It is when the conversation turns to Michael Gove’s parents that tears start welling in his eyes.
The Environment Secretary spent the first four months of his life in care, before being adopted by Ernest and Christine Gove in a working-class Aberdonian household.
Even at the age of 51, he says that as he walks through the door into Downing Street, he still thinks back to the sacrifices made by his parents – and the young unmarried mother who gave him up shortly after birth.
Mr Gove’s childhood has been scrutinised by colleagues for clues to understanding this most paradoxical of politicians – the popular, ultra-courteous free-thinker who, by knifing Boris Johnson in the 2016 Tory leadership election, became a byword for treachery.
Michael Gove was adopted when he was four months old by a working-class Aberdonian family
Mr Gove with his parents Ernest and Christine Gove who adopted him and brought him up in Aberdeen
He has made a conscious decision not to trace his birth mother, for fear that it would hurt the feelings of his parents. But they are all constantly on his mind.
‘I often think about my parents and I often do think about my birth mother.
‘And yes, when I go home and when I see my mum and dad, when I sit on the seat that I sat on when I was watching football on the telly with my dad, I go back in many respects to being the boy that I was then,’ says Gove, who believes that his birth mother is aware of his career.
Looking deeply affected, he goes on: ‘There’s a picture in our living room at home of the Cabinet, the one that the Queen visited. I think it is surreal that there I am and I think my 13- or 14-year-old self would never have imagined that I would have had the opportunities that I’ve had. It does weigh on me that you’ve got to live up to the care and love that you’ve received.’
After serving a brief penance on the backbenches following his doomed leadership bid two years ago, Mr Gove is once again a pivotal figure in the Government, turning his Environment department into a campaigning hub – most notably with his successful ban on polluting plastics.
But he is also playing a central role in the great political drama of Brexit, with an under-pressure Downing Street grateful for his soothing ministrations as Theresa May fights to save her Chequers plan in the face of hostility from both the EU and Tory Brexiteers.
Boris Johnson has led the rebellion, firing a ferocious salvo on the eve of Tory conference in a newspaper article which described Chequers as a ‘moral and intellectual humiliation’ and backed a free trade agreement similar to that signed with the EU by Canada.
Mr Gove is playing a typically canny game behind the scenes – publicly supporting the PM, while privately trying to ‘wargame’ a cross-Cabinet strategy to avert a ‘no deal’ scenario, which he fears could cause more economic disruption than many fellow Brexiteers claim.
Along with pro-Remain Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Home Secretary Sajid Javid, he is growing increasingly convinced that the Canada option should be on the table, rather than a stark choice between Chequers or no deal.
Other so-called ‘Govoid’ acolytes include Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom.
Mr Gove offers tacit endorsement for remarks made by Mr Hunt last week, when the Foreign Secretary was asked if the Canada model should be considered as an alternative to Chequers.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt was a pro-Remain alongside Mr Gove
Along with Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Mr Gove is growing increasingly convinced that the Canada option should be on the table
To the fury of some in No 10, Mr Hunt said that he was ‘not dismissing anything’.
Asked if he agrees with Mr Hunt, Mr Gove says: ‘It’s in Jeremy’s nature always, and I am trying to learn from this myself, not to criticise but to concentrate on the positive.
‘Jeremy is one of the most naturally considerate, thoughtful and polite people in politics. I’m sure he would have considered his comments carefully and they would therefore have merit and should be listened to.’
Mr Gove also lavishes praise on Mr Johnson, sidestepping the critique of Chequers by claiming not to have read Friday’s 4,500-word article.
‘I’m a fan of Boris and I like and admire him. I respect his viewpoint and I’m looking forward to reading the article,’ he says. ‘I suspect there will be some things in it with which I will disagree.’
He adds: ‘He’s done so much and I have huge regard for him.
Mr Gove also lavishes praise on Mr Johnson and says ‘I’m a fan of Boris and I like and admire him’
‘He is one of the most significant and attractive figures in British politics.’
Does he think Mrs May feels betrayed by Boris?
‘The thing about the Prime Minister is that she’s an incredibly resilient and focused person and so I think she accepts Boris is someone with strong views.’
Quizzed about whether he has changed his view that Mr Johnson was not fit to be Prime Minister, Mr Gove says: ‘I think if I were to try to rank any of my other colleagues that would only distract attention from concentrating on what we really need to do, which is to get that deal.’
However, his friendship with David Cameron appears terminally ruptured: the former Prime Minister, encouraged by wife Samantha, refuses to forgive Gove for campaigning for Brexit.
Mr Gove’s friendship with David Cameron (pictured) appears terminally ruptured as he refuses to forgive Gove for campaigning for Brexit- encouraged by wife Samantha (pictured)
Although he laughs when told that Cameron has joked he has made such little progress with his No 10 memoirs that Gove is ‘still one of the good guys’, the split must be painful – particularly since Cameron has not spurned Mr Johnson in the same way.
Some Gove friends argue that class – Cameron and Johnson are Old Etonians – has played a role in this apparent double standard.
Gently evading the issue, Mr Gove says: ‘I won’t speculate about what other people think or feel. I think other people can run all sorts of theories. I haven’t seen David for a while but I wish him well.
‘I think he was a great Prime Minister and I think that he’s a great guy and I wish him only the best for the future.’
Invited to picture a kiss-and-make-up dinner party between all three men, he says: ‘I think if I was at a dinner party with them then I would definitely have to buy the wine and I would do my best to make sure it was a very nice bottle.’
The threat from Jeremy Corbyn, after a successful party conference in Liverpool, is also exercising the minds of senior Conservatives as they arrive in Birmingham – and how they can match the success of his populist, soak-the-rich economics.
‘If Jeremy Corbyn got into power, it would be a disaster for this country,’ Mr Gove says.
The threat from Jeremy Corbyn, after a successful party conference in Liverpool (pictured) is also exercising the minds of senior Conservatives
‘The economic prospectus that they’ve laid out is terrifying and I think that we would see the country suffer as never before. It’s an historical fact that every time Labour has left office, unemployment has been higher than it was when they entered.
‘There is no doubt that Corbyn’s proposals would lead to an investment freeze, to jobs going and it would hit the poorest in the pocket hardest.’
He singles out housing and education policy as priorities for the Conservatives to combat the Corbyn threat.
Mr Gove, who is married to the columnist Sarah Vine and lives in West London with their two children, is famed among his colleagues for an almost theatrical level of courtesy and charm, which some wonder might be a shield to conceal the ‘real’ Gove.
Asked if he deploys it as a ‘barrier’, he says: ‘It is a very good question. I do think that I have got powers of self-analysis and it’s partly how I was brought up – my mum always said you should treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself.’
Mr Gove is married to the columnist Sarah Vine (pictured) and lives in West London with their two children
The same colleagues wonder if his formative years helped to sharpen his ambition: researchers have found that prominent politicians are significantly more likely to have come from childhoods disrupted by divorce, estrangement or bereavement.
He becomes reflective: ‘My adoptive parents, my parents made a choice and therefore I do feel from time to time that I’ve got to prove to them that they didn’t make a mistake and so it does weigh on my mind that I’ve got to try to put something back. I’ve got to demonstrate to them that they were right to take a chance on me.’
He also acknowledges the impact of watching his father struggle to support his family – including a period of school fees for the precocious Gove – when his fish-processing business was ailing.
‘My experiences growing up, my dad’s business and what happened to it, the nature of my sister being adopted and being profoundly deaf as well, that must have an impact on me. I think – I could be wrong – that it’s given me a sense of the fragility of things.
My sister overcoming her disability, my dad recovering from bad business news, it makes you realise that happiness rests on a fragile crust and therefore it is very, very important to recognise how important it is to do everything you can to help support people through difficult times, but also to recognise how fortunate you are, how fortunate I am in the circumstances I am currently in.
‘I haven’t sought out my birth mother and that’s partly because I worried that it would seem to my parents, my adoptive parents, that I had something missing and I was looking to fit in a missing part and they have been such brilliant parents.’
He says he has discussed his decision not to find his birth mother with his children.
‘I do think about it. It’s a funny thing, when you go to the doctor and they ask you, is there a history of X in your family and I’ll say I’m adopted and so on.
‘I sometimes think of my children and I can recognise traits in them, sometimes I can see Sarah’s traits and sometimes I can see mine, sometimes I can see Sarah’s parents’ traits in them, but there are aspects of the parents that show up in their make-up that obviously relate to my birth mother.’
He said his son William, a talented footballer, was pleased because he ‘can decide whether to play for Scotland or England as a result of it’, adding: ‘It is an amazing thing that there is no sporting ability as far as I can see in myself and yet he has somehow got it from somewhere.’
So does that ambition still extend to No 10?
‘I had a crack, it didn’t work out.
‘We’ve got the right Prime Minister now,’ he insists.