Gove’s hard lines may take Boris Johnson closer to Downing Street
Environment secretary’s campaign could be fatally damaged after cocaine admission
Michael Gove, British environment secretary, delivers a speech at the launch of his Tory leadership campaign in London. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Launching his leadership campaign in a lounge near the top of Millbank Tower on Monday, Michael Gove demonstrated his strengths as a Conservative leadership candidate in a punchy speech bursting with policy ideas. But his bravura performance could not obscure the fact that his campaign has lost its momentum, with no fresh endorsements from MPs since he admitted last Friday night that he used cocaine before he entered politics.
Gove repeated at his launch that he deeply regretted his past drug use and asked that he be judged on his performance in government. Gove not only wrote a newspaper column condemning middle-class drug use while he was using cocaine, but as education secretary introduced tough new penalties for teachers who use Class A drugs.
His other problem is that the public discourse about drug use in Britain has changed so that it is no longer viewed as a victimless crime. Last March, Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick said that middle-class drug users had “blood on their hands” in the context of London’s drug-related knife crime epidemic, which has killed almost 30 young people already this year.
If Gove’s campaign is faltering, one beneficiary appears to be foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is presenting himself as a serious, experienced master of detail who is ready to be prime minister. Home secretary Sajid Javid and health secretary Matt Hancock should also benefit from any flight from Gove, while international development secretary Rory Stewart continues to believe his energetic campaign will take him into the final two in the race.
Almost invisible is frontrunner Boris Johnson, whose campaign strategist Lynton Crosby has kept him out of public view, giving no broadcast interviews and refusing to confirm that he will take part in any televised debates. Other candidates targeted Johnson on Monday, criticising his character and record as well as his threat to take Britain out of the EU without a deal.
The former foreign secretary’s proposal to give higher earners an income tax cut also drew almost universal criticism from his rivals. But with more publicly declared support from MPs than any other candidate, it is difficult to see how Johnson will not be one of the final two. If Gove’s candidacy is fatally damaged, Johnson’s most formidable potential adversary will be removed from the field, taking the former foreign secretary another step closer to Downing Street.