Michael Gove’s friends have been quick out of the traps to deny a report in today’s Times that the DEFRA Secretary has refused “to support [Boris Johnson’s] intervention on Brexit”.
This raises the question of what Gove’s view of Government policy on Brexit is, and how much support the Foreign Secretary’s stance has amongst the rest of the Cabinet, Conservative MPs and party members.
Our assessment is that the DEFRA Secretary wants to demonstrate that he backs the core case that Johnson made in his Daily Telegraph article – namely, that the Government is allowing any failure to reach a fully-fledged free trade deal to be framed as a disaster.
Gove shares the Foreign Secretary’s view that Brexit can be a “glorious” success, to borrow Johnson’s word, and it follows that he believes this can be so even if Britain ends up with a minimal WTO trade arrangement with the EU.
He wants also not so much an Open Brexit as a Liberal Brexit, and will sympathise with the Foreign Secretary’s call for lower taxes, more infrastructure, investment in science, and less regulation (though not, please note, taking an axe to environmental regulation).
The DEFRA Secretary is also a natural liberal on immigration, about which Johnson had very little to say in his 4000-word magnum opus, and of which he has taken different views at different times.
However, there are two important divergences between the two men, the ups and downs of whose relationship make Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s look like a model of domestic tranquility.
The first is over transition. The Foreign Secretary is reflexively hostile to any transition period, though he has reluctantly come round to accepting that there will be one. Gove is less fussed, and his focus is more on what happens at the end of transition than during it.
The second is over money. Johnson opposes paying up to £10 billion a year to the EU during transition. Again, the DEFRA Secretary is relatively relaxed about arrangements for this period – though he certainly opposes any Government promise now of money upfront.
This is especially important in the context of Theresa May’s coming speech in Florence on Friday. The Foreign Secretary and Gove are united in wanting to head her off from any such commitment.
ConservativeHome’s view is that Britain could flourish under the minimalist WTO-type settlement that seems to be his bottom line. But it is not the optimal outcome, and threatens a significant downside.
We also accept that the logic of any fully-fledged trade deal is money-for-access. The sticking-point for us is less paying money to the EU than freeing Britain from the European Court of Justice. Party members seem to agree.
Our sense is that most Conservative MPs are nervous of a minimal WTO deal, and don’t want Theresa May’s boat to be rocked now, for fear that it might capsize altogether – with an election and a Jeremy Corbyn-led government steaming next over the horizan.
For this reason, Johnson’s position among Tory MPs is probably weaker than it was last Friday. Among Party members it is doubtless stronger – he hit his lowest-ever rating in our last future leader survey – though the Foreign Secretary divides opinions.
Johnson’s motives are variously portrayed as belief in his view, frustration at exclusion from Brexit policy-making, leadership ambition, and a desire not to be blamed for what he sees as a negotiation trainwreck.
There is much in all of these takes. But we would stress a deep emotional commitment to the position that the Foreign Secretary took while spearheading the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum.
To some of those who worked on the most successful single-issue campaign in Britain’s modern political history, Vote Leave was what government should really be like: that’s to say, a band of brothers and sisters united by and striving for a cause.
Hence Johnson and Gove’s continuing preoccupation with spending £350 million a week on the NHS. They see it as a pledge that must be honoured. One can scarcely blame former Cabinet Remainers and non-Vote Leave Brexiteers for thinking differently.
Of the six former Cabinet Ministers who launched Vote Leave together, three are no longer in government (Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, John Whittingdale), and two are on the same Brexit page as the Foreign Secretary: Gove and Priti Patel.
The DEFRA Secretary’s friends deny that he had any prior knowledge of Johnson’s Telegraph article, but the science-and-tech parts, plus the general take on the Government’s position, had Dominic Cummings‘ smack about it.
Both Gove and the Foreign Secretary will undoubtedly be talking to the former’s one-time special adviser, and the man who, more than any other single person, was responsible for Britain’s vote to quit the EU. The Vote Leave band is re-forming.
“And he was alright, the band was all together/ Yes he was alright, the song went on forever.” Dominic Cummings – boy in the bright blue jeans.