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Angela Tilby: Gove’s exit is a loss for the country

28 June 2019


Michael Gove leaves 10, Downing Street

Michael Gove leaves 10, Downing Street

LOSING Michael Gove from the Conservative leadership contest may cost the party, and the country, dear. He is a serious politician, an intellectual, and a reformer with a clear moral compass.

Before he became an MP, in 2005, he was a columnist for The Times. This was the period in which he confessed to having used cocaine — a confession which caused outrage. But at least he knew that it mattered and didn’t try to laugh it off.

More importantly, he knows the difference between good and evil. I particularly remember a column that he wrote after he had spent the whole of the Easter weekend gripped by Jonathan Littell’s bleak novel The Kindly Ones. This is a terrifying story about how fascism turned a particular man (the “I” of the novel) into a charming and thoughtful monster, without conscience or even memory. Mr Gove was gripped by the novel, and wrote of how it had impressed on him the vital significance of the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition in defending human freedom against totalitarianism.

As a politician, he has shown a welcome capacity to learn from his mistakes. When he became Education Secretary, he made clear his belief that those from poorer backgrounds were being systematically disenfranchised by schools which left them without the basic tools of numeracy and literacy. He had no tact, and managed to alienate too many of his own civil servants — and, of course the teachers, many of whom still regard him as a hate-figure.

He did better on the human side in his brief spell as Justice Secretary, and enacted compassionate reforms which have made a real difference. As Environment Secretary, he has come into his own: even his political adversaries own that he has a compelling vision and that he masters his brief.

Unlike the two remaining candidates, he has always been in favour of leaving the European Union. As an unrepentant Remainer, I am naturally unsympathetic to this. But his consistency at least suggests to me that his reasons for wanting to leave are more than trivial, jingoistic, or opportunistic. I am not sure that this can be said of the two candidates that we are left with.

It has been suggested that the reason that Conservative MPs voted against Mr Gove was revenge. They could not forgive his “betrayal” of Boris Johnson in the 2016 leadership contest. If this is so, then it may well turn out to be a grave misjudgement, and hypocritical for a parliamentary party that spent three years being disloyal to Theresa May without a qualm of conscience.

If Mr Gove judged that Mr Johnson was indeed a liability, perhaps it was his duty to try to prevent him from becoming Prime Minister. He knows only too well how moral flaws do not, in the end, go unpunished. The Furies are what they are.

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