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The real power behind Boris Johnson

One year into the Johnson government, it is Gove and Cummings – not the hapless Johnson - who ought to be celebrating. They are the ones in charge
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove arrive at a news conference in London, 29 November 2019 (Reuters)

It's 17 years since the neocons led Britain and US into the calamitous invasion of Iraq. Such was the scale of the disaster that you would have thought it would have driven them out of public life.

Far from it.

The British neoconservatives have not merely survived. They’ve flourished. They’re back in charge. It’s the opponents of the war (the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn being the leading example) who have lost power.

In Britain Michael Gove is today the senior representative from the dark days when the drums were banging for war in Iraq. Gove is commander-in-chief of the Tory Islamophobes, as well as Britain’s most senior and experienced warmonger.

There has not been a foreign invasion or intervention he didn’t support. Not just Iraq. Afghanistan. Libya.

Each one of them a disaster. Each backed to the hilt by Gove. 

He was the education secretary who destroyed the careers of numerous teachers and damaged the life chances of hundreds of children with his response to the "Trojan Horse Plot". As we now know, the so-called Islamist conspiracy to take over Birmingham schools was a fabrication. An Islamophobic conspiracy theory encouraged by Gove and his acolytes. 

Now for the breaking news.

The real prime minister

Gove has emerged as Britain’s real prime minister.

Last week, Boris Johnson celebrated his first anniversary in No 10. But Johnson is prime minister only in name. He is a cheerful and sometimes diligent handshaker on public occasions but this floppy-haired frontman doesn’t put in the time or the effort to be a serious PM.

Boris Johnson recently celebrated his first anniversary in No. 10. But Johnson is prime minister only in name

A Sunday Times article revealed that in the crucial days leading up to the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, aides were told to keep their briefing notes short if they wanted the prime minister - distracted by personal issues - to read them. 

That same article revealed that Johnson failed to attend any of the first five emergency Cobra meetings to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Anybody can see this for themselves at Prime Minister's Questions every Wednesday in the House of Commons. Johnson turns up unprepared, out of his depth and with little command of the detail. 

Take, for example, Johnson’s claim last Wednesday that Labour leader Keir Starmer stayed silent when a man and woman were poisoned in Salisbury in 2018. Starmer had condemned the attacks publicly. Johnson’s attempt to smear the leader of the opposition backfired because he hadn’t done the homework.

The 'spider' in the web

Johnson is a bumbling puppet for ambitious, highly intelligent and motivated Gove. With Johnson off the ball, Gove quietly stepped in and took over the reins of power. 

As chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Gove manages much of Whitehall.

The decision not to extend the Brexit negotiating window? Gove’s in charge. He told the House of Commons: "We are looking to get things done in July. We don’t want to see this process going on into the autumn, and then the winter."

Gove has repeatedly shown a magical ability to change sides and extract himself from deeply unpromising situations

That destructive war on the civil service? Gove again.

The eviction of Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill was a triumph for Gove. As a friend of Sedwill told the Daily Telegraph, "The whole Gove-Cummings axis has been sowing discord between the Prime Minister and Mark Sedwill."

As a cabinet minister told the Times deputy political editor, Steven Swinford, Gove "is empire building. He has put himself at the heart of every major decision in government." This same article cites a cabinet minister rhetorically asking: "Did Boris really win the election so he could make Michael Gove prime minister?" And another cabinet member describes Gove as a "spider in the middle" of a government "web". 

MEE reached out to the Cabinet Office with some questions but received no response.

  Anti-Brexit activists holding placards showing the faces of Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings outside the Houses of Parliament on 4 September, 2019 (AFP)
Anti-Brexit activists holding placards showing the faces of Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings outside the Houses of Parliament on 4 September 2019 (AFP)

And as Boris Johnson faded during the Covid-19 emergency (he caught the disease badly and some wonder whether he has fully recovered), Gove was the cabinet minister who confirmed the deeply damaging Sunday Times report that Johnson had missed the first five emergency Cobra meetings. 

It’s an impressive story of political survival. Gove has repeatedly shown a magical ability to change sides and extract himself from deeply unpromising situations.

A story of political survival

Gove was given his first job in government by his close friend, former prime minister David Cameron. He abandoned Cameron (honourably so in my view) over Brexit. After the Brexit vote was won in June 2016, Gove threw his weight behind Johnson’s Tory party leadership campaign only to ditch him, declaring that "Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead."

It was the darkest betrayal I have witnessed in 30 years as a political correspondent. And yet, only three years later, Johnson asked him to join his government in a key role as his closest ally. 

What is the secret of Gove’s success? Part of it is personal charm. He is courteous, especially to his political opponents. This elaborate friendliness conceals the fact that he is beyond doubt the most treacherous politician at Westminster today. 

However, there are two other crucial factors in Gove’s ascent. 

Secret of success

Firstly, press tycoon Rupert Murdoch. For the last two weeks, BBC viewers have been watching a detailed and forensic analysis of Rupert Murdoch’s hold on British politics over the last 50 years. 

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It shows Murdoch’s ability to build up and then destroy politicians’ careers. Even now at the age of 89, Murdoch remains formidable. Gove, who worked at the Times newspaper before entering politics, is Murdoch’s protege. 

According to Alex Spence of Politico magazine, Gove and his wife, Sarah Vine, attended the wedding of Murdoch and his wife, Jerry Hall. This makes him part of Murdoch’s inner circle.  

According to the Guardian, the Tory government refused to deny that Rupert Murdoch asked former British Prime Minister Theresa May to reappoint Gove to the cabinet or face a bad press in his newspaper titles. And during a brief (and uncharacteristic) period outside government, Gove found himself involved in controversy when the Times dispatched him to the White House to interview Donald Trump with Murdoch himself reportedly in the room.

Gove and Murdoch share the same neoconservative politics. For an ambitious British politician, an ally like Murdoch is priceless. Murdoch has been reported as saying that Gove will "do a fine job running the country".

The Cummings factor

The second crucial figure in Gove's ascent is Johnson's advisor Dominic Cummings. Cummings served as Gove’s special adviser during his time as education secretary under David Cameron.

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He was then appointed by Johnson as senior adviser in Downing Street and given remarkable power to drive the government’s agenda. In theory Cummings advises the prime minister.

But I find myself wondering about his allegiance.

For Johnson, politics is a game. He has reportedly said that he has "absolutely no convictions except one – and that was from a long time ago, for speeding".

The same, emphatically, cannot be said of Gove and Cummings. They are ideologues. They both passionately believe in Brexit, wage war against British institutions including the BBC, the civil service and, in due course I have no doubt, the judiciary. They are both neoconservatives.

One year into the Johnson government, it is Gove and Cummings – not the hapless Johnson - who ought to be celebrating. They are the ones in charge. 

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.