The last hour Theresa May took on Michael Gove, she emerged as the winner.
Two years after a conflict over extremism in schools that contributed to Gove being fired as education secretary, both were locking swords again as the vicars daughter takes on the adopted son of a fish merchant for the office of prime minister.
Gove and May are the favourites to succeed David Cameron as Conservative leader and premier after his defeat in the European Union referendum forced his abdication. While they were on opposite sides of the Brexit campaign, both will now be running on a similar platform, committed to respecting Britons wish to leave the EU. May has ruled out an early general election.
I dont think theres any love lost between them, Andrew Russell, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, said in a phone interview. Michael Gove now looks like he might be the Brexit candidate that the defeated Remainers could work with, and Id always thought that Theresa May would be the Remainer that Exiters could get on with. So, they both look like strong candidates.
The most powerful female in government and the longest-serving home secretary in more than a century, Mays steely exterior is often seen as lacking the warmth and popular appeal of politicians such as Boris Johnson. On Thursday, as she made her bid to be Tory leader, she sought instead to turn these into assets, stressing her reliability and focus on get the job done.
I know Im not a showy legislator, ” she told a press conference in London to whoops of support from some Conservative colleagues. “I dont tour the television studios. I dont gossip about people over lunch. I dont run drinking in Parliaments bars. I dont often wear my heart on my sleeve, I only get on with the job in front of me.
While she aligned herself with Cameron in the battle to keep Britain in the EU, May, a known Euro-skeptic, was careful to appear a reluctant “Remainer, ” largely absent from the campaigns televised and public campaign events. By promising she wont consider a second referendum, she hopes to build bridges with those members of her party who actively backed “Leave.”
Brexit entails Brexit, she told reporters Thursday. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU. No attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum.
May, 59, has also not been shy of playing on her femininity, openly discussing her love of shoes and telling BBC Radio 4s Desert Island Discs demonstrate her one item if marooned on an island would be a subscription to Vogue magazine.
Gove, 48, emerges from the EU referendum having first turned his back on his old friend Cameron by backing Brexit and then abandoning his support for Johnson, his ally in the Leave campaign. The former Times of London journalist initially promised to chair Johnsons leadership move and repeatedly ruled himself out of the contest.
Gove delivered the murderer jolt to Johnsons opportunities on Thursday, announcing his intention to run hours before the former London mayor was due to declare his candidacy at a press conference and forcing him to announce his withdrawalinstead.
The ground was laid on Wednesday afternoon after an e-mail from Goves wife, newspaper columnist Sarah Vine, to her husband was leaked to the press. In it, she suggested Johnson wasnt trusted by the party and recommended her husband not to pledge his support before seeking assurances about his role in any cabinet led by Johnson. Do not confess any ground, she wrote. Be your stubborn best.
Unpopular with ministers and the public when he was education secretary for seeking to push through radical reforms to the school curriculum, Gove watched his popularity surge during the course of its “Leave” campaign as voters and party members assured him as the reasoned, sensible foil to Johnsons erratic charisma. His early backing for Brexit will also have won him the loyalty of more virulent Leave supporters eager for a leader to champion their cause.
Heart and Soul
I felt we needed someone to lead this country who believed heart and soul in leaving the European Union, Gove said in a BBC Television interview. I came in the last few days reluctantly and securely to the conclusion that, while Boris has great attributes, he was not capable of uniting that team and leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped.
Goves relatively modest background is also likely to play well with Tory voters who feel the Conservative Party has been dominated by a privately trained upper-clas. His father operated a fish-processing business in Aberdeen, which Gove claimed during the course of its referendum campaign was destroyed by the EUs fisheries policy, and his mother worked at the Aberdeen School for the Deaf. He attended a nation school before winning a scholarship to the independent Robert Gordons College in Aberdeen and then going onto Oxford University.
Gove entered Parliament in the 2005 general election — won by Labour — and was rapidly promoted under Cameron. He joined the cabinet in 2010 when Cameron took office at the head of a alliance government.
As education secretary, he traded bitter accusations with May over their respective departments handling of alleged plots by hard-line Islamists to take over schools in Birmingham, central England. They were both accused of briefing the media against each other. Gove was demoted to the position of chief parliamentary-party administrator by Cameron in a reshuffle soon after, while May maintained her task. He was afterward appointed justice secretary.
Mays rise goes back virtually two decades. First elected to Parliament in 1997, when Tony Blair trounced John Majors Conservatives, she became the first female chair of the party in 2002 and immediately attracted criticism when she told conference delegates that the Tories were viewed as the nasty party and needed to soften their image.
Mays career has not been without dispute. She faced calls for her resignation over her handling of a processing backlog at the Passport Office in the summer of 2014. In 2011, she was embroiled in a controversy over frontier surveillance, acknowledging she authorized reduced passport checks for EU citizens but blaming U.K. Border Agency officers for relaxing controls for non EU travelers.
More problematically, as head of government departments that supervises immigration, she may have trouble distancing herself from criticism for the governments failure to meet Camerons pledge to cut net inflows to below 100,000.
After nominations closed, bookmaker Ladbrokes Plc shortened the odds on May as the favourite to win and install Gove as the clear second favorite. The three other nominees are Andrea Leadsom, Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox. Tory lawmakers whittle down the field to two in a series of elections before the wider party constructs the final choice.
Its a very peculiar electorate but some of them may watch Theresa May as a second Margaret Thatcher, another strong girl to lead the party, said Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at Warwick University. Michael Gove is very smart but whether they would think hes trustworthy dedicated what hes done, and how hes done it, is open to question.
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