Gove and Johnson: What happened?

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

Image source, PA

So what on earth really happened?

There is suspicion and mistrust in the air tonight in the Tory party.

Everyone is trying to work out exactly what happened that led Michael Gove to break his word and launch his own campaign to become the next prime minister, leaving Boris Johnson, who he has known for decades stunned, and defeated.

Of course, only the two men really know what happened. As I write, they still have not spoken to each other.

As you know, from time to time, it's worth passing on the conspiracy theories that will never be proven or otherwise in Westminster. At the end of one of the most astonishing days in politics for years, here are three different accounts I've heard today of what went on.

The truth is probably a mixture of them all. But for the conspiracists out there, here goes, and neither camp would officially deny or confirm any of the scenarios below.

Conspiracy One

Image source, AFP

Michael Gove was always a "cuckoo" in the Boris Johnson campaign team. He arrived at the Johnson's farmhouse on Sunday after the two men had done a deal on Saturday night that Mr Gove would co-chair his campaign. They had also agreed, I'm told, that he would be Boris Johnson's chancellor if he moved into Number 10.

But he arrived with his advisers in tow, having tipped off the press as to the location and timing of the meeting. At that meeting, it's claimed that Mr Gove's team demanded the list of Boris Johnson's supporters, but his campaign team refused to hand over the spreadsheet with the names of their backers.

It's suggested that Mr Gove then leaked the story to the Telegraph that George Osborne would be Mr Johnson's foreign secretary, and demanded that his former adviser, Dominic Cummings, be given a senior role in Number 10.

Then yesterday an email miraculously made its way into the public domain, written by Mr Gove's wife, Sarah Vine, that urged him to demand a significant role and to stand up to Mr Johnson. People close to Mr Johnson just don't believe that all those things were a coincidence. They claim "it was an operation" from the start and they suspect that George Osborne's influence may be behind it.

"It was proper treachery," they say, and as soon as Mr Gove announced this morning, MPs described as the "inner circle gang" all peeled off and withdrew their support for Mr Johnson.

Once it was out there, "the momentum went, the direction went". And Boris Johnson and his team weren't willing to stay and have a nasty fight.

The irony is, that Mr Gove is the man who persuaded Boris Johnson to take the political risk of backing Brexit, only, after their victory, to sharpen his knife, then stab him repeatedly in the back.

Conspiracy Two

Image source, Reuters

Michael Gove was persuaded to campaign for Boris Johnson after a bruising referendum contest where they worked together to persuade the country to vote to Leave.

Mr Gove believed that Mr Johnson's crowd-pulling communication skills were what was needed to sell the post-EU deal to the country, and they could work together successfully as a team, after knowing each other for decades.

But since the referendum result, Boris Johnson refused to focus on the job in hand, he messed up some of the dealings with other colleagues like Andrea Leadsom, and Mr Gove gradually lost confidence in his ability to step up to the biggest job in politics.

After other colleagues had tried to persuade him to stand in recent days, having changed his mind about Mr Johnson's abilities, he decided reluctantly that he was the man for the job.

The reason? His genuine belief that only someone who campaigned to leave the EU, can be in charge. Mr Cummings has nothing to do with it, and, as he said to me, he is not taking any part in the leadership campaign, even though another source tells me that he had said he might "offer thoughts".

This theory suggests that Mr Gove tried repeatedly to phone Mr Johnson this morning to break the news, but couldn't get hold of him, so instead he called Lynton Crosby, Boris's long-time political strategist.

Conspiracy Three

Image source, AFP

Over the weekend, Boris Johnson's team started to gather support in earnest, promising an early election and an increased majority. MPs in the centre of the party mull it over, and contemplating an early election, the huge uncertainties after the referendum result, and the possibility that Labour might oust Jeremy Corbyn and improve in the polls, are circumspect about swinging immediately behind Boris Johnson.

I'm told that Boris Johnson had 81 nominations last night, not far from the 111 needed, but not enough, either, to be completely confident of ending up on the ballot.

The numbers were softer than they might have wanted as the heavy favourites, and less than the 100 or so that had been expected as he came out of the gate. Then right-wing Tories, mainly Brexiters, weren't quite ready to trust Boris Johnson and were concerned about Remainers being part of his team.

Michael Gove then, alarmed at the softness of support for Mr Johnson, concluded that he was tying himself into a project that was doomed to fail. Rather than see it through, with Boris Johnson no longer looking like he'd sweep all before him, he decided he had a decent shot, so betrayed his friend in order to do it.

There are spooky parallels to what was suggested to me a few months back.

He swears it is true, but not many people in Westminster tonight believe that Mr Gove had a sudden change of heart.

One Number 10 source told me tonight, he's guilty of a "double treachery", first betraying his friend David Cameron by joining the Out Campaign and now carrying out this political assassination of Boris Johnson too.

But MPs are utterly furious at what he has done. If he wins, getting his colleagues to trust him will be a tall order. Others feel of course that Mr Johnson is guilty of total irresponsibility, having won the referendum campaign, which he took on for his own ambition, then walking away in the face of what looked like a difficult fight.

It's of course possible that he might have beaten Mr Gove, and gone on to achieve his greatest ambition. But he, and we will now never know.

The only thing that's clear tonight is that there is one beneficiary, Theresa May. Her job and intention today was to look calm, sober, and powerful. She may well have achieved that anyway, it was an impressive launch. But the psychodrama between her rivals made her look that way just by comparison.