Rishi Sunak was unaware that Michael Gove was attending a private meeting of former heads of leave and stay to discuss Brexit, Downing Street said.
The prime minister’s spokesman said Sunak had learned of the cabinet minister’s participation in the talks when he read about it in the Sunday papers.
It comes after Lord Frost, the UK’s former chief Brexit negotiator, said the meeting, at the Ditchley Park retreat in Oxfordshire, amounted to a plot to undermine the Brexit deal he had reached.
Lord Frost said the “secret” meeting was “further evidence that many in our political and business establishment want to unveil the deals we made to leave the EU in 2020 and instead continue to follow the EU “.
The former negotiator had told al Daily mail newspaper: “That’s why so many of those responsible for Theresa May’s failed backing deal were there, while myself and those who actually delivered the Brexit deals weren’t.”
It was originally reported by The observer that Leveling Up secretary Michael Gove – who co-led the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 – was present at the discussions, along with senior members of Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet.
Lord Frost continued: “Brexit does not need ‘fixing’. It needs this Conservative government, elected with a huge mandate on a Brexit agenda, to fully and enthusiastically embrace its benefits instead of giving way to those who never wanted it.
“I and millions of others want government to move forward instead of raising taxes, discouraging investment and pushing government spending to its highest level in 70 years.”
The significance of the event has been downplayed by sources familiar with the meeting.
It is understood that Mr Gove attended the meeting because he is a governor at Ditchley Park. He no longer has any involvement in shaping Brexit policy in his role as Leveling Secretary.
A Labor source said: “This was a standard Ditchley Park conference. Their events are always cross-party.“
Another source familiar with the event said it was actually a “pretty boring conference” on foreign affairs.
The prime minister earlier appeared to have deflected questions about the meeting, telling broadcasters during a visit to Oldham on Monday that he wanted to “drive growth in our economy by seizing the opportunities of Brexit, to do things differently”.
He added: “It’s not about the meeting, I’m talking about what the government is doing, and that’s making sure we capitalize on the benefits of Brexit.”
Lord Frost’s comments come after the UK and the EU reaffirmed their commitment to find “joint solutions” to differences over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol.
The protocol was agreed between the two sides in 2019 as a way to break the deadlock on securing a Brexit withdrawal deal.
There is growing speculation that a deal is finally in sight to cut red tape on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland.