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SOPHY RIDGE: Now there is only a couple of days until MPs vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal and the Prime Minister will be desperately hoping for some new concessions from Brussels. Well one many who has been closer to the negotiations than most is the former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, who joins us now live. Thank you very much for being with us.
DOMINIC RAAB: Good morning.
SR: We have just heard from Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, who said there is still a chance that the deal could get through on Tuesday, what’s your assessment?
DOMINIC RAAB: Well look, I think Matt’s doing a great job there as Health Secretary and on the no deal planning as he described but I think we need to remember the original deal was voted down with the biggest parliamentary defeat in history, 230 votes. Parliament and MPs then supported the Prime Minister to go back and make legally binding changes to the backstop and support the Malthouse compromise and what we’ve seen from the EU is pretty much total intransigence. There was a tweet by Michel Barnier last night going back to the very provocative offer to split up the approach to Northern Ireland which was to threaten the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK so I think in the absence of any change it’s difficult to see why the result on the vote would be different.
SR: So you agree with Sir Keir Starmer then, that this deal is effectively exactly the same as what was put to MPs before.
DOMINIC RAAB: Well I want to see whether there is anything new presented by the Attorney General and the government in their ongoing discussions and you know, if there is a last minute breakthrough, terrific but I don’t see that the deal that failed by 230 votes somehow whistles through without any meaningful change to it.
SR: Is it inevitable then that it’s going to lose?
DOMINIC RAAB: I don't think it’s inevitable because the EU could at the eleventh hour say, do you know what, there’s a reasonable ask here that Parliament has insisted on, the change to the backstop. We can then get some closure, get this deal done and move on but the EU needs to move, this is a negotiation and I think it’s interesting that Michel Barnier was going back to an old rejected set of offers rather than saying okay, well let’s try and meet you halfway which is what normally should happen in a negotiation.
SR: So if the deal doesn’t go through, then you are expecting to have the series of votes on whether to leave on 29th March with no deal or whether to have an extension. I know on the show before you have said no deal is not your preferred outcome so how would you vote in these potential votes?
DOMINIC RAAB: Oh it’s certainly not my preferred outcome but I think we will be able to manage the risks of it and that would free us to grasp the opportunities.
SR: So you prefer it to an extension?
DOMINIC RAAB: Oh I think an extension … Put it this way, none of the challenges or the problems that we’ve got now get any better if we extend and what it will do is embolden those who frankly want to derail and frustrate Brexit, so I think we should keep our promises frankly on this. We’ve legislated so that the default position is that we leave on 29th March preferably with a deal, if not on WTO terms, but if that doesn’t happen I think we should keep the promise that every Conservative made in the manifesto, that no deal was better than a bad deal.
SR: Some of your colleagues in the Conservative party have, shall we say, rather more colourful ways of expressing their opposition to an extension. Have a look at what Steve Baker and Nigel Dodds wrote in the Sunday Telegraph today: “The harm done …” and this is if there was an extension, “The harm done to public trust in politics and to democracy itself will be incalculable. For some, democracy would be effectively dead.” Is that right?
DOMINIC RAAB: I think they are absolutely right to talk about the public frustration and a day of reckoning that all politicians will have with the voters if we don’t keep our promises on Brexit. It was very clear, we would try and get our ideal, I have always supported that, I supported in the last series of votes changes to the deal that would make them acceptable to the UK and therefore to Parliament in the absence of which we’d need to leave on WTO terms and I believe that we’d actually be in a stronger position after an interim period to then continue the negotiations on the longer term relationship with the EU.
SR: So should it be whipped then, the no deal vote? Would you like to see Theresa May whip it?
DOMINIC RAAB: Oh we’ve absolutely got to whip the vote to keep our manifesto pledges. How can a government function that doesn’t keep its promises?
SR: What, even though she will lose, you would think, a few members of her Cabinet? I mean it could really split the Conservative party.
DOMINIC RAAB: Look, the divisions in the Conservative party and indeed in the Labour, and indeed in the country, are well known but what people want to see now – and the public overwhelmingly, there is polling showing this sense is growing – is to get Brexit done. I put my hand up when I was Brexit Secretary at the time when we needed compromise, it hasn’t been matched by the EU and I think the public now in business and ordinary voters just want the finality of getting this done on the 29th March.
SR: I accept your point that people want it to be done, they want it to be over, something that we hear a lot on Sophy Ridge on Sunday when we go to different parts of the country as well but at the same time, if you are talking about a small extension to get a deal, isn’t that something that most people would say okay, we understand, we’re going to leave anyway, we’ll accept that?
DOMINIC RAAB: But is there any sign from the EU that they would say okay, we need a few extra weeks because we need to work on this question of the exit mechanism? If Michel Barnier had come back with something positive, the mood might be different but he hasn’t, he’s come back with a very provocative set of proposals which would effectively put a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. That would be very damaging for Northern Ireland but it would have other precedents for the rest of the UK. That’s clearly unacceptable so it feels to me that we have reached close to the end of the road but let’s see, more proposals could come from the EU in the next few days, but we’ve reached the point at which the EU is just insisting on this very bad deal because it wants to exercise control over us and not really allow us to leave the EU and take the opportunities of leaving the EU.
SR: Well let’s be crystal clear, what would Theresa May have to get back from Brussels for you to support the deal? A realistic proposition?
DOMINIC RAAB: Well I think the assurances that were given when we backed the series of votes that said to the Prime Minister, if you go back to the EU and get legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement which in particular deal with this question of the exit mechanism so that we’ve not caught in a regime of laws that we can’t control and we can’t get out of. If we got something around that then I think …
SR: But Michel Barnier also did tweet about some more assurances being given and that the EU doesn’t want it to be something that is indefinite.
DOMINIC RAAB: Yes, but look, some of those warm words are fine and welcome but what we need are legally binding changes, that’s what Parliament backed the Prime Minister to go and negotiate and that’s what in fairness the Attorney General has been really striving and working really hard to try and deliver so there’s still time but it’s for the EU to decide now. The EU needs to work out whether they’ve got the pragmatism, the flexibility …
SR: But we chose to leave didn’t we?
DOMINIC RAAB: I know, sure, and that’s why we’ve got all the compromise inherent in this deal but what we can’t do is be locked into that whole range of rules from customs rules to economic rules to tax policy to social regulation and have no control of it. That wouldn’t be faithful to the referendum.
SR: Now I’m interested in your thoughts a bit about the future of the Conservative party. You have written about social mobility and some of your own experiences with your father, I just wondered if you think the Conservative party have a bit of an image problem right now. When it comes to social mobility, when it comes to knife crime for example, when it comes to the divisions over Brexit, are you worried that you might lose the next election as a result.
DOMINIC RAAB: So I think when you have been in office for eight years, a bit longer now, it is really important to make sure that you have still got some vision and some optimism for the future. I think the Conservatives actually are doing rather well in the polls and I think we’ve got a great record on the economy to talk about but we need to do more to show that we stand up for a vision of a fair society which would be a compelling alternative to frankly the sort of Marxist allure that Jeremy Corbyn’s offering so one of the things that I was talking about today is on top of the enterprise economy, what can we do to make sure that kids get – whatever their background – get the opportunity to reach their full potential in life.
SR: Are you actually, is the Conservative party setting that vision out now?
DOMINIC RAAB: Well if you look at for example, I mean I read to my boys every morning, we do phonics together and if you look at the phonics revolution that Michael Gove introduced, that’s had a big impact. I think if you look at the number of kids in schools that are good or outstanding, we’ve done a great job but we need to go further. Particularly one of the things that I’ve been talking about is the vocational route, apprenticeships, young apprenticeships for 14 to 16 year olds. We were talking about knife crime and some of the social challenges we’ve got, actually some of that is related to truancy, truancy rates spike at 14 to 16 so young apprenticeships would be a great way of captivating the interest and the curiosity and the ambition of those kids right the way through to degree apprenticeships which is a great opportunity, to give youngsters the opportunity to effectively get a degree with all the opportunity that brings but none of the debt that traditional universities engender. So I think that vision is something we need to be setting out for the future.
SR: A vision that could be set out by a future Prime Minister. Jess Philips, the Labour MP, we mentioned her interview earlier, a very open interview in which she said actually I think I’d make quite a good Prime Minister. Do you think you’d make a good Prime Minister?
DOMINIC RAAB: You try this every time I’m on this show and I always appreciate you touting my credentials but I’m not getting drawn into any of the leadership stuff.
SR: Your name is being drawn in and here you are, writing articles, talking about your family, your back story, your vision for the future, you can see why pesky journalists like me would speculate.
DOMINIC RAAB: You’re never pesky, Sophy but look, I’ve been talking about the meritocratic society, how we revive social mobility, since 2010 when I was first elected but I do think right now that we need to be having an optimist vision for the future on the economy, a fairer deal for consumers and workers, I’ve been talking about that as well but also what we do for those youngers who may be bright but not necessarily very bookish, how do we give them the opportunity to fulfil their full potential and actually the apprenticeship and the vocational route is a really powerful route for them but we’ve got to do more.
SR: Will Theresa May still be Prime Minister by Christmas?
DOMINIC RAAB: I don't know. She said she’s going to step down, I would like to see her be able to do that in a way which is on terms of her own choosing but I think the government has found itself in a precarious situation and particularly I think if the government extends Article 50 or tries to reverse effectively the Brexit promises that we’ve made, I think that situation will get even trickier.
SR: Okay, thank you very much, Dominic Raab.
DOMINIC RAAB: Nice to talk to you.