Author: Dan Sabbagh
Michael Gove has admitted that the official leave campaign should not have stoked fears about Turkish immigration during the 2016 Brexit referendum.
In an interview included in a political book published on Thursday, the environment secretary, who was a key figure in the winning Vote Leave campaign, said that if it had been left entirely to him the leave campaign “would have [had] a slightly different feel”.
During the campaign Gove claimed that Turkey and four other countries could join the EU as soon as 2020, and their accession could lead to 5.2 million extra people moving to the UK by 2030 under free movement.
The Conservative minister was asked by Tom Baldwin, a former communications director for Ed Miliband, in his book Ctrl Alt Delete whether he had been happy making appeals to “some very low sentiments” in the context of concerns over Turkish immigration. The minister replied: “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.”
Warnings about a possible Turkish accession to the EU were a controversial theme of the leave campaign and were frequently made by Gove himself. The leave campaign released a video in May 2016 arguing that “David Cameron cannot be trusted on Turkey”, to back up an argument made in a speech by the minister that if Turkey were to join the EU the impact on the NHS would be “clearly unsustainable”.
In June 2016, only a couple of weeks before the final vote, Gove made a second warning about Turkey, arguing that if the country were ever to join the EU it could create a risk to security. “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,” he said.
Turkey has repeatedly said it wants to join the EU but slow-moving accession talks have ground to a halt after the crackdown led by the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, following the failed military coup in 2016. Even at the time of the UK’s referendum, the possibility of Turkey joining the EU was seen as remote or non-existent.
Elsewhere in the book, Gove says he believes the referendum vote helped to puncture popular concerns about immigration and “burst the Ukip bubble”. He argues that by having the vote, “attitudes to migration are less illiberal in the UK now than in any continental European country. It has been a release of pressure, a humbling of the elites.”
Baldwin worked as communications director for Ed Miliband when he was leader of the opposition after a long period as a political journalist. He has returned to Westminster to act as communications director for the people’s vote campaign, which is campaigning for a second referendum to be held after Theresa May brings back her final deal from Brussels.