Environment secretary insists he is ‘in it to win it’ and vows to focus on overlooked families
Michael Gove has tried to claw his way back into the race to be Britain’s next prime minister with a pledge to govern for “overlooked families and undervalued communities” – and a series of personal attacks on frontrunner Boris Johnson.
The environment secretary’s campaign was blown off course at the weekendafter revelations about cocaine use. But on the day the Tory leadership contest launched in earnest, Gove insisted he was still “in it to win it”.
The backbench 1922 Committee announced that 10 contenders have mustered the support of the eight MPs they need to proceed to the first round of voting, with remainer Sam Gyimah the only one not to make the cut.
MPs will hold the first round of voting on Thursday morning, with candidates who fail to win 17 votes or more being knocked out. Further rounds will be held next week, with the final pair of candidates then presented to grassroots Tory members for a vote.
Gove launched his campaign with a slick event in a Westminster skyscraper, at which he delivered a punchy speech, without notes.
He spoke about his “reforming zeal” as education, justice and now environment secretary, and highlighted what he said was his successful record.
The speech was peppered with policies, including pledges to abolish business rates for small and medium-sized businesses, protect ex-service personnel from prosecution over historic cases, and “create institutes of technology, with high quality vocational education, in every town.”
Gove’s performance was also laced with jibes about the overwhelming favourite, whom he referred to as “Mr Johnson”.
The pair’s bitter rivalry stems back to 2016, when Gove knocked Johnson out of the leadership race.
This time, Gove said, “if I get through, which I’m sure I will actually, to the final two against Mr Johnson this is what I will say to him. Mr Johnson, whatever you do, don’t pull out.”
Gove was also critical of Johnson’s flagship tax policy, which drew fire from other candidates on Monday, including Dominic Raab.
Johnson has said that if he becomes prime minister, he will increase the higher-rate income tax threshold at which the 40p rate starts to be paid, from £50,000 to £80,000.
The plan would cost around £10bn, with the benefit going to the highest earners. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell called the policy “irresponsible and shameful,” at a time when schools and policy forces are facing cuts.
Gove said, “one thing I will never do as prime minister is to use our tax and benefits system to give the already wealthy another tax cut”. He said he was in favour of tax cuts, but “the poor must come first”.
In another implied criticism of Johnson, who has so far carried out few media interviews, Gove said he would confront Jeremy Corbyn directly rather than hide in a “bunker”.
And he added: “These are serious times; we need a serious leader. The stakes couldn’t be higher, the consequences couldn’t be greater.” Gove said he had “led from the front” during the Vote Leave campaign, and been “tested in battle”.
Confronted with the question of whether he had been hypocritical in taking cocaine, and going on to oversee as education secretary a system in which teachers would be sacked for doing so, he said he had learned from his mistakes.
Gove said that as justice secretary he had championed rehabilitation, seeking to emulate Winston Churchill’s promise always to look for “the treasure in the heart of man”.
Johnson gave his own rousing address to Tory MPs on Monday evening, telling the right-wing 92 group that he was an election-winner.
“I will do for this country what I did for London where we were able to lift the poor and the needy in our society while also sticking up for the wealth creators. If we can restore this basic philosophy we will carry all before us,” he said.
Gove had been regarded by many at Westminster as the most formidable challenger to Johnson, whom he knocked out of the Tory leadership race in 2016; but foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has stolen a march on him in recent days.
At his own launch, Hunt was introduced by work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd, and defence secretary Penny Mordaunt – two heavyweight supporters from opposite sides of the Brexit divide.
Brexit has dominated the debate in the early stages of the race. Raab, who like Johnson resigned from the cabinet over the issue, has mooted the idea of suspending parliament if MPs try to block a no-deal Brexit in October.
Johnson has also insisted he will take Britain out of the EU on 31 October, with or without a revised deal with Brussels. But Gove has suggested he would be more flexible, if a delay proved necessary to complete a deal.
The health secretary Matt Hancock’s campaign was boosted by the backing of Theresa May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington. Hancock’s slogan is “let’s move forward”.
Gove was introduced by the Tory rising star Kemi Badenoch, the MP for Saffron Walden, with other prominent supporters, including Nicky Morgan and the education secretary Damian Hinds, looking on from the front row.
In a frantic week of campaigning at Westminster, three more candidates – Andrea Leadsom, Mark Harper and Rory Stewart – will hold launch events on Tuesday, with Johnson and home secretary Sajid Javid to follow on Wednesday.
Javid has struggled to win as many endorsements as Hunt or Gove after his campaign got off to a slow start, but has won the coveted backing of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.