Of all those who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU, the one thought to possess the greatest intellectual heft was always believed to be Michael “Oiky” Gove. Bozza may have been an unprincipled clown, Priti Patel too dependent on the nearest autocue, Chris Grayling too dependent on someone else’s intellect, and Iain Duncan Cough not capable of basic honesty, but Gove was intellectually sound. Or so it was thought.
That was before he was challenged to actually discuss and debate the issues in an open forum, one where he could not cherry-pick his opponents or select the subjects to be debated. Then it all went wrong, as Jonathan Portes - one of those troublesome individuals who deals in facts, rather than soundbites and false assumptions - passed adverse comment upon a group of which Gove is a founding supporter.
As Portes told in a Guardian Comment Is Free piece, “Change Britain - the ‘campaign to make a success of Britain’s departure from the EU’ - published a ‘report’ on the economics of Brexit yesterday. I described it as ‘junk’. But one response to my comments was interesting - and surprising: Michael Gove tweeted that ‘hard cheese and sour grapes are never a good combination’”. Who could Gove have been aiming at?
Portes could not be sure, “but I thought I’d respond. After all, Gove is a ‘founding supporter’ of Change Britain. Surely someone of his undoubted intelligence would have a reasoned view about the claims it made? So I asked him if he endorsed the report. He first responded with some general, and irrelevant, rhetoric. Then I asked him if he’d even read it”. For Gove to have been so certain in his riposte, he must at least have done that.
He accused Portes of “back[ing] Remain”. There was only one problem with this claim - it was not true (the same assumption, that Portes is pro-EU, was also deployed with less than total success some time ago by Dan, Dan The Oratory Man, which resulted in a complaint against the Telegraph, in whose blogs section the claim had been made. Zelo Street regulars may recall the episode. Hannan was, not for the first time, wrong).
Portes requested a retraction. Gove deflected, demanding to know which way Portes voted in the EU referendum. He kept on this course, declining to retract his claim that Portes had backed the Remain side. And no, he still wouldn’t say whether he had even read the report by Change Britain that had got him into trouble in the first place (a report that has been derided across the political spectrum).
But what might be more pertinent as to why Gove is ducking the issue can be found in Nick Clegg’s recollection of the Coalition: “The more I governed with Gove and his team, the more I realised he was just striking a series of superficial poses … There’s this ersatz intellectual heft that Gove and his people have that I don’t think is merited”. Gove, it should be remembered, believed all schools could be better than average.
Michael Gove is not the intellectual heavyweight he would have us believe he is. That is why he chickened out of debate with Jonathan Portes. And he’ll do it again with anyone else who looks like they might have facts to hand and brain engaged.