A tale of two Conservative heavyweights

By Chris Rogers July 8, 2016 2:01 pm

As the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. And a fortnight is a lifetime.

Two weeks ago, the UK woke to a new reality that would be outside the European Union. It marked the beginning of David Cameron’s long goodbye, and sounded the starting pistol on a Conservative leadership contest.

Many at the time assumed the next Prime Minister would be Boris Johnson. But, quietly reveling in the Leave campaign’s victory was Michael Gove. Arguably his stock had never been higher. If Boris was going to be king, Gove was going to be the kingmaker and was destined for one of the great offices of state.

On the other side stood Theresa May. Her participation in the leadership contest was never in doubt – as one MP noted to the national press, she’d been “tooling up” long before the referendum with the appointment of her first personal spokesperson. But while Mrs May’s candidacy was expected, it didn’t appear she would have the same momentum as Team Boris/Gove. The Home Secretary had been on the losing side of the referendum but had to a great extent taken a back seat in the campaign behind the Prime Minister and George Osborne. It seemed a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless – putting her at the mercy of critics who could accuse her of prioritising leadership aspirations over referendum convictions and playing both sides. Meanwhile, a Leave vote seemed to put her at a disadvantage to Mr Johnson, while a Remain vote would surely strengthen the hand of George Osborne, for so long perceived as another leadership contender.

But what a difference a fortnight made. Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign didn’t even get off the ground, so savagely was he hamstrung by Michael Gove. Which brings us to the tale of two big beasts of the Conservative Party.

A fortnight ago, Mr Gove was the feted leader of the victorious Leave campaign. But from the crest of a wave he has been brought crashing back to shore. His critics will claim hubris for his treatment of Boris Johnson. But for a man who mere days ago looked to be on his way to an even more senior position in government, it has been a brutal turn of fortune punctuated by a limp and brief leadership campaign.

Meanwhile, Theresa May marches towards Downing Street with now only Andrea Leadsom – the surprise candidate – stood in her way. Ms Leadsom is very much in the race, but Mrs May is certainly the front runner  David Cameron on 9 September. Having seemed to have put herself towards the back of the field in recent weeks, she’s clearly played a blinder. Mr Gove will come again, make no mistake. He’s too senior and too established not to be a major player in the parliamentary party and probably the Cabinet. But he has fallen as quickly as Mrs May has risen.

A fortnight is a long time indeed.

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