Acting as a human buffer in the House of Commons chamber yesterday, the insurmountable Eric Pickles separated Michael Gove and Theresa May, the two Conservative cabinet ministers who have been warring recently.
When the Home Secretary gave way for the Education Secretary she tried to shuffle past Pickles, handbag in hand, presumably with the intention of leaving the chamber. Pickles blocked her path, shot her a cold glance, and pointed his finger at the empty space next to Gove. May reluctantly sat down and was forced to endure the ensuing sparkling performance of her colleague.
There was also a second, less noticed piece of parliamentary positioning that is worth considering. As May addressed the House, to her left sat Pickles and to his left, Gove. Next along was George Osborne, another likely contender for the Tory leadership. The Chancellor has been accused by Boris Johnson, the other main challenger, of recruiting Gove as his running mate, a “solider” to fight his battles, undermine rivals and pave the way for an Osborne premiership. To Osborne’s left sat Matt Hancock, a former adviser and chief of staff to Osborne, who now works for Gove in the Department for Education. As May stood to the right of Pickles, the three places to his left were occupied by Osborne and two of his chief lieutenants.
As ministers start to align themselves with possible candidates ahead of the next Tory leadership election, whenever that will be, it is becoming clear that almost every major news story involving the Conservatives will start to be viewed through this prism. When May made a hugely impressive speech to the Police Federation last month, daring to make criticisms of the stagnant police union that no previous Home Secretary has managed, it was immediately touted as her throwing down the gauntlet to her rivals. This was a brilliant speech that deserved recognition in its own right, yet commentators could not help but link it to her alleged ambitions to be leader.
When a booze-fuelled Gove criticised Boris for having “no gravitas” and May for having “no friends” at a private dinner in March, it was seen as a less than subtle attempt by Osborne’s “soldier” to stab two of his main potential rivals. There is quite possibly something to this, though in defence of Gove it does appear that he was pretty sozzled at the time.
Indeed, the next time Boris makes any sort of significant intervention in the public discourse, it will be difficult not to see it in the context of a recent poll conducted by the ConservativeHome website, which found that May had surged ahead of him in Tory party members’ preferences for their next leader. If Boris were to pass judgement on just about any national issue in a way that set him apart from the others, it would be seen as an attempt to win back that support.
As fun as all this leadership speculation may be, there are other things on Tory cabinet ministers’ minds than who is going to replace David Cameron.
Anyone familiar with Gove’s record on Islamic extremism will know that, for him, the Trojan Horse scandal and his set-to with May is probably not just about the Tory party leadership. Eight years ago Gove wrote a book on Islamism called Celsius 7/7.
His views are clear; comparing Islamic fundamentalism to fascism, describing jihadists as a “military vanguard” of a movement representing many Muslims, and criticising the Home Office’s attempts at combating extremism. This was not some faux battle constructed by Gove to slap down one of his main potential rivals; he patently genuinely believes he is on a moral mission.
It is just a rather fortunate coincidence for him that while he merely had to apologise for his role in the latest round of Tory wars, May had to accept the resignation of her closest aide. Surely the Education Secretary, and the Chancellor for that matter, will not have cracked even the tiniest of smiles over that outcome.