It’s a matter of record that Michael Gove doesn’t know who his natural parents were; that he wasn’t educated at Eton; that he didn’t read PPE at Oxford; that he was demoted by David Cameron from Education Secretary (with a reduced salary), that he has twice contested the Conservative leadership and lost, and that he has been through family changes recently.
I’m not saying that the sum of Gove’s life is an excerpt from Les Miserables, but believe that these facts are important when considering his Times article of last Saturday, in which he described Liz Truss’s economic plans as “a holiday from reality”, and said that “I do not expect to be in government again”.
The last ten years have seen the Coalition, a referendum on changing our electoral system, UKIP, a Scottish independence referendum, UKIP, the EU referendum, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, Boris Johnson, a pandemic and war in Europe: in other words, one never quite knows what will happen next. Gove is 54.
That gives him at least ten more years in politics if he wants them so, given the pace of change, I take his farewell to office with a pinch of salt. Which his enemies say one should do with the man himself. The charge is that Gove is a modernised Francis Urquhart: that’s to say, a lover of the political game for the sake of it, with supernatural eloquence thrown in.
The last is undeniably true, and I have always had the uneasy sense that Gove could talk me into a view, go away, come back – and seamlessly talk me into the opposite. Perhaps I’m simply weak-willed, but I wouldn’t be alone. He is the great Parliamentary debater of his generation.
He was also one of two most consequential members of the Coalition government. The other one, Iain Duncan Smith, gave us Universal Credit, which saved the social security system from collapse during the pandemic. Gove left us education reform, with free schools, academies and repurposed exams – an overlooked element of change, together with his education reforms.
Working with able SpAds, he took on received opinion. That he went with it at Justice, his next departmental brief, and then at Defra, his one after that, and then again at the Cabinet Office, his penultimate port of call, is often held against him – particularly since it included, in that last post, support for Covid lockdowns, especially over Omicron.
The charge is that Gove sold out. Certainly, the more experienced he has become the more cautious he has been, especially in the wake of Brexit over the Northern Ireland Protocol. And his removal from Education after his low popularity ratings were pushed at David Cameron will have left a mark on him.
I think that it is back there in 2014, almost ten years ago, that the genesis of Saturday’s article lies. It saw not only the start of Gove’s reverses in politics but the beginning of his separation from friends. Like Steve Hilton, he was temperamentally, and perhaps socially, an outsider in the house that Cameron built.
And like Hilton, he walked away from it, never to return. Hilton’s cause was reform. Gove’s was Brexit. The way I read it is that Cameron suspected that Boris Johnson would take the same decision. But, either way, he took Gove’s less equably. Was there a sense of betrayal because there was also one of ownership?
Did Gove hesitate to spell out his decision because he knew it would mean a parting of ways – social as well as political? Did he feel that with his gifts that he is no-one’s property, and resent the implication that he had risen on anything other than merit? Perhaps such questions are misconceived.
But at any rate, he went on to break with Johnson, contest the Conservative leadership, lose, be sacked from Cabinet by Theresa May, get called back after the 2017 election degringolade, contest the leadership again, lose again, and serve under Johnson before finally, spectacularly (and unfairly) being sacked.
Amidst this public and private turmoil, it would be surprising had the core of his instincts and outlook not become more visible. Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be the same impulse that powered his education reforms: namely, a feel for people born perhaps with talent and certainly without advantage who can’t develop the first because they lack the second.
“Only if we remind people of our commitment to social justice, demonstrate our belief in equality of opportunity and affirm that we are warriors for the dispossessed will we be able to win arguments, and elections, and then be in a position genuinely to help the vulnerable and the voiceless,” he told the Legatum Institute in 2015.
Look at his Times piece again, and out pop his prejudices. “I cannot see how safeguarding the stock options of FTSE 100 executives should ever take precedence over supporting the poorest in our society, but at a time of want it cannot be the right priority.”
Now I’m not saying that Gove would have written as he did were Truss poised to reappoint him to Cabinet. Nor that he is right on the particulars. George Yarrow argues that he has misunderstood how Corporation Tax works. In any event, outcomes matter as well as optics, and having competitive tax rates internationally helps to raise the former.
Truss may be able to find elsewhere what’s left of the £47 billion that Rishi Sunak’s rise has been calculated to raise by 2026. And part of Gove’s piece was wrestling with a straw man. When Kwasi Kwarteng wrote yesterday that “help is coming”, he was signalling the assistance package that he, as Truss’s Chancellor-to-be, is set to announce, or that someone else will.
That help will inevitably be targeted on the poorer voters championed by Gove’s pen. But though he may be wrong about the particulars he may also be right about the generality. Which is that Truss’s package of tax cuts, spending increases and Bank of England reform won’t add up, and that plans patched together for a leadership pitch may not be “built to last”.
Whatever happens next, Gove’s philippic foreshadows a problem for the new Government. List the Conservative MPs who were Ministers before the Johnson Government. Then add to them those who he sacked. Then add to those the ones who resigned last month. Then add to those the ones he appointed to replace them…and who Truss will fire in September.
I can’t give you a total because we don’t know the number of the last. But it wouldn’t be surprising were there to be a record number of former Ministers on the backbenches in September amidst a Parliamentary Party that has already defenestrated a Party leader in this Parliament.
As for Gove himself, forget Les Miserables. He will be socialising, gossipping, talking, thinking aloud, writing, speechifying and media-ising with added freedoms. If he doesn’t also push off to become, say, Editor of The Times. What a nice surprise it would be for the new Downing Street to find, come the autumn, that the paper’s present editor has given him a weekly column.