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Brexit architect Gove throws May lifeline, for now

Dmitry ZAKS
Michael Gove was once dubbed the "polite assassin"

Conservative minister Michael Gove on Friday emerged as the unlikely knight riding to Theresa May's rescue in the middle of the most dangerous crisis of the British prime minister's career.

The decision by the 51-year-old leading Brexit supporter to stay on as environment minister stems the tide of resignations rocking May's cabinet.

Ministers who staunchly back Britain's decision to split from the European Union are quitting over what they see as the unfavourable terms of May's draft withdrawal deal.

The pro-Brexit wing of her ruling Conservative Party is threatening a leadership challenge and the agreement's chances of winning parliamentary approval look bleak.

But Gove's continued backing gives May more weapons with which to fight off the palace coup, although his support for the draft deal is reported to be lukewarm at best.

The Daily Telegraph called his non-departure "a major boost to the prime minister's chances of staying in Downing Street", while The Times said Gove had handed May "a lifeline".

Gove was one of the masterminds of the Vote Leave campaign that ended up winning the 2016 referendum that set the current political drama in motion.

And his reputation as a political bruiser who has emerged victorious in past power struggles could prove useful in the fateful months leading up to the March 29 split.

British media reports said he had spent some time mulling May's private offer to become Brexit minister in the wake of Dominic Raab's resignation on Thursday -- or whether to quit himself.

- 'Polite assassin' -

Gove says his lifelong hatred of the European Union began when the bloc forced the closure of his adoptive father's fish processing business in Scotland -- a story his own father denied.

Gove's parents were a liberal Labour-supporting couple and he was deemed to be "insufficiently Conservative" on his first attempt to join the party.

He ended up going into journalism instead -- a career that eventually turned him into a columnist for the Conservative-backing The Times newspaper.

It was just the launch pad Gove needed to get elected to parliament and begin his ascent to plum ministerial posts.

Here he excelled.

The left-wing New Statesman magazine described Gove in 2015 as a "polite assassin" and "a charmer who cultivates enemies".

Gove spent four tumultuous years heading the education ministry before being handed the justice portfolio by Conservative prime minister David Cameron in 2015.

Cameron's surprise decision to call the Brexit vote and then resign when the Leave camp won in 2016 saw Gove support the premiership candidacy of Boris Johnson -- May's bombastic former foreign minister and fellow Brexiteer.

But then Gove changed his mind and ended up running himself. Johnson bowed out and May ended up becoming prime minister.

Gove was knocked out in the second round of voting as the distant third-place candidate in the leadership contest.

But his political stock has shot back up since he took over the environment portfolio in June 2017.

He has won plaudits for green campaigns that ended up banning the sale of plastic straws and stirrers. Another plans to impose a plastic bottle charge.

And his drive to ban ivory sales in Britain coincides with a global effort being spearheaded by Prince William.

A July 2018 review of Gove's performance by Greenpeace showed "signs of progress" in Britain's environmental policy.