Puppet Master Or Pawn – Just What Exactly Is Michael Gove’s Game?

Arj Singh
·Deputy Political Editor, HuffPost UK
·10-min read

Ever since he knifed Boris Johnson in the back in 2016’s Tory leadership contest, Michael Gove has been followed around by one question: what is he up to?

Despite being apparently forgiven by the prime minister and handed a key cabinet role as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Gove still sparks suspicion around Westminster.

Depending on who you talk to, he is variously described as the man pulling the strings in Johnson’s government, or someone who is being kept busy in the Cabinet Office to keep him “out of trouble” and away from any plotting.

That said, Gove does appear to have changed.

Having once declared the UK had “had enough of experts” during the Brexit referendum, he has now positioned himself as one of the cabinet’s leading so-called “doves” calling for the suppression of coronavirus and aligning himself with the, erm, expert scientists on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

But given that as recently as April he was quoted as telling colleagues “we need to run this hot” and “I agree with Rishi [Sunak]” – seen as the leading anti-lockdown “hawk” – it is a position that has again raised eyebrows.

HuffPost UK spoke to MPs and Westminster and Whitehall insiders to try to figure out just what Gove is up to, and where he may go next.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove walks outside Downing Street in London (Photo: Peter Nicholls / Reuters)
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove walks outside Downing Street in London (Photo: Peter Nicholls / Reuters)

‘The Cabinet Office is more powerful than it has been’

Gove is undoubtedly one of the central figures in Johnson’s government, taking on key roles in tackling the twin crises facing the UK in Covid and Brexit.

He chairs the cabinet’s key Covid-O (operations) committee, which meets daily Monday to Friday, where HuffPost UK understands he often steers the conversation with permanent members Sunak and Matt Hancock in the way No.10 wants it to go.

Gove also sits on the wider Covid strategy committee, chaired by the prime minister, and is overseeing preparations for Brexit and the potential disaster of no deal.

To help him, he has created roles for key allies in the Cabinet Office, including former Vote Leave campaigner Gisela Stuart and ex-spad (special adviser) Henry de Zoete, as “non-executive board members”.

And Gove’s closeness to his former special adviser Dominic Cummings – now Johnson’s key aide – has led to speculation that he is the one actually running the government.

One former No.10 staffer suggests that Cummings moving himself and key Downing Street aides to a new Nasa-style “mission control” in Gove’s building at 70 Whitehall is a sign of shifting power.

“In the past, proximity is power.

“The closer you are to the PM – you can stop people coming in, you are absolute gatekeepers and you rule the roost.

“The move signals to me they think the power no longer resides with the PM, the power resides in the Cabinet Office, just a short walk away from Michael Gove’s office.”

But others see it differently.

I don’t get the feeling, this conspiracy theory, that Gove is secretly running the government. The real inner group is Boris and Cummings and the political secretary

’The whole aim of the exercise was to move Boris there,” one Tory insider says.

“I’m sure Michael will use all the elbow room he’s got to flex his elbows but the whole plan was to get Boris over there so you had everyone in one space.”

They go on: “I don’t get the feeling, this conspiracy theory, that Gove is secretly running the government.

“The real inner group is Boris and Cummings and the political secretary [Ben Gascoigne]. It’s a very small group of Boris uber-loyalists.” (Gascoigne is a longstanding aide who has been with Johnson on and off since his early days as London mayor.)

There are also questions about whether Johnson really trusts Gove and whether the wounds from the 2016 leadership contest have fully healed.

A Westminster source says: “On one level he should be quite powerful because Boris is the frontman, Gove is the details man. it’s almost like the Bush-Cheney alliance, someone once described it as.

“The issue with Gove is a lack of trust, so they think how to keep him busy.”

Whatever Gove’s motivations at the moment, he clearly wields power with his wide ranging brief and is an asset to No.10 due to his ability “to argue black is white” in defence of the government in broadcast interviews.

One Whitehall insider says: “All this stuff is overdone – everyone always thinks he is up to something. Whenever there were briefings people would suspect Gove, even if they weren’t him.

“But the Cabinet Office is definitely more powerful than it has been for some time – there are so many things you ask about and it turns out the Cabinet Office is on top of that as well.

“If you understand government at the moment you understand that.”

‘He can’t help himself’

Despite being a key figure on Brexit, Gove is perhaps wielding the most of his political influence in the government’s coronavirus response – even though he’s one of the less visible faces in the No.10 briefings.

Allies dismiss reports of a rift with Sunak, who is the only hawk on the Covid-O committee up against Gove and Hancock.

But few have answers when asked why the libertarian Gove has put himself at odds with his traditional backbench kin in backing tougher lockdown measures.

And it appears something of a U-turn when compared with his demands to “run this hot” as the cabinet debated how to get out of lockdown in April.

One insider suggests Gove’s Covid-fear may simply be a symptom of being “inside the tent – which looks rather different from the outside”.

Allies meanwhile insist that he is yet to be convinced by any alternative approaches.

But his position and influence in the Covid debate behind-the-scenes has inevitably set tongues wagging.

One Tory suspects Gove may be positioning for a snap leadership contest, should the rumours about Johnson failing to last much longer in the top job turn out to be true.

They envisage a leadership election defined by how the candidates responded to coronavirus, and see the “hawk” side of the debate as being crowded out by Sunak.

As health secretary, they feel Hancock is “the only minister with a vested interest in favour of lockdown” – to protect the NHS, while Sunak has an interest as chancellor in protecting the economy, “which makes Gove’s position interesting”.

Gove torpedoed Johnson's 2016 Tory leadership bid after the pair won the EU referendum (Photo: PA Archive/PA Images)
Gove torpedoed Johnson's 2016 Tory leadership bid after the pair won the EU referendum (Photo: PA Archive/PA Images)

“Obviously I’m not discounting the possibility that [Gove’s lockdown scepticism] is a genuine view,” they say.

“But we all know he’s always on manoeuvres and it is potentially a big point of differentiation, versus Rishi especially.

“It is obviously a gamble but he would need to gamble.

“Everyone other than Hancock, who isn’t going to win, is on the hawk side.

“I think Gove knows it’s hard for him to win any leadership election given his previous backstabbing and unpopularity.”

Even if Gove’s motives are genuine, as allies insist, he cannot escape the perception that he is always plotting, and cabinet ministers are said to be annoyed at pro-lockdown briefings to the press, which they blame on Gove.

“The problem with him is he can’t help himself, and even if he isn’t trying to do that there’s a perception that he is – people are always asking what’s he up to, people are questioning the motivation as opposed to the outcome,” a Westminster insider says.

“It all goes back to stabbing Boris in the back after the referendum.

“It’s a shame for him because it fundamentally undermines what he’s trying to do.”

‘Who else is there?’

It is difficult to find anyone in Westminster who thinks that Gove has given up on the Tory leadership, despite two failed attempts.

Sunak may be the the clear frontrunner to take over if a leadership contest comes before the next election – not so far-fetched given Johnson’s plunging popularity – but as a Tory insider puts it: “If Sunak crashes and burns among all these tax rises and spending cuts paying for coronavirus, who else is there, apart from the intriguing shadow leadership bid of [1922 committee chair] Graham Brady?”

Nevertheless, the Tories seem unlikely to be willing to replace an election-winning machine in Johnson with someone who is at best viewed with suspicion by voters.

“The one thing that the commentariat sometimes loses sight of is that he’s [Gove is] totally unelectable,” a former government insider says.

“In the 2015 election Lynton Crosby got him moved from education to chief whip because he took 2% off the Tories’ polling total.

“OK, he’s really smart and he speaks in perfect sentences but the only people that admire him are in Westminster. The public don’t like him.

“It’s not even like an Ed Miliband – [Gove is] totally unelectable.

“The public just think he’s a bit odd.”

‘He’s still going to be important’

Gove appears unlikely to dislodge Priti Patel as home secretary – a role he would covet, while Sunak is unsackable at the Treasury.

It’s left many to wonder what he might do next once Covid and Brexit are out of the way, hopefully in 2021.

Gove’s passion for the union is well known and he already chairs a cabinet committee tasked with ensuring policymaking across the government boosts the argument for the United Kingdom remaining intact.

He is also a key figure in the Cummings-led plans to reform the civil service, which he sketched out in his summer Ditchley lecture.

But despite the importance of these tasks, several figures believe Gove has the best record for reforming and delivering and say he should be used in a role where he can deliver policies Red Wall Tories can put on their election leaflets in 2024.

Gove is already said to be active among those groups in the Commons tearoom and has spoken to new backbench factions like the right-wing “Common Sense” group.

Gove is said to be taking an interest in culture war issues like the singing of Rule Britannia at the Proms (Photo: Matt Kent via Getty Images)
Gove is said to be taking an interest in culture war issues like the singing of Rule Britannia at the Proms (Photo: Matt Kent via Getty Images)

One 2019-intake MP says Gove has shown a keen interest in tackling what the Tories see as the “woke agenda”, consulting Red Wallers when culture war rows like the debate over Rule Britannia flare up.

“He’s done a bit of work on immigration, the ‘woke agenda’ and attitudes like that, including the Channel crossings.

“Especially on the woke side he’s seen as the brains of the party and what’s going on.

“He’s definitely playing an active interest in it – whether he’s leading it or not, he definitely understands concerns and is feeding in and taking on board colleagues’ comments about it.

“He’s very much actively getting people’s views on it. It’s not like we’re going to him – he actually wants to hear and engage on this topic.”

Several sources suggest Gove could be put in charge of delivering on the prime minister’s “levelling up” agenda and prove himself a key electoral asset while staying behind the scenes and away from the cameras.

As a Whitehall insider puts it: “Labour are going to go on broken promises. They are going to go through the manifesto and ask: did they deliver?

“And the idea that Labour can’t win – if the electorate can switch from a minority government to a majority of 80 then they can damn well switch back the other way.

“You’re deluded to think otherwise, forget what people teach you in a politics class.

“As Janet Jackson said: ‘What have you done for me lately?’”

They add: “The Cabinet Office is still central. As soon as Boris does his reset speech there will be a lot of delivery around that which will run through the Cabinet Office and through Michael, and so he’s still going to be important.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.