Michael Gove has conceded that the official Brexit campaign was wrong to fuel fears over an influx of Turkish immigrants to the UK during the EU referendum.
The influential Brexiteer faced accusations of employing a Ukip-style rhetoric when he warned that Turkey and several other countries could join the EU by 2020, which he claimed would lead to millions of people moving to Britain under freedom of movement rules.
Vote Leave also released a controversial video of David Cameron, the then prime minister, advocating Turkish membership of the EU, interspersed with scenes of fighting in the country’s parliament.
Mr Gove, a key player at Vote Leave, has now tried to distance himself from the divisive rhetoric, saying the campaign would have had “a slightly different feel” if he had been in totally in control, according to a new book by Tom Baldwin, Ed Miliband’s former communications director.
Asked if he had been comfortable appealing to “some very low sentiments” on immigration, the environment secretary said: “I know what you mean, yes.
“If it had been left entirely to me, the Leave campaign would have a slightly different feel.
“I would have to go back and look at everything I said and think whether that was the right response at the right time.
“There is a sense at the back of my mind that we didn’t get everything absolutely right. It’s a difficult one,” wrote Mr Baldwin, in Ctrl Alt Delete: How Politics and the Media Crashed Our Democracy.
In widely criticised claims, Vote Leave said the British population could soar by more than 5 million people by 2030, based on the assumption the Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia would join the bloc by 2020, allowing their citizens the right to live in the UK.
Mr Gove said it was unsustainable to ask the NHS to meet the needs of a new group of patients “equivalent in size to four Birminghams”, in a speech during the final weeks of the Brexit campaign.
In another address in June 2016, he warned that visa-free travel for Turkish migrants could pose a security risk to the UK.
“With the terrorism threat that we face only growing, it is hard to see how it could possibly be in our security interests to open visa-free travel to 77 million Turkish citizens and to create a border-free zone from Iraq, Iran and Syria to the English Channel,” Mr Gove said.
“It is even harder to see how such a course is wise when extremists everywhere will believe that the West is opening its borders to appease an Islamist government.”
Mr Cameron tried to counter the comments by claiming that the country’s accession to the EU was “not remotely on the cards”, urging voters not to let the concerns affect their decision at the polls.
Turkey has been in talks to join the EU for more than 13 years but negotiations have stalled, with clear opposition from both Germany and France to the proposals.
Joining the bloc remains a “strategic goal” for Turkey, president Recep Erdogan announced earlier year.