Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Conservatives
4 October 2022

What does Michael Gove want?

The former cabinet minister’s dissent is helping to create political space for his leadership favourite: Kemi Badenoch.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Michael Gove has appointed himself troublemaker-in-chief at Liz Truss’s first Conservative Party conference as leader. Freed from the shackles of a government position, he can speak his mind and is seizing every opportunity to do so.

The former levelling-up secretary challenged Truss over the abolition of the 45p income tax rate and was instrumental in securing a U-turn over the policy, which had been announced in Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget. One MP on the call Truss held with a number of senior Conservatives said that Gove acted as the rebel ringleader by making the “principled case” for the government to ditch the measure, which he described as “not Conservative”.

It is not Gove’s only intervention since the Prime Minister banished him to the back benches. There is patently no love lost between the two former cabinet colleagues. Indeed, Gove seems to have approached the new government like a wrecking ball. As well as opposing the 45p tax rate cut, he has condemned the abolition of the bankers’ bonus cap (“a display of the wrong values”), reaffirmed his opposition to new grammar schools (“we should not be looking backwards”), and warned against cutting benefits in real terms.

But what does Gove want?

Ministers privately admit that they believe Labour will win the next general election. The Tory chairman Jake Berry even told a fringe event that chairmen “come and go”. A sense of resignation permeates the air, with Keir Starmer’s party up to 33 points ahead in the polls in the wake of the disastrous Budget.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

In this context Gove’s eloquent demolition of Truss’s policies is seen by some Tories as a glimmer of hope. It’s probably no accident that the battles he has picked will resonate with Tory-Lib Dem swing voters. While using fairly moderate language about Truss’s administration, he denounced Ed Davey’s party as “vote-seeking amoebas” over planning reform at a conference fringe meeting. On a national level, Gove said, the Lib Dems “don their dungarees and say they’re on the side of generation rent” but on a local level they “don their red trousers” and become “the most determined opponents of development”.

Tories who are increasingly nervous about “Remainers’ revenge” in their constituencies – following recent Lib Dem by-election triumphs – will be relieved that Gove is flying the flag for moderates. “These are principled positions that he holds as a Conservative,” said one MP.

Content from our partners
What are the green skills of the future?
A global hub for content producers, gaming and entertainment companies in Abu Dhabi
Insurance: finding sustainable growth in stormy markets

Other assessments are less flattering. “Michael Gove just wants to be noticed for being Michael Gove,” one source claimed. Truss allies suspect the former education secretary will never be able to relinquish a desire for the top job (he stood for the leadership in both 2016 and 2019). 

Some suspect he is applying pressure for the return of experienced former cabinet ministers such as Grant Shapps and Rishi Sunak. Perhaps even Boris Johnson.

But Sunak was only Gove’s second choice for the Conservative leadership. His first was Kemi Badenoch. Badenoch, the International Trade Secretary, has continued to impress the Tory faithful at the conference, with long-standing Johnson ally Conor Burns reportedly calling her “the future of our party” and – in a pointed dig at Truss’s past handling of the brief – declaring that Badenoch can “move beyond Instagram posts about free trade agreements”.

The Tory right concluded this summer that it was too soon to make Badenoch leader and swung behind Truss. But as the PM’s authority rapidly disintegrates, many now question whether they wrote her rival off too hastily.

Gove’s dissent undoubtedly damages Truss, who now seems doomed to fail, but it also creates political space for Badenoch who as a cabinet minister must avoid open disloyalty.

And given the widespread acceptance among the Tory grassroots that the party is facing defeat, activists may soon begin agitating for a “next generation” leader of the opposition who can represent a break with the Tories’ painful recent past.

[See also: Liz Truss’s tax U-turn has emboldened Tory dissenters]