Michael Gove has declared himself a candidate in the Conservative party leadership race and I couldn’t be more pleased or more surprised.
I’m surprised because for the last few years he has made “no, please no” groaning noises whenever anyone has raised the possibility.
But I’m pleased because, apart from being a good friend he also happens to a man of quite extraordinary brilliance and conviction. If we’re lucky enough to see him seize the Iron Throne then it will be the best thing that has happened in British politics since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
Like Thatcher, Gove is most definitely not a Conservative in the Macmillan/Heath/Cameron mould but a crusading radical, a champion of the working people and a happy warrior who likes nothing better than sticking it to the enemy with his obsidian blade of icy politeness.
This fair and insightful New Statesman profile captures his style well:
Everyone mentions his politeness. He is elaborately courteous, not just with friends and potential allies but with opponents, junior civil servants and children. If he wants to charm you, he looks you in the eye and listens intently. His politeness is rigorously enforced, as if developed to constrain some anarchic inner force. It can also be used as a weapon. “Michael is aggressively polite,” a former colleague of his told me.
Which might make him sound cold and calculating, if you weren’t also aware of his mischievousness and wit and sense of fun. Gove is tremendously good company, a compulsive wag and piss-taker. No matter how serious the occasion, there’s a part of him that desperately wants to uncut its pomposity with a well turned quip or cheeky giggle. This is what his New Statesman profiler Ian Leslie means by that “anarchic inner force.” I’d love to be a fly on the wall if and when he gets his private audience with the Queen (whom – obviously – he adores).
But does he have the right stuff to lead Britain into Brexit and guarantee that she thrives thereafter?
The mistake some commentators will make with Gove is to assume that because he was so closely associated with the Cameroon project he therefore shares its woolly centrism, vapid lack of conviction and patrician condescension.
This is to misunderstand the nature of politics. Gove, as all politicians must, had to operate within the constraints of the prevailing regime. If you’re working within an administration of bien-pensant Old Etonian Conservatives-lite you’re not going to get very far if you’re seen to be too ideological. As indeed was demonstrated when Cameron sacked Gove as Education Secretary – on the advice of Lynton Crosby – on the grounds that apparently, his radical education reforms were considered “toxic” by the broader electorate.
With hindsight, this may come to be seen as the gravest tactical error Cameron ever made. Gove is fiercely loyal to his friends – I know of no one else in my acquaintance who gives of himself so generously to other people: whenever you’re in trouble, he is there for you – and might well never have opted to stab Cameron in the back by joining Vote Leave if Cameron hadn’t betrayed him first.
Then again, Gove is a man of quite ferocious principle. I’m sure it pained him to have to take sides against David Cameron, once a close friend and also a man to whom he’ll always be grateful for his political advancement. But ultimately Gove is in politics to do the right thing and make a real difference.
And for Gove, doing the right thing would always have coincided with getting out of the EU.
I appreciate that people may have had their doubts about Boris’s commitment to Brexit. They need have no such fear with Gove. His hatred of the EU’s anti-democratic bureaucracy was and is visceral. Now the people have spoken he has the mandate he needs to carry through their wishes – including, I’m quite sure, on freedom of movement.
What’s so incredibly unusual about Gove in this post-Blairite age of triangulation and compromise and fudge is that he’s much less interested in the question “What’ll play well with the box office?” then he is with “What’s the right thing to do?”
He thinks from first principles.
Pretty much everyone else who has held the job of Education Secretary will have gone into it thinking: “How am I going to reconcile the disparate interests of the teaching unions, schools, children, parents, employers and my party’s stated policies?” And then been ground down accordingly.
Gove will have approached from the opposite direction. “It was my superb education at Robert Gordon’s in Aberdeen which gave me my chance in life. I believe that all children in the country – not just those with rich parents – should be afforded the same opportunity. But this can only be achieved if the state education system embraces the same rigour, discipline, competitiveness and ethos you find in schools like Robert Gordon’s and Eton. How then can I make this happen?”
This is the same approach he will adopt when running the country. He’s not a “politics is the art of the possible” trimmer like Dave Cameron or a snake oil salesman like Blair. Gove is the real deal. He’ll ask: “How can we make our magnificent country even better than it is already? Then he’ll direct the best talents in his team towards going out and fixing it.”
Oh, and I wouldn’t worry about the “social justice” stuff too much. By which I mean, though he cares passionately about social inequality – especially the way working people have been completely shafted by the elite – his analysis of the problem most definitely isn’t the Occupy-approved one. I’m pretty sure he knows, for example, because he reads very widely, that Quantitative Easing has been a massive stitch up to prop up the banks and enrich the asset-owning classes. You can probably put him down as a climate change sceptic too.
Of all the candidates who have put their hats in the ring – and I’m a great admirer of Andrea Leadsom too – Gove is by far the best one for the job. If ever you get to meet him you’ll know exactly what I mean. As Margaret Thatcher used to say, he’s one of us.