LONDON (Reuters) – As Prime Minister Theresa May battled to save her draft Brexit deal in the face of resignations from her team and threats of a leadership coup, many believed one man could deal the fatal blow. But he didn’t.
Michael Gove, her environment minister and the most prominent Brexit campaigner in the British cabinet, took two days to weigh up his options. During that time he declined May’s offer to be Brexit minister, because she refused to let him renegotiate the deal.
Yet he decided not to resign, at least for now, apparently concluding that his political future was best served by fighting to amend the deal from within rather than being the one to topple May so publicly.
“It’s absolutely vital that we focus on getting the right deal in the future, and making sure that in the areas that matter so much to the British people, we can get a good outcome,” he said on Friday after returning to his department.
By opting to stay, the 51-year-old former journalist, described by those who have worked with him as highly intelligent and on top of his brief, handed his boss a lifeline.
“Had he resigned on Friday morning it would have been exceptionally difficult for the prime minister,” said Stewart Jackson, a eurosceptic former Conservative lawmaker who served as an adviser to David Davis, Brexit minister from 2016 to 2018.
British media reported that Gove and four other eurosceptic ministers were instead seeking to work from within the government to force May to make changes to the deal.
“He has probably kept this deal afloat,” said one person familiar with Gove’s thinking, who declined to be named. “He doesn’t want to be seen as the knifeman.”
Gove has form in bringing about the demise of colleagues.
In 2016 he turned against then prime minister David Cameron, a long-time close friend, to become the brains behind the campaign for Brexit. That campaign ultimately cost Cameron his job when Britain voted to leave the EU.
Gove’s wife Sarah Vine, a newspaper columnist and godmother to Cameron’s youngest child, described the decision as “an internal struggle of agonising proportions” for Gove.
“When he eventually told David the truth about his feelings … the PM was genuinely, and quite naturally, shocked and hurt,” she wrote afterwards.
When it came to the contest to replace Cameron as Conservative Party leader and prime minister, Gove initially backed front runner Boris Johnson – a friend since university whom he had convinced to join him in campaigning for Brexit.
Yet on the morning Johnson was due to launch his campaign, Gove withdrew his support and declared he would run himself, a decision which saw Johnson abruptly pull out of the race.
“I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead,” Gove wrote in an article announcing his decision.
Gove was accused of treachery. One Johnson ally tweeted: “There is a very deep pit reserved in Hell for such as he.” Gove was eliminated in the second round of voting by his Conservative colleagues, with May the ultimate victor.
“His problem is having brought about the downfall of two people who were previously friends; Boris Johnson and David Cameron, he is terrified of having a key role in doing the same with Theresa May,” said Jackson.
Gove’s upbringing was in stark contrast to Cameron and Johnson, who both came from wealthy backgrounds and were educated at the elite boarding school, Eton College.
Born to a young unmarried student in Edinburgh, Gove was adopted by a working-class couple in Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland when he was just four months old.
His adoptive father ran a fishing business which he sold as the sector began to decline, something Gove has since blamed on the EU’s fisheries policies.
An intelligent child and avid reader, he won a place at a prestigious local school before studying at Oxford University. He became a journalist, first at the local paper in Aberdeen and then at The Times and BBC. He was elected to parliament in 2005.
Gove, who is reported to have pictures of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and U.S. civil rights leader Malcolm X on his wall, has a reputation as a radical reformer.
During his time as education minister his overhaul of the sector made him unpopular with teachers and parents, something that ultimately prompted Cameron to move him to another role.
Many felt that made him an unpalatable leadership contender, and he himself repeatedly said he had no interest in the job.
“I have to say I never thought I’d ever be in this position. I did not want it, indeed I did almost everything not to be a candidate for the leadership of this party,” he said in a speech to launch his unsuccessful bid in 2016.
“I was so very reluctant because I know my limitations. Whatever charisma is I don’t have it … Whatever glamour may be, I don’t think anyone could ever associate me with it.”
Yet he remains among those tipped as a possible successor to May if she is toppled over Brexit.
Having saved her once, it is not clear whether Gove will stick by May if he cannot get the changes he wants to her Brexit deal, or if it fails to get through a vote in parliament.
The words of his wife, made public in a leaked email as he weighed up whether to back Johnson, may again ring true:
“Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best.”
(Additional reporting by William James and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood)