19 February 2016

Gove’s support for Brexit might just bring Boris too


The “Famous Five” – or not so famous five of Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale – had planned their coming out strategy for the weekend ahead. It now looks likely that there’ll be a Seditious Six and that five will be joined by Michael Gove. What’s the significance of the Justice Secretary choosing his Eurosceptic principles over his very close friendship with the PM and Chancellor? Five quick thoughts:

(1) First of all, hallelujah for a sixth senior Tory putting conviction and country before party. He would have been begged by Cameron and Osborne to support their renegotiated relationship with Europe. It is a further indication of the thinness of the much-ridiculed renegotiation that Mr Gove feels unable to give it his much sought after support.

(2) If Mr Gove is a Brexiteer I wonder whether we could start to see a Secessionist Seven or even an Exiting Eight emerge? Despite my expectations, the reports that Boris Johnson is actively considering supporting Brexit seem true. Mr Johnson has utmost respect for Mr Gove and London’s Mayor won’t feel so awkward about differing with the Prime Minister if such an integral member of the Cameroonian inner circle has chosen to do so. There’s also the terrific new #BeBraveBoris video and Facebook page – which is trying to embarrass Boris into being true to his on-the-record Euroscepticism. Gove’s decision also piles the pressure on the likes of Sajid Javid, Stephen Crabb and Robert Halfon, all instinctive Brexiteers, to see strength in good company.

(3) Mr Gove won’t persuade many members of the public to back Brexit by the power of his personality. Unlike Boris (the real prize in the endorsement race), he is not that popular with the public. He is, however, an intellectual force. He will be able to work with his former close aide, Dominic Cummings (who now helps to run the Vote Leave campaign) to help articulate what a post-Brexit Britain might look like (the big gap in the Out campaign’s existing offering). At least that’s what I hope he does. There isn’t much point dipping his toe into the Brexiteering waters – the Govester might as well now dive deeply into this most important of campaigns.

(4) Let’s not exaggerate the importance of endorsements. I’m writing this piece from South Carolina. The two politicians doing best in the presidential race so far have almost no endorsements between them. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have almost no support from sitting Senators, Congressmen or Governors in their respective parties. But their various messages that big business needs bringing down to size, that the little guy is overlooked and that existing trade arrangements aren’t working are resonating. The Brexit campaign needs this anti-status quo, anti-establishment message more than it needs Mr Gove, Boris Johnson or any “top Tory” or politician. Even more than the Washington DC that is hated by so many US voters, Brussels is hated more. It is a huge source of inequality, decline, unwanted immigration and political remoteness. The Brexit campaign obviously doesn’t need the hate of Mr Trump but it should study the best of what he and Senator Sanders are offering.

(5) David Cameron shouldn’t be too unhappy at Mr Gove’s decision – if he thinks about the long-term. Yesterday, I quit the Tories after a 28 year-long love affair and I’ve received a torrent of emails, texts and tweets from Tories who feel inclined to do the same – or have already done so. That torrent confirms ConservativeHome.com’s opinion polling of the grassroots. Grassroots Tories are going to hate seeing Cameron and Osborne scaremonger the country into staying inside the EU. Even if Cam & Os win this campaign and I’m told there is “real fear” inside Number 10 that they won’t, putting the Conservative Party back together again after all of this isn’t going to be easy. Having Mr Gove as a friendly Outer, as popular with the Tory base as he is Marmite for much of the public, may be something Numbers 10 and 11 come to be grateful for. He could be their ambassador to an awful lot of Tories who are going to be very unhappy with the PM and Chancellor. And I mean “very”.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for The Times and Editor of CapX's Portrait of America