The first prime minister to grapple with delivering Brexit made visible her scorn on Monday, repeatedly mouthing “What?” in disbelief at her colleague’s response in the House of Commons after she raised the alarm over the security implications of no deal.
At one point, Ms May appeared to deride Mr Gove’s comments – during which he suggested the UK would be safer if it fails to retain access to shared intelligence databases – as “utter rubbish”.
Hours later, Downing Street rejected an olive branch offer from the EU’s chief negotiator to continue talks next week for a free trade agreement, responding that “the UK continues to believe there is no basis to resume talks”.
“The government appears resigned to the prospect of no deal, yet one area which they should not be resigned to the prospect of no deal is in security,” Ms May had told MPs, noting that neither Boris Johnson or Mr Gove had mentioned security in recent statements.
“Will [Mr Gove] confirm that, if the UK walks away with no deal, then our police and law enforcement agencies will no longer have the necessary access to databases, such as PNR [passenger name record], in order to continue to identify and catch criminals and potential terrorists in order to keep us safe?” she added.
Mr Gove said “significant progress” had been made over security co-operation, adding: “But it is the case that the EU are insisting that, before we have access to systems, like the Schengen Information System, we have to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – we cannot accept that."
He then insisted that “there are many, many areas in which we can co-operate more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside, through a variety of methods and arrangements open to us, open to Border Force and open to our security and intelligence services - we can intensify the security that we give to the British people”.
“The third thing I'd say to [Ms May] is that I agree with her: when it comes to everything, security and other matters, no deal is better than a bad deal,” Mr Gove concluded, in a dig at the slogan popularised by Ms May during her tenure as premier.
The episode is merely the former PM’s latest display of discontent with her successor’s approach to Brexit.
Last month, she labelled the government’s internal market bill “reckless and irresponsible” over its contravention of international law. However, critics questioned why she merely abstained rather than actively voting against the bill.
Former diplomat and national security adviser Lord Peter Ricketts branded Mr Gove’s comments “extraordinary”.
The peer, who now chairs the EU Security and Justice parliamentary subcommittee, tweeted: “He knows perfectly well that without a deal the UK will lose access to EU databases and alerting systems.
“These are used intensively by UK police. Alternatives will be MUCH slower. In security cooperation, speed [equals] safety.”
Mr Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, had earlier warned that negotiations for a free trade agreement with the EU were “in effect” over, but welcomed an offer from the bloc to continue talks as a “constructive move”.
Michel Barnier offered to resume talks on “all subjects, and based on legal texts” – one of Mr Johnson’s demands in order for negotiations to resume. But No 10 said there would be “no point”.
The trade talks have hit key stumbling blocks over whether the EU should retain fishing rights in British waters, whether the UK should have to toe limits on how much state aid it can give companies, and if it should be bound by rules to uphold environmental and labour standards.
If no trade deal is agreed and implemented before the end of the year, the UK will leave the single market and customs union and begin to trade on World Trade Organisation terms, subjecting British firms to high tariffs on goods and restrictive quotas.