Michael Gove: I don’t want to be Nick Clegg part two

Written by Daniel Bond on 12 May 2016 in Interview

The justice secretary could be a key unifying figure for the Tories after the EU referendum.

“No, I don’t want to be Nick Clegg part two,” Michael Gove says, a little put out to have even been asked. I’d suggested to him that I was speaking to the next deputy prime minister, the role he is reportedly being lined up for in the inevitable ‘unity’ reshuffle following the referendum. But he makes clear he has no interest in the post left vacant by the former Lib Dem leader. “Love him as I do,” he quickly adds with familiar Gove politeness.

Plans for a reconciliation reshuffle are thought to be well underway inside Number Ten amid fears the increasingly hostile tone of the EU debate makes some sort of mutiny inevitable – even if Remain narrowly makes it over the line. And Gove’s position as the only leading figure in both the Leave camp and David Cameron’s inner circle marks him out as a strong powerbroker. If the prime minister is to avoid a defenestration, the loyalty and industry of his old friend will be essential. “Gove is the key,” as one cabinet minister told the FT recently.

But that task may have got just that bit harder this week. I sit down with Gove to discuss the state of the referendum campaign just hours after Cameron warned that a vote to leave the EU could risk war on the continent – a remark which sparked yet another round of Brexit indignation and accusations of scaremongering. Would-be successor Boris Johnson responded by calling the speech “totally demented”.

Which puts Michael Gove in a tough spot. Asked for his assessment of the debate so far, he treads carefully around Cameron’s remarks, but cites the hardened rhetoric of recent days as evidence of the dread creeping up on the pro-Remain “establishment”.

The justice secretary characterises the campaign as an underdog tale, contrasting the prime minister’s speech in the “majestic surroundings of the British museum” with Johnson’s “rather more down at heel” appearances at the Leave offices and his bus tour of the south west. If the Leave camp represents the best of the “plucky” British – “patriotic”, “positive”, driven by “common sense” and an energised grassroots – their opponents are pursuing a tired, “negative”, elite campaign cut adrift from the voters and imperilled by their “sense of establishment entitlement”. 

“They feel as though people should be paying attention to them,” he says, slipping into a cut-glass accent: “’We’re the establishment, why aren’t we being heeded by the public?’

“But actually, I think that the public view is we are not going to be told what to do by the elites and by the establishment, we will make our own minds up. People want to hear the arguments. They don’t want to simply allow the debate to be steamrollered by the big battalions. 

“So it seems to me that if you’ve got basic common sense, plus enthusiasm amongst Leave campaigners, versus a sense of establishment entitlement plus a lack of enthusiasm on the Remain side, then there’s no reason to believe that Remain are on course to win. Quite the opposite.”

The nature of the pro-EU campaign so far, he says, simply exposes their frustration at their inability to shift the polls. “I am struck by some of the language from Remain campaigners,” he continues, pointing out that just this week Chuka Umunna has called him a “conspiracy theorist”, while Alan Johnson has claimed Leave supporters “are all extremists and unbalanced”.

“It does suggest that they’re slightly rattled. The fact that interventions like Barack Obama’s seem not to have affected the polls, and certainly not to have affected the polls in the way that the Remain camp would have thought, must be destabilising for some of them.”

The Remain strategy, he says, relied upon a significant bounce in the polls in the aftermath of the prime minister’s initial renegotiation. And in its absence, the campaign has now stumbled. 

“The historical evidence suggests that in 1975 the big bounce that the ‘In’ campaign had was the renegotiation, and the referendum campaign itself didn’t change that much," he says. "There was an assumption that the Remain vote would increase significantly. People thought that the deal would lead to a bounce of 10 or 15 points in the polls. But that didn’t occur.”

While he has had no reservations speaking with frankness on the EU, Gove has so far remained tight-lipped on Cameron’s deal itself, reluctant to criticise his old friend.

But, following Iain Duncan Smith’s claim this week that the prime minister secured only “very marginal” concessions, the justice secretary goes even further, describing the negotiation as a “great missed opportunity”, and claiming the deal is such a “disappointing” return on his boss’s efforts that even the Remain camp has sought to sweep it under the carpet.

“It is striking during this campaign that the Remain side are making the case for being in the EU without acknowledging the deal at all,” he says.

“It’s almost as though it’s the first Mrs Rochester up in the attic – nobody ever refers to it any more.

“And I think that’s because there are fundamental problems with the deal, in comparison to his [Cameron’s] Bloomberg speech and what we said in our manifesto.”

In fact, he continues, Britain’s influence in Europe may even have been weakened by the deal. “It doesn’t take any powers back, it doesn’t fundamentally alter the shape or the direction of the EU. It doesn’t end the perverse movement of the European parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg, which we said we were going to alter. It doesn’t change the common agricultural policy, it doesn’t change EU structural funds, it doesn’t have a particularly powerful break on migration.

“But more than that, it has involved us surrendering our veto. One of the most worrying things about the deal from my point of view is that our capacity to influence what happens in the future is diminished by the deal – because we’ve said that we won’t stand in the way of further integration.

“The public are much shrewder than many in Westminster give them credit for. They knew that there was a promise that the EU would be reformed. They looked at what the deal involved, and they thought ‘that is not reform of the EU, I’m not going to change my opinion on the basis of this document.’”

He also rejects any suggestion that there are too many unanswered questions to convince undecided voters to back a change from the status quo. “The assertion by the Remain side that we haven’t answered these questions is an attempt to suggest into the public’s mind the idea that there’s something shifty or evasive about our position, when in fact we’ve been very clear: we don’t want to be in the single market, we do want to be in a free trade area. There’s no reason for other countries to move away from the tariff-free access that we have to each other’s’ markets. That’s all absolutely clear and explicit.”

In fact it’s the leaders of Remain, he says, who are failing to acknowledge the big questions facing Britain. “They haven’t been explicit about what would happen the day after we vote to Remain. If you vote to Remain you’re not voting for the situation now, you’re voting for more Europe. You’re allowing the EU institutions to press ahead with integration,” he says. “There are a number of challenges that Britain and the world face. The rapid spread of technological, social and economic change means that the institutions that were formed in the 1940s and 1950s need to be substantially reformed. That needs to change.”

Implicit in the Remain campaign is, he says, “a passivity”, not just about Britain’s position in the world but about the nation’s ability to tackle the problems it faces domestically.

Gove’s more pugilistic side may have softened since his time as education secretary – you’ll no longer find him using military metaphors and pledging to vanquish “the enemies of promise”, in public, at least – but he clearly retains his impulse for confronting the inertia of the political establishment. 

He’s spoken of a vote for Leave as a moment of “patriotic renewal”; pitching the referendum not as a straight constitutional debate, or a question of democratic principle, but as a rare and unmissable opportunity to galvanise public life and shake up the status quo. 

In language reminiscent of early coalition Gove, he says: “Within Britain there are a variety of things that I think do need to change and reform. We are too unequal. We are insufficiently motivated to deal with the problems we face with social mobility. Insufficiently determined to tackle privilege. Insufficiently energetic in making sure that people – whatever their talents – are given the opportunity to contribute.

“I think part of the message of taking back control is also a challenge to politicians to do more in order to make sure this country is a better, more open, more progressive nation.”

He adds that whatever happens in the referendum – “and obviously I hope that we prevail” – there must remain a “strong government” continuing to address the other major challenges facing the country, while “implementing the mandate of the British people”.

And, unsurprisingly, he is adamant that this prime minister must continue to lead it. Gove points out that “no head of government in any European country” has resigned after losing a referendum on the EU. “Jacques Chirac, Rasmussen in Denmark, the Swedish prime minister, in the Netherlands; none of them resigned, nor should they have,” he says, with a sincerity more convincing than that of some colleagues.

As the atmosphere around the debate grows febrile, the prime minister’s credibility is increasingly being called into question by even the most senior Brexit Tories. But Gove’s loyalty appears unbending. “I think the prime minister, once he’s decided on a particular course, throws himself heart and soul into it,” he says of Cameron’s conduct, choosing his words with diplomatic precision.

“Now that he’s made his judgment he follows through with passion and verve, making his case. The prime minister is incredibly persuasive, he’s probably the most persuasive person in British politics. And I think that his motives are noble. But I disagree.

“In the end the Leave campaign can make some points about process, the Remain campaign can make some points about process. But ultimately the public will decide how important those are. Ultimately, in a democracy, the voters make the right decision and they’ll make the right decision on this referendum I’m sure. So we’ll fight our corner with as much grace and passion as we can muster. And then see what happens.” 


This article first appeared in the House magazine.

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