Review: Michael Gove - A Man in a Hurry by Owen Bennett

Posted On: 
13th September 2019

Owen Bennett’s pivotal biography delivers valuable insights into the character of an intriguing man, finds David Laws

David Laws and Michael Gove
Credit: 
PA

A biography of Michael Gove is long over-due. Modernising mate of Prime Minister Cameron. Radical Education Secretary. Chief Whip. Reforming Justice Secretary. Leader of the “Leave” campaign. Candidate for Conservative Leadership (twice). Come-back kid as Environment Secretary. Most recently, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in charge of ‘no deal’ Brexit preparations. There is no shortage of material. Since 2010, Gove has invariably been at the centre of political events.

But what makes Michael Gove so interesting is not just the part that he has played in contemporary politics, but his intriguing and seemingly contradictory character. This is the man, after all, once described by a fellow Conservative MP as “a mixture of Jeeves and Che Guevara” – one moment the most courteous man in Parliament, the next capable of taking the axe to political opponents and even colleagues. This is the man who ended the political career of a friend and Prime Minister, David Cameron, and who soon afterwards seemed to have torpedoed the leadership hopes of another close colleague – Boris Johnson.

Michael Gove is the mild-mannered moderate who wants to transform the Conservative Party into being a deliverer of opportunity and greater social mobility. He was the Justice Secretary who wanted to give offenders a “second chance”. But he has also been the hawk on Iran and Iraq; the champion of mandatory sentencing for knife crime; and the unapologetic proponent of a tougher policy to “drain the swamp” of potential extremists.

Owen Bennett’s biography will help the reader gain a greater understanding of this influential, complex, fascinating, amusing, charming, clever, and at times ruthless, man. Michael Gove was born “Graeme Logan”, to an unmarried woman from Edinburgh, and was within months of his birth adopted. Education, drive and great intelligence – rather than the silver spoon – were the Gove way to the top. While we were in government together, I remember him once telling me that the next Conservative General Election manifesto was being written by “five Old Etonians, and for social balance one ex-student of St. Paul’s School”. He laughed, but it was obvious that he was outraged. Michael Gove has never been the natural supporter of a gentle, reformist, English public-school conservatism – designed to deliver incremental change, but only as a vehicle to avoid more radical upheaval.

'Education, drive and great intelligence – rather than the silver spoon – were the Gove way to the top'

Unlike many of his Conservative colleagues – Cameron, Osborne, May and Johnson – Michael Gove is a genuine Tory radical. He believes in some distinctively non-conservative policies to spread wealth and opportunity. “The thing you have to remember about Michael,” David Cameron once told a frustrated Nick Clegg, “is that he’s a bit of a Maoist – he believes in progress through creative destruction.”

Owen Bennett’s book helps lift the lid on this complex character. It is, perhaps, stronger and more informative on the early period of Gove’s life. Of 23 chapters, only the final nine deal with the post-2010 period in government. That is a not enough space. The book’s sub-title is “A Man in A Hurry”, and perhaps Bennett himself felt a degree of pressure to bring his volume to a conclusion, as Theresa May was toppled from power and the recent Conservative leadership election loomed?

And there lies the oddity about this biography – that it has not merely recorded the Gove story, but helped shape it. Bennett’s final few pages explain how the early serialisation of the book, and its revelations about use of illegal drugs, helped end Michael Gove’s second attempt to secure the most powerful job in the land. So was this one biography whose contents helped make its subject of less, rather than more, future interest?

Well, maybe. But Gove has already bounced back from three career disasters which could have sunk a lesser politician. One suspects that there will be many more chapters that will need adding before we have the definitive account of the life of this controversial and exceptional man.

David Laws was Lib Dem MP for Yeovil, 2001-2015, and served as a minister in the Coalition Government