However, Mr Gove is a central figure in Team Osborne, the group around the Chancellor, preparing the way for him to become either the leader or, should he fail to build sufficient support, the kingmaker in any contest. It is suggested by MPs that Mr Gove could be a de facto running mate or deputy, with the pair offered as a dream team to counter the appeal of Bojo.
Even Mr Gove’s most newsworthy observation this weekend is best seen in the context of the efforts to prevent Mr Johnson from becoming leader. There are too many Old Etonians in the Prime Minister’s inner circle, the Education Secretary said yesterday in an interview in the Financial Times. This was interpreted as an attack on Mr Cameron, and it is certainly true that the Tory leader does not like seeing his old school traduced.
Yet Mr Gove and Mr Cameron are close friends, and the education reforms they have introduced in government are aimed in large part at kick-starting social mobility and reversing the trend of recent decades in which top private schools have reasserted their dominance in public life.
Rather than attacking Mr Cameron, it seems more likely that in mentioning Eton, Mr Gove was seeking to make another point. A Tory MP said yesterday: “Who else went to Eton? Boris. Gove is saying don’t pick another Old Etonian as leader after Cameron. George went to St Paul’s.”
Indeed, Mr Osborne was nicknamed “oiky Osborne” by some of his associates at Oxford, on account of him having attended St Paul’s School in London. While it is one of the top schools in Britain, it is more traditionally one for children of the ambitious west London middle classes, whereas Eton is regarded as being socially more elevated. On such small and ludicrous differences – irrelevant to most voters – are Tory feuds built.
Actually, part of Mr Johnson’s appeal to his supporters rests on his popularity transcending such petty concerns. He is regarded as the Tory most capable of reaching voters across social classes, and in parts of the country where the party struggles to win support.
But if he is to become leader, Mr Johnson must first overcome an obstacle: he is not even in the Commons. His preference is understood to be to wait until just after the 2015 election, with several MPs ready to stand aside quickly, triggering a by-election, on the basis that a leadership contest without the party’s biggest star would be a strange affair.
Yesterday, Mr Johnson had another not-particularly convincing go at scotching the latest reports of Tory infighting and leadership plotting, saying: “Old friends of mine around the Cabinet table all want to work together for a Tory victory. We all want to unite. We are united.”
This is – to borrow a phrase used by Boris himself in a different context – “an inverted pyramid of piffle”. For months now, supporters of the Mayor have been growing increasingly annoyed by the manoeuvrings of Mr Gove. They see him as doing the Chancellor’s dirty work.
Said a leading Tory: “Boris thinks Michael is licensed by George to attack him. Boris is mystified as to why his old friends have turned so unpleasant. And he is baffled why they seem to have such contempt for the Tory party and the grassroots.”
An MP who supports Mr Johnson, and who has been encouraging him to run for the leadership when the moment comes, accused the Chancellor and the Education Secretary of playing games. “This is all about Osborne and Gove trying to box in their opponents, whether it’s Boris or Theresa May. There isn’t even a Boris operation yet. Boris isn’t undermining Michael. There is only one operation in town – George’s. It is aimed at making him the next leader. Osborne has been on manoeuvres for about two years.”
Even that may be an underestimate of how long Mr Osborne has been at it. Since the last election, the Chancellor has skilfully used patronage to get his supporters promoted in government, just as Gordon Brown did in the New Labour years when he was preparing to become prime minister.
Mr Osborne is not pursuing the leadership in the same maniacal manner as Mr Brown did, and he remains close to Mr Cameron. But the belated economic recovery has also lifted Mr Osborne’s reputation, after the low point of his botched 2012 Budget. This week’s Budget gives him the latest opportunity to try to burnish his credentials as a future leader.
The Home Secretary is someone who could emerge as the candidate capable of stopping both him and Mr Johnson. If the boys’ infighting ends up making all involved look ridiculous, there could be an opportunity for a strong and serious woman who can claim to have got on with her job.
Mrs May is also the figure who could most easily turn herself into the Eurosceptic candidate. Might she even become the “better-off out” candidate? Someone who battled in government to control immigration only to discover that it is impossible with free movement of labour across the EU? Despite their rhetoric, both the Chancellor and the Mayor are firmly for staying in the EU.
There also remains the slim possibility that some of the so-called irreconcilables – a group of 30 or so Tory MPs who hate Mr Cameron – will mount a kamikaze-style assault on the Tory leader this summer, if the results of May’s European and local elections are dire.
If 46 Tory MPs sign up for it, there would have to be a leadership challenge. However, it is unlikely that it would succeed, and those who want to challenge Mr Cameron have never been able to explain who their alternative leader would be.
Much more likely is a contest in the summer or autumn of 2015, if the Conservatives are defeated in the election. A leading Tory MP and former minister predicted that the eventual victor would not be one of the current front-runners: “It’ll be someone else. It always is in these situations in the Tory party. Someone new they’ve all never thought of. That’s what happened with John Major and when Cameron won the leadership. If the party goes down after the Coalition, the entire Cabinet will be tainted. It will be time for fresh blood.”
Names including the education minister Elizabeth Truss and the MPs Dominic Raab, Jesse Norman and Andrea Leadsom are mentioned – as is Sajid Javid, a Treasury minister and ally of the Chancellor who has ambitions of his own. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, may also consider standing.
Meanwhile, Labour finds it all fascinating. A member of the shadow cabinet said yesterday that it looked as though the Tories were already preparing for the aftermath of electoral defeat: “It’s great. They do seem to be spending a lot of time fighting each other.”