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Those who missed the first two instalments of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s downfall can read them here and here.

Today’s post will focus on Michael Gove.

Yesterday, I left off with Boris firing Gove in a telephone call.

Gove must have been stunned.

Yet, even he cannot deny that he and Boris got on well. Apparently, they knew each other at Oxford and were hardly best friends then.

2016 betrayal

As for more recent events, author and journalist Douglas Murray gives us a précis of Gove’s parliamentary career in an article for UnHerd: ‘Michael Gove’s faultless prophecy’.

Unlike me, Murray is a Gove fan, but there are a few excerpts from his article worth exploring.

Gove has been in various Cabinet and ministerial positions since 2010, when we had a coalition government under David Cameron (Conservative) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat).

Under Cameron in those years, Gove was in the Department for Education.

After Cameron’s re-election in 2015 which gave the Conservatives a clear majority without the need for another coalition, Gove continued receiving appointments to various departments:

After the 2015 election, he became known in Whitehall for his mastery of his brief. Most ministers who go from portfolio-to-portfolio struggle to understand the complexities of just one of their jobs, let alone each of them in turn. Yet this is exactly what Gove did at Justice — even though he was there for less than a year — and in each of the cabinet positions he subsequently held.

He knew what way the wind was blowing with the 2016 Brexit referendum:

Before Gove chose to vote for “Leave”, there were concerns that the Brexit campaign would suffer from being led by too few senior politicians: an operation with Chris Grayling and Bernard Jenkin as its figureheads was unlikely to inspire a democratic revolt. Gove recognised this — and while campaigning to leave the EU was entirely in keeping with the principles that defined his political career and the years in journalism that preceded it, it still took bravery for him to step up. It alienated Gove from much of his friendship group (not least the Camerons), and could have cost him dearly politically.

Cameron resigned as Party leader the morning after the referendum result, as if suffering from sour grapes because things didn’t go his way. It was around 9:30 a.m., if I remember rightly.

A Conservative leadership contest resulted, which Theresa May won.

However, Boris and Gove were in the mix, too.

Murray describes the atmosphere not only in Parliament but in the country as well from June 24, the day of Cameron’s resignation, throughout much of the summer. This period also turned Conservative voters against Gove (emphases mine):

The thing, though, that Gove was most right about, and for which he has been praised for the least, is the act which made him most infamous. It gave him a reputation for snakery. This was, of course, his decision in the immediate aftermath of the referendum to turn on Boris Johnson.

It is not easy to forget the febrile atmosphere of June 2016; every hour turned up enough news to last a month in normal times. But it was also a perilous time: people were genuinely afraid. Basic questions remained unanswered. Would EU citizens be allowed to remain in the UK? Who is running the country? Once David Cameron left office and his Chancellor, George Osborne, decided to punish the country further by disappearing completely, only the Governor of the Bank of England emerged to say anything on behalf of the nation. “We are all prepared for this,” Mark Carney reassured the country. Yet it was a moment of maximal instability.

The Leave campaign “victory” press conference the morning after the referendum was like a funeralPerhaps the news of David Cameron’s political demise, and the looming Tory chaos that would follow, cast a pall over proceedings. Or perhaps it was the realisation of the task that lay ahead. In those uncertain hours, the one thing that seemed clear was that to the victor most go the spoils. Boris Johnson had led the Leave campaign and it seemed inevitable that he should become the leader of the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister

But Michael Gove put a stop to all that. Over the weekend after Brexit, something changed. Some people claim that Gove suddenly had visions of his own ascent to a higher officeOr was it that, in the aftermath of the referendum, Gove watched Boris Johnson and saw a man who was fundamentally unfit for the role of Prime Minister?

Murray would disagree with my assessment, but Michael Gove really did stab Boris in the back that summer:

When Gove held a press conference in which he announced that he would not be leading Johnson’s campaign for the leadership, he immediately assumed a new role in the public imagination. Suddenly, he was Gove the turncoat, Gove the assassin, Gove the backstabber. The Gríma Wormtongue of British politics. The party swiftly showed its disapproval.

Murray has left out a few details here. Gove ran for Party leader that year along with Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May.

Gove despatched Boris quickly. The referendum was held on June 23, and one week later, on July 1, this was the state of play, as Isabel Hardman reported in The Spectator:

As Michael Gove finished speaking, the bookmakers have reported that Andrea Leadsom has overtaken the Justice Secretary when it comes to betting on who will be the next Tory leader. Theresa May remains the favourite at 1/3, with Leadsom at 7/2 and Gove at 12/1.

Now of course the bookies are not clairvoyants and can get elections—and referendums—very wrong indeed. But these odds reflect the mood in the Tory party, which is currently registering a sense of disbelief that Michael Gove could do something like this. Many senior figures believe that the way he has turned on Boris Johnson is beyond the pale, and are preparing to back Andrea Leadsom, while I understand that a group of former Boris backers are considering declaring their support as a block for Leadsom on Monday too.

Leadsom had a good referendum campaign, performing well for the Leave side. Her key disadvantage is that she has never held a Cabinet role – though this is not down to lack of ability so much as it is down to George Osborne’s personal dislike of her following criticisms she made of the Chancellor in 2012. He bears grudges, and exacts revenge by slowing down the careers of people who have angered him. Leadsom took much longer to make it into government than she should have done. But this disadvantage may be a little easier to shrug off now Gove has such a trust problem with his own party.

Boris’s sister Rachel had much more to say in the Daily Mail on July 2: ‘Michael Gove’s wife Sarah Vine “detonated the Boris Johnson bomb” claims RACHEL JOHNSON’. Sarah Vine was, and still is, a Mail columnist.

Rachel tells us how Gove’s candidacy unfolded with his wife’s help:

It was funny ha-ha at first when she wrote in her column that she and her hubby Michael Gove would be running the country on a joint mandate.

‘Given Michael’s high-profile in the Leave campaign,’ she wrote, ‘that means he – we – are now charged with implementing the instructions of 17 million people. And that is an awesome responsibility.’

That royal ‘we’ between dashes was borderline bonkers enough, but it was followed by a leaked private email that ended up on the front pages because in it, Vine urged Gove to be his ‘stubborn best’, as he deployed his ‘leverage’ with his Brexit buddy Boris

Nobody knew whether it had been leaked, or had misfired, but it was a bit whiffy and rum.

Even at that stage only the most crackpot conspiracy theorists could have guessed what was to come next in this multi-act, rolling, live-blogged Shakespearean tragedy.

Michael Gove knifed Boris Johnson in the back and in the front, pushed him under a bus, ran over him several times (thank you Piers Morgan for this image) and then declared he was running for the leadership himself.

This, coupled with the new arithmetic in terms of supportive MPs, meant that Gove’s co-skipper was holed below the waterline and forced to abandon ship at his own launch.

Now we are where we are, as everyone keeps saying, and we know a bit more about where that is. 

Rachel gave us more insights into the real Michael Gove:

Brexit means Brexit. At some point Article 50 will be invoked. And never again listen to what a politician says. Watch what he or she does.

Gove was well known to be an ideological ninja, with his posters of Che Guevara and Chairman Mao on his wall, but when it came to the top job he was an avowed cleanskin. 

He had no leadership ambitions. After all, he’d said so many times: ‘If anyone wants me to sign a piece of parchment in my own blood saying I don’t want to be PM I’m happy to do that.’

‘I’m not equipped to be PM. I don’t want to be PM.’

‘I am an inconceivable choice. I don’t want to do it. I wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t matter how many people asked me to do it,’ etc, etc…

And then, on Thursday, he executed the most egregious reverse ferret and act of treachery in modern political history since… well, let’s just say since Michael Gove backed Brexit against the wishes of his good friend David Cameron.

He did a lap of honour of the studios, saying to interviewers that friends had been begging him to do it and telling him: ‘Michael, you’d be marvellous.’

‘I’ll explain to anyone who asks why I think I am the right person to be PM,’ he said.

Then on Friday he delivered a substantial 5,000-word manifesto that he’d obviously prepared earlier, to be acclaimed on his new home, Twitter (he has come aboard with the handle @gove2016, so far following no one).

She went on to tell us that Gove had as his adviser Dominic Cummings, who was also part of the Leave campaign, masterminding proceedings in the background. However, the Goves and the Osbornes were closer:

OK, I accept that it was more likely detonated by the combined agency of his wife; his former adviser, Dominic Cummings; and also of course George Osborne, with whom the Goves maintain close contact

They are, indeed, due to go on family holiday ensemble this summer.

So of course it was inevitable, given this domestic scenario, for the Goves to dump a chap who is very much not numero uno assoluto with the Osbornes either. 

Think of the pressure from the wives to stick the knife in, get the job done, before the two families had to break bread over the prosecco and antipasti in Italy.

Rachel cited two longstanding Conservative MPs’ reservations about Gove:

As it happens, Westminster suicide bomber is not a good look for anybody, which explains why many former Govistas – even one of the newspaper barons who supported him as recently as last week – are leaping on to the TM4PM (Theresa May for PM) bandwagon so fast.

As Michael Heseltine warned: ‘I personally would keep an eye open for Gove. First he abandoned his friend David Cameron now Johnson has felt the blade.’

Ken Clarke has told Gove to fall on his sword and fast. The classical quotation that comes to mind in all this is not so much ‘Et tu, Brute’ but ‘Those whom the Gods want to destroy, first they make mad.’

However much Gove tries to remind us what a nice, caring guy he is in his long leadership pitch, the ‘signalling’ around this personable and civilised candidate is, I’m afraid, that he’s acted like a political psychopath run by his wife (Vine), an acknowledged sociopath (Cummings) and a lame duck Chancellor. 

And this Machiavelli still wants us to want him to be Prime Minister

At his leadership launch, Michael denied his wife had urged him to run, denied he was giving Dom Cummings a job, but I don’t necessarily take everything the most polite man in Parliament says on trust any more.

Rachel was and is a Remainer. And political people, whatever their stripe, often mix in the same circles, as she acknowledges of the Goves:

I like them. They are both lively company and huge fun. 

Indeed, we sometimes say that we must have supper soon, and perhaps we will, when the bleeding bodies of the fallen are removed from the smoking battlefield of this campaign.

Murray makes no mention of this intrigue but says that Gove might have been dismayed with Boris’s seeming lack of gravitas:

… perhaps there really were things in the immediate aftermath of the referendum that persuaded him that Johnson was fundamentally unfit to lead the country; the weekend after the vote, as the country desperately looked around for a leader, Johnson decided it was the perfect time to host a “boozy barbecue” and a cricket match.

And why not celebrate? No one but no one in the media or politics on the Remainer side thought that 52% of the nation would vote Leave in the largest plebescite in British history.

In the end, Gove lost Conservative MPs’ votes to Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May.

Afterwards, Leadsom said she could not understand why May did not want children. Leadsom got a lot of Party backlash for that. She stood down, leaving May as the last candidate standing.

As such, Conservative Party members did not have a vote that year.

Murray admits that no one ever forgot his hero’s betrayal but says that Gove appeared to be a loyalist — on the surface, anyway, as far as I am concerned:

This cloud, by and large, has not left him. Only yesterday, one embittered newspaper columnist saw fit to describe Gove as “a conniving, reptilian politician”. Is this really true? He did, after all, survive through Theresa May’s premiership, and stuck loyally beside her when other people would not. He even entered Johnson’s own cabinet, and excelled in the roles he held in that short-lived administration. And not only is he the only politician who has remained at cabinet level through this tumultuous decade and a half, but he is also one of the few people from Cameron’s cabinet who is still in the House of Commons. Some lost out on the top prize and huffed off. Others whose abilities could have been of use to the country decided that the country did not deserve them — though various investment funds, as chance would have it, did.

A few days ago, Gove announced that he did not expect another role in the high echelons of government.

But did he really mean that?

It seems unlikely that Gove will actually remove himself from frontline politics. I read his announcement at the weekend as an act of cynical self-deprecation. Or perhaps a hint that he needs to simply “step back” for a bit.

Murray’s conclusion is interesting:

In 2016, Gove didn’t simply backstab Johnson; he issued a warning. It took the rest of the Parliamentary party and much of Britain another six years to decipher his warning: that when Johnson finally lumbers out of No 10, he will leave defeated and humiliated. Don’t say we weren’t warned.

The Goves’ break-up

In June 2021, The Sun published photos of Matt Hancock and his female adviser in a tight clinch in his office at a time when social distancing was still in force. Hancock abruptly left his wife when the photos were published.

On July 2, the Goves announced they, too, would be divorcing, although for different reasons:

Guido Fawkes’s post referenced Sarah Vine’s Mail on Sunday column a week earlier on June 26:

This official announcement to the Press Association will surprise no one in SW1 where rumours have been rife for months. At one point Lobby hacks were asking the PM’s spokesman under what roof was Michael Gove sleeping. Sarah Vine’s article this week in the Mail on Sunday was not subtle.

While she did not mention her husband at all, she did write that politics can alter home life irrevocably, as in the case of the Hancocks:

The problem with the wife who has known you since way before you were king of the world is that she sees through your facade.

She knows your fears and your insecurities. She knows that, deep down inside, you are not the Master of the Universe you purport to be. And some people don’t like to be reminded of that …

In the end, there are two types of politicians. Those who can walk away from power – and those who can’t. And who will compromise everything for the sake of it.

How the Gove family found out about his sacking

On July 7, 2022, Sarah Vine wrote an article for The Mail about how she and the children found out that Boris sacked Michael.

Note that she is still friends with Rachel Johnson.

The news came via text messages as Sarah and the children were watching Love Island:

The teenagers and I were watching Love Island when the news broke — a text, to my son, from a mate: ‘Is it true that Boris has fired ur dad?!’

A split second later, my phone also pinged. It was my friend Rachel (Johnson, Boris’s sister): ‘My bro has just fired your ex!!’ Blimey, I thought. Even I wasn’t expecting that.

They turned off the television to find out more:

‘Get him on speakerphone, get him on speakerphone!’ squealed my daughter. So we got him on speakerphone (Michael, not Boris). What on earth happened?

‘Well,’ he explained, ‘The Prime Minister rang me a few minutes ago and told me it was time for me to step back. I said, respectfully, ‘Prime Minister, if anyone should be stepping back, it is you.’

‘Go on!’ said my son, leaping off the sofa and punching the air.

‘What are you going to do now?’ I asked. ‘Have a glass of wine and a slice of salami and see what tomorrow brings,’ he replied.

What tomorrow brought, of course, was the Prime Minister’s resignation, following the resignations of pretty much anyone of any consequence.

Vine was generous in her assessment of Boris’s premiership but she, too, agreed with her husband that he just wasn’t serious enough:

I still don’t quite see what is to be gained, politically, from getting rid of him. There isn’t a brilliant replacement waiting in the wings, and the country could really do without the disruption of a whole summer of rudderless government, or worse, a snap general election.

Especially since, as prime ministers go, he was not by a long shot the worst this country has seen.

He delivered Brexit, albeit imperfectly — but then after the horlicks Theresa May made of it, it was a miracle he managed it at all.

Like every other leader on the planet, he was blindsided by Covid — but handled the pandemic with bravery and vision, rolling out the vaccination programme at record speed, pulling the country out of lockdown as quickly as possible.

He was spot-on with the war in Ukraine, moving quickly to offer Britain’s support against Russia.

On the big stuff, as the cliche goes, he was good. Better than good, actually. But in politics, that’s not enough any more

It’s not enough to be a serious politician; you also have to be a serious human being. And the problem with Johnson is that he just isn’t. That, ultimately, has been his downfall.

Everything that has gone wrong for him — the lockdown parties, the questionable donations, the dinners with oligarchs, the misguided loyalties, the tenuous grasp of the factsit all stems from that.

Vine then tells us how angry Gove got with Boris when he was running for Mayor of London, a post he held for two terms, from May 2008 to May 2016:

At the time Boris was running for mayor of London, doing a round of fundraisers. My (now) ex-husband and I had been to one the night before, a dinner somewhere or other, where Boris was speaking.

It was a disaster. I remember he arrived late, delivered a thoroughly lackadaisical performance and left early, underwhelming the assembled, many of whom were astonished that such a man could even contemplate a life in politics. He seemed incapable of buttering a bread roll, let alone a room of donors.

The next day, Michael rang Boris and gave him both barrels. How dare he waste everyone’s time and effort like that; didn’t Boris realise how many people had put themselves out to organise that evening, for his benefit? It was embarrassing, it was rude — and, worst of all, it was irresponsible.

Boris was suitably contrite. ‘Sorry, Gover, I hear you Gover,’ was his response, deploying his customary bashful charm. It didn’t wash. Michael hung up.

Despite being almost two decades ago, the incident sticks in my mind because a) I had never seen Michael so angry and b) it is emblematic of Johnson’s biggest problem, one that lies at the root of all his troubles: he just can’t take anything seriously.

She brought up Boris’s childhood ambition of being ‘king of the world’, which I covered in Part 1.

Then she told us about his 2016 candidacy for leader of the Conservative Party:

Everyone was exhausted, but they threw themselves into it. Meetings, phone calls, speeches, media rounds — it was relentless. Boris was running to replace Cameron, Michael having decided — largely at my behest — not to.

There was support to be garnered, deals to be brokered — all the usual stuff that goes on in a leadership contest.

Everyone was going all out to get Boris elected. Except, it seemed, for one person: Boris. While the rest of the team were busting several guts, he appeared to have taken a leaf out of Cameron’s book — and seemed to be mostly chillaxing.

He was supposed to meet so-and-so; he didn’t. He was supposed to draft a letter; he didn’t. Make a phone call; didn’t happen. Oh, I’ll do it in the morning, oh I left it at home. Not quite the dog ate my homework, but not far off. Sometimes he would just go AWOL, leaving the team scrabbling for excuses.

Everyone was taking things deadly seriously; Boris, meanwhile, seemed to think it was all just one big joke. 

Things finally came to a head when the team found him holed up at home in the countryside, flipping burgers, drinking rosé and playing cricket with his mates while the fate of Brexit — this thing that he had supposedly been so passionate about, that had brought down a government, that had overturned everyone’s world order — hung in the balance.

That night, Michael walked through the front door ashen-faced. ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake,’ he said. ‘Boris is a disaster.’ And the rest, as they say, is history.

Michael paid a very heavy price — both politically and personally — for that judgment call. As we saw from this week’s events, Boris never quite forgave him — and who can blame him

She left out the part where Gove then decided to throw his hat into the ring!

She still stands by her man in this respect:

It’s hard to hear the truth about yourself at the best of times, even harder when it’s from an old friend. As it was again this week when Michael told him the game was up.

In closing, Tim Loughton MP described Boris’s sacking of Gove the best, even if he makes it sound as if it were done in person:

I think it was Michael Gove who went to Number 10 with the metaphorical bottle of whisky and the revolver – well, clearly Boris has downed the whisky and turned the revolver on Michael Gove.

Finally.

I do hope that Liz — or Rishi (we still have nine days to go) — forgets about Gove and moves ahead with fresher, newer talent in Cabinet: people who are actually in tune with what Britons are thinking.

Tomorrow’s post will highlight other resignations from early July. I’ll never forget keeping track of Guido’s Twitter feed during that time.

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