Michael Gove’s failure to make the final shortlist for the Tory party’s ballot on the next prime minister is the latest in a series of extraordinary twists in the fortunes of leading Brexiters, with those who led the campaign for the UK to leave the EU now set to watch the formation of a new government from the sidelines.
Gove praised his “formidable” leadership rivals – Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom – minutes after crashing out of the race on Thursday, after his late bid for No 10 against former ally Boris Johnson proved lethal for both men.
The justice secretary’s stalled campaign saw him lose votes over the course of the week: 46 MPs backed him in the second round of voting on Thursday, two fewer than he had in the first round on Tuesday.
Conservative MPs had hinted they felt queasy over Gove’s last-minute run for the leadership, despite his repeated denials he wanted the job, and how the announcement had been timed two hours before Johnson’s leadership speech, forcing the former mayor of London out of the race.
Instead it is Leadsom, the energy minister, who is now the insurgent standard-bearer for Brexit, against the overwhelming frontrunner, May, who backed remain.
Gove’s future in government looks deeply uncertain, Gove having had a public spat over extremism in schools that led to his demotion from education secretary to the whips’ office as well as the resignation of May’s political adviser.
On Thursday night May’s team called the justice secretary a “huge talent” but made no guarantees over his future if she were to win. One of Gove’s backers said he hoped Gove would continue in government, but said he expected him now to stay at his role in the Ministry of Justice.
“He is popular there: he was intensely disliked by teachers when he was at education, though of course that can be a sign you are doing necessary work,” the backer said. “I’d like to see him stick at justice – it’s very important work there on the judiciary and on prison reform.”
Gove’s leadership bid was launched two hours before Johnson was set to formally announce his own candidacy. At 9am on Thursday last week, Gove emailed journalists saying he had decided to run himself.
The justice secretary had said in earlier interviews he was “incapable of being prime minister” and that he was not equipped for the job. However, he said he had “come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”. Gove was said to be concerned over his place in Johnson’s team, as was Leadsom who also launched her own campaign for the leadership the same morning.
With no path to victory in sight for Johnson, at least during those two painful hours as the hall packed out with his supporters expecting him to launch his candidacy, the MP used his speech to drop out of the race.
Gove’s shock announcement prompted a sudden flurry of senior MPs jumping from Johnson to Gove. Nick Boles became his campaign chair, while Nicky Morgan, the education secretary who had been considering a leadership bid herself, was the first to sign his nomination papers.
Dominic Raab, who that morning had written an article for the Sun endorsing Johnson, also joined the team along with other prominent Brexiters Michael Fabricant and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Ed Vaizey, the culture secretary, announced within hours that Gove had his backing.
However, the initial flow of supporters began to slow, and Tory MPs started to mutter about the methods of the man who had always been said to be one of the most polite in politics.
He came third behind Leadsom in the first vote, and despite a turbulent 48 hours where she was questioned over her CV and her tax returns, the night before the second vote it became clear to Gove’s team not only that their man could lose out to Leadsom but that the energy minister had a fighting chance of getting the keys to No 10.
Boles sent an ill-advised text to Tory MPs saying Gove would not mind “spending two months taking a good thrashing from Theresa … if that’s what it takes to stop AL [Andrea Leadsom]”. He apologised after the message was leaked, saying Gove had not approved it.
In the end, even any tactical voting was not enough to keep the justice secretary in the race, leaving Leadsom representing the Brexiters as she faces off against May over the summer for the votes of Tory members who will decide on the next prime minister.
Senior members of his team, including Morgan, Vaizey and the schools minister Nick Gibb, announced their backing for May within minutes. In a short concession speech outside parliament, in which he declined to say whether he would back Leadsom or May, Gove said he was pleased the next prime minister would be a woman, and a person with “formidable skills”.
“It’s now up to the Conservative party and indeed the wider country to assess the skills, the abilities and the leadership potential of these two candidates,” he said. “I hope over the course of the next few weeks we will have an opportunity to have a debate about the direction in which the country should go, which will be civilised, inclusive, positive and optimistic.”
This article was written by Jessica Elgot, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th July 2016 20.27 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010