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The government’s most important task over the next three years will be making Brexit work. Having taken the decision to leave the EU, we need to agree terms that are advantageous to us and to our European friends. We must take on board the concerns of the large minority (majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland) of Remain voters. We should act with the consent and approval, wherever possible, of our European allies. And we ought to ensure that there is prosperity on both sides afterwards. While the FTSE-100 has held up – indeed, risen slightly – since last week’s vote, the same is not true of some of the stock exchanges in the eurozone. The prosperity of our immediate neighbours matters to us: we don’t want Brexit to lead to a renewal of the euro crisis.
Getting Brexit right doesn’t just mean preserving good relations with our neighbours. It also means exploiting the opportunities that will come from independence. We must become a more competitive nation, extending our trading links with other continents, making our tax rates more attractive, encouraging inward investment.
Sadly, the government’s determination to win the EU referendum led it to jettison many of its promised reforms. Overhauling pensions? Too tricky. Tax credit reform? Chuck it. Trade union law? Tell Labour we’ll leave it alone provided they help fund Remain. Several manifesto commitments were abandoned in an example of what the brilliant Lynton Crosby calls “scraping off the barnacles.”
In consequence, we are not as well prepared for Brexit as we might be – either in terms of diplomacy or in terms of domestic competitiveness. I say this in no carping spirit: we can hardly blame a pro-EU administration for failing to gear up for secession. It simply means that much needs to be done over the next two or three years.
We must take on the immobilism of a pro-Brussels state machine. The EU has shaped the thinking of our officials for so long that, in Whitehall as in UKREP, our Brussels office, few have any real sense of how to make a success of independence.
Who, of all the leadership candidates, has the strongest record for taking on vested interests? There can surely be no doubt, even among his detractors. Michael Gove is the ultimate blob-buster, the minister who prises open departmental closed shops. As Education Secretary, he was determined to make schools work for consumers rather than producers. Result? For the first time, the best state schools are better than the best private schools. He then went on to take on the equivalent vested interests in our criminal justice system – notably the human rights activists. We badly need such an approach across government.
There are times in the life of a nation when a steady-as-she-goes candidate is ideal. Now is not such a time. The worst thing would be to leave the EU and then fail to press home the opportunities offered by our departure. Brexit has never been an end in itself – rather, it is a means to the end of a freer, more democratic, more prosperous Britain. There’s little point in leaving on terms set by Sir Humphrey in Brussels. Why get rid of EU jurisdiction if we don’t get rid of the cronyism, the lobbying, the corporatism that 43 years of membership have fostered?
As a matter of fact, I like all five of the leadership candidates. I know sucky-uppy MPs say that sort of thing in the hope of preferment but, not being an MP, I hope I can honestly opine they’d all make good prime ministers. It’s just that current circumstances call for something exceptional: for a leader who is prepared to reorient the British state machine to a more agile, more global, more responsive way of thinking. When I ask myself who is likeliest to deliver such a transformation, there can be little doubt.
In all the time I’ve known him, Michael Gove has never once abandoned his vision of what a modern, democratic Britain might achieve. Politely, patiently but flintily, he has sought to advance that goal in every job he has held. You won’t find a more principled politician.
When he says he never wanted to be PM, it’s 100 per cent true. And that, in my book, is the greatest recommendation of all.