UK Politics

Tory leadership: Brexit deadline 'not fixed date' says Gove

Michael Gove Image copyright PA

Conservative leadership contender Michael Gove has said he regards the UK's 31 October Brexit deadline as "arbitrary" and is "not wedded" to it.

He told an event in London the UK must not be bound by a "fixed" date if it needs slightly more time to get a deal.

But he insisted any further delay would be a matter of weeks, not months.

Other candidates, including Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab, insist the UK must leave on 31 October whether it has approved a deal with Brussels or not.

The UK was originally meant to leave on 29 March. That was then pushed back to 12 April and eventually Halloween after Theresa May failed to get MPs to approve her withdrawal agreement.

Eleven Tory candidates are seeking to succeed Mrs May as Tory leader and prime minister, with the winner of the contest to be announced at the end of July.

How the next prime minister gets a Brexit deal through Parliament and whether they would countenance a no-deal exit has been the dominant question of the campaign so far.

'Backstop movement'

On Tuesday, Mr Johnson told MPs from the One Nation group of Tories that his party risked "extinction" if it did not deliver on the 2016 leave vote.

At a Spectator event on Wednesday, Mr Gove said Brexit was a "democratic imperative" and if it "finally comes to a decision between no deal and no Brexit, I will choose no deal".

But he suggested the timing of the UK's exit was secondary to the manner of it.

"The critical thing to do is to recognise if we're not 100% out by midnight on 31 October - then we risk making that arbitrary deadline the determinant of what a good deal is," he said.

"If we're so close to the wire with what I believe is a better deal, it would be right to take those extra few days or weeks in order to land it and to make sure that we're out."

This marks the opening up of a clear dividing line in this race among those who campaigned for Brexit in 2016.

The former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has talked about the "potential extinction" of the Conservatives if Brexit is delayed again.

But Michael Gove is willing to entertain a delay, if he concludes a deal is achievable as the deadline approaches.

His team see this as pragmatic, but his critics will see it as him going soft.

And those supporting Mr Johnson will hope that if it comes to a run off between their man and Mr Gove, the Conservative grassroots will plump for getting out of the EU as quickly as possible.

Mr Gove said he would "be looking for movement" from the EU on the backstop - the controversial insurance policy to keep an open border on the island of Ireland that would see the UK remain aligned with EU rules and in the same customs territory.

George Eustice MP, a supporter of Mr Gove, also talked of a delay of "a few months" - a postponement that would be acceptable if a deal was close.

In an article in the Daily Mail, Mr Gove said that pledging to leave by 31 October "come what may" would run the risk of Parliament forcing a general election, followed by a Conservative defeat at the polls.

He also promised to include Tory MPs from "across the party" in shaping the UK's Brexit stance, and to listen to DUP MPs who want Northern Irish politicians to get a formal say over the rules that would apply to Northern Ireland under the backstop.

He also wrote that he would appoint a government minister to explore options for replacing the backstop with "alternative arrangements".

The EU has said it is willing to consider alternative arrangements but the backstop must stay in the withdrawal agreement and there can be no time limit or end date.

'Not May in trousers'

Also speaking at the One Nation hustings, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the next PM's mission must be to bring together Remain and Leave voters through a mixture of "compassionate and radical Conservative" policies.

He talked up his career as an entrepreneur before entering politics, saying he had "been doing deals all my life" and would be able to negotiate properly with other EU leaders.

"I met Macron and Merkel today in Portsmouth and a hardline approach will lead to a hardline response," he said.

He also ruled out a snap election if elected, saying he was "not Theresa May in trousers".

Who will replace Theresa May?

The winner of the contest to lead the Conservative Party will become the next prime minister.

Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab refused to rule out bringing the current session of Parliament to a close in the days leading up to 31 October.

Such an unprecedented move could, in theory, prevent MPs from sitting and passing legislation blocking a no-deal exit.

He said he had a "credible" plan to get a better deal for the UK, adding: "We don't just need a conviction Brexiteer, we need someone who can navigate the rocky path ahead."

"As Brexit Secretary I looked our EU opposite numbers in the eyes. I know the strengths but also the weaknesses of their positions."

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was a fantasy to suggest only someone who backed Brexit in the referendum could negotiate the right Brexit deal.

He said the party "needed a leader for the next six years" and someone who could move the conversation on from Brexit if the party was to win the next election.

But Mr Hancock has been accused of a "baseless political attack" after he claimed that if Labour won power, the UK would be electing "the first anti-Semitic leader of a Western nation since the Second World War".

Labour said the comments "rings hollow from a minister in a party that has supported governments that actively promote anti-Semitic policies in Hungary and Poland, and has spent the week wooing Trump".

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell called them "a disgrace".

Compare the candidates' policies

Select a topic...

...and a candidate

Brexit

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Wants to leave with a deal, but says he would back a no-deal Brexit with "a heavy heart" if necessary. - Will create a new negotiating team to produce an "alternative exit deal" to Theresa May’s plan, and engage with EU leaders over August. - Will present a provisional no-deal Brexit budget in early September and decide by the end of the month if there is a "realistic chance" of a new deal. - If not, will abandon talks and focus on no deal preparations. - Pledges to cover the cost of tariffs imposed on the exports of the farming and fishing industries in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Vows to leave the EU by the 31 October deadline "come what may", but claims the chance of a no-deal Brexit is a "million to one". - Wants to negotiate a new deal, which will include replacing the Irish backstop with alternative arrangements. - Will not hand over the £39bn divorce settlement with the EU until the UK gets a new deal. - If a new deal is not agreed, will ask the EU for a "standstill period" to negotiate a free trade deal. - Argues a provision under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT 24, could be used for the UK to avoid tariffs for the next 10 years, but admits it would need EU sign off. - Promises to support the rural community in a no-deal Brexit scenario with "price support" and "efficiency payments".

Immigration

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Calls for flexibility on immigration, saying skilled workers should be prioritised. - Wants to review policy of stopping migrants with less than £30,000 coming to the UK to work. - Pledges to scrap the target to reduce net migration to below 100,000.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Wants a new Australian-style points-based system, considering factors such as whether an immigrant has a firm job offer and their ability to speak English. - Will get Migration Advisory Committee to examine the plan. - Wants to block the ability for immigrants to claim benefits immediately after the arrive in the UK. - Opposes the net migration target of under 100,000 a year.

Tax

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- As an entrepreneur, he wants to turn Britain into "the next Silicon Valley... a hub of innovation". - Wants to cut corporation tax to 12.5%. - Wants to raise the point at which workers start paying National Insurance to at least £12,000 a year. - Pledges to scrap business rates for 90% of high street shops. - Will increase the tax-free annual investment allowance from £1m to £5m.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Pledges to raise the tax threshold for the higher rate to £80,000 (rather than the current £50,000). - Wants to raise the point at which workers start paying income tax. - Will review “unhealthy food taxes” such as sugar tax on soft drinks.

Spending

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Wants to increase defence spending by £15bn over the next five years. - Promises to keep free TV licenses for the over-75s. - Wants to build 1.5 million homes and create a “right to own” scheme for young people. - Backs both HS2 and a third runway at Heathrow.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Pledges more money for public sector workers and wants to increase the National Living Wage. - Will “find the money” to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers by 2022. - Promises to maintain spending 0.7% of GDP on Foreign Aid. - Wants to review the HS2 train project. - Pledges full fibre broadband in every home by 2025.

Health and social care

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Promises more funding for social care. - Wants to introduce an opt out insurance system to fund future care, similar to the way pensions work. - Wants to target manufacturers of unhealthy foods to make them cut the sugar content. - Mental health support to be offered in every school and a crackdown on social media companies that fail to regulate their content.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Rules out a pay-for-access NHS, saying it would remain "free to everybody at the point of use" under his leadership. - Has previously said money spent on the EU could be put into the NHS. - Plans to give public sector workers a "fair" pay rise, according to supporter Health Secretary Matt Hancock. - Says more should be spent on social care, according to a cross-party "national consensus".

Education

Jeremy Hunt
Foreign Secretary

- Pledges to write off tuition fees for young entrepreneurs who start a new business and employ more than 10 people for five years. - Wants to reduce interest rates on student debt repayments. - Long-term plan to provide more funding for the teaching profession. - Wants to abolish illiteracy.

Boris Johnson
Backbencher

- Wants to raise per-pupil spending in primary and secondary schools, with a minimum of £5,000 for each student in the latter. - Wants to look at lowering the interest rate on student debts.