Michael Gove is waving the white flag over Brexit – but it’s not for the reason you would think

Theresa May has handled her rogue Brexiters well over the past week, but Michael Gove still has his sights firmly set on No 10

John Rentoul
Saturday 09 December 2017 16:19
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Michael Gove has been rather nice about the PM's Brexit deal
Michael Gove has been rather nice about the PM's Brexit deal

Michael Gove still wants to be prime minister. We know this because this week he supported the reintroduction of beavers in the wild in England. He knows that one of the most important but least reported issues that did for the Conservatives at the election was animal rights.

For many consumers of social media, the big election issues were not Brexit, or Theresa May’s mechanical personality, or her dementia tax, or Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to abolish tuition fees. They were worked up about May’s support for fox hunting and her failure to mention a ban on ivory sales in her manifesto.

Now Gove as Environment Secretary is on the side of the animals. He is banning bee-harming pesticides, insisting on CCTV in slaughterhouses, and supports a ban on trading ivory. He even says all the right things about climate change. The Green Party has praised him. He must have his sights on No 10.

Brexit: Theresa May agrees breakthrough Irish border deal with EU leaders

That is the significance of his article in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday in which he extravagantly praises Theresa May’s “breakthrough” in achieving progress to the next stage of the Brexit talks.

Obviously, May had squared the Cabinet on the finer points of the deal she was on the verge of making last Monday, so Gove and Boris Johnson were already lined up to support it. Once she had got over the snag with the Democratic Unionists, the Cabinet Brexiters rushed to the microphones to hail the agreement.

Those who assumed that the Prime Minister had surrendered to all the EU27’s demands were puzzled by the absence of a Eurosceptic revolt. Remainers and Charles Moore alike seemed to think Gove and Johnson should be resigning and backbenchers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg should be screaming blue murder, although that’s not really his style. Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s authorised biographer, complained that May had conceded on the money, the authority of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the Irish border.

But of course May would not have agreed the deal unless she could take her Leavers with her. So either she has duped them, which seemed to be Moore’s implication, or she has won a better deal than her critics give her credit for.

This second possibility is worth considering, although it runs counter to the instinctive negativity of the British media. Theresa May doesn’t want to blow her own trumpet because she doesn’t want to offend the people with whom she faces another 15 months of negotiation. But it is worth noticing three things.

One, the UK has promised to pay no more than we owe. Some Brexiters might imagine that we should quit the club with our bills unpaid, which would be bad for our national reputation. Some Remainers might think we should pay extra for the privilege of leaving. We’re not doing that either.

Two, we will not be subject to the ECJ on questions of EU citizens’ rights after we have left, which is what the EU side wanted. It will be up to UK courts to refer questions to the ECJ. I cannot see how that infringes British sovereignty, but even if Moore can, it is a provision that will last only eight years (rather than for ever, as the EU wanted, once it had retreated from insisting on ECJ authority in the first place).

And three, the Irish border question has not been solved, and is not even close to being solved – yet the EU side has agreed to move on to the next stage anyway. It may not be game, set and match to Theresa May, but it is far from the capitulation claimed by Tim Montgomerie, founder of the Conservative Home website.

This is a big moment for both ends of the Brexit spectrum. For hard Remainers, this week’s agreement is a disaster, because it means the small chance of stopping Brexit has just got smaller. And for the cavalier Leavers it was the moment they could no longer avoid meeting reality.

It was not May’s agreement with the EU27 that was a surrender; it was Gove’s Telegraph article. He has sued for peace with an eye to his own ambitions, and on behalf of his former friend, the Foreign Secretary, who has been noticeably more reluctant to heap praise on the Prime Minister.

The problem with which he and Johnson have struggled ever since the referendum has been how to stay close to the vast EU market on our doorstep while using the freedom of Brexit to diverge from the EU and thus put obstacles in the way of EU trade.

Gove’s article accepts that the UK will stay close, but, “if the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge”. Some people assumed he was talking about giving the people a vote on the terms of Brexit, but in fact he was trying to make the Eurosceptic case for “full alignment”, the ambiguous phrase in this week’s deal that actually means partial alignment with EU rules.

His argument is that we might keep up our convergence with the EU for a while after Brexit, but then we can decide to diverge. At future general elections, we can decide to change whatever trade deal we might have struck with the EU.

This is not wholly convincing. The EU will insist that any Brexit trade treaty binds Britain into sticking closely to its rules and that it cannot easily be changed. Simply observe the case of Switzerland, which tried to exclude itself from the rules on free movement of people in 2014. Threatened with losing all its other trade agreements, it backed down.

The generous interpretation of the Prime Minister’s handling of the cabinet Brexiters is that her careful management has kept them on board. In fact, Gove has been kept on board by a combination of his ambition and being forced to accept the realities of leaving the EU.

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