By Paul Waugh
Michael Gove is set to be unleashed as Theresa May’s ‘secret weapon’ in persuading Tory Eurosceptics to back her Brexit deal.
The Environment Secretary, one of the key figures in the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, is expected to appear on the BBC’s flagship Andrew Marr Show this weekend.
Gove’s heavyweight backing for the PM’s compromise plan is a key plank in the No.10 strategy to ‘sell’ the deal to sceptical backbenchers and shift the odds of her winning the crunch Commons vote on December 11.
The senior Brexiteer is also due to appear before a Commons Select Committee on Wednesday, setting out how his Whitehall department is ready for the UK’s exit from the EU from next March.
Gove has done no media interviews since the PM struck her agreement with Brussels, but whips believe he could provide the ‘intellectual heft’ needed to persuade wavering MPs.
His decision to stay in the Government two weeks ago, following the resignation of Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, prevented a mass walk-out of the Cabinet that could have hastened May’s political demise.
With just two weeks in which to avoid a catastrophic defeat on her most important policy, the PM is relying on strong backing from the entire Cabinet as she tries to pull out all the stops to swing public and party opinion in her favour.
The Government’s new ‘BrexitDealExplained’ website has been pushed on social media with paid video and other adverts on Google search, Facebook and Twitter.
The site had received 2.5m hits within a day, Whitehall sources have told HuffPost UK. The Google ad ensures that the site is the top result whenever anyone types ‘Brexit deal’ on the search engine.
“It’s proved very popular, precisely because it makes clear it explains the deal in just 60 seconds,” one insider said.
In a ‘money and migration’ PR plan to win round Tory MPs, the Government will publish its economic analysis backing the deal on Wednesday, followed by its post-Brexit immigration proposals next week.
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) November 23, 2018
Both are designed to give backbenchers ammunition to back May’s claims that her proposals are the best for the economy and jobs and the only way to deliver curbs on migrant numbers demanded by many Leave voters.
Dubbed ‘the Godfather of Brexit’ for his role in the 2016 campaign, Gove’s only public utterances on the Brexit deal in the past week came when he made a strong defence of the plan during a Commons debate on the new Fisheries Bill.
But many colleagues were impressed at his debating power, insisting to sceptical Tory MPs that the PM had not ‘bent or buckled’ to EU pressure on fishing rights.
“We need Michael more than ever to push this deal,” one MP told HuffPost. “He’s the one Cabinet minister who really can shift the numbers.”
Gove has been a major driver within Government for the argument that the UK needs to just get out of the EU first and then work for a Canada-style free-trade deal in further talks with the EU 27.
He burnished his Vote Leave credentials when he told Cabinet colleagues that preparations for a ‘no deal’ exit should be stepped up across all Whitehall departments.
However, some Brexiteers believe the Environment Secretary has “sold out” on his principles.
The backbench European Research Group (ERG) dumped Gove – along with other MPs – from its WhatsApp group on Monday. “As we gear up for the big fight, we are sorting sheep from goats,” one insider said.
Other Brexiteers in Cabinet – Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt, Steve Barclay, Geoffrey Cox and Chris Grayling – will also be deployed in the final push to the vote.
Still a divisive figure among the public despite his new pro-environment reputation, Gove decided to stay in the Cabinet partly because he did not want to be seen as ‘knifing’ yet another senior Tory.
He famously withdrew his backing for Boris Johnson’s leadership bid, launching his own candidacy instead. And David Cameron has reportedly still not forgiven him for coming out to spearhead the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.