The leadership battle between Theresa May and Michael Gove reignites a cabinet-level personality clash that once led to his exile to the whips’ office for a year while her closest political adviser was forced to resign.
The history between May and Gove suggests that the assassination of Boris Johnson might well prove to have been only act one in this highly personal drama – and both survivors have long memories.
So now the two campaigns have been officially launched what separates them in terms of policy, personalities and advisers?
A bitter row between two of the modern Tory party’s biggest beasts spilled out into the open two years ago with the “Trojan horse” affair over the alleged infiltration of Birmingham schools by Islamist fundamentalists.
A briefing war broke out as “sources close to Gove” accused the Home Office and its head of security and counter-terrorism, Charles Farr, of failing to “drain the swamp”of extremism in Britain. The Home Office retaliated by publishing confidential cabinet correspondence attacking Gove for failing to act on warnings about Birmingham schools.
In the resulting row, Theresa May’s special adviser, Fiona Hill, who was in a relationship with Farr, was forced to resign by Downing Street for briefing against Gove. Gove, in return, was ordered to apologise and short time later was exiled to the job of chief whip. It is an episode neither is likely to have forgotten.
Tensions between the two, though, have persisted – underlined by their contrasting styles. A former Times journalist, Michael Gove operates in a wide social and media circle that includes Rupert Murdoch; the home secretary was nicknamed “the Ice Maiden” by Nick Clegg. The former deputy prime minister complained to his fellow Lib Dem MP David Laws that she “has no small talk whatsoever – none”.
Clegg also told Laws that May was quite prepared to fall out with ministers from her own side during the coalition years: “She would frequently clash with George Osborne over immigration. She rarely got on anything but badly with Michael Gove.”
May made little secret of her ambition , including to be more than Britain’s longest-serving home secretary in the past 100 years. Westminster journalists have often reported her to be “on manoeuvres” – advertising her leadership ambitions – often by making speeches outside her Home Office brief.
Gove by contrast seemed happier acting as a sidekick to certain cabinet colleagues, acting as a briefer in spin rooms for David Cameron. After his demotion to chief whip before the last election, Gove started to cast himself in the role of kingmaker for anyone but May, favouring George Osborne or Boris Johnson. And he was once again regarded as a major obstacle to May’s ambition.
The justice secretary admitted to Conservative MPs that he had repeatedly said himself that he was not up to the job of being prime minister. Former Times colleagues recall him always saying he “didn’t have the steel” to be PM. “What this country needs in a prime minister is not just a cool head but a heart burning with the desire for change,” he declared in an apparent dig at May.
By her own admission this week May is not a “showy politician” who courts the media, gossips about colleagues over lunch or spends time in the watering holes of Westminster. She has not been frightened to take on vested interests such as the Police Federation if it means that a crisis is properly gripped or a major scandal tackled. Her support for the families of the Hillsborough victims reduced even MPs to tears and she has enlisted support for sex abuse survivors or those wrongly facing extradition, such as the computer hacker Gary McKinnon.
Gove too tried to take on vested interests in his time as a minister but arguably with less success. His record as education secretary is infamous among teachers but more popular with some parents who enthusiastically embraced his academy schools. He has instigated another breakneck speed reform programme in the prisons in his job as justice secretary but so far without significant results.
As Laws’ Coalition memoirs puts it: “When Nick (Clegg) complained after another bust-up with Gove, the prime minister laughed. ‘The thing you’ve got to remember with Michael is that he is basically a bit of a Maoist – he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction.”
Yet there are times when the less collegiate May’s ambition has tripped her up. She herself suffered a serious setback in 2014 when a Spectator profile, A Big Beast in Kitten Heels, quoted a close friend of hers as confiding: “She doesn’t rate Cameron any more. She did, but not any more. There was a time early on when she would want to please David, but slowly she has seen just how incompetent that operation is. How the PM will say he will do one thing, only to be drawn in another direction. She’s given up on him.”
A ballistic Downing Street response ensured her lack of promotion after the 2015 general election and her determination to wait for the main chance, whenever it came.
The leadership campaign also sees the return of the woman who has done more than many to shape May’s own political ambition. Fiona Hill, formerly Cunningham, who lost her official role in May’s praetorian guard as a result of their last major public clash with Gove, is now back by May’s side.
A ferocious political street fighter, Hill, a friend and confidante in and out of the Home Office, has proved a relentless defender and promoter of May and her causes and is more than a match for those around Gove. But after she was forced out following the “Trojan horse” schools extremism row, she left May’s side until the leadership contest.
Hill has been joined by the more policy-minded Nick Timothy. He is May’s former chief of staff and though his own political ambitions were thwarted by party infighting he masterminded the successful campaign to keep Nigel Farage out of parliament at the last election. May’s existing special advisers include Elizabeth Sanderson, a former Mail on Sunday journalist who has been credited with presenting a more personal side to May’s public image.
As for Gove, the question is what role will be played by Dominic Cummings, the mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign, who previously worked for Gove as a special adviser. Cumming’s operating credo was once summed up by Laws as: “Keep the prime minister and his deputy out of the loop – the less they know the better.” That appears to have been the Department for Education’s attitude when Michael Gove was secretary of state. “If we tell them they always fuck it up,” said Cummings.
Cummings however has always been present in the background and played a crucial strategic role for Gove and Johnson during the leave campaign. Angry Johnson supporters claimed on Thursday afternoon that it was a dispute over whether Gove had offered Cummings a job in a Johnson-run Downing Street that triggered the assassination.
Gove gave a flat “no” when he was challenged over this at his launch press conference on Friday. Cummings tweeted on Thursday as @odysseanproject “Contra reports, today nothing to do with my ‘role’. I told both from start I wanted nothing to do with leadership cmpgns, I’m irrelevant...I haven’t been doing leadership this week & won’t be doing MG campaign either. Call H Cook [another Gove adviser]. I retired last Friday.” Few believed him.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010