The Conservative leadership contest should be a battle of ideas, not personalities

Michael Gove's ambitious gene could not be suppressed, but this contest must be

Thursday 30 June 2016 20:02
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The Home Secretary has overtaken Boris Johnson in the latest Tory leadership poll
The Home Secretary has overtaken Boris Johnson in the latest Tory leadership poll

Ah, politics. You do have a habit of being interesting, don’t you? There are references aplenty to the “Shakespearean” nature of the drama unfolding before us, what with its toxic brew of plot and character and betrayal and ambition. And why not? Michael Gove’s ‘double Brutus’ has certainly made a hugely interesting battle with vast consequences for the country a whole lot more fascinating than it already was.

With Boris Johnson now out of the picture, it looks like a straight fight between Gove and Theresa May.

Gove is a remarkable individual. He and Boris are often held up as the foremost intellects in the modern Conservative Party, though interestingly they both took second class degrees (in English and Classics respectively) to David Cameron’s first in PPE. Adopted by a fishmonger, Gove was a popular and classy journalist who hitched a ride on David Cameron’s modernisation project, which is what makes his recent assault on a very old and dear friend so remarkable. Though he was a devout neoconservative, who argued strongly – and wrongly – for the Iraq War, Gove is essentially a bookish wonk who sees politics as the practical application of a conservative philosophy, or rather, disposition.

He has a surprising knack for picking fights, and ended up extremely unpopular among the teachers whom he worked with on education – despite the general rectitude of his mission.

Theresa May is very different. Anyone who wants to understand her personality will gain little from hearing her performance on Desert Island Discs, perhaps the most tedious episode in the history of that distinguished Radio 4 show. Private, far from exuberant and theological in character, she is a pragmatist whose devotion to practical solutions has made her the longest running Home Secretary in modern history. There can be no denying her superb and surprisingly witty performance at her launch yesterday. She will offer voters security and competence, which was initially an obvious counterpoint to the charisma of Boris.

The most ambitious blond of recent times turned, at the key moment, into a man capable of foregoing ambition. Skewered by an ally turned nemesis, the idea that he is being smart in saying no to power while things are a mess, only to come back a few years from now, is questionable. But like his hero Churchill, whom he sought to emulate with the choice of St Ermin's Hotel in London yesterday (where Winston assembled his War Cabinet), Boris's political career may be one of great longevity. He may yet be Prime Minister. But, until Monday, we thought this was his to lose.

What changed? Sheer ambition. It does funny things to people.

Politicians are generally imbued with just enough vanity to think that they ought to run the place, and Gove's ambitious gene could not be suppressed. He might take comfort from the fact that May is favourite; favourites very, very rarely win the Tory leadership race. What matters now is that this evolves from being the clash of personalities that was inevitably the main focus of these past few days into a battle of visions for 21st century Britain.

When he talks this morning, Gove should dwell less on his new-found status as the most brutal assassin in Westminster, and more on where he wants to take Britain, and how he intends to get there. What will he do to ensure globalisation and technology don't destroy the life chances of Britain's poor? Or that the nasty nationalism that stalks our land today is conquered by the tolerance and decency that has been a hallmark of our history? How will he restore confidence in our economy, raise our standing in the world, and defeat modern poverty?

Fascinated though we are by the behaviour of this modern Brutus, it is modern Britain that should be foremost in our minds over the coming days. Questions such as those above will determine who, if anyone, The Independent supports for Prime Minister.

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