On the way to interview Michael Gove, we meet a government minister, an Old Etonian, who suggests we ask him, ‘How can anyone trust you ever again?’ Just a fortnight ago, proposing such a question would have been unthinkable: the Justice Secretary had a reputation for being one of the most consistent, decent and honourable men in the cabinet. When Gove agreed to back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid, the pair seemed a dream team. But on the morning of their campaign launch, Gove announced that Johnson was unfit for the job, so he’d stand himself instead. Then, he was knocked out by Conservative MPs who were still recovering from the drama.
‘I tried very, very hard to make it work,’ Gove insists, sitting in his Commons office as his campaign team beaver away on their laptops. ‘But I was faced with a dilemma at the eleventh hour. I could go ahead, swallow my doubts — which had built up over four or five days — and recommend that Boris should be our next prime minister. Or I could acknowledge that I didn’t think I could make that recommendation, and face the consequences.’
In the past, Gove argues, others have helped elect prime ministers about whom they had doubts. ‘If you ask the people who acquiesced in those things whether they regret it, I’m sure they will say they do. I was not prepared to think that I had the opportunity to say “I don’t believe that this man is right or ready” and that I ducked that.’
Gove says of Boris’s reaction, ‘I thought that he would want to prove that my doubts were doubts that no one else should have — as you would expect a leader to do. He had the opportunity to demonstrate that I was wrong. He chose not to go ahead.’
To Gove’s admirers, this seemingly treacherous act demonstrates that he has the courage of his convictions, because he knew the damage his volte-face would cause to his own reputation. They also argue that it shows he is tough enough to be prime minister.
But perhaps even more startling was Gove’s decision to run as leader himself — despite having repeatedly declared that he didn’t want to and wasn’t up to it. What changed his mind? ‘During the course of the referendum campaign itself, I had to step up in a way that I hadn’t before,’ he explains. ‘I had to do things that I didn’t think I was capable of before… I discovered that there were reserves within me that I had always hoped — but doubted — were there.’
Friends say that one of the reasons Gove previously ruled himself out so emphatically was that he didn’t think he could wear the crown as lightly — or as well — as David Cameron has. But now he says he is confident that he would make – or, rather, would have made – a better prime minister than any of his rivals.
‘I compare it to a group of people standing outside a collapsing building, wondering who is going to rescue a child inside,’ he says. ‘I thought: well, I don’t think I’ve got either the strength or the speed for this, but as I looked around, I thought, God, I’m at least as strong and at least as fast as the others. I’ve got to try to save the child.’ (One hopes this metaphor doesn’t mean Gove regards the United Kingdom as a child in peril.)
His aim, he says, is to make the UK ‘the one country in the world that can make globalisation work for all its citizens’. Wholesale reform would be needed to achieve this, he says — and that was what the public voted for in the EU referendum. ‘It was a rejection of politics as usual, a rejection of the social and political forces that have created inequality and alienation in society. You can’t simply say the vote was an instruction to tidy up a few constitutional arrangements and that’s about it. You have to recognise that people are asking us to change our whole political, economic and social approach.’ Civil servants tasked with preparing for complex exit negotiations with the EU might bristle at the idea that Brexit is just ‘tidying up’ a few constitutional arrangements. But the declaration is a sign of Gove’s radicalism.
He says he would not describe himself as a member of the Tory right: ‘I think you ought not to worry too much about labels, but instead follow arguments. Of course the most powerful force in politics is not capital or labour; it’s inertia.’
Teddy Roosevelt is top of Gove’s list of political heroes, a president known for attempting to break up trusts and monopolies in the early 20th century. ‘There are vested interests in the private sector which are as much of a blob as anything that exists in the public sector,’ he says.
The solution to this problem, Gove adds, is to support innovators and disruptors: ‘How do you encourage peer-to-peer lending, how do you encourage capital to find its way to those that need it most, rather than relying on a cartel of big banks?’ Such thinking is invigorating, but isn’t it a bit much when the country is already embarking on one profound change? Gove insists that now is the time to be bold: ‘Ultimately, the people who favour a system that is rigged are the people who aren’t the innovators and aren’t the growers of jobs and aren’t the producers of new opportunities. If you create an environment that is attractive, because you’ve got the human capital, the well-educated workforce, the competitive corporation tax structure that foreign direct investors like, then they’ll come.’
Since the vote for Brexit, the government has refused to confirm the permanent status of the EU nationals already living here. Gove is clear that it should. ‘The whole point about Britain leaving the EU is that we’re not rejecting individuals, we’re not rejecting Europe, we’re simply saying that a bureaucratic structure that has denied us our own laws has to go.’
Gove has little time for Theresa May’s argument that you can’t reassure EU nationals they will be able to stay here until UK nationals who live in the EU have assurances that they can stay on after the UK leaves. ‘I think decency comes first,’ he says. ‘We’ve got to be decent to people who are living and working here, who are married to British citizens, or living with British citizens, or contributing. They came here on the basis that it was their right to do so.’ He adds: ‘One of the most important things is not to view international relations as a zero-sum game. Of course we need to be tough when it comes to trade and other negotiations, but we also need to be generous towards individuals.’
In the weeks since the referendum result, the Leave camp has lost the initiative. The dissolution of the Boris-Gove alliance has robbed it of political leadership and the inevitable short-term economic disruption that has followed the vote is being cited as proof that Brexit is bound to fail. But Gove predicts, ‘By the next election, people will look back and they will feel relieved and think we did the right thing.’
One of the more bizarre aspects of the Gove-Boris implosion was the leaking of an email from Gove’s wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, urging him to ‘be your stubborn best’. Many in the Boris camp believe this was a deliberate mistake, claiming that married couples call or text each other rather than emailing. Is Mrs Gove really in the habit of emailing her husband instructions to steer him through the day? ‘Yes! Normally it’s “pick up the kids, make sure you’ve got the right key for the car” and so on. I’m just amazingly lucky to have the best wife in the world. She’s my best friend as well as my wife, and best friends give each other advice.’
Gove’s future in this race will depend on his ability to persuade Tories that he did not dump Boris out of malice or ambition. Gove argues that he had to do it despite knowing the difficulties it would cause him. ‘Life would have been easier for me if I had taken the path of least resistance. But ultimately, I couldn’t tell the British people — or my colleagues — that I was doing the right thing knowing that I wasn’t. Therefore, I think the reason people can trust me is that I will always be intellectually honest. I think that is the most important thing for anyone in public service.’
The circumstances of Gove’s entry into the Tory leadership race were anything but ideal. There was something depressingly inevitable about his exit. But it is hard to deny that of all those who stood for the job Gove has the biggest ideas, the widest range of solutions and the most complete agenda for Conservative renewal.