Who Will Heal This Divided Country?

After the surprising collapse of the dream ticket, the Conservatives must choose a leader who can offer optimism and hope

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Friends disunited: Will Conservative MPs and members forgive Michael Gove for his ruthless betrayal of Boris Johnson? (©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images)

The referendum on the European Union has released demons which even the doom mongers had not foreseen. No sooner had David Cameron committed hara-kiri than Boris Johnson, hitherto the most unlikely candidate for political suicide, followed suit. Jeremy Corbyn has lost the confidence of his parliamentary colleagues, and some Labour MPs wonder aloud whether their party has a future. Significant developments which in normal circumstances might dominate the news are crowded out by even more seismic events, and so are barely reported. It is impossible to know from which direction the next thunderbolt will strike, and only a fool would predict with any certainty what is going to happen tomorrow.

Some things, though, can be agreed. The country is deeply divided. There are people — many of the young, the more intellectual Left, many of the better educated, Londoners and the Scots — who believe that their country has been irretrievably taken away from them, and is never going to be given back. They feel bereavement, anger and astonishment. On the other side, there are millions of happy people who are rejoicing that the independence of their country has been restored, and relieved that we will at last be able to control our own borders. These two groups — the mourners and the jubilant — can scarcely talk to one another, and if they try to do so arguments usually bounce back unheard. Families and friends are split, sometimes bitterly so.

In the days following the referendum, my hope was that time would prove to be a great healer, as it nearly always is, and that if the economy did not collapse, distraught Remainers might grieve less. As I write, not enough time has elapsed for any healing process to get underway. The economy has not caved in, but there has been enough bad news for the pessimists to believe that their worst fears are being fulfilled.

Something else has happened which probably was predictable. There are an increasing number of people who do not want to accept the outcome of the referendum. Within 48 hours of the result a petition had attracted three million signatories. Nothing had changed. There was no evidence of electoral malpractice, or any other respectable argument for challenging the outcome. Lots of our fellow countrymen are simply unwilling to accept the democratic verdict of the majority of voters for no reason other than they do not like the result. Life-long Europhiles such as Tony Blair, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke (the usual suspects, one might say) have been stirring the pot.

So whichever way one looks, things are pretty grim, and it is silly to pretend otherwise. The self-immolation of Boris Johnson was, for me, another blow. Considerable though my misgivings have been about him, I believe his withdrawal represents a national loss, and I find it impossible not to feel sympathy for him. The man without whom there might well have been no Leave vote — he who assured us that a “great future” lay before us — has vanished. One set of doubts (could Boris be trusted as a leader?) have been replaced by a more disquieting question (who can now lead us to the Promised Land?). I believed that more than any other politician he had the optimism and the confidence and the vision to lead this country onwards, and heal it. I hoped that Michael Gove would supply ballast and calm analysis, and be the counterpoint to Boris’s weaknesses. They were the nearest we could have had to a dream team, and now it has been smashed completely. The “Gover” by himself is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Never did the old adage that there are no true friends in politics seem more apt. First Michael Gove deserts his old pal David Cameron. Their respective wives, once close friends, are reported to be at daggers drawn. But this turned out to be the mere prelude to a far more sensational betrayal. The bonds uniting the “Gover” and Boris Johnson were longer standing, and the referendum had seemingly made the two men indivisible. They first met 30 years ago at Oxford, when the less confident Scot became the bag carrier and “stooge” (his word) to the glamorous Old Etonian in his successful machinations to be President of the Union.

A close though unequal relationship was forged which lasted until the morning of June 30, 2016. Michael Gove had the eye for detail. He was, at any rate to begin with, a clever backroom boy. Boris was the star — more successful in journalism, first into the House of Commons, Mayor of London while Gove was still building sandcastles in Opposition, and a truly national figure. That Boris took his old friend for granted can scarcely be doubted. In the end a voice, divine or wifely, asked him why he should put up with it forever. One can understand his feelings, but telling Boris at the last moment, just before he was due to announce his candidacy in confident, if not triumphal, terms, was a cruel and unfriendly act which close supporters of Boris — and surely Boris himself — will never forgive.

That said, I’m not sure Boris should have deserted the battlefield so quickly. I can see that the betrayal, and the manner in which it was executed, must have weighed heavily on his spirits. I can also appreciate that, with MPs defecting to Gove like turbulent and untrustworthy barons swapping sides in a blood-soaked Shakespeare history play, the electoral arithmetic suddenly looked extremely unfavourable to Boris. But I wish he had stayed and fought. Even if he had not emerged as one of the two candidates whose names are put forward to Conservative Party activists for their final selection, he would have shown courage in the face of adversity, and remained loyal to the great cause of which, during the referendum campaign, he had been such an inspiring leader.

Still, we are where we are. I write, as must be clear, as a Brexit supporter, but one, like many of my ilk, who has some anxieties. Although Britain is not in the grip of an existential crisis, the challenges which lie before us are daunting. They might fairly be compared in seriousness and complexity to those which Margaret Thatcher faced in 1979. Ours is a country at once confused and expectant. It requires an outstanding statesman — or stateswoman — to guide it through uncharted and potentially perilous waters.

The problems besetting us can be divided into two categories, internal and external. At home there are rancid differences. I’ve already referred to the disgruntled Remain supporters agitating for a rerun, and of course the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon has been manically beating the drum for a second referendum independence for Scotland. Among many Labour supporters, particularly in the North, Midlands and South Wales, there is a strong sense of alienation stoked by uncontrolled immigration which led millions of them to vote Leave in defiance of feebly expressed party policy. It is surely obvious that unless their fears are addressed, and immigration significantly reduced, our next Prime Minister will be on the receiving end of much opprobrium.

Abroad there is the challenge of extracting ourselves from the European Union on terms that do as little damage as possible to the economy while maintaining constructive relations with our former partners, and forging new links with the wider world. There will be prolonged, complex and bone-crunchingly detailed negotiations. Some have even wondered whether we have enough Rolls-Royce minds in the upper reaches of the civil service to safeguard our interests.

If it can’t be Boris, who should the next Prime Minister be? It may be that one of the less fancied candidates (the Leave campaigner Andrea Leadsom, perhaps) will seize the imagination first of Tory MPs, and then of the party activists. If the man who is reputedly the nation’s biggest egotist can fall on his sword, anything can happen. In this new world of dizzying developments, nothing should be taken for granted. But I am nonetheless going to take the risk of restricting the discussion to the relative merits of Michael Gove and Theresa May, and of imagining that one of them will be crowned Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister on September 9.

Michael Gove’s claim to the crown remains strong. He was, with Boris, the co-leader of the referendum campaign, and must be accorded a fair portion of credit for its success. No one doubts that he believes in the cause at a very deep level. With the “Gover” at the helm there would be no prospect of backsliding, and no possibility of an Establishment stitch-up with people prodded and cajoled into a second referendum.

Moreover, he is an undoubted intellectual in a way that David Cameron and arguably even Boris Johnson are not. That is to say, he is not simply a clever pragmatist but a man with a set of coherent beliefs which he would pursue and defend on every front. This is rare in a Tory leader, or any other leader, come to that. Among Conservative prime ministers Margaret Thatcher stands out as the only one in recent times who could reasonably be described as a strong “ideas person”, and she certainly wasn’t the finished article when she found herself in charge of her party in 1975. Michael Gove is. He has libertarian leanings, and is socially progressive, extremely pro-American and very friendly towards Israel. His is a combination of views not very common among British politicians.

Despite his diffidence — which has expressed itself in his oft-repeated assertion, now contradicted by events, that he does not see himself as prime ministerial material — he is a steely, even confrontational, politician prepared to stand up to vested interests in pursuit of his goals. As Education Secretary from 2010 until he was re-shuffled by a tremulous Cameron in 2014, he took on the small-c conservative teaching profession, which he privately disparaged as “the blob”. I don’t think that anyone need have any doubts that in the inevitably contentious and gritty talks with our European partners Gove would be a tough and assiduous negotiator.

By contrast, Theresa May could hardly be described as an intellectual or an ideas person, though she is obviously perfectly intelligent, and falls naturally into the tradition of Tory pragmatism. While apparently a convinced Eurosceptic, she appeared to have no great difficulty in accepting Cameron’s paltry package of concessions which he was offered by our grudging EU partners. Yet she could not bring herself to campaign with much enthusiasm for Remain, being rather like Jeremy Corbyn in that respect. Her fence-sitting may have been politically astute but it implied somewhat fluid principles. During the referendum campaign she reiterated her wish for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, thereby warming a few Eurosceptic hearts, but withdrew this commitment when declaring her candidacy.

On the other hand, as Home Secretary since 2010 she has shown that she can be a “tough cookie” who won’t easily trim her sails once she has embarked on a course of action. The hate preachers Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada, who had managed to defy previous Home Secretaries, were finally sent packing, and the self-serving Police Federation was regularly lambasted. But despite her limited success in bringing down non-EU immigration, Theresa May has failed to reduce overall numbers, which stand close to an all-time high — the net migration figure being 333,000 in 2015. No doubt she would rightly say that this is because she has been unable to tackle the growing tide of immigrants from the EU, who have the right to come here as they wish. Yet she accepted the Prime Minister’s feeble package which would have had very little, if any, impact on the number of people coming from the European Union.

Mrs May won’t set the heather alight. As she admitted herself when setting out her stall, she is not “a showy politician”. But she is dour and hard-working and diligent. Tough, as well, I am sure. One can imagine her staring at Angela Merkel across a table without quailing.

I must say that in normal circumstances, if I could not have Boris, I would probably prefer Michael Gove to Theresa May. However, these are not normal circumstances. I fear that by deserting Boris at the last moment Gove has fatally undermined the cause for which the two men had so bravely fought. Doubtless Boris had been exasperating and evasive and chaotic. (It has been reported that he absent-mindedly mislaid a job offer letter which Andrea Leadsom had demanded in return for her support.) But Gove had known Boris for 30 years. His behaviour can scarcely have come as a surprise to him. Indeed, in an article in the Times on October 19, 2004 he praised Boris for his colourfulness, originality and élan, and celebrated “this free spirit . . . the People’s Boris”.

Michael Gove would have been the perfect foil to Boris. They could have been a winning team. By himself, though, the “Gover” is less than half of what they might have been. Moreover, by betraying him (there is no other word) so ruthlessly he has revealed a spitefulness which few had suspected. Some see the hand of his overwrought and excitable adviser, Dominic Cummings, who played a major part in the Leave campaign. But politicians must take responsibility for their own acts. Even in the brutish world of politics there can be no defence for dumping Boris as he did, while opining that his friend of 30 years was not up to the job. Tories respect decisiveness and strength, but this was something else. As I write, Conservative MPs are reportedly switching to Theresa May in large numbers.

Am I going against my own dictum that in the swirling post-referendum world which we inhabit little is certain, and predictions are dangerous? Possibly. A comeback by Gove is not inconceivable: he may well be one of the two winning candidates elected by MPs, and when the dust has settled the party activists could turn out to be forgiving of his assassination of Boris. Nor should we rule out an unexpected surge by one of the other candidates. I just feel that what could, and should, have been the great combination of Boris and the “Gover” has been needlessly thrown away.

All that matters, of course, is the future of our country. Theresa May has declared that “Brexit means Brexit”, and we must hope she means it. I believe she is a woman of integrity. I am sure, if elected, she will appoint Brexiteers to key positions in the Cabinet. The negotiations will be long and arduous, and at every stage there will be siren voices claiming that circumstances have changed, and that there should be another referendum. If that cry were heeded, the already frail public confidence in our democratic institutions would probably collapse.

Can Theresa May be a healer? Will she be able re-unite the two halves of this country, which cannot understand, or even talk, to each other? I believe time will help, and I hope it will become clear to unhappy Remainers that, despite inescapable economic difficulties, leaving the EU will not lead to Armageddon. Perhaps this uncharismatic, stiff, inscrutable but palpably decent woman will be able to bring us together, and persuade the people of this country that we can have the glorious future which Boris Johnson once promised us.