David Cameron has accused Boris Johnson and Michael Gove of behaving “appallingly” during the 2016 EU referendum campaign and of leaving “the truth at home” as they made the case for Brexit.
In an interview with the Times newspaper ahead of the launch of his memoirs next week, the former Conservative prime minister accused both men of “trashing the government of which they were a part” in a way that was “ridiculous”.
Mr Cameron implied in the interview that Mr Johnson had decided to back the Leave side in 2016, a decision that Mr Johnson said at the time was finely balanced, purely to boost his own career prospects.
“Boris had never argued for leaving the EU, right?” Mr Cameron told his interviewer.
He also suggested that Mr Gove’s performance in the campaign was hard to understand, given his previous political beliefs.
“Michael was a very strong Eurosceptic; but someone whom I’d known as this liberal, compassionate, rational Conservative ended up making arguments about Turkey [joining the EU] and being swamped and what have you.”
In his memoirs, Mr Cameron describes Mr Gove as “mendacious”. In the interview, he criticised Priti Patel, now home secretary, for blue-on-blue attacks on fellow Tories in 2016, suggesting that “wealthy people didn’t understand the problems of immigration”.
Mr Cameron said: “I suppose some people would say all is fair in love and war and political campaigns. I thought there were places Conservatives wouldn’t go against each other. And they did.”
His main concern, however, was over the false claims that Mr Johnson and Mr Gove made over the consequences of Brexit.
“Over the issue of whether or not we had a veto over Turkey [joining the EU] and over the issue of the £350 million on the bus, I think they left the truth at home,” he said.
Mr Cameron’s interview is the first time he has spoken extensively about the referendum campaign which plunged Britain into the current Brexit crisis and wrecked his six-year premiership.
He conceded that the outcome of the referendum had left him “hugely depressed” and that he knows “some people will never forgive me”.
He argued that a second referendum might now be necessary to resolve the Brexit impasse, saying: “I don’t think you can rule it out because we’re stuck.”
Mr Cameron was also severely critical of Mr Johnson’s recent decision to prorogue parliament and expel rebel MPs from the Tory party.
“Taking the whip from hard-working Conservative MPs and sharp practices using prorogation of parliament have rebounded. I didn’t support either of those things. Neither do I think a no-deal Brexit is a good idea.”
Asked whether he trusts Mr Johnson, Mr Cameron side-stepped the question. “I want him to succeed,” he said. “Look, he’s got a very clear strategy and plan. It’s, you know, not the approach that I would have taken, but I want him to succeed.”
Mr Cameron accepted that his relationship with Mr Gove, with whom he had been a very close personal friend over decades, had largely broken down.
“We’ve spoken. Not a huge amount. I’ve sort of had a conversation with him. I’ve spoken to the prime minister a little bit, mainly through texts, but Michael was a very good friend. So that has been more difficult.”