Today’s Guardian magazine runs a Michael Gove profile, colouring him blue on the cover as if to alert readers to the threat he poses. “Smoother than Cameron,” it warns. “Funnier than Boris. More right-wing than both. Are you looking at the next leader of the Tory Party?” There is nothing unusual about leadership speculation following a prominent Tory frontbencher, but there is something unusual about the way Gove has ruled it out in almost any way imaginable. He has combined General Sherman and Estelle Morris, saying he wouldn’t and couldn’t do the job. It is now being said that Gove is protesting too much, but he has been clear about this for years.
I’ll add my tuppenceworth. Gove was once, briefly, my news editor at The Times. Their Scotland Correspondent had quit, they had run out of time to hire a replacement and found me (I sound Scottish to English people) loitering around the business desk. My reservation was that The Times seemed to be filled with people whose, insofar as they thought about Scotland, were interested in haggis and monsters. I didn’t want to work for a news desk that thought Brigadoon was a documentary and for bosses who were only vaguely aware about having Scottish staff. (I eventually quit after they kept calling me “Jason” – the name of my predecessor – a year into the job.)
But they sold Scotland to me by saying I’d be working to John Mair, one of the nicest guys ever to walk Fleet St and to the new news editor Michael Gove, who was obviously being groomed as a future editor. Being a news editor for Fleet St is a bit like being a Sergeant Major in the marines: your job is to bully and be hated. Gove, who was charmingly polite even to lowlife juniors like me, seemed comically miscast. Word soon got around: when offered the job, he said his main reservation about being news editor was that he would “not be any good” at it. No one admits this in journalism! Gove had shown the absolute opposite of the moth-to-the-flame ambition that young journalists (and politicians) are supposed to possess. Reporters thought that he would, as a result, be a disaster, that his appointment was like sending Gandhi to secure Arnhem bridge. But Gove made his news editorship into a triumph by inspiring, rather than terrifying, his writers. In the macho world of Fleet St, this was a very difficult trick to pull off.
My point: Gove didn’t plot his way to the top, but was pulled there nonetheless. His skills trumped his lack of ambition. He is the sort guy who has greatness thrust upon him. And much as though he may hate the experience, this could certainly happen again.