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The Making of Michael Gove

Polite but an ideologue, well-spoken yet coldblooded, Gove is on a quest to become the most powerful man in Britain's government.
By
Zeyd Anwar
Founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
Jakub Junek / Shutterstock.com
May 2, 2021
T

he twenty-seven hours between 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 29 June 2016 and noon the following day have some claim to being the most dramatic in modern British political history. Britain had just voted to leave the European Union and David Cameron, the Prime Minister, had resigned in an act of political regicide, having lost a referendum that would define his political career. Two men in particular—Michael Gove and Boris Johnson—had been at the forefront of the Vote Leave campaign, and now discussions had shifted to who would succeed Cameron as prime minister. 

Gove, citing no interest in the position, offered to support Johnson in exchange for a deal. Gove would have responsibility for running Johnson’s campaign, and in the event that Johnson became prime minister, would also become chancellor of the exchequer and in charge of rewriting Britain’s civil service.

Yet, in a decision that took place in a matter of hours, Gove embarked upon one of the most extraordinary political U-turns seen in British politics. Gove concluded that Johnson was ill-placed to become prime minister—and with Johnson unaware and planning to announce his candidacy in a few hours—publicly withdrew his support and announced his own candidacy to become prime minister instead.

“I had hoped that Boris Johnson…could build and unite a team around him to take this country forward,” Gove said to the media the following morning. “Boris is an amazing and impressive person, but I have realised in the past few days Boris is not capable of building that team or providing that unity…I therefore came, reluctantly but firmly, to the conclusion that I had to stand for the leadership of the Conservative Party.”

The reaction from Team Johnson was one of horror. According to Tim Shipman, Johnson’s initial response was disbelief. “Well, that’s it. I can’t go on. I can’t run,” Johnson said. In the car from Islington to Westminster, Johnson sat quietly and contemplated the death of his dreams. “I think he was shell-shocked,” one ally reported. “He couldn’t believe that somebody could act with such treachery.” 

Johnson became the subject of one of the bloodiest political assassinations in recent memory, and outcries of betrayal and treason soon followed. The Telegraph described Gove’s manoeuvre as “an act of midnight treachery” while The Sun summarised it in a single headline: “Brexecuted.” Jake Berry MP, too, expressed the opinion of many politicians in Westminster. Taking it to Twitter, Berry tweeted: “There is a very deep pit hell reserved for Michael Gove.”

It is this story that is part of a larger narrative about Michael Gove, a man that has dominated British politics for the past decade. He is a man who, to his critics, is a coldblooded zealot, but to his admirers a man that is the intellectual and moral core of the modern-day Conservative Party. In the words of Owen Bennett, “Gove provokes a reaction from everyone, be it loyalty, anger, respect or fury. Love him or hate him, it is impossible to deny Gove’s impact over the past ten years.”

***

Michael Gove and Boris Johnson first met at the University of Oxford in the mid-eighties, when Gove had secured a scholarship to study English at Lady Margaret Hall. Johnson, two years his senior, was studying Classics at Balliol College. In an interview, Gove recalled the first time he met the future prime minister on campus: “The first time I saw him was in the Union bar,” Gove said. “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.” 

For every politically minded student at Oxford, the goal was to be elected the President of the Oxford Union, the world-famous debating society that had been a pathway for previous prime ministers. Johnson, by this time a well-known figure at Oxford, had already tried to be elected twice for the position, but had been unsuccessful. In his final year, Johnson sought another attempt, and this time enrolled Gove as his stooge. Gove, a fresher, knew that helping Johnson secure the presidency would be a wise political investment, for it would familiarise him with the process and help raise his profile on campus.

Hiring a stooge had already been a well-tested method to secure the presidency of the Union. In a collection of 1987 essays entitled The Oxford Myth, a former president recalled the importance of a stooge in getting elected to the society: “The Presidential candidate must convince the stooge there is something in it for them,” it wrote, “and that by so nakedly attaching themselves to his or her particular bandwagon, the fruits of success will somehow trickle down.” 

Johnson secured the presidency of the Union in his final year, and Gove soon followed, running the Union as president between the years 1987 and 1988. In many ways, the campaign to get Johnson elected was merely a pre-run for the one campaign that would matter: Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. It would be a campaign that would take place exactly thirty years later, and one ultimately change the face of British politics.

It was also at Oxford University that another contemporary of Gove’s resided. David Cameron, who studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Brasenose College, graduated in the same year as Gove, but there is no evidence to suggest the two ever interacted. It would only be when their friendship circles became mutual, and when Gove—on the advice of Cameron himself—would become a Member of Parliament that the relationship between the two political giants would take a turn for the worse. 

Cameron made several mistakes in the final year of his premiership, but one of the most disastrous was his confident belief that Gove would support the Remain campaign simply because he asked him to. The greatest misreading came when Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, dined with the Camerons on New Year’s Eve in Chequers. According to a friend of Samantha Cameron’s, “There was a conversation at Chequers at New Year which left Sam with a very strong impression that Michael would back Remain.” When Gove’s decision to back Brexit was disclosed, Gove met with Osborne and Cameron in the flat above Number 11. “You know if I lose, then it will destroy me,” Cameron said, according to All Out War. “You can’t do it.” Gove then explained that he had suppressed his true feelings about Europe, but now that the referendum was taking place, he had no choice but to express them. “I’d put my feelings in a box, and now the box has been opened,” Gove said. “My feelings on this have unleashed…it’s incredibly difficult for me. If I take a particular view to row behind you, then everyone will know it's insincere.”

Michael Gove's decision to back Vote Leave ultimately led to David Cameron's downfall. Photo credits: Tom Evans.

Vine, too, later wrote an article in the Daily Mail explaining the couple’s predicament: “I blame myself in part for any misunderstanding…I had not been entirely transparent—mostly because I genuinely wasn’t sure which way Michael was going to go, but also because, being frightfully middle-class about it all, I didn’t want to start a row.”

For many in Westminster, Gove’s decision to back Brexit was not motivated purely by Euroscepticism, but Cameron’s decision to relegate him to chief whip in 2014. As education secretary, Gove had become unpopular with many public-sector voters, and with the general election looming, the Tories had sought to minimise his impact by giving him a smaller position in government. Gove, however, also had problems of trust. In an article for the Spectator, Jo Johnson revealed that Gove had been considered the “biggest leaker in government” and had been completely “distrusted” when Cameron remained in charge of Number 10. According to Johnson—then the director of Number 10’s Policy Unit—Gove was so prone to leaking to the press that Cameron created a “Gove Protocol”—designed to prevent Gove from receiving any policy information and to limit his involvement in policy making. 

Cameron had been unaware of how badly the move had hurt his old friend. “David just kept smiling and assumed if they didn’t talk about it, that everything would be fine,” one mutual friend said in All Out War. “But it wasn’t fine.” Gove later hid how painful the decision had been, but for him, the drama was illustrative of the larger problem he had with Cameron’s inner circle. 

For many in the Westminster commentariat, Gove was on equal footing with the Notting Hill Set. He was witty, charming and just as intelligent. But to many of Gove’s close associates, he was still perceived as an adopted child, a member of a working-class family, and a boy that had gained entry to Oxford University on the back of a scholarship. Gove, starstruck, had attempted to penetrate the inner circle of popular public-school boys at Oxford, but had never quite gained the same level of respect. For Gove, it was an odd love-hate relationship. On the one hand, he admired the standing of Britain’s public-school boys and tried to emulate himself after them. On the other, he resented their privilege and the hierarchical, class-based system they propagated. It would be this relationship that Gove would later take with him in the referendum over Britain’s membership of the European Union. Gove, by then a well-oiled politician and member of the establishment, would rail against the very political class that he had worked so hard to be a part of.

Gove gave an insight into this sentiment in an interview with the Financial Times back in 2014. “It’s ridiculous,” spluttered Gove, discussing the dominance of public-school boys in government. “I don’t feel personally uncomfortable, because I like each of the individuals concerned. But it’s ridiculous. I don’t know where you find a similar situation in any other developed economy.”

An ally of Gove’s, in an interview with Tim Shipman, spoke of something similar: “Michael was a spoddy, unfashionable geek…he was slightly captivated by the gilded elite of bronzed tennis-playing types at Brasenose [Cameron’s alma mater] and Christ Church. The Cameron circle’s view is that Michael is funny, Michael is clever, but he is a little bit crazy and he is a little bit funny because he believes things.” Dominic Cummings shared a similar view. For Cummings, Gove was akin to a performing monkey at dinner parties. He was funny and clever, but Gove was never truly part of the Etonian and Westminsterian circle—and it showed. 

***

Life did not begin for Gove as Michael Gove. Gove was born as Graeme Andrew Logan on the 26 August 1967 in Aberdeen, Scotland. His mother, then an unmarried 22-year-old cookery demonstrator, placed Gove in adoption, and Gove was later embraced by a Labour supporting couple in Edinburgh, known as Ernest and Christine Gove. It was when Ernest and Christine adopted another child, a deaf girl named Angela, that they told Gove of his origins. “You’re different from other children because we chose you,” Christine said. “You didn’t grow under my heart, you grew in it.”

Gove has since been transparent about his childhood to others, claiming it was a defining moment in his life. “My life was transformed by being adopted,” Gove told ITV during an interview. “At four months old, I was taken into the home of two people who didn’t know me, who took a gamble on me…they took me into their home and into their hearts, and as a result of that I’ve enjoyed amazing opportunities. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like…if they hadn’t been prepared to take that risk on me.”

Gove’s openness, however, was met with a reluctance to find his true biological parents. In 1998, Gove wrote a piece in The Times which said: “I have never…attempted to satisfy my curiosity on the mystery at the heart of my own story.” His justification had been the risk it would have presented to his adopted mother, Christine. “I have never tried for the fear of offending the woman I have always called my mum, the mother in whose heart I grew.” Speaking about the issue, Gove later recalled, “I think about it often. I wonder what my birth mother thinks. But the people who brought me up are my mum and my dad.”

Gove’s adoption into a left-leaning, working-class family in Scotland influenced his politics. Gove, then a teenage socialist, had been inspired by the works of George Orwell to join the Labour Party, at the time led by Michael Foot. “The funny thing is he went door-to-door, canvassing for Labour, posting leaflets and chatting to people,” Ernest Gove told The Telegraph. Gove not only campaigned for Michael Foot to become prime minister in the 1983 election, but also represented the Labour Party in his school’s mock vote.

It was when Gove finished his degree at the University of Oxford that his political allegiance changed. “I think it was at Oxford [University] where he really became politically-minded,” Ernest said. After his presidency of the Oxford Union and friendships with other young Tories, Gove completed his journey away from socialism and later embraced right-wing ideology and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party.

Michael Gove (bottom left) during an NUJ picket line (1989). Photo credits: Donald Stewart

Today, Gove is known not merely as a Tory, but a leading neo-conservative. As a co-founder of the think-tank Policy Exchange, Gove has been a proponent of smaller states and deregulation, and has also maintained links with the American neo-conservative movement. In 2018, when Sajid Javid and Michael Gove were invited to speak at the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) event on geopolitics, it seemed like a natural step—for it tied the British Conservative Party closer to influential neo-conservatives on the other side of the Atlantic. 

The AEI had been founded in 1938 and had been no stranger to political controversy. One of its major criticisms had been its links to Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, the controversial book that aimed to show the causation between race and IQ. When Michael Gove was found to have owned the book, along with books from David Irving—the notorious Holocaust denier—outrage ensued. “David Irving, the Bell Curve…if this had been Through the Keyhole, I’d have guessed Anders Breivik,” one journalist responded. Vine, nonchalant, responded to the critics with a tweet of her own, showing a photograph of the couple’s bookshelf, this time with several books about Hitler and Mussolini: “As a very special treat for my trolls and [Alastair Campbell], here is another bookshelf. There are about 20 more. Enjoy!”

Although George Osborne once boasted of his links to the neo-conservatives in Washington, he conceded to the Financial Times that Gove made him appear like a moderate, especially when it came to foreign policy matters. Gove had been a leading voice for British intervention in Libya and had previously lambasted Labour for “appeasing Assad” during the parliamentary debates on bombing Syria. Gove, however, also found admiration in Tony Blair’s foreign policy. Five years after the invasion, Gove described the Iraq War as Britain’s “greatest foreign policy success.” Writing in The Times, Gove also “confessed” his love for Blair and argued Labour’s actions commanded conservative respect: “It is over Iraq that he is in greatest difficult politically,” Gove wrote. “All because, as a Labour Prime Minister, he’s behaving like a true Thatcherite.” Gove then concluded: “Indeed, he’s braver in some respects than Maggie was. Mr Blair’s policy has the merit of genuine moral force.” Tariq Ali, the famous-left winger, once recalled at the time of the War how “he debated the ghastly Gove on television…and found him worse than most Bush apologists in the United States.” 

Gove’s political views have blocked his own political trajectory. According to George Parker, Gove was not sent to the Foreign Office in fears he would have provoked a war. Friends of Gove also claimed that he would have been driven mad at the Home Office, due to constraints placed on the position by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Gove’s hard-line positions have also made him an awkward cabinet colleague. In a leaked clip after the Britain’s referendum, Ken Clarke voiced his opinions on Gove’s announcement for leadership of the Conservative Party: “I don’t mind who wins as long as Gove comes third,” he said. “I remember being in discussion about something like Syria or Iraq. He was so wild that I remember exchanging looks with Liam Fox, who is much more right-wing than me.” Clarke then went on: “Liam was raising eyebrows. I think with Michael as prime minister we’d go to war with at least three countries at once.”

Neoconservatism, however, has been only one part of Gove’s ideology. The other is Zionism. “One thing I have always been since I was a boy is a Zionist,” Gove said. “For as long as I have breath in my body and a platform on which to argue, I shall be on your [Israel] side, delighted and honoured to argue—powerfully I hope—on behalf of the people who have contributed so powerfully to the life of this nation.”

Gove later attributed his Zionism to the time he had spent with his mother attending church services. Every Sunday, the Gove family would attend the Causewayed Church, where Douglas Sutherland, the church minister, would tell Gove tales about the people of Israel. Gove found the historical accounts “moving”, and Gove now finds movements to boycott Israeli goods over Palestine anti-Semitic. “Jihadi terrorists hate Israel, and they wish to wipe out the Jewish people’s home, not because of what Israel does but because of what Israel is—free, democratic, liberal and western,” he said. Gove later warned that there would be “no abatement in the threat to Israel,” and that the movements against Israel are “fuelled by a dark and furious energy.”

For many in the Westminster bubble, Gove will always be notorious for being a strong ideologue. As Ian Leslie in the New Statesman put it, “Michael Gove is the politest man in politics and one of the most abrasive…a right-wing ideologue with a fierce aversion to unearned privilege.”

***

By far the greatest influence of Gove’s career in politics was his decision to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. The papers had revealed that Gove’s Euroscepticism had been personal, a result of the Gove’s family lived experience of the European Union and its policies.

In 1983, the European Union passed through the Commission Fisheries Policy. While in existence since 1970, changes to the legislation saw limits on the volume of fish that could be caught, in an attempt to limit overfishing and promote the conservation of fish stocks. Gove, claiming this left Ernest’s business to “go to the wall”, blamed the European Union, and argued the bloc had been critical in demolishing the fishing industry in Scotland. “The personal is political,” Laura Kuenssberg reported during an interview with Gove in his Scottish family home. “I saw the pride that my father and grandfather had in their business,” Gove said. “Of course it was very difficult to cope with everything that they had built disappear. I was just a schoolboy at the time…but it stayed with me.” Gove then added: “I remember feeling that some of the debates weren’t rooted in real people’s experiences…there was a lot of airy-fairy theorising.”

During the referendum campaign, however, Ernest contradicted his son’s claim. He agreed that the industry had “more or less collapsed,” but that he sold his own company voluntarily to work with another business partner. “It wasn’t any hardship or things like that,” Ernest said. “I just decided to call it a day, sold up by business and went on to work with someone else.”

While Gove’s decision on the European Union was ideological, it was also partly the outflow of his Oxford class struggle—one which revealed his disdain for the British establishment and political elite, despite being a part of them.

The first moment was during the referendum debate with the BBC’s Faisal Islam. Gove parroted the line that Vote Leave was a crusade in favour of class interests. “Why should the British people trust you, Boris and Nigel?” Islam asked. Gove responded, “I’m not asking the public to trust me, I’m asking the people to trust themselves. I’m asking them to take back control from those organisations that are distant, unaccountable and elitist.” “Elitist? The lord high chancellor, elitist?” Islam remarked. Gove smirked. Islam then added: “It’s a conspiracy of the elites…it sounds like something out of Wolf Hall!”

Gove’s biggest moment, however, arose when he was pressed as to why more financial institutions had not backed Vote Leave. Cornered, Gove responded: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts…I’m afraid to say…you’re fired!” As Tim Shipman notes, the line had been anthesis of Gove’s career to date, “one that had been grounded on seeking out expert practice around the world.” Nevertheless, the line resonated with many ordinary voters.

Michael Gove in the House of Commons. Photo credits: Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament

On hearing the tirade against experts, Cameron was incandescent. “The PM was raging about that for days,” a Number 10 aide said. The head of strategy for the Stronger In Campaign, Ryan Coetzee, however, said the comment enabled him to understand Gove a little bit better: “More than any specific ideological vision he has, Gove is an ideologue. You do get the whiff of burning witches. The thing about ideologues, whether they’re left or right, is that none of them need experts because they’re the expert; because the ideology has the answer. Ideologues force the world to conform to their theory instead of having their theory conform to the world.” Coetzee then added: “That, to my mind, explains Michael Gove.”

The second moment in the campaign was equally illustrative. At the beginning of the referendum, the Stronger In campaign had dominated the headlines. FTSE100 executives, financers, banks and other heads of states had been enlisted to make the argument that leaving the European Union would be economically disastrous. The media played the same tune, and in the minds of Brexiteers, had side-lined Vote Leave from the mainstream press. It was in this context Gove sought to take on the establishment. Seeing himself and Vote Leave as the underdogs against the political and economic elite, he deployed the one figure who would turn the campaign around—the Queen herself.

The headline broke across The Sun’s front page like an earthquake. “Revealed: Queen backs Brexit.” The tabloid claimed that Nick Clegg and the Queen had had an argument over Europe, in which the Queen said the European Union was heading in the wrong direction. It also claimed she had told parliamentarians that she “didn’t understand” Europe. Gove denied being the source behind the story, but Clegg thought differently. “Gove obviously gave that to The Sun. I know he did. He leaked that…and it was a very mendacious thing to say. I think it was very, very disrespectful for Gove to have done that.” The manoeuvre, however, worked. It wiped out Stronger In’s media domination for the week and helped place in the hearts of Brexiteers that leaving the Union was the correct path to take.

***

Of the three men that have defined Gove’s political career—Johnson and Cameron—Dominic Cummings can confidently be described as the third. Cummings’s role in the referendum has been well recorded. What is less well known is his political and strategic influence on Gove.

When Cameron resigned as prime minister on the steps of Downing Street, Johnson, Gove and Cummings turned their attention to who would succeed him. Cummings, as the spearhead of the leave campaign, instructed Gove and Johnson to strike a deal. Johnson, more anxious, cornered Cummings in Vote Leave’s building and asked: “Do you think Michael will run for leader? What do you think Gove is going to do?” Cummings answered: “He will not run for leader. My advice for him is he should support you. I think if you’re sensible, you should make him chancellor and in charge of civil service reform…if you’re going to deliver on the victory, you’re going to have to tear up the Whitehall machine.” Cummings then continued, “Him, me and our whole team have thought a lot about this, and we know how to do it. There’s going to be a revolution.” Gove, influenced by Cummings, agreed. He had been of the view that Westminster’s political system, now broken, needed overhauling. In particular, he wanted to see the end to the power of Sir Jeremy Heywood, the then cabinet secretary. 

“The point was made that if this was going to work, we would need to think very seriously about reforming the way in which the civil service operated, and make some big changes about the way the government went about its existence,” a source similar with the discussions said, according to All Out War. “We couldn’t accept the world according to Jeremy Heywood and the approach the civil service had always taken to these things.”

The idea that central government needed reforming was not new. Cummings had openly spoken about such ideas when he worked for Gove as special advisor in the Department for Education (DfE). After bouts at the Spectator and activities in Russia, Cummings joined Gove from 2011-2014 and attempted to implement school reforms in line with his idea of an “Odyssean” education.

Cummings became well-known in the DfE for his outspoken criticisms of the Whitehall machine and Britain’s education system. Cummings, then with a low tolerance for “fools” and notorious for making fierce demands of civil servants, wrote that “real talent” was rare among Britain’s teachers, and that genetics had played a greater role in educational success than teaching. “There is a strong resistance across the political spectrum to accepting the scientific evidence on genetics,” Cummings wrote. “Most of those that now dominate discussions on issues like social mobility entirely ignore genetics, and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless.” Cummings also railed against New Labour’s education reforms, and concluded by outlining what appeared to be the end point to the first wave of Gove’s educational reforms: “Hopefully, it [the reforms] will push the English system towards one in which the state provides a generous amount of funding per pupil—which parents can spend in any school they wish— breaking down the barrier between private-state school.”

Gove, although influenced by Cummings, had views of his own on education. Gove’s views were culturally restorationist. For Gove, the aim of education was to give children access to “the best that has been thought and written” and the “best of our civilisation.” The proper “training of minds” as Gove put it, would be accomplished by children “sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, modern foreign languages and algebra by the age of 11.”

As David Buckingham noted, Gove placed a premium on knowledge over skills and competence. For Gove, there was hierarchy of “knowing that” over “knowing how”. Facts were king: children needed to be able to regurgitate facts in examinations and know a list of famous names that would “display pride in our country’s history.”

Gove, however, was not merely demanding a return to a traditionalist education. He also wanted Britain’s education to compete on the global stage. Gove was not only neo-conservative, but a neo-liberal—and sought to remodel Britain’s education system in line with such pursuits. Academies and free schools were developed to give more autonomy away from local governments, schools were required to compete in an unequal marketplace, and new technology was used to control the performance of teachers and students in ever-greater detail.

Like Gove’s stance on the referendum, his worldview on Britain’s education system had been informed by his own childhood. According to Buckingham, Gove’s account of his own past represented himself as the living evidence of meritocracy. Reflecting on his own education, Gove argued the class system “made Britain great” and that private schools were a “priceless asset.” Gove then continued: “It is the desire to send his son to Eton, for prestige as much as qualifications, that drives the man in the Midlands to build a better mousetrap.”

Gove’s background, however, also meant he lacked the same level of self-assuredness and confidence exuded by many Tory politicians. For Buckingham, it was this that made Gove more inclined to seek confrontation, and to challenge what he saw as the status quo. “Certainly in his time as education minister, he managed to pick fights on every imaginable issue…not only educational “experts” with whom he clearly despised en masse, and of course the trade unions, but also teachers' professional bodies and parents’ organisations.”

For many in the DfE, Gove’s policy reforms were masks for a hard-line ideological revolution. In an article for Politics Home, Sam Freedman, a colleague who worked with Cummings and Gove, wrote: “For all his [Dominic Cummings] demands for a scientific approach to government, not a single policy…had been properly evaluated through, for example, a randomised control trial… because they were rolled out without any piloting.” Freedman then added: “In technocrat utopia, major policy like the introduction of academies would have been phased in such a way as to allow for evaluation.”

Gove’s relationship with Cummings, however, was not merely ideological. It was also strategic and practical. Gove’s dependency on Cummings became clear from two specific incidents. 

Ilyas Tayfun Salci / Shutterstock.com

The first, the expenses scandal, took place in May 2009. Gove had claimed expenses of £7,000 for the redecoration of a house, with thousands spent on high-end interior design. For Harry Lambert, writer at the New Statesman, “Gove hung on because of Cummings, who put together a strategy for him not having to resign. Gove paid back the money, apologised and survived.”

The second took place in 2010. With the Clegg-Cameron government in its infancy and austerity on the horizon, the DfE —under Gove—published an incorrect list of schools whose building projects were going to be scrapped. “It was a big issue, and it looked like Michael would have to resign,” says a department member who spoke to Lambert. Cummings was parachuted in. He “banged heads together, produced the right list, and started to play the media more successfully”, saving Gove from another career-ending failure.

At the end of the two incidents, Gove came to trust Cummings’s expertise. “Michael really trusted his antennae after that” a confidant said to Lambert. “At times like that, when the shit hits the fan, you realise who cuts it and who doesn’t”.

Gove, indebted to Cummings, would eventually have to pay his dues. So when Cummings drove to Barnard Castle during Britain’s lockdown and a media frenzy ensued, the timing was perfect. “Dominic completely understands the sense of concern people have felt as this story broke,” Gove told the BBC. “Most people will understand that he was under pressure and sought to put the health of his wife and son first.’ Gove then added: “He is a man of honour and integrity.” At the time, the official defence from Cummings—who undertook a press conference in Downing Street to explain his actions—was that he took the trip to test his vision for the journey back to London.

Although Gove’s defence of Cummings initially held, it later became clear Gove was not as skilled as Cummings in handling a media response. In an interview with LBC, Nick Ferrari asked “Would you go on a 60-mile round trip to test your eyesight?” Gove, then red in the face and rubbing his nose, struggling to produce a coherent response. “I’m staggered. I don’t know how you’re going to get out of this one, but it’s going to be fun,” Ferrari interjected. Laughing, Gove eventually caved and responded: “I think most people who know me would know that I’m not an authority on driving.” Gove conceded the defence was illogical, but Cummings survived—only to resign six months later.

***

Gove stood up in the parliamentary chamber, his fingers tightly gripping the dispatch box. The Commons roared, and Gove blinked defiantly behind his thick-rimmed glasses, taking a quick look of his speech before beginning his tirade. “We [the Conservative Party] stand up for national security. But what about my Right Honourable Member for Islington North?” Gove asked. “He wants to leave NATO,” Gove said, slamming the dispatch box with his hand and looking around the Commons for approval. “He wants to get rid of our nuclear deterrent…and remove our army. No allies, no deterrent, no army. No WAY can this country ever allow that man to be our prime minister.” Corbyn, the primary subject of Gove’s verbal assault, looked unsettled, and the Conservative side of the chamber continued to jeer. Gove had hit his stride.

Soon after, Gove’s speech in the Commons was compared to a prime ministerial performance, as if he had prepared for that moment since his debating days in the Oxford Union. Indeed, Gove took the opportunity in parliament to display his oratorical skills, and to show to backbenchers and the opposition alike that he had both the capacity and flare to become prime minister.

For some cabinet ministers, Gove had always been as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party, despite his unpopularity with the public. Speaking to Andrew Neil in 2012, Michael Portillo once said: “Gove may not have broad appeal, but he knows what he’s about and knows what he wants.” Alan Johnson was more optimistic, but for opposite reasons: “Bring it on”. Johnson was acutely aware of Gove’s dislike with voters, seeing his leadership as a bonus for the Labour Party.

Despite these claims, Gove has, in the past, readily dismissed them. A few months before Portillo’s support, Gove insisted: “I’m constitutionally incapable of it. There’s a special extra quality you need that is indefinable, and I know I don’t have it. There’s an equanimity, an impermeability and a courage that you need. There are some things in life you know it’s better not to try.” Gove forgot about these words less than four years later, when he attempted to run for prime minister in the years 2016 and 2019.

What has driven Gove to reach the highest office in the land can be determined by the clues left throughout his political career: a passionate commitment to ideology, a desire to prove the establishment wrong, and a lust for power to make up for a lack of self-confidence and assuredness absent from other leading Tory politicians. The biggest clue, however, lies in a bizarre YouTube video found on James Delingpole’s channel, a writer for the Daily Mail, Spectator and Daily Telegraph. Named “Gove in the Garden,” Gove—wearing a purple jumper with neatly parted hair —claims that: “My favourite character in Game of Thrones is undoubtedly Tyrion Lannister. The moment I love most is when he leads what is apparently a hopeless charge of his troops in defence of King’s Landing against the forces of Stannis Baratheon. You see there this misshapen dwarf, reviled throughout his life, thought in the eyes of some to be a toxic figure, can at last rally a small band of loyal followers.” It is hard to think of a better metaphor for Gove’s decade-long political ascension.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove holds a Digital Covid-19 Press Conference with NHS Medical Director, Professor Stephen Powis in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.

Gove’s political career, however, has benefited greatly with the connections forged during his time as a journalist. Before politics, Gove worked at The Times as Murdoch’s protégé, and later became identified by Murdoch as a “great man” who would “do a fine job of running the country.” When Gove announced he would be backing Vote Leave in February 2016, the extent of the relationship was again made clear: “Congratulations Michael Gove,” Murdoch wrote on Twitter. “Friends always knew his principles would overcome his personal friendships.”

Four months later, Gove’s political assassination against Johnson had failed, allowing Theresa May to take the crown and become prime minister. When Gove turned up to May’s cabinet reshuffle a week later, he was certain that his cabinet job would be his last. “Michael, as you know, I have to form a new cabinet.” May said. “…I have to make room for some new faces. I have to tell you, you won’t be in that cabinet.” Gove then replied, “I quite understand, Prime Minister.” May had made clear that Gove’s betrayal against Johnson had been a factor in her decision: “One of the things that’s very important is loyalty, and after the last few weeks I’ve been speaking to people in the party…I wouldn’t say that you could never come back, but you need to take a period on the backbenchers to demonstrate your loyalty.” The real reason for Gove’s sacking, however, was more mundane: “She can’t stand him and doesn’t trust him,” one Tory said in All Out War. “The two had clashed repeatedly.”

Gove later took a £150,000 job at The Times—only to return to May’s cabinet less than 9 months later. Reports surfaced that Murdoch had asked May to reappoint Gove to the cabinet or face a bad press in his newspaper titles. Tom Watson, then the deputy leader of the Labour Party, wrote to May asking whether Murdoch has sought any influence over the government’s appointments. The Conservative Party later refused to deny or admit Murdoch’s role in Gove’s cabinet return. 

The prospect of Gove as prime minister has been terrifying to some. Sayeeda Warsi, former Conservative Party Chairwoman, said that there is “no doubt” that Gove is Islamophobic and that she feared his views on Muslims, given the views in his controversial book Celsius 7/7. Oborne agreed. Writing in the Guardian, Oborne claimed that Gove launched the Trojan Horse policy while serving in the coalition government, a move that was a “lurid figment of the neo-Conservative imagination…an anti-Muslim ideological concoction driven by Michael Gove, backed by Downing Street, and aided and abetted by a group of well-placed media henchman.”

Sayeeda Warsi also noted the difference between Johnson’s and Gove’s attitude to Islam: [Johnson] has made stupid remarks…but I don’t think it’s pernicious…I don’t think he’s Islamophobic. I don’t think he wants to go out and attack Muslims simply for being Muslim or wants to make life difficult for them. I genuinely don’t believe that. He’s no Michael Gove.”

To many in Westminster, however, Gove is already prime minister. According to Oborne, Johnson is leader in name only, a “bumbling puppet for the ambitious, highly intelligent and motivated Gove.” Writing in the Middle East Eye, he claimed that: “With Johnson off the ball, Gove quietly stepped in and took over the reins of power.” For Oborne, it is Gove that is leading the charge on Brexit, and has also been behind the destructive war against the civil service. “Gove is empire building. He has put himself at the heart of every major decision in government,” a cabinet minister told The Times. A second jokingly asked: “Did Boris really win the election so he could make Michael Gove prime minister?” A third cabinet minister agreed: “Who is the spider in the middle of the government web? It’s Michael Gove.”

Zeyd Anwar is the founder and editor-in-chief of Res Publica
@zeydanwar

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