We may have just witnessed the first outbreak of genuine interest from the Conservative conference floor. Michael Gove was speaking to the not-full room, and bookended his speech with praise for the history of the Tory party. He started by telling the hall that ‘As we know all too well from our history, if you want a mess cleared up you need a Conservative Government‘, and turned again at the end to listing Conservative achievements:
‘Some people might say that we are setting our sights too high. To them I say, you don’t know our party. It was Conservatives who abolished the slave trade, cleared Victorian slums, made working conditions decent in our factories, gave our cities clean water, delivered equal votes for women, introduced equal marriage for all, fought against fascism and communism, extended state education to all, built record numbers of homes for working people, led the fight against global warming, established the first national living wage, gave the poorest pupils in our schools the most money, allowed record numbers of working people to graduate from university, and ensured a record number of people were in work.’
It was a powerful list, well-delivered, and it roused the hall into real applause. Up to this point, the response of those watching speakers on the main stage has felt perfunctory, rather than excited, but Gove managed to remind people why they had bothered to turn up at all.
It was also not really about Gove’s portfolio, which may raise some eyebrows. What was also striking was the way Gove avoided the call to Brexit unity that his colleagues have made in this hall. He talked about the freedoms that Brexit will give him as a minister to raise animal welfare standards and protect wildlife. But he didn’t tell his colleagues to work together as ministers such as Chris Grayling, Philip Hammond and Dominic Raab have done today. Perhaps he wanted to seem upbeat. Or perhaps he feels that as the minister who has done more than anyone to defend Chequers, he’s already taken enough heat and deserves some praise for ending puppy farming and saving the oceans.