Michael Gove: ‘a young Scotsman on the make’

In 1999 Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, wrote disparagingly of what he referred to as the ‘new model journalists’:

They look like journalists, call themselves journalists, and perhaps even used to be journalists; but now they are players. Where they once commentated on political events, they now seek to shape them. [1]

He identified as members of this new breed the likes of Paul Routledge, Rosie Boycott and Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, but his primary target was Michael Gove, then a columnist on The Times and a young man of great ambition.

Born in Edinburgh in 1967, Michael Gove went to state and independent schools and then studied English at Oxford, where he was president of the Oxford Union and secured a 2:1 degree. He once dismissed Chris Patten’s ministerial record as being, ‘like his degree, solidly second-class’ [2]; the same couldn’t be said of his own career path, which was at least unusual, if not always impressive.

Having acquired a little broadcasting experience (amongst other things, he reported on ‘Labour’s problems in Scotland’ for Off the Record [3]), he really came to some form of public attention in 1992 on Channel 4’s Friday night show A Stab in the Dark. It was an odd programme, mixing stand-up comedy and politics, with three presenters who didn’t interact with each other, but roamed independently around a monumental set. Gove was one of the three, alongside Tracey MacLeod and – presumably the reason it was commissioned – David Baddiel, fresh from The Mary Whitehouse Experience.

It was intended as an edgy yoof-orientated take on politics (‘opinionated, vitriolic, poisonous’, according to Gove in a trailer), but it didn’t really work. Nor did he personally convince. He was described by Tom Lappin in the Sunday Times as ‘unbearably smug’ and the programme as a ‘sneerathon’ [4]. David Sexton in the Independent was slightly more impressed: ‘a young Scotsman on the make, bumptiousness caricatured,’ he wrote. ‘His talents are real but misapplied – he might do better as a Jehovah’s Witness, or as an estate agent in this difficult market.’ [5]

The audience was less than smitten, and the show didn’t get a second series, leaving Baddiel free to revolutionise the marketing of comedy, in partnership with Rob Newman, and sending Gove back into a more orthodox role, as a political correspondent on the Today programme on Radio 4.

It was while he was there, in late 1994, that he signed a contract with Fourth Estate to write a biography of Michael Portillo.

At the time, Portillo was the darling of the right wing, the employment secretary in the cabinet of John Major, and the man seen by everyone (including himself) as Major’s greatest rival. The prime minister’s fortunes were at a low ebb – even his former lover, Edwina Currie, was saying he should resign – and there was talk of a potential coup in the air, with Portillo as the likely beneficiary. It seemed like a shrewd career move for Gove to hitch his wagon to the train of Margaret Thatcher’s chosen son.

Unfortunately, by the time The Future of the Right was published in October 1996, all that had changed. In the summer of that year, Major had decided that enough was enough, and had resigned, inviting anyone who fancied their chances to challenge him in a leadership election. And Portillo had ducked the fight, leaving John Redwood to be the standard-bearer of the right: his display of political courage contrasted sharply with Portillo’s cowardice.

Consequently, Gove’s gushing biography – ‘an extended love-letter,’ as the Guardian called it [6] – was a bit of a damp squib. It was greeted by Julian Critchley as ‘tabloid journalism dignified by stiff covers’ [7], while Gove’s future cabinet colleague Oliver Letwin (very sniffy about ‘the lower sort of journalists’) felt it was ‘distinctly premature’. [8] Nick Cohen wrote that Gove ‘displays a geniality towards his subject which borders on the unctuous’, suggested that the book revealed him to be ‘hopelessly at sea’ on constitutional reform and ‘naïve’ on economics, and concluded that ‘only those who share his prejudices will read him without irritation’. [9]

Portillo himself, claiming that he’d only ‘read the first hundred pages and found several inaccuracies’ [10], didn’t turn up at the launch party, though former cabinet ministers Cecil Parkinson and Norman Lamont put in an appearance, as did historian Andrew Roberts. (The party, incidentally, was thrown not by the publisher, but by Gove’s girlfriend, Amanda Foreman, who was then researching what would become her somewhat more successful account of Georgiana, Duke of Devonshire).

As a biography, The Future of the Right hasn’t really stood the test of time, largely because it failed to document Portillo’s early ‘homosexual experiences’, which didn’t become public till 1999. The furthest Gove was prepared to go was a nudge-nudge mention of ‘the temptations strewn in Portillo’s path at university’. [11] A revised edition of the book was mooted in 2000, but it never happened, perhaps because no one was interested in Conservative politicians at this point.

Perhaps more durable was Gove’s other major piece of work that was released in 1995. A Feast at Midnight was the debut film by British director Justin Hardy and, though it made little commercial impact, it did get some praise from critics. ‘Gauche but oddly entertaining,’ said The Times [12], and the Independent hailed it as ‘a late flowering of that justly defunct minor genre: the prep school saga of the Weed Triumphant’. [13]

Just to be absolutely clear, Gove was not the said Weed. Rather, he played the school chaplain in a role that required him to look boggle-eyed on a couple of occasions and not much else. Regrettably he didn’t receive any critical attention, cruelly overlooked in favour of his co-stars Christopher Lee and Robert Hardy, but it was a fine performance nonetheless: no one could have behaved more naturally than he in a staffroom that looked as though it were unchanged since 1954.


Michael Gove in “A Feast at Midnight” (Kwai River Productions, 1994)

Despite these triumphs, and despite the column he was now contributing to The Times, Gove’s ambitions were turning to Parliament. By 1996, he was ‘said to be sniffing around for a seat’. [14] He was touted as a possible Conservative candidate for Kensington and Chelsea, though Alan Clark got the nod ahead of him, and he ended up not standing in the 1997 election at all. Which was probably just as well; he was far too attracted to the early Tony Blair to have been much use to an opposition: ‘For those not tied to the Conservative Party by sentiment,’ he said in 1997, ‘but by certain ideas, by Margaret Thatcher rather than Party institutions, Blair has done enough.’ [15]

Concentrating on journalism, Gove was promoted to news editor of The Times in 2000 and was soon being talked of as a future editor. According to the Guardian’s Maggie Brown, ‘Times hacks are already calling big-brains Gove “the rottweiler”’. [16] (There was also a suggestion that year that he might inherit the editorship of The Spectator after Boris Johnson stepped down.) He didn’t stay in place for long though; barely a year later, it was reported that he had been moved to a new position, ‘with a mission to think great ideas’. [17] He subsequently became assistant editor with responsibility for the Saturday edition.

Gradually he was making a name for himself. He joined the panel on The Moral Maze on Radio 4, and in 2003 he appeared as part of a Times team on a quasi-celebrity edition of University Challenge, thrashing a team of MPs by 215 points to 25. He was emerging, wrote Simon Carr in the Independent, as ‘the thinking man’s Boris Johnson.’ [18]

As a columnist, he liked to see himself as in touch with popular culture – one of those ‘who know their Pulp albums from their Pulp Fiction’ [19], as he put it – but still striving for magisterial authority. ‘Tony Blair is on course to lose the next general election,’ he warned reprovingly in 2000. ‘If Labour goes to the polls next year, it is likely to forfeit its majority.’ [20] Blair was arrogant enough to ignore these words of wisdom, went to the country in 2001 and did indeed emerge with a reduced majority, down from 179 in 1997 all the way to just 167.

Gove was also distinctly hawkish about military action on the part of the USA and the UK. In fact he cited the Falklands War as having been the moment when he discovered he was a Thatcherite, having previously thought of himself as a socialist: it was the idea that Argentina needed to be ‘taught a lesson’ [21], rather than, say, her economic policies, that attracted him.


Running through these columns, there was a longstanding fascination with, amounting to an adoration of, the glamour of power. Rupert Murdoch, Jonathan Aitken, James Goldsmith – all received hagiographic acclaim. It was the charisma of such men, though, rather than their money, that seemed to attract him. For elsewhere he was perfectly capable of attacking the wealthy. This was him on Tory donor and treasurer Michael Ashcroft:

Let us just ask what sort of man allegedly threatens his own country’s diplomatic interests in order to open a bank in an offshore tax haven? Is it the sort of man who should be treasurer of a potential party of government? Or the sort of devil-take-the-hindmost, I’m all right Juan, where I pay no tax that’s my home opportunist who gave the Tories such a bad name? [22]

And, to make it clear that he was no mere party hack, this was him on Amanda Platell, chief of communications to Tory leader William Hague: ‘a woman who is not without talent or charm, but who is out of her depth in a political role.’ [23]

The attraction to Blair remained, however: ‘In so far as I’m sympathetic to Tory politicians, and their arguments,’ he wrote in 2003, ‘it’s because as a right-wing polemicist I find them persuasive. And as a right-wing polemicist, all I can say looking at Mr Blair now is, what’s not to like?’ [24]

Meanwhile, he was also addressing the issue of a possible withdrawal from the European Union, giving the idea a sympathetic consideration before concluding:

It is still in Britain’s interest to stay in the EU, to prevent, if possible, a profound upset in the balance of power in Europe and to make co-operation easier on matters of mutual interest. Of course, contemplating withdrawal, like relaxing divorce laws, may make separation more likely, but the knowledge that a relationship could, reluctantly, be dissolved may be one of the best ways of ensuring that it remains equitable. [25]

The journalistic career notwithstanding, it was clear that, like many of his fellow hacks – Ed Balls, Boris Johnson, Ed Vaizey, Chris Huhne – Gove was not going to be really satisfied with himself till he had reached Parliament. He didn’t put it like that, of course. Asked why he was prepared to abandon journalism for politics, he had a pat answer. ‘I know it sounds naff,’ he explained, ‘but I wanted to put something back.’ [26]

In 2004 he was finally chosen for a nice safe seat in Surrey Heath, where the Tory vote was over 50 per cent even in Blair’s landslide in 1997. For an adopted boy from Aberdeen, it was something of a meritocratic achievement: among those he beat in the selection process were Jacob Rees-Mogg, Laura Sandys and Nick Hurd, the children of – respectively – an editor of The Times, a defence minister and a foreign secretary. (All three went on to be elected as MPs.)

Even when he was still merely a candidate, there were many already predicting great things for Gove the politician. None were more enthusiastic than his old hero, Michael Portillo, who suggested in 2004 that the Conservatives needed a new kind of leader if it were to stand a chance, before going on to outline the requirements for the position:

Young, charismatic and clear thinking, amusing but not a comedian, media experienced but not celebrity obsessed, family person, reliable, preferably from a humble background, educated in a state school, must believe in sweeping change in the party. Candidates with origins in the southeast need not apply. [27]

And, he suggested, Gove was just the man for the job.

Michael Gove was elected to the House of Commons in 2005, and within two years was in the shadow cabinet. Which is, according to Madsen Pirie’s account of their lunch together in 1999, precisely where he felt he ought to be:

Watching his self-satisfied demeanour, patiently waiting for me to finish so he could get back to his prepared brief, I suddenly realised that he was behaving like a minister; he sees himself as part of the process of government, or in his case, opposition. Maybe it is a simple play for power and influence in the Conservative Party, either with its present leadership or with its successor. But it is not journalism, or anything resembling it. [28]

[1] Guardian 12 February 1999

[2] Guardian 9 January 1998

[3] Guardian 2 May 1992

[4] Sunday Times 7 June 1992

[5] Independent 10 August 1992

[6] Guardian 4 October 1995

[7] Sunday Times 8 October 1995

[8] Times 19 October 1995

[9] Independent on Sunday 5 November 1995

[10] Guardian 28 February 1997

[11] Guardian 9 September 1999

[12] Times 25 May 1995

[13] Independent 25 May 1995

[14] Guardian 20 November 1996

[15] Guardian 31 July 1997

[16] Guardian 31 January 2000

[17] Independent on Sunday 29 April 2001

[18] Independent 20 April 2005

[19] Times 2 April 1997

[20] Times 4 July 2000

[21] Guardian 31 January 2005

[22] Times 13 July 1999

[23] Times 21 March 2001

[24] Times 25 February 2003

[25] Times 14 June 1996

[26] Guardian 31 January 2005

[27] Sunday Times 21 November 2004

[28] Guardian 12 February 1999


7 thoughts on “Michael Gove: ‘a young Scotsman on the make’

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