Gove backpedals No 10

Week-in-Review: Gove battles team Truss over future of conservatism

Liz Truss kicked off her Conservative conference schedule this week with the traditional grilling from the BBC. The Sunday morning interview is a rite of passage for a party leader preparing for conference; attendance is nothing short of mandatory— lest you be accused of evading scrutiny.

But what does a one-off grilling matter before a week of rapturous applause from the party faithful?

Unfortunately for Truss, the Conservative party is feeling anything but ‘faithful’ at the moment.

Indeed, as Truss and Laura Kuenssberg sparred on the topic of the mini-budget, over the BBC journalist’s shoulder—directly in the prime minister’s eye-line—sat Michael Gove, Truss’ former Cabinet colleague, recently subjected to an unceremonious sacking by her predecessor.

Sitting just feet away, Gove implied he would vote against the abolition of the top tax rate, the headline policy of the “mini-budget”. He told Kuenssberg that borrowing to pay for tax cuts is “not Conservative” and demonstrated “the wrong values”.

For Truss loyalists, this was Gove back to his Machiavellian ways. Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg branded Gove the Conservative party’s “version of Peter Mandelson” at a fringe event the following day.

But Gove’s intervention had a real political effect.

Throughout that Sunday, the Conservative backbench rebellion over the mini-budget picked up steam, prompting an urgent meeting between Sir Graham Brady and the PM that evening. The 1922 Committee Chair is thought to have told Truss that her 45p plan was not going to fly with her increasingly bullish backbenchers. A U-turn was announced on Monday morning, just over a week after the mini-budget was presented to the Commons on 23 September.

Marker pens were hastily applied to Kwarteng’s planned speech later that day. “Staying the course” turned quickly to “We are listening and we have listened”.

These circumstances proved perfect for an increasingly in-demand Michael Gove, whose ambitious fringe schedule (nine events in total), ensured his name was on the lips of every attendee. Some even referred to the former education secretary as “King of the fringe”.

But the talismanic Tory is far from universally respected among Conservative ranks. Speaking at one fringe event, home secretary Suella Braverman accused the former levelling up secretary of staging “a coup” against the prime minister. She urged Gove not to “air dirty linen” in public.

Braverman and Gove went on to share a stage at an incredibly instructive fringe session later in the week. For those fascinated by blue-on-blue ideological tussles, Conservative Home’s “Future of Conservatism” panel was a must-see event.

Addressing a packed-out audience, Gove explained in his inimitable style: “We need to remember why we won in 2019. The 2019 election victory … was a victory, yes, for a conservatism that believed in growth, enterprise, free markets and the Promethean spirit that is responsible for driving forward progress. … But it also recognised two other things as well. … The thing about capitalism is it generates two problems, inequality and dirt. And Boris got that, perhaps more than any Conservative leader in the course of whatever”.

These comments echoed the contribution of Damian Green, another high-profile member of the “Future of Conservatism” panel. The Chair of the One Nation Conservative caucus declared: “Libertarianism cannot be the central purpose of a Conservative government. If it is, the Government is fooling itself and not being conservative”.

Both Green and Gove’s comments departed markedly from Braverman’s introductory remarks. “I am excited to be in the Liz Truss administration”, Braverman explained,  “[Truss’] priority is about going for growth, and that means lowering the tax burden, stripping the state out of our lives, reducing the excessive regulation and liberating the private entrepreneurial spirit that is the genius that has made this country great”.

There was no attempt to reconcile her views with Green and Gove’s softer, Cameroon-style Conservatism—not even lip service.

At another fringe setting, Michael Gove joined Conservative chair Jake Berry, another Truss ally who had warned that morning that the whip will be removed from MPs who voted against the “mini budget”. Gove did not waste time: “The majority Boris got in 2019 was a One Nation majority…. We’ve got to stay true to that tradition and recognise that people who lent us their vote in 2019 wanted to see a One Nation, compassionate government”. In rebuttal, Jake Berry affirmed that he thought the 45p tax rate cut “was the right thing to do”.

Unworried by threats from the whips office and unencumbered by the constraints of Cabinet collective responsibility, Gove roamed the Conservative party fringe providing a “one nation” alternative to “Trussonomics”. The paternalist-libertarian dispute within the party has hence been revived, following an extended ceasefire during Boris Johnson’s tenure as PM. Without Brexit to unite around and with the party’s right-wing in the ascendant, “one nation” advocates like Gove are ready to make noise.

One cannot help but think that the “anti-growth coalition”, – Truss’ new, slightly Orwellian catch-all term for opponents of her “mini-budget” – includes rebel Conservatives like Michael Gove. The government’s fiscal approach is plainly at odds with Gove’s “one-nation” instincts, which recommends caution in the face of economic growth to control resulting inequalities.

Truss is now feeling the political consequences of snubbing a number of senior Conservatives, including Gove, when forming he top team.   Every policy, and the Conservative principles informing them, will now be debated in public: be it on the BBC, the conference fringe, or the Commons backbenches. The prime minister presides over a party where just under a third of MPs backed her in the first round of the leadership contest. Truss’ authority is hence far from unimpeachable, leaving plenty of room for an organisationally savvy, perhaps still ambitious backbencher like Gove, to cause problems.

After his victorious showing in the tussle over the “mini-budget”, Gove has already indicated he is not yet willing to back down. With Truss refusing to rule out a real terms cut to benefits when Parliament returns, Gove told Times Radio this week that he would oppose any move to stop linking benefits to inflation. “I would need a lot of persuading to move away from that”, he said.

It remains very difficult to see how the PM can overcome her party management issues, especially with Gove fronting an organised force of resentful one-nation MPs. Few parliamentarians can manipulate Commons procedure like the former chief whip.

So as the battle for the future of conservatism continues, we can expect the Tory troublemaker-in-chief to foment further rebellions in the weeks to come.