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Johnson has left the building. Ben Birchall / PA

Why Michael Gove is a real contender for next Tory leader

Britain’s “Thatcherites” are an incredibly cohesive bunch. To the despair of historians, they do not write things down. Tory politicians prefer to eschew laborious meetings and minutes in favour of informal dining clubs at which future strategy is debated and plotted. Theirs is a close network of friendships.

This informal club is committed to keeping the Thatcherite flame alive, promoting the beliefs of its hero, Margaret Hilda Thatcher. Rightly or wrongly, given Thatcher’s cautious approach to Europe, securing Britain’s departure from the EU is regarded by the vast majority of Thatcherites as furthering one of her greatest aims. Mere ministerial careers may have to be sacrificed to achieve this goal.

The ultimate prize (beyond Brexit) is putting a Thatcherite back in charge of the Conservative leadership. Previous mistakes must not be repeated. Iain Duncan Smith must realise that while he had the right ideological credentials, his disastrous leadership of the party from 2001 to 2003 cruelly demonstrated that he lacked the necessary communication skills with which to transmit the Thatcherite message.

The key question in 2016 is who that Thatcherite candidate should be. Former London mayor Boris Johnson and justice secretary Michael Gove are the most high-profile options. There’s also former defence secretary Liam Fox and current business secretary Sajid Javid, or even employment minister Priti Patel.

Just knock it back Boris, what harm can it do? PA

What must be avoided is a scenario in which the Thatcherites field more than one candidate, as happened in 1997 when Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and John Redwood all put their hats in the ring for the party leadership. Redwood emerged top of the Thatcherite pile but came a distant third place behind William Hague and Kenneth Clarke in the overall contest.

The roots of Thatcherism

Arguably, the bungled leadership contest of 1997 need never have happened, if Michael Portillo had the courage to stand against John Major in 1995. Portillo’s greatest supporter was Eric Forth, the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, famous for his brightly coloured ties and sometimes outrageous views. Forth, who died in 2006, tended to judge everyone on their ideological purity. As far as he was concerned, the parties’ leaders – especially David Cameron – and many and Tory MPs – were all considered weak or feeble or even “pinko” for compromising their Thatcherite principles.

In 1997, Forth became chairman of campaign group Conservative Way Forward. From this position he penned the nine principles of Conservatism – nationhood, freedom, democracy, security, a sense of community, capitalism, enterprise, choice and deregulation. Even Redwood has commented that “none of us were Conservative enough for Eric”.

Keeper of the flame: Eric Forth. Adam Butler / PA

Towards the end of his life, Forth became convinced that Britain’s nationhood and identity were under threat – and that this threat could only be addressed by leaving the EU. His last public engagement before his death was the launch of the Better Off Out group.

Forth never forgave Michael Portillo for his attempts to modernise the party. He claimed “this touchy-feely stuff is just rubbish, total rubbish”. This was the point at which modernisers including Portillo and Francis Maude split with traditionalists such as Forth and Redwood.

Liam Fox may be out of the picture. John Stillwell/PA

Ever since that historic rift, the Thatcherite Right has searched in vain for the ideal candidate. Forth rallied behind David Davis, who flunked his chance to stand against Michael Howard in 2003 and who disappointed against David Cameron in 2005. On that occasion, much of the traditionalist right preferred Liam Fox, who finished a strong third behind Cameron and Davis. But surely Fox, though statesmanlike and still popular with the party members, carries too much personal baggage to become leader.

Much hype surrounds the possibility of Johnson becoming leader. But isn’t he too much of a risk? He has no real ministerial experience and has never proved himself in the House of Commons at the dispatch box. What the Thatcherites need is someone to heal the 2000 rift between the modernisers and the traditionalists. And such a person is Michael Gove.

It is Gove, who, like Forth, is a consistent libertarian and believes that human happiness depends on the absence of state restraint. And it is Gove who is the only leading MP from David Cameron’s Notting Hill set to support Brexit.

Nor is there much doubt about Gove’s current popularity among Conservative members. He has consistently topped the Conservative Home leadership poll, way ahead of Fox and Johnson.

Then again

There are chinks in Gove’s armour, though – not least his own admission that he is “constitutionally incapable” of being Conservative leader, apparently lacking the “special extra quality you need”.

Perhaps he lacks the superficial good looks of a Tony Blair or a Cameron (these things are subjective, of course), and may end up feeling, like the late Robin Cook, that he is too ugly to become leader. And who knows, he may already have made some Faustian pact with his rival, Johnson.

While Gove is on good terms with his former boss Rupert Murdoch, significant repair work is needed with the powerful Tory donor Michael Ashcroft. However, even Ashcroft has praised Gove’s performance in the referendum campaign.

Nor should Theresa May be ruled out as a rival. The home secretary has deliberately kept out of the referendum debate – keen to emerge as the compromise candidate, capable of healing a divided party in the event of a split between two camps led by George Osborne and Johnson. This option will never be tolerated by the Thatcherite right, however. It was May who famously called for the Conservatives to shed their image as the nasty party in 2002. Forth would not stand for such self-loathing.

Writing shortly after Forth’s death in March 2006, Gove praised him as a man who stood out against yet more government legislation because “almost all of it would increase the power of the state, the size of government, the tax burden on the country and the regulatory load on the individual”.

In other words, there is a clear, ideological line linking Gove with Forth, arguably the most ardent Thatcherite of them all. When Gove chose to back Brexit on grounds of principle, Forth was no doubt waving his order paper enthusiastically from the backbenches in the sky.

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