The EU referendum campaign ended well enough for Michael Gove. His side, the one that clamored for leaving the European Union, won a surprise victory; his friend and colleague Boris Johnson looked poised to replace David Cameron as prime minister; Gove could be assured of a spot at his side in the Brexit government.
Then it all fell to pieces.
Only days after the Leave campaign’s victory, Johnson began making noises that suggested he might not be so committed to Brexit as he had once said. Gove couldn’t tolerate that — an ardent Euroskeptic from the very start, Gove fiercely believed in the Brexit cause and would not suffer seeing it turned on its head. When Gove talked about Brexit, he meant Brexit; he didn’t trust that Johnson felt the same level of commitment. A Gove prime ministership was thus, in the eyes of Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, the only remedy. As he put it in a bizarre interview with The Spectator: “I compare it to a group of people standing outside a collapsing building, wondering who is going to rescue a child inside. I thought: Well, I don’t think I’ve got either the strength or the speed for this, but as I looked around, I thought, God, I’m at least as strong and at least as fast as the others. I’ve got to try to save the child.”
So Gove decided he would have to place his own name into consideration, believing it the only way to ensure that an undiluted Brexit would actually go through. And that he did. Three hours later, Johnson declared he would not stand for the Tory leadership. Gove had eliminated his chief rival — in a brutally cynical act of political backstabbing, but a successful one. It looked like a brilliant move, a political coup of the finest sort. In retrospect, however, the morning of June 30 was the height of Gove’s ascendancy, the closest he would come to the coveted doors of 10 Downing Street. Soon after, his trajectory began a steady decline.
As it turns out, you can’t stab your closest ally in the back and expect it won’t come back to haunt you. Gove has in fact done this twice — the first time with David Cameron, when Gove declared for Leave, and the second time with Johnson. Gove cut a controversial figure, as an intellectual brainiac with little sympathy or emotional feeling for his peers in government. It was that coldness that prompted Cameron to shunt Gove from his treasured job as education secretary to a rather lesser position as chief whip in the summer of 2014, and it is the same coldness, made unambiguously evident by his betrayal of Johnson, that tolled the death knell for Michael Gove’s candidacy.
If Gove expected his candidacy to attract all those who had once supported Johnson’s, he was wrong. Instead, Johnson’s furious legion of devotees came out in force against Gove, making no attempt to disguise their utter contempt for the man who had brought down their champion. “There is a very deep pit reserved in Hell for such as he,” Tory MP Jake Berry wrote about Gove on Twitter. Later, he doubled down: “I do not for one moment resile from my opinion that as a traitor Gove leaves Judas Iscariot standing.” Even those who had opposed Johnson’s candidacy were repulsed by Gove’s actions: Kenneth Clarke, a former chancellor of the exchequer, said Gove’s betrayal of Johnson was “more suitable for the election of a student union than it is to be prime minister of this country at a time of grave, grave crisis.” You might not have liked Johnson much, and might even be happy he’s gone, but what Gove did was inexcusable.
So it came as no surprise when the second round of voting in the Tory leadership contest eliminated Gove from the running, as he garnered a pitiful 14 percent of MPs. Andrea Leadsom — an eminently unqualified Leaver who appears to have grossly exaggerated, if not outright lied about, her experience as a banker and can boast of a total of six years in Parliament — finished with 26 percent of MPs; she will face off against Theresa May, the clear favorite with 61 percent. The result will be announced in early September. Britain’s next prime minister will be a woman, and she will require positively Thatcherite steeliness to address the challenges that await her.
Gove ran afoul of a nagging truth: If you’re willing to betray a good friend for the apparent sake of personal advancement, why should anyone ever trust you?
In any normal race, Gove might have easily taken Leadsom’s place as the firm Euroskeptic candidate. Maybe he should have; the prospect of Leadsom as prime minister is an uncomfortable one at best. Throughout his time in government, he has proved himself to be an able and innovative administrator who throws himself with full vigor and purpose at the problems confronting the nation; his solutions might not be popular, but they display the sort of creative thinking currently lacking in government, and he stands by them.
But personality matters, like or not. You can stand for all the righteous principles you want, but if you turn around and sink a knife into your closest ally’s back, ruining his political future and throwing the country deeper into chaos, none of those principles really matter. Gove ran afoul of a nagging truth: If you’re willing to betray a good friend for the apparent sake of personal advancement, why should anyone ever trust you? For those who saw Gove’s betrayal as treachery, an unredeemable transgression, there is an element of propriety and justice to his elimination from the leadership race, a pleasant indication that cynicism and naked self-interest do actually have some bounds in politics. There are some things you just can’t do. And in an era when politics seems more mean-spirited than ever, that’s refreshing, in a way.
Gove’s career probably isn’t over. He’s too capable an administrator and too valuable a mind to banish to the backbenches. It wouldn’t be altogether surprising to see him named to a high-level Cabinet position in a May government — partly to satisfy Leavers who will demand a counterbalance to the Remain-supporting May, and partly because Gove is one of the best minds the Tories have right now. His vision of government as an engine of social equalization, as a “warrior for the dispossessed,” an instrument to help the “vulnerable and the voiceless” by “tackl[ing] the scandal of the undeserving rich,” is a one-nation vision that should be at the heart of the Tory party’s ideology, not at the margins. It’s just a pity that baggage-ridden Gove had to be the one to espouse it.
And maybe Gove is secretly pleased, in a twisted, fatalistic way. In public, at least, he discussed the prime ministership as a sort of necessary evil, a burden to be undertaken to ensure that the will of the people — and his own will, conveniently enough — would be carried out, unsullied by the corrupt bargains that weak politicians would be wont to make in backroom negotiations in Brussels. But Gove is a man who has spent much of the last five years advertising how much he didn’t want to be prime minister — insisting, in fact, that he is “constitutionally incapable of it.” So maybe there’s a sense of quiet relief in the Gove household now that it’s all done and dusted, and that Gove can be satisfied with a Cabinet position under May (or, if things go wrong, Leadsom). He’ll still be able to influence policy; his voice will remain an important one in determining the future of the country. Five or ten years on, maybe he’ll be in the running for the prime ministership once again.
Michael Gove is down; his own actions have seen to that. But he’s not out.