A boozy barbecue and how shambolic BoJo was hit for six
ExulTanT from their Brexit victory and ready to plan a strategy to implement the wishes of voters to begin withdrawal from the Eu, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson arranged to meet at the latter’s weekend home in Oxfordshire on Sunday.
although they had worked hand-in-glove together during the long weeks of the referendum campaign, it must be said that Gove and Johnson had never been big buddies.
But they had forged a good working relationship as they toured the country on their Brexit battle-bus. They respected each other’s individual skills. as, a Gove supporter explained: ‘Michael knows they almost certainly would not have won without Boris.’
But even before Gove (and his two aides) arrived at Johnson’s house, he was beginning to worry about whether the former london mayor was putting enough effort into the mammoth challenge they faced.
There was barely concealed irritation that instead of getting stuck into the detail of planning a strategy, Johnson had spent time on Saturday playing in a cricket match between a team made up of his family and an Earl Spencer’s XI at althorp House.
Just a day after sterling had crashed and shares tumbled, a chillaxing Johnson was posturing in his cricket whites.
This was not the statesmanlike image that Gove and his advisers wanted to convey to the majority of Remain-backing Tory MPs who were poleaxed by last Thursday’s result and who needed to be convinced that the country was safe in the hands of Johnson or any other replacement for David Cameron.
So it was that, when Gove arrived at Johnson’s house, a barbecue was underway for Boris and his political supporters.
among the banter, there was light-hearted teasing over whether Gove would change his mind and run for the leadership himself. The Johnsonites also joked about Gove’s remark, earlier in the month, when he said: ‘The one thing I can tell you is there are lots of talented people who could be Prime Minister after David Cameron, but count me out.’
Gove and his aides found it a struggle to get Johnson’s team’s attention to discuss strategy. But they managed to agree that Gove would chair Boris’s leadership campaign and Sir lynton Crosby, the australian who masterminded his two london Mayoral victories and Cameron’s unexpected General Election success last year, would do the day-to-day planning.
But it was only after Gove returned to london, his aides really began to have nagging doubts. above all, was Boris up to the job? Did he have sufficient focus and judgment?
The trouble was the boozy barbecue was typically shambolic of a Boris event and, I’m told: ‘The meeting was disorganised and illdisciplined. There was no structure. The afternoon had been a bit of a wasted journey.’ Despite this Gove was determined to persist in trying to put steel in their joint campaign.
BuT significantly, despite ruling out running to be leader himself, Gove had secretly made back-up plans. Before the referendum campaign, he’d had several dinners with his long-time ally lord nash, a Junior Education Minister, and multi-millionaire Tory donor. nash was the founder of the education charity Future, which sponsors academy schools, and would have spearheaded any possible Gove leadership bid.
These meetings began after Gove was sacked by Cameron as Education Secretary and made Chief Whip. The demotion, as unexpected as it was brutal, hurt Gove terribly. It also made him realise he ought to do more to protect his own skin.
although he was encouraged that some MPs had told him they saw him as a potential future Tory leader, Gove’s supporters insist that he put aside any personal ambition.
But over the 72 hours following his unsatisfactory Oxfordshire meeting with Johnson, doubts hardened in the minds of Gove and his team. ‘Boris was just so cavalier,’ said one. ‘We couldn’t pin him down on details.’
The first serious disagreement came with the publication of Johnson’s weekly column in The Daily Telegraph on Monday.
It was a lazy, unfocused and clumsy article which seemed to start to renege on the leave
campaign’s pledges to curb immigration. Apart from Leave voters fearing that Boris was back-sliding, there was a mini-row between the two Tories over how much advance notice Gove had been given of the column’s contents.
Johnson’s team insist that Gove had not only read the article in Oxfordshire the day before publication, but had ‘sub-edited it’. A Johnson aide said: ‘There can be no grounds for complaint from Gove.’
For their part, Gove’s team claim he saw the piece at the very last minute and had time to make only ‘minor changes’.
The unease in Team Gove increased as they tried to win the support of other Tory MPs. I’m told that they found a groundswell of opinion — in Westminster and among the wider Conservative grassroots — that held that Gove should stand as leader.
Whatever the truth, Team Boris say that at no time did they get any inkling that Gove was becoming unhappy with Johnson.
The final straw came, it seems, on Wednesday after Gove and Johnson had a private meeting with Andrea Leadsom, the Energy Minister and former City bigwig, who was one of the most impressive Leave advocates.
Although, it was well-known that she was considering running for the leadership, she set out her demands for backing Johnson.
If Johnson became PM, she wanted to be Chancellor or Deputy Prime Minister, in charge of the negotiations with Brussels to extract Britain from the EU.
The two men duly agreed they’d give her one of the two jobs. Told by phone it was a deal, Leadsom requested the pledge in writing.
Johnson agreed he would do that and said he would also make a public statement that evening to say: ‘I am delighted to be joined by Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom at my launch tomorrow.’
In the meantime, however, there was an unexpected development. Sky News reported that an email sent to Gove and his team by his wife Sarah Vine (a Mail columnist) had been inadvertently sent to the wrong recipient. It contained the devastating suggestion that Boris Johnson could not be trusted.
She warned her husband about the risks of backing him without ‘specific guarantees on immigration controls.’ Although deeply embarrassing — and seized on by critics of the Tories — the matter was swiftly smoothed over with Johnson’s office.
On Wednesday evening, Gove attended the Conservative Party summer party at the Hurlingham Club in Fulham which was attended by Cameron and other Cabinet ministers.
Johnson went to another social gathering, in Westminster, where he was expected to give that written job guarantee to Andrea Leadsom. However, he had apparently left the letter in his Commons office.
Compounding this broken promise, the deadline passed when Boris said he would make public his pledge to Leadsom.
Understandably, Leadsom felt ‘snubbed’ and decided she was being ‘strung along’. In a fit of pique, she then lodged her own nomination papers for the Tory leadership.
A few miles across London at the Tory summer party, Gove was being urged by some guests to break with Boris and stand as leader. While there, he got word about what had happened with regard to Andrea Leadsom.
Gove left the club before 11pm and went to a gathering in Parliament. There, in a muchneeded public display of unity, he was seen with his arm around Boris.
Then, Gove travelled home. But his mind was spinning with contradictory thoughts. Was Boris becoming a serious a liability? Should he stand himself?
ALTHOUGH his allies were still busy lobbying MPs on behalf of Team Boris, after midnight, he summoned his key aides to his West London home to go through the issues that were worrying him. First, there was Johnson’s shabby treatment of Andrea Leadsom. Then there was the fact that by 10pm that night Johnson had written only 400 words of his 3,000-word launch speech that was due to be delivered the following morning and that Gove was supposed to have read and approved.
‘It was another sign of the slapdash approach to the campaign,’ said a Gove friend. ‘We couldn’t go on like this.’
There was general agreement that Gove should break from Boris. ‘It all fell apart because of Boris’s incompetence,’ I was told. Gove was reluctant to tell Johnson until the morning.
In any case, his priority was to scramble his own leadership announcement plans.
After leaving home for Westminster very early yesterday morning, Gove phoned Team Boris campaign boss Lynton Crosby to break the news that he would no longer back Johnson and was going to run himself. Both were apparently courteous to each other.
Gove’s team say he repeatedly tried to phone Johnson but couldn’t raise him. Johnson’s people deny any attempt was made. One said: ‘Gove never called! He didn’t have the courage. We only learnt of his act of treachery from Lynton [Crosby].’
Furthermore, Johnson’s aides were contemptuous of Gove’s behaviour — saying he used his concern about the way Andrea Leadsom had been treated as an excuse and that his actions were driven by a naked ambition to become Prime Minister.
Team Boris have since described the saga as the ‘cuckoo in the nest plot’ — implying that Gove was a like a cuckoo who used the nest of another bird (Boris) for its own selfish purposes.
They are bitterly convinced that Gove always intended to knife Johnson at the last minute and run as leader in his own right.
But they didn’t expect him to plunge the knife in from the front. ‘It’s treachery with a capital T,’ declared one.
Not so says Team Gove. They denied any conspiracy. One says: ‘We just knew we could no longer ignore what we all knew in our hearts — that Boris just couldn’t hack it.’
Ultimately, history will decide which of the two men was most culpable. It will also tell whether both men’s simmering rivalry will mean that neither won the crown that they both so craved.
Howzat! Boris Johnson played cricket the day after the referendum result