Michael Gove is one of those people who enjoys finding themselves with their back against the wall, fighting. His leadership launch this afternoon was mired in questions about his past drug use, but the Environment Secretary looked totally unruffled by the rows of the past few days and the questions from journalists after his speech.
His was a typical Gove offering, in that it was a beautifully-written and well-structured speech. He started with his back story of being adopted and never knowing his birth mother. He set out all he has achieved so far in government, running from his passion for improving all children’s life chances through education reform, his approach to justice, and his current brief at the Environment department. This, he argued, was proof that he knew what needed to be done and how to get it done too. He then set out the social reforms that he wanted to do as Prime Minister, ranging from housing, to firm funding for the NHS, to social care, and the police.
It is hard to doubt Gove’s vision for and ability to deliver domestic reform. His introductory video, featuring campaigners from all the sectors he has had responsibility for, underlined that. But that’s not his major weakness in this campaign. Despite being one of the lead figures in the Vote Leave campaign, Gove is now not considered sufficiently pure on Brexit to even have an audition before the senior members of the European Research Group. He was one of the few candidates who took the time to praise Theresa May and David Cameron (thus far only Jeremy Hunt has thanked May for her service), and he continued to argue that it would be foolish to exit with no deal on 31st October if an extension of a ‘few days’ would mean Britain could finalise the details of a deal. His commitment to staying in May’s Cabinet and arguing for her deal is one reason why Tory MPs and members don’t fully trust him.
Another reason Gove struggles to win trust is his behaviour in the last leadership campaign, pulling his support for Boris Johnson at the very last minute in order to launch his own bid. Today he took aim at his former Vote Leave colleague, first referring to him as ‘the other candidate’, then still rather coldly as ‘Mr Johnson’, and finally as ‘Boris’. He joked that his advice to Johnson would be ‘whatever you do, don’t pull out. I know you have before and I know you may not believe in your heart that you can do it but the Conservative party membership deserves a choice, so let’s have a proper race.’ Some in the room speculated that Gove wasn’t just talking about his old chum pulling out of a leadership race. Either way, he was clearly taking the gloves off in the battle between the two of them, trying to turn the focus away from those drugs and onto the question of whether Boris could be trusted.
But the real potency of the cocaine row is that it adds to the above two doubts in Tory members’ minds that Gove cannot be trusted. Can he be trusted on Brexit? Well, he can’t be trusted to stick by colleagues he’d previously enthusiastically backed, or to have integrity on middle class drug use. Even if Tory members don’t care about a candidate’s personal drug use, they might care a bit more about what their overall approach to narcotics says about their trustworthiness.