LONDON — The race to succeed David Cameron as Conservative prime minister in the UK took an unexpected twist on Thursday with the announcement that Justice Secretary Michael Gove was throwing his hat in the ring — and the decision of Boris Johnson not to run. The shock moves mean that the two leading contenders to succeed Cameron are Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May, both of whom are staunch supporters of Israel.
Cameron has also been one of Israel’s warmest friends in Europe, and Johnson too is a firm supporter — underlining how widespread support is for Israel in the top ranks of the governing Conservative Party, in contrast to the relentless criticisms of Israel from many senior opposition Labour figures, led by party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Gove, 48, is one of parliament’s most passionate pro-Zionists, a supporter of faith schools when he was education secretary and a denouncer of BDS as “a crime.” He has been engaged with British Jews since at least 1998. He only made his first visit to Israel in December 2013, however, because he was terrified of flying and eventually had to go to a hypnotist to conquer that fear.
On that first flight Gove, then still education secretary, and his aides — to the surprise of other passengers — sat in the economy section of the cabin, chatting easily to his seatmates. “No Israeli minister would ever do such a thing,” one passenger told this reporter. “Are you sure he’s a Conservative?”
Gove’s likely main leadership opponent, May, who will turn 60 this year, has been home secretary since 2010 and campaigned with the Remain group during the referendum race — although she was much more low-key than Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne.
A committed Christian, May was the favorite to beat Johnson in several opinion polls, but no polling has yet been released for her chances against Gove.
She, too, is a friend of the Jewish community, and has spoken to a variety of charities across the spectrum, particularly the Community Security Trust and the women and children’s charity, Emunah.
In a series of speeches she gave in the wake of the Paris terror attacks last year, May said, “I could never have imagined Jewish people being too scared to stay in Britain.” Without its Jews, she said, “Britain would not be Britain.”
Pledging that synagogues and Jewish schools would get extra patrols to reassure worried communities, she said at the time: “We must all redouble our efforts to wipe out anti-Semitism here.” May committed £13.4 million ($18 million) in security funding for the Jewish community in March this year.
She made a first visit to Israel in 2015 to meet Israeli experts on cybersecurity and combating modern slavery – “two challenges which both Israel and the UK are confronting with great determination.” She was the guest speaker for the Bnei Akiva youth group’s Independence Day event this year, and spoke of her “honor” in celebrating Israel’s independence. She added: ”The modern State of Israel is the fulfillment of many generations of struggle.”
Gove, who co-ran the successful Brexit campaign with Johnson for Britain to leave the European Union, was not widely thought to be in the running to succeed Cameron. Earlier this week, however, an email to Gove from his famously outspoken wife, Sarah Vine, a columnist on the Daily Mail, was leaked to the press. In it, Vine advised Gove not to back Johnson without specific assurances from him on immigration controls; though Vine’s email was widely mocked — the Guardian asked if Sarah Vine thought her husband was an idiot — it appears to have galvanized Gove into deciding that he would in fact run for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
In 2012, after being spoken of as a contender for prime minister, Gove had demurred. He said then: “I’m constitutionally incapable of it. There’s a special extra quality you need that is indefinable, and I know I don’t have it. There’s an equanimity, an impermeability and a courage that you need. There are some things in life you know it’s better not to try.”
Hours after Gove’s announcement Thursday came Johnson’s dramatic declaration that he would not be competing to succeed Cameron. Gove had said he did not believe Johnson could “provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
Johnson may well have concluded that his chaotic private life — including the siring of an illegitimate child — would not withstand the inevitable press scrutiny in a leadership race.
Announcing his decision on Thursday morning, Johnson said: “Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances of Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me.”
Gove was born in Edinburgh and raised in Aberdeen, where he was adopted at four months old. A journalist who was a long-time leader writer for The Times and admired as one of the politest men in politics, he nevertheless had a spectacular falling-out with May in 2014 over alleged “Trojan horse” extremism in schools. May’s closest aide resigned and Gove was ordered to apologize to the prime minister, after Gove briefed The Times against her, claiming that the Home Office had failed “to drain the swamp” of Islamic extremism.
For a time Gove, who entered Parliament in 2005, was cast out into the wilderness. He lost his post as education secretary but returned to the Conservative front bench as justice secretary in May 2015.