To think that some critics had predicted that Brexit would prove too difficult to negotiate. How ridiculous such scaremongering looks today, with Britain only hours from leaving the European Union after its Prime Minister Michael Gove successfully negotiated a close trade and security cooperation treaty with the EU.

How did he do it? Gove had three key insights, two domestic and one international.

First, he realised that the referendum had divided the country and must lead to a compromise. “The result was 52-48,” he said on the steps of Number 10 in September 2016 when he took office and David Cameron handed over the keys. “We need a Brexit for the 100%, or for as many of our fellow citizens as can be persuaded to be constructive and reasonable in making this endeavour a success. We are all patriots. Let us respect the referendum result but respect each other. Let us implement the instruction to leave, in a sensitive manner that improves cooperation and enhances our national discourse.”

Secondly, Gove intuited rapidly that just as it had taken 14 years for the UK to get into the EEC it would take a few years to get out – politely, in stages. It could not all be done in one quick go. The European Union would remain a close partner, but it too would evolve and change. Better to Brexit in steps while the EU wrangles with its own future. “Brexit is a process, to be handled carefully,” he told LBC interviewer James O’Brien. The anti-Brexit broadcaster became so enraged by Gove’s constructive reasonableness that at the end of the interview he tried, unsuccessfully, to set himself on fire by way of protest. A Number 10 adviser was on hand with a fire extinguisher.

Thirdly, Gove understood the sensitive dynamics of the European situation. The UK, Europe’s second or third largest economy, and leading security and intelligence power, had just insulted the EU by saying it no longer wanted to be a member. Britain would need to repair the damage and demonstrate that it planned to leave the EU, not Europe, and that even then it sought continued friendship with the EU.

In the leadership contest that preceded his elevation, Gove honed this strategy. He began on the day after the referendum, visiting Boris Johnson clutching a magnum of Pol Roger to tell his co-leader of Vote Leave that he would stand in the contest and hoped Boris would. Gove said he would serve under Boris if Boris won.

Theresa May started strongly but under the pressure of a campaign it emerged that behind the enigmatic mask there did not lurk, after all, a great political intelligence. There was a vacuum.

Boris Johnson’s campaign blew up on the launch pad. Andrew Neil’s forensic interrogation on the BBC was so intense that by the end Johnson stared glumly down the lens of the camera and simply mouthed the words “oh bugger.” It was the end.

Andrea Leadsom folded early and joined Gove.

Gove sensibly persuaded key Johnson people – such as Ben Wallace MP and Jake Berry MP, who had run Boris’s outreach programme among MPs for several years – to switch. Wallace became defence secretary and a Gove loyalist. In the vote among the Tory membership, Gove beat May and then announced plans to make her the first female Archbishop of Canterbury.

Ultimately, the winning, healing pitch in the campaign was about compromise and confidence.

All EU citizens in Britain would have all their rights recognised, unilaterally if necessary, he said.

In this spirit, as new PM, Gove embarked in the autumn of 2016 on a European tour, making a series of speeches in Athens, Berlin, Madrid, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, Oslo, Lisbon, Venice, Dundee and Stockport, on the glories of European culture.

The visit to Garmisch, to pay tribute to the German composer Richard Strauss on the anniversary of his death, was a notable success.

Gove’s essay praising Napoleon’s approach to artillery deployment and agricultural standardisation was a hit with the readers of Le Monde.

There were excesses. Advisers admitted that it had been a mistake for Gove to take the stage at the Bayreuth Festival dressed in Viking garb ahead of a production of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. Gove, moving to a seat in the front row, stayed in costume throughout the entire 15 hour performance of all four cycles, which won him praise from the German media. But a German opera-goer seated in the second row complained that the horned helmet donned by the Prime Minister had obscured the view and created a distraction.

With Gove that day was another Wagner fan, George Osborne, the newly appointed UK Ambassador to Washington. Osborne’s forced resignation in late 2017 over nasty remarks made about Gove at a private lunch at the Harvard Club in New York was embarrassing. President Trump tweeted: “So Sad. Thought George was a nice guy. Could have been great! SHOULD NOT HAVE GOT CAUGHT LIKE THAT!”

Gove forgave Osborne and appointed him to be deputy director of the trans-Penine economic partnership.

Broadly, the Gove charm offensive was a success. The main players in the European Union knew that there was gamesmanship involved. Like mediaeval monarchs, or mafia dons, they liked him paying tribute and being graceful enough to treat them with due respect.

That set the scene for difficult talks. Gove having been so pro-European in his early interventions was in a stronger position to take his own tough line at key moments. The Article 50 process had been designed to be difficult and destructive. He would not trigger it until the EU leaders agreed the format of the talks. Failing reasonable agreement on sequencing, Gove would prepare to leave by a deadline of June 2018. Whitehall was reorganised in a blizzard of activity, with a single structure on no deal and a committee chaired by the PM, featuring business leaders, meeting every morning at 8am.

Reluctantly, the EU agreed to talks in three strands running in parallel – on withdrawal, trade and security, and the Irish border.

The Irish border question had been mishandled and under-appreciated by the Brexiteers, Gove admitted. Compromise must be sought to keep NI in the UK and to respect the integrity of the EU’s single market. A new institute of border technology was established at Queen’s University Belfast with a down payment of £5bn.

After much squabbling, with Gove leading the talks for the UK, it opened the way, in the end, to a withdrawal agreement settling the UK’s obligations and protecting citizens, plus a NI border protocol jointly policed by a new secretariat jointly-owned by the EU, the UK, Belfast and Dublin, paid for in large part for ten years by the UK. And a free trade and security treaty.

An offer to Germany was rejected. Gove had suggested in Munich that the Germans (nervous for some reason about scaling up their own army) should spend 3% on defence but hand the cheque to France and the UK, and Sweden and the Netherlands and Italy.

Gove’s open, generous, comprehensive offer to the opposition parties at home in September 2016, to get them involved in the Brexit process was a hit though. On Scotland, and Wales, and the Northern Powerhouse, Gove pushed through more devolution. The House of Lords would have to go, he said, though this reform remains some way off. “We can get Lords reform done by 2035,” Gove said, to laughter in the Commons last week.

And here we all are. Although Brexit has proven complex, it has been delivered.

Not everyone is happy. A Rejoin the EU rump held a march last weekend, and 40,000 turned up.

They failed to stop it though. Compromise, with some Prime Ministerial steel along the way at appropriate moments, has worked, so far. The UK has paid £59bn. A free trade and security treaty will kick in after a two year transition. And Northern Ireland has been handled by the delivery of a dose of expensive fudge. One added bonus was that this compromise on Ireland infuriated EU law experts who had hoped to spend several ears boringly saying it was not possible.

So… Happy Brexit Day! Well done everyone.

Boris Johnson’s biography of David Cameron is published next week in hardback by Penguin.

Iain Martin,
Editor and publisher,
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