Michael Gove possesses an audacity and quickness of apprehension which are almost unrivalled in the Conservative leadership race. He got off to a flying start by promising free UK citizenship for three million EU nationals should he become Prime Minister – prompting ConservativeHome to hail him as the winner of the first week of the contest, and “the master of announcements”.
In the second week, things have gone less swimmingly for him. The Times yesterday reported, under the headline “Moderates back Boris Johnson to be next Prime Minister”, that three MPs, Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden, are supporting Johnson.
In the 2016 contest, Sunak and Jenrick supported Gove while Dowden backed Theresa May. To find the three of them writing a joint piece in support of Johnson as the only answer this time round was discouraging for Gove.
But he is an extraordinarily resourceful campaigner, and there is still everything to fight for. Andrew Mitchell, a former International Development Secretary and Chief Whip, has not yet made up his mind who he will support, and said last night of Gove to ConHome after the One Nation hustings:
“He clearly has a strong chance of becoming leader because he’s an undoubted Brexiteer, but one who could unify the Conservative parliamentary party. He is also speaking a language on the environment which speaks directly to the younger generation about climate change.”
When ConHome wondered whether Gove is simply too unpopular with voters to be a viable leader, Mitchell replied:
“Were he to win he’d be a fund of interesting ideas and important policies which would bridge the generational gap.”
Gove himself said last night at the One Nation event, and during a subsequent Spectator appearance, that he would be prepared, if necessary, to extend the deadline for leaving the EU beyond 31st October.
Such statements will not satisfy hardline Brexiteers, including those who now support the Brexit Party. But Gove must reckon that in order to unite the Conservative parliamentary party, it is worth giving ground on the date.
He contends that with more time to bring the Brexit negotiations to a successful conclusion, there is less danger of precipitating an early general election, which Jeremy Corbyn might well win.
On yesterday morning’s ConHome, hard questions were asked about Gove’s lack of popularity with the wider public. And a shire Tory who often reflects wider opinion among traditional Tory voters this week said of him to ConHome:
“Think he is able but behaved badly last time. Feel he was probably right about education and has some good ideas. Somehow do not like him. He lacks warmth. Boris has that.”
Gove’s admirers point to his remarkable record as a departmental minister, at Education, Justice and the Environment. He himself says it is necessary to show you can change things, not just that you can charm people.
When asked his opinion of Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a supporter of Johnson, told ConHome:
“I’m a great admirer of Michael’s. He is a brilliant speaker and interesting thinker who manages to get things done in government.”
Gove remarked last night that Margaret Thatcher was a former Education Secretary who was said by her critics to be fatally unpopular, but who led the party to three general elections in a row.
His admirers cite his brilliant winding-up speech in January’s confidence debate. He is the best parliamentary performer on the Conservative front bench, while Johnson is the best extra-parliamentary performer, who has regularly delighted large audiences at the ConHome rally at the party conference, and possesses an extraordinary ability to change the atmosphere on stepping into a dull shopping centre on a Wednesday afternoon.
Again and again one comes back to the comparison between Gove and Johnson. It is conceivable (I make no predictions) that they will be the final two candidates who are presented to the party membership.
If that were to happen, the press would present it as a continuation of the “psychodrama” between the two men. For in the 2016 leadership race it was Gove who – having until that moment backed his fellow Leaver and declared himself unfit to be Prime Minister – suddenly declared it was actually Johnson who was was unfit to be Prime Minister, and that he, Gove, was entering the race.
One of Gove’s friends observes with admiration his fondness for dispute:
“It is true that Michael would cross the street to have an argument. Verbally he is extremely aggressive – he will start an argument for fun – he doesn’t shy away from a good punch-up. That’s one thing that could make him quite a good PM – winding up civil servants and interest groups.”
Kenneth Clarke cast a less benign eye on this adversarial quality during the last leadership election:
“I don’t think the membership will vote for Gove. I remember being in a discussion about something to do with somewhere like Syria or Iraq and he was so wild that I remember exchanging looks with Liam Fox, who is much more rightwing than me.
“We were exchanging views and Liam was raising eyebrows. I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once.”
Yet Gove also has an eloquent and conciliatory “politesse” (as one observer calls it), and is wonderfully entertaining company.
Johnson too can be wonderfully entertaining. The similarities between the two candidates, though liable to be overlooked when the talk is of psychodrama, are striking.
Both were President of the Oxford Union, Johnson in 1986, Gove in 1988; both achieved early success as journalists; both became Conservative MPs, Johnson in 2001, Gove in 2005; both joined the Leave campaign in the EU Referendum, and helped lead it to victory.
The connection between them is indeed even closer than these similarities suggest. In 2005, when I was writing my biography of Johnson, I interviewed Gove, who remarked that at Oxford, Johnson “was quite the most brilliant extempore speaker of his generation”, and cheerfully admitted: “I was Boris’s stooge. I became a votary of the Boris cult.”
In October 2004, when Johnson, as editor of The Spectator, was ordered by Michael Howard, the Conservative Party Leader, to go to Liverpool to apologise for a deeply insulting editorial about that city which had appeared in the magazine, Gove composed a defence of Johnson which appeared in The Times:
“Alongside the disciplined ranks of parliamentary infantry, we need a few Cossacks, whose dazzling swordplay may not always hit the target, and may even cause the odd self-inflicted wound, but whose dash, verve and sheer élan help to lend the cause colour… So I for one am happy to say: let us acknowledge that his weaknesses as much as his strengths are all too visible but let us cherish this free spirit while we still have him – the MP for Henley, the People’s Boris.”
And during the referendum campaign, when Gove appeared for Vote Leave in a Sky News debate, Johnson fired off a volley of admiring tweets about his colleague’s performance:
“Brilliant stuff by the Gover.”
“Exactly right Michael Gove.”
“Dead right Gover.”
“Spot on Gover and great appeal at the end!”
“Gove hit it out of the park tonight at Sky News debate.”
In his column in Monday’s Telegraph, Charles Moore asked who in the leadership contest can claim to be a Tory. He gave Johnson 7/10, and wrote of Gove:
“years ago, my at-a-glance judgement had him down as one of nature’s Tories. He seemed to understand us curious creatures and offer protective habitat. Now I fear I got him wrong. His attacks on wood-burning stoves and the internal combustion engine have spooked me. He made a Friend of the Earth the head of Natural England. Is he that most unTory of creatures – the one who craves applause in the smarter London postal districts? Until the night he stabbed Boris, he would have stood at 8/10. Today, I fear, he is heading towards 4/10.”
Gove will bend every sinew in the coming days and weeks to prove he is a true Tory, and one who understands parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, where Johnson is weak.
So who is the real Gove? That is one of the questions which now confronts Tory MPs and, perhaps, Tory members.