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A Michael Gove premiership would be another blow for British Muslims

As far as Muslims are concerned, Britain's environment secretary is best known as the unsung commander-in-chief of the Islamophobes inside the Conservative Party
Britain's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Michael Gove leaving 10 Downing Street in London on 28 March (AFP)

The nightmare prospect of Michael Gove as British prime minister has suddenly became reality following Theresa’s May’s announcement that she will resign. According to bookmakers, Michael Gove is favourite to win the Tory leadership battle.

A Gove premiership would be another body blow for British Muslims. He is the unsung commander-in-chief of the Islamophobes inside the Conservative party. As a journalist he was one of the group of armchair experts on the Middle East who became cheerleaders for the Iraq War. 

He was one of the founding members of the Henry Jackson Society, a neo-conservative think tank which has been criticised for an allegedly anti-Muslim agenda and for refusing to disclose its donors

Gove’s career has been marked by a series of serious mistakes which would have wrecked most politicians

I have known Gove for more than 20 years. I like him, and I have long been in two minds about him.

He’s clever, fluent with ideas, and can be politically brave- as he showed as education secretary in the David Cameron government. He plays the political media like a violin. His secret is a self-deprecating charm which helps him get away with a record of treachery, indiscretion and reckless judgment. 

He’s being canvassed as a compromise Tory leader, a halfway house between the so-called hard Brexiteers led by Boris Johnson (personally betrayed by Gove in the 2016 leadership contest) and the "Remainers" such as Amber Rudd and Sajid Javid. 

This is a paradox. As far as Muslims are concerned, Gove is best understood as an extremist himself. 

A series of serious mistakes

Last week the former Tory chair Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory Party’s most senior Muslim politician, expressed her own reservations at the idea of Gove becoming prime minister over his views on British Muslims. 

She has a point. Gove’s career has been marked by a number of serious mistakes which would have wrecked most political careers. When the parliamentary expenses scandal broke in 2009, Gove was one of the worst offenders and lucky to survive in Cameron’s shadow cabinet. 

A second event was more telling still. Gove was accused of leaking details of a private conversation he had had with the Queen on Privy Council terms. 

In March 2016, during the referendum campaign, a front page article in the Sun alleged that the Queen backed Brexit. The Queen’s comments were said to have been made to a “senior source” at a lunch for privy counsellors at Windsor Castle in 2011. 

Despite an urgent question from Labour, the Tory government took no action against the allegations that Gove had breached Privy Council rules. Gove denied being a source for the Sun. Then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who attended the lunch, later said he knew that Gove had "obviously communicated it"

If Gove was guilty of leaking confidential conversations with the Queen to the newspapers, that in my view should have been enough to ensure that Gove's career was terminated. 

I now come to the greatest calamity of Michael Gove’s ministerial career: the Trojan Horse affair.

Trojan Horse affair

Gove was secretary of state for education when the first allegations of an Islamist plot to take over Birmingham schools became public. He responded by ordering a series of inquiries, including one from the former Metropolitan police counterterrorism chief Peter Clarke. 

As a result, the careers of numerous teachers were ruined and management has changed in the Birmingham schools. We now know that the so-called Trojan Horse plot was a fabrication.

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The findings of Peter Clarke’s report have been roundly discredited in the scholarly investigation, Countering Extremism in British Schools, by Professor John Holmwood.

A select committee report found "no evidence of a sustained plot" and criticised the handling of the affair.

A tribunal dropped charges against the teachers because of legal failures. It emerged that it was Gove’s own Department for Education that encouraged the takeover of Birmingham schools; it had encouraged the school at the centre to take over their failing neighbours and form a "multi-academy trust". 

The "Islamist plot" turned out itself to be a conspiracy theory. It ruined the careers of a number of selfless teachers, and damaged the educations of thousands of largely Muslim children.

But the idea of an Islamist plot – a "Trojan Horse" - fitted profoundly into Gove’s world view, as expressed by his book Celsius 7/7

Islamists on the march

This work was an urgent call to action, and an attempt to reshape Britain and the world. Gove asserted that Islamism was a form of "totalitarianism" that was fundamentally hostile to Western liberal values.

He declared that Islamists were on the march in Britain, and the government had so far failed to act.

Gove's book, littered with errors and marred with prejudice, helped create an enduring new narrative about Islam at the heart of the British government thinking

In a very short space of time it helped create an enduring new narrative about Islam at the heart of the British government thinking. The book was littered with errors and marred with prejudice, as a review by the scholar William Dalrymple noted.

Dalrymple’s review is worth quoting at length: “Gove has never lived in the Middle East, indeed has barely set foot in a Muslim country. He has no knowledge of Islamic history, Islamic theology or Islamic culture – in this book he just recycles the flawed authority of Bernard Lewis on these matters; nor does he speak one word of any Islamic language. None of this, however, has prevented him setting himself up as an expert and calling himself on his dust jacket of Celsius 7/7 'one of Britain's leading writers and thinkers on terrorism'.

He goes on: "Gove’s book is a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in some two decades of reviewing books on this subject. Many are mistakes of the most basic sort that even a little experience on the ground could have disabused him of."

A controversial theory

Gove's scant knowledge of Islamic history or theology meant he was obliged to rely heavily on the writings of British-American orientalist Bernard Lewis, the first proponent of the "clash of civilisations" thesis which sees Western European civilisation and Islam at war.

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Gove’s book thus marked the entry of this controversial theory into mainstream Conservative British politics.

How does Gove get away with it? He understands and flatters the press, and is in turn protected by it. A longstanding employee of the Times, he is the Westminster avatar of the US newspaper and media baron Rupert Murdoch.

And he’s got intellect, talent and charm. No wonder he’s come a very long way. It’s important to make sure he doesn’t get any further. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.