Prime Minister David Cameron has long since refused to face his Lord Chancellor Michael Gove in a head-to-head televised debate on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
After last night’s stellar performance on Sky News by the Gover, it’s pretty obvious why. Gove would have Cameron’s testicles on toast for starters, his viscera for the main, and his eyeballs for pudding – all while consuming his opponent with such perfect charm and good manners that not even the Prime Minister himself would realise till the digestion stage just how comprehensively he’d been eaten.
No politician kills with kindness more viciously than Gove.
He did it again last night under intense grilling from Sky News interrogator Faisal Islam.
Islam’s assault was brutal and relentless – far more cavalier, disrespectful and insulting than his treatment of David Cameron the night before – but Gove emerged the undoubted victor by consistently maintaining grace under pressure. He more or less owned his cheerily impertinent interrogator, he won over an initially sceptical audience, and most importantly he sent out a clear signal to the Remain camp: “Don’t count your chickens. We Brexiteers have right and truth on our side. And we’re going to win this one, just you see.”
Don’t take my word for it. Watch for yourself:
Then, if you’ve the stomach, compare and contrast the performance here by the Prime Minister under questioning from the same interviewer the night before.
I think Islam generally did a very good job in holding both his victims to account and I liked his no-nonsense approach. But one of the things you’ll notice is that, perhaps out of nerves, unconscious reverence, or possibly ideological bias, he allows Cameron far more space to make his (often boilerplate) points than he does to Gove, whom he interrupts almost constantly. But Gove remains largely unfazed – and by the end has clearly made a better impression on the studio audience than Cameron manages.
Partly, this may be a function of the fact that the public is growing wise to Cameron’s rhetorical cheats (basically: waffle, lie and obfuscate – but with the pink-cheeked, gimlet-eyed sincerity of the head boy on Speech Day) while Gove remains less of a known quantity to whom the public are more ready to give the benefit of the doubt. Partly, it’s because Gove – since even before his time at Oxford – has been a world class debating champion: indeed it’s quite possible that he’s the most fluent, eloquent, witty speaker anywhere in global politics. (Cameron, on the other hand, never got involved with the Oxford Union while we were all there together. At the time this may have seemed sensible: unlike his much more ostentatious rival – and keen Oxford debater – Boris Johnson, it meant that his political ambitions could remain masked. Now, though, I think he might have cause to regret his lack of engagement. High office, a fruity accent and a weapons-grade sense of entitlement will only get you so far in the debating arena)
And partly, I think, it’s very simply this: Gove and the Brexit camp have all the arguments on their side, Remain have only bluster, appeals to authority, and rhetorical trickery. And the voting public is starting to appreciate this fact.
Obviously I would think that: I’m an ardent Brexiteer and so are probably most of you reading this.
But it certainly chimes with a conversation I had with Gove a few weeks ago, just as the campaign was starting to warm up, when I asked him for some tips on how to debate for Brexit. Which points, I asked, did he think spoke most tellingly in our cause’s favour?
“All of them,” he said. And then, as he often does, he broke into a giggle. “All of them! We’re so spoilt for choice that it’s quite difficult to know which ones to use because they’re all so powerful.”
I can’t remember if he actually said that he felt sorry for the opposition, so feeble are their counter-arguments. But it was certainly what he implied – and also clearly believes.
Which is the other reason, I think, why Gove did so spectacularly well.
Lying is really hard to do. Telling the truth is amazingly easy. You can think so much more quickly on your feet if it’s the latter because you don’t have to second guess every question in order to sift the options as to what the most politic answer might be: you simply speak your mind.
People like Gove because he’s likeable, quick, unflashily clever and very funny (even when under extreme pressure, he’s always got half an eye on the jester’s angle because, though he’s intellectually serious, he’s constitutionally incapable of pomposity) but above all because he’s authentic, he’s honest and he has integrity.
What a shame he has already ruled out running for Prime Minister. He admires Tyrion Lannister. But he knows that whoever sits on the Iron Throne will always end up unhappily.