Michael Gove has said he did “almost everything” he could to avoid running for the Conservative leadership but was left with no choice after realising Boris Johnson was not the right person for the job.
Launching his bid to replace David Cameron amid accusations that he betrayed his ally, the justice secretary said he loved Britain and wanted to “embrace this opportunity for change with optimism”.
“I never thought I’d ever be in this position. I did not want it, indeed I did almost everything not be a candidate for the leadership of this party,” he said in a speech.
“I was so very reluctant because I know my limitations. Whatever charisma is, I don’t have it; whatever glamour may be, I don’t think anyone could ever associate me with it. But – at every step in my political life – I’ve asked myself one question: what is the right thing to do? What does your heart tell you?”
Gove said it had been a wrench to battle against Cameron in the EU referendum, because he was a friend whose “leadership qualities I so much admire”. But the fight for Brexit was a “matter of deep principle”.
In a 5,000-word, policy-packed speech, which Gove said he had only started writing the day before, the former education secretary argued that the country should be governed by a politician who had campaigned to leave the EU, and that he had originally thought Johnson was the man to lead that effort.
“I wanted that plan to work. I worked night and day for it. But I came to realise this week that, for all Boris’s formidable talents, he was not the right person for the task,” he said. “That realisation meant that I once more faced a difficult decision. Could I recommend to friends, colleagues and the country a course in which I no longer believed?” Gove said the answer was no, which was why he decided to run.
The decision has not resulted in MPs flocking to support Gove, as he might have hoped. Instead, Theresa May became the clear favourite after dozens of MPs turned up to support her opening gambit in Westminster on Thursday. Gove’s own effort, admittedly on a Friday when the House of Commons was not sitting, attracted only a handful of parliamentary colleagues.
Meanwhile, his fellow leave campaigner Andrea Leadsom has become second favourite with some bookmakers.
Gove had agreed to chair Johnson’s campaign, before deciding at midnight on Wednesday, 12 hours before the deadline, to run himself. In his speech, Gove pitched himself as the candidate for change who would deliver on the British people’s desire to leave the European Union.
Amid accusations that some leave campaigners have retreated from pledges made during the campaign, he promised to stand by all the promises of the Vote Leave group, including providing another £100m a week for the NHS, an absolute end to freedom of movement, and a clear exit from the EU.
Gove’s speech was introduced by the liberal Tory MP Nick Boles, who pointed out that he was speaking in the Policy Exchange thinktank where the party’s modernising agenda was born.
Gove said the UK could muddle through Britain’s exit from the EU or “lean in, embrace the change the British people voted for and shape it in our interests – facing the challenges of the days ahead with cool heads and making the most of the new opportunities open to us with resolute and daring hearts”.
In a final plea to his electorate, Gove said his bid was not a result of calculation but a “burning desire” to transform the country.
“I know I have the experience, the energy and, perhaps most importantly, the sense of urgency,” Gove said. “Because away from Westminster there is a country where far too many people are denied the chance to write their own life story, to use their God-given talents and be the best they can be.”
He said it had been an “extraordinary, testing, momentous time for Britain” but he wanted to make it through “stronger and prouder”.
Gove spoke about making changes to education and prison policy and to capitalism itself, although without the details yet set out in many areas.
Asked if Johnson would have a place in his cabinet, Gove said he would wait to be elected before handing out jobs.
Key points of Gove’s speech
• No general election before 2020 and no article 50 triggered before the end of the year
This matches the promises of May. The first promise will calm the fears of Tory MPs about an imminent rerun of the 2015 contest and the second is designed to allay market concerns about the economic impact of firing the starting gun on an exit from the EU without proper planning.
• An end to freedom of movement and an Australian-style points system allowing migrants to enter based on their skills
Gove went further than May by promising to bring down immigration by stopping free movement throughout the EU. May only promised greater controls and stopped short of saying how this would be carried out.
• An extra £100m a week for the NHS
This comes out of the £350m a week that the leave campaign promised would come back from the EU. It was heavily criticised during the contest because it did not take account of the rebate or how much of the money goes straight back to the UK in grants and subsidies. Gove insisted he was not retreating from the slogan that implied all £350m would go to the NHS, but said that was likely to be the impression given.
• Reforming capitalism (and rethinking fiscal targets)
Gove made a pitch in tune with the Vote Leave campaign that argued that the EU helped elites rather than ordinary people. He talked about reforming capitalism to work for the many, not the few, and an end to big business rigging markets. He also signalled a new approach to economic targets, saying it might be necessary to rethink the aim of a budget surplus by 2020. This echoes the words of May and the chancellor, George Osborne, that it may no longer be realistic.
• Transforming public services
He referred back to his reforming zeal at the Department for Education and Ministry of Justice to make the claim that he would bring a new approach to public services. He called for a “more decent, more human and more caring” approach to hospitals, schools and prisons, sounding like he had drawn on the work of former No 10 adviser Steve Hilton’s book, More Human.
This article was written by Anushka Asthana and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st July 2016 14.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010