Sex, Politics, wild partying . . . by any reckoning, it was a sensational ‘scoop’. In 1987, the Oxford University magazine Cherwell printed details of a ‘five-in-a-bed romp’, involving Michael Gove and fellow union hacks during the Christmas holidays.
According to the report, Gove and three friends — Anthony Frieze, Noel Sy-Quia and Murielle Boyd Hunt — ‘decided to join’ a young woman called Flora McCullough in her bed after attending a ball at the Grosvenor Hotel in London’s Mayfair.
When the story re-emerged in 2008, Gove said, ‘I had better get back to you on that,’ after being asked for a comment.
Flora McCullough, now McClean, said at the time: ‘Oh God, yes, I remember. I don’t think we did all end up in bed. I don’t think they even stayed with me afterwards.
‘I think it was Cherwell making things up. He [Gove] always looked about 12 years old. They probably ran the story because it was so unlikely.’ Asked about it again in 2013, Gove admitted the bed had been shared, saying: ‘We all crashed there and then got up and went home the next morning. It wasn’t like some sort of Last Tango In Paris-type affair.’
Intriguingly, the original Cherwell article speculates that Gove was seeking the comfort of others that evening because of an incident on Boxing Day 1987 involving Aberdeen football fans.
Gove and friend Duncan Gray were having a drink in Aberdeen city centre. Gove was in full young fogey dress when the pair came across a group of fans celebrating Aberdeen’s 2-0 victory over Falkirk. A skirmish developed and, as Gove took the punches, Gray reportedly fled.
Whatever the truth of that crowded bed, describing him as a university Lothario would be perhaps stretching his prowess.
However, there is no doubt Gove very much enjoyed the company of his female contemporaries.
His first serious girlfriend was Marianne Gilchrist. Originally from Edinburgh, she is described by a mutual friend of the pair as ‘incredible fun’.
The friend adds: ‘She was one of these women who would drink 20 times more than the nearest man. Very Scottish in that respect.’
Gove and Gilchrist were an item for around a year, but it seems she broke off the romance in the spring of 1988 after taking a liking to Duncan Penny, a student who had helped campaign for Gove to be elected union president.
According to Cherwell: ‘Gove’s jealousy got the better of him and he tipped scrambled egg all over Penny’s hair. He [Penny] managed to respond by reaching for his fridge and splattering the honourable gentleman with a tomato. In a fit of Hulk-man rage, Gove broke into Penny’s room at two in the morning and fire-hosed his sleeping body. Unfortunately Gove somehow was unable to hit the mark and Penny wasn’t aroused.’
Such incidents may help explain why, in 1991, when Gove and some friends took part in a Grampian Television quiz show called Top Club, he was given a suitably cheeky introduction by his team captain: ‘Michael was born in Aberdeen, and his main hobbies are real ale and real women.’
It was on another TV show altogether, however, that Gove often found himself straying into even stranger and racier territory.
As a young presenter on the late-night Channel 4 ‘topical comedy’ show A Stab In The Dark one of his first monologues focused on penis enlargement surgery and led to a gag about Alison Halford, a high-profile female senior police officer who had brought a sexual discrimination claim against Merseyside Police:
‘If Alison had the chance to take advantage of American micro- surgery, she could have moved her front bumps from her chest to her groin and then she would have had the necessary balls to succeed in the modern British police force.’
Gove’s other contribution to the first episode was to compare Prince Charles’s interventions into the debate around nature and architecture to Adolf Hitler. ‘There is one difference, however,’ he said. ‘When Adolf’s wife tried to commit suicide, she succeeded.’
In equally poor taste was Gove’s interview with retired General Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley. The subject this time? Homosexuality in the Armed Forces. Gove introduced the topic with a monologue so full of cliches and stereotypes it would have seemed outdated in 1992, let alone watching it back decades later.
‘Everything about the Army is designed to attract gays,’ Gove said, adding: ‘Gays attract each other by dressing in a certain way. Cropped hair, moustache and a peaked cap. Put them together and what have you got? Lord Kitchener.’
He went on: ‘In fact, it’s hard to conceive of an organisation more attractive to gays than the Army — apart, of course, from the Navy.
‘Indeed, far from punishing homosexual activity, the Army ought actually to be encouraging it . . . Homosexuals will fight better because they’ve no family to worry about and all those men to impress.’
It was, of course, all intended as satirical stuff targeted at a late- night audience. In the trailers for the show, Gove was filmed walking through a tunnel in semi-darkness, saying: ‘Most TV programmes insult your intelligence. A Stab In The Dark is different: it’s intelligent and insulting. We’re opinionated, vitriolic and poisonous — and that’s only when we’re being nice.’
The show was not well received by viewers or critics. The Stage newspaper proclaimed A Stab In The Dark ‘an aptly named, live, late-night show on which three smug Lefties told each other how clever they were. Mind you, they probably had to, as virtually no one watched it’.
Among its particular low points was an appearance by celebrity publicist Max Clifford, there to give his view on a kiss-and-tell story involving Conservative Cabinet minister David Mellor.
After speculating that Mellor’s lover might make half-a-million pounds from the story and subsequent publicity, Gove began asking women in the audience if they would consider such a career path.
After one of them said, ‘I’d be prepared to earn half a million, but not with a Cabinet minister’ Gove jokingly propositioned her: ‘So someone good-looking, a good-looking politician, say, or even a good-looking telly star who might one day be a politician?’
Perhaps Gove, the ‘five-in-a-bed’ romper, had someone particular in mind.