When Michael Gove knifed Boris, friends of the blonde bombshell were outraged. Gove, they suggested, should be cast into outer darkness. On the contrary, I recall one veteran anti-Boris Tory saying: “For stopping Boris, Gove should get a ****ing knighthood.”
Thank goodness the Tory tribe has moved on from all the animosity of the summer of 2016, and now such feuds and infighting are a thing of the past…
The rickety May government is not about to fall this minute, but it rests on a Prime Minister staying, to her credit, in the job out of duty, blown about by cabinet shenanigans that have stalled – or worse – the progress made by May from her Florence speech in September on Brexit.
My view from the general election campaign was that May was done, when there was that dramatic shift as the public went from viewing her as “strong and stable” to “weak, wobbly and remote” in the space of a week. The country, the government and the Tory party, needed fresh leadership right after the botched election and a switch then to David Davis would have worked.
The difficulty now is that the Brexit talks are at a critical stage, and while the Prime Minister clings on she looks fragile. If more scandals emerge, or the stress and fatigue become too much, the Tories may soon need an emergency Prime Minister. It is no use saying she must stay at all costs. What if she cannot? Face it. If events, health and cabinet incompetence continue to conspire against her, there may soon come a moment when someone else has to take the job of Prime Minister.
In my latest column for The Times I suggest a flutter on Michael Gove, the environment secretary. This is not a prediction he will win, simply an assessment that it is possible given the following evidence which is being overlooked.
Is Gove not vindicated completely in his criticism of Boris by this Iranian row? Isn’t that the perfect example of Boris not doing his homework and doing harm with loose language? Looks like it.
By widespread agreement, Gove is doing a terrific job as Environment Secretary. Even Friends of the Earth welcomed his latest policy on bees today. Through patient work, he has rebuilt.
Gove is also for Brexit. I am not in the mad ultra-Brexit camp that says the cabinet should be measured by how many in it were on one side or the other. But it might be an improvement to try a Tory leader who actually wants Brexit to happen and approaches it with vigour and intellectual confidence.
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But Gove is massively unpopular, comes the cry. Sure, but who hates him? Gove is deeply disliked – for now – by a lot of people who are unlikely ever to vote Tory, and by a smattering of diehard Remain Tories, the Tory equivalent of exiled Jacobites crying into their whisky in a bar in Rome in 1746.
Don’t Tory voters like his record and his civility? Of course they do. And Tory activists in the country (who are not an average age of 72, more like mid-50s) love Gove again. In the latest Con Home survey of members he is second top, behind Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who is not – yet – in the Commons. Both have ratings in the region of +75 points. Who would have thunk it, eh? Two Scottish Tories leading the running…
The other alternatives?
Boris is bust. Priti Patel’s leadership ambitions have flown away. Fallon as caretaker is gone as an option.
Although the Home Secretary Amber Rudd is cited as the likely winner, and she is able and impressive, she is very much core Remain with close connections to the full tonto crazy bananas “Stop Brexit” crowd. She is underwater with Tory activists too, and is at -7 points in that Conservative Home survey. Her majority in Hastings and Rye is only 346.
That Con Home survey matters, incidentally. If in the event of May departing there is a three week contest rather than a coronation, the electorate choosing the next Tory leader will be grassroots Tories. The monthly survey is the best guide there is to what they think of the candidates.
Jeremy Hunt is also mentioned as a potential compromise, and Sajid Javid. Apart from that, all manner of people will run – Leadsom, oh no, Leadsom again! There will be so many runners that it will be like the Grand National at Aintree.
That being the case, keep an eye on Gove as the horses – some riderless, others going backwards, a few having been shot – approach the final fences ahead of the finishing line.