In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

The Demented DalekRichard J. Evans

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Michael Gove: A Man in a Hurry 
by Owen Bennett.
Biteback, 422 pp., £20, July, 978 1 78590 440 0
Show More
Show More

We’ve​ got form, Michael Gove and I. ‘Richard Evans may hold a professorship,’ he told the Daily Mail in 2014, after I had attacked him for claiming that Britain had fought the First World War for democracy, ‘but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War! and Blackadder, are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’ Actually – and Gove’s new biographer Owen Bennett might have pointed this out – all I’d said was that with tsarist Russia as Britain’s major ally, with 40 per cent of British adult males denied the vote until the Reform Act of 1918, and with a German enemy that might not have been wholly democratic but certainly wasn’t a dictatorship, his claim that by entering the war Britain showed that it was ‘committed to defending the Western liberal order’ wasn’t borne out by the facts.

This wasn’t the first time we’d crossed swords. When Gove was appointed secretary of state for education in 2010, he launched a full-scale campaign against the way history was being taught in schools, claimed that historians were ‘trashing our past’, and declared that a new national school history curriculum would get pupils studying ‘our island story’ in a connected narrative based on the rote-learning of names and dates, particularly those of kings and queens and battles and wars.

I pointed out in these pages that history shouldn’t at any level consist of cramming pupils with facts, let alone facts selected to make up a celebratory patriotic narrative stretching from Alfred and the cakes to the imperial triumphs of ‘Clive of India’ (Gove’s term): it was an academic discipline, like physics or economics, it had its methods just as they did, and central to what teachers sought to convey to their pupils was the ability to consider rival interpretations of the past and to reach their own views on them through a critical analysis of the sources on which they were based.*

In order to draw up a new curriculum, Gove had commissioned a series of what he thought were like-minded professional historians to advise him. Niall Ferguson was one; Simon Schama was hired to convene a committee to produce a draft. But Gove wasn’t satisfied. Ferguson wanted the curriculum to have a global dimension, which wasn’t what Gove wanted at all; the proposals put forward by Schama’s committee also deviated too much from the prescriptive and celebratory patriotic story he intended pupils to learn. So Gove ditched them all and wrote his own curriculum, more or less on the back of an envelope. The result was an outcry from history teachers across the country, backed by institutions such as the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society and the Historical Association (the national organisation of history teachers). Gove convened a meeting of Tory historians but the message he got was the same: the proposed curriculum was both unteachable and unlearnable.

Ferguson had stated in one of his early articles in defence of Gove that it was safe to say I wouldn’t be among those consulted about the new curriculum. But he was wrong. Gove sent his special political adviser to see me. A slim, balding, casually dressed, youngish man came into my Cambridge office and flopped into an armchair. ‘Well’, he said, ‘we’ve fucked up, haven’t we?’ It was Dominic Cummings.

This wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Special political advisers usually dress fairly formally and don’t use that kind of language about the policies favoured by their political masters. But I couldn’t help agreeing with him. History, I said, had among other things the aim of producing independent-minded adults who could read critically and think for themselves. ‘I’ll buy that,’ Cummings said. We plunged into a lively discussion that went on for an hour or more. I formed the impression that he was someone who pursued his own line of thought irrespective of what convention dictated. He had, after all, I realised, studied history at university himself.

Eventually, Gove was forced to withdraw his proposed curriculum, introducing instead a far more wide-ranging, far less prescriptive programme that looked in most respects pretty much like the one he had tried to replace. He had ‘fucked up’ indeed. When I ran into him at a conference on the curriculum, he was courteous, charming even, despite our differences. But his days as education secretary were numbered.

In a cabinet reshuffle carried out in July 2014, David Cameron moved him to the Whips’ Office. He had become ‘toxic’ to parents and teachers alike. A member of the National Union of Teachers described him as ‘a demented Dalek on speed, who wants to exterminate everything good in education’. His tenure had lurched from crisis to crisis, including the botched axing of the schools building programme begun under Labour, a much publicised U-turn on proposed funding cuts to PE in schools, and the withdrawal and – after widespread protests – reinstatement of financial support for a scheme to distribute free books to children in England.

Where Gove didn’t make one of his customary U-turns as education secretary, the results were often disastrous. In English, for example, the uptake for A Level examinations has fallen by 13 per cent this year, a drop blamed by many teachers on changes he made to the English curriculum which forced pupils studying for the GCSE to memorise quotations and deprived them of the opportunity to develop their own ideas in coursework assignments.

His drive to convert state schools into academies produced yet more anger. He treated professional teachers as enemies of promise and seemed to regard them as part of a leftist establishment that blindly resisted change. As one teachers’ union recorded, ‘time after time he has chased newspaper headlines rather than engage with teachers.’ The result had been ‘the dismantling of the structures which support schools, the antagonism which he displayed to the teaching profession and the increasing evidence of chaos in the bodies he established’. Cameron came to the inevitable conclusion that Gove was ‘more of a liability than an asset’. As for Cummings, he had left his job well before this, firing off an eccentric 250-page memorandum in which he argued that education had little effect on people: their genetic make-up was the decisive influence on their character and abilities.

What made Gove take such an obtusely traditionalist line on education? Why did he think that there was ‘a permanent body of knowledge which should be passed on from generation to generation’ in the country’s schools, and not just in history? Did he really think nobody was generating any new knowledge about history or other academic subjects? Many of his beliefs about education, Bennett argues in this readable and revealing biography, derived from his own experience as a child. His background is unusual for a man who has reached the top echelons of the Conservative Party. Born in Edinburgh on 26 August 1967 to an unmarried 23-year-old cookery demonstrator, he was immediately placed in care. Named Graeme Logan at birth, he was adopted by a childless couple, Ernest and Christine Gove, and his name changed to Michael Andrew Gove.

Gove’s adoptive parents came from a working-class background, rooted in the fishing industry in Aberdeen. By the late 1960s, his father had built up a small fish-processing business, but very early on Michael decided, as he told his father, that ‘this is no use for me. I can’t do this.’ He became a bookish youngster and excelled at school. Recognising his talent, his parents scrimped and saved to send him to Aberdeen’s most prestigious private school, Robert Gordon’s College, where he eventually won a scholarship.

Gove owed his escape from such modest beginnings to his education and, it seems, he has never forgotten it. ‘All schools,’ he believed, even as education secretary decades later, according to Bennett, ‘should be in the image of Robert Gordon’s College.’ State schools were third-rate in comparison. He had achieved prominence and success through a rigorous regime of constant testing, examining and didacticism, through a focus on grammar, spelling and facts, endless facts which, like poems or the periodic table, had to be learned by rote. Progressive, ‘pupil-centred’ education was wrong: what most parents wanted was students sitting in rows in a classroom being dictated to by a teacher. He had benefited from it: why shouldn’t everyone else?

Gove’s experience at school was crucial for his later life in another respect as well: he joined the debating society, found that he had a talent for verbal cut and thrust, and honed it still further when he went to Oxford. He didn’t have the privilege or sense of entitlement of many of his contemporaries – Old Etonians such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson – and he had chosen to read English rather than politics, philosophy and economics, the degree of choice for most aspiring politicians. He was a member of an unfashionable college – Lady Margaret Hall – rather than one of the prestigious old foundations like Balliol or Christ Church, but through sheer ability and a good deal of networking, including the assiduous cultivation of Johnson, he managed to become president of the Oxford Union, the debating club where many parliamentary careers have begun.

His debating style carried over, not always to good effect, into his chosen career in journalism. When he secured a job writing op-eds for the Times, his articles, Bennett observes, ‘became, predictably, mini-Oxford Union speeches. Gove would pick an extreme view on a controversial topic and hold forth, desperate to argue the seemingly unarguable.’ An article he wrote opposing the Good Friday Agreement was ‘classic Gove. Find an argument and take it to the extreme. Use deliberately controversial rhetorical flourishes to essentially shock the reader into agreeing with you.’ The problem with this style, brilliant and entertaining though it could be, was that it wasn’t based on any careful appraisal of the evidence and didn’t pay much attention to political realities.

The fact that he was an outsider, Scottish rather than English, from a modest rather than a privileged background, seems to have generated in him a considerable contempt for the establishment (the ‘Blob’, as he called it), which he regarded as an institutional obstacle to change. In 2005, after his brief career in journalism and a stint on a spectacularly bad late-night satirical programme on Channel 4 (Bennett’s account of it is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book), Gove became an MP, largely at Cameron’s bidding. A ‘moderniser’ in the Conservative Party along with Cameron and Osborne, he was a fervent admirer of Tony Blair for his ability to get things done and adapt to the changing world around him, even if the things Gove wanted to do were rather different. In Cummings, who had worked for a variety of campaign organisations, he recognised a kindred spirit, and since 2007, formally or not, Cummings has been Gove’s right-hand man, his adviser and enforcer, supplying the ruthlessness that Gove himself appears to lack.

As his controversial stint at education showed, Gove didn’t have much idea how to put his ideas into effect. A wordsmith rather than an administrator, he didn’t excel in his role as chief whip either, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his favourite television programme was Game of Thrones. He fared a lot better in his next job, as secretary of state for justice, not least because his predecessor was Chris (‘Failing’) Grayling. Gove, Bennett notes, ‘soon began to find himself fêted by the liberal commentariat as he repealed numerous policies instigated by his predecessor’. As the chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform noted, ‘with his track record at Education, we expected an ideologue, but of course he had come into Education with a blueprint. Because he was appointed to Justice without knowing that was going to happen, he came in open-minded, so he behaved in a completely different way.’ He consulted widely, and made it his priority to reduce reoffending rates by putting rehabilitation at the centre of prison reform. But he was also forced to make a humiliating U-turn when his attempt to cut criminal solicitors’ fees ran into stiff opposition from the Criminal Bar Association.

His otherwise promising stint ran into the sands as the Brexit referendum campaign got underway. Gove had been a critic of the EU ever since his father had been forced to sell up his business following the introduction and extension of the Common Fisheries Policy in the 1970s. For a leading politician to back an idea just because it had taken root in his mind in his childhood, just as with his crusade to turn British schools into imitations of Robert Gordon’s Academy, demonstrated an extraordinary mental rigidity and lack of imagination. Seen in the larger context of Britain’s economy, the Common Fisheries Policy isn’t particularly important, and certainly not worth leaving the EU over. Gove was good at thinking on his feet; why couldn’t he widen his field of vision in this case?

He knew that if he backed Remain he would be seen as cravenly sacrificing his principles to stay in Cameron’s good books. Cameron did his utmost to get his support, but Gove was still resentful at being dismissed from the Department for Education, and loyalty, surely, had to work in both directions. He not only declared for Leave, but also persuaded the Vote Leave campaign not to sack Cummings as its director (some of its grander figures had found his behaviour too much – at one point Cummings had urged Leavers to ‘pick up a baseball bat and smash David Cameron and George Osborne over the head’ with it). He then played a major part in pushing the (genuinely undecided) Johnson to put his considerable weight behind the Leave campaign. The scare tactics the campaign employed – claiming that Turkey was about to become an EU member and making much of the government’s failure to reduce high immigration rates – bore Cummings’s hallmark, but Gove and Johnson went along with it all, though they must have known there was no likelihood at all of Turkey’s joining the EU.

After Cameron’s sudden resignation as prime minister following the vote in favour of Brexit on 23 June 2016, Gove initially threw his weight behind Johnson in the battle for succession. But on 30 June, hours before the deadline by which candidates had to declare their entry in the race, he withdrew his support, declaring he had come to the conclusion that ‘Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead’ – the task of leaving the EU. Johnson, in Gove’s view, lacked the self-discipline and consistency needed to be prime minister (curiously, he seems to have changed his mind since then). Gove decided to stand himself; Johnson immediately pulled out of the race. But Gove’s reputation was damaged by his assassination of Johnson (‘as a traitor, Gove leaves Judas Iscariot standing,’ one Tory MP said) and he was eliminated from the ballot, winning even fewer votes than the relatively inexperienced Andrea Leadsom. Her subsequent withdrawal left Theresa May the last candidate standing, and she became prime minister without the Tory membership getting a say.

May sacked Gove as justice secretary, telling him pointedly: ‘You need to take a period on the back benches in order to demonstrate loyalty.’ He returned to journalism, earning £150,000 a year as a columnist for the Times for eight hours’ work a week. He took pains to demonstrate contrition for what the media depicted as his spectacular betrayal of Johnson, saying May had been right to dismiss him. His friendship with Cameron had been permanently damaged by what Cameron too saw as a betrayal over Brexit. After the election of 8 June 2017, which returned the Conservatives to power but now as a minority government, May evidently decided that Gove had had enough time to reflect on his bad behaviour, and appointed him secretary of state for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Here was another area to which he had devoted little thought, and, as he had done at the Ministry of Justice, he took a wide range of advice, including from organisations like Friends of the Earth, which Defra had previously cold-shouldered in favour of the farming lobby. Concerned, like other leading Conservatives, at the loss of support for the party among the younger generation, Gove pushed out a number of environment-friendly policies that had previously been under consideration but had failed to win formal approval. He insisted among other things that Brexit would not lead to a compromise on food hygiene and safety standards in the search for new trade deals.

Gove was widely regarded as a success in his new post, and remained loyal to May during a string of resignations from the cabinet, most notably of Johnson as foreign secretary. He brought the Tory benches, for a moment, behind her with a barnstorming attack on Jeremy Corbyn when a no confidence motion was brought before the House in May. With the Tory benches erupting in cheers, Gove, Bennett reports, ‘paced around the dispatch box in a style reminiscent of his days as president of the Oxford Union … His political rehabilitation was complete.’

When May eventually announced her resignation, Gove once more threw his hat in the ring, but his campaign lost momentum after he admitted that he had once taken cocaine, a confession that led to incessant questioning by interviewers over the following days. He came second in the penultimate ballot, but the number two spot in the final vote was taken by Jeremy Hunt, thanks, some suspected, to Johnson’s instructing some of his supporters to switch their votes to Hunt in order to prevent Gove from being included on the ballot for party members.

At this point​ Bennett’s book comes to an abrupt end. As he remarks in his discussion of Gove’s biography of Michael Portillo, published in 1995, when its subject was still regarded as a future Tory prime minister, ‘political biographers who choose to write about a figure not yet at the end of their career are taking a gamble.’ Who knows whether Bennett’s own gamble will come off? Since the book’s publication, Johnson has become prime minister and appointed Gove as minister for preparing for a no deal Brexit, a cause which, like many Brexiteers, he hadn’t even imagined in 2016.

Gove, like Johnson, has never worried about inconsistency. In March, for example, he declared firmly: ‘We didn’t vote to leave without a deal. That wasn’t the message of the campaign I helped lead.’ During the Brexit campaign he attracted a good deal of ridicule for telling a TV interviewer who cited the gloomy view taken by economists of Britain’s prospects outside the EU: ‘I think the people in this country have had enough of experts … from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.’ A decade earlier, in a Commons debate in May 2007, he had said: ‘Let us listen to the experts.’ He seems to approach every subject with the mentality of an Oxford Union debater: no matter what you’ve said before, the main thing is to trounce whoever happens to be in front of you at the time.

Much more seriously, his advocacy as education secretary of a centralised, prescriptive national curriculum was confounded by his simultaneous and equally strenuous push for the conversion of state schools into autonomous academies that were freed from any obligation to follow a national curriculum. What, then, was the point? In a sense, inconsistency didn’t matter: the point was to unsettle ‘the Blob’. Gove’s hyperactive promotion of constant reform, Bennett remarks, was more in keeping with Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution than with the middle of the road political position espoused by Gove’s one-time hero Blair. As one of Gove’s friends put it, he believes that ‘institutions have this incredibly strong drag effect and unless you are zealously fighting to push through your reforms they will die.’

Gove’s attitude is shared by Cummings, whom Johnson has now selected as his own special political adviser. Just as Gove brought Cummings into the Department for Education to shake things up and overcome, brutally if necessary, the resistance of the entrenched battalions of career civil servants (another part of ‘the Blob’), so Johnson has brought him in to do the same thing on a larger scale in order to force Brexit through whatever the cost. Cummings certainly hasn’t been reticent in offering his opinions. In 2017 he called the then Brexit secretary, David Davis, ‘thick as mince’, ‘lazy as a toad’ and ‘vain as Narcissus’. Cameron’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, was a ‘revolting character’. Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, was a ‘classic third-rate, suck-up-kick-down sycophant’. Cummings in his turn has been called ‘off the wall’, a ‘bit of a nutter’, a ‘bonkers, scruffy anarchist’ and (by Cameron himself, no less), a ‘career psychopath’.

These are the men in charge of taking Britain out of the EU. Johnson’s government, purged of any politician who has expressed the slightest doubt about the wisdom of leaving, with or without a deal, is focused single-mindedly on leaving by 31 October come what may. Only by doing so, the ruling triumvirate of Johnson, Gove and Cummings seem to believe, can the Conservatives win back the votes they have lost to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and triumph in a subsequent general election. Promises of new funding for the police, support for the NHS, a fresh crackdown on immigration, tougher discipline in schools, and departure from EU institutions before the projected leaving date, have all been made with the same purpose in mind. Johnson is making a show of negotiating a new deal with the EU, but it’s no more than a show; he must know he’s not going to get one. No deal is looking increasingly likely, and a divided opposition doesn’t seem capable of stopping it. Given the continuing stalemate on the issue in the House of Commons, the government is now trying to achieve a no deal Brexit without its approval, suspending Parliament for five weeks, a period unprecedented in length since 1945. For the ruling triumvirate, the consequences for the country don’t seem to matter, though they know they will be disastrous in the short term and probably in the medium to long term too.

It isn’t just that they don’t care. Gove and Cummings were from the very outset a disruptive force in government. During one major row with Clegg while Gove was education secretary, the deputy prime minister and his team showed they could give as good as they got: ‘The DfE advisors,’ they asserted, ‘are lying, going rogue, being hostile and talking bollocks.’ Attempting to smooth things over, Cameron told Clegg: ‘The thing that you’ve got to remember with Michael is that he’s basically a bit of a Maoist – he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction.’ But a lot of it wasn’t creative at all. When I asked Cummings what working for Gove was like, he told me that he had to spend most of his time firefighting, putting out the conflagrations his boss caused in one policy area after another. Who will have to do this job in the aftermath of a no deal Brexit is anybody’s guess but, whoever they are, they’ll be busy.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.