In an astonishing attack on his own party leader, the justice secretary told a studio audience that David Cameron and other remain supporters were treating British voters as if they were “too small, too poor and … too stupid” to go it alone outside the EU.
Speaking about the Tory leader’s appearance on Thursday night, Gove said: “I believe that last night, I am afraid, what we heard was depressing and it was an exercise in trying to scare you into not following through what you know in your heart to be right.”
He said his opponents were guilty of a “depressing litany of projections about world war three and global Brexit recession,” saying it was the leave campaign that was “project hope”.
In an acrimonious clash, he hit out at the programme’s presenter, Faisal Islam, for “sneering condescension” after Sky’s political editor branded him an “Oxbridge Trump”. And he ruled himself out of any future Conservative leadership battle.
Gove, who was questioned by Islam and then a live studio audience, also:
- Agreed to have an independent audit of the Vote Leave claim that Britain sends £350m to Brussels every week, which has been described as misleading by the head of the UK Statistics Authority.
- Said he could not offer a guarantee that no one would lose their job in the aftermath of Brexit, joking that 73 MEPs would be first.
- Claimed that the majority of people in Britain were “suffering because of our membership of the EU”, which he said had destroyed his father’s fishing business.
- Called the EU a “job destroying machine” and said it was time to “say you’re fired” to its unelected elites as well as invest “additional millions” in the NHS.
He failed to name a single economic authority or allied foreign leader who was backing the campaign for Britain to leave the EU, but was unapologetic, saying: “I’m glad all these organisations are not on my side … When we had a debate about joining the single currency, a majority of economists then thought we should join the single currency.”
He pointed to 300 business figures who had backed Brexit in a newspaper letter and said foreign leaders would “never accept a curtailment of their sovereignty in the way they are arguing that we should”.
He added that he had no interest in defending banks such as JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs, which he claimed had said Greece should join the euro. “I explained to my cabinet colleagues that we should not be on the side of the undeserving rich.”
Gove defended Vote Leave’s stance on immigration, saying he did believe in a multicultural society, but suggested that controlling Britain’s borders would allow a “truly inclusive, non-racist immigration policy”.
He appeared most uncomfortable when Islam suggested that part of the £350m never actually left the country.
“I’m happy to have it independently audited. We don’t have control of that money,” he said. “If you look at every reputable record of how much money we send [it] is £20bn gross. There are billions of pounds spent on our account [by those] who are unaccountable, elected and who we can’t get rid of. It is wrong to say people who want their democracy back are following in the footsteps of Donald Trump.”
His claim that more than half the country was suffering as a result of EU membership was questioned by Islam, who said Gove had no evidence to back it up. In a tetchy response, the justice secretary gave the example of watching his father’s “business go to the wall”. He said: “Do not skate over their misery. Don’t dismiss the pain that they’ve had. Don’t belittle it.
“Look at the facts, they are a story of human misery. Those jobless young people in Greece and Spain are coming here and putting pressure on jobs here.”
The interview triggered another blue-on-blue attack: the Tory MP Nick Herbert told the Guardian he was disappointed with Gove for making controversial arguments about immigration. ”This was kind of like Nigel Farage with a wine glass. That is what the leave campaign has become, falling back on arguments they said they were not going to make because they have lost the economic case.”
Lord Falconer, the shadow justice secretary and remain campaigner, said Gove lost the audience as he failed to make a case about the economic impact of leaving.
“The purpose of tonight and last night was to put the people making the case through their paces. How did [David] Cameron deal with immigration? Incredibly well. How did Gove deal with questions about the economy? Not only did he not deal with them well, he didn’t deal with them at all. He simply said ‘I have faith’. It was not based on argument but his bold assertions.”
Gove’s appearance came after Thursday night’s Sky News audience cast doubt on the prime minister’s personal integrity, with one woman saying that he was waffling. Another audience member accused Cameron of hypocrisy for linking the Labour London mayor, Sadiq Khan, to Islamist extremists and then sharing a platform with him, while another asked what he thought about his character and reputation having been damaged by scaremongering during the campaign.
The out campaign is increasingly stepping up attempts to paint Cameron as untrustworthy and damaged as a leader, especially after three backbench Tory MPs suggested he should face a leadership challenge after the election.
Iain Duncan Smith accused Cameron of insincerity and making an attempt to deceive the public over EU immigration. The former party leader, who resigned from Cameron’s cabinet this year, claimed to have identified two lies in two sentences spoken by the prime minister on ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Friday.
Cameron told the programme he had negotiated a deal with the EU so that when people came to the UK to work they had to go home if they did not find a job and they did not get unemployment benefit when they arrived. But Duncan Smith claimed there was no legal right to send people home if they did not have a job and that EU migrants were entitled to jobseeker’s allowance after three months of living in the UK.
In a briefing note, Vote Leave suggested that jobless EU migrants should be deported, saying a consequence of the failure to do so had been a stark rise in homelessness.
In a significant escalation in the feuding that has ripped through the Conservative party during the referendum campaign, Duncan Smith said he was astonished at the prime minister’s comments, branding them “deeply insincere – and a clear attempt to deceive the British public”.
The former work and pensions secretary added: “The truth is that, for as long as we are a member of the European Union, we are powerless to control the number of people coming to this country. And yesterday’s damning home affairs report shows conclusively that even if EU migrants commit serious crimes, the government is unable to remove them.”
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