I said then that the urbane MP for Surrey Heath was an odd choice for the role; the dapper Mr Gove, whose home is in urban West London, wasn’t known for his interest in rural matters. And during his controversial tenure as Secretary of State for Education, he had been accused of downgrading the significance of big issues such as climate change in the humanities curriculum.
Then, as now, there were plenty of critics lining up to shoot him down. But I won’t be one of them as he prepares, once again, to stand for the Tory leadership.
Out of a very crowded field, he’s probably the least-worst option. This requires a big leap of faith. Let’s not forget. The contest is not only to become Tory leader, but to run the country as Prime Minister, with the responsibility of steering through Brexit, at least until the event of a second referendum or general election.
This is a tricky position; the new incumbent will be Prime Minister, but he or she won’t be the people’s democratically-elected choice. The vast majority of us won’t have a say in the matter at all. Whoever wins should be mindful of this at all times. Get it wrong and they risk not only throwing Great Britain to the EU lions but going down in history as the person who ruined the Conservative Party, with wily old tricoteuse Nigel Farage cackling by the guillotine.
Here I should declare a minor personal interest. I’ve known Mr Gove for more than 30 years; we studied the same subject, English, at Oxford. When I was a fledging journalist on the university newspaper, he was already a fiercely ambitious politico, usually to be found debating in the Oxford Union next door to our offices.
Later, when we both worked on the same national newspaper, he was effectively my boss for a while. Let’s just say we had our differences, many of them political.
So I’ve seen up close and personal how he operates. I know that this adopted son of an Aberdeen fish merchant has more than a streak of granite in his soul.
We saw this when he was in charge of education. I lost count of the times I railed against his transformative reforms, both ideologically and on behalf of my two children, who are roughly the same age as his own son and daughter.
I would still argue that he should have listened and consulted far more widely, especially at primary level, where punishing SATs tests cause far more harm than good. However, if last year’s GCSE results were anything to go by, his super-tough stance on standards has worked.
Many bemoaned the demise of coursework and the chance to resit papers to raise a grade, but Gove’s far more rigorous approach has paid off; last year my son’s academy school (another Gove roll-out) posted some spectacular results. More than one of his classmates is now considering Oxbridge or a Russell Group university, their confidence buoyed by academic achievements.
Say it through gritted teeth, but he is very capable of getting things done. The big question, however, is he, too, capable of learning?
It’s often said in teaching that reflection is a crucial element of assimilating lessons. Has Gove reflected sufficiently? When he took over at Defra, he told one interviewer that “the right approach to take as Secretary of State in a new department is to exercise appropriate humility and listen and learn”.
It would appear that the generally positive noises made by those who has had dealings with during his tenure suggest that he is at least moving in the right direction.
However, what he says and what he thinks, and does privately, are not necessarily the same thing. This sense of uneasiness is encapsulated in one word: ‘trust’. Not just as regards his own political party, but from the nation. In the Brexit negotiations to come, would he put his country first at all times, not his own political ego and personal ambition?
The major shadow falling here of course is what happened in 2016. Gove, who was running Boris Johnson’s then-leadership bid, turned around and knifed the former Foreign Secretary in order to launch a leadership bid of his own.
In the event, neither of them won and that’s how we ended up with Theresa May as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. The rest, as you might say, is history. Which brings us right up to the present day.
If Michael Gove is to succeed, he must stick to his principles and prove not just to his party, but to the people of the United Kingdom, that this country will be safe and better off in his hands.