Michael Gove has urged Eurosceptic Conservative MPs to rally behind Theresa May as she prepares to face down her backbench critics in person before publishing a white paper on leaving the EU, The Guardian reports.
The environment secretary, a leading Brexiter, said the deal the prime minister achieved at Chequers was not everything he had hoped for but insisted the cabinet was behind it and collective responsibility would prevail.
“Those of us who believe that we want to execute a proper Brexit, and one that is the best deal for Britain, have an opportunity now to get behind the prime minister in order to negotiate that deal,” he said.
The prime minister is facing an angry backlash from Brexit-supporting MPs when she addresses the House of Commons on Monday, before a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, in an attempt to get them behind the plans.
Boris Johnson, a leading critic of the plans, spent several minutes at the Chequers summit spelling out his concerns, saying anybody defending the deal would be “polishing a turd” if they tried then to sell it to the party and the public.
However, by the evening Johnson had fallen into line. One cabinet minister told the Guardian: “He was actually very big about it and by dinner spoke passionately in favour of making it work.” It was reported that the former prime minister David Cameron had been drafted in before the meeting to urge him not to resign.
Gove’s decision to back the prime minister was understood to have played a key role in persuading his fellow cabinet Brexiters to agree to the plan, which includes a new customs proposal and a free trade area for goods, although he said the government must also do more to prepare for a “no-deal” Brexit.
Appearing on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr sShow on Sunday, he said: “I’m a realist and one of the things about politics is you mustn’t, you shouldn’t, make the perfect the enemy of the good. One of the things about this compromise is that it unites the cabinet.
“We achieved all of the things that we campaigned for in order to ensure we could leave the EU, but we also do so in a way which respects some of the wishes and some of the concerns of some of my colleagues that voted remain.”
However, furious pro-Brexit MPs criticised Brexiter cabinet ministers, including David Davis, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom, for failing to take a stronger stand against the government’s proposed offer to the EU, including quitting the cabinet.
Andrew Bridgen, a Tory backbencher, told the BBC: “I’m very, very disappointed with the offer that we’ve seen coming out of Chequers. I’m disappointed that so-called Brexiters in the cabinet didn’t pick up the cudgels and fight for a better offer.”
The veteran Tory eurosceptic Bill Cash told Sky News: “There are a lot of questions in here, there is a lot of unhappiness, there is a great deal of concern that we are saying that we leave – it’s not ‘to be or not to be’, it’s ‘to leave or not to leave’.
An analysis of the Chequers deal circulating within the pro-Brexit European Research Group of MPs was damning about the plan, saying it would lead to “a worst-of-all-worlds ‘black hole’ Brexit where the UK is stuck permanently as a vassal state in the EU’s legal and regulatory tar pit”.
Gove conceded that the Conservatives’ lack of majority in the Commons meant parliamentary arithmetic was a factor in deciding what could be adopted.
The whole cabinet had been summoned to Chequers and spent more than 12 hours thrashing out the proposal for the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
It would involve a “facilitated customs arrangement” intended to remove the need for a hard border in Ireland, and the creation of a UK-EU free-trade area, in which the UK would abide by a “common rule book” of EU regulations.
Tory MPs are being offered one-to-one briefings in Downing Street over the next few days to win them round before publication on Thursday of the white paper, which will spell out the plan in more detail.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, claimed May’s plans were unworkable and a “fudge” that would be a bureaucratic nightmare to implement, as he called on the prime minister to put them to a vote in the Commons next week.
The government still has to negotiate a deal with Brussels, where sources warned the customs compromise looked very similar to the so-called new customs partnership the EU rejected as “magical thinking” 11 months ago.
However, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, welcomed the plan and said: “I am ready to adapt our offer should the UK red lines change.”