The political story of this book is extraordinary. Seeing it set out in a single narrative, I was brought up short by just how much has happened since David Cameron, against the advice of Gove, decided to call a referendum on Britain’s place in Europe. Since then Gove has fallen out with Cameron after deciding — for reasons of long-held conviction, as Bennett shows — to back the Leave side. He has played a significant role in a referendum victory, after which he stymied Boris Johnson’s bid in 2016 to become prime minister, then failed to become PM himself. He has been sacked as justice secretary in 2016 by Theresa May and then re-emerged a year later as environment secretary.
One of the many difficulties of writing a biography of Gove is that anyone who begins the task is, at once, writing about the right’s most readable polemicist and the Conservative party’s best rhetorician of the last 20 years. It’s a nerve-racking job for any writer, but Bennett handles it well. The book rattles along nicely as it recounts Gove’s early life, school days and career before politics. It frustrates when, as with any historical work, the author’s conclusions seem arguable... But these are the quibbles that shouldn’t detract from a highly skilful bringing together of diaries, contemporary accounts and the author’s own research. The story ends with Gove launching his campaign – a campaign derailed mostly because Conservative members wanted the loudest and most uncompromising Brexiter in the field.
As a result, this is a good book that feels somewhat pointless...
Bennett’s book is mostly a diligent cuttings job. He has trawled Gove’s columns for The Times and shows that little has changed from when he was a champion schoolboy debater. He has always been “a brilliant arguer”, one who often takes his point too far, usually in a right-wing direction. In 1998 he wrote a muddled article advocating the return of hanging; elsewhere he insisted that “a Conservative Prime Minister has no business trying to create a classless society”... Bennett is one of the best of the new breed of political reporters. He admits this book was not a labour of love. With a work on Nigel Farage under his belt, he had proposed a biography of London mayor Sadiq Khan to his publisher. Nevertheless, this is a must-read for those wanting to know about Gove, who could be just another nearly man whose political career is already stumbling to a dead end — or who could become Johnson’s “stooge” again, only this time in his cabinet.