Return of unholy alliance
With all the backstabbing at Westminster – not just now but forever (see Gordon Brown’s memoir) – we should be heartened when a couple get back together again.
However, when the pair are perhaps two of the most conniving in the Commons, the thought of them in cahoots once again is spine tingling rather than cockle warming.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, currently the foreign and environment secretaries, were joined at the hip during the Tory leadership contest of 2016 that propelled Theresa May to power.
They had forged an alliance as prominent Leave campaigners and when David Cameron resigned in the wake of his EU referendum defeat, they fought as one for a Boris Johnson premiership. Then, of course, they fell out, when Mr Gove, declaring his erstwhile ally unable to “provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”, decided to stand for the number one job himself.
Everyone, even seasoned political anoraks, were astounded by Mr Gove’s treachery; some of us, searching for an explanation, wondered if the brilliant education reformer had acted out of altruism to save the country from the disaster of Boris in Downing Street. Such an over-generous interpretation now looks naïve in the light of the events of the past few days. Mr Johnson, most would agree, has always been out for himself. Mr Gove, too, it seems is equally, if not more, self-serving.
As a team they represent all that is base in British politics and if they are both still in their jobs by the next general election they will give the opposition ample ammunition to destroy the Conservatives.
Where to start? Their joint (leaked) letter to Mrs May pushing for a hard Brexit was a public declaration of their rekindled relationship. But the real evidence that Mr Gove was once more in Mr Johnson’s camp came during Andrew Marr’s BBC show on Sunday morning. Quizzed about the fate of the British woman, Nazanin ZaghariRatcliffe, being held captive in Iran on trumped up charges of working against the Iranian regime, Mr Gove appeared to throw doubt on her innocence, saying he didn’t know why she had been in the country.
This was a week after Mr Johnson placed the woman in greater danger than she was already by claiming she was “training journalists” in Iran, despite the family’s insistence that she had been there on holiday.
Mr Johnson’s career has hung in the balance since his extraordinary clumsiness proved beyond doubt that he is not fit for high office. His remarks were quickly seized upon by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which controls Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s fate, as justification for her imprisonment.
Mr Johnson presumably acted out of ignorance, which is unforgiveable considering the degree of briefing he would have had from the Foreign Office. He has belatedly apologised for the harm he caused, and vowed to travel to Iran before the end of the year.
He may still be able to put things right as far as the Ratcliffes are concerned but there is nothing he can now do to persuade the majority of British voters that he is a safe pair of hands in any ministerial role. Ironically, his bacon has been saved, temporarily at least, by Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, who believes it would not be in his wife’s interests if the Foreign Secretary was removed at this critical juncture, and has asked Mr Johnson to accompany him to Iran.
While Mr Johnson could blame incompetence or laziness for his awful blunder, Mr Gove has no such excuse. With the environment as his portfolio he could have deflected Mr Marr’s questions on the Ratcliffe case as being outside his expertise.
Instead he chose to defend Boris Johnson by contradicting the official government position that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday. It was a throwaway comment but uttered with the utmost premeditation. Mr Gove, unlike Mr Johnson, doesn’t stumble on the political stage; his lines are well rehearsed.
This was a calculated attempt to come to the rescue of his friend/foe/ friend again regardless of the consequences for the jailed Briton, who after 18 months behind bars is said to be at breaking point.
A brief moment in Mr Gove’s political life has told us everything we need to know about him; that his personal trajectory is more important than the welfare, and maybe even survival, of a fellow countrywoman.
Mr Gove has fallen back in with Mr Johnson not because they are ideological soul mates, or mates of any kind, but because he sees advancement for himself in the arrangement. Two can conspire better than one to undermine their party and their leader, and thus promote their own agendas.
Mrs May is too weakened to get rid of them at the moment but maybe they will self-destruct, as they did so spectacularly last year. Together or apart, they are bad for each other, bad for the Tories and bad for the nation.
Mr Gove on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, when he appeared to leave doubt over the actions of Nazanin ZaghariRatcliffe.