Broken alliances and bad blood in fight for British independence
As Michael Gove has shown, politicians and principles trump friendship, says Ruth Dudley Edwards
DITCHED: Despite misgivings about the prospect of Boris Johnson as PM, he was ‘a man for this time’. Photo: Yui Mok/PA
What a week it's been at Westminster. UK voters have instructed their politicians to leave the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron has handed in his notice, leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has been abandoned by almost his entire parliamentary party because he was such a useless Remain campaigner, and Boris Johnson, poster-boy for Leave and expected to be the next incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street, has been defenestrated by his close ally Michael Gove, who is now standing for the office he always said he didn't want and was unsuited for.
Last weekend I wrote that though I had severe misgivings about the prospect of Boris as prime minister, he was "a man for this time". I hoped his combination of internationalism, charisma, optimism and humour could steady and unite the UK and disarm the EU and that his team could do the patient work that bores and repels him and for which he has no aptitude.
Gove thought that too until very recently, but having changed his mind, finds himself charged with the double betrayal of close friends by bringing about David Cameron's downfall and wrecking Johnson's bid for power. (It's an exaggeration in the case of Boris, who is essentially a loner who doesn't make close friendships.)
People keep unfairly comparing Gove to Shakespeare's Brutus, an assassin of his friend Julius Caesar, and suggesting that his wife played the role of Lady Macbeth.
In fact, the key to Michael Gove is that he is an exceptionally principled politician and a profound patriot, a Scot living in England with his Welsh wife who cares passionately about all parts of the UK, which he sees as a family of nations, and an adopted child who wants everyone to have a decent chance in life.
I got to know Michael, the most courteous of men, in the mid-1990s, when we were both writing and broadcasting about Northern Ireland. We shared an antipathy to paramilitaries but disagreed about the peace process. While I disliked many of the grubby compromises, I'm a pragmatist, so I gritted my teeth and defended the flawed Good Friday Agreement that Michael thought fatally hollowed out the province's Britishness. I remember after one clash on television, delighting afterwards that we could disagree so fundamentally but continue to be civil and to respect each other.
(I just looked up his extremely kind review of The Faithful Tribe, my 1999 book on the Orange Order, and saw that he described me as "part Voltaire, part GK Chesterton and altogether beguiling as a writer", so it's no wonder I like him.)
It was Michael who in 2006, the year after 52 people died in London suicide bombings and he became an MP, published the brilliant book Celsius 7/7 which showed how - just as fascism degraded nationalism and communism betrayed socialism - Islamism, another totalitarian ideology, perverts Islam. In government since 2010 he has been a key warrior against extremism, which he understands much better than do most of his colleagues.
I greatly admire too his radical one-nation Conservatism, his sympathy for the have-nots and those left behind by globalisation and mass immigration, and his reforming zeal as Education Secretary. It will be a tragedy if the revolutionary programme for transforming the prison system that he's developed as Justice Minister bites the dust. Yet I'm not blind to the criticism that Michael can be too implacable and too sure he's right, but then that goes with being a conviction politician. I've no doubt that emotionally it cost him dearly to damage his close friendship with Cameron by becoming a major player in the Leave campaign.
And then there's Boris, notorious for his ambition to have his cake and eat it, whom I met in 1999 when The Daily Telegraph sent him to interview me about my book. He was disorganised but charming, had done almost no homework, stayed only half an hour and wrote an OK piece at high speed. That same year he became editor of The Spectator, where as a contributor I was not alone in finding this life-enhancer indecisive, duplicitous and self-centred, but his flair, his humour, his ability to delegate and his brilliance as a frontman - as well as a clutch of very public scandals - did wonders for the circulation.
"Let us cherish this free spirit - the People's Boris", wrote Michael Gove 10 years ago in the middle of yet another Johnson media storm. "If we Britons love our shambolic bumblers, then we must expect them, sometimes, to bumble into something of a shambles.
"Alongside the disciplined ranks of parliamentary infantry, we need a few Cossacks, whose dazzling swordplay may not always hit the target, and may even cause the odd self-inflicted wound, but whose dash, verve and sheer elan help to lend the cause colour."
Without Michael and Boris, Leave could not have won, but afterwards, with the party leadership within his grasp, and Michael and other allies hard at work on his campaign, Boris the bumbler rather than the Cossack was to the fore. Among his flaws are an overwhelming need to be liked that makes him almost incapable of saying no, a terror of confrontation and administrative incompetence. Andrea Leadsome, who has a City background and has been economic secretary to the Treasury, was a formidable Leave campaigner who would have backed him in return for a promise of the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, but wisely she wouldn't take his word and he forgot to give her the relevant letter. So she quit to become a candidate herself.
In despair, Michael, who genuinely never wanted to be prime minister, ditched Boris and stepped in to challenge Home Secretary Theresa May, with whom he has clashed over how to deal with Islamic extremism, who was a lukewarm Remainer who dodged the battlefield and who is the status quo candidate, not the reformer he believes a divided country needs.
Meanwhile, there are signs that Brexit could be the catalyst for a much-needed revolt by disgruntled electors against Brussels imperialism.
With the ruling by the Austrian Constitutional Court that the presidential election must be rerun, there will be an early showdown between Eurosceptics and federalists. Sane European politicians are looking at their restive populations, contemplating reform as a priority, calling for civilised divorce negotiations with the UK, and plotting to get rid of that megalomaniacal clown, President Jean-Claude Juncker, who blocked colleagues from giving David Cameron a deal the British people would have accepted.
EU members could yet be hailing us Leavers as their saviours.
Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22