Writing a biography of a politician is a tricky game. If you wait for someone to retire, then you have to compete with an autobiography. Enoch Powell refused to write one declaring it would be “like a dog returning to its vomit.” But others, motivated by the money, the fame and the opportunity to “tell their side of the story” find the chance hard to resist.
On the other, hand it can also be dangerous trying to “pick winners”. As an eager journalist Michael Gove wrote on published in 1995: “Michael Portillo: The Future of the Right.” A couple of years later Portillo lost his seat and though he did return to Parliament he never became Tory leader, or a minister, again. Instead, he made a rather good documentary about trains.
A generation on and Gove is at the receiving end. Another eager scribbler, this time Owen Bennett, has produced Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry. Bennett was certainly in a hurry due to the Conservative leadership election. The irony was that while Bennett had a motive in Gove succeeding, the book helped to prevent this from happening. It included the revelation that Gove, the future Justice Secretary, took cocaine several times.
What made this worse was that he wasn’t a student when this happened, but in his thirties. At the time it was happening he wrote an article for The Times denouncing “middle-class professionals” for drug-taking. If this was an in-joke for the benefit of his social circle, it was in dubious taste.
My hunch is that Gove, for all his abilities, would not have made it as our next prime minister, even if this book had not come out. Yet the drug-taking does point to a more significant character flaw. The episode rates only a passing reference in what I found a thoroughly absorbing account of Gove’s life and times.
But I think I can understand why Gove took the drugs. It was a type of peer group pressure. This was the adopted son of man who ran a small fishing processing business in Aberdeen. While fiercely loyal and grateful to them, young Michael also craved to be in with the fast set, the glamour boys, the posh folk. So while sharing a flat in Mayfair, he relished the chance to go to Annabel’s nightclub and Aspinalls casino. Such social climbing was not merely embarrassing, but absurd. Why should someone of Gove’s intellectual flair feel such craving? This bunch he was so keen to mix with would typically be must less bright or interesting than Gove’s colleagues on The Times.
Perhaps there was something romantic or nostalgic about Gove’s social pursuits. An earlier phase in his story suggests so. Bennett says that as a young fresher, Gove’s arrival at Lady Margaret College, Oxford caused a bit of stir. The novelist Philip Hensher, who was then a third-year English student “surveyed the new intake in October 1985, but even they were taken aback by this skinny kid from Aberdeen, dressed like a country gent in a £1.50 suit he had bought from a Salvation Army charity shop.”
Henscher adds: “You saw this process of people arriving at Oxford in ordinary clothes and then over the course of the next eight weeks they would sort of transform themselves into young fogeydom. It wasn’t something that people would turn up wearing.”
What could be the explanation? 1981 had seen the television adaption of Brideshead Revisited, “which helped bring the aesthetic of young fogeydom to the masses (and clearly at least one teenage boy in Aberdeen).”
This desire to be accepted at fashionable dinner parties persists, and has been challenging for Gove since he successfully backed so prominently the Leave campaign in the EU referendum. As Environment Secretary he has taken some positions which are odd for a Conservative. Some suspect that he is not entirely sincere about all of them, but spots a chance to ingratiate himself with assorted Lefty pundits and celebrities. It was a rehabilitation exercise. At any rate he was enormously grateful for any praise those from such quarters were willing to grudgingly bestow on him.
Yet if Gove was simply wishing to ingratiate himself then he would not have so spectacularly antagonised such people in the first place. That brings us to a deeper contradiction. Often politicians are categorised as either careerists, those wishing to “climb the greasy pole”, or “conviction politicians” those concerned to champion the causes they believe in whether this should prove expedient or not. It is perfectly possible for a politician to be a bit of both. Or indeed neither – plenty are content just to pass their time diligently but quietly pursuing mundane constituency interests.
Gove is both ferociously ambitious but also eager to express his opinions. In Cameron’s Cabinet he would speak out on foreign policy issues – on such matters as military interventions in Libya and Syria – even though it annoyed some colleagues who would prefer him to stick to his brief.
As Education Secretary, during the centenary of the First World War, Gove got stuck into to a historical debate about its justification – declaring it be right for us to fight for freedom. As Bennett says: “Regardless of whether Gove had a point, the seemingly insatiable desire to insert himself into any argument only added to the sense he would happily build a road just so he could cross it to start a fight.”
The context was that Gove was taking on and beating the educational establishment, the “blob”. The school reforms were heroic achievements and Gove needed to be in combative mode to succeed. The book offers a good account of that battle – involving Gove’s extraordinary assistant Dominic Cummings and the various skirmishes with the civil servants and the Lib Dems. Gove was demoted to Chief Whip, but he had secured a remarkable legacy.
But it was the EU referendum that produced the big fiction between Gove the careerist and Gove the idealist. Therefore he didn’t want the event to take place. He argued the “motivation” (trying to see off UKIP) was wrong. Bennett says: “Gove joined George Osborne in lobbying Cameron to pull away from pledging to hold a referendum, but there was another reason why the Education Secretary wanted to avoid the vote: he knew he might not be on the same side of the argument as his old friends.” As Bennett adds Gove did not want to face “alienation from a social circle he had penetrated, not been born into.” When Cameron proceeded with it, Gove agonised and eventually said: “If I take a particular view to row in behind you, then everyone will know it’s insincere.”
Inevitably Gove was accused of disloyalty to Cameron – he later faced the same charge from some Brexiteers when he withdraw he support for Boris Johnson to succeed Cameron. But Bennett says Gove’s decision to back Vote Leave was due to loyalty to a family who had been victims of the Commons Fisheries Policy. But also true to himself: “It was a loyalty to the boy who had fought his way up from an unremarkable house at the top of a hill in Aberdeen to president of the Oxford Union, to an accomplished journalist for the BBC and The Times, to the Houses of Parliament, to the Cabinet table and, now, Lord Chancellor. Gove had achieved all of this on his own merit.”
This is a fascinating book about a fascinating man. Gove is an absurdly capable figure who has often found himself surrounded with mediocrities. Flawed and conflicted he may be but I am pleased that devotes himself to public life.