Modern Conservatives seem to be allergic to success. Every time things are going right, the party spasms. Sir John Major’s government nurtured a remarkable economic recovery, yet was beaten after its infighting appalled voters. In opposition, David Cameron acquired a habit of blowing opinion poll leads — a habit he did not, alas, shake off in time for the general election. And now, just as a Conservative victory at the next election looks likely, war has broken out again. What should have been a day of success for Michael Gove has ended in his being forced to apologise for briefing against officials in Theresa May’s department. And the Home Secretary, for her part, has lost a valued and highly effective special adviser: Fiona Cunningham.
The feuding between Gove and May is, in part, a problem of success. Gove has proven to be a radical, reforming Education Secretary; he has arguably achieved more than anyone else in government. Ms May can claim to be the most consequential Home Secretary in modern times: she has taken controllable immigration (i.e., from outside Europe) to its lowest level in 16 years and recorded crime to its lowest in 25 years, and all on a budget that’s the lowest it has been in ten years. Her recent confrontation of the Police Federation showed her at the height of her powers.
Both ministers like to fight, and both like to win. But when they fight each other, the Conservative Party loses. Mr Gove’s views on Islamism are well known: he once wrote a book, Celsius 7/7, against the appeasement of fundamentalists. Ms May’s determination is also legendary: she likes to work until 2 a.m. identifying and eliminating problems (and enemies). The deportation of Abu Qatada was her most high-profile success, and at times it seems as if she’d like to send Gove on the next flight to Jordan.