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For a Tory revival that can truly see off populism, all you need is Gove

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Michael Gove leaves Number 10 Downing Street following a cabinet meeting on December 18, 2017

In the latest part of our new series on the leadership contest awaiting the Conservatives, Harry Hodges explains why Michael Gove is the man who can deliver on the promise of Brexit

The lesson of Margaret Thatcher’s milk-snatching years is that a controversial stint as education secretary can come to colour even the most accomplished political career - and there have been few more controversial than Michael Gove’s.

His campaign to revolutionise our schools earned him the hatred and disgust of teachers across the country - but it didn't stop there. Once the debate over his reforms became instead a contest for the hearts and minds of the public there was only ever going to be one winner. With striking teachers on one side and a hard-nosed Tory minister on the other, it was inevitable who the wider public would choose to side with.

Yet this episode, which did so much to tarnish his appeal, is at the heart of why Michael Gove is the right man to lead this government.

Much has been written about the populist surge. But one of its key drivers is a sense among the public that events are not being managed in their interest. Ordinary people have been cut out and their needs disregarded as the wealthy and powerful have together rigged the system in their own favour.

On Brexit, the political establishment has stymied a process people voted for. On the economy, the super rich and the big corporations have stitched up the rules to the detriment of anybody who wants to challenge the cartel. On housing, big developers are sitting on land and driving up prices with no regard for what their greed is doing to ordinary people. In tech, global giants act in appalling fashion with total disregard for their social obligations.

On issue after issue, vested interests and producers have gained the whip hand over the rest of us. By waging war on the education “blob” - the staff members, civil servants, academics, bureaucrats and unions who opposed reform - Gove showed not only that he understands this problem but that he has the willingness to confront it. If he’d upset Remainers, bankers, house builders or Silicon Valley in the way he upset teachers he’d be - rightly - hailed a hero.

But while he has the character, aptitude and outlook of a blob-busting populist, it’s important to note that he isn’t the raving neo-fascist depicted in Left-wing caricature. He made the heads of many on the Left spin when, as justice secretary, he set about reversing Chris Grayling’s typically long list of mistakes. At Defra, his embrace of climate change - a vital project for the Right if both the Conservative cause and our planet are to have a long-term future - has shown a willingness to accept evidence over dogma or crowd-pleasing denialism.

If there is a note of caution to be sounded it is this: the Michael Gove of 2019 is not the same crusading Gove we saw in the early years of the coalition government. His hatred of being viewed as a charlatan after betraying, in quick succession, David Cameron and Boris Johnson seems to have blunted his old instincts. He’s now entered into a bizarre state of ultra-loyalty so blind he’s still backing Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. A man of his intelligence must surely know it’s a dud. A man of his courage ought to have done more to rally Cabinet colleagues around a concerted effort to oust her.

There may yet, though, be a way to bring back the old Gove. At Education, his right-hand man was the mercurial Dominic Cummings, the genius - or madman - behind Vote Leave’s referendum-snatching victory. Surely a desk at Number 10 would be enough to lure him back into public life. Reunited, the dynamic duo of the coalition could take their war on the education blob to the rest of Whitehall, finally delivering the reboot of the system that Brexit was supposed to usher in. 

Instead of a Brexit prime minister ready to take the referendum mandate and run with it, last time round the Tory party foisted on us an insipid manager without the courage, conviction or vision to make the most of this opportunity. Michael Gove is the anti-May, the Prime Minister we should have had all along.

He botched his chance last time. For the sake of the country and the Conservative party, it’s vital that he succeeds now.

  • Harry's column is part of our new, exclusive online series: Who Gets My Vote?, published every morning at 6am on www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion. Tomorrow: Madeline Grant on Liz Truss