Theresa May lives on after promoting Gove and Green: divided over Brexit, united by Christian faith
They were the appointments that changed everything for Theresa May and, in the short term at least, for the country.
Until yesterday afternoon, May looked, to quote a vengeful George Osborne, like a 'dead woman walking'. She had failed to regain momentum since the disastrous collapse in Conservative support in Thursday's general election, and the internal Tory firing squad was assembling. The influential back-bench Tory 1922 Committee had just brought forward its meeting with May from Tuesday to Monday, and it appeared that the centre of gravity in the party was against her. The Tory hierarchy, so ruthless, usually, when it comes to ridding themselves of failed leaders, had processed the result and was making its move. Many journalists, including this one, thought she would be gone in 24-hours.
And then May delivered her masterstroke. Much of the country, and a good proportion of Westminster watchers, were probably taking a break from politics on Sunday afternoon when May began what some called a 'shuffle' rather than a 'reshuffle': she had already confirmed that the top six jobs would remain occupied by the same people.
She appointed Damian Green as First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office: deputy prime minister in all but name. Green, a 61-year-old former journalist for the BBC, Channel 4 and The Times, is a highly able moderate who left journalism to work for John Major's policy unit in 1992. His former colleagues in the press reacted positively, despite the lambasted May's premiership remaining until minutes earlier on a knife edge. 'He's one of the good guys,' said one senior FT journalist. But what remained unclear is how the Daily Mail and the Sun would react. For Green is one of the most pro-European Conservative MPs in the House of Commons. An old ally and backer of the most pro-EU Tory, Kenneth Clarke, Green cut his parliamentary teeth after entering into the Commons in 1997 in the Tory Reform Group, a highly pro-European pressure group on the far left of the party. Green was sacked as a middle-ranking immigration minister by David Cameron, though brought back to be Work and Pensions Secretary by May. Nonetheless, to appoint what the rightwing press could call a 'Euro-fanatic' to such a powerful position was a risky move.
Then came the surprise Cabinet return of Michael Gove, who had languished on the back-benches since his spectacular, abortive bid to be Tory leader last summer. Though not in the top six, Gove was given one of the few remaining substantial positions, that of Environment Secretary. Gove said he was 'flattered' and 'surprised' to be given the job, which some green campaigners are already saying he is unsuited to. They pointed to a report by the Guardian in 2013 claiming that the then Education Secretary was blocked in an attempt to drop climate change from the geography national curriculum. Some suspect him to be a climate change skeptic. In fact, Gove has long taken an interest in environmental matters, and helped shape Cameron's apparently pro-green agenda while the Tories were seeking to 'modernise' in Opposition.
At 49, Gove is highly able with complicated politics, and not easily labelled as the right-wing libertarian some seek to name him as. But nonetheless he remains Rupert Murdoch's favourite British politician and has a relatively close relationship with the owner of the Sun and The Times, for which Gove, like Green, used to work (he still writes a column and some longer articles, including an interview with Donald Trump which Murdoch secured for Gove).
More importantly, Gove was the architect of Brexit, and so May had balanced her reshuffle and placated both the Sun and the Mail, for which Gove's wife, Sarah Vine, writes a column.
Green and Gove come from different wings of the Tory party, but what they have in common is their faith: they are both practising Christians while being staunch social liberals.
Indeed, Green, who is little known as a Catholic, once described himself to me as both a 'social liberal' and a 'birth Catholic,' adding: 'There are always going to be areas on which the Church and a party overlap, and areas where they don't overlap.' On his own approach, Green said of his faith: 'It is so much a part of me that I don't consciously think, "Is this a way to approach a particular political issue?'" This has been a socially liberal government and I don't agree with the Church on equal marriage.' Green went on: 'The interaction between the Church and any political party ought to be difficult and I would intensely oppose the idea of political parties being representative of a religion.'
Gove would doubtless agree with that. An Anglican and regular church-goer, Gove spoke about his faith at some length to Christian Today in February.
Gove was brought up as a member of the Church of Scotland, and his mother is a still regular churchgoer. 'My father never really had any strong religious beliefs [but] I was brought up as a Christian,' Gove explained.
'I enjoy listening to sermons and homilies, and it may be a consequence of having grown up in the Church of Scotland where the sermon is almost the centrepiece in a way that obviously the Eucharist or the Mass is in the Catholic – small or large 'C' – tradition. Gove praised the Holy Trinity Brompton vicar Nicky Gumbel as 'outstanding' and the then Bishop of London Richard Chartres 'a fantastic preacher'.
On his own faith, Gove, who said 'I am a sinner and I know it profoundly,' showed humility: 'While at different times the strength of my faith has wavered or been tested, and while I would never say that anyone should' – he laughs – 'look at any of the things that I've done and say this is a pattern of Christian living – because I am a sinner and I know it profoundly -- nevertheless, I have held throughout to a belief in Christian doctrine, and while I worship now in a Church of England church rather than a Church of Scotland church, my views I would say were those of – and again it's always very difficult to pigeon hole, to define oneself – but of a straightforward, mainstream, Protestant Christian.'
By last night, after the appointments of Green and Gove, the tide had turned and May appeared safe – for now. The two main contenders to replace May, David Davis and Boris Johnson, were urging Tory MPs to back the prime minister. Johnson sent a message on a WhatsApp group telling his colleagues to get behind May and then penned an article for the Sun praising her. This morning, Davis described weekend speculation about a Tory leadership contest 'the height of self-indulgence' and also heaped compliments on May.
For her part, May yesterday morning entered her local church, St. Andrew's in Sonning, a marked woman. Whether she was inspired to make her game-changing reshuffle during the service, we do not know.
But by last night, she had salvaged an apparently doomed premiership and lived to fight another day.