Michael Gove has joked he and Philip Hammond are “highly aligned” on Brexit and said Theresa May must embrace an “exciting domestic agenda”, amid turmoil within the Conservative Party over the prime minister’s leadership and her strategy for leaving the European Union.
The environment secretary, who led the ‘Leave’ campaign at the referendum, stood in for the chancellor to give a speech at a drinks reception for Tory activists in Westminster on Monday evening.
“Sadly events outside his control have meant he [Hammond] can’t be here this evening and I have come instead,” Gove said. “Now for some of you I have to apologise for his absence and for my presence.
“For those of you wondering what the difference is between myself and the chancellor, let me assure you that in every area we remain highly aligned.”
He added to laughter: “And while he reserves the right to diverge from my position, he hasn’t yet found it necessary to contemplate moving a scintilla away from where I stand.”
Hammond, who campaigned for ‘Remain’, infuriated many Brexit-supporting Tory MPs last week when he said he wanted to see only a “modest” change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the powerful eurosceptic European Reform Group of Tory MPs, over the weekend suggested the prime minister should fire her chancellor.
Speaking to members of the Tory Reform Group (TRG), which counts the pro-EU former cabinet minister Ken Clarke as its president, Gove said the party needed to have “a relentless focus on the future”.
“Every member of the parliamentary party recognises how important the next four years will be, not just for our party, but for our country,” he said.
“People sometimes wonder if it is the case that the huge, epochal, choice the British people made to leave the EU means there isn’t room or space for all the other changes we know we need to bring about in order to ensure our country is in the right condition for the next generation to enjoy all the opportunities that change can bring.
“It’s not just case we can combine leaving the EU and taking back control of vital laws and vital rules and always having exciting domestic agenda.
“It’s not just the case that the two are necessary together. It is absolutely vital if we are going to make success of life outside the EU, to lean in, to embrace change, to make ourselves the party of reform.”
Gove also pointedly rebuked May’s former chief of staff for dismissing the importance of the environment.
This morning Nick Timothy said the government’s focus on green issues was causing “strategic confusion” at the top of government.
However Gove said to be in favour of protecting the environment was “truly Tory”.
“The centre-right in politics is not just about economic growth, it’s all about recongising those things which we don’t value economically but we do value as a community, as a nation, as a set of actors who are thinking about the next generation,” he said.
“Enhancing our environment, handing on this planet and our country in a better condition to the next generation, can’t be isolated from the other things we are seeking to do as a party and as a government.
“When we think about the priorities the government have singled out as our policy priorities; school standards, housing, the enforcement, the industrial strategy, all of these are designed to ensure the next generation enjoys prospects and opportunities and a better world than we ourselves inherited.”
The Tory infighting spilled into the Commons chamber on Monday, with pro-Remain backbencher Anna Soubry demanding ministers “stand up against the hard Brexiteers” in the party.
One MP told HuffPost UK May was so weak the party was in “Lord of the Flies territory” with a total breakdown of discipline.
Johnny Mercer, a rising star on the backbenches, warned the prime minister on Monday morning that the “window is closing” on her ability to turn around her fortunes.