Michael Gove has been forced to deny reports he privately discussed a Norway-style solution to Brexit in the likely event that Theresa May’s Chequers strategy fails.
The Financial Times reported the environment secretary and Brexiteer talked of “parking” the UK in the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway, to avoid the chaos of a disorderly no-deal exit.
The idea reportedly came up at a dinner with moderate Conservative MPs and peers, but has been ruled out by Mrs May’s red lines and would incense hardline Brexiteers, who could bring down the prime minister if she heads in that direction.
Asked if he had devised a plan to stay in the EEA at a private dinner with a number of Conservative MPs in June, he said: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sources close to Mr Gove poured cold water on the reports, suggesting he was playing Devil’s advocate from the EU’s point of view and was “fully behind the Chequers plan” and “fully behind the prime minister taking that plan to the EU”.
While admitting the environment secretary was at the dinner and spoke about the EEA option, they said the conversation was about what EU negotiators were likely to put forward and added the EEA would not work as a fallback because Norway has a customs border.
Mr Gove reportedly raised the possibility at a private dinner with about 20 Tory MPs and peers on June 25, as he ran through various options in the event of Mrs May being unable to agree a deal in Brussels before March next year.
The dinner was with the Green Chip dining group – a gathering of moderate Tories set up by Mr Gove and former minister Greg Barker to support David Cameron, the former prime minister.
Mr Gove is reported to be buttering up Remain-leaning MPs in a bid to present himself as a Brexiteer capable of uniting the Conservative Party, earning the nickname “St Michael of the EEA”.
The FT reports he imitated Martin Selmayr, the influential German official who is the EU’s top civil servant, in running through various scenarios for the autumn, including the EEA outcome.
“He was steering the conversation towards the EEA idea,” said one MP who attended the dinner, according to the FT. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Should Mrs May secure a deal with Brussels but fail to get it through a heavily divided parliament, Remain MPs believe the EEA option could attract cross-party support.
Mrs May’s team have pointed out that Mr Gove’s private dinner took place before the Cabinet agreed the Chequers plan, which the prime minister believes will form the basis of a deal with Brussels in the autumn.