Michael Gove on being fired by Boris, battling with The Blob and the day he almost quit politics.
June 2, 2023. Series 7. Episode 66
Our guest for this episode of Crisis What Crisis? is one of Britain’s best-known politicians, Michael Gove. A man who has held numerous jobs in Cabinet, working under four Prime Ministers – he is of course now the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
For well over a decade, Michael has been at the heart of a series of political crises, including the forming of the Coalition in May 2010 (when we worked together), Brexit, the pandemic, and more recently the aftermath of the Liz Truss experiment.
In the moments of relative calm, including four years as the Education Secretary, Michael has built a reputation as a politician who gets things done. A fierce intellect coupled with a brilliant sense of humour makes him one of politics’ most engaging and effective operators.
Adopted as a baby, Michael grew up in Aberdeen. Like so many other politicians, including Boris Johnson, he found professional success first as a journalist at the BBC and the Times before deciding that reporting on Westminster was not enough for him.
Michael has a reputation as one of politics’ most courteous individuals, but at times, often at times of crisis, he has also shown himself to put it (as he would, politely) as someone capable of ruthless decision-making.
Michael’s Crisis Comforts:
1. Scotland. I do feel calmer when I get back home. It’s not just seeing my mum, wherever you grew up frames you. So Aberdeen – whether it’s in a nightclub, a pub or walking on the beach.
2. Exercise. I do like dancing but I also like running – I’m not very fast, I’m not very good, I’m not an athlete, but any sort of exertion that takes you out of yourself… going for a run even if it’s just half an hour, just helps to clear your head.
3. A glass of red wine. It has to be after six o’clock in the evening, normally it’s much later. And there’s a particular type of Bordeaux wine – Saint-Julien.
Host – Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford, Ed Isaacs and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global
Full episode transcript:
Michael Gove: [0:00:00] Boris rang, he said, you know, “I’m rearranging the government and all the rest of it, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to step back” and so on. And I said, “So you’re not going?” and he said, “No, no, no, I’m afraid you are.”
Andy Coulson: [0:00:19] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really helps ensure these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.
My guest today is one of Britain’s best-known, and one might argue most resilient politicians, Michael Gove. A man who has held ten jobs in Cabinet, working under four Prime Ministers. He is of course now the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
For funnily enough exactly thirteen years today, Michael has been at the heart of a series of political crises, including the forming of the Coalition in May 2010 when we worked together, Brexit, the pandemic, and more recently the aftermath of the Liz Truss experiment. Political dramas that on occasions carried with them a personal element for Michael, testing loyalties and friendships.
In the moments of relative calm, including a four-year stint as the Education Secretary, Michael has built a reputation as a politician who gets things done. A fierce intellect coupled with a brilliant sense of humour makes him, and I can attest to this having worked with him in opposition and for a while in government, one of politics’ most engaging and effective operators.
Where the innate resilience I mentioned comes from is something I’m sure we will explore in this conversation.
Michael was adopted as a baby and grew up in Aberdeen, very much minus silver spoon. Like so many other politicians, including his former boss Boris Johnson, he found professional success first as a journalist at the BBC and the Times before deciding that reporting on Westminster was not enough for him. He needed to dance on the main stage, a habit he finds hard to shake off.
Michael quite correctly has a reputation as one of politics’ most courteous individuals, but at times, often at times of crisis, he has also shown himself to put it as he would politely, as someone capable of ruthless decision-making.
Michael Gove, welcome to Crisis What Crisis.
Michael Gove: [0:02:25] Hi, Andy.
Andy Coulson: [0:02:26] How are you?
Michael Gove: [0:02:27] Not too bad, not too bad. It’s a pleasure to see you again.
Andy Coulson: [0:02:29] Michael. You’re a man who chooses his words carefully, there’s nothing lazy about your language. On the basis that it’s probably deployed now more than ever, what’s your attitude towards the word crisis? Are we over-using it?
Michael Gove: [0:02:44] I think we do over-use it. I think that if you’re in politics there are always going to be moments when you’re going to be challenged, when you’re going to be under attack, when things won’t go as you hope they would. And sometimes every reverse is translated into a crisis. Sometimes every occasion when a politician is questioned about whether or not they’ve got something right, and they’re asked what they knew and when they knew it, then the suffix ‘gate’ is attached to it, as though every politician was really secretly Richard Nixon.
The truth is that politics is a tough profession, and you do have to be pretty resilient in order to achieve anything. But there is a- I think there’s a scale. There are reverses, knock-backs that you can take in your stride, and then there are real crises. And those crises are the moments when governments can founder, when friendships come under sometimes intolerable strain, and when big decisions have to be taken that have consequences not just for the decision-maker but for others. And if you get it wrong then your conscience is obviously hit, but more importantly the lives of others are affected adversely.
Andy Coulson: [0:04:02] It’s a word of course that’s used right now in relation to what seems to be the sort of widening fault line, this is outside looking in, between our politicians and our civil servants. You know, the briefings, the sort of apparent lack of respect, activism as some people have described it.
You’ve had some, again, very carefully chosen words, to say about the Civil Service. You perhaps have a claim to the copyright of the Blob, which appears today on a newspaper. Not attributed to you, I should say, but it’s lived long.
But you’ve also, you know, on the other side, inspired radical change, real change amongst the way that our civil servants work. So how would you characterise the relationship between our politicians and our civil servants right now?
Michael Gove: [0:04:50] I certainly wouldn’t use the word crisis. And I think it’s been the case that all politicians who have tried to change things will have found that there will have been voices, and not just within the Civil Service but sometimes within the professions that they’re working with, that will have urged caution.
So, Tony Blair once talked about the scars on his back as he was trying to drive though public service reform. And it’s naturally going to be the case that people invested in an organisation, and invested in a particular way of doing things, will find it difficult to change. Because even if you admire them, even if you want to get better performance out of them, any argument for reform or change they will sometimes take as an implicit criticism.
So you know, “I’ve been doing it this way for five years. Now you tell me that we’ve got to do it in a different way? That we’ve got to have greater accountability, sharper performance, a new way of operating? That implies that over the past five or ten years I’ve been under-performing.”
Andy Coulson: [0:05:51] It’s more now though, isn’t it? Because hasn’t this now tipped into the personal? It’s gone beyond the professional. That frankly necessary tension that we have in the way that you’ve just described it, which is really the way that government gets done, it’s tipped over now though, hasn’t it? It’s something more personal. The people are now-
What concerns me I suppose, is that, having been in those rooms briefly, fleetingly, it is in the end, people in a room. And if the feeling in that room is one of mistrust, fundamental mistrust of, you know, “I’m worrying if you’re logging all this way and it’s going to be briefed to the papers, or worse, you’re going to use it against me in some other way,” that eats away, doesn’t it, at the sort of basic kind of machinery of government, if we’re not careful?
Michael Gove: [0:06:38] Yes, you’re absolutely right. And I think a lot depends on individual personalities and the interactions there. So, when I arrived at the Department for Education in 2010, the people who greeted me and who were working with me most intimately were people who just hours beforehand had been working for Ed Balls. I had been criticising them up hill and down dale for three years, and suddenly the person who had been the enemy number one was now not just their boss but also someone who we were operating cheek by jowl with.
Now, almost everyone with whom I worked was a total professional. But there were some people at that time who felt a sense of anger and regret at what had happened, and you know, there were some personal difficulties at that time.
If we fast-forward to now, I think one of the issues inescapably has been the attitude that some people have had towards Brexit. So there are some ministers who have been hard-driving, who have worried that across the Civil Service there was a sense that Brexit was a big, historic mistake, and therefore there hasn’t been the same enthusiasm for some of the changes that are necessary as there might have been for other policy changes.
And then then third element in it is I think workplaces overall have changed. So the news rooms in which you and I worked ten, fifteen, twenty years ago are environments that now would seem like, you know, sado-masochistic dungeons. And it’s a good thing, we should all be more considerate towards the people with which we work.
So I think those three things. There’s the personality, there’s a big change which requires a different way of working, and then there are changed attitudes, interpersonal attitudes which mean that some of the hard-driving attitudes of the past just no longer work.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:34] Yes. Things are tough, but I suppose mobile phones have stopped being thrown around.
Michael Gove: [0:08:37] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:39] Which wasn’t that long ago.
I remember when we walked into Number Ten, and one of the first things David Cameron did was to visit each major department and say to the civil servants, sort of gathered them in a sort of town hall like meeting, and said to them, “You’re a Rolls Royce machine and we’re lucky to have you.” So that was bigging up rather than beating up. The right thing to do? Even if actually in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “Actually this is a bit more like a Cortina than a Rolls Royce,” but that’s the way you move things forward, right?
Michael Gove: [0:09:11] Totally, totally. So David, even before he’d been an MP, had worked in government. He’d worked with Michael Howard in the Home Office, and people will remember that famous Jeremy Paxman interview with Michael Howard when Michael Howard was asked the same question multiple times. The reason that question was being asked is because there was a big row at the time between Michael Howard as a hard-driving Home Secretary who wanted to bring down crime, and people within the Whitehall machine at that time.
So David saw that up close. But what he’d also seen, even before that at a moment of crisis for the government was during Black Wednesday, when he was working next to Norman Lamont. And he’d seen some really top civil servants operating really ultra-professionally in order to get the government through that moment.
So he knew that within the Civil Service, yes there was sometimes institutional resistance, but there were also people who would go above and beyond, use their intellect but also their sense of public service for good.
And David also had what the best leaders do, which is the ability to motivate and to make people feel that they were part of something bigger than themselves.
Andy Coulson: [0:10:17] When you look back at those sunny days of coalition government, like I say, exactly thirteen years ago today, interestingly, you know, the rose garden press conference, the sort of Lib Dem love-in.
When you look back at that, because I think- I might be wrong about this, but as I think a fair number of people do, they sort of see that as the last time that British politics was civilised.
Michael Gove: [0:10:44] I think it’s understandable that we all look back and we remember times in our past when we- it’s not quite that we bathe them-
Andy Coulson: [0:10:59] You’re going to say that the rose garden was rose tinted, aren’t you?
Michael Gove: [0:11:03] No, to an extent we bathe them in a glow of nostalgia. I mean, the truth is that in the Coalition there was some surprisingly harmonious working, but there was also some acrimony as well.
I remember one occasion, about one year in we had a referendum on changing the voting to the alternative voting system. And you know, for the Lib Dems this was one of the prices that they’d exacted for the Coalition. For the Tories it was you know, a price we had to pay, but we were determined not to let the Lib Dems win and change the voting system, we thought it would lead to all sorts of chaos.
A hard fought campaign. In the campaign, and the anti-AV side was not just Tory, there were people from the Labour Party and other parties in it as well, some pretty punch material was there. And one of the pieces of evidence was a pamphlet with Nick Clegg on it, attacking him for breaking his promise on tuition fees and saying that you shouldn’t change the voting system just to please him.
Now of course, Nick Clegg thought, “I broke my promise on tuition fees for you guys, for the Coalition.” So I remember Chris Huhne, around the Cabinet table, throwing these pamphlets down and saying, “This is an absolute disgrace.” And there was an electric moment there, because the civilised environment of the Cabinet table where you know, whatever your individual feelings you operated in a business-like atmosphere, had been broken.
And so it was suddenly the case that an atmosphere that you would normally have which was like a board room had suddenly become like a family at war. And I remember both George Osborne and Nick Clegg saying to Chris, “Look, this is the Government of the United Kingdom. We will have our other disputes outside, but we have a responsibility in this room to think about good government.”
So there were tensions there, but there was also a sense that you had to put the- on both sides, the national interest first.
And I think also you had a group of politicians who were fresh to the responsibilities of power, even though obviously there were people who had served in government before.
So I do look back on it and you know, your first time at school or at university or in any new job which you’ve worked hard to achieve is always going to feel special. But I’d be careful about romanticising it because as I say, there were big tensions as well.
Andy Coulson: [0:13:20] Let’s talk about resilience. As I mentioned in the intro, you’ve held ten jobs in Cabinet. You’ve been promoted, demoted, hired, fired, worked for four different Prime Ministers all of whom had very different ways or working, if I can put that way.
So years, Michael, littered with lurching crises, a difficult, difficult environment, often. Give me a sense of how you operate, personally, day-to-day, within that kind of environment. What’s the sort of internal Michael Gove commentary during those moments of drama and crisis?
Michael Gove: [0:14:00] You have to to an extent compartmentalise. So you have to at certain points recognise that there are some things that even as big issues are swirling you have got to focus on the essential. So, like a pilot going through turbulence. It may be that there are passengers at the back who are clinging on for dear life, but you don’t have time necessarily to worry about the shrieks and screams at the back, you’ve just got to concentrate on trying to make sure that you get through that turbulence and you land the plane.
So at those moments of crisis you’ve got to be able to screen certain things out, obviously not be insensitive to it, but to concentrate on the task in hand. So compartmentalisation, prioritisation matters, remembering why you’re doing what you’re doing, and also the other thing is you have to operate in an environment where you can be certain that in the communication that you have with those around you that you- no one is wasting time at that moment on preening or back-covering. You’ve got to be in an environment where you feel, whatever else you feel about the individual, that you can trust them at that point to tell you what you need to know, sometimes uncomfortably, and then act on the basis of facts not hopes.
And above all, without wanting to make it too much of a cliché, you have got to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You’ve got to imagine what the absolute worst-case scenario is, without indulging in catastrophism, imagine what the reasonable worst-case scenario is, plan for it, and then plough on.
Andy Coulson: [0:15:59] That’s why, not to go backwards here, but that’s why I’m worried about this Civil Service bit right now. And maybe you know, you’re a great student of political history, maybe you’ll tell me, “This is just what happens. We have these moments in time where our relationship with the Civil Service starts to break and flounder.”
But it’s in those moments of crisis that is where the worry sits, I think. Because you’ve just described a room there dealing with a crisis, maybe we can pick one in a minute, a real example, where you’ve got to trust the people in the room. A, you’ve got to have the right people in the room, which in itself can be quite difficult, particularly in politics because there are a whole bunch of people who want to be in the room, who don’t necessarily want to contribute once they’re in it, but they definitely want to be in the room.
Michael Gove: [0:16:43] Of course.
Andy Coulson: [0:16:44] And then they’ll disappear away into the wallpaper. But there are also people that you absolutely need there, and there will also be people who you should absolutely not have in the room.
How do we do all that when we’ve got this kind of atmosphere of mistrust, I suppose? Is there an example you can think of where you’ve-?
Michael Gove: [0:17:03] Well I think there are several of them. I think the key thing is that you learn over time, and it’s not to be dismissive of the experience that lots of different people can bring. There are people who have the capacity to think deeply and add value. There are people who are great fun, with whom you can relax and who can help you through difficult times. But at those moments of crisis what you need is speed, candour, decisiveness, and over time you recognise the people who, either because they’ve served others well or you have seen them in that moment, can provide that.
Andy Coulson: [0:17:48] It is the scars that you’ve got together, right? That is so important, the esprit de corps, all that stuff.
Michael Gove: [0:17:54] Yes. So when I was at the Department for Education, over time there were people who worked in the private office, the team immediately around the Secretary of State or the Minister, that I brought on, who were people who I had seen in different roles coping with adversity, and people who also in meetings, even quite junior people, had had the courage to say, “That won’t work.”
And obviously we all know the character, they exist in news rooms as well as in politics, who whenever a story is put forward or an idea is put forward will always have the negative take on it. “That won’t work, it doesn’t add up, don’t believe it for a moment, that’s never going to run.” So you know, there are the negative Nellies.
But it’s also the case that there are people who you know will have worked hard to analyse the situation and say, “Look, you can’t do that.” Or who will say, “If you are, and it’s a big risk, then you’ve got to be ready for these ramifications.”
So I can think of individual civil servants with whom I’ve worked. A Private Secretary with whom I worked at Education, Pamela Dow. The Principal Private Secretary with whom I worked at MoJ, Amy Rees. Again, the Principal Private Secretary with whom I worked when I was at the Cabinet Office during Covid, a guy called Will Burgon. All of whom had this ability to say to my face, and they’d try to minimise the number of people in the room but if it needed to be said it would be said, “That’s wrong.”
Andy Coulson: [0:19:30] Yes. The ability to- or the importance of feeling that you can say that, is the absolute key isn’t it?
Michael Gove: [0:19:38] Completely.
Andy Coulson: [0:19:39] To have the courage and also to have the sort of security of knowing that-
Michael Gove: [0:19:44] Yes, because-
Andy Coulson: [0:19:45] And also to accept yourself that you may not be right. It’s just advice, right? But you’ve got to be right more than you’re wrong, but it’s just advice.
Michael Gove: [0:19:52] Early on, when I was at the Department for Education, I was responsible for cancelling a big schools building programme. And the announcement went disastrously wrong and the ramifications went on for weeks afterwards. And one of the issues there is that I hadn’t been there long enough to know and to encourage people to say, “You shouldn’t be doing it.” And I made every sort of error available.
The first thing is, if you’re going to make a big announcement you shouldn’t do it, if you’re a Secretary of State, on a Monday. You need to do it slightly later in the week because you need to have that full working-day immediately beforehand to rehearse, to make sure that you’ve got everything absolutely right. Coming out of the weekend straight into the Monday, tiny thing, big risk.
Andy Coulson: [0:20:43] That’s true of business as well, right?
Michael Gove: [0:20:45] Completely.
Andy Coulson: [0:20:46] That’s not just politics.
Michael Gove: [0:20:48] Completely. And then the second thing is, make sure that when you’re administering bad news- and it is bad news. I thought it was the right thing to do. We were saving money over all. These projects were wasteful and in some cases very poorly designed.
However, for people who were expecting their school to be re-built, this was a minister standing in front of them tearing the cheque up in front of their face and saying, “I’m afraid the repair is cancelled.” And if you’re going to do that, then you need both empathy and detail. And one of the problems was that in broad brushstrokes I explained why it was necessary to do it, but what I hadn’t thought through would be the impact on individual MPs. And as an MP myself, that is the first thing that I should have done.
And then the third thing is that there were just, you know, partly as a function of rushing to make the decision and not stress-testing it appropriately, mistakes were made. The list of schools that were being cancelled was just factually wrong. And you know, on the one hand that is just bad administration, on the other hand you are technically speaking albeit inadvertently misleading Parliament and so on.
And then what made it worse is that the Speaker at the time, dear friend of both of ours John Bercow, was not my biggest fan. So once I’d made the mistake he hauled me back in front of the Commons at seven o’clock-
Andy Coulson: [0:22:20] I remember this, yes.
Michael Gove: [0:22:22] And watched like a Roman Emperor as Ed Balls, whom I’d been tormenting for the previous three years, tore me apart, taking little strips off me, with the cold precision of a parliamentary Hannibal Lecter. And it was incredibly painful. But I had no one to blame but myself.
And you know, I learnt several things from that. And I also remember David Davis coming up to me afterwards and saying, “I know that this has been a disaster.” “Thanks, David.” But he said, “I also know that you will have learnt from this, and if you get through this, which you will, you’ll be a better minister for it.”
Andy Coulson: [0:23:10] Mm. Took you a little while to kind of get that worked out in your head because it hurt didn’t it?
Michael Gove: [0:23:14] As you know Andy, because you know, you were there at the time and offering me advice on how to get out of it. I mean, I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve just screwed up, and it’s not just me, it’s affected the government, our broader education reforms, what we’re going to try and do in terms of public sector reforms.”
So I remember going to talk to you, to George and to David at the time, and your advice was great and very straightforward, which is, you can fix this, you must fix this. All you need to do is just take the necessary time, get the facts absolutely right, apologise to those whom you need to apologise to. But the fundamental decision is defensible so get out there and make the case and we will back you all the way.
And thanks to your advice, and David and George being steady, and I have to say, no one elsewhere in government briefing against me, you know, no recrimination, you know?
Andy Coulson: [0:24:11] Civilised.
Michael Gove: [0:24:13] Yes, solidarity for you know, “Yes he might have screwed up, but you know, we’re behind him.” We got through it and I was able to spend four years as Education Secretary.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:24] Michael, of the Cabinet jobs that you’ve had, and I’m not going to let you say the current one I’m afraid, Education was the one that you enjoyed the most, got the most satisfaction from? It was obviously the longest stint.
Michael Gove: [0:24:34] Yes, I think so. It’s very difficult, because I enjoyed them all apart from being Chief Whip. I was rubbish as Chief Whip. I was playing out of position, it was all my own fault. But MoJ and Prison Reform, I was fascinated by and circumstances meant that I wasn’t there long enough to make the difference I would have wanted to make.
Being in Environment, I never expected to be in that role, and loved it. But Education I think is still the one where I feel that we got the most done and therefore there’s the greatest sense of satisfaction.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:11] Justice, though. I talked about this with Rory Stewart recently. It has a particular appeal to politicians.
Michael Gove: [0:25:18] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:19] His explanation for that was because you know that you are wholly responsible for it, right? No one else is responsible for our prisons other than our government. So therefore you’ve got your hands on the levers. But I sensed with you, and a bit like Rory, I talked about this with you not long after I came out of a prison, there was a passion about your desire to see reform.
How did it feel then, when you get, as is the nature of our politics which is perhaps something else we can discuss, this revolving door, you never actually get time. You got four years in Education which is a long stint in relative terms. How did you feel when suddenly all of this zeal, this kind of- which I know was real for you, you wanted to see reform. Suddenly the keys are in someone else’s hands.
Michael Gove: [0:26:08] It is gutting. And you’re right, a, there were- you know, one of the things about prison reform, and there were two thoughts in my mind. One is, as you mentioned right at the top of the podcast, I am adopted. And if you’re adopted you sometimes think, “What if I’d grown up in different circumstances?” And I know that if I’d grown up in different circumstances I might have been someone who could have ended up in conflict with the Criminal Justice System and potentially in prison. It can happen to anyone.
And I thought no one should be defined by their worst moment. All of us have moments when we’ve done things that have been pretty bad. Most of us are able to transcend that, and nobody should be defined by that. But there are a group of people who make mistakes, and sometimes they are people who, you know, there are some genuinely evil people in prison, but most of the people there have had tough lives, made too many mistakes, and are now paying the consequences.
And as you say, we’ve got control of their lives 24/7. What they eat, who they associate with, the opportunities they have to get new skills. The government controls that, nobody else does. So therefore if you can take people who have been broken and who have done damage to others, and you can give them a change to change their lives, then it’s not only they who are redeemed it’s also the case that society saves so much.
And I felt bad that because of other political factors, and of course Brexit and our involvement in the Referendum was the principal one, that I wasn’t able to carry that through.
The one thing though that I do feel is that as you say, many of the people who are drawn to or find themselves in that job, people like Rory, people like the current Secretary of State Alex Chalk, are people who are highly motivated in this area as well.
So as you know better than anyone, it is a really tough thing to do, to change what happens in our system, but I think that there’s a spirit abroad to reform it, which I think will bear fruit.
Andy Coulson: [0:28:30] Yes. I mean, I just worry that it’s the brief that requires consistency you might argue more than any other.
Michael Gove: [0:28:38] I would argue, yes. And there have been too many changes there. You’ve had good people in that role, you know, they’re no longer in politics. People like David Gauke and David Lidington, with whom I disagree about some stuff but they were dedicated as well. But the chopping and changing in that role just didn’t help.
Andy Coulson: [0:28:57] Michael, let’s talk more about your upbringing. As you’ve explained, you were adopted. Your dad ran a fish processing business that went to the wall I think when you were a teenager. A crisis for any family. Your sister, who I think was also adopted, is profoundly deaf. This was tough for your mum and dad, right? So an upbringing full of love, but also full of resilience. Do you attribute your ability to get through the tough stuff to your adoptive parents?
Michael Gove: [0:29:30] Absolutely. I was thinking about this earlier this year, my dad passed away right at the beginning of the year.
Andy Coulson: [0:29:35] I’m sorry.
Michael Gove: [0:29:36] No, no. And obviously that, for all sorts of reasons, makes you think about what you’ve lost and what you owe to your parents. And yes, my dad was a very resilient character. The business had been set up, it was a small business but it had been set up by my grandfather. My dad took it on, even though actually it wasn’t necessarily the first thing that he wanted to do professionally. But he took it on and ended up employing actually one of his brothers and one of his sisters in the business, out of duty towards my grandfather. I mean, he liked being a businessman and enjoyed the camaraderie of working in the fish trade, but he did that out of a sense of duty.
And in the same way, I also remember his sense of hard work was also there because he wanted to make sure that I and my sister were able to enjoy a comfortable life. And at the age of eleven I went to a fee-paying school, and it was because of his hard work that we able to pay the fees.
Then the business went to the wall. It didn’t go bankrupt but it was no longer viable, and he sold it and there was an element obviously of the trust that his father had placed in him to keep this business going, now he had to say not that it was a failure but that he couldn’t fulfil the promise he’d made to my granddad. And that was tough.
And for men of my dad’s generation, and I think there’s a Scottish element as well, in particularly the north east of Scotland people tend to be reserved, showing emotion is not a big thing, except at football matches.
So, I don’t remember my father ever crying. You know, stoicism- my mum did, but stoicism was a big thing for him. And at that time it was the case that he would no longer have been able- my mum and dad would no longer have been able to pay the fees for my school, but I just at that time, and it was good luck, there was a scholarship fund for people who were at that point of school which I was able to get and so was able to stay on.
And you know, the things that I remember are- I don’t want to over-romanticise it but just, my dad had this sense that you carry on. You don’t show weakness, you don’t indulge in self-pity, and it’s the same thing with my mum now. She’s in her eighties and again, having lost the person with whom she’d lived for essentially most of the past sixty years, that is tough. But her whole attitude is, don’t make a fuss, get on with it.
Andy Coulson: [0:33:04] They must both be- your dad must have been, your mum must still be, incredibly proud of you.
Michael Gove: [0:33:07] Well, I’m proud of them. And I-
Andy Coulson: [0:33:11] Answer the first bit. They must be incredibly proud of you.
Michael Gove: [0:33:18] Well yes, I think-
Andy Coulson: [0:33:18] And you know, you’ve been in politics long enough, you’ve been able to share, presumably, a fair bit of that with your dad.
Michael Gove: [0:33:23] Well yes, absolutely. And there is, at home there’s a photo just in the living room of the Cabinet when the Queen came. There was a picture where a joke had been cracked and you know, we’re all laughing around the Queen and so on, and I’m just behind. And it’s there, I suppose in pride of place in the room, lots of other family photos there as well.
And so you know, I think that my parents would never have imagined that one day their son would be sitting around the Cabinet table, running the government of, you know, Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom, and then in a picture with the Queen. And that their son would be, you know, on Andrew Marr’s show justifying this, or appearing in the House of Commons arguing for that. So yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:34:20] Did you talk to your dad when things were tough in politics? Was he someone that you would turn to and speak to?
Michael Gove: [0:34:27] Well yes, I did from time to time and he would always- whenever we chatted he would always ask how I was. My mum in particular would always want to make sure that I was, you know, it was almost as though I was still a student or a school boy who-
Andy Coulson: [0:34:48] Are you eating, Michael?
Michael Gove: [0:34:49] Exactly. Are you eating properly?
Andy Coulson: [0:34:54] Which by the way is very good crisis advice, right? You’ve got to look after yourself.
Michael Gove: [0:34:57] Totally, totally. And my dad would offer observations, and his basic view was, “Don’t worry son, you’re doing the right thing.” And that was, you know, it wasn’t the case that we would have deep policy discussions, but he had strong views on a number of things. And you know, he would tell me to keep going.
Andy Coulson: [0:35:28] Would you ask him, “Am I doing the right thing?”
Michael Gove: [0:35:31] On two occasions I did, yes. And one was over Brexit, and he was very supportive over that. And then one was actually way back, which was a big decision about whether or not to become an MP at all, and he was worried and others were worried that, you know, I had a good job working at The Times and so on, was I taking too much of a risk? But he said, you know, “If you believe that this is the right thing to do, then you should absolutely do it. Because if you don’t, you’ll regret it.”
Andy Coulson: [0:36:15] I remember being at a News International party with you when you were still a journalist and I was a journalist too, working on different papers but for the same boss, and you had I think literally just announced that you were going into politics. And you were flying high at The Times, right? I mean, you were absolutely on the shortlist to become an editor at some point.
And I remember saying to you, “What on earth are you doing going into politics?” I think you might have reminded me of that when we were then working together.
Michael Gove: [0:36:46] Later, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:36:48] Michael, I remember that you were very resistant to talking about your back story publicly when we worked together. Not because you weren’t proud of it, as you’ve just made very clear you are proud of it and of your family. But you know, bearing in mind that this was a time when the kind of toff attack was at, you know, was at peak toff. From the perspective of the job that I was there to do I thought your story was incredibly valuable and I was frustrated that you wouldn’t talk about it more openly.
Michael Gove: [0:37:20] Yes, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:37:23] What was that all about?
Michael Gove: [0:37:25] It comes back to this particular thing, again, you can cut it in different ways. And I sort of explain it to myself as you know, the type of personality that my dad had and that people from his background had as well, which is you don’t open up personally. So it’s somehow both a sign of weakness but also a sign of- it’s a presumption that people are going to be interested, or that- and the one thing you don’t want to do is to seek or try to evoke, you know, pity.
So you know, my view was, I’m always happy if asked to explain what I think the impact of being adopted is, and how my background might have shaped me. But I think you know, there’s a phrase, and I think it’s actually from some sort of mid-century, quite posh author, about the advice to the bridesmaid not the bride. Which is, Nobody is looking at you, dear. And my view was, get on with the job and try to win the argument on the basis of you’re doing the right thing, or that the policies that you’re putting forward or the values that you’re arguing for are right.
And you know, trying to win sympathy on the basis of your back story, I just found it a bit difficult.
I mean, funnily enough someone else who, I don’t disagree with about it but I who I can see some of the same things in, is or was Gordon Brown. Now, Gordon Brown had a very different background and indeed he did sometimes invoke his background. But if you pressed too hard, you will have seen in interviews with Gordon Brown-
Andy Coulson: [0:39:35] That’s absolutely right, yes.
Michael Gove: [0:39:37] He flinched. And I think it’s- I think it is partly a Scottish thing, but I think it is also, without wanting to engage in too much whatever, I think that probably both Gordon Brown and I have, one mustn’t overstate it, certain personality traits in common, in that I think we both think that you should be judged on what you deliver and work, rather than other things.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:01] Yes. I remember another moment when we worked together Michael, around the time of the expenses scandal in 2009, long-running, a seemingly never-ending crisis for Westminster actually, not just for the Conservative Party. And like almost everyone else, you know, your claims come under scrutiny. I was tasked then with having to sort of judge the media impact of each case, which I think was essentially a media problem in lots of ways.
And I remember us having a conversation on the phone, it was at the weekend, and although you were by no means, by no means a worse or even a serious offender, you felt the accusation very deeply. In fact to the point where you felt you should resign.
Michael Gove: [0:40:44] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:45] Bearing in mind this was when we were in opposition.
Michael Gove: [0:40:46] Yes, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:46] So, had you done so, what if, a very dangerous game to play, there’s a logic that says that would have taken you off if a completely path and a completely different life. What was in your mind at that moment? Because I remember talking to you, and you really did feel the accusation very deeply. It was an integrity thing for you.
Michael Gove: [0:41:07} Yes, there was so much. I remember, I think it was David Cameron who said that the- in the expenses scandal there were sort of basically three types of people caught up in it. Wolves, sheep and saints.
So the wolves were the people who absolutely played the system and milked it for everything that it was worth, and knew that they were gaming it.
Andy Coulson: [0:41:28] Filled their moats with milk.
Michael Gove: [0:41:30] Filled their moats with milk.
The saints were the people who didn’t take any advantage of it at all. They were the equivalent of the person who, offered a company car would say, “No, I’m just going to take the bus to work, thank you very much.”
And the sheep, of whom I was one, were the people who were told, “This is the system, this is what you claim for,” and when you say, “Are you sure?” they say, “Yes, this is all within-” a terrible phrase, “Within the rules.” “Are you sure? Alright, okay.”
The second thing- so, the first thing was, I felt I shouldn’t have just have gone along with it. I shouldn’t just have, you know, when I questioned and said, “Are you sure you can claim that?” “Yes,” I should have said, “Erm?”
The second thing was that some of the things which were claimed for were related to having a place in the constituency and a place in London. And at that time the rules were that if you had a constituency home you could claim for some, you know, fixtures and fittings there.
And when it went into detail about the fixtures and fittings for which claims had been made, I also felt that this was something which was an intrusion. It was all legitimate journalistic investigation but it still felt like an intrusion into my family. And it felt it wasn’t just be that was being questioned, it was also Sarah my wife at the time. And that felt bad.
And then the third thing was, I thought, I’ve made the decision to go into politics, it’s my decision. And anyone who goes into politics will have an ego, so it’s not like I’m Mother Theresa. But I’m doing it principally because of public service and because I believe in certain things. And I now worry that I’ve become, through a mistake, tarnished. And I thought, a) my ability to contribute, and b) my value to the team, has diminished. Maybe it’s just better if rather than trying to staunch the flow and cauterise the wound I just say, “Right, I’m off the pitch.” And I did feel bad about it.
David asked some of us who had been in the papers and criticised, to do something, if we felt bad about it, that he believed would help to heal the situation, which was to go our constituents, call an open meeting, ask anyone to ask any questions, and explain. And I did that, with your help and advice and the help and advice of others. And at that meeting, even though there was criticism, people understood.
So I just laid out what I’d done, why I’d done it, why certain things that I had felt were fine but clearly were a mistake, and why other things I felt were justified and why I would defend them. And at the end of the meeting the mood there was, “Well you know, you’ve been straight with us about this, you’ve clearly made a mistake but we are prepared to put that behind us now as a constituency.”
And I remember going home and talking to Sarah about it, and I remember being in sort of, it genuinely was a cathartic experience. I like a glass of wine but I very rarely drink spirits. That night I, just to sort of cauterise it I had slightly more whisky than probably would be well advised, but the next morning I felt not that it was all over, I still felt I’ve made mistakes I’ve got atone for them, but I felt at least I’d been able to explain myself to, in effect a jury, and to have that jury say, “Well, on this occasion we’re not going to convict.”
Andy Coulson: [0:45:42] Do you think if the expenses scandal happened now rather than then, that- because you’re not alone, right? There’s a generation of very talented politicians who have gone on to contribute to public life in meaningful and significant ways, who were in exactly the same boat as you.
That if that happened this week rather than then, would almost certainly- this is my view, I don’t know whether you would agree with it, that they would stand no chance whatsoever of being able to make the case that you were able to do back in 2009. The mood has changed, hasn’t it? The atmosphere has changed, the ability to kind of explain the stuff in the grey has almost disappeared. It’s all black or white.
Michael Gove: [0:46:24] Yes, I think that’s probably true. I think that at that time- the issue happened against the backdrop of a financial crisis, and people were feeling the pinch. But we’ve been through so much as a country since then, and people are suffering as a result of all of the factors that have contributed globally. I’m not trying to evade responsibility for this government, I’m not trying to be sort of you know, whatever, but there are people who are suffering, genuinely suffering.
But also on top of that I think that there’s been a trend, you are absolutely right, over the course of the last decade, fifteen years, to polarise. And hero, villain, black, white, Twitter lynch mob moves in that direction, Twitter lynch mob moves in the other direction.
I felt it particularly, funnily enough, during Covid, when we had to take very important decisions with imperfect evidence and with not enough time, and quite a lot of the commentary gave the impression that you know, people who were reluctantly embracing lockdown were authoritarian fanatics. And also, people who committed a minor lockdown breach were somehow putting the entire country at risk through their selfish recklessness. And so you did create this terrible situation.
To blame social media is to absolve us all of responsibility, but it’s just the case that social media is a platform that has amplified that. And again I think that the ability just to go to a group of people who you serve and who you represent, lay out your case, allow them to pass judgement, and then at the end of it for them to say, “Well, on balance while we think there are mistakes here, we still think that you’re the right person,” I think that would be much more difficult now, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:32] Isn’t it also the case though, that politics, politicians, campaigns, leave, and by the way remain too, tried to leverage that black and white dynamic also, right?
Michael Gove: [0:48:48] Yes. This is the thing, this is why I don’t like referendums. Now, you might say, “Bloody hell Gove, you were at the heart of it.”
Andy Coulson: [0:48:53] No, but you were- I remember, you were against the referendum. You thought it was entirely the wrong device.
Michael Gove: [0:48:56] Yes. No, the thing is I- yes. And you know, I was against it for many reasons. There was the personal one as you know, which was that I feared I’d be on the wrong side, which I ended up being, from some of my friends, and I still- the right side, the right side of the argument, but still a different side from my friends. But I also thought what applies to me will apply to the country as a whole. And I saw what had happened in the Independence Referendum in Scotland, and the way in which people were judged on their degree of Scottishness, and if you voted to keep the United Kingdom together then you know, there was a sense of trauma about that.
But yes, that’s one of the impacts of referendums, that you know-
Andy Coulson: [0:49:40] They are by their very nature divisive.
Michael Gove: [0:49:43] Exactly.
Andy Coulson: [0:49:46] You’ve mentioned it, it impacted friendships, very important, long-running, meaningful friendships for you. How did you deal with that at the time personally? And if I can ask, you know, time has healed a bit, right?
Michael Gove: [0:50:00] It has healed a bit, and, ultimately if you’re a politician you are- and you’re charged with certain inescapable decisions, you’ve got to do what you think is right overall for the country. And it’s a bit like, and I wouldn’t want to sort of exaggerate it, but it’s a bit like being a surgeon or a medic. You know, you’ve got to, to an extent, try to analyse what is the right thing overall, and take those steps in the broader interest.
And that sometimes means that you find yourself, as I did, in a position where I was disagreeing with friends and arguing against friends, and obviously the biggest consequence of that was a breach with David Cameron.
Andy Coulson: [0:50:54] That’s to suggest that you felt that it was a matter of life and death.
Michael Gove: [0:50:56] Not quite a matter of life and death, but certainly I felt that it was a- I had to follow what I thought was right, even though there was, you know, there was a near inevitable breach.
Andy Coulson: [0:51:14] And you did it actually, which is often kind of forgotten, the obvious point is that you did it thinking actually you’d probably lose.
Michael Gove: [0:51:21] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:51:21] I mean, you were surprised, to put it mildly, when you won.
Michael Gove: [0:51:26] Well, I though we were going to win until a week beforehand. I started off the campaign thinking we weren’t going to win, throughout the campaign and as the campaign went on I thought it was more likely that we would win, and then in the final week for a variety of reasons I actually thought we weren’t going to make it. But I thought right up until a week beforehand that we would, we would win.
And the thing is that actually people who were on the other side of the argument from me, for the most part I think have shown remarkable forbearance. I won’t to into all of the individuals, but there are people who would have had in politics every reason to say, “Right,” who have actually been, from their point of view, very forbearing and remained friends throughout.
And I think that’s often under-appreciated in politics, that-
Andy Coulson: [0:52:17] It’s certainly under-reported.
Michael Gove: [0:52:19] Under-reported, that people in politics know that sometimes there will be divisions of opinion and strains.
Andy Coulson: [0:52:29] Yes, it’s really interesting isn’t it? Because that’s the bit that’s behind the curtain that the public don’t see, certainly you’re not going to see it on social media, that we should see more of, right?
Michael Gove: [0:52:38] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:52:38] But as I say, the problem we’ve got is that politics and politicians will still dive in and use social media in the way that you’ve described. They’ll polarise, they’ll do the black and white, and that bit of reasonableness in the middle, it doesn’t have to be wishy-washy, a lot can get done with reasonable, right?
Michael Gove: [0:52:54] No, no, no, and there is a spectrum of these things. So, I was at the Coronation in my Cabinet role earlier this week, and I bumped into of all people Nick Clegg. Now, Nick Clegg and I notwithstanding trying to both in different ways make the Coalition work, had all sorts of clashes, particularly later on in the Coalition, so he’d got every reason to think, you know, and Brexit of course would have been a dividing line.
But we had a conversation about mutual friends and family, and he- I won’t go into the details but he expressed genuine interest and consideration and remembered certain details about people whom we both knew. And again, I think some people might have thought it odd that someone who is both out of politics and who would have every reason to disagree with me displayed genuine consideration. And there are people as I say, I won’t name them, who are much closer and who have been much more involved and entangled in the ups and downs of political life who are still, you know, people who behave with consideration.
And I think that it is difficult but you should always seek to look beyond political disagreement because it’s in the nature of the role that you are going to find yourself sometimes rubbing up against individuals. And if you can look beyond that, even if you’re in the passionate intensity of disagreement, if you can look beyond that, then that is a gift, not everyone has it, and trying to cultivate it is a good thing.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:29] I’m sure this is the unsolvable problem, but in the end it’s about self-interest isn’t it?
Michael Gove: [0:54:32] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:32] That when those big moments of drama come, when those big moments of crisis come, the judgement is often, not always, there are remarkable people who are able to rise above it, who can actually look beyond the self-interest and just sort of get to the kind of, “Well, what’s right here? I’m going to take a load of grief but I’m going to- what’s the right thing to do here?” How we inject more of that into politics, I don’t know.
Michael Gove: [0:54:57] It is difficult, it is difficult.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:59] It’s an impossible thing.
Michael Gove: [0:55:00] No, it is difficult. I remember- you know, one part of it is, I remember at different times, various debates that I’ve been involved with with different Prime Ministers or Leaders of the Opposition, at Prime Minister’s Questions, that half-hour. And the standard line is, it’s a Punch and Judy show, which shows politics at its worst with all of its catcalling. Let’s try and make it more civilised.
And I remember one conversation where David was genuinely interested, David Cameron was genuinely interested in saying, “Is there a way in which we can try to make this-?”
Andy Coulson: [0:55:31] Yes, it was very early on.
Michael Gove: [0:55:33] Yes, more elevated. And I remember George saying, “Look, wouldn’t it be lovely. But the truth is, this is a gladiatorial contest. Every week one person wins and one person loses. You do not want to be the person who loses week after week. You have got to go in there to win.” I’m not saying George said, “This is a good thing, this is a good feature of our politics.”
Andy Coulson: [0:55:59] It’s the reality.
Michael Gove: [0:55:59] It’s the reality. And therefore, you know, you’ve just got to be prepared to recognise that. And again, George was someone who could see that and then put that to one side and say, “Of course, if there are other areas where we can cooperate with people from other politics, or achieve big things by working across boundaries, yes fine. I’m not tribal, but what I am is a realist about what in politics you sometimes have to do.”
Andy Coulson: [0:56:36] Of George, we’re both a big fan. He got a lot of things right, so many things right, from a strategic point of view. From a comms points of view, actually, a really good kind of eye on the comms aspect of politics. My only thought here though is that you can, you know, we sort of weaponize conflict in politics, but you can weaponised reasonableness, right?
Michael Gove: [0:57:02] Yes, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:57:03] It’s more challenging, it’s much more of a- it’s much more difficult, but you can surprise and get yourself into entirely new, clear water by occasionally being reasonable. Do you think that’s impossible now?
Michael Gove: [0:57:17] No, I don’t think it’s impossible. I think as you get closer and closer to elections-
Andy Coulson: [0:57:21] Not being wet, by the way, not being soft. Standing your ground, making your argument, but doing so in a way that’s reasonable. Because that is your characteristic, right?
Michael Gove: [0:57:31] I try, I don’t always succeed. I think as you get closer and closer to elections it becomes more and more difficult. But I remember one occasion where we were trying to reform GCSEs and we’d bitten off more than we could chew and we had to row back, it was a classic U-turn. And my view was, front it up. Say, “Yes, this is a U-turn. Yes, we were going for a bridge too far. Yes, we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. I still think that the 80% that we’re achieving is the right thing to do, but those people who said that the 20% extra that we wanted to do was too much, yes they’re right and I accept that.”
And you can’t do that every day, but actually on that occasion what can the opposition say? You know.
Andy Coulson: [0:58:19] It’s very disarming, right?
Michael Gove: [0:58:20] Yes. And so there are certain moments. And you know, it helps if- and you know, at that point the government was in a relatively strong position, so acknowledging a retreat in that area at that time is fine. But it’s far better to be in a position where you are reasonable, than being, you know, the Monty Python Black Knight and saying, “It’s just a flesh wound,” when everyone can see that you’re on the ground and incapable of further progress.
So you know, part of resilience and grit is not operating in defiance of the facts, it’s taking the blow, maybe pausing before you then re-gather your energies for the next move forward.
Andy Coulson: [0:59:08] Yes. Reasonableness I think is a very authentic aspect of your political brand. But you have also been prepared to pull the pin on the crisis grenade from time to time, you know, distancing or removing yourself from Boris’s campaign on the day that he was announcing it.
You can’t kind of categorise that in any other way other than creating a moment of- intentionally creating a moment of drama that will have maximum impact.
So you’re not- you quite- I don’t know if ‘enjoy’ is the word, you will tell me if it’s the wrong word.
Michael Gove: [0:59:43] Certainly not, it was not enjoyable, no. I’ve been asked about it a lot and talked about it a lot. But the essential truth is that at that point as I saw it there were few good outcomes. Because I had lost confidence, maybe I shouldn’t have done, I’d lost confidence at that point in the appropriateness of Boris being Prime Minister at that point.
And you know, with the benefit of hindsight I should either have swallowed my doubts and said, “Look, it doesn’t matter. You’ve made your decision, you’re committed. You’ve got to stick with it, swallow your doubts and do everything you can to make it work.” Or, you can say, “Look, I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” and then just remove yourself from the debate and say, “Sorry, I’m out. Over to you, rest of the field.”
I thought, at the time, “If I don’t think it’s Boris and I’m not sure it should be the others, then I should put myself forward.” I know that everyone thinks, or lots of people think, that I’d always planned this. Absolutely not. But, it is one of those occasions where a decision having been taken in my mind, an extra 24 hours to think it through would have been very beneficial. But the clock was ticking, nominations had to go in the next day. What would the counterfactual have been? I suspect actually if I’d thought it through I might have thought, “Look, you made your bed, lie in it. Try to make this work.”
And then it had an influence on things subsequently. So subsequently my view was that whoever the Prime Minister was, whether it was Thereas, whether it was Boris or whoever, if you are in their government, if you are lucky enough to serve, try to make it work.
Andy Coulson: [1:01:47] Yes. Can we go to July ’22, then? Flying forward a fair bit and skipping over a lot of important stuff, but it feels like an age ago. You told the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson quite accurately that his time was up as Prime Minister. He responded, you know, in his usual mature fashion by firing you.
Can we talk about the art of political firing? How did he fire you? Has he got a- you know, what’s his MO?
Michael Gove: [1:02:17] I have to be fair, in all of the personal dealings that I’ve had with Boris he has always behaved, in the room, on the phone, with-
Andy Coulson: [1:02:33] Humour.
Michael Gove: [1:02:33] Humour and consideration. So I don’t think he finds it easy, I don’t think he relishes.
Andy Coulson: [1:02:43] Do you mind me asking, what did he say? How did he do it? I had this conversation with George about how Theresa May fired him.
Michael Gove: [1:02:48] Oh yes, yes.
Andy Coulson: [1:02:48] Which didn’t go well, as you know.
Michael Gove: [1:02:50] No, no. You know, in brief earlier in the day I’d said, “I think it’s all up. I regret it, but I have to tell you.” I mean, other people subsequently said the same thing in different ways. But I didn’t say, “You’ve got to go,” or, “I’m going,” or impose any conditions or ultimatum. I just said, “This is my analysis, I feel I’ve got to share it with you.” And it was meant to be a completely private meeting.
News of it then leaked out and then you know, the crisis that day accumulated. I was at home with one particular very old friend, Boris rang, he said, “Look, I’m rearranging the government,” and all the rest of it, “And I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to step back,” and so on.
And I said, “So you’re not going?” And he said, “No, no, I’m afraid you are.”
Andy Coulson: [1:03:46] Those were the words he used, “I’m afraid you are.”
Michael Gove: [1:03:48] Yes, and so as I said at the time, I think he was quite within his rights. Look, if you say to any Prime Minister, even if you say, “Look, I- you know, much against my will, I fear,” then they’ve got- well, they’ve got a right to fire you at any point, but certainly you know, I thought he was well within his rights. I thought the writing was on the wall, but a Prime Minister has a right to say, “My judgement is that I should survive, my judgement is that that is better, my judgement is that the people who I need are him and her, not you.” Fair enough.
Andy Coulson: [1:04:17] Yes. Was he carrying a bit of bitterness from previous?
Michael Gove: [1:04:20] I actually don’t think so. I think that there were some people who you know, who might not have like me or stuff that I’d done in the past, who might have taken, you know, a moment’s pleasure in it. But no, I don’t think he- I don’t think- he’s not- in my experience he’s not really a grudge-bearer.
You know, there’s mischief sometimes, but there’s mischief in lots of us. But no, I don’t think so.
Andy Coulson: [1:04:56] You’ve worked for four Prime Ministers. If you could make a composite of them, the best bits, what would you take from each four?
Michael Gove: [1:05:05] Okay. From Thereas May, tenacity. From David Cameron, clarity and strategic focus. From Boris, the capacity to inspire. And from Rishi, sheer devotion to public service and a highly developed conscience.
Andy Coulson: [1:05:34] You know what the next question is going to be. The worst bits?
Michael Gove: [1:05:37] Ha!
Andy Coulson: [1:05:38] The Frankenstein’s monster of Prime Ministers.
Michael Gove: [1:05:40] Oh right, gosh. That’s much more difficult. That is much more difficult.
Andy Coulson: [1:05:53] Much more interesting, as well.
Michael Gove: [1:05:54] It is. I will take the Fifth on that one. I’ll wait until I write the book. I can cowrite it with you Andy, and then we can go into it in greater detail.
Andy Coulson: [1:06:08] So Boris is then out, Liz Truss is in but you remain out. Presumably you’re then pondering what a new life might look like. What was the plan?
Michael Gove: [1:06:15] I didn’t have a fully formed plan, but what I was planning to do was do some writing. And I was also thinking about whether or not I should try to do something in either the education or the justice space. But the main thing was to keep the wolf from the door, to do some writing and speaking. But then as well all know, the period when Liz was Prime Minister was relatively brief. I had committed to stay in politics because I wanted to carry on arguing for some of the things that I thought were important.
Andy Coulson: [1:06:55] Did part of you though think, “That might be that,” in terms of government?
Michael Gove: [1:06:59] Yes, no I did, oh definitely yes.
Andy Coulson: [1:07:02] Because you are someone who’s stood for the leadership twice.
Michael Gove: [1:07:04] yes.
Andy Coulson: [1:07:05] Did pretty well in those leadership elections, right? There’s an argument to be made that that’s not a cause that should necessarily be given up forever. That’s written off now in your mind?
Michael Gove: [1:07:12] Oh no, no. Totally.
Andy Coulson: [1:07:14] But you have said that before, Michael.
Michael Gove: [1:07:16] Oh yes, no I have. But the thing is that the- I think I’ve tested that proposition to destruction. And I think in the last leadership election-
Andy Coulson: [1:07:28] Why do you say that, out of interest? Because you’re what, you’re 55?
Michael Gove: [1:07:31] Yes. No, I think-
Andy Coulson: [1:07:33] Which is no age in politics. You’ve seen over the last ten years how things can turn on their head, right?
Michael Gove: [1:07:39] Yes they can, but there is-
Andy Coulson: [1:07:41] So what makes you so certain? Is it just that you don’t want it, or that you don’t think that the stars will ever align for you?
Michael Gove: [1:07:47] Both, now. Realistically they would never align. I think that that moment, if it were ever going to occur, is long past. But also I think it wouldn’t be right for me now, maybe it never was. I think, again- I think David Cameron had this view which was that there were some people who just have that extra thing, indefinable thing, that would mean that they could be leader and/or Prime Minister.
And that’s not to say that he was saying they would necessarily be a good leader or Prime Minister, but I think that he identified that in different ways. Theresa could be a leader or Prime Minister, George could be a leader or Prime Minister, Boris could be a leader or Prime Minister, but that you know, whatever the- whatever I brought to the table there was just an element missing.
And I think in retrospect he was right. You’d have to ask him to define what that element was, but I think he was right. And you know, if you try to run in that race and you believe that you might have something to offer, but you don’t make it and don’t make it twice, then you’ve been through that testing process. People have, you know, looked at you and thought, “Mm, not quite.” So, no.
Andy Coulson: [1:09:23] So, we’ve almost certainly got an election next year. What do you sort of hope for for the next- for the period in between? Obviously we’re going to have a campaign which is going to create its usual dramas. A period of calm would be useful for a short while? What do you think our chances are?
Michael Gove: [1:09:41] I think Rishi, if we have the election in- as most people expect, in the autumn of next year, and I, you know, no scoop here, I do not know when it will be but you know, that’s where the consensus is. If it happens then, we will have another eighteen months or so, Rishi will only at this stage have been through a quarter of his time as Prime Minister before the election.
I’m not going to try to spin it, but I do believe that the more that people see of his style of government the more that people will believe this is the person that we want to have as Prime Minister for the foreseeable future. And the way he takes decisions, the values that drive him, make me think that he is a natural in that role. And I think what we’ve seen so far, which is calm and deliberate decision-making, then sometimes a bold move like the Windsor Framework, but one that’s been well thought-through, and then a resilience as well.
And a sense also of what is truly important and what is peripheral, and when to take risks and then when to play safe, will see us in a better position.
I could say all sorts of things critical of Keir Starmer, but this is not the place, but I think that the contrast will definitely more and more work to Rishi’s advantage.
Therefore I think that he will win the next election because that fundamental choice is who do you want as Prime Minister. And I’ll be running as a Conservative candidate in Surrey Heath in the hope that I get re-elected so I can be part of that majority.
Andy Coulson: [1:11:24] The Party will keep pin in grenade?
Michael Gove: [1:11:28] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [1:11:31] Keep gun away from own foot?
Michael Gove: [1:11:32] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [1:11:33] Which of course as we know is an instinctive action of the Conservative Party too often. Do you feel the mood at the moment you think is not a mood of- it’s sound crisis management rather than crisis creation?
Michael Gove: [1:11:45] Yes, I think so. And obviously if you’ve got a political party that comprehends the range of opinions that any governing party has, and you have three-hundred-odd MPs all of them with something to contribute, then you know, there will debates and there will be differences of opinion, and there will be disappointment.
But no, I think that people, having seen what happened last year know that we have got to stick together and demonstrate that sense of both competence and responsibility.
Andy Coulson: [1:12:31] Responsibility.
Michael Gove: [1:12:32] Yes, exactly.
Andy Coulson: [1:12:36] And so all goes well, new government formed, you’re invited in. The job that you’d like? Foreign Secretary was always-
Michael Gove: [1:12:46 Laughter]
Andy Coulson: [1:12:46] You’re a main with views, obviously, on foreign policy. But I mean, in all seriousness, a scratch that you feel you’d like to itch? Or an itch you’d like scratch, I should say?
Michael Gove: [1:12:57] No, no. And I know it’s a pat answer but I would just- one of the points you made earlier is that the longer you’re in, up to a point, the more you can achieve. So what I’d love to be able to do is to carry on with some of the stuff that I’m doing in this role. But I also am conscious that there are lots of talented people knocking on the Cabinet door, and the likes of Claire Coutinho and Laura Trott and Lee Rowley and Rachel Mclean and you know, people who are known in the Westminster village but are not very well-known outside. You know, they’re the next generation.
Andy Coulson: [1:13:36] You’re 55 years old, Michael.
Michael Gove: [1:13:38] Yes. But I’ve also been, as you’ve pointed out, doing this stuff for thirteen years.
Andy Coulson: [1:13:41] But that’s a good thing, because that’s the- that the other problem that we have in politics right, is that you talk to people at a certain stage in the career, as I hope people will be listening and watching this podcast, right? And think to themselves, “There’s someone we need in politics,” right? Because you’ve been frank, you’ve been open with us, you’ve got views, you’re completely relaxed in a way that you weren’t, frankly, obviously, thirteen years ago.
Michael Gove: [1:14:03] Yes, that’s true.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:04] That’s when we need you in politics.
Michael Gove: [1:14:06] Yes, but I think- I mean, again, if, which I think we will, we win, then at that stage it’s for the Prime Minister to- it’s for Rishi to decide. And in a way almost- if he said, “I’d like you to do this,” and I thought, “Look, I’ll be rubbish at that and it won’t help,” then fine. But if he- there are different ways of helping a Prime Minister and helping a government and bringing, you know, whatever experience you have to bear without hanging around too long.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:36] And if it does go wrong, obviously that’s, you know, that’s something we don’t discuss.
Michael Gove: [1:14:40] Not contemplating defeat.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:41] Newspaper editor?
Michael Gove: [1:14:42] No.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:43] Never?
Michael Gove: [1:14:44] No. Well, I think the world-
Andy Coulson: [1:14:45] What about when George did it? There must have been a slight pang?
Michael Gove: [1:14:49] You know what? I think he did it brilliantly, actually.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:50] But there must have been a little bit of, “I bet that would be fun.”
Michael Gove: [1:14:54] No, I thought he did brilliantly. No, I’m not thinking about that. So when I say no, it’s just that- it’s not like I’ve run through a list of future options and said, “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.” It’s just I’m concentrating on what I’m doing now.
Because again, I talked about compartmentalisation earlier, and obviously you’ve got to think to the future, but if you spend too much time thinking, “Maybe this, maybe that,” you lose focus on what you’re doing now. And you’ve got to concentrate on the task in hand, and again, touching on what we said earlier about crisis management, part of it is you mustn’t micromanage. That way you’d go mad. But you’ve got to be capable of diving into some of the detail.
So you’ve got to be capable of suddenly focussing in on one part of the picture. And if you allow yourself to be too distracted by other thoughts, good or bad, you lose that.
Andy Coulson: [1:15:53] Michael, thank you so much for joining us today. I am biased, as I think has probably come though in this podcast, having worked with, and who cares? Because this not the BBC. But I think it’s absolutely the case that the most effective Cabinets of the last thirteen years have been those that have had you around the table.
Michael Gove: [1:16:12] Thank you.
Andy Coulson: [1:16:14] So thank you for your work.
Michael Gove: [1:16:15] Thank you, Andy, thank you very much.
Andy Coulson: [1:16:17] And thank you for your insights today.
Michael Gove: [1:16:19] Not at all.
Andy Coulson: [1:16:18] It’s really appreciated. We’re going to finish as we do in every one of our conversations, every one of our conversations, by asking for your three crisis comforts. So these are three things, can’t be another person, that you rely on during the tough times. And I’ve never done this before because I think it’s for you to decide, but I really would like the first one to be Aberdeen nightclubs if that’s possible. Because I suspect- am I right? That it is a stress release?
Michael Gove: [1:16:42] Yes, so the first thing is, I do feel calmer, sometimes, or better, a lot of the time, when I get back home to Scotland, you know. It’s not just seeing my mum, it’s- wherever you grew up frames you. So Aberdeen, whether it’s in a nightclub, whether it’s in a pub, whether it’s walking on the beach, Aberdeen is definitely one of those things.
And then the other thing also, the second thing is I do like dancing but I also like running. I’m not very fast, I’m not very good, I’m not an athlete, but any sort of exertion that takes you out of yourself. So I’m not a gym bunny, I’m not muscle-bound, but going for a run even if it’s just half an hour, just helps to clear your head. So Aberdeen, exercise.
And then the final thing would be at the right point in the day, it has to be after six o’clock in the evening, normally it’s much later, a glass of red wine. So, just enough-
Andy Coulson: [1:17:55] A particular favourite you can give us? Can you be more specific?
Michael Gove: [1:17:59] I’m no connoisseur, but I have a friend who will remain nameless who was an Education Minister with me, who is a big wine connoisseur. And there’s a particular type of Bordeaux wine, Saint-Julien, it’s a particular area within it. So if he were around, Lord Agnew, and he were able to pour me a glass of Saint-Julien, that would be the perfect stress relief.
Andy Coulson: [1:18:24] Superb. Michael Gove, thanks for joining us.
Michael Gove: [1:18:27] Thank you very much Andy, thank you.
Andy Coulson: [1:18:29] If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. And if you hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you download your podcasts from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website, crisiswhatcrisis.com
Thanks again for joining us.