Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Sacking Michael Gove Two Years Ago Turned out to Be Cameron's Fatal Mistake

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Sacking Michael Gove Two Years Ago Turned out to Be Cameron's Fatal Mistake

Article excerpt

As pundits who missed the populist mood (1 did, too) now try to explain it, I will look for answers in the opposite direction. This column will make the case that even a movement as emotive and unpredictable as Brexit owed much to a couple of personal relationships. The motives and actions of the principal players may be better explained by exploring the intricacies of their personal circles than by assuming that they "sensed the will of the people". Had one or two friendships developed differently, Britain would not have voted for Brexit.

This personal argument leads on to an institutional one. The dysfunctional alliances that now shape British politics--intimately bound up with the estrangement of the people from their political elite--creates the need for a major realignment of party identities. With both main parties in disarray, the opportunities presented by changing course have never been greater.

It is already received wisdom that David Cameron "miscalculated" in calling for a referendum. Yet another critical miscalculation is ignored: Cameron's cabinet reshuffle on 14-15 July 2014. The Prime Minister, advised by his electoral strategist Lynton Crosby that Michael Gove was a vote-loser, sacked the then education secretary, a role Gove had performed with energy and conviction.

Gove's importance to Cameron cannot be overstated. The Cameroonian movement lacked ideas, Gove had ideas; Cameron was said to stand for nothing but power, Gove was driven by reforming zeal; Cameron struggled to connect with Conservatives who see government as more than just a matter of steadiness and competence, Gove was the solution. Gove, as an intellectual, legitimised a project that could appear intellectually lightweight.

Then the Prime Minister was told that Gove could not be trusted in a close general election. Sack a friend, win an election; listen to the expert psephologist, overlook a debt of loyalty; win the game, lose conscience. A ruthless pragmatist? A sentimental loser? The headline is determined by the outcome, but the reality is that every leader, in every sphere, faces such dilemmas. Cameron, miscalculating that the election was on a knife edge, concluded that Gove had to go. Post-referendum, that decision is now recast in the most uncomfortable of all categories: politically ruthless and also, over the long term, a political mistake.

Had Cameron backed himself to win the election with Gove still at Education, it is unlikely that his former close friend would have been the first big-name Tory to declare for Leave. With the Brexit think tank led by Gove--who brought with him an inner circle of serious minds--a perception of intellectual equivalency entered the debate.

I am not arguing that Gove personally persuaded the disillusioned voters of Hartlepool and Lincolnshire. A referendum, however, though it ends in a simple headcount, is powered by a far more complex set of influences. …

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