On the surface Michael Gove had a better run at the EU debate than his boss, David Cameron did last night. Gove came across as an impressive debater able to turn the tables on questioners and not short of the striking phrase (the best one being that the greatest symbol of British democracy is the removal van).
But Michael Gove had an easier audience, which was probably vetted to make sure no teachers attended. Gove's audience struggled for killer questions and were allowed to ask rather tendentiously linked ones relating to the election fraud case and his own leadership ambitions. No such cosiness was extended to David Cameron, but as has been pointed out by several commentators, the difference here is that Cameron was always going to present a better target for show-casing audience members looking for their 5 minutes of fame for the simple reason that he is the Prime Minister.
What about the substance? Cameron was badly tripped up at the start with the question on immigration, for which he has his own careless pledge to blame, but after that he maintained a more substantive case than the largely grandiloquent but empty Gove. When asked for specifics about what life will be like if we leave the EU he tellingly chose to start with "hope". Hope is nice, but it's very unspecific. Which is the problem with the Leave case that Gove couldn't easily finesse, for all his skill as a debater - it is based on pure speculation, and speculation moreover which flies in the face of most expert testimony. That was his other serious area of weakness. In his exchange with Faisal Islam Gove had to admit by default that no expert testimony was going his way, to the extent that he tried to make a joke of it by suggesting we'd all had enough of experts anyway.
This debate will have done Michael Gove a lot of good amongst the Tory grassroots, who are increasingly desperate to get rid of their election-winning leader and replace him with a more ideologically pure, but probably less electorally potent model. The triumphant crowing of the Leave campaign in the wake of tonight's debate also suggest they believe they have a star in Gove, though given their other spokespeople the bar is not set high. I suspect the Leavers will push Gove more to the fore, but it will become increasingly difficult for a man who decried the Prime Minister as delivering up a depressing and erroneous vision last night to continue serving in his cabinet after the referendum.