Politics is not a drama: Michael Gove's failed bid

July 3, 2016
July 5, 2016
UK Politics

If elections were decided by media hits, Justice Secretary Michael Gove would be running away with the Conservative leadership. Having broken with the Prime Minister and Chancellor, friends since Oxford, in order to serve as Boris Johnson's primary lieutenant on the Leave campaign, Gove again made headlines when he declared his own bid for the leadership, effectively forcing Johnson out of the race. Gove's actions elicited comparisons with the TV show House of Cards, and jokes about how his actions reinforced stereotypes about the sort of backstabbing that supposedly typifies politics both at Westminster and within the Conservative party.

A closer examination of what Gove is likely to get for his troubles, however, will reveal that as much as people may be entertained by such acumen in plotting and infighting, that it is not a trait they find attractive in potential leaders. On the contrary, Gove, once the toast of party activists, a poll by Conservativehome showed him as their choice to lead the party only a few months ago, and a man who stood to be one of the most powerful figures in the country on June 24th, now faces the likely end of his political career. Support for his leadership bid is lacking, with Gove mired in third place with a mere 26 endorsements, in contrast to Theresa May's 117 and Andrea Leadsom's 38. The most recent iteration of that ConHome poll shows Gove with the support of a mere 13% of activists, down from 31% two months ago.

How did this happen? In my view, it has to do with branding. While it has become almost axiomatic to view politicians as inherently dishonest and politics as a dirty sport, the reality is that trust is absolutely vital for political decision making. Politics is ultimately about a combination of agreement and trust. A decision to support someone is based upon a combination of what they promise you and how much you trust them to follow through on that promise. Someone who promises everything to everyone is certain to be lying to someone, and quite possibly lying to everyone.

This is where the dangers of political betrayal come in. As entertaining as it is to watch Frank Underwood outmaneuver foes season after season, his defeated rivals slink off to the sidelines, the contracts of their actors not renewed, and the next set of obstacles in Frank's path seem unaware of the fate awaiting them. In the real world, however, politicians stick around, and people remember. Historically, as much as everyone always welcomed treason against their opponents, they tended to greet traitors themselves coldly. Because a person who betrayed one master is always capable of betraying another. A leader who broke one promise clearly will not have any issues with breaking others in the future.

This means that any inconsistencies have to be sold as acts of principle. Michael Gove understood this insofar as it related to his decision to abandon a decades long political alliance with David Cameron and George Osborne in order to back the campaign to leave the EU. Gove attempted to sell the betrayal as an act of principle, placing his own beliefs about what was best for the future of the country ahead of personal friendships and loyalties. In order to make this claim credible in the face of charges that his defection was an act of political opportunism, designed to place him on the right side of the sentiments of the vast majority of the party membership, he not only had to deny the charges, but to publicly disclaim any intention of utilizing such advantages were they to accrue. It is for this reason that he insisted that he not only had no interest in the Prime Ministership, but that he was unfit for it.  

In reality, Gove was not committed to forfeiting any ambitions of reaching Number 10. Circumstances always change over time. But he did have to effectively abandon any effort to seek the leadership on the back of benefits of his act of betrayal, lest it appear that such ambitions had been the motive all along. Until last week, Gove seemed to both accept and embrace this, happily relegating himself to a position as a potential kingmaker under Boris Johnson.

It is contested as to why Gove chose to abandon this well-reasoned position. It has been alleged by Johnson's campaign manager that Gove had aspirations of being the power behind the throne in a Johnson government, and was resentful when it was made clear that he would not occupy such role. My personal opinion, by contrast, was that Gove's actions were the result of a realization that Johnson was unlikely to win the leadership. Gove himself insists it was due to doubts regarding Johnson's commitment to Brexit. But the reason why Gove did what he did is not important. What matters are the consequences.

By announcing for the leadership himself, Gove managed to accomplish not one, but several own goals. He simultaneously managed to create the impression that his primary motive in backing the Leave campaign was personal ambition, to remind everyone that he had betrayed Cameron, and to also, by betraying Johnson, alienate Johnson's supporters, and establish the narrative that betrayal was something of a pattern. He emerged from the process tagged as an inherently dishonest, and with the personal hostility of two major factions of the party. That his wife, Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, managed to involve press barons like Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre in these erratic maneuvers by virtue of a leaked email only served to create another set of grievances against his person. Which may explain why the Daily Mail endorsed May the day after Gove's announcement.

The irony of this mess is that it was entirely unnecessary. Even absent a role as Boris Johnson's de facto number two, Gove would almost certainly have been guaranteed a senior cabinet role in any Johnson government. And if Johnson's bid had in fact been heading towards failure, its lack of success almost certainly would have been blamed on Johnson himself and his erratic personality. In such an environment, any new Tory leader, especially a nominal Remainer like Theresa May would have been under enormous pressure to reunite the party by reaching out to defeated rivals. With Johnson likely having disqualified himself from high office in such a circumstance, Gove would have been the obvious choice for offering a senior office to a Leaver.

Instead, Gove not only faces elimination on an early ballot, but elimination from politics entirely. To the personal enmity of Cameron and Osborne, the latter of whom is considered to be behind May's parliamentary operation, Gove has now added the hatred of Johnson's supporters. At the same time, he has reduced his own value to almost nothing. In fact, Gove's political value might actually now be negative. It is genuinely unclear whether an endorsement of Theresa May by Gove would generate a positive or a negative news cycle. Would the value of the endorsement of a prominent Leave supporter overcome the impact of Gove's own recent history of opportunism being recounted in all of the coverage? Or would it be seen as just the latest abandonment of a political cause by Gove, albeit this time his own?

There are lessons here. Ambition may well be a prerequisite for success in politics, but a politician has to be at least seen to stand for something more than their own advancement. Many viewers enjoy watching House of Cards, but few would ever trust Francis Urquhart on a personal level. And evidence indicates that they really do not want to be governed by a television image of a politician.


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