The political obituaries to Michael Gove might, like those of Mark Twain, prove to have been somewhat premature.
For what it’s worth, Twain never actually said “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”, but that only makes the comparison more prescient. There are a great many things Twain was meant to have said but never in fact did. It is similar with Gove, but not quite the same. All the things Michael Gove is meant to have said he did say; it’s just that almost none of them are true.
Gove announced the end of his 11-year run in frontline politics via a column in The Times, ruthlessly attacking Liz Truss. If it really is to be the end for Gove, it will have been for the same reason as Johnson, which is that no normal, sane member of the public could possibly believe a word he says. If it is not to be the end for Gove, then the same point only becomes more important.
Since his announcement, the usual newspapers and pundits have lit up with the usual sanctimony. Gove was, apparently, the great doer, the man who made things happen. The difference between Gove and most of his political colleagues, we are told, is that Gove actually cared about people trapped in unsellable flats with unsafe cladding, or in failing schools, or languishing in prison with no hope of rehabilitation. That’s what made him stand out.
You might think that that sort of thing might be the bare minimum anyone should have the right to expect from a democratically elected government. But after a punishing decade and counting in Tory Britain, these qualities that should absolutely be taken for granted are enough to make a man suitable for beatification.
For those of us blessed to know Michael Gove only from the outside – through, say, the words he has said and the things he has done in public – his main quality is a far less rare commodity in 2022. It is breathtaking shamelessness.
His main attack on Liz Truss is that her campaign has been “on holiday from reality”. We can only assume Gove knows her in his role as general manager of the Fantasy Island resort, where he has gladly welcomed her off the pier and had her bags sent upstairs to the prime ministerial suite.
It is highly disappointing that the Tory party leadership election has had to come at a time when the country has been gripped by so many simultaneous crises. It is doubly disappointing that neither of the candidates appears to have the guts to address them and both are focusing instead on the parochial, slightly deranged concerns of the parochial, slightly deranged Tory members.
Nevertheless, Liz Truss is in campaign mode. Michael Gove knows this place well. If he is remembered for one public statement and one alone, it was when, in 2016, Faisal Islam on Sky Newspatiently put to him all of the economic forecasts that Brexit would do great harm to the UK economy and all he could manage was to talk over him and say that “the people have had enough of experts”.
It was almost as low as that campaign got: the deliberate over-talking of reality, the desperate retreat into populism to say absolutely anything and to do absolutely anything to win the fight, whatever the appalling consequences of the way in which it was done. He had no problem at all with standing in front of posters showing shadowy footprints stepping across a map of Europe from Turkey to the UK.
The reality was even more shameless than that. He had been a privy council member and therefore knew the precise and complex situation with Turkish EU accession at the time. He knew that Cameron could not publicly claim that he would use his veto on Turkish accession, because Turkey was a crucial Nato security partner at a time when Isis was rampant in the Middle East and the Mediterranean was in the grip of a migrant crisis with which Turkey’s cooperation was needed.
Having already done his best to talk down the truth about Brexit’s economic self-harm, his next step was to knowingly exploit his own secret knowledge about his country’s national security in order to frighten people to vote for him with xenophobic lies.
After victory, Gove did his level best to distance himself from his own actions. From 24 June 2016 onwards, Brexit had made the UK “more welcoming” to immigrants. It had, apparently, transformed attitudes. There is some evidence to back this up. But if Britain after the referendum suddenly became the good samaritan, only a man as shameless as Gove could take the credit, knowing that his role had been to beat up the beggar in the first place.
Gove’s various Brexit holidays from reality make him look like a man still backpacking around Thailand in his 50s. By his standards of reality-avoiding tourism, Truss has barely managed a weekend in Skegness.
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His main speech on Brexit, in April 2016, quite possibly stands alone as the most absurd in British political history. It was then that he assured would-be Brexit voters, regarding the triggering of Article 50, that “no responsible government would hit the start button on a two-year legal process without preparing appropriately”. He would, just over a year later, gladly join the government that had done precisely that.
A few weeks later, he would spend his victory lap concluding that, actually, Boris Johnson was “not fit” to be prime minister and sabotaged his campaign. He was, of course, absolutely correct. Since Johnson became prime minister anyway in 2019, and Gove gladly served in his cabinet for three full years, the search party into Gove’s lofty principles has not reported back.
He may well have been an “effective minister”, but it weighs not a feather in the balance. If you choose to believe his claim that he really is finished, and there is truly no reason to believe anything he says, then his legacy is abundantly clear. He banjaxed his country’s economy in a paroxysm of Spitfire nationalism. The consequences are millions of tonnes of fruit and vegetables rotting in British fields that no one wants to pick; an irreconcilable problem in Northern Ireland for which the only actual solution that works might, in the fullness of time, end up being reunification; families spending the first day of their holidays queuing to board ferries for 20 hours or more; and a general sense of a country divided into groups that still loathe each other more than half a decade later.
If Gove should be remembered as some kind of bright spark in a dark and punishingly long Tory night, well it will only be his friends that do so. There is a reason he is not running in this race. He is wise enough to know that, generally speaking, the people loathe him. There is at least a chance they’ve got it right.
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