GOVE: I FIGHT ON UNDAUNTED
After cocaine revelations, new blow as Rudd backs Hunt. But embattled PM contender insists he’s ‘ready to lead’
MICHAEL Gove vowed to fight on last night despite suffering a second blow in 48 hours when Amber Rudd backed his leadership rival Jeremy Hunt.
Mr Gove, whose campaign to succeed theresa May has been rocked by the Daily Mail’s revelations of his past cocaine use, will today insist he is ‘undaunted’ and ready to lead the country.
at his campaign launch the embattled Environment Secretary will say he is the ‘serious leader’ needed for ‘a serious time’. However his bid to win over Miss Rudd, who has also been courted by Boris Johnson, has been wrecked by her decision to support Mr Hunt.
Seen by some as a tory ‘kingmaker’, the Work and Pensions Secretary turned down Mr Johnson after he refused to rule out a No Deal departure from the EU.
She said Mr Hunt was a skilled negotiator with the ‘vision, craft and attention to detail’ that were required in Downing Street.
Further Cabinet heavyweights – including Philip Hammond – are expected to back the Foreign Secretary as he tries to cement his claim as the ‘Stop Boris’ candidate.
Mr Gove was last night battling to put his leadership campaign back on track following
his confession that he took cocaine on ‘several social occasions’ 20 years ago.
In an uncomfortable live TV interview he said his actions were a crime and he was fortunate not to have been caught and prosecuted.
‘It was a profound mistake and I’ve seen the damage that drugs do,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen it close up and I’ve also seen it in the work that I’ve done as a politician and that’s why I deeply regret the mistake that I made.’ His admission came as: France’s Emmanuel Macron warned of reprisals if Boris Johnson tried to withhold the £39billion Brexit divorce payment;
Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed plans to introduce a state-backed insurance scheme to end the scandal of people having to sell their homes to pay for social care;
Mr Hunt said German Chancellor Angela Merkel has told him the EU was ‘willing to negotiate’ on the Brexit deal with a new prime minister;
Former Tory chairman Baroness Warsi called for Mr Gove to withdraw from the race while ‘mired in this issue of trust and hypocrisy’;
A biography exclusively serialised in the Mail today discloses that Mr Gove was not, as he thought until this year, born to a student in Edinburgh who gave him up for adoption. His mother was instead an unmarried cookery demonstrator who gave birth in Aberdeen;
The book records that he would ‘wind up’ Theresa May together with David Cameron and George Osborne, and once criticised her so virulently that one onlooker described it as ‘like domestic abuse’;
Sajid Javid, whose leadership campaign has been boosted by the support of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, said Britain was ready to elect its first ethnic minority PM.
Mr Gove will today unveil plans to abolish VAT after Brexit, saying: ‘I have led from the front undaunted by criticism and resolute in the need to solve complex issues because that is what our country needs.’
But he continued to face pressure about his past drug use yesterday. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, he struggled to answer questions about how he had completed US visa forms that demand details of drug use.
And he faced accusations of hypocrisy over revelations that he had passed a law as education secretary that banned teachers from working in schools if they were convicted of using Class A drugs. A source close to Mr Gove last night said he had taken legal advice from a QC who was ‘satisfied Michael completed his US visa forms correctly’.
The source said that a code of conduct banning teachers from using Class A drugs had pre-dated his time in office.
But Mr Gove faced claims of hypocrisy over a column he wrote for The Times in 1999 hitting out at ‘ London’s liberal consensus’ around decriminalisation of drugs. Some senior Tories rallied around the Environment Secretary yesterday, saying his past mistakes should not be held against him.
Leadership rival Esther McVey said: ‘I hope people will actually judge him by how good he’s been as a politician. So I do believe he can, he said it was something he did 20 years ago and he regrets it.’
Fellow Tory Michael Fabricant said: ‘What someone did 20 years ago – before becoming an MP and not hurting anyone else – is a complete irrelevance.’ But Home Secretary Sajid Javid put the boot in in an interview with Sky News.
He said: ‘Anyone who takes drugs should be thinking about how they are not just hurting themselves, but how they are destroying so many countless lives on the way.’
Mr Gove said he fully accepted that ‘drugs wreck lives’. But he suggested his past mistakes had made him a rounder individual.
Nominations for the contest to succeed Mrs May close this afternoon, with 11 candidates expected to stand. Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt was last night still considering whether to throw her hat into the ring. On Thursday, Tory MPs will hold the first in a series of votes designed to whittle the field of candidates down to two, who will then face a run-off decided by the party’s 160,000 members.
Mr Johnson has emerged as the odds-on favourite, despite adopting a ‘submarine’ strategy that has seen his advisers shield him from public scrutiny in order to minimise the risk of a catastrophic gaffe.
Mr Gove had been in close contention with Mr Hunt for the second place on the ballot paper. But he was drifting in the betting markets last night in the wake of the drug revelations.
His troubles will give new hope to Mr Hancock and Mr Javid, whose campaigns have yet to catch fire, that they could yet make it on to the final ballot paper.
Chancellor Mr Hammond, Miss Mordaunt and Business Secretary Greg Clark are expected to be among the Cabinet heavyweights ready to support Mr Hunt. Writing
in The Times, Miss Rudd said Mr Hunt had ‘confidence, craft, vision and attention to detail’.
She added: ‘It’s not enough to be told to shut your eyes, cross your fingers, pick up some magic beans and believe in Britain. We need a skilled negotiator and a deal-maker, not an instruction for more optimism.’
Dominic Raab’s campaign faltered as hardline Brexiteers Steve Baker and Priti Patel fell behind Mr Johnson. And Tory sources said Mrs May’s deputy David Lidington would back Mr Hancock.
SATuRdAy’s daily Mail was, in the Lawson household, a marmalade dropper. By this I mean it had the sort of front-page story which makes the reader drop the knife with which he was about to spread the marmalade on his breakfast toast.
In case there is anyone who still doesn’t know, it revealed — as part of the serialisation of a biography of the wouldbe Conservative leader Michael Gove — that this apparently upright and highminded scot had 20 years ago, on several occasions, taken cocaine.
Perhaps my astonishment was a function of my own naivety. It may be that I am unusual in never having used illicit drugs as a young man. As my elder daughter said to me: ‘you were probably born aged 50.’
so I am reluctantly forced to concede that it may in fact be a minority of people of my generation who have not broken this law in one form or another.
I had another such jolt some years ago when talking to the headmaster of Westminster school — which sends a higher proportion of its pupils to Oxford and Cambridge than any of its rivals — and asking whether he had been able to root out drug-taking, which had been a big problem when I attended the school.
‘No, I haven’t,’ he replied, then added, devastatingly: ‘It doesn’t make it easy for us when their parents are doing it, too’.
Michael Gove is now a parent of two teenagers and I am sure is telling the truth when he says that his use of cocaine was limited to his time as a young journalist, long preceding both his marriage and his decision to become a legislator. He has made a frank admission of doing something which was wrong, and concedes it was nothing less than a crime.
yet he has now been accused of outrageous hypocrisy because, in 1999, apparently at the time of his cocaine use, he wrote a column in the Times arguing against the legalisation of such drugs.
Given the charge, it’s worth repeating the most relevant paragraph of that 20year-old article: ‘There is no greater sin in journalistic eyes than hypocrisy. It justifies a score of tabloid stings, a hundred broken careers. How dare the minister endorse family values while himself straying? And how can I live with my occasional spliff unless I use my column to campaign for legalising drugs?
‘ But there is a greater sin than hypocrisy. It is the refusal to uphold values because one may oneself have fallen short of them.’
Gove — who, to repeat, was not an MP, let alone a government minister at the time — was actually arguing that politicians should not be banished for hypocrisy, and that it is correct to uphold standards which one has not lived up to oneself.
He was, in fact, advancing the position most felicitously expressed by the 17thcentury French author Francois de La Rochefoucauld, that ‘ hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue’.
Or, as the high Tory columnist Michael Wharton put it centuries later: ‘Without a certain amount of hypocrisy, civilised society would not survive.’
But, as I say, it is not clear that Gove is a hypocrite. In his period as Lord Chancellor, responsible for the administration of justice in this country, he aligned himself with the cause of penal reform, and was distinctly liberal in his approach to sentencing ( not, as it happens, something with which I agree).
Like many such penal reformers, he is strongly influenced by the Christian faith, with its powerful emphasis on forgiveness and personal redemption.
As the Mail’s serialisation of his biography revealed: ‘He took on the Justice ministry with little idea of where to start. He immersed himself in books on justice, penal reform and rehabilitation, but was perhaps most guided by a book he had read as a young man: the Bible.’
This didn’t come as a surprise to me: I know Michael Gove quite well, and though he doesn’t talk about his religious beliefs, I became aware of his habit of dropping into churches (of varying denominations) to pray. Along with Jeremy Hunt, he is one of the candidates for the Conservative leadership with the strongest sense of moral purpose. (Hunt has been a particularly active contributor to charitable causes, but, again, is reluctant to discuss this, or his religious beliefs, publicly).
There is no doubt that it was a fierce moral purpose which drove Michael Gove’s highly successful reforms of the exam system. He had a genuine sense of mission to improve the educational standards offered to the least well- off, who did not come from families which could afford private education.
The fact that even those that can afford it are now increasingly sending their children to state schools instead is a further proof of his mission’s success.
Of course it is not necessary to be religious, let alone a Christian, to have such a drive. But it is interesting to contrast that with the heavy favourite for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson. As his erstwhile mistress, Petronella Wyatt, put it a few years ago in a superbly written — and entirely warm — article about him: ‘Boris is a pagan . . . His views on matters such as monogamy are decidedly Eastern. “I find it genuinely unreasonable that men should be confined to one woman,” he has grumbled to me, and cannot understand the media’s reaction to his personal affairs.’
It is commonly asserted that it was because of his relationship with Wyatt that Johnson was sacked in 2004 as shadow arts minister and vice-chairman of the party by the then Conservative leader Michael Howard.
This is not the whole truth: it was the fact that Johnson had lied about it to Howard — and to the Press. When a newspaper had got wind of the fact that Johnson, then the father of four young children, had been conducting an affair with Wyatt (and had paid for a resultant abortion), he dismissed the claims — with characteristically imaginative brio — as ‘an inverted pyramid of piffle’.
Howard had backed him up based on that assurance. so when another newspaper substantiated the first one’s story — making the party leader look like a dupe — Johnson was sacked.
That was 15 years ago, and we can now see how wide of the mark was the widespread opinion at the time — both on the Conservative parliamentary benches and among political pundits — that Boris Johnson’s political career was best described in the past tense.
As I have written in the Mail on several occasions over recent years, Johnson’s capacity to survive personal and political conduct that would annihilate any other politician is a genuine phenomenon, however much it exasperates both his rivals and former journalistic colleagues with a more jaundiced view of his character.
He understands the desire of the public to have a laugh, and uses this brilliantly as chaff to deflect any moral argument, or even, at times, the truth.
Thus, when he was asked whether he had ever used cocaine, he responded: ‘I think I was once given cocaine, but I sneezed and so it did not go up my nose.
‘In fact, I may have been doing icing sugar.’ This was genuinely funny, while at the same time revealing that Johnson did not consider it a moral issue at all.
It may be, in any case, that the great majority of voters are not much exercised about whether politicians, in the years before they got the job of legislators and thus power over our own lives, took illicit drugs. That may well also be true of members of the Conservative party — soon to choose their new leader — who tend to be practical men and women fully acquainted with the world as it is.
No, what voters find it hardest to forgive is when politicians lie to them, directly. Then, it is no longer a matter just for the families of the legislator in question, but a personal affront to the electors themselves.
Michael Gove is not guilty of that; and he is, actually, a good man.