On (not) Choosing a Prime Minister

Michael Gove

Well, this week has been knackering. Seven days ago we were all coming to terms with the result of the EU referendum – let’s just say that’s an ongoing process for me – and trying to work out what the hell was going on in Downing Street. Now, we’ve got a crisis in the Opposition, the financial markets are all over the place, what seems to be a devastating spike in hate crimes and we’re still trying to work out what the hell’s going on in Downing Street.

The idea that somehow David Cameron has become the least worst option as Prime Minister is cause enough for despair. When he resigned on Friday morning, I cringed as I mentally looked around the Cabinet table and realised that every potential alternative was a doomsday scenario. I knew George Osborne wouldn’t stand, because he was too close to Cameron and too vocal a Remainer. But dear god, I thought – that means it’s Boris Johnson vs Theresa May. At least Michael Gove won’t be standing. He’s been telling us so for years.

How wrong I was, and how sad I am. Gove shocked everyone when he announced his bid for the Tory leadership. Those people probably included Boris Johnson, who got a reaction of gasps and horror when he pissed off a lot of bookies by announcing he wouldn’t stand a couple of hours later.

We know from his wife’s emails (come on love, check your cc line before you send) that Gove was doing deals until the last minute to confirm his support for Johnson. In large swathes of the Tory party, he’s going to be seen as the man who persuaded Boris to campaign alongside him in the referendum, latched on to his charisma, used him to win a campaign and used his momentum to betray him a few days later. And in the drama and the mess that is British politics right now, I have to hope that’s enough to keep him out of the top job.

You see, I never had much love for Boris Johnson. He was great as a comedy act on Have I Got News For You, but I was always a bit baffled by the idea of him in charge of something. I know he’s playing a game: he’s Blackadder masquerading as Baldrick to earn the “lovable bumbling idiot” vote, except he’s a bit more successful. If anything, that made me more suspicious. You never know what’s happening in that badly coiffured head.

That said, the fact that he was doing a Machiavelli gave me a little hope for him as a Prime Minister. Everyone knew that his heart wasn’t in the referendum campaign. Given comments he’d made in the past, it seemed like a cynical move to position himself for a leadership bid. He wasn’t as strongly anti-Europe as someone like Gove, and his time in City Hall suggested him as an internationalist. London grinds to a halt if isolated from the rest of the world – that’s why it voted to Remain.

Say what you like about Michael Gove, and believe me, I do, but lack of commitment is not an issue. This is a man who believes every word he says. What he says can range from the mildly provocative to the riot-inducing.

He has rare moments of sense, like when he cancelled the UK’s prison-building contract with human rights-breaching Saudi Arabia, or overturning some of his colleague Chris Grayling’s most appalling prison rules. And although the legal aid cuts happening on his watch are disgraceful, he’s a markedly better justice secretary than education secretary. However, it’s in his track record as education secretary that we see his true colours.

It’s a bit easier to make Gove’s ideas of “Britishness” fit within the existing remit of the justice brief. It doesn’t have as big a role as education in shaping the nation’s consciousness. Yet when you put Michael Gove in the position to influence the type of citizen we condition our children to become, you start to understand his priorities.

You probably weren’t reading this blog while Gove was education secretary, but I wrote a lot of words on him and his godawful curriculum reforms. (I recommend giving them a read actually – most of them are better than this.) Through months and months of his top-down redesign, I argued that he understands and instinctively distrusts the power of the arts and humanities in particular to shape views and attitudes. He sought to harness this for himself to create good little citizens, imposing a sanitised narrative of a unified British nation which breeds “proper” patriots.

Let’s be honest: Gove’s conservative, Anglo-centric and whitewashed approach to the arts and humanities has the whiff of the colonial. It tells me that he sees Britain as special, an island apart from the rest of the world where we don’t need Steinbeck because we have Dickens; Austen takes precedence over writers of colour. At best it’s restrictive. At worst, it’s alienating, and that makes it dangerous.

This is not the man I want leading our country on the global stage. I don’t want him representing my interests and I don’t think he’ll do a good job. He’s out of sync with the world we live in and Our Island Story will not go down well at the Brexit negotiating table.

Basically, I fear this is our future.

So now, we’re at a point where Theresa May, the woman who championed the “Snooper’s Charter”, advocated withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights, repeatedly voted against gay rights legislation and pushed UK immigration policy to its nastiest extremes yet, is somehow being pushed as the sensible, moderate, least worst option to become our next Prime Minister. I blame you, Cameron.


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