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What to Make of a ‘House of Cards’ Morning in UK Politics

Boris Johnson And Michael Gove Address The Nation After EU Referendum VictoryBoris Johnson And Michael Gove Address The Nation After EU Referendum Victory
More precisely Boris, let ME take back control...Mary Turner Getty Images

Sometimes, real politics outdoes House of Cards.

It certainly did this morning in the U.K.: Boris Johnson, the former London mayor who had seemed less than 72 hours ago to be on the verge of taking over as Prime Minister from David Cameron, pulled out of the contest after being fatally undermined by Justice Secretary Michael Gove, the man who had co-led the “Leave” campaign in Britain’s EU exit referendum.

Johnson’s withdrawal was a bombshell. As the highest-profile figure in the Leave campaign, many in the Conservative Party, the press and the public saw him as the natural choice to take over a government that must now deliver the mandate given by the referendum. On Wednesday, the U.K. press had reported that Johnson already had the support of 100 of the party’s 330 Members of Parliament, the best possible platform. Most of all, it had seemed to many seasoned observers that Johnson—a cosmopolitan advocate of free trade and immigration—had only abandoned his former support for EU membership precisely because it gave him an opportunity to unseat Cameron as Prime Minister. For those who had always seen the Brexit campaign as just a Tory Civil War in disguise, Johnson as PM seemed inevitable.


But everyone had reckoned without the dark arts of his ally Gove, who had been canvassing Tory MPs on behalf of Johnson as late as yesterday, before deciding suddenly this morning that “I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead. I have, therefore, decided to put my name forward for the leadership.” Johnson heard the news first through the media, but his doubts had probably started when Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, ‘accidentally’ sent an e-mail witheringly critical of Johnson to a member of the public on Wednesday.

The Man Who Rose Without Trace

With no blond mop of hair, and no London Olympics to put him in the global spotlight, Gove is virtually unknown and unrecognized outside of the U.K. His demeanor had consistently suggested he was happy to play second fiddle to Johnson. He repeatedly denied wanting to be PM, saying only two weeks ago that he didn’t have the skills. He once offered to sign a statement to that effect in his own blood.

But Gove (who, like Johnson, went from student politics at Oxford to journalism to adult politics without doing anything productive in between) had nonetheless been Education Secretary for five years, and has been Justice Secretary since 2015. He is the preferred candidate of both media moguls Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere (he was a columnist for Murdoch’s The Times of London, while his wife writes for the Rothermeres’ Daily Mail). Gove was the most senior politician to be invited to the ceremony blessing Murdoch’s marriage to Jerry Hall in March.

In hindsight, the Johnson-Gove axis had started to unravel immediately after last week’s vote. Neither of them appeared ready for victory (certainly not according to this account by Vine): Johnson avoided parliament on Monday, preferring instead to set out his agenda in a rambling op-ed in the Daily Telegraph that was described by Internet wits as “best read as a letter to Santa.” EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and others have trashed Johnson’s claims that the U.K. can negotiate access to the EU’s Single Market without paying for it.

Johnson’s op-ed had implicitly suggested he would either try to ignore the referendum verdict or opt for an agreement that would, ultimately, still have forced the U.K. to accept unlimited immigration from other EU countries. Gove, by contrast, is on record as saying he would rather leave the Single Market in order to regain complete control over immigration. That would have pleased business and the City of London, but angered the poorer provinces (and the Murdoch and Rothermere papers) for whom controlling immigration was the greater priority.

Gove now faces a daunting run-off against Home Secretary Theresa May who, although she sided with Remain, is viewed as a less divisive figure. May said earlier Thursday that she, too, would prioritize immigration. She also said she wouldn’t seek a snap election, and would wait until the end of the year at least before invoking the now-famous Article 50 of the EU’s Treaty, which starts an irrevocable two-year transition period to actually leaving the bloc.

There are three other candidates: Stephen Crabb, Andrea Leadsom and Liam Fox. According to the Conservative Party’s rules, the 330 MPs must whittle the list down to two by a series of ballots, and then present the two candidates to the country’s 150,000 nationwide membership. The process will run through Sept. 2.