When the front pages of weekend newspapers began to spill online last Friday night, I realised a story I had been working on for a year was about to explode.
‘Gove: My cocaine confession’ was the most stark headline, accompanied by the first instalment of a serialisation of my unauthorised biography of the environment secretary.
The book contained the revelation that during the preparation for his 2016 leadership bid, Gove admitted to aides he had previously taken cocaine. He was advised not to reveal that in public, and instead use the so-called David Cameron defence that everyone is entitled to a private life before entering politics.
When the story was put to Gove, he admitted he had taken the drug on “several social occasions” – leading a host of Sunday newspapers to splash the story on their front-pages too.
The story dominated the weekend’s news agenda and ultimately overshadowed Gove’s leadership campaign launch on Monday.
For Gove, it was a devastating – perhaps fatal – blow to his hopes to succeed Theresa May as Conservative leader. While he was answering questions at his leadership launch about his past drug use, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was able to build his own campaign event around the unveiling of two high-profile new backers: work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd and defence secretary Penny Mordaunt.
Since the revelations, no new MPs have announced their support for Gove, and his pitch as the man to stop the frontrunner – Boris Johnson – is faltering.
Gove is determined to get his campaign back on track, and there is no doubt he has the character and tenacity to succeed.
Unlike others in the so-called “Notting Hill set” of young Tories who sought to reform the party at the beginning of the millennium – David Cameron, George Osborne and Ed Vaizey – Gove did not come from great wealth or a family connected to the establishment.
Born Graeme Logan on 26 August 1967, he was adopted by an Aberdeen couple, Ernest and Christine, when he was four months old.
The Gove family earned their living from the sea, with Ernest running the family fish processing business. Recognising Gove’s prodigious talents – he was a voracious reader and sparkling debater – the family sent their son to a private school in Aberdeen, from which he went to Oxford University.
After university he entered the world of journalism, but whereas his Oxford contemporary Boris Johnson walked into a job at The Times and then The Telegraph, Gove had to return to his home town of Aberdeen to work on the Press and Journal newspaper. From there, he fought his way on to the BBC and The Times, before entering parliament in 2005.
His battling spirit has shone through in his time in government, most notably during his four years as education secretary between 2010 and 2014. He was unafraid to take on the teaching establishment – which he nicknamed “the Blob” – as he delivered the most fundamental reforms to education provision in England and Wales since the 1960s.
As justice secretary he challenged traditional Conservative notions of crime and punishment, insisting society needed to search for the “treasure in the heart of man” and that rehabilitation was a vital part of incarceration. His time as environment secretary has seen him champion green causes – a reverse on his position in 2010 when he did not support a charge on plastic bags.
Gove is clearly a fighter, not a quitter, and if he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations there he is no doubt he would strain every sinew to get a deal with Brussels but would also step up preparations for a no deal Brexit. He would return to May’s much derided mantra that no deal really is better than a bad deal.
One blindspot for Gove is the world of enterprise. As a Conservative who grew up in the Thatcher era he is naturally pro-business and highly supportive of disruptive capitalism that challenges and remoulds conventional thinking. Yet his entire adult life has been in media and politics, meaning unlike rival such as Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, he does not know what it takes to start your own business or establish yourself in a global corporation.
Gove will know this, and if he does become Prime Minister, expect him to launch a listening exercise with the City as he tries to absorb all the knowledge available to him – in the same manner he used to read encyclopedias when he was a schoolboy in Aberdeen.
Whether he becomes Prime Minister depends on if he can persuade enough MPs to back him as the man to beat Johnson in a run-off to be decided by Conservative party members.
He insists his campaign is not dead, and once the conversation moves away from past misdemeanours and on to policy and competency he will win.
There are some signs of hope. Johnson has yet to submit himself to a grilling from the media, and he has questions to answer about his own past behaviour. Hunt may have assembled a broad church of supporters, but it will be interesting to see if he can keep to a line on Brexit which pleases the Remain-supporting Rudd and the Brexit-backing Mordaunt. Javid’s campaign is yet to crank into life, while Hancock may be a little too junior for Tory MPs and members looking for a strong hand on the tiller at this time of national crisis.
Gove could bounce back. He has before, from the backbenches after betraying Johnson in 2016, but making it to the final two in this race would be one of the greatest achievements of an already successful political career.