Michael Gove on Friday night became the second senior Cabinet minister in a week to split with his wife as Downing Street refused to say whether any social distancing rules had been broken.
The Cabinet Office minister is one of four people who have been making unprecedented decisions about people’s private lives during the pandemic, sparking questions about their own domestic arrangements.
On Friday afternoon, after months of intense speculation and rumour, Mr Gove and his wife Sarah Vine, a prominent journalist, said in a statement that they had "agreed to separate" and were finalising their divorce after almost 20 years of marriage.
The announcement came within hours of the polls closing in the Batley and Spen by-election – a seat the Conservatives had been expected to win but lost, with blame falling on the Government’s handling of revelations about Matt Hancock’s affair with aide Gina Coladangelo.
Ms Vine wrote a column in a newspaper on Sunday about the scandal, in which she spoke of the difficulties of sustaining a political marriage.
Mr Gove, one of Boris Johnson's most influential ministers, has been married to Ms Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, since October 2001
Credit: Paul Grover /for the Telegraph
On Friday night, friends of 53-year-old Mr Gove and Ms Vine, 54, insisted nobody else was involved in the split and the couple had simply "drifted apart" over the past two years.
The period covers the entire pandemic and will raise questions about their living arrangements during strict lockdowns.
A Number 10 spokesman declined to comment on the break-up and refused to say whether Mr Gove had broken any social distancing rules during the disintegration of his marriage.
A source close to Mr Gove dismissed any rumours about his private life as "utter nonsense" and "made up" and insisted he was unaware that any social distancing rules had been broken. The source said Mr Gove and Ms Vine remained living at their family home.
Mr Gove and Mr Hancock were part of the "quad" of four senior ministers, including Boris Johnson, who were in charge of the key lockdown decisions.
Mr Gove along with Mr Hancock and Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser, were the most strident advocates of a strict lockdown, with the latter two both subsequently found to have broken the rules.
The Prime Minister will be concerned that Mr Gove’s separation sparks a hunt for the cause of the breakdown, given the difficulties of maintaining strict Covid rules.
Mr Hancock was forced to resign as health secretary on Saturday, a day after video images emerged of him kissing Ms Coladangelo in his private office, breaking social distancing rules which he had put in place.
Mr Gove’s separation from Ms Vine appeared inevitable after she failed to testify to the strength of their partnership when writing last week about Mr Hancock. She wrote in the Mail on Sunday that the former health secretary’s "behaviour may be shocking, but given the context it is entirely predictable".
Mr Gove, one of Mr Johnson’s most influential ministers, has been married to Ms Vine, a columnist for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, since October 2001. They had first met two years earlier.
In a statement, a spokesman for the couple said: "Michael and Sarah have agreed to separate and they are in the process of finalising their divorce. They will continue to support their two children and they remain close friends. The family politely ask for privacy at this time and will not be providing any further comment."
A friend of the couple said: "This is a difficult and sad decision for Michael and Sarah after 20 years of marriage. It is an entirely amicable separation and there is no one else involved. They have drifted apart over the past couple of years but they remain friends. Their absolute priority is the children."
A spokesman for Mr Gove, himself a former journalist, denied that the divorce announcement was a pre-emptive move before compromising news breaks about him.
Asked whether the amount of responsibilities assigned by Mr Johnson to Mr Gove, who took on a wide Brexit brief before being tasked with reviewing the possibility of using Covid vaccine passports for mass events, had played a part in the split, the spokesman said: "Mr Gove continues to get on with the job."
Michael Gove was seen carrying bags as he left his London home on Friday morning
In her column on Sunday, Ms Vine wrote on Mr Hancock’s affair: "Climbing that far up Westminster’s greasy pole changes a person. And when someone changes, they require something new from a partner. Namely, someone who is as much a courtesan as a companion, one who understands their brilliance and, crucially, is personally invested in it."
The column further fuelled the Westminster rumour mill. Diane Abbott, the Labour MP, already posted on social media in the wake of Mr Hancock’s resignation: "Some people on Twitter seem to think that Michael Gove is poised to take over from Matt Hancock. But are they confident that Gove’s private life is beyond reproach? Maybe Sarah Vine can shed some light on this."
Ms Abbott was criticised for the post but Ms Vine replied on Twitter on June 26: "I’m too busy watching Eric and Ernie on telly."
Some Labour MPs believe Mr Gove will be under pressure to come clean about his living arrangements to prove he has not broken any rules. One said: "The Cabinet Office, which Michael Gove is responsible for, co-ordinates the whole of government, so you can’t be a rule-maker and a rule-breaker.
"Michael Gove is even more central to decisions on Covid restrictions than Matt Hancock was, so people have a right to know if he has broken any rules."
Mr Gove and Ms Vine were seen by neighbours leaving the house at different times on Friday in the hours before the official statement.
Shortly after 8.30am, Mr Gove, dressed in a suit, left the house in West Kensington, London, carrying not only his red ministerial box but also two heavy-looking cases which his Whitehall driver loaded into his car. Later, Ms Vine was seen loading several bags and cases into a grey SUV and leaving the house.
While Mr Gove remained at the house in recent days, Ms Vine, according to her social media, had spent the past few days in Wales with their two teenage children. She returned with the children on Thursday night, immediately dispatching Mr Gove to buy some provisions after her week away for what appears to have been their last evening together before the announcement.
It is not known where either Mr Gove or Ms Vine are planning to spend the next few days, although there is speculation that he may have use of Admiralty House, in Whitehall – which has a number of ministerial flats – and she has written in the past about the joys of staying at secluded boltholes in Cornwall and Wales.