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13 July 2022

The final act in the Gove-Johnson psychodrama

The pair’s unlikely political alliance began at Oxford, was cemented by Brexit and ended with one last strike of revenge.

By Simon Kuper

They first met in late 1985. Michael Gove, an 18-year-old fresher from an Aberdonian private day school, had come up to Oxford in a young-fogey green tweed suit, bought at the Salvation Army for £1.50. Already a fearsome debater, he began haunting the Oxford Union debating society. There, in the autumn of 1985, the Union’s big beast – a handsome, blond, hilarious 21-year-old Etonian – was making the rounds among the first-year students. Boris Johnson had lost his first campaign for Union president by over-relying on his public-school base, and allowing his Essex grammar-school opponent to tar him as an entitled right-wing toff.

But Etonians get second chances, and in his second campaign, Johnson was running as an apolitical funny man who could reach out to the lower classes, which at Oxford meant the upper-middle class. Gove later told Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson: “The first time I saw him was in the Union bar… He seemed like a kindly, Oxford character, but he was really there like a great basking shark waiting for freshers to swim towards him.”

Johnson soon identified Gove as an unusually bright exemplar of the middle-class “stains” he habitually enlisted for the drudge work of his lifelong campaign. Gove helped Johnson get elected Union president, and admits: “I was Boris’s stooge. I became a votary of the Boris cult.” 

The votary/cult-leader relationship would last 37 years, until 6 July 2022, when, as almost the final act of his premiership, Johnson sacked Gove as secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities. The two never exactly became friends – Johnson doesn’t seem to have many – but their complementary qualities made them natural allies. Their relationship, always underpinned by class, may be the most consequential in modern British politics. Here is the Wooster-and-Jeeves duo who gave us Brexit.

[See also: The born-to-rule Oxford Tories]

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In the gossip column of the Oxford University newspaper Cherwell on 15 November 1985, the diarist revels in Johnson’s electoral alliance with working-class trade unionists from Ruskin College, mock-praising “Balliol’s blond bombshell” as “our Old Etonian Leninist”. On the same page, Cherwell introduces readers to a teenage Scotsman who has been at Oxford barely a month: “Michael conceals his rabidly reactionary political views under a Jane Austen cleric-like exterior,” writes the diarist, before breaking into uncharacteristic generosity: “The worst thing about this precocious pin-up is that he is, in fact, disgustingly unambitious and talented: watch this space for stories of eventual corruption…”

Gove was a political prodigy, a superior debater to Johnson, who even then was chiefly a comic performer. The Aberdonian also already had a fully developed Thatcherite ideology, whereas Johnson merely sensed the Conservative Party was the natural home for an ambitious politico of his caste.

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When Gove was 20, in an article in the Union’s house magazine in 1987, he laid out a traditionalist platform that would be recognisable to anyone who encountered him as education secretary a quarter-century later. British schools, he wrote, should set clear, demanding standards that pupils must meet. “If we can teach lower primates to read and write, why can we not ensure a somewhat higher standard of achievement for our own children?” Considering “core curricula”, Gove affirmed that, “Yes, we need to pass on certain basic skills and knowledge and avoid time-wasting exercises in irrelevancies.” He endorsed the idea of “testing at regular stages”.

Writing in the same magazine, advocating a meritocratic elitism, he warned: “I cannot overemphasise what elitism is not. It is not about back-slapping cliques, reactionary chic or Old Etonian egos. It is a spirit of unashamed glamour, excitement and competition… We are all here, part of an elite. It is our duty to bear that in mind.” There was already in Gove a tension that would persist: the clever Thatcherite outsider’s contempt for ancestral upper-class English privilege, combined with a deference to its beneficiaries.

Gove followed Johnson into the Union presidency, but after Johnson left Oxford in 1987 and Gove in 1988, it was the Aberdonian’s long-term political prospects that looked brightest. The Tories hadn’t chosen a privately educated leader since the Etonian aristocrat Alec Douglas-Home lost the 1964 general election to Harold Wilson. The belief was that modern Britons wouldn’t vote for a toff. When Douglas Hurd ran to succeed Margaret Thatcher in 1990, it was Eton that ruined his chances.

Both Johnson and Gove took the road from journalism to the House of Commons. In 2005, when David Cameron became Tory leader, the toffs returned to front of stage. It turned out that most Tory voters still instinctively felt that Etonians were born to rule.

Yet Gove took the lead in his undeclared race with Johnson, who was sacked from the shadow cabinet in 2004 for lying to the then Tory leader Michael Howard about an affair. Gove grew close to Cameron, and in 2010 was named education secretary. For years, he helped govern Britain while Johnson filled the largely performative role of mayor of London. To Johnson, this felt like an overturning of the natural order: he had been usurped both by his Aberdonian disciple, and by his junior at Eton and Oxford, Cameron, an entitled toff (in Johnson’s view) who had never won any of those institutions’ glittering prizes – unlike Johnson, who was school captain and then Union president.

[See also: Oded Galor explores the ancient roots of modern life]

In 2014 the Mail on Sunday reported comments that Gove had made at a dinner party hosted by Rupert Murdoch: “Boris is incapable of focusing on serious issues and has no gravitas. The whole Boris routine will wear thin with the electorate very quickly if he became PM. And he can’t make tough decisions.”

The Goves holidayed with the Camerons, their children practically grew up together, and Gove’s then wife Sarah Vine became godmother to the Camerons’ youngest daughter, but Gove remained in awe of Cameron. Tim Shipman’s book about the Brexit referendum, All Out War, compares the men’s relationship to that between the upper-middle-class Charles Ryder and the golden Etonian Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Gove was probably the most gifted right-wing politician of his generation, brighter and more articulate than the Etonians, but he accepted that in the Conservative Party, intelligence was not the decisive attribute. It could even be a handicap: Britain was not France.

When Cameron suddenly demoted Gove to chief whip in 2014, Gove felt he had been treated “like staff”. Then along came the Brexit referendum. Gove had long been a true believer in Brexit, but, according to Shipman, until the referendum campaign, Johnson had never advocated Brexit in either print or speech. On 16 February 2016, while Johnson anguished over his decision, he invited the Goves and Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard and the son of a former KGB officer, to dinner at his house in Islington, north London. “At the end,” recalled Johnson, “everyone else buggered off and Michael and I sat at the bar and… drank a prodigious amount.” They indicated to each other that they would both probably back Brexit. As at Oxford, they were in it together.

When the two men chose Leave, Cameron felt betrayed more by his friend than by his opportunistic schoolmate. In his 2019 memoir, he called Gove “mendacious” and said he became a “foam-flecked Faragist” during the referendum campaign. Vine, looking back on the friendship in a newspaper column, said she would always remember “Dave and Samantha” as “dear friends who were there at key moments of my life… in the years before power and politics got in the way of those simple, happy, human connections”.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

With hindsight, it was Johnson and Gove’s participation – especially Johnson’s – that won the referendum. Nigel Farage had never run a whelk stall, and even his supporters didn’t see him as the governing type. Had he been the dominant voice for Leave, the referendum could have ended like that of 1975, with the Leave cause tarnished by the unstable extremism of its advocates. But Gove and Johnson lent Brexit their ruling-class CVs and accents. If Johnson was assuring people that “the cost of getting out would be virtually nil”, or if Gove said, “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards,” then surely Brexit couldn’t be just a hazardous leap into the dark?

After the referendum, Johnson began his campaign to become prime minister, and Gove assumed his role of votary-cum-campaign manager. But when Johnson’s operation got off to a disorganised start, Gove conveniently remembered his ally’s unfitness for the job. Only minutes after informing Johnson’s team that he was bailing in order to run for leader himself, he made a statement that effectively killed Johnson’s bid: “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” Gove added that he himself had no “charisma” or “glamour” – Tory code for not being upper-class.

Like Cameron, Johnson felt betrayed by Gove. Though Johnson always felt entitled to drop votaries, he expected their loyalty. Gove’s treachery was as if Jeeves had tried to take Wooster’s place in the Drones Club.

Still, the two men had understood since the Oxford Union that politics was only a game. They admired and needed each other, and early in Theresa May’s interregnum Gove in particular began putting out feelers. Gove’s biographer Owen Bennett recounts him performing an excruciating tribute rap for Johnson at the 30th birthday party of the Conservative Party’s communications director, Carrie Symonds, in 2018. (At this point, her relationship with Johnson wasn’t yet known.) Gove, who had been inspired by the musical Hamilton, rapped:

We’ve got to get him to lead the fight to save our land, get our liberation, don’t forget from whence he came. The world’s gonna know your name… What’s your name…My name is Alexander B Johnson

During the summer of 2019, when both men again ran for Tory leader, an MP asked Gove, “How can we trust you after you stabbed Boris in the back?” Gove replied, according to Bennett: “I don’t see it as stabbing people in the back. I was trying to do the public a service.” But the most experienced cabinet minister of his generation was doomed to join the likes of Rab Butler and Iain Macleod in the ranks of Tory prime ministers who never were. After Johnson won the leadership, he brought Gove back into cabinet as a wide-ranging chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Though Johnson may never have trusted him again, Gove was skilled at what Johnson considered the back-office role of running the country.

[See also: The Tories’ new nightmare]

Gove served as secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities from September 2021 until 6 July 2022, when he told his oldest ally it was time to go. Gove told Johnson he should resign while he helped him prep for PMQs. He gave him until 9pm to do so. At 8.59pm Johnson rang Gove. According to the Sunday Times, Gove asked: “Are you resigning?” Johnson said, “No, Mikey, mate, I’m afraid you are. I’m going to have to ask you to take a step back.” Gove replied: “Prime Minister, if anyone should be stepping back, it is you.”

Many ministers had told the Prime Minister to go, but Gove was the only one whom Johnson sacked. It seems this was a case of short- and long-term tensions boiling over. One ally of Johnson’s told the BBC: “You cannot have a snake who is not with you on any of the big arguments who then gleefully briefs the press that he has called for the leader to resign.” And a “friend” of Johnson’s told the FT that the sacking “was done out of pure pleasure – final revenge for what he did in 2016”.

In fact, the sacking did Michael Gove an unintentional favour, allowing him to ­disassociate himself at the last minute from a discredited leader whose flaws he had known since long before Boris Johnson entered No 10 – perhaps even since 1985. No matter. In taking the UK out of the EU, Wooster and Jeeves had remade the country – a revolution that may take decades to reverse.

Simon Kuper is a Financial Times columnist and author of “Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK” (Profile)

This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant