(Bloomberg) -- As Theresa May charts the U.K.’s perilous path out of the European Union, there’s one man whose verdict on her plan matters more than almost anyone else in her team. It’s the minister responsible for fish.
Michael Gove, the U.K.’s environment secretary, has been in his job less than a year but he’s already had an impact on the government, transforming the least fashionable ministry into a headline-grabbing news factory.
Now, as May faces a crucial meeting with her top team next week, which could shape the future of U.K.-EU trade, all eyes are on the 50-year-old Gove, who led the 2016 Brexit campaign.
Will he support May’s plan for a close customs partnership with the EU? Could he even be willing to accept a huge compromise on Brexit and allow the U.K. to remain inside the EU’s customs union? Or is he positioning himself to plunge the knife into his rivals and take the leadership?
“The litmus test for Theresa May’s Brexit policy is Michael Gove,” according to Katie Perrior, May’s former director of communications. “He is pragmatic and flexible, not a raging hardliner, and if he agrees, Number 10 know the policy might be acceptable to others.”
Gove’s rise is an extraordinary story of a political revival against the odds. This account is based on interviews with current and former members of the government, most of whom have asked to remain anonymous.
Almost two years ago, Gove’s career seemed to be over. The day after she took office in 2016, May summoned Gove -- then the justice secretary -- to her private room inside the House of Commons. In a meeting that lasted barely two minutes, she fired him.
May told Gove there were doubts about his loyalty; he needed to prove himself. The reason was obvious: days earlier, Gove had executed the most spectacular political assassination in recent British history.
In the fevered aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum, he was running his friend Boris Johnson’s campaign to become leader of the ruling Tory party, and therefore prime minister. But on the morning Johnson was due to launch his candidacy, Gove announced he was standing for the leadership himself -- because Johnson was not up to the job. Gove’s decision destroyed the chances of both men, but cleared the path for May.
Yet even as he was fired, Gove never lost his cool. When May threw him out, Gove responded with the flawless courtesy and good manners for which he is famous: “Thank you very much prime minister.”
Aside from the betrayal of his friend, Gove had a history of clashes with May in David Cameron’s cabinet, while he was education secretary and she was in charge of the Home Office.
In 2014, he battled with May’s senior aide, Fiona Hill, over the spread of extremism in schools. In the flap, Hill was fired, and Gove reprimanded (and then demoted) by Cameron. Two years later, May was in charge and Hill was back. There was no room for Gove.
In the wilderness, with no prospect of a return, he showed loyalty to May as a rank-and-file parliamentarian, defending her policies on television and speaking up in the House of Commons. And he quietly maintained a vital back-channel that ultimately opened the way for his return to the Cabinet.
May’s officials were surprised to see Gove with her co-chief of staff Nick Timothy, drinking tea in a side room inside 10 Downing Street. The two men have always got on well, despite the difficulties Gove had with May and Hill. They share a zeal for the reforming power of politics.
When May lost her parliamentary majority in a snap election last June, she fired Hill and Timothy and named Gavin Barwell, a less combative chief of staff who lost his own seat in Parliament. Barwell’s first task was to help May pick her cabinet and shore up her own fragile position.
As a junior legislator five years earlier, Barwell was Gove’s personal parliamentary aide. Timothy, who remained close to people on May’s team, knew that Gove had for some time wanted to be environment secretary. The message quickly reached Barwell and May agreed.
With responsibility for agriculture and environmental regulations, Gove’s cabinet job is a key portfolio for implementing Brexit. Gove has taken to it with vigor, declaring war on disposable coffee cups and plastic packaging, and setting in motion reforms to farm subsidies.
“He has been impressive as environment secretary -- he took over a department that was supposed to be the worst brief in government and he has transformed it,” said Perrior.
Barwell’s overriding task now is working with May to deliver Brexit. He respects Gove and values his intellect, consulting him regularly on Brexit policy. May’s other key officials -- Oliver Robbins, her senior negotiator, and Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary -- also talk frequently to Gove.
According to people familiar with May’s views, Gove is seen as the key voice of pragmatism inside the Cabinet, while Johnson, for example, is often unwilling to consider compromise. It is a quality Gove shares with David Davis, the Brexit secretary.
As well as negotiating in Brussels, May must convince the passionate audience of euroskeptic Tories at home. If they feel she is betraying their vision of a clean Brexit, her own position will be in peril. Gove’s endorsement is therefore crucial for May, and while many Conservatives in Parliament regard him with suspicion, he is still widely seen as “solid on Brexit.” That’s because he helped make it happen, leading the 2016 Vote Leave campaign.
“In many ways, Michael is the Brexit bellwether,” says Chris Wilkins, who was May’s director of strategy until July.
“He’s the person Number 10 and others look to a lot -- he is trusted by Brexiteers because he has the intellectual credibility and long association with the euroskeptic cause that commands respect. He’s also very strategic and understands that occasionally in politics it’s necessary to compromise on some things in order to achieve your ultimate goal. That’s the kind of pragmatic approach that goes down well with the prime minister,” Wilkins added.
Yet there is always another side to Michael Gove. If he isn’t scheming himself, or picking political fights with opponents, he’s being conspired against by rivals. He is a magnet for mischief.
May’s cabinet is already split between passionate Brexit backers such as Johnson, Davis and Gove, who want a decisive break with the EU, and pro-Europeans such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who campaigned to stay in the bloc. Now, there are even splits within the Brexit faction.
For months after Gove’s betrayal of Johnson in 2016, the two men did not speak. They are now back in touch and their teams get on well. The two men plot together to adopt a united pro-Brexit stance before key meetings of the prime minister’s strategy team. Yet Johnson’s allies doubt that he’ll ever fully trust the environment secretary again, even though their relationship is now more stable.
Gove’s most difficult dynamic is now with Davis. The Brexit secretary is furious with his colleague for what he sees as disloyalty to the government’s strategy for negotiating a 21-month transitional period once Brexit takes effect next year. Their argument is about who controls British fishing waters, and when.
The more serious battle will come at a crucial meeting on Wednesday next week when May’s ministers will discuss what kind of customs arrangement they want with the EU. Gove is again the central figure of intrigue.
A report in The Sunday Times last weekend claimed Gove is ready to make a spectacular U-turn and accept keeping the U.K. in the EU’s customs union. This would be seen as a huge betrayal by Brexit’s true believers. Customs union membership means the U.K. would have to apply all the EU’s import tariffs and goods checks, and would be banned from negotiating its own independent free trade deals with other countries such as the U.S. or Australia. This would be a bitter blow for “Brexiteers” like Johnson, who campaigned to make Britain a great global trading nation.
The issue is a live one because May could be forced to accept such a policy against her will. While she says she wants to leave the customs union, Parliament will get a vote on the issue -- and rebel pro-EU Conservatives are lining up to support keeping the U.K. in the tariff regime. If this is acceptable to Gove, it would also be acceptable to May, so the logic goes. And if he can persuade Brexit supporters it’s necessary, she might just survive the inevitable backlash.
There’s just one problem. Gove’s allies insist the story is false. He’s always been committed to leaving the customs union, they say, and is among the many ministers urging May to drop her plan to keep the U.K. in a tight customs “partnership” with the EU. So who is talking to the press to undermine Gove?
There’s one question nobody can answer in U.K. politics. Who will be leading the Conservative government into the next general election in 2022? By then, the U.K. will be out of the EU, and should also be out of any transitional arrangements too.
The focus will be on building a future for Britain after Brexit. Many Tories think there will be a crowded field of candidates hoping to take May’s place if she is -- as many Conservatives expect -- removed from office. Will Gove be one of them? He insists he is not. But that’s what he always says.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.