Ben Lowry: For all his debating skills, Michael Gove was unable to confirm Boris Johnson’s pledge of no Irish Sea border

Both Boris Johnson and his cabinet colleague Michael Gove attended the University of Oxford in the 1980s.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 18th July 2020, 1:51 pm
Updated Saturday, 18th July 2020, 2:52 pm
At points in his interview on the Andrew Marr Show, Michael Gove, right, smiled as he tried the almost impossible task of defending Boris Johnson’s bogus Irish Sea pledges
At points in his interview on the Andrew Marr Show, Michael Gove, right, smiled as he tried the almost impossible task of defending Boris Johnson’s bogus Irish Sea pledges

Mr Gove, who was a few years younger, helped the future prime minister become president of the Oxford Union debating society.

He described Mr Johnson as “quite the most brilliant extempore speaker of his generation”.

It is the mark of a good debater to be able to argue convincingly both sides in a debate, and particularly to make a good case for something that you do not believe.

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Few people who have read the writings of Mr Johnson and Mr Gove, particularly in the 1990s, before they were MPs, would dispute that they are men of huge talent.

The 2016 Tory leader race, when they dramatically fell out after Mr Gove suddenly withdrew his support for Mr Johnson’s leadership bid, showed that both felt that they were suited to the highest office (although after that debacle Mr Gove did at least show some humility by mocking his own poor judgement).

He has spent the last four years carefully rebuilding his political reputation, and now finds himself as one of Mr Johnson’s most important lieutenants, as minister for the Cabinet Office, a role with a wide ranging responsibility.

It was as if all this Johnson-Gove history came full circle last Sunday, when the latter appeared on BBC Andrew Marr Show,

Gove was grilled to defend the prime minister’s remarks in Northern Ireland late last year, when he flagrantly denied what he had agreed with the EU weeks earlier, to create a major internal UK trade barrier in the Irish Sea (what Jim Allister MLA called a “betrayal of the highest order, made all the worse by repeated assurances that it would not happen”).

Thus, on the Marr Show, Gove had to play the role of skilled debater (look how clever I am at arguing that black is an almost white shade of grey) and also that of a boss’s faithful consigliere who is trying to prove himself after past disloyalty.

The key comments in the exchange are reproduced at the bottom of this article.

Mr Gove was grinning at points as he was questioned repeatedly by Mr Marr, as if the prime minister’s remarks were so misleading that it was an intellectual game to pretend they were not. But mostly he was deadly serious, because he above all — as one of unionism’s most articulate defenders when he was a columnist — knows the Irish Sea border is far more serious than the PM said.

It is true that the UK is trying hard to make the frontier light touch but it has limited wriggle room, due to what was agreed with the EU last October.

Mr Gove’s comments below are misleading because while the NI-GB movements will be largely unfettered, the EU still says it expects exit declarations (Barnier said last month they would require them).

He refers to Dr Paisley, who did accept some livestock checks, but that does not mean he was “very pleased” by them. Also, unionists sometimes make concessions the long term consequences of which they do not understand.

The GB to NI checks will be far more than food and livestock. All manufactured goods are in the EU single market (which Mr Gove implicitly acknowledged when he said “commercial goods and so on as they are going into NI [face] one or two rather simple processes”).

While he says that there will be no customs officer going ‘halt’ the customs processes are not only cumbersome for NI, with at best exemptions or rebates, they are a unique barrier for movements of goods within a sovereign territory.

It is further misleading to say that the PM made his ‘no checks’ pledge having already made a distinction of existing checks, as if he merely forgot to emphasise the word new checks.

Mr Gove’s comments further ignore the direction of travel, the opening of a door, and the coming crisis when non unionist parties use the democratic deficit of us being bound by rules in which we have no say to call for MEPs or Irish MEPs to have a remit that covers Northern Ireland.

Sammy Wilson this week wrote in this paper (see link below) that the NI protocol has implications for EU state aid, and for GB freedom.

It was a complex argument but missed a key point.

Brexit was a huge risk for unionists, and when England was having difficulties getting cleanly out of the EU, an Irish Sea border was the price it paid (after a long period of hesitation).

Mr Wilson’s arguments about how bad this internal UK border will be is for unionism only underlined the scale of that border, which London is indeed enacting, for all its denials.

• Michael Gove’s responses on BBC over the Irish Sea border

Andrew Marr had asked Michael Gove about Boris Johnson’s pledge of “no forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access”.

Mr Gove said: “Well there are some specific checks that will occur for products of animal origin — sorry to be so technical, but in essence, we’ve known that the island of Ireland, since Victorian times, has been a single epidemiological zone ...”

He said that during BSE “that Ireland was treated differently was something that the Rev Ian Paisley was very pleased by he said my voters are Irish but sorry my voters are British but my cows are Irish”.

He added: “Now in respect of the NI protocol there will be some checks for products of animal origin that go from GB to NI but we want them to be as light touch and minimal as possible.”

Mr Marr said: “So let’s just clear up one thing for sure which is what Boris Johnson said in December, he said that there’s no question of there being checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or from GB to NI. Let’s be honest and straightforward, that is no quite true, is it?”

Mr Gove said “the thing is that it is certainly not going to be the case that you will have customs officers saying, you know, halt, and so on. What you will have are vets who will be suitably equipped in order to carry out surveillance and as I say most cases because we will have the same standards on both sides of the Irish Sea, there won’t be any impediment to trade”.

Pressed again by Mr Marr, he said that the PM was speaking in a context “after he himself had said that we should have Ireland treated differently for SPS reasons”.

Speaking at Conservative gathering in Northern Ireland late last year, after he had been prime minister for several months, Mr Johnson was asked: “Can I go back to my company in the morning and tell myself we will not be filling in any customs declarations for goods leaving Northern Ireland and going to GB?”

The PM replied: “You will absolutely not have...and if someone asks you to do that, tell them to ring up the prime minister and I will direct them to throw their form in the bin.”

Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor

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