Justice Secretary Michael Gove surprised the United Kingdom’s political classes on Thursday by announcing a bid to become leader of the Conservative Party and Britain’s next Prime Minister.
Until Thursday, the 48-year-old Conservative had been widely thought to be backing the leadership of his fellow Vote Leave campaigner Boris Johnson, having insisted in numerous interviews that he had no interest in the premiership. But his surprise bid effectively killed off the chances of the former London Mayor, who dropped out of the race hours later.
Speaking to the Guardian, Conservative MP Nigel Evans said Gove’s decision to turn on Johnson “makes House of Cards look like Teletubbies.”
The former journalist made his surprise pitch in a statement on Thursday, writing: “I have come reluctantly to the conclusion that Boris [Johnson] cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership. I want there to be an open and positive debate about the path the country will now take.”
Hints of a rift between Johnson and Gove began on Wednesday when a leaked e-mail from his wife, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, detailed Gove’s doubts of his Brexit ally. “One simple message: you MUST have SPECIFIC from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support,” wrote Vine in the message, accidentally sent to a member of the public.
Vine went on to suggest media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Mail editor Paul Dacre are no fans of Johnson: “Crucially, the membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will Dacre/Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris Gove ticket,” she wrote.
Gove was known until recently to be one of outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron’s closest friends in Westminster; he often helped him prepare for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, when lawmakers quiz the leader in the House of Commons. But his decision to join the Vote Leave campaign reportedly drove a wedge into the friendship.
The Conservative MP’s background is very different to Tory colleagues who were born with silver spoons in their mouths. Adopted by a fish processor in Aberdeen and a lab assistant at the local university, Gove won a place in the most prestigious school in the area at the age of 11. At Robert Gordon’s College, he excelled at everything bar sport and quickly earned a reputation for his precociousness, which included riding an ‘ancient’ bicycle and fondness for suits. He later won a scholarship there when his parents fell on hard times due to diminishing fish stocks.
Gove’s reputation as the “politest man in politics” was cultivated in his youth. In an interview with the Guardian, his former headmaster George Allan said: “And when I see Michael on the television now, I can still see the 11-year-old boy.He didn’t change his persona throughout his school career. Consistency – that’s the word, consistency. We couldn’t claim to be the authors of his remarkable civility. He created his own image.”
While studying English at Oxford University, he became president of the Oxford Union and member of the Conservative Association. His first job was as a journalist in the Aberdeen Press and Journal, followed by a brief stint on television and then the London Times where rose through the ranks as reporter, leader writer and columnist.
It was there where he gained a reputation as a neoconservative on foreign policy. According to the Guardian, Gove was an ardent fan of George Bush, calling for the invasion of Iraq two days after 9/11, while writing about the risks of Islamic terrorism in his book Celsius 7/7.
He co-founded center-right think-tank Policy Exchange and befriended the rising stars of the Conservative Party — Cameron, strategist SteveHilton and future Chancellor of the Exchequer Osborne. At Cameron’s suggestion, Gove joined politics as an MP in 2005, quickly becoming the darling of the right-wing media as he rose through the Conservative ranks. As the New Statesman describes: “his attacks on left-wingers, bureaucrats and unions provided endless fodder for right-wing journalists, who hailed him as the star of Cameron’s government, and even as a potential successor.”
Gove was appointed Secretary of State for Education by Cameron in 2010, and set out to reform the educational establishment. He quickly became the most divisive figure in Cameron’s cabinet, delivering a series of ambitious overhauls to the country’s state schools, which included a change in curriculum, rigorous inspections, tougher rules for parents and expansion of academies—a type of school that is directly funded by the state rather than local councils. His attempts were heavily criticized by educational experts and teachers, who went on rolling strikes throughout the U.K.
During a cabinet reshuffle he was made chief whip — the government’s enforcer of the party line — in a move widely perceived to be a demotion. But after the 2015 general election, Gove was reinstated back into Cameron’s cabinet as Justice Secretary. There he came back to the public’s good books by scrapping a law that forced convicted defendants to pay the cost of their trial, pulling out of an unpopular prisons training contract with Saudi Arabia, and overturning rules that restricted the number of books a prisoner can have.
Having complained to the Financial Times in 2014 about the concentration of privileged old Etonians in Cameron’s inner circle, Gove has succeeded in ending the career of one of them this week: Boris Johnson. But the Euroskeptic’s ascendancy to the nation’s top job is far from certain. The upcoming five-way leadership battle, which ends on Sept. 9, includes the equally if not more popular Home Secretary Theresa May.