Not so long ago, Michael Gove could address headteachers and have them jeering like unruly schoolboys.
Tom Clark: ‘The charge of hidden dangers in his Boy’s Own fantasy finally rattled him’
But now he is the unlikely, urbane champion of an English yeomanry in rebellion against Brussels, and he can turn up for a solo gig at Nottingham’s Albert Hall, and get cheered to the rafters.
A man whose mild manners always concealed a taste for danger made the leap of his life in backing Brexit, severing his once-close friendship with David Cameron, for the sake of a vision – or hallucination. Standing next to David Dimbleby, he maintained an upbeat and optimistic tone, a more effective salesman than the traditional Brexiteer – a bar-room bore in a striped boating club blazer, giving a red-faced, spittle-flecked speech.
He made continual and effective use of variants of the slogan coined by his former adviser, Dominic Cummings – “Vote leave, take control”. He swatted away nitpicking questions of fact, whispering such sweet reason that even the formal reprimand from the official statistics watchdog over the misleading claim that quitting Europe would allow us to “have back” £350m in membership fees began to seem like just one more opinion.
Dimbleby never got under his skin. But a run of women in the audience asked prosaic questions about what his eloquent promises would really mean for, variously, scientific research, NHS staffing, and smaller export firms who would not be reassured by “the imaginary trade deals in your head”. A young literature student accused him of manipulating the language, and then – at the end – another woman noted that he spoke very nicely before declaring him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The charge of hidden dangers in his Boy’s Own fantasy of restoring lost British greatness finally rattled him. He frowned, slightly reddened and momentarily barked. You could almost see him in a boating club blazer.
Hugh Muir: ‘Whenever trouble loomed, he effortlessly wriggled free with a soundbite’
As education secretary, Gove was an enthusiast for the great dramatists, and in this, at least, he is consistent. So on Wednesday night, with the dream of Brexit now tantalisingly in sight, he stooped to conquer. Shorn of shame, untroubled by complexity, he fielded voters’ inquiries with a certainty that, as an intelligent, knowing politician, he surely cannot feel. He bent logic to his will with the dexterity of a magician crafting balloon animals, but knowing all the while that the task is beneath him. This campaign has been a marathon, so credit to Gove for staying in character.
If we vote to leave, we will be in an economically stronger position, he said. Leaving the EU is a win-win, he promised them, unruffled all the while, unequivocal. The experts are against you, he was told. So what, we have our own experts, he said, citing Sir James Dyson and the man from JCB, and caring nothing about the weight of opinion stacked against him.
The questioners were probing, but whenever trouble loomed, Gove effortlessly wriggled free with a soundbite. “We believe in this country,” he proclaimed, milking applause from leavers in the audience, and by comparison casting his opponents as quislings. The remain camp is “ramping up the fear”, he said. By contrast, all we are doing, by claiming that Britain pays £350m a week to the EU or that 750 million Turks will soon head for Britain, is giving you the facts dispassionately. The remainers in the audience saw the sophistry, but no matter. You’re off your rocker, said a questioner. “You say the nicest things,” replied slippery Gove.
He showed why he has become the true star of the leave campaign. Told of his father’s refusal to confirm to the Guardian that the family fishing business was sunk by EU regulations, he blustered that his father had been misquoted. Told that Michael Heseltine now bracketed him with Nigel Farage and Marine le Pen, company that would once have shamed him, he appeared to question why anyone would listen to anything the party grandee says. And whenever the mood took him, he roused his supporters with the populist mantra, “Take control”.
You are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, observed one woman at the end, unnerved perhaps by the Gove we knew and the Gove we see before us, but even that didn’t derail the justice secretary, because it told him nothing he didn’t know about his strategy at the outset. Stooping to conquer doesn’t happen by accident. And wolves in sheep’s clothing do it very well.
Gaby Hinsliff: ‘For a moment, something human passed between him and the audience’
Gove hasn’t had a bad Brexit, relatively speaking. You wouldn’t catch him knocking back the mid-morning sauvignon on a boat on the Thames, trading insults with Bob Geldof; and unlike Boris, at least he’s not a suspiciously late arrival to the party. He’s mostly spent the campaign slightly out of shot, blinking away inoffensively in the background: the reasonable, if slightly forgettable, face of leave.
And that’s mostly how it went on Wednesday, when the BBC’s Question Time special put him upfront and solo for once. Gove stuck to his lines about taking back control, even when pummelled verbally by a Spanish woman saying that as a longstanding resident here she felt used for Britain’s convenience and then suddenly chucked aside. Lord knows how Gove, often on the side of the liberals in private cabinet spats over immigration, avoided wincing, but he barely faltered even when confronted with Michael Heseltine’s quote about him now being on the same side as Farage, Trump and le Pen.
But one moment should give both sides pause. When Gove called the EU a “job-destroying machine” that had killed his dad’s fishing business, and host David Dimbleby pointed out that that’s not quite what Gove Senior told this newspaper, suddenly things came alive.
His father hired two care home leavers to work in his fishing business, Gove said, and gave them a roof over their heads. When the business went, they lost their jobs, their chance. His voice cracked briefly as he talked about his father being proud of him and for a moment something human passed between him and the audience.
It may or may not have had much to do with Brexit, or even fishing. But it was a glimpse of something lost earlier, in the braying farce of the flotilla; a sense of loss, a collective memory of decline, that is sometimes rooted as much in myth as fact, but still drives so many towards leave. Remainers scoff, perhaps, at their peril.
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