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Gove has torn us apart

A pro-Brexit, self-promoting opportunist, he did huge damage to Britain in a career marked by betrayals and duplicity

Michael Gove has decided to quit politics at the general election, ending a career of backstabbing and unfulfilled ambition. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty

Michael Gove is leaving politics and standing down at the election – and all without stabbing the current prime minister in the back, which, let’s face it, must have been a difficult habit to break.

Gove’s career has consisted of short periods of ministerial work, punctuated by brazen acts of political betrayal. His friends must be a nervous lot. Never have the words “right behind you, prime minister” caused such anxiety.

First, he apparently told David Cameron, a very close friend, that he was supporting Leave, but would not take a “prominent role” in the Brexit campaign. He then became one of the leaders of the whole shoddy enterprise. 

Interviewed recently, Gove said he should have been “clearer earlier” about his intentions. He admitted: “I think that was an example of on the one hand, cowardice on my part, moral cowardice… on the other hand, a recognition that perhaps there’s this feeling in politics, perhaps something will turn up, perhaps this moment won’t come when we have to make that decision. But I think David, entirely fairly, should have expected me to have been more upfront earlier.”

I suppose when David Cameron was daft enough to expect Gove and Boris Johnson, supposedly loyal friends and cabinet members, to support him, it must have been a bit of a shock to find that they did absolutely everything in their power to destroy him. 

Gove went from promising to only take a backseat role in the campaign to being one half of the Boris and Michael show, which happily broke every political convention in an attempt to win at any cost. 

After all, it was Gove who apparently persuaded the reluctant Johnson to campaign for Brexit – another betrayal of Cameron, who was unable, or unwilling to take on his two old university pals. He went down to a political defeat that left deep scars on the nation.

Gove cost Cameron his job and the country much of its power and prosperity. Not that Michael sees it that way now. In his resignation letter to his constituency chairman, he boasted about that leading role and the “taking back control of our political destiny”. So, he is obviously not that sorry. 

It was what happened next which has gone down as one of the greatest acts of back-stabbing in recorded political history. 

“Et tu Michael” Johnson must have thought as his campaign partner and supporter, after visiting Boris at home immediately after the referendum victory and finding him preparing a barbecue rather than preparing for a post-Brexit world, decided to do him in, then and there. 

“I wanted to believe, and did believe, that Boris had grown during the referendum campaign and was ready,” Gove said. “And then I lost confidence in the judgment that he had changed sufficiently and was sufficiently ready.” It must have been a very, very badly organised garden party.

“And I thought, I can’t, in all honesty, recommend him to the British people, and say, ‘he’s now ready to be prime minister’.” Gove, as a patriot, then decided that the country would best be served by standing to be leader of the Tory party himself. Well you would, wouldn’t you?

I have to be honest and say that this explanation has always stretched my credulity to breaking point. Gove had known Johnson since university, and his reputation was already widely known. As a fellow journalist, Gove will have seen him being fired for lying at the Times, then sacked as Brussels correspondent at the Daily Telegraph for writing lazy, inaccurate tosh. 

Then he must have been aware that Michael Howard fired Johnson from the shadow cabinet for lying about another affair, seen him chuntering on in the Commons for years and shared a campaign bus with him for weeks, when he lied through his teeth every day, promising that the country “could have its cake and eat it”. 

But after all that, it is only when he found Boris burning burgers on the barbie, that he decided he was not quite the man for all seasons, and that he was not suited to run the country through one of the most difficult upheavals in peacetime history. Really?

Gove’s cynical bid for the top job failed when he lost to the pro-remain Theresa May. How that must have hurt. However, looking on the bright side, that meant May was left to clean up the impossible mess that he and Johnson had created. He was able to stand on the sidelines and worry about Brexit not being done properly, and complain about all those missed opportunities. 

May was so unpopular with the Brexit nutters that they kept on trying to get rid of her. She was once even saved by Michael Gove, but only after he spent two long days deciding whether she or he was best suited to lead the country.

When Theresa May fell on her sword, Gove stood again for the leadership but lost out in the early rounds. It was almost as though his fellow MPs and the party didn’t trust him – but then he went on to serve the winner, Boris Johnson, the man whom he had considered unfit to be PM, and who then spent several years proving him right. 

In the end Gove told Johnson to go, which counts as a stab in the front, and was fired for his “disloyalty”. Finally.

After that, Gove sat out the Truss premiership, all 49 days of it, which can’t really count as being cast into the political wilderness, and came back into the cabinet under Rishi Sunak. But his power was spent.

His ministerial achievements might in the end do something to restore something of his reputation. His civil servants seem to have liked him and his time at education was well spent. But levelling up has been a joke and a sick joke at that, and his management of the housing sector has been painfully bad and economically damaging. 

He even failed to get rent and tenancy reforms past his own party’s property-owning backbenchers. Yet another case of the Tories putting party before country, which has done so much to undermine their image and the country as a whole. 

But it is Brexit for which Michael Gove will be best remembered. The man who said “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”, the very experts who were right all along. The man who still boasts in his resignation letter that the NHS got the £350m promised on the side of the bus, a blatant falsehood that has been disproved many times, but then what else has he to show for Brexit? 

Gove led the campaign that told us we could have all the benefits of membership of the EU and none of the costs, that we held all the cards, had the upper hand, had the EU over a barrel and were going to get an even better deal from the EU. Then he supported administrations that burned all the bridges, put up endless barriers to trade, cost the country 4-6% of its economy and put a border down the Irish Sea. 

The one supposed benefit of Brexit, which Gove mentions in his resignation letter, was that infamous “taking back control of our political destiny”.

The pure, British, union jack-wrapped, political destiny that gave us Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak. The political destiny that has almost bankrupted the country, weakened its power and influence, destroyed ties with our friends and partners, tried to break international law and made the country a laughing stock. 

All handed to a grateful nation by the éminence grise of British politics, Michael Gove, knife wielder extraordinaire, the “nearly man” who never quite got to the top of the greasy pole despite having a political career that spanned five of the country’s worst-ever prime ministers. 

They say “He who wields the knife never wears the crown”. But poor old Michael. To think he destroyed the premiership of his friend Cameron, destroyed the leadership campaign of his mate Johnson, then served under him and then abandoned him again, all the while setting the country back decades, in an attempt to get the top job – and despite all that he still failed. 

Frankly, British politics and the nation might just manage to survive his retirement. I am sure the Tory party leadership will be delighted that he is no longer standing behind them. 

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