Michael Gove has launched his bid to be the Conservative party leader, pitching himself as the candidate for change who will deliver on the British people’s desire to leave the European Union.
In his speech in Westminster the day after he put Boris Johnson out of the race, Gove claimed to be a man of conviction, rather than ambition, who only entered the contest at the last minute after concluding the former London mayor was unsuited to the job.
“I want this country I love – and which has given me so much – to embrace this opportunity for change with optimism and conviction,” the justice secretary said. “I never thought I’d ever be in this position.
“I did not want it, indeed I did almost everything not be a candidate for the leadership of this party. I was so very reluctant because I know my limitations. Whatever charisma is, I don’t have it, whatever glamour may be, I don’t think anyone could ever associate me with it.
“But at every step in my political life I’ve asked myself one question: what is the right thing to do? What does your heart tell you?”
Gove had agreed to chair Johnson’s campaign, but decided at midnight on Wednesday, just 12 hours before the deadline, to run himself.
That prompted Johnson to pull out of the race to replace David Cameron, who stepped down after failing to convince enough voters to choose to remain in the EU.
Some of Johnson’s backers are now on Gove’s campaign but others have expressed their anger at his betrayal and have chosen to back either his biggest rival, Theresa May, or fellow leave campaigner Andrea Leadsom.
Explaining his decision, Gove said: “I believed that Boris Johnson – who had campaigned alongside me with such energy and enthusiasm – could build and lead that team. I wanted that plan to work. I worked night and day for it. But I came to realise this week that, for all Boris’s formidable talents, he was not the right person for the task.
“That realisation meant that I once more faced a difficult decision. Could I recommend to friends, colleagues and the country a course in which I no longer believed? I could not. I had to stand up for my convictions. I had to stand up for a different course for this country. I had to stand for the leadership of this party.”
Gove went on to argue that it was essential the next prime minister was somebody who backed the leave campaign. His pitch may appeal to Conservative party members who are thought to have voted in large numbers to leave the EU.
Members will vote from a shortlist of two candidates chosen by MPs.
Amid accusations that some leave campaigners have resiled from pledges made during the campaign, he promised to stand by all the promises of the Vote Leave group, including another £100m a week for the NHS, an absolute end to freedom of movement, and a clear exit from the EU.
The key theme of Gove’s speech was embracing change, as he argued that the British people had opted for a different path.
He said the UK could muddle through or “lean in, embrace the change the British people voted for and shape it in our interests – facing the challenges of the days ahead with cool heads and making the most of the new opportunities open to us with resolute and daring hearts”.
In a final plea to his electorate, Gove said his bid was not a result of calculation but a “burning desire to transform our country”.
He said it was a wrench to part company with Cameron on the issue of the EU but politicians “were not paid to tend to their feelings”.
“I know I have the experience, the energy and, perhaps most importantly, the sense of urgency,” Gove said.
“Because away from Westminster there is a country where far too many people are denied the chance to write their own life story, to use their God-given talents and be the best they can be.”
He said it had been an “extraordinary, testing, momentous time for Britain” but he wanted to make it through “stronger and prouder”.