Michael Gove’s positioning in the Tory leadership race became clearer tonight. In conversation with Fraser Nelson at a Spectator event, Gove made clear that he would be prepared to extend the Brexit deadline beyond October 31st if there were negotiations going on that would lead to a better deal.He argued that Sinn Fein’s poor recent election results meant that there was more chance of getting the devolved institutions up and running in Northern Ireland, and if Stormont had a far greater role in the administration of the backstop that would allay some of the DUP’s concerns.
“If we get the institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland the nationalists will be involved in the administration of Northern Ireland. That will make it easier for us to get those alternative arrangements in place.”
Gove committed himself to having a political negotiating team.
“I fear that we have relied too much on the Whitehall machinery – Rolls Royce as it is – rather than the supercharged Lamborghinis that we have on the Conservative benches. And we need to negotiate with a political team leading this negotiation, not a civil service team.”
He criticised Theresa May’s government for too often treating Brexit as a chore.
“One of the problems that we’ve had is that sometimes, the government has given the impression that Brexit was an instruction in our aunt’s will that we had to fulfil as a solemn duty – but frankly, it was a bit of a pain. That is not my view. Brexit is an amazing opportunity for this country. And one of the things which I think was regrettable is that critics of Brexit saw it about pulling up ramparts and moving back to the 1950s. As far as I was concerned – like the Spectator cover – it was “out, and into the world.”
He said that those who talked about defaulting to no deal lacked confidence in Britain’s ability to negotiate a better deal. But perhaps Gove’s most effective moment on Brexit came when he picked up an audience member who said the deal would leave Britain a ‘vassal state’. Gove argued that this kind of language was demeaning the debate.
“One thing that I think is wrong about the debate is people use words like “vassal state” and “treachery”, “traitor”. William Joyce – Lord HawHaw – was a traitor. You are not a traitor if you disagree with me about Europe. You are a patriot who expresses a different point of view.”
Those who go full-steam ahead for Brexit on 31 October, he says, will betray their cause.
If you say at this stage: “we’re going hell for leather for no deal” then Parliament would stop that. We’d have a general election and Jeremy Corbyn. And there is no way that Jeremy Corbyn is going to deliver a no deal Brexit, or any sort of Brexit. What we need is the focus on making sure that we get the best possible deal – and the determination to prepare, come what may, for any outcome.
On the question of his own popularity – YouGov found 52pc had a negative opinion of him, higher than any candidate polled – he started talking about Margaret Thatcher.
“I can think of another former education minister who was told at the time when they ran for the leadership that they were unelectable. I remember that Minister when they became prime minister being told that their anxiety to get things done to deliver and to prove conservative arguments are right would lead to disaster at the polls. And I remember what happened in 1979 1983 and 1987 general election. My view is: do the right thing. Believe in conservative values. Make that case and you will win”
The Brexit campaign, he said, shows he is a winner.
I was the person who was leading that campaign. If I’m not capable of winning a national campaign, then how was it that we were able to move from 33 percent to 52 percent during the course of that campaign when the two biggest public tests – that Sky debate and that Question Time debate – were ones that were entrusted to me?
One striking theme of this evening was how keen Gove was to cast himself as a liberal. He repeatedly described himself as a ‘liberal Conservative’ and a ‘liberal Brexiteer’ and said that one of his ambitions as prime minister was to make this the most admired country in the world by the ‘liberally-minded’. When asked what he’d like to achieve as Prime Minister he replied:-
I hope I will also have shown that Britain is – for people who are essentially liberal minded – the country to admire most in the world. In the past, you might have boasted about the strength of our armed forces or the reach of our empire. What we can show in the next century is moral leadership. And we can do that by showing, for example, that our education system our approach towards children and care means that you were a child born in any country whatever your parentage or background you had more chance of being supported and succeeding in this country. I think that that mission will mean that people will look at our country with renewed admiration; we will feel pride in it. And I believe that as I say the L-word is not a dirty word. I’m always happy to think of myself as a liberal conservative.
On the economy, Gove had a pop at ‘one-club golfers’ who think that the answer to every problem is a tax cut. When presented with a list of his rivals’ pledges – Dominic Raab cutting 1p of the basic rate of income tax, Sajid Javid lowering the 45p rate, he replied: “every single one of the policies that you’ve mentioned is a tax cut. What are the other economic policies that have been put forward?” Then, warming to his theme..
“I’m all in favour of tax cuts but I’m also someone who has a fully-formed rounded all-weather every-issue economic policy. And that’s why I believe that I’m ready to lead.”
He argued that today’s economic problems are not the same as the 1970s and need a different set of responses including some Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting.
There was, predictably, some tummy tickling for Tory MPs from Gove. He committed to taking his intellectual lead from Tory MPs. “The Conservative parliamentary party should be our policy unit, our think tank. We should make use of the talents of the men and women who put themselves forward for for public service.” He said that he wanted a Cabinet that brought in new talent as well as bringing back those who had previously served in government. He’d make sure that “we recognise in particular a new generation of talent” and “some people who have been in Parliament for a while but who haven’t had the chance to shine and should now be given the chance to be part of a great conservative team.” In other words, everybody.
This evening was a reminder of how Gove is running to be the candidate of the liberal wing of the party in this contest. This approach is, so far, doing well in terms of delivering him the parliamentary votes he needs to make the final two. But it is not a natural pitch for the members round of the contest.