Michael Gove: The most powerful Tory never to have been prime minister

Michael Gove
Gove was twice a loser in leadership elections but had the ability to make or break the careers of others - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Michael Gove was the enigma who had as many ups and downs as 14 years of Tory Government, and his decision to stand down ends the career of arguably the most powerful MP of this century never to have been prime minister.

Twice a loser in Conservative leadership elections, he nevertheless had the ability to make or break the careers of others and was perhaps the only great reformer the Conservatives have produced since they returned to power in 2010.

In Westminster, he will be remembered above all for stabbing Boris Johnson in the back and ending his 2016 leadership bid in one of the most remarkable political betrayals of modern times.

His reform of the education system, though, is one of the few achievements the Tories can point to in terms of domestic policy.

Aberdeen-born Gove joined the Labour Party at 16 but switched to the Conservatives as an English student at Oxford, where he befriended his contemporary Mr Johnson.

He embarked on a career as a journalist, working for Scottish Television and later the Times, before turning his hand to politics and winning election as the MP for Surrey Heath in 2005.

He quickly became part of the Notting Hill Set led by David Cameron and George Osborne, who valued his rich fund of ideas and grasp of how to put them into action.

When Lord Cameron became prime minister in 2010 at the head of the coalition government, he appointed Mr Gove as education secretary, where he slashed Labour’s school-building programme, set up academies and took his red pen to the national curriculum, putting Dickens, Austen and Keats back on the compulsory study list and introducing a tougher testing regime.

Mr Gove reflected on his achievements in the role in his departure letter, highlighting that England’s secondary schools were ranked 27th for maths, 25th for reading and 16th for science.

“Now that reform has bedded in, England has risen to 11th for maths and 13th for reading and science,” he wrote. “At primary level, England’s children are now the best readers in the Western world.”

But all four teaching unions passed no confidence motions in him at their 2013 conferences and the following year, Lord Cameron demoted him to chief whip on the advice of his election guru Sir Lynton Crosby, who warned him that Mr Gove’s toxic image was turning voters off.

Sir Lynton, it was said, had taken against Mr Gove partly because of a distrust and dislike of his chief aide, a certain Dominic Cummings, who accused Lord Cameron of “surrender” for sacking his boss.

The ruthless move was blamed by some Tories for putting other ministers off the idea of full-throated reforms: if Lord Cameron was going to sack people as soon as there was blowback from the sector they were trying to shake up, caution was the way to keep their Cabinet jobs.

The falling out with Lord Cameron was seen as part of the reason Mr Gove, by now justice secretary, threw in his lot with Vote Leave - and its mastermind Mr Cummings - when the EU referendum was called in 2016.

His support for the Leave campaign helped make up the mind of his old friend Mr Johnson, who had wavered between Leave and Remain, and at a dinner at Mr Johnson’s house where the only other guest was, curiously, Russian-born Evening Standard owner Evgeny Lebedev, they formed a partnership that shaped the fate of the entire country, not to mention Lord Cameron.

Johnson Gove
Boris Johnson and Mr Gove had an uneasy relationship in which the former PM constantly believed his minister was briefing the media behind his back - OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

The result of the referendum ended Lord Cameron’s career, and in the resulting leadership election, Mr Gove, who had previously said he was “incapable” of leading his party, initially backed Mr Johnson’s bid to replace him.

But hours before the deadline for nominations closed, Mr Gove withdrew his support for Mr Johnson and announced his own candidacy, saying he no longer had confidence in his friend.

It was described by The Telegraph as “the most spectacular political assassination in a generation” and forever marked Mr Gove out as untrustworthy as far as many Tory MPs were concerned.

Mr Johnson would later claim that the Machiavellian Mr Gove had enlisted the help of “double agent” MP Nick Boles to set him up for the fall: Mr Johnson had agreed with leadership rival Andrea Leadsom that they would team up and she would fall in behind him, which they were to confirm by text hours before nominations closed.

Mr Johnson never replied to her text, she assumed the deal was off, and she ran against him, which Mr Gove used to help justify his own decision to enter the race.

Mr Johnson later realised that on the night in question, he had spent the evening at a Tory event where Mr Boles had volunteered to “look after” his mobile phone to avoid distractions. It meant that Mr Johnson did not see Ms Leadsom’s text until it was too late, and Mr Boles also failed to carry out instructions to send Ms Leadsom a letter confirming the deal.

Mr Johnson, fatally undermined, withdrew from the race, and Theresa May, who won the contest, sacked the scheming Mr Gove from the Cabinet.

He was brought back in 2017 as environment secretary, where he banned microbeads and plastic straws, and when Mrs May resigned in 2019 he again stood against Mr Johnson, though this time Mr Johnson won, and Mr Gove came third.

Mr Johnson gave him a roving brief as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, though they had an uneasy relationship in which Mr Johnson constantly believed Mr Gove was briefing the media behind his back.

All the Tory MPs standing down at the next general election

Andrea Leadsom

South Northamptonshire
Read more

Michael Gove

Surrey Heath
Read more

Sir David Evennett

Bexleyheath and Crayford

Craig Mackinlay

South Thanet
Read more

Sir John Redwood

Read more

Bob Stewart

Read more

Matt Hancock

West Suffolk
Read more

Sir Michael Ellis

Northampton North
Read more

Huw Merriman

Bexhill and Battle
Read more

James Grundy

Read more

Dame Eleanor Laing

Epping Forest
Read more

Jo Churchill

Bury St Edmunds
Read more

Tim Loughton

East Worthing and Shoreham

Robert Halfon


Tracey Crouch

Chatham and Aylesford
Read more

Nickie Aiken

Cities of London and Westminster
Read more

Kwasi Kwarteng

Read more

Sir Bob Neill

Bromley and Chislehurst

Oliver Heald

North East Hertfordshire

Nick Gibb

Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

Mike Freer

Finchley and Golders Green

Jamie Wallis


Sir James Duddridge

Rochford and Southend East

Dr Lisa Cameron

East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow

John Baron

Basildon and Billericay

Chris Grayling

Epsom and Ewell
Read more

Alok Sharma

Reading West
Read more

David Jones

Clwyd West

Stephen Hammond


Stuart Andrew


Trudy Harrison


Ben Wallace

Wyre and Preston North
Read more

Chris Clarkson

Heywood and Middleton

Greg Knight

East Yorkshire

Steve Brine

Read more

Lucy Allan

Read more

Sir Bill Cash

Read more

Royston Smith

Southampton, Itchen

Will Quince


Andy Carter

Warrington South

Philip Dunne


Dominic Raab

Esher and Walton
Read more

Richard Bacon

South Norfolk

Sir Robert Goodwill

Scarborough and Whitby
Read more

Alister Jack

Dumfries and Galloway
Read more

Matthew Offord


Jonathan Djanogly


John Howell


Henry Smith


Craig Whittaker

Calder Valley

Gordon Henderson

Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Nicola Richards

West Bromwich East

Pauline Latham

Mid Derbyshire

Sir Graham Brady

Altrincham and Sale West
Read more

Robin Walker

Read more

Stephen McPartland


Paul Beresford

Mole Valley

Jo Gideon

Stoke-on-Trent Central

Edward Timpson


George Eustice

Camborne and Redruth
Read more

Mark Pawsey


Douglas Ross

Read more

Andrew Percy

Brigg and Goole

Chloe Smith

Norwich North
Read more

Adam Afriyie


Sir Gary Streeter

South West Devon
Read more

Dehenna Davison

Bishop Auckland
Read more

Sir Charles Walker

Read more

Sajid Javid

Read more

James Heappey


Sir Brandon Lewis

Great Yarmouth

Theresa May


Paul Scully

Sutton and Cheam

Mike Penning

Hemel Hempstead

Kieran Mullan

Crewe and Nantwich

Nadhim Zahawi

Read more

Chris Heaton-Harris

Read more

During the Covid pandemic, Mr Gove, a fierce advocate of lockdowns, was again up to his old tricks as he bounced Mr Johnson into taking decisions that he instinctively disliked.

Libertarian Mr Johnson reportedly preferred to “let the bodies pile high” rather than ordering a second lockdown in 2020, and as he prepared to spend a weekend considering his options he was appalled to wake up on a Saturday morning to see newspaper headlines reporting that a second lockdown was happening.

He had no doubt who had briefed the media, angrily telling aides: “This is Michael, isn’t it?”

Unwilling to expose the rift at the heart of the Government during the crisis, he duly announced another lockdown.

Mr Gove spent what have proved to be the final years of his ministerial career as the man in charge of levelling up, communities and housing, a brief that both Mr Johnson and Rishi Sunak gave him while refusing to allow him any of the great offices of state at the Home Office, Treasury or Foreign Office.

He played a small part in helping to bring down Liz Truss, saying on a Sunday morning politics show that cutting the top rate of tax from 45 per cent to 40 per cent was wrong, and backed Kemi Badenoch as her replacement. If Mr Sunak loses the election and Ms Badenoch does become Tory leader she will, at least, be able to argue that Mr Gove is not pulling her strings.

In recent years, living as a bachelor after his marriage to journalist Sarah Vine ended, he had drifted into centrist policies that put him at odds with many of his colleagues.

His Renters Reform Bill - which died a death when Rishi Sunak called a July election - would have banned no-fault evictions, meaning landlords would have needed to go to the already clogged-up courts to get rid of problem tenants. Property owners accused him of wanting to punish them, and many Tory MPs agreed.

Mr Gove’s departure will leave the Conservative Party without one of its most influential figures of the past 20 years. But at least his colleagues won’t have to spend so much time looking over their shoulders.