On Wednesday, very few people expected Michael Gove would be making his pitch to be Conservative Party leader on Friday morning. But in the Machiavellian twists and turns of post-Brexit politics, Gove’s actions have been shocking and completely unexpected. He first demolished Boris Johnson’s embryonic leadership campaign, and has now set out his own stall for the top job.
And in the end, he carried it off with confidence and verve. In his official announcement speech, he needed to justify not only his bid to be PM and make his sales pitch clear, he also needed to explain and justify his behaviour to prevent his name becoming a byword for treachery and ruthless ambition.
He began by outlining his reasons for standing for the Conservative Party leadership, arguing that he had never thought he would stand for leadership, he didn’t want it, indeed he had done everything to avoid it. He repeatedly returned to the idea of being driven by conviction, not ambition.
Gove almost boasted that he had no charisma and no glamour, but claimed he did have conviction, adding: “What is the right thing to do? What does your heart tell you?” Throughout the speech he returned to his principles, to his desire for change and his stubborn belief in key policies.
The candidate focused on his track record of reform in the face of adversity, both in the justice system and before that education system – not mentioning, of course, what many teachers might have to say. His vision for the future of Britain focused very much on young people and the potential that they could realise, with the right encouragement and love.
This was personal for Gove. He spoke emotionally about his own family background, of his adoption and the love and support of his parents. He argued that the love he had received from his family had convinced him to enter politics, to help people to do more and achieve more.
This was a confident speech – optimistic, ambitious stuff. Gove spoke of the need for change, the need to move away from “business as usual” and the need for a strong and principled leader. In terms of concrete policy commitments, he began with the post-referendum cataclysm which has gripped the Conservative Party since the referendum result.
In what was clearly something of a dig at his officially Remain-endorsing rival, Theresa May, he echoed Iain Duncan Smith’s words earlier in the week and argued that the next party leader and prime minister needs to be someone from the Leave camp.
He committed to end the free movement of people, a key aspect of the Leave campaign, and said he would bring immigration numbers down. When pressed at the end of his speech, he declined to give a specific target figure for immigration, instead arguing that parliament would need to debate it first.
He even managed to capably dodge what has become an albatross around the necks of the Leave campaign’s leaders – the claim, that has been widely condemned as inaccurate, that the UK sends a net £350m a week to Brussels. His proposal is to reclaim that money and invest an extra £100m pounds a week, which had previously been sent to the EU, in the NHS.
But Gove went beyond shopping lists of policy changes into some rather more visionary political territory. He put it to his audience that the United Kingdom must remain united, that the oncoming “reboot” of the union will require a new settlement – and that a continued “respectful” union between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is in everyone’s best interests.
He argued that Britain is a nation of two realities: one where people take up the opportunities offered by globalisation, another where people find themselves “flotsam and jetsam” in its wake. The UK is, Gove argued, a country where your postcode and background still matter far too much. Big business and the financial services award themselves huge pay packets while lecturing those on lower wages. Managers act like Steve Jobs, but “are really David Brent”.
The primary solution he offered, of course, was himself: self-proclaimedly principled and bold, motivated by a burning desire to change the UK and a sense of urgency to do the right thing.
So will it work?
The speech will certainly satisfy many of those on the Leave side of the Conservative Party, with its explicit commitments to many of the core ideas of the Leave campaign. But his bid for the leadership will make even many of these fellow travellers deeply uncomfortable. For all his talk of “doing the right thing”, many will dismiss his candidacy as naked ambition and opportunism. Those criticisms will be hard to fight.
And while Gove gave a very good performance, Theresa May’s masterful turn at her announcement the day before set a high bar. She will be hard to beat.