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13 February 2023

Michael Gove has shown courage in breaking the Brexit taboo

The Levelling Up Secretary has become the first Brexiteer to accept that their project is failing.

By Martin Fletcher

Many years ago, when Michael Gove and I both worked at the Times, we had occasional arguments. He ran the home news desk, while I ran the foreign desk, and stories from Brussels fell somewhere between the two. He would invariably, in my view, put the worst possible eurosceptic spin on them, while I would do the opposite.

Gove, currently Levelling Up Secretary, has long since gone on to greater things and I have watched his rise with a mixture of fury and somewhat grudging respect.

He and Boris Johnson led the Vote Leave camp in 2016 (though Gove’s support for Brexit was genuine, not expedient like Johnson’s). To be fair, he urged his then-friend David Cameron not to call the EU referendum, but having lost that argument he proceeded to run a shockingly mendacious campaign. He hailed the supposed £350m-a-week Brexit bonus for the NHS, and claimed Turkey’s accession to the EU was imminent. He contemptuously dismissed the many “experts” who warned of the dire economic consequences of Brexit. He was accused of, and did not deny, leaking a misleading story to the Sun about the Queen backing Brexit.

The referendum won, he proceeded to stab Johnson in the back and seek the Conservative Party leadership for himself. But he was right to say that “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”. In the years since then Gove has for the most part proved one of the very few able and effective ministers in cabinets of spectacular mediocrity – a man whom both Theresa May and Johnson felt obliged to restore to high office despite their deep distrust of him.

[See also: Michael Gove and the levelling up agenda have been hamstrung]

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Apart from promoting a company linked to the Tory peer Michelle Mone that was seeking large PPE contracts, Gove generally managed to rise above the many scandals that so besmirched Johnson’s government, and was ultimately sacked for telling Johnson he should resign. He was right again when he backed Rishi Sunak during last summer’s Tory leadership campaign, accusing Liz Truss of taking “a holiday from reality” with her plan for huge unfunded tax cuts.

All of which brings me to the startling revelation in the Observer that Gove attended a secret cross-party meeting with leading Remainers at Ditchley Park on 9 and 10 February to address the failings of Brexit and how to make it work better.

A few readers may recall that I wrote a couple of columns over the New Year in which I argued that there was no chance of Britain rejoining the EU in the next ten or 20 years, so Leavers and Remainers had to find a way to move beyond the bitter warfare that has so hindered the country for the past six years (the furious response from diehard Remainers taught me that Brexiteers have no monopoly on vitriol and intolerance). I claim absolutely no credit for the secret summit, but it does appear to be exactly the sort of event that I had advocated: a coming together of two long-warring camps to seek a way forward in the national interest. So I take my proverbial hat off to Gove for having the honesty and courage to attend.

I say honesty, because it is practically the first time I can remember a leading Leaver reaching out to Remainers and admitting, albeit tacitly, that Brexit has fallen short of their expectations. Almost every other prominent Brexiteer still perpetrates the lie that quitting the EU has been a triumph despite copious evidence to the contrary, much as leading Republicans still perpetrate the lie that Donald Trump won the last presidential election in the face of incontrovertible proof that he lost.

Sunak, for example, marked the third anniversary of Britain leaving the EU on 31 January by claiming that “we’ve made huge strides in harnessing the freedoms unlocked by Brexit”. Johnson used the same occasion to deplore the “negativity and gloom-mongering that I hear about Brexit”. Even Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Remainer, felt obliged to hail “the freedoms that Brexit provides” in his major speech on growth (or the lack of it) last month.

[See also: Why Brexit is back]

Gove’s attendance at the unprecedented Ditchley Park meeting was also brave because it will inevitably be seen by his party’s euro zealots as an act of heresy, a questioning of the unquestionable, a departure from the true and only faith. On cue David Frost, the high priest of the Brexit cult, warned of a plot to “unravel the deals we did to exit the EU in 2020 and to stay shadowing the EU instead”. The MP John Redwood tweeted: “Instead of talking of sellout at private conferences the UK establishment needs to complete Brexit.” Nigel Farage protested: “The full sellout of Brexit is under way.”

The question now is whether Sunak will show the same courage and honesty as Gove, because sometime in the coming days he must take the defining decision of his premiership – whether to compromise with the EU to resolve the long-running and deeply damaging dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol. It is manifestly in the national interest that he should do so. In a stroke he would avoid a potentially catastrophic trade war with the giant trading bloc across the English Channel, remove the single biggest obstacle to better relations with the EU, and ease tensions with the Biden administration in Washington.

But a compromise would almost inevitably leave in place some trade checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland, and retain some role, however indirect, for the European Court of Justice. For Sunak it would mean defying the diehard Brexiteers of the European Reform Group and, quite possibly, depending on Labour’s support to push the necessary legislation through parliament. It would be a huge political risk for such an innately cautious prime minister, but he should follow Gove’s commendable lead and take it.

Read more on Brexit:

Why size does matter for Europe and Brexit Britain

Brexit is slowly killing the Conservative Party

Brexit has been a disaster but Remainers need to get real

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