Michael Gove: Brexit referendum was always going to leave this country divided

Halfway through our interview with Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, his junior minister George Eustice resigns. We have just walked past his office a few doors from Gove’s own, here in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Gove doesn’t know for a good half hour, and nor do we. But his special advisers are getting agitated. Their phones buzz. Several attempts are made to cut in. Finally Gove is drawn into an anteroom. On return he looks shaken. “I’m disappointed,” he admits. “But I know that George has felt strongly about things for a while.” Did he know Eustice might resign? Long pause. “It’s probably better that I don’t say any more.”

It’s a mark of the state of Westminster that tremors like this are a daily occurrence. But until this moment, Gove had been a picture of political polish, betraying little of the crisis within. He joked, as we arrived, that he’d been advised always to wear a pressed white shirt for photographs. His tie is on-message green, his office carpet hoovered, there’s a faint whiff of Mr Sheen. And in chat too, he’s poised. His voice is a warm Aberdonian purr with which he performs feats of elaborate politeness (such as an apology for accidentally calling Melania “Mrs Trump” instead of “the First Lady”).

Gove, of course, is well aware of the trapdoor nature of politics. Tipped as a potential party leader more than once, his frontline career has been, well, theatrical. To recap: his controversial term as Education Secretary ended in 2014 when he was shunted, some say unhappily, to the job of Chief Whip. He bounced back, as Justice Secretary, in 2015 and arguably turned the revolver on Cameron by siding with Boris Johnson and Leave in a referendum he’d been dead against Cameron holding (“I didn’t think we would win”). The drama continued after Leave won prompting Cameron to resign as Prime Minister. Gove knifed Johnson to launch a rival leadership bid, only to be fired again, this time by Theresa May. 

Any regrets? Perhaps the bus that promised £350 million to the NHS? “Absolutely not,” he says. “We’re now spending more than £350 million extra a week on the NHS — it’s future is critical to ours”. 

What about the lies told about the queues of Turkish immigrants at our borders? Would Leave claim that in another referendum? “It would be a very different campaign,” he says. “My hope is that we will never go there.” Later he adds, “Given that there might be [another referendum], I won’t say now the things that I would have done differently last time round because that might show my hand. I’ll keep schtum on the mistakes that we may have made.”

But he will say why he thought it was a bad idea. “There were two reasons: I thought that it wasn’t clear what the question would be [on the ballot paper] and the capacity for it to generate further division rather than put the issue to bed was greater. And I also felt that, funnily enough, there were some people in the country and the party who he would never be able to satisfy.” 

He describes his co-campaigner Dominic Cummings as an “idealist” and “highly principled”, perhaps as an answer to accusations that there were irregularities in their campaigning. 

The referendum, he says, “was a very difficult period because of the strain on friendships on one side”. By this he means David and Samantha Cameron, old friends and holiday companions. Indeed, during the fallout Gove’s wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, godmother to Cameron’s youngest child, told friends that the Camerons had treated them “like staff”. Gove glosses over this, saying his wife was naturally upset because “if you love someone and that person appears to be on the receiving end of criticism… you will feel angry or annoyed”.

As he talks, his hands are a series of awkward gestures and his feet are twisted into ballet’s first position. He concedes he’s naturally clumsy — “I’m the world’s worst tennis player; I took seven attempts to pass my driving test” — although “not quite Mr Bean levels”. 

But that’s in stark contrast to his control over what he says. Despite encouraging us to “ask anything”, he’s painfully careful, let down only by his own furious blushes. When we ask if it’s true that he’s a gifted mimic who does a brilliant impression of Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall, he says, florid to his roots, that his skill has been “exaggerated”. Can he do Theresa May? “No, no, no. It’s a very limited repertoire.” The only person he’ll admit to imitating is Gordon Brown, “but this was professional”, he hastens. “When we were practising for Prime Minister’s Questions.”

Few politicians are less like their public persona. He was abhorred in the Education Department, a view not helped by his treacherous leadership challenge. But old friends are adoring (while admitting he is “very complicated”). He is charming and funny, they say, “with a keen sense of the absurd”. Adds another: “Of all the characters in Oz, he is the one with the heart.”

Which makes it all the more frustrating to interview him in politician mode. I ask about views he’s aired in private, such as that May was “brutal” when she sacked him. Gove says that was she was “perfectly polite”. (Later, we ask, Theresa May or Margaret Thatcher?  He says, with no apparent sense of irony, “I love them both. But Thatcher”.) 

Either way there were no hard feelings. She reinstated him after the disastrous 2017 snap election and he’s been industrious since, championing her withdrawal agreement, scoring for her some of her Government’s few policy successes — such as the triumph of banning single-use plastics.

These days, controversies are small-time: culling badgers and baby squirrels. Those who work at Defra — which has a rus in urbe feel with photos of country scenes decorating meeting pods — describe it as having “a real hum of positive energy, and that’s down to Michael”. His revolution here (accompanied by a picture of Lenin on his bookshelf) is far smoother than his attempt at revolution in Education. 

On subjects of government he may be mealy-mouthed but he is fully self-deprecating on the subject of himself. Of his relationship with alcohol he says: “I’m very fond of it. I like relaxing with friends over a glass of wine — or two,” and that “good discipline” is one night’s temperance a week. Where is he on the Government’s recommended units? “Err, I might drink slightly more than 18 units a week.”

Although friends report that he can be prone to “low moods” Gove says, “I always try to look on the bright side,” (but not whether he is successful). 

On food, he describes himself as “a glutton” who “will eat almost everything that is put in front of me”. In fact the only farm he mentions in the entire interview is a health farm called the Mayr Clinic in Austria, where Theresa May has also stayed. He went to lose a stone at the suggestion of his wife and ate a single boiled egg with unsweetened yoghurt at breakfast, and clear broth for supper. Rebellion was a lemon slice in fizzy water.

“If one had the self-discipline,” he confides, “you could do it at home.” For many years Gove lived up the road from Cameron in North Kensington with his wife, son William, daughter Bee, and Snowy, their bichon frise. Now they live near Olympia. 

We are curious to know what his children think of his stance on Leave — is he stealing their future? Gove blusters. “No, no, no. They, um, they do argue with me about other things, but I won’t say what their position [on Brexit] is.”

So what do you argue about? “Mainly having made GCSEs harder. That’s the principal beef with this Government and with me.” Nice deflection. And how cross are they? “Very. My daughter is taking all her GCSEs this year.” Given her friends all know he was responsible for this policy, “it’s a double dose”. Does he wish he hadn’t made them harder? “No.” 

For Gove, education is still unfinished business. In 2014 he famously railed against Eton when asked if it was a mistake to have five of the six people writing the next Conservative manifesto from the same school. “I said yes… More boys from Eton went to Oxford and Cambridge than the entire population of boys eligible for free school meals.” His education policy — if he’d been left in the department — would have been to bulldoze through this privilege because it makes for “a fundamental inequality in society”. There is so much about it that “irritates” him, so much that is “wrong”. It is, in his view, one of the greatest “structural unfairnesses in British society”.

“The key thing is: are children from disadvantaged backgrounds and children from non-privileged backgrounds getting a fair chance?” No. Clearly. So if he’d stayed at Education would he have abolished private schools? “I would have hoped we would have been able to make sending your children to a private school, as it is in Europe, an increasingly eccentric choice.” Got rid of them by stealth? “Well, yes.” 

He adds that this would have included higher taxes on independent schools. Hold on, isn’t that Labour’s view? He laughs. “Exactly. That’s why I hesitated, because I think the Labour policy is wrong, of course.

“I am conscious that (and I made this point at Education and Justice) you can have people who because of an accident of birth or a misfortune visited on them go down the wrong track. There can be Sliding Doors moments very early in your life. Having visited young offender institutions and prisons, there are people there who are incredibly bright and intelligent but who made the wrong decision at a critical moment in their lives and then went down the wrong track.”

It’s impossible to ignore the influence of Gove’s own background on his political worldview. He was born in Edinburgh in 1967 and named Graham by his birth mother. After four months in care was adopted by a childless couple in Aberdeen. He says he arrived at Christmas and was bathed on his first night in a tin bath in front of the fire. (Later the ritual was repeated when his adopted sister arrived). 

The gratitude he feels to them is enormous — and also a driving force: “They took that risk on me [and] I should try to prove to them that it hadn’t been a mistake.” It explains why — although he has been curious — he will never look for his biological mother while his parents are alive. “It might seem as though I was trying to say that they hadn’t been the perfect and complete parents for me, and as far as I was concerned I was just incredibly lucky.”

Although his father, who ran a fish processing business, was a stern Labour-supporting Scot who disapproved of overt emotional displays, Gove was much hugged and often-reminded how much he was loved. His mother explained his adoption using the phrase “you didn’t grow under my heart you grew in it”.

It’s telling, I think, that when he arrived at Oxford (with a tweed suit he’d bought in a charity shop for £1.50) he felt “disorientated” — conscious there was an aristocratic whirl which would never collide with his own social life. 

While Gove claims that listening to his father’s views on Europe and the Common Fisheries Policy (he believed it “had been responsible for the decline of the industry… and the fact that he had to give up his business”) informed his stance on Brexit, others say it would be a mistake to overlook his experience in government, surrounded by those who thought they were born to rule. Is there truth in that?

“I genuinely don’t know,” he says. “We all know there’s the Cavaliers and the Roundheads, the Bash Street Kids versus whatever. But if one looks at the different people who backed Leave, there were some who you could say were establishment figures… different types of establishment.”

Indeed, among those he has recruited to Defra are old Etonian Brexiteers Ben Goldsmith and Ben Elliot (whose uncle is the Prince of Wales). What about Remainers? Unprompted, Gove describes Amber Rudd as “my friend”. There are rumours around the Commons that when Theresa May stands down Rudd and Gove will run on a uniting joint ticket. Does the next leader need to be a Brexiteer? “Nope.”

Has he given up his own leadership ambitions? He smirks. “If Philip Hammond nominated me and Boris Johnson seconded me, I might think about it.”

Ah. You see? He is funny. 


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