whom he still has working relations. At a dinner for Rupert Murdoch two years ago, Gove made his preference for Osborne over Johnson very clear.
Then came a surprise Tory general election victory, and the EU referendum. The effect of the latter, unsurprisingly, was to take Gove from Osborne’s company and throw him into Johnson’s as part of the well-run, cross-party and ultimately victorious Vote Leave campaign. Its effective head was Dominic Cummings, Gove’s gifted and volcanic former special adviser. At one point, Cummings’ spiky relations with some Conservative MPs saw him removed from Vote Leave’s board, and consequent squabbles endangered the campaign’s bid for official designation.
In the wake of Leave’s victory, a fatal difference of view emerged between Johnson, the would-be Tory leader, and Gove, his would-be deputy. Key personnel in Vote Leave, not least Cummings, are loyal to Gove. The latter seems to have envisaged that members of this team would become the core of Johnson’s campaign for the Conservative leadership, and that Cummings, in due course, would take a key post in a Johnson administration, probably at the Treasury under a Gove Chancellorship. However, the latter’s take was evidently very different.
For Johnson already had a team in place that has been working on his behalf for scores of months. Where Gove had Cummings, plus such Minister MPs as Nick Boles and Dominic Raab, Johnson had a group of backbench Tory MPs that includes Ben Wallace and Nigel Adams – and, elsewhere, Lynton Crosby and his Crosby Textor Fullbrook operation. Johnson’s plan was to merge the two teams together in some form. And it is here that he and Gove, drawn together for the referendum campaign, began to drift apart.
Emergency services personnel who rush to the scene of an accident often find themselves told different versions of events. So it is for journalists who have arrived helter-skelter on the site of yesterday’s carnage. There are startlingly different and utterly irreconcilable versions of what happened, some of them unverifiable. For example, records can show whether Gove did or did not phone Johnson to announce his intention of standing himself. But no-one can demostrate what was the mind of Sarah Vine, a.k.a Mrs Gove, when she sent a certain e-mail (of which more later).
Essentially, however, there are two main accounts. First, Camp Gove’s. According to this version, rumours that Johnson intended to renege on his commitment to Brexit got back to them. To some of Gove’s backers, Johnson began to take on the coloration not so much of Churchill, whose biography he has written, but of De Gaulle – who, having announced Je vous ai compris to Algeria’s French settlers, and then clambered his way to power on their protesting backs, later delivered the grandmother of all U-turns over the colony’s independence.
This is what Gove was alluding to when he said yesterday that “after the referendum result last week I felt that we needed someone to lead this country who believed heart and soul in leaving the European Union”. But the main complaint of his friends is not so much one of principle as of practice. They say that with Vote Leave no longer present to guide him, Johnson proved himself to be, as a campaign head and potential leader, a bumbling charlatan – directionless, incapable of chairing meetings and taking decisions, and a stranger to the MPs he now had to woo.
According to them, Johnson’s team lounged around at a barbecue in his Oxfordshire home last Sunday, when they should have been working the phones – and refused to share information about MPs voting intentions. Furthermore, they say, Johnson made a pig’s ear of wooing Andrea Leadsom. It had been agreed that she would be offered a post. Johnson then bungled his meeting with her. This alleged incompetence reportedly came to Camp Gove as a shocking revelation. Hence the latter’s agonised decision to throw his hat in the ring (having trampled on Johnson’s first).
To say that Camp Johnson doesn’t recognise this narrative is a bit of an understatement. At the core of their version of yesterday’s crash is the conviction that Gove was intent on running the Johnson show himself. His appointment as the co-head of Johnson’s campaign alongside Wallace was one thing; his claimed intention of moving Cummings into government in a senior role was another. In particular, Team Johnson were furious when Cummings turned up unexpectedly on Tuesday to a meeting with Crosby. Gove, they say, was intent on a takeover.
Johnson’s friends are especially incensed by Camp Gove’s claim that his muddled Daily Telegraph column of last Monday wasn’t signed off by the campaign. They say that Gove not only saw it himself, but made changes to it – which Johnson accepted. Camp Gove insist that Johnson had the last word (or wrote it). Furthermore, some Johnson backers are convinced that an e-mail written by Vine which questioned their man’s reliability was deliberately leaked in order to spark a carefully-planned plot to topple him.
Some see the hand of Cummings in Gove’s ruthless timing; others also perceive the shadow of George Osborne (whose whereabouts are provoking the same sort of interest as those of Macavity, the mystery cat). Camp Gove insist that this allegation is an inverted pyramid of piffle – to borrow a phrase from somewhere or other – and that Vine would not have fired the starting gun of any plot by mistakenly sending an e-mail partly intended for Henry Newman, one of Gove’s special advisers, to that of a gentleman called Tom Newman, who has nothing to do with the whole business.
Camp Gove says that he decided only late on Wednesday evening to pull the plug on Johnson, having reached the revelatory conclusion that Johnson would be a rotten Tory leader and Prime Minister. Camp Johnson, however, sees a deep and deliberate plot to ruin their hero. The former say that Gove phoned Johnson to tell him of his decision; the latter say there is no record of calls. In the final event, Crosby appears to have relayed the news to Johnson – and advised him to pull out. Which he did.
So ends this tale of two contradictory stories. The Holmes-like pursuit of truth will stretch on. Like the controversies about the fall of Margaret Thatcher – who said what to whom; who did what to whom – the tale of the Johnson’s downfall will grow in the telling. David Cameron may never forgive Gove for the latter’s part in his downfall. Neither may Johnson for yesterday’s events. A friendship ended; an alliance shattered. This morning, Johnson is an emblem of the ruined dreams of politics; Gove one of the broken relationships it can bring.
Who was right and who was wrong – or does the truth lie somewhere in between? Johnson may or may not be the vacillating figure that some of Gove’s friends claim him to be. But he certainly did not prove so yesterday in pulling out of the contest. When the dust settles on it, he may or may not make Cabinet, if he accepts any offer. Whether he does or does not, his role in the referendum campaign should be honoured by Brexiteers. For without his glamour and reach, Leave might not have made it over the winning line.
Gove’s campaign launches this morning, and he will surely make a passionate social justice pitch. (It is striking that he has secured the support of Nicky Morgan, a stalwart of the Party’s left, who has signed up with him for precisely that reason.) Perhaps he will make it to the members’ stage of the ballot. But he will now be seen by some as having leaped from a plinth of selfless detachment to wield a treacherous dagger in the podium. If Johnson is really that bad, they will ask, why did Gove support him in the first place?
Jake Berry, a Johnson supporter, said yesterday that there is “a very deep pit in hell for such as he”. Whatever Gove may or not deserve, this seems a bit on the harsh side. But maybe the image comes in useful, after all. For just as violence can provoke violence, grievance can provokes counter-grievance – and a cycle of resentment and revenge. Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, even Gove himself: all must now help to steer the Conservative Party away from the hell of frustration and bitterness into which even the wary can fall.