Michael Gove 'talked up Norway-style Brexit' in dinner with Tory MPs
Michael Gove privately discussed plans to keep Britain in the European Union's single market if Theresa May fails to strike a Brexit deal, it has been reported.
The Leave-backing Environment Secretary is said to have told a dinner of moderate Conservative MPs and peers that the UK could stay "parked" in the European Economic Area (EEA) to avoid the disorder of walking away without a deal.
According to the Financial Times, the Cabinet heavyweight reeled off a list of possible Brexit options to the 'Green Chip' dining group - set up in support of David Cameron during his time as Prime Minister.
But an MP who attended the dinner told the FT: "He was steering the conversation towards the EEA idea. There’s no doubt about that."
A ministerial colleague is meanwhile said to have started referring to the Environment Secretary as "St Michael of the EEA".
But any backing for a Norway-style Brexit would enrage Tory Eurosceptics, who would see it as crossing all of Theresa May's "red lines" on leaving the European Union.
Norway's membership of the EEA means it only has access to the EU's single market in exchange for accepting the free movement of people, making contributions to the EU's budget, and abiding by the European Court of Justice.
An ally of Mr Gove insisted the Environment Secretary "wasn’t advocating the EEA" at the dinner.
"He’s totally behind the Prime Minister’s Chequers strategy," they said. "He’s not considering any other option. He likes discussing things."
Government sources meanwhile pointed out that the dinner had taken place before Mr Gove backed Theresa May's Chequers plan, which seeks close customs ties with the EU in a bid to avoid trade disruption and a hard border in Northern Ireland.
'BLIND BREXIT' FEARS
The report came as Remain campaigners sounded the alarm amid claims the EU could agree to a vague Brexit deal in a bid to stave off a "no deal" outcome.
The People's Vote campaign hit out at what it called a "blind Brexit" after reports that Germany could be willing to offer Theresa May an interim deal and then flesh out details on the UK's future trade ties with the EU at a later date.
Such a move would allow extra time to negotiate the finer points of Brexit and potentially avoid a damanging revolt by Conservative eurosceptics.
But Labour MP Chris Leslie - part of the Remain-backing People's Vote campaign - warned that a delay would only "take the UK to the same place as a no-deal Brexit, but without the clarity".
He told The Guardian: "The idea that the fundamental contradictions of the government’s Brexit policy can be more easily resolved after the UK has left the EU is simply ludicrous.
"A blind Brexit is being talked about because some see it as a short-term face-saving deal for both the British government and the European Union, both of which are now terrified that concluding with a failure to agree a deal will result in a humiliating no-deal Brexit.
"With the EU27 governments and the EU commission wanting to spare Theresa May’s blushes, there is a risk we end up with a fake deal to save face."
It emerged this week that a string of councils have concerns about the effect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, while Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been touring European capitals and urged leaders to avoid "heading for no deal by accident".
Downing Street has promised that a string of reports advising the public to prepare for a 'no deal' will be published later this summer.
But Brexiteers are concerned that the documents could form part of a renewed 'Project Fear' campaign to spook the public about an outcome they believe will be less damaging than has been claimed.