Brexit: Divisive Tory quarrel over EU moves centre stage

Gove abandons Johnson and strikes uncompromising tone on immigration

Arguments over Britain's future relationship with the European Union have moved to the centre of the Conservative leadership contest following Boris Johnson's dramatic announcement that he would not be a candidate.

Justice secretary Michael Gove, who abruptly abandoned Mr Johnson to launch his own leadership bid yesterday morning, struck an uncompromising tone about limiting immigration from the EU after Brexit.

“I will do everything that is required in order to bring immigration down to a level that is manageable, that the public believe is right. Now, in order to be able to reduce migration we need to be outside the European Union.

“I’ll negotiate with toughness, and with great attention to detail to get the best possible deal for Britain. It’s only when we are outside the European Union that we can at last bring those numbers under control in the way that the public want,” he said.


Home secretary Theresa May, who opposed Brexit before the referendum, announced her candidacy yesterday morning with a speech ruling out a second referendum on EU membership.

Single market

She said she would seek to ensure Britain would retain access to the European single market, but said there was no mandate for free movement of people from the EU to continue in its present form.

"As we conduct our negotiations it must be a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services but also, to regain more control of the numbers of people who are coming here from Europe.

“Any attempt to wriggle out of that, especially from leadership candidates who campaigned to leave the EU by focusing on immigration, will be unacceptable to the public,” she said. EU leaders made clear this week that Britain could not remain within the single market after it leaves the EU unless it accepts the free movement of people.

Slovakia's foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak, whose country assumes the EU's six-month rotating presidency today, repeated in Bratislava yesterday that there could be no cherry-picking of obligations. "We cannot have 28 bilateral agreements with Brussels institutions. That would be the end of the European Union. The balance between rights and responsibility must be there for us all," he said.

Britain’s EU partners want the incoming prime minister to move swiftly to invoke article 50 of the EU treaty, which starts two years of formal exit talks.

Mr Gove said yesterday, however, that while he wants to have “a strong and positive relationship with European leaders” he was in no hurry to start formal negotiations.

“If I’m the British prime minister I won’t be dictated to on the timetable or the manner of the negotiations.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times