Gove is a clever man. It’s a shame about the lack of common sense

This scrape may be Michael Gove’s last as a Cabinet minister for a while

Matthew Norman
Sunday 13 March 2016 19:10 GMT
Whatever his faults and failings, Gove too has integity
Whatever his faults and failings, Gove too has integity (AFP/Getty)

Long before the EU referendum in June, another crucial in-out conundrum will be settled. It could be resolved within days, in fact, and the question is this. Should Michael Gove – the Justice Secretary, and Deputy Chief Brexiteer to Boris Johnson – be in the Cabinet, or out?

What has propelled Govey to the verge of resignation (or “being resigned”) is a fairly archaic indiscretion. It involves neither sex nor money. No taint of personal or political corruption hangs over the fish merchant’s boy from Aberdeen. His one offence, it is widely suspected, is to be indiscreet about the anti-European leanings of someone who doesn’t even have a referendum vote.

The problem for Govey is that the someone happens to be Her Britannic Majesty, whose supposed preference for telling Brussels to sod orf was leaked to The Sun. Admittedly, last week’s front-page headline “Queen backs Brexit” was extrapolated from remarks she allegedly made to Nick Clegg several years ago, when she said the EU was heading in the wrong direction. And, admittedly, Clegg has called the claims nonsense and claims not to remember this being said.

Yet, going by the adamancy with which Sun editor Tony Gallagher defended his story on Radio 4’s Today programme, it feels pretty safe to assume the Queen did indeed have a regal rant about the EU. It feels even safer to assume that Michael Gove was the source. There are denials, and there are non-denial denials, but Govey’s “I don’t know how The Sun got all its information” translates to holding his hands out for the cuffs, with a cheery “It’s a fair cop, guv’nor”.

I don’t know how The Sun came by the information either, but I will make a guess. Govey not only attended Rupert Murdoch’s most recent nuptials last weekend. He also, it’s reported, recently dined privately with the blushing groom.

Govey is distastefully close to Murdoch. He, like Boris, has maintained contact with the old rascal since working for him on The Times. Whether you’d could call any such amicable relationship of mutual interest “a friendship” is debatable. This is, after all, Rupert Murdoch. But whenever Govey dines with him, as he regularly does, the talk doubtless turns to such banalities as the EU referendum and who will succeed David Cameron.

In this context, did Govey sing for his supper by relating to Murdoch how Elizabeth shares his revulsion for the European Union? The Queen and Murdoch have been mortal enemies for 40 years. Via his newspapers, he has come closer than anyone since Cromwell to toppling the monarchy. So with the referendum delicately poised, what a double whammy this gossip could present. Passing Govey’s tidings to The Sun would be not only a potential referendum game-changer, but a gilded chance to damage the monarchy.

The foundation stone of that monarchy, and the quality for which it is most respected, is its fierce political neutrality. For more than 60 years, the Queen has appreciated this and maintained the most exquisite inscrutability. She may have given a cheeky hint that she wasn’t wild about Scottish independence. But a coded remark outside a church is very different from explicit condemnation of a political entity to which Britain belongs, made in confidence and later betrayed to a newspaper group she loathes. No wonder that the Palace is reportedly furious with Gove.

One thing in his favour as he clings to his job is that his leading public critic so far has been Nicholas Soames, that portly apology for a great man’s grandson. He compares Gove to Thomas More, who was executed for treachery to his sovereign.

One might interpret that comparison in a more flattering light. Sir Thomas was a vicious monster who would burn a man alive for translating a biblical line to his displeasure, but he showed heroic integrity in refusing to buckle to Henry VIII’s will over divorce.

Whatever his faults and failings, Gove too has integity. You may have disagreed violently with him about how to achieve it when he was Secretary of State, and many did, but you couldn’t deny the intensity of his desire to improve school standards. As Justice Secretary, meanwhile, he has disowned much of the retrograde gibberish spouted by his predecessor, the cretinous weasel Chris Grayling. Gove is an interesting politician who isn’t easily pigeon-holed in narrow left-right terms. A speech he made a few years ago about the decline in social mobility might have been given almost verbatim by a Labour education secretary in 1967.

He has a curious mind and a powerful intellect. What he lacks, as the needless fights with teachers confirmed, is humility and nous – and the dearth of common sense has made him an essentially comic figure. There, it has been helped by the incessant revelations about his private persona from his Daily Mail columnist wife, Sarah Vine. Such titbits as Govey’s atrocious driving have played their part in transforming a thoughtful politician into a caricature – a hapless Kommons Keystone Kop forever getting himself into scrapes.

This scrape may be his last as a Cabinet minister for a while. Landing himself in hot water is one thing, and a usually survivable thing at that. Dunking the Queen in it, and so compromising the Crown’s priceless neutrality, is another. Even in an undeferential age, he may have to go.

If so, knowing how close he is both to Boris and George Osborne, he would probably return, assuming one or other succeeds Cameron – and any such comeback would be loudly supported by one newspaper group. But if Michael Gove does quit, perhaps he could use some of the new free time to ponder Norman’s First Iron Law of Media Life, and act upon it. If you go to bed with Rupert Murdoch, that law definitively states, you will inevitably one day awake with a discharge and a nasty rash.

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