Boris Johnson, whose book about the genius of Shakespeare will see U.S. publication in November, surely has a quotation from the Bard handy for every occasion. This morning, though, it’s hard to imagine that anything would be more apposite than Julius Caesar’s exclamation, “Et tu, Brute?”
Going into the final day for pols to throw their hats into the ring to run for Conservative Party leader/prime minister, Johnson was considered a favorite for the job. And then at 9 a.m. London time, Michael Gove, with whom Johnson had shared many a “Leave” event stage and who was expected to play a key role in his campaign to replace David Cameron, surprised everyone by announcing that he was standing for party leader.
Not only did Gove declare his own candidacy, he also rubbished Johnson’s, saying:
I respect and admire all the candidates running for the leadership. In particular, I wanted to help build a team behind Boris Johnson so that a politician who argued for leaving the European Union could lead us to a better future. But I have come, reluctantly, to the conclusion that Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.
Two hours later, at the press conference where Johnson was scheduled to kick off his campaign, 11 minutes into a speech about what kind of leader Britain needs, he said that “having consulted colleagues, and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me.”
So why did this happen? The reasons for Johnson’s sudden withdrawal will be debated for years, but for the moment, most theories center on Gove’s betrayal. Unlike Johnson, Gove—a combative politician who has been responsible for implementing divisive policies, especially during his time as minister of education—is popular with his fellow Conservative members of Parliament and with party activists. It’s crucial to have the support of these groups, since it’s Tory MPs who winnow the field of candidates down to two finalists, with the ultimate selection being made by a vote of party members.
Johnson is considerably more famous than Gove. And really more famous than any other British politician. (As well as being an MP and former mayor of London, he is also a prolific and witty writer and a television personality.) He is capable of winning support from a broad spectrum of the population, which allowed him to win two terms as mayor of liberal London. But he isn’t particularly popular in the House of Commons. He needed Gove’s help to persuade MPs to support him—and with Gove as a candidate, Johnson apparently felt he couldn’t corral the votes he needed. What’s more, a YouGov poll of Conservative Party members showed that in a head-to-head fight between Johnson and Home Secretary Theresa May, the other leading candidate for the gig, May led 55 percent to 38 percent.
Over the years, Gove, who currently serves as justice minister in David Cameron’s Cabinet, stated frequently and unequivocally that he had no interest in leading his party. As recently as May, he told a journalist from the Daily Telegraph, “I don’t want to do it and there are people who are far better equipped than me to do it.” The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow summarized his limitations: “[H]e is famously impractical, he’s not good with numbers, he does not like flying, and some of his intellectual interests border on the eccentric.”
Still, Sparrow concluded, “[I]t is a rare politician who turns down the chance to be prime minister.” The Financial Times reported that in the days following the referendum, Johnson wasn’t showing up to meetings, and according to an “ally,” “He wasn’t giving people the love or attention or making the offers to people that were required.” Disappointed by the man he’d intended to support, Gove stepped into the breach.
So that’s the leading hypothesis: Gove pushed Johnson out because Johnson couldn’t win. But all manner of conspiracy theories are also being bruited. Some are even suggesting that Gove tricked Johnson into going on the record with unpopular positions. Apparently, an article Johnson published in the Daily Telegraph on Monday displeased some “Leave” supporters who found it excessively compromising, especially on immigration. But several reporters have since noted that, as ITV’s Chris Ship put it, the article “was SUB EDITED by Michael Gove who suggested changes—and Boris put them in.”
An email written by Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, which made its way to the press after she accidentally CC’d a member of the public, has taken on a Zapruder-like import. Apparently addressed to “Leave” camp leadership, she wrote:
One simple message you MUST have SPECIFIC assurances from Boris OTHERWISE you cannot guarantee your support. The details can be worked out later on, but without that you have no leverage. Crucially the membership will not have the necessary reassurance to back Boris, neither will [Paul] Dacre [editor of the Daily Mail, for which Vine is a columnist]/[Rupert] Murdoch, who instinctively dislike Boris but trust your ability enough to support a Boris/Gove ticket.
Now that Gove has thrown his hat into the ring, the Spectator wondered, “Was this email laying out concerns over Boris really leaked accidentally?” Or was it a trial balloon intended to gauge how party members would respond to a Gove candidacy?
From here the theories become more rococo. Did Johnson, whose support for the “Leave” campaign was considered by some to be little more than an opportunistic bid to push out Cameron, recognize that being prime minister in the post-Brexit era would be one giant headache? The new PM must tamp down lingering hostilities between the “Remain” and “Leave” camps; soothe hard-line segments of the “Leave” coalition; conduct sure to be brutal negotiations with the European Union; and possibly lead the Conservative Party through a general election campaign within the next few months. (The Labour Party’s self-immolation is at least making that last challenge easier.) As ambitious as Johnson is, there are more pleasant ways to boost his ego.
Having dispatched Boris, Gove will almost certainly be punished for his treachery. Even if Tories accept his claims that Johnson was too disorganized and shambolic to lead the party and the nation, disloyalty is never popular. Sky News political correspondent Sophy Ridge quoted a “Tory MP and former Boris backer” saying, “Michael has behaved badly towards Boris. I’m not sure people will feel they can trust him after this morning” Or as Johnson might put it, quoting Henry VI, “Where is loyalty?/ If it be banish’d from the frosty head,/ Where shall it find a harbour in the earth?”