Michael Gove has endorsed Rishi Sunak to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister, accusing Tory leadership frontrunner Liz Truss of taking a “holiday from reality” over the cost of living crisis.
Throwing his weight behind the ex-chancellor, who sought to bill himself as the “underdog” during Friday night’s hustings, Mr Gove also said he did not expect to return to frontbench politics – having been the longest-serving minister in Cabinet until he was fired for privately telling the PM to resign.
“It was the privilege of my life to spend 11 years in the Cabinet under three prime ministers,” Mr Gove wrote in The Times. “I know what the job requires. And Rishi has it.”
Mr Gove defended Mr Sunak’s chequered record as a low-tax Conservative, insisting the tax hikes he had ushered in were “a consequence of Covid, not Rishi’s inner preferences” – and claimed the ex-chancellor would “put the strength of the state at the service of the weakest”.
Conversely, he said the foreign secretary’s plans would prioritise “the stock options of FTSE 100 executives” over supporting the poorest in society through the inflationary crisis.
Warning that “the answer to the cost of living crisis cannot be simply to reject further ‘handouts’ and cut tax” as Ms Truss is proposing, Mr Gove said her planned cuts to national insurance “would favour the wealthy, and changes to corporation tax apply to big businesses, not small entrepreneurs”.
“I cannot see how safeguarding the stock options of FTSE 100 executives should ever take precedence over supporting the poorest in our society, but at a time of want it cannot be the right priority,” said Mr Gove.
Mr Gove, who backed Kemi Badenoch earlier in the contest, said he does not believe Ms Truss’s “prospectus is the right answer for the world we face”, adding: “It does not address the fundamental problems of potential neglected, productivity suppressed and the vulnerable suffering the most.”
The most recent polling of Tory party members by YouGov places Ms Truss comfortably ahead in the race with 66 points to Mr Sunak’s 34, and polling guru Sir John Curtice told The Times on Thursday that the foreign secretary would now “have to foul up in some spectacular fashion” for her rival to win.
But Mr Gove hit out at the “SW1 consensus” that Ms Truss has already won, writing: “A bandwagon is clattering down Whitehall with eager new adherents clambering aboard.”
His endorsement was published immediately after the leadership rivals departed the stage at a hustings event in Manchester hosted by GB News, in which they were quizzed by host Alastair Stewart – on subjects including crime, the NHS and Channel crossings – and party members.
While Ms Truss has denounced the idea of further “handouts” to help households weather the cost of living crisis in favour of cutting taxes, Mr Sunak branded this a “moral failure” and told the hustings he would provide the elderly and those on low incomes with direct financial support to help with rocketing energy bills.
The ex-chancellor went on to claim that, wherever he goes, he is “winning the argument” about tackling inflation, “actually supporting vulnerable people this autumn”, and “being responsible” with borrowing – as Ms Truss faced audience questioning over warnings her plans could cost the Treasury £50bn.
Seeking to buoy his claim to be an “honest” politician “prepared to have difficult conversations with the public”, Mr Sunak addressed audience members supportive of Ms Truss’s plans to scrap his national insurance hike, saying: “Everyone applauding the fact that we should cancel the NHS levy and have our kids borrow and pay the bill for that – I want to tell you that you’re wrong.”
The event came after the foreign secretary was accused by Labour of showing “her true colours” in an unearthed 2009 paper she co-authored, which called for vast spending cuts, including “user charges for GPs”, the abolition of universal child benefit and the removal of the winter fuel payment.
While the hustings host attempted to quiz Ms Truss on the report, he mistakenly said it was written in 2019, prompting her to sidestep his question and instead joke: “I always thought you had high-quality standards at GB News – it’s not the BBC, you actually get your facts right.”
Ms Truss also reiterated her plan to lift the ban on new grammar schools, saying she wants everyone “right across the country” to have the choice to enlist their children at them.
But Mr Gove, a former education secretary and BBC journalist, highlighted the grammar schools pledge as being among her plans that should not be a priority for the government, given there is “neither the money to build them nor the evidence they advance social mobility”.
The Sunak campaign welcomed Mr Gove’s backing, with a spokesperson saying: “Delighted to have the support of a party and Cabinet veteran who has intellectual heft and shown the radical reforming zeal in every job he has had, that we now so desperately need.”
Mr Gove most recently served as levelling up secretary, with he and Mr Johnson appearing to have buried the hatchet over the tempestuous 2016 leadership race, which saw Mr Gove branded an “amazing s” after his surprise attack on his former Brexit ally’s suitability for the top job saw Mr Johnson bow out.
However, despite multiple Cabinet ministers being reported as lining up in a Downing Street delegation to advise Mr Johnson to step down during the implosion of his government last month, Mr Johnson dramatically sacked Mr Gove after he privately told the prime minister to quit.
Additional reporting by PA