12 October 2022
Going, going, Gove?
by J.R. Thomas
Ms Truss, who walked through a door four weeks ago to find the sky on her head, must be wishing she could work off some of her frustrations by doing a Trump-like impersonation and shouting “You’re fired” at one of her mouthy and critical ex-colleagues. But alas, there is nothing to fire Mr Gove from, except perhaps holding the Tory whip. Michael has been fired from many things in his somewhat bizarre career over the last eight years or so, and there is little left to remove him from.
What has gone wrong for this undoubtedly intelligent and impressively competent politician? His back story will take a short re-telling. Born in Aberdeen and adopted at four months; good independent local school; Oxford; journalism (we all make mistakes); an increasingly original and confident voice expressed in a series of articles; selected as an MP for a Surrey seat and into the Commons in 2005. He fell immediately into the rising Cameron set, or Notting Hill set if you prefer, a group informally led by David Cameron and containing, in that Cameroonian way, many chums who achieved high office in 2010. It set the tone for the next stage of Gove’s career; identifying and then cuddling up to rising stars. Gove was from the off a very ambitious politician, though at this stage he must have been financially pushing his resources and perhaps his social position; the Cameroonians were mostly rich and Old Etonian, something even George Osborne, son and heir of a 17th baronet, found tricky to keep pace with.
But it paid off; in Cameron’s first administration Michael was straight into the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. After three years as shadow to that job, he was able to make an early impact and brought in a number of reforms, the most important of which was the academy programme. (He was less popular with teachers, who disliked his rigour on spending and especially on capital projects.) In 2014 he became Chief Whip, a somewhat surprising move but one which, knowing what we know now, may have suited Mr Gove down to his polished brogues. It gave him much influence behind the scenes and what we might politely call “insight” into his colleagues. It was at this time that he also denied any ambitions ever to seek residence at 10 Downing Street. Ambitious politicians always say that of course, but Gove did so in particularly strong terms, suggesting a man who had pondered in some depth his own merits and strengths, and found them wanting compared with those needed for the job of Prime Minister. Or perhaps he had just given Machiavelli a careful read through…
In 2015 he became Justice Secretary. Here again he introduced a series of reforms which were generally well received, albeit relatively modest. He was regarded as a key member of the Cameron circle, a frequent guest and increasingly close friend. But then came the whirlwind, and Michael’s life was never to be the same again. This was of course Whirlwind Brexit; for the first time Mr Gove had to take up a very public position; Leave? Or Remain? David Cameron had no doubt; Gove was a loyal and dedicated Remainer. But, as we now know, he wasn’t.
Gove emerged as one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, along with Boris Johnson. They had met at Oxford, though they were not known to be close as, for example, the Goves and the Camerons. But now the Goves needed new friends; Cameron and his circle made it clear, very clear, that they regarded Gove as a betrayer and he was cast out of Eden, or at least, the Cotswolds.
But Gove had picked the winning side, or so it seemed. Cameron was out, and it looked as though Boris would be in, with Michael as his campaign manager. The rest of the story you must know; Gove suddenly sacked his boss, declared for the job himself; and Theresa May swept between them and ended up as Britain’s second female Prime Minister. Those who believe in some sort of karma seemed rewarded; no job for Gove in a May administration; back to journalism. Except, in the sort of swerve we came to know only too well with Mrs May, less than a year later he was back in her cabinet.
Two years later Theresa had gone, and the “unambitious” Michael was again running for the Prime Ministerial job, to be beaten now by Boris. Back in the Cabinet, close to Boris again, but without much sign of a coherent philosophy; here is a man who apart from his Brexit position (which he said he found very difficult) is impossible to define in political terms; he just seems to like power; and to be a very efficient administrator. Now is it all over? Boris sacked him for disloyalty, he backed a losing candidate for the party leadership, and he is persona non grata to Ms Truss who does not trust him. On that record she is very wise not to. Not that this behaviour is that unusual in politics, and especially not so in Tory politics; Harold MacMillan was much the same. But SuperMac, though an arch maneuverer, did not seem to take the open delight in his carryings-on that Michael does; a delight which has become so damaging to his career.
He has, just to recap, lost any support or trust from the Cameron wing of the party, a more influential group than might at first sight be apparent (not that Cameron himself has any remaining political ambitions but there is still a parliamentary group that holds Cameroonian values). He is hardly likely to find much support among Boris’s fan club, and that too has not been wound up yet. His support of Kemi Badenoch in her leadership bid looked totally opportunistic, and whilst hopefully it has not damaged her long-term prospects, she is a clever enough politician to hope he will fling his hat in a different direction another time.
We ought perhaps to say at this point “Poor Michael Gove, a lost talent”. And he does have talent, undoubtedly so. But at the age of 55, young enough yet to take the most senior jobs and create an enviable history for himself, he seems finished. Still, it is difficult to say “Poor Michael”. His damaged career seems almost entirely down to his own odd behaviour; he seems to be a man who cannot resist the slippery manoeuvre, the knife in the back, the damage to a colleague. Of course politics is to a large extent about climbing over others to get to the top, but more skilled operators make it less obvious. There is nothing wrong with subtlety; it can be very helpful when you find your old enemy standing behind you on the stairs, wondering whether to push.
Will we see Mr Gove’s earnest face at the cabinet table ever again? One should never discount the ability of the truly ambitious to turn everything back to their advantage. But for Michael to achieve such a remarkable recovery would indeed be extraordinary. We suspect that we must now file him in that drawer beloved of racehorse trainers and schoolteachers marked “Did not fulfil early promise”.
Tile photo: Creative Commons