It was obvious from the photograph that something wasn’t quite right. As Michael Gove posed with his fellow Cabinet Outers shortly after the Prime Minister had announced the date of the EU referendum, the Justice Secretary looked far from comfortable. Pre-Boris, Gove was Leave’s star signing, a man who would bring intellectual rigour and credibility to the hard sell of Brexit. Yet it’s there in the body language – Gove has tucked himself behind the lesser lights of Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers. While the others smirk, Gove looks fraught. Even slightly ashamed.
Now, thanks to a compelling article by his wife Sarah Vine in today’s Daily Mail, it’s clear why. It was widely known in Westminster circles that Gove was by instinct a Brexiteer and had been for some time, and that the only thing that might keep him in Cameron’s Remain tent was his friendship with and personal loyalty to the PM.
That friendship goes beyond the purely political. Vine, who is godmother to Cameron’s youngest daughter, writes:
“It was never going to be easy. But neither of us had any idea it would be such torture either. Mr Cameron was expecting opposition from all sorts of people, but not from Michael. When he eventually told David the truth about his feelings on the re-negotiations — that he was not inclined to support the deal in its current form — the PM was genuinely, and quite naturally, shocked and hurt.”
As Gove wrestled with his decision, Vine says she opened a box of old photographs from the couple’s wedding in the South of France in 2001, and came across snaps of Tory chums including George Osborne, the Chancellor, and Ed Vaizey, the culture minister and Gove’s best man. Also,
“Samantha Cameron, radiant and pregnant with her first child; she and David laughing on the coach back from the church. Just a group of people from all walks in life who had in common one thing: us. The Camerons are some of our dearest friends. We had been through so much together, both personal and political. Now David would inevitably feel let down.”
You can feel the angst. Contrast this with the spectacle of Boris Johnson grandstanding performance in the street outside his house as he announced to the cameras his own support for Leave. Was there any angst in this decision? Only, it seems, as to whether it would enhance or diminish his chances of becoming Prime Minister.
Between the three men – Gove, Boris and Cameron – we see the three faces of Tory politics. The Prime Minister is a proper old-fashioned Establishment Conservative, raised to govern, comfortable in the backrooms of power, striking a moderate course that shies away from easy ideological tropes. Boris is the classic cad and opportunist, a man without obvious convictions who seems to be driven by the Great Man theory of politics, with himself in the starring role.
Gove, though, is much more interesting. Like Margaret Thatcher, he is more a Radical than a Conservative. He is one of modern politics’ great reformers, having taken the extraordinary passion and energy of his tumultuous years in the Education Department into the Justice Ministry, where he is focused on revolutionising prisoner rehabilitation. He is a man of principle who is in the game to get things done. In truth, given his character, he never had any choice but to be true to himself on the EU. As Vine puts it: “If, at the end of the day, he can’t stand up for what he believes in, then what’s the point?”
As an Inner, I find Boris’s transparently cynical calculations hard to forgive, and suspect it will prove to be his undoing. However, I have nothing but respect for Gove – what is politics if not a battle of ideas? How painful must it have been to choose between genuine, deep friendship with your Prime Minister and your principled belief that he’s wrong? If only we had more like him.
“Ultimately, [Michael’s] view is that true friends can have differences of opinion without letting it affect their relationships. I hope and pray that will turn out to be true.”
I fear this is unlikely. Mr Cameron has in the past shown little capacity for rehabilitating those who have crossed him – and as the issue that will define his legacy, the EU referendum couldn’t matter more to him. Further, having watched Michael Cockerell’s fascinating short documentary on the 1975 referendum, the venom between former friends who found themselves on different sides of the debate is chilling. Gove deserves better, but I doubt he’ll get it.