Years from now, political historians may regard 2012’s Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Awards as the first round of Boris Johnson versus Michael Gove in the race to be Tory leader.
Gove was the event’s compere, and he gave a masterful off-the-cuff speech, full of wit and light. He said that the Spectator, which is once again being edited by a comprehensive school graduate, is a meritocratic beacon in an otherwise privileged world. The Guardian, for instance, has never been edited by someone from a comprehensive school, and no common oik has ever been the BBC’s DG. Gove’s self-confessed ‘Marxist vision’ is of a Utopian England where the Guardian and the BBC follow the Spectator’s example. England, he said, should be made in the Spectator’s image.
To do so, of course, requires that the press remains free. Gove reprised his comments to the Leveson inquiry and repeated, with relish bordering on malice, Sir Brian Leveson’s famous protestation: ‘Mr Gove, I don’t need to be told about the importance of free speech, I really don’t.’ Gove rather implied that dear Sir Brian needed telling. It was a shame that Sir Brian wasn’t at the lunch, Gove said, so that he could ‘receive the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s award for commitment to truth-telling.’ It was savage stuff from the former Times columnist.
The free press was a theme of Boris’s typically disordered remarks after accepting his Politician of the Year Award. Playing the anti-politics card with panache, Boris stood at the podium next to Gove and wagged his finger and shook his hair at those in the audience who favour statutory regulation of the press. He said,
‘MPs, members of parliament and all the rest of it, don’t you for one moment think about regulating a press that has been free in this city for more than 300 years, and whose very feral fearlessness and ferocity ensures that we have one of the cleanest systems of government anywhere in the world.’
This was met with raucous cheers. Then Boris set about the serious business of teasing Michael Gove, having thrown a few earlier barbs about ‘the origins of Michael’s sofa’. He said to Gove, ‘I’m appalled at the grade inflation you’ve allowed here.’ He did not mean the forced re-marking of certain GCSE exam scripts; but rather the number of awards the Spectator was giving out. ‘It was only 5 in my day,’ he said.
There was no clear winner in this clash of wits, although Gove probably edged it on points; but even he was overshadowed by Justin Welby, whose true vocation is surely stand-up comedy.
PS: A few more treats from Michael Gove’s speech:
‘I’m sorry that Sally Bercow is not here to collect the Lembit Opik memorial award for distinguished contributions to moral seriousness in public life.’
And Gove on the privations suffered by the Milibands and the Primrose Hill set:
‘Many families were only ever one trust fund away from having to work in the private sector.’
Here’s audio Michael Gove’s introductory speech:
And Boris Johnson’s acceptance speech: