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.
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.
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.