How they buried the hatchet to take on Hammond: ANDREW PIERCE explains how Boris Johnson and Michael Gove put Britain's future before personal grievances
Once a month, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson clear an hour or two in their diaries for a ‘private appointment’.?
To the irritation of their civil servants, they leave their respective ministries with clear instructions not to be disturbed unless it’s an emergency.
The two meet clandestinely at a discreet Westminster venue – and Brexit is always on the agenda.
Although both were on the winning side in the EU referendum, they famously fell out rancorously during the subsequent Tory leadership election. But since then, they have buried the hatchet. Britain’s future is more important than petty personal grievances.
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson pull pints of beer at the Old Chapel pub in Darwen, Lancashire in 2016
At one of these meetings between the two biggest pro-Leave beasts in the Cabinet, they agreed it was vital that they produce a blueprint for Brexit.
And so, back in September, over a bottle of Merlot, they put together a strategy document amid increasing concerns about the Government dragging its heels over leaving the EU.
In particular, they were deeply worried by comments by Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who were prominent Remainers.
In short, they feared Cabinet colleagues were colluding to try to sabotage Brexit.
Significantly, a week before their September meeting, Rudd had accused Johnson of ‘backseat driving’ after he published his own 4,000-word vision of how Britain should depart the EU.
Much to Brexiteers’ annoyance, Rudd had also described the prospect of Britain walking away from the negotiating table with ‘no deal’ with EU negotiators as ‘unthinkable’.
The pair were deeply worried by comments by Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who were prominent Remainers
For his part, Hammond had caused intense irritation over his negative tone about both Brexit and the economy, and by saying he had not put aside extra Treasury money to prepare for the likelihood of no deal.
In the memo, which they saw as a helpful Brexit primer for Theresa May, Gove and Johnson wrote: ‘We are profoundly worried that in some parts of Government the current preparations are not proceeding with anything like sufficient energy.’
This was a direct rebuke to Hammond – and to a lesser extent Rudd – over the lack of progress on preparing new systems for border checks, tariff collection, the provision of extra lorry parks near ports and more customs staff in the event of no deal.
The 1,500-word memo was compiled over several days when Parliament was in recess, and it was completed shortly before the Tory conference.
It was sent to the PM soon after her catastrophic party conference and, considering its strident anti-EU tone, they were worried it might be made public.
A key intermediary was Johnson’s Press adviser, Lee Cain, a former Fleet Street journalist, who has worked for Gove and Mrs May.
It was agreed that the document should be handed personally to the PM’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell (left), and was only seen by him and the Mrs May
It was agreed that the document should be handed personally to the PM’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.?
Such was its secrecy that even David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, knew nothing about the memo until it leaked yesterday.
While relaxed about the memo’s message, Mr Davis and his negotiating team fear it will be exploited by their Brussels counterparts who will claim the Government is divided.
Inevitably, after the leak, fingers are being pointed at Barwell, a passionate Remainer.
He is bitter about Brexit which he blames for the loss of his Croydon seat to Labour at the General Election in June. He is also close to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood who, like most civil servants, has never wanted Britain to leave the EU.
Of course, both Hammond and Rudd would have been furious if they had known about the Johnson/Gove memo.
David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, knew nothing about the memo until it leaked yesterday
I was told by an aide: ‘They will feel threatened by Gove and Johnson going behind their backs.’
Also incensed by Johnson and Gove will have been the Whitehall establishment, which hates the idea of politicians holding private meetings.
The fact is that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are an impressive double-act.
True, their relationship went through a very acrimonious period in the aftermath of the referendum when, as chief Leave cheerleader, Johnson expected to be favourite to succeed David Cameron, only to have his incipient campaign torpedoed by Gove’s decision to stand himself.
Witheringly, Gove said he’d concluded that ‘Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead’.
In the event, Gove’s candidacy failed humiliatingly and he was dropped from the Cabinet.
But as Foreign Secretary with few Brexiteer allies in Cabinet, Johnson rebuilt bridges with Gove, whom he has known since they were at Oxford University together. Mutual friends such as the Tory MP Conor Burns (Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary) helped broker the peace.
The rapprochement was aided by the recall of Gove to the Cabinet as Environment Secretary, despite having been told by Mrs May when she originally dismissed him that he’d have to serve at least two years on the backbenches.
It was Johnson who lobbied an initially reluctant Mrs May to bring Gove back sooner.
He also suggested the environment post as it has one of the most complex Brexit in-trays, with issues such as farming, fisheries, food imports and environ- mental protection.
‘Johnson knew that Andrea Leadsom, who was Environment Secretary, was way out of her depth. The PM knew it, too,’ I was told.
As a result, there is now much more steel to the Cabinet’s Brexit plans.
At the last Cabinet meeting devoted to Brexit, David Davis updated ministers on the progress being made across Whitehall. He awarded Gove a ‘gold star’ for the most dramatic improvement in preparedness for leaving the EU.
The fact is that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are an impressive double-act
A source says: ‘Gove and Johnson are back on side again. Gove is the intellectual ballast of Brexit – Johnson the charismatic campaigner. They are going to do more together to make the strong and positive case for Brexit.’
And that, in a nutshell, is what their joint memo to Mrs May was – a common-sense outline for a two-year transition deal, with extra time to offer more flexibility if needed.
The resurgence of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – the two titans of the Leave campaign team – will do much to galvanise the Government as it goes into crunch talks with Brussels.
But, of course, it will also trigger talk that in any future Tory leadership contest, they might form an invincible double-act.
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