Magazine article The Spectator

'I Had to Step Up': Michael Gove Interviewed

Magazine article The Spectator

'I Had to Step Up': Michael Gove Interviewed

Article excerpt

Michael Gove on leadership, his wife, Brexit, Boris - and why anybody should trust him again

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. Almost a week later, Conservative MPs are 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 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.)

But if Gove were PM, what would he do? 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. …

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