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Coffee House General Election 2017

Michael Gove signals a shift on the government’s Brexit stance

13 June 2017

9:07 AM

13 June 2017

9:07 AM

Is Brexit going soft? In the aftermath of the election, some are worried that might be the case. While others are hopeful that a hard Brexit (i.e. leaving the single market) is now off the table. Michael Gove’s interview on Today was a reassurance that whatever type of Brexit Britain does end up with, a consensus is being sought out. Gove made it clear that the majority of Brits, by voting for Labour and the Tories (82.4 per cent backed the parties last week), opted to vote for parties committed to Brexit. This is a sensible rebuke to those trying to read into voters’ lukewarm enthusiasm for Theresa May a sign that people are changing their minds about leaving the EU. There’s little evidence that this is the case; and as Fraser Nelson has pointed out, if this really was so then it’s difficult to explain why the Lib Dems – the party offering a voice to those who want a second referendum – effectively bombed last week. But the new environment secretary did make it clear that the election has changed things. Here’s what he said:

‘I think it is…the case that we need to recognise that we as Conservatives were not returned with a majority, and that means we need to proceed with the maximum possible consensus and that we also need to ensure that the concerns of people who voted remain – many of whom want us to press ahead with leaving the European Union – we need to make sure that their concerns are part of the conversation’.

When asked to clarify, Gove said:

I would say it was a means of making sure that the referendum result is honoured in the right way.

Of course, some will interpret that as a sign that Brexit is going soft or being watered down. It would be a mistake to think so. Gove made it clear that the final deal needs to gain the ‘broadest possible level of public confidence’. He also refused to rule out a cross-party Brexit commission. This is a good move and also a shrewd political step for the Tories, allowing them not to be forced to own the Brexit process entirely on their own – particularly wise if things start going pear-shaped given the government’s now perilous position.

There’s also another point, in that while Gove is saying the Tories’ lack of majority changes things, it’s difficult to prove this is the case. One of the frustrations voters had with Theresa May was her refusal to spell out what Brexit means Brexit actually meant (This was made worse by her subsequent insistence that she had explained exactly what it meant). If the Tories had won a thumping majority, what type of Brexit deal would Britain have reached? Would May have opted for a hard Brexit or used her political power to tone things down? Thanks to May’s reticence – and her dismal performance last week – it’s impossible to say. Yet now the Tories have blown their majority, their only option is to seek out a consensus on Brexit. This is one outcome from last week’s election that we should warmly welcome.

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