A week is a long time in politics, goes the old adage. But even Harold Wilson, usually credited as having coined the phrase, couldn’t have expected the last week to be as eventful as it has, as the consequences of Brexit continue to play out, the Labour Party finds itself in turmoil and the Conservative leadership contest has come to an unexpected end with the sole survivor, Theresa May, to replace David Cameron with near-immediate effect. The last week’s events in Westminster make Westeros look like the Shire.
Under the Conservative Party Constitution, the 1922 Committee has the responsibility to present ‘a choice of candidates’ to the membership for voting. As such, with Leadsom pulling out of the race, it would have been reasonable for the 1922 to bring runner-up Michael Gove back into the mix for a contest between him and May. Gove however, issued a statement giving Theresa May his full support and Graham Brady, the Chair of the 1922 decided not to reopen the contest, and to duly announce that May was to be the next Conservative Leader.
Gove’s decision not to re-enter the contest perhaps sheds some different light on the events the Telegraph is calling the ‘cuckoo nest plot’, which resulted in Boris Johnson crashing out of the contest.
Gove has consistently said on several occasions that he doesn’t want to lead the party, giving the usual British, self-deprecating reason that he is unqualified for it. As such, his subsequent announcement that he was going to be standing for the leadership has been viewed with contempt by many, who see this decision as hypocritical, given his earlier comments.
But what if it is the other way around? What if Gove genuinely never had any intentions or ambitions to take the helm of the Conservative Party, but used his leadership bid purely as a way of skewering Boris instead?
When looked at this way, his behaviour is much more understandable. After all, why would a man widely considered to be one of the biggest brains behind the Conservatives in the last decade fail to look two moves ahead? Being openly seen to wield the knife was inevitably going to end with him being branded the Brutus candidate, preventing him from ever setting foot inside No 10 as the top dog.
Making his own leadership announcement, stripping Boris of a vital chunk of his supporting MPs, his no.2 on the ticket, and launching a scathing attack on his leadership attributes on mere hours’ notice was a blindingly shrewd manoeuvre. Johnson was left with the unpalatable options of running as a lame duck candidate or humbly falling on his own sword and withdrawing from the race.
Making absolutely no judgement on the credibility of any of the leadership candidates who stood, all of whom I’m sure would have done a fine job, this was a masterclass in political tactics.
Machiavelli was not a Machiavellian in the way we now understand it, thanks to his being unfairly caricatured by his contemporaries, but there is one principle of his which applies to this case. In The Prince, he outlined that “if an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared”. Exploiting the element of surprise; judicious use of leaking; well-crafted alliances; exceptional timing, and carefully chosen words, the blonde, Conservative colossus has been recast as the Party’s Icarus, whose wax wings now see him plunging.
This move will be looked back on by political historians alongside Harold Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives, the fall of Margaret Thatcher, and Gordon Brown’s ‘King Herod’ strategy of seizing the keys to Downing Street.