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Tory leadership: Behind the scenes of Johnson-Gove drama

By Mark Mardell
Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • Brexit
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionMichael Gove and Boris Johnson: A Shakespearian tragedy?

The comparisons to a Shakespearian tragedy have become a cliché, so obvious are the parallels with Caesar, Macbeth, and more profoundly Coriolanus.

But it has perhaps been more like Pinter than Shakespeare.

The menacing silences, the bullying over polite exchanges, the brutal quest for dominance as self-confidence drains from one man to another.

So here is a cut-out-and-keep guide for any budding dramatist on what we know and what I've found out.


The day of the referendum.

I'm told Michael Gove and Boris Johnson go to bed with only one speech prepared - to acknowledge defeat.


04:45 BST

A mobile phone rings in the Gove household.

His wife, Sarah Vine - as she explained in her Daily Mail column - hears her husband's phone go off.

Then this exchange.

"Michael, guess what? We've won!"


She wrote in her column: "Given Michael's high-profile role in the Leave campaign, that means he - we - are now charged with implementing the instructions of 17 million people.

"And that is an awesome responsibility."

As the mobile phones go mad: "'You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off,' I said, in my best (ie not very good) Michael Caine Italian Job accent.

"In other words, you've really torn it now."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionNo laughing matter: Sarah Vine did her best Michael Caine accent

The tear widens as David Cameron resigns.

Boris Johnson was at home with a small team, watching the prime minister resign live on TV.

Victory, one insider said, was the moment it all went wrong.

Another told me Boris felt he was staring down both barrels of a gun. He had rather a nice life - did he really want to be PM?

Watching the prime minister resign, Team Boris think Gove, who'd been talking to Chancellor George Osborne, might come on board.

Then pretty much public silence from the man who hoped to be prime minister.


Cut to a close-up of the thwack of willow on leather - Boris at the wicket of a rather posh, rather jolly, cricket match.

Then an apparently quite amusing barbecue at his country house.

image copyrightReuters
image captionBoris Johnson played cricket the day after the referendum result was announced

Michael Gove joins him - and says that together they were the dream team. He was promised he'd become chancellor and be in charge of Brexit negotiations.

But had the Tory establishment decided, as one insider told me, they did not want another Old Etonian - another face from that Bullingdon Club photo - as their leader in an anti-elitist age?

Did someone urge Gove to sign up with the intention of doing the indecent thing?



Please, no clichés of the spinning presses.

However, Boris Johnson's Daily Telegraph column is the next scene.

"It is said that those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration," he writes.

"I do not believe that is so... British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes; and to settle down."

Was this the turning point? Too soft, too un-Brexity, for Michael Gove?

Hardly. He had sent an email at 18:00 BST on Sunday urging only minor changes and describing it as "very, very good."

17:00 BST

Gove is shown the spreadsheet of MPs supporting Boris.

One source told me that early in a leadership election all that matters is numbers. You need to pull in the left, the right, young, old, Leave, Remain.

image copyrightPA
image captionMr Johnson and Mr Gove established a team HQ near London's Victoria station



A meeting at the Park Lane offices of the Australian super-strategist Sir Lynton Crosby.

Team Boris are surprised by the appearance of Gove's youthful eminence grise, Dominic Cummings. His exclusion has already been demanded.

Then comes the first public hint of unease.

An e-mail from Vine to her husband Gove finds its way to journalists.

"One simple message: you MUST have SPECIFIC assurances from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support," it says.

She tells him: "Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best."

Adding: "The details can be worked out later on, but without that you have no leverage.

"Crucially, the membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will Dacre/Murdoch [the editor of the Daily Mail and News International boss respectively], who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris/Gove ticket."

Speaking in London, Rupert Murdoch says he'd be "happy for Michael Gove to get it" and describes him as "the most principled and most able" candidate available.

18:00 BST

Team Boris say they have 63 MPs solidly backing them.



The critical day.

10 Greycoat Place, near London's Victoria station, is established as the Johnson/Gove HQ.

18:00 BST

Team Boris report they have 97 MPs "locked in solid".

19:00 BST

Boris goes to a Conservative MPs' party at Westminster.

There are suggestions from Gove's side that Boris bungles this and support is draining away.

image copyrightPA
image captionDid Michael Gove suggest Andrea Leadsom as deputy prime minister?

In particular they claim he forgets a letter promising rising star Andrea Leadsom she can become chancellor as price for her support.

Team Boris say this is nonsense, and Gove had already been promised this job.

Team Gove say she could have had deputy prime minister. But for them it crystallises something.

Gove begins to think Boris is too cavalier and unfocused - an unguided missile.

20:00 BST

Boris joins Gove and the prime minister at a party at the Hurlingham Club.

Was it the scene of more intrigue? Do we see Michael Gove glad-handing, plotting, building support?

Is he being lobbied? Or does he seem a distracted, lonely figure? The prime minister is there. Do they talk?

I'm told by an eyewitness at another party - held during the referendum - that Sarah Vine went up to the prime minister and said: "Are we OK?"

He apparently hissed: "If you just get your husband off the telly, we'll be fine."

My source said: "Everyone just rocked back - it was quite public."

22:00 BST

Boris leaves with a key member of Team Gove to write his speech - the most of important of his life.

His pitch to become prime minister.

Around midnight

The Team Gove member takes a series of phone calls. He then makes his excuses and leaves.

Gove tries to speak to George Osborne, but can't get through.


08:00 BST

Dominic Raab has written in the Sun, backing Boris for PM.

He says the former London mayor has got the "'Heineken effect', that refreshes the parts that more conventional politicians cannot reach".

But he cancels a planned interview on the Today programme.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionDid MPs lose their taste for Boris Johnson's so-called Heineken effect?

08:00 BST

Gove formally tells his team he is going to run.

08:35 BST

The team at Greycoat Place get a call from a journalist telling them Gove is jumping ship.

"Rubbish," they tell her.

08:40 BST

They listen in horror as Sir Lynton Crosby takes a call from Gove, telling him he's running.

"I felt kicked in the stomach, it's nasty stuff. Gove is deeply ambitious and he was persuaded he didn't need Boris. It could be him. It was all about power," says one insider.

11:25 BST

Moments before Boris is about to go on stage, his small team decides he can't run.

11:50 BST

Boris Johnson announces he will not stand for the Tory leadership.


Team Boris are beside themselves with fury.

One sends a text message to the Sun's political editor Tom Newton Dunn.

It describes Gove in colourful language, adding that he had "set this up from start".

"This is going to be bloody," it adds.

Another emails of Gove: "He is actually Theon Greyjoy, or will be by the time I am finished with him."

If you don't follow Game of Thrones - that political drama with added dragons - Theon is tortured, castrated, and tortured again, until he is barely human.

image copyrightPA/HBO
image captionMichael Gove was described by one Boris aide as like Games of Thrones' Theon Greyjoy

Politics makes such good drama because it is about the lust for power, driving ambition, the balance between cynicism and belief.

It is about when to strike - brutal and quick - and when to stay the hand.

But it is also about personality, about an inner life and inner doubts that haunt us all.

It is about self-confidence and the need for love.

Never more so than in this drama.

Need to be loved

Many feel it was about Boris's need to be loved that drove him to Brexit as much as ambition.

His team were clearly delighted that passing taxi drivers shouted "Oi, Boris" with amused approval.

But he didn't like the abuse he was now getting travelling around London after the referendum.

His calculation had probably been that he would be applauded by the crowd; loved by the party as a good loser who chose the side that lost; in pole position for a big job in David Cameron's next cabinet - and then perhaps an even bigger one.

He perhaps hadn't thought through whether he was really up for it - or up to it.

He was never truly clubbable, never a House of Commons man, cultivating friendships.

Like the Earl of Essex he "veil his bonnet to an oyster wife, and with a kind of humble conge (bow) greet, the vulgar sort that did admire his life" (anon).

Essex too forgot the establishment - the Palace, the Court - carried the power of execution.

image captionA Shakespearian tragedy, with parallels with Macbeth and Julius Caesar

Johnson's camp portrays Gove as the ultimate Machiavellian villain, driven by an ambitious wife and adviser, plotting from within to destroy one close ally and then another, climbing the greasy pole with the hand grips of treachery and betrayal.

They say that is foolish, because Gove was always the anchor, and it was always a negotiation, a deal - simply one that didn't come off.

Perhaps Gove would prefer a softer version of betrayal, with him as Shakespeare's Prince Hal, shaking off Falstaff and his amusing but ultimately childish ways as he grew to power.

It was all too hasty, thinks one insider, in sorrow not anger - they were all pushed over the edge by the speed of events.

But don't mistake the fury. There will be another act. I am told: "This isn't over. Gove did need Boris. And Boris hasn't spoken yet."

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