Just because the text message sent by Michael Gove’s campaign manager to Tory MPs was obviously self-serving and a crude attempt at manipulation doesn’t actually mean it was wrong. When Nick Boles asked Theresa May’s supporters to “lend” some votes to Mr Gove to keep Andrea Leadsom off the ballot paper that goes out to the wider membership, he was right to say the possibility of her becoming prime minister was “frightening”.
The fact that the Gove camp polled fewer votes this time than last suggests it was indeed a silly stunt. But Ms Leadsom's relatively strong showing is a more important disappointment. Her latest remarks on gay marriage suggest a less than whole-hearted commitment to the values of the modern Britain she seeks to lead, though it will probably act as an attractive dog whistle call to some more traditionalist Conservative activists.
Her promises about “prosperity not austerity” and windy “optimism” do not amount to an economic plan, and confirm a suspicion of a deep vacuity in her thinking about the nation’s future. The prospect of her dishing out meaningless aphorisms to President Obama or, worse still, Chancellor Merkel is too painful to imagine.
Her CV has been exposed as, shall we say, “optimistic” and her reluctance to publish details of her tax affairs invites suspicion. Her private financial affairs have been the subject of unfavourable attention in the press, and will be even more closely scrutinised in the months ahead. She may find such examination taxing, but that is as it should be. The fact that there are two women on the ballot paper for prime minister is in principle welcome, but gender is not the only factor that should count.
The shame about Michael Gove’s candidature is that he squandered so much political goodwill by behaving in the way he did to Boris Johnson. His argument – essentially that it would not be in the national interest for Mr Johnson to try to run Britain in the way he runs his life (that is to say, chaotically) – would have carried vastly more weight if Mr Gove had not reached that conclusion in the final hours before the close of nominations in the leadership race. He has known Mr Johnson for many years and recently spent weeks with him campaigning. If the rest of us, who do not have the luxury of close companionship with the former Mayor of London, could see that he was a bit of a bumbler, then Mr Gove’s failure to perceive that is more than a little puzzling. At all events, it turned off many of his admirers in the party, and would have hurt him even if he had made it onto the ticket.
Other criticisms of Mr Gove were less fair. True, he is a gossip, but most of the damaging political scandals in living memory were caused by what might be termed a “failure of intelligence”. The same goes, more or less, for Margaret Thatcher and Cecil Parkinson, Tony Blair and Ron Davies and many, many others. Their private lives are their own, but the political damage belongs to the party leader. He, or she, needs to know what’s up. Mr Gove would know better than most, and he had ideas, intellect and ability to bring to Number 10.
Which leaves us with the apparent near-certainty of a Theresa May premiership. That is far from a disaster, and her party, and the country, seem content to have this rather prosaic “difficult” figure as “captain of the ship”, as David Cameron called the job. This is no time for showmanship, as we face up to Brexit and all the other challenges Britain faces. What Ms May does with her former rivals is for another time, but many would find it frightening if Ms Leadsom was put anywhere near the Brexit negotiations, despite her strong backing from the party’s Eurosceptic head-bangers. Mr Gove and Mr Johnson may find themselves on the backbenches, though presumably not sitting together: a waste of their tremendous talents, and virtually self-inflicted.
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