In a clear attempt to draw contrasts with his main rival, home secretary Theresa May — who on Thursday portrayed herself as an unshowy politician who would “get the job done” — Mr Gove said that the challenges facing Britain required “not just a cool head, but a heart burning with the desire for change... not business as usual but a bold vision”.
He said that after last week’s referendum vote for Brexit, the new prime minister must be someone who fought on the Leave side — effectively ruling out Ms May, who was part of the Remain campaign, even though her contributions to it were notably low-key.
Speaking at a campaign launch a day after his dramatic declaration of his candidacy forced Boris Johnson out of the race to succeed David Cameron, Mr Gove said he stood by all the promises made by Vote Leave in the referendum contest.
“I will ensure we honour the instructions the British people have given us,” said the justice secretary. “I argued for specific changes in the referendum campaign; I believe in them; I will deliver them.
“The promise to leave the European Union, end the supremacy of EU law, and take back control of our democracy. With my leadership, it will be delivered.
“The promise to take back control of our borders. I will end free movement, introduce an Australian-style points-based system for immigration, and bring numbers down. With my leadership, it will be delivered.
“The promise to use the money we currently send to Brussels and invest it instead on the priorities of the British people — principally in the NHS — and to cut VAT on domestic fuel. With my leadership, it will be delivered.”
Despite controversy over Vote Leave’s claims — branded “misleading” by the UK’s statistics watchdog — that Britain handed £350 million (€417m) a week to Brussels, much of which could be spent on the NHS, Mr Gove said he stood by the pledge to put £100m a week more into the NHS.
Mr Gove’s launch came as he faced calls to pull out of the Conservative leadership race from allies of Mr Johnson, as well as indications that he is being far outstripped by Ms May in the race to secure the backing of fellow MPs.
Rival contender Liam Fox said the feuding between the two men was a “distraction” and that the country needed “Brexit for grown-ups” in the wake of last week’s referendum vote to leave the EU.
Veteran former chancellor Ken Clarke told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I do think Michael Gove would do us all a favour if he were to stand down now.”
Mr Gove’s announcement, shortly after being appointed Mr Johnson’s campaign manager, that he realised the former London mayor did not have the necessary qualities to be prime minister, was “more suitable to the election of a student union than it is to be prime minister of this country at a time of pretty grave potential crisis,” said Mr Clarke.
Dr Fox, the former defence secretary who campaigned for Leave, said Mr Gove and Mr Johnson appeared to be preoccupied with the student politics of their Oxford University days.
“We are now 10 weeks away from having a new prime minister; we’re in the process of electing a prime minister who will actually take us out of the European Union, and yet we seem to be permanently distracted by what can only be described as the politics of the Oxford Union in recent days,” he told the Today programme.
“I think it was a distraction. We need Brexit for grown-ups and we need to be talking about the big issues.”
But Mr Gove insisted that standing for the leadership was “the right thing to do”.
“I never thought I’d ever be in this position,” he said.
“I did not want it, indeed I did almost everything not to 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?”
In what seemed a swipe at Ms May, who was widely suspected to secretly back Brexit despite being on the Remain team, Mr Gove said that in the referendum campaign “I did not duck for cover, I did not hedge or hesitate to say what I believed.
“I made clear I believed in change, I believed in leaving the European Union.”
Johnson targeted by hecklers
Boris Johnson has been targeted by hecklers after his dramatic decision to pull out of the Tory leadership race.
The Brexit campaigner was challenged as he left his London home by a man who accused him of being an “absolute disgrace”.
Mr Johnson, who then travelled to Devon, was accused of being a “massive child” as he arrived in Tiverton. Beginning his journey in London, he was challenged by a man who asked: “What have you done to this country?”
Mr Johnson replied: “It seems absolutely fine to me. Nonsense.”
The former London mayor was told: “You abandoned a sinking ship. Unleashed intolerance, inequality. Shocking behaviour.”