Did Michael Gove ever really leave the Oxford Union?

Only a former Oxford Union hack could in the same sentence describe a political opponent as both “charming, intelligent, eloquent” and “uncertain, irresolute, weak”.

The tactic, as George Eaton puts it, consists in flattering one’s opponents into submission before sticking the knife in.

It’s a classic ploy used by members of the Oxford Union, the prestigious Oxford University debating society of which Gove was once President, to ridicule an interlocutor whilst appearing sincere and dispassionate to the audience.

I’ve been an Oxford Union member for two years and have seen the trick pulled too many times to count. To seasoned observers it’s boring and patronising at best, and slimy and disingenuous at worst. But it works.

In weighing up Miliband’s credentials, Gove creates the impression of balance by listing the Labour leader’s positive as well as negative attributes. In fact he gives the impression of doing more than that: six positive adjectives – charming, intelligent, eloquent, thoughtful, generous and chivalrous – against just three negative ones.

Of course Gove isn’t being fair at all. The compliments all allude to Miliband’s ‘Buddha-like qualities’ which, in the public eye, aren’t really qualities at all. Not against Cameron’s supposed strengths of certainty, resoluteness and strength which, Gove would have us believe, Miliband doesn’t possess.

But it’s not easy to spot the guise. Instead Gove’s apparent equanimity succeeds in depoliticising and legitimising the crushing conclusion that follows: that when asked “who governs Labour, his answer would appear to be, increasingly: the unions.”

Incidentally, Boris Johnson, another former Union President, repeatedly pulls the same trick of patronising a rival – David Cameron – while outwardly appearing warm and friendly. Johnson is the only politician with the nerve, and status, to get away with calling the Prime Minister ‘Dave’, which Johnson – who never forfeiting the status afforded by being two years above Cameron at Eton and then Oxford – regularly does in public.

If Gove really is “the politest man in politics”, then he is also the least authentic. A little of veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s bad manners – accusing George Osborne of snorting cocaine (2005) and calling Jim Prior, then secretary of state for employment, the “minister of unemployment” (1980) – would help him recoup some much-needed authenticity.

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