Coup or conspiracy? Tories sense ‘shapeshifter’ Gove and Dominic Cummings are stalking No 10

Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, pictured during their time working together at the Department for Education in 2012 - Oli Scarff/Getty Images Europe
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As Number 10 braces itself for the unstable ordnance of Dominic Cummings' appearance before MPs on Wednesday, one minister will be certain of emerging unscathed from any "Dom bombs" that go off.

Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is beyond reproach as far as Mr Cummings is concerned, having been in lockstep with him throughout the pandemic.

The mutual respect between the two is so strong that some Tory MPs are convinced Mr Cummings is plotting a sensational political comeback as part of a future Gove premiership.

However unlikely that prospect might seem, it is a measure of the deep distrust of the two men by sections of the Conservative Party that some MPs believe they are conspiring to oust Boris Johnson and stage an imminent Downing Street coup.

Michael Gove has twice run for Tory leader, killing off Boris Johnson's 2016 leadership bid in the process - Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Michael Gove has twice run for Tory leader, killing off Boris Johnson's 2016 leadership bid in the process - Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

"Gove is permanently on manoeuvres," said one former Cabinet minister. "The man manoeuvres more than Napoleon did. He is forever trying to position himself so that he will always be the man who was right."

Allies of Mr Gove, of course, insist he is content to serve at the Prime Minister's pleasure and is entirely happy in his current role. Other friends have been suggesting he would love to have his own department again, ideally the Foreign Office or Home Office – but that that is the limit of his ambitions.

He has twice run for Tory leader, however (killing off his supposed friend Mr Johnson's 2016 leadership bid in the process), and if his said-to-be long-time ally Mr Cummings were to succeed in his apparent mission to bring the Johnson premiership to an early end, a third opportunity would present itself.

"No one that knows anything about Michael Gove trusts him," said the former minister. "He is a shapeshifter. He backed Brexit, then all of a sudden he is against freedom and in favour of lockdown. Everything is just a performance because he keeps trying to reinvent himself."

Mr Gove's political enemies have also accused him of being a drag anchor on the easing of restrictions by constantly arguing for the toughest, longest lockdown measures.

Mr Cummings continued his quest to prove he and, by implication, Mr Gove, were right while everyone else was wrong as he tweeted out graphs and charts purporting to show that lives would have been saved if only people had done what he said.

Are he and Mr Gove in cahoots? "I'm sure the two of them have spoken since Dom left Number 10 in November," said one Whitehall source. "But it's more likely to be every couple of months rather than every week.

"What you have to realise is that they both think exactly the same way, and they have known each other for so long, since Cummings worked for Gove at the Department for Education, that Cummings knows what Gove's position is on any one topic.

"It's like Dom bulldozes a path and then Michael follows in his ministerial car – they're both on the same road, even if they're not in the same vehicle."

The fact that Mr Gove has been able to wield so much influence over Covid policy is down to two factors – the power given to him by Mr Johnson in the Cabinet Office, and the fact that he has acolytes in key positions of power, including the Prime Minister's team.

Three of his former aides, Henry Newman, Henry Cook and Meg Powell-Chandler, have all moved across to Number 10 as advisers, and Mr Gove's former girlfriend Baroness Finn has been recruited as Mr Johnson's deputy chief of staff.

For some of them, most notably Mr Newman, close friendships with Mr Johnson's fiancee, Carrie Symonds, are seen as the main influence on promotions to Number 10, but the outcome is nevertheless positive for Mr Gove.

"Ministers are terrified of standing up to Michael because they think Michael's allies are everywhere and will ensure they get sacked in the next reshuffle," said one senior Tory MP. "Boris is totally hemmed in by Gove's people, and they will all have Dom on speed dial and WhatsApp."

For his part, Mr Cummings appears motivated by revenge as much as anything. Friends say he believes Mr Johnson broke a promise to give him the power to reform the civil service and blames Ms Symonds for plotting to have him removed from his job as chief adviser to the Prime Minister.

As the chairman of the Cabinet's Covid Operations subcommittee (Covid-O), Mr Gove is uniquely placed to influence pandemic policy.

He is able to commission work from the Cabinet Office's Covid Taskforce and receives papers directly from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), enabling him to trump other ministers with his detailed knowledge in meetings.

"What he does is let everybody have their say and then draw whatever conclusions he had already decided to draw before he went into the meeting," said the senior MP. "People don't push back because they are frightened of him. There is also an element of exhaustion – people are tired of constantly fighting.

"The Prime Minister should take out the centre of the spider's web. I honestly can't see how he can continue to be at the centre of the web when his clear ambition is to be Prime Minister and bring Dominic Cummings back."

Along with Mr Gove and Mr Cummings, there is a third man with huge influence who not only favours a more cautious approach but also has close ties to both.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, "gets on well with Gove", according to a source who has seen them in action, partly because Mr Gove "takes a big interest in how the science works and is organised".

Sir Patrick Vallance is said to 'get on well' with Michael Gove - Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe
Sir Patrick Vallance is said to 'get on well' with Michael Gove - Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

Mr Cummings, meanwhile, has described how, in his "very last conversation" with Mr Johnson, he handed the Prime Minister a note he had written with Sir Patrick, saying the two had agreed that "the current system is obviously no good" and that science and technology should be "core to the job of the Prime Minister for the future".

Sir Patrick is also trying to pull Mr Johnson towards a continuation of some Covid restrictions, and said this month that working from home and face coverings might have to return this winter if case numbers start to rise.

Traditional Tory MPs who cherish liberty are appalled at the very idea and are already discussing what must be done to end the influence of the alleged Gove/Cummings nexus.

As one backbencher said: "I was discussing this with a very senior person the other day, and they said: 'No matter what happens, my sole purpose in political life is to stop Michael Gove.'"

A friend of Mr Gove said: "These are absurd conspiracy theories. Michael is totally focused on the job the PM has asked him to do – co-ordinating the cross-government response to the pandemic, tackling the backlogs in our public services and strengthening the Union."

Another ally of Mr Gove said: "He is not in touch with Dominic Cummings and they haven't spoken for months. They barely spoke even when Cummings was working in Number 10."