Tom Goodenough

The danger of Michael Gove’s vague optimism

The danger of Michael Gove's vague optimism
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After yesterday’s furore over Treasury warnings about exactly what Brexit will cost British families, today it’s Michael Gove’s turn to hit back. The Justice Secretary is set to accuse the Government of ‘treating voters like children who can be frightened into obedience’. It’s extraordinary just how quickly the war of words seems to be intensifying, given that there are still more than nine weeks to go until the actual referendum. But is there a danger that all this noise is just going to switch off voters to the actual arguments being made? Michael Gove did his best this morning to make a clear-cut case for ditching the EU after being given three minutes on the Today programme to argue for Brexit. He accused those campaigning for Britain to stay in of making a ‘deeply pessimistic’ and ‘negative’ argument. Countering it, he said:

‘I want us to vote to leave the EU before it’s too late because that’s the safer choice for Britain. If we vote to stay, we’re not settling for a secure status quo, we’re voting to be hostages, locked in the back of the car, driven headlong towards deeper EU integration.’

It was obvious that Gove was doing his best to learn from the mistakes of the other side and avoid Osborne’s exact focus on what Brexit would cost during his interview with Nick Robinson. By steering clear of specific figures, he made it trickier for his claims to be called into question. And it also seems right that most voters won’t believe that such calculations can be exact given the number of variables involved. There’s a risk, though, that Gove and other Eurosceptics are also taking a leaf out of the Remain camp’s book by engaging in their own version of Project Fear. Gove’s metaphor about being locked in the car was softer than some of those made so far. Yet there is a real danger that the image could just as easily come back to bite Gove and others in favour of Brexit. After all, the Prime Minister could counter it by pointing towards the opt out of ‘ever closer union’ secured in Brussels back in February. What seems less obvious as well, to borrow Gove’s metaphor, is where a car reversed away from ‘deeper EU integration’ would end up, and on the basis of this morning’s interview we’re no closer to finding out.

Whilst Gove did brush over the idea that Britain could be a part of a European free trade area and that we would enjoy a relationship of free trade and friendly co-operation’, the lack of exact details seemed troubling. His argument, too, that ‘we would have the capacity to trade freely with all the countries in the European union’ also seemed woolly, and he was at his most vulnerable when quizzed on this point.

Gove may have steered clear of being accused of dishonesty in the same way that Osborne was after the publication of yesterday’s Treasury figures. But the lack of detail also shows the danger of going too far the other way and not providing voters with specific details. It’s certain that there must be a happy medium between the two side’s choice of argument, but neither Vote Leave or Remain seems to have managed to strike it so far.