Cameron 'disappointed, but not surprised' as Gove heads towards Brexit

Michael Gove

David Cameron has sought to make light of Michael Gove’s imminent decision to campaign to leave the European Union, saying he is “disappointed but ... not surprised”.

During a press conference after striking a deal at the Brussels summit, Cameron said: “Michael is one of my oldest and closest friends but he has wanted to get Britain to pull out of the EU for about 30 years.

“So of course I am disappointed that we are not going to be on the same side as we have this vital argument about our country’s future. I am disappointed but I am not surprised.”

Gove, a longstanding Eurosceptic, has been agonising for months about whether to follow his conscience or support his friends and allies, Cameron and George Osborne, in favour of EU membership.

The prime minister brushed off questions about whether Boris Johnson, who will now face pressure to follow Gove’s lead, will also campaign to leave. “Other politicians will have to make up their minds and they will have to make their own announcements. But in the end it is the British people that will decide.”

A move by the justice secretary to support a Brexit will electrify the out campaign in the EU referendum, and put pressure on Johnson to follow his lead. The London mayor has caused some irritation in Downing Street by making a series of demands – firstly for two referendums, and then a declaration of the sovereignty of parliament – while claiming he cannot make up his mind.

Senior figures in Vote Leave, whose campaign director Dominic Cummings helped Gove deliver his controversial free schools programme as his senior special adviser, had been confident that they would win over a heavy hitting cabinet minister.

They hope that a mainstream figure such as Gove will help them reach out in the referendum to middle ground undecided voters even if the justice secretary eases the blow for Cameron by not taking a high profile campaigning role.

A victory for the Leave side in the referendum, which is expected to be held on 23 June if a deal is reached at this EU summit, would probably terminate Cameron’s premiership and kill of George Osborne’s hopes of leading the Conservatives.

The prime minister would be told by the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers that he could not lead the two years of negotiations on Britain’s EU exit after failing so spectacularly in his goal of keeping the UK in a reformed EU.

Gove has made clear in semi-private that he has been torn between the profound belief that Britain should break free from the shackles of EU membership and loyalty to the prime minister and the chancellor. The justice secretary knows that joining the out campaign could terminate the political careers of his two great friends and boost the leadership chances of Theresa May and Johnson.

In an impassioned plea on Thursday night, the prime minister, who has been kept fully informed about Gove’s thinking, showed the pressure when he warned his counterparts that they were risking “suicide” if they expected him to run a referendum campaign to keep Britain in the EU without a “credible” deal to sell to the British people. According to witnesses to the exchanges, Cameron told the other EU leaders that he would lose the support of the cabinet and would lose the referendum if he did not obtain a satisfactory outcome.

European leaders were due to reconvene their formal proceedings after a gap of nearly 20 hours at 8.30pm Brussels time on Friday night. Donald Tusk, the European council president who had held a series of bilateral meetings with EU leaders throughout Thursday night and during the day on Friday, was due to table a proposed agreement.

The delayed start to the formal negotiations prompted the prime minister to abandon plans to hold a cabinet meeting on Friday night. A cabinet has been pencilled in for Saturday if an agreement is reached overnight.

A move by Gove to support a British exit will not surprise Downing Street, which has been fully briefed on his indecision in recent weeks. No 10 had been confident at the turn of the year that the justice secretary would support the prime minister. But his record for Euroscepticism is well known.

Downing Street will be hoping that Gove will abide by the terms of a letter the prime minister sent to cabinet ministers when he agreed to lift the rules on cabinet collective responsibility once an EU deal has been agreed. It said that ministers who have a history of Euroscepticism would be free to campaign for a vote to leave but they would be expected to do so amiably. No 10 will be hoping that Gove, known as the politest man in British politics, will live up to his reputation.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt , Ian Traynor and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, for theguardian.com on Friday 19th February 2016 18.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010