A close reading of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s letter

They sent their demands for hard Brexit to Theresa May.

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The latest news in Freelance Ministers Daily is Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s letter to Theresa May, making demands for a hard Brexit.

In rather Orwellian terms, the memo is a push for the Prime Minister to ensure her cabinet backs her Brexit plan by “clarifying their minds” and making sure they “internalise the logic”.

Meant solely for the eyes of Theresa May, her chief-of-staff Gavin Barwell and, presumably, the entire British public, the secret letter was leaked to the Mail on Sunday.

Let’s have a look at what it says.

Title: EU Exit – Next Steps

This is terrible for SEO – difficult to believe two men who thrive off shock jock journalism wouldn’t know to use the infinitely more clickable “Brexit”. Must try harder.

“Your approach is governed by sensible pragmatism.”

This is an insult to the PM in the first line. First of all, she is supposed to govern, not be governed. Second, sensible pragmatism has been exactly what she has tried to steer clear of throughout her fight to make Brexit as damaging as possible.

“That does not in any way dilute our ambition to be a fully independent self-governing country by the time of the next election.”

“Ambition” is a key word here. Both cabinet ministers are known for their ambitions – they both ran against May for the leadership, with Gove betraying Johnson at the 11th hour. It seems they’re friends again, as long as it is expedient to unite in their pursuit of hard Brexit. “By the time of the next election” refers to 2022; Brexit should be done and dusted by then, according to Gove and Johnson, who do not want the transition period to go beyond June 2021 (see below).

“If we are to counter those who wish to frustrate that end, there are ways of underlining your resolve.”

This is a classic use of the “those who” rhetorical trick that removes you from the person you’re targeting, without naming names or giving concrete examples. In this case, the ministers are attacking members of the cabinet, and the parliamentary party, who favour a soft Brexit and voted Remain.

The second part, “there are ways of underlining your resolve”, has a “we have ways of making you talk” ring to it. Ie. it’s a threat. If May doesn’t enforce her (read: Gove and Johnson’s) resolve to pursue her (read: Gove and Johnson’s) vision for Brexit Britain in the way they suggest (sacking or disciplining ministers that don’t comply), there’ll be consequences.

“We are profoundly worried that in some parts of government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy.”

This is a veiled reference to the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s refusal to budget for a no-deal scenario – the Brexiteers’ persona non grata told the Treasury select committee in October that he wouldn’t release funding to prepare Britain for crashing out of the EU until the last minute.

“We have heard it argued by some that we cannot start preparations on the basis of no deal because that would undermine our obligation of ‘sincere cooperation’ with the EU.”

Again, the “some argue” trick, which allows you not to name (or sometimes to invent) your enemies – but attack them all the same. Again, this is a stab at Hammond, who has been reluctant to entertain a no-deal scenario.

“Sincere cooperation” is a core constitutional principle of EU law regarding a member state’s loyalty to the EU institutions and vice versa. It’s a mutual legal obligation for the EU and its members “to assist each other in carrying out the tasks which flow from the Treaties” – including leaving under Article 50.

So here, it sounds like they are sneering at the EU institutions and their language, as well as experts in the UK who know anything about EU constitutional law. Hammond’s used the term in a speech before too.

“If taken seriously, that would leave us over a barrel in 2021.”

2021 is the key part here. It’s a demand that any transition period to give extra time to prepare for departure must end in June 2021, sticking to May’s request for a two-year pause on leaving.

A two-year maximum transition period was one of Johnson’s notorious Brexit “red lines” (he doesn’t want it to last “a second longer”), and some of the harder-core Brexiteers think even this is too long a transition. But Hammond has said there is “room for flexibility” and admitted that he wanted a longer pause – “between three and four years” – so this is definitely another dig at him.

Also, we’re already “over a barrel” (which means being at someone’s mercy, if you didn’t know). In fact, we’re rolling around inside a barrel, being pushed down a very steep hill, and we’re as much in control as a hamster in a washing machine.

“We all want you to push your agenda forward with confidence and have your government articulate the following...”

This part is rather contradictory, because it’s clear from their decision to send this letter that “We all” does not count everyone. It is a very specific set of politicians that has this vision – and doesn’t even speak for the entirety of May’s top team. #NotAllCabinetMinisters.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.