Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Dominic Raab Foreign Secretary


SOPHY RIDGE: It’s fair to say the government’s honeymoon period is well and truly over. Boris Johnson says he will not ask for another delay to Brexit even though MPs have voted this week to compel him to do so if he can’t get a deal and an escape plan calling an election was scuppered by opposition parties. So what happens now? Well to try to find out we’re joined now in the studio by the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, thank you very much for being with us this morning.

DOMINIC RAAB: Good morning.

SR: Quite a week. You tried to call an election and failed, you lost four out of four votes in the House of Commons, you have seen your majority reduced from one to minus 45, you have seen Amber Rudd leave, you’ve seen Boris Johnson’s brother leave. I mean how would you sum up how this week has gone for you?

DOMINIC RAAB: Well it has obviously been a rough week but the reality is that the Prime Minister is sticking to his guns in what he said to get us out of this rut that we’re in. We’re going to keep going on with the negotiations, we know we want a deal by the end of October but we must leave come what may. I think the country otherwise will be drawn quicker into the quicksand if you like, that’s what Labour’s surrender bill that Jeremy Corbyn backed this week would mean. We’ve got to get to get out of that rut and one of the reasons we want to get out of that is to talk about all the positive things. We also had a spending review this week – you didn’t mention that – where we talked about extra police on the street, levelling up school funding, grappling with the social care challenge, all the things I think most people whether they voted Leave or Remain now want us to get focused on and not keep talking about Brexit, get that done, keep our promises and talk about those other things too. That’s what the Prime Minister is doing.

SR: The challenge is now to get Brexit done of course because things have got certainly more complicated shall we say where that’s concerned. I want to address first the resignation of Amber Rudd …

DOMINIC RAAB: Yes, of course.

SR: … that happened overnight. She had some pretty stinging criticism, didn’t she, of the party and didn’t just resign from the Cabinet, she also resigned from the Conservative whip. What does it say about the state of the Conservative party when people like Amber Rudd just can’t stomach it any longer?

DOMINIC RAAB: I’m really sorry to see Amber step down. I like her, respect her, we became MPs at the same time in 2010 but I think in fairness when she took the Cabinet role everyone was asked do you accept, can you sign up to, will you support the Prime Minister’s plan to leave by the of October, preferably with a deal but if not, come what may and we all accepted that and I think the Prime Minister was right to restore some discipline and I think he’s right to expect it from this top team.

SR: You say he’s right to restore some discipline but is this now becoming a party for Brexit purists? Is it effectively now the Brexit Party?

DOMINIC RAAB: No, I guess I’d say in relation to first of all what we’ve seen this week on the one nation vision – more police on the street, grappling with school funding, making sure the NHS [inaudible] to the frontline – we want to actually start talking about all the things, the bread and butter issues if you like the voters really care about. There is nothing that’s changed since, in fairness and with respect, since Amber took the Cabinet role. She was asked …

SR: Well she thinks that the thing that’s changed is she doesn’t believe the objective is there to get a deal.

DOMINIC RAAB: Well I can tell you, having been in all of the subcommittee meetings and having been out to talk to EU Foreign Ministers last week and if you look at the change which is a question people are rightly asking – what’s changed in negotiations? Actually the EU have gone from saying we can’t touch a withdrawal agreement or reopen it to saying they are willing in principle to do so. That was a victory for the Prime Minister at the G7 and we have been following up on that. So actually there has been progress but the one thing holding us back is the sense in Brussels that perhaps Parliament through this surrender bill Jeremy Corbyn has led, would actually perhaps delay again or even cancel Brexit. We can’t have that, it fundamentally weakens our negotiating position which is why with respect I think the rebels this week were wrong.

SR: Well let’s talk about the rebels shall we because this is another reason why Amber Rudd said she just could not stand by. We can have a quick look at something she wrote in her resignation letter: “I must also address the assault on decency and democracy that took place last week when you sacked 21 talented, loyal, one nation Conservatives” and she goes on to say after that, “This short-sighted culling of my colleagues has stripped the party of broadminded and dedicated Conservative MPs, I cannot support this act of political vandalism.” She says she can’t stand by, can you stand by?

DOMINIC RAAB: Of course. The reality is – and I regret anyone that’s had the whip withdrawn, no one wants to see that but let’s be clear about it. This was because they voted for motions and legislation that gave Jeremy Corbyn control – this is an important point to understand – control over business in the House of Commons and control of the negotiations. They were told in advance it would be a confidence issue so I regret it but it was their choice and they would have known what the implications would be, first and foremost to the country. That’s the real vandalism to democracy that’s going on and second of all, in terms of the whip being withdrawn. So I regret it and we need to keep the family together but the Prime Minister was very clear and one of the reasons we voted, that we’ve seen an increase in support for the Conservatives, is I think it has given a clear sense of direction and now we’re going to stick to the plan.

SR: At the same time though, you kicked out former chancellors, people like Ken Clarke who became an MP when Boris Johnson was five years old, people like Philip Hammond who until six weeks ago before he was kicked out was the Chancellor, people like David Gauke which was the first time he had ever broken a whip – how many times have you broke the Conservative whip?

DOMINIC RAAB: But not on an issue of confidence.

SR: There was certainly no confidence from David Gauke.

DOMINIC RAAB: But I have never voted …

SR: You have voted on some big issues …

DOMINIC RAAB: Sophy, let me answer the question. I have never voted to give Jeremy Corbyn control of the legislative agenda in the House of Commons or control over the Brexit negotiations. These are all decent people, I like them, I respect them but it was right that the discipline was restored because they knew what they were doing and I think the one thing we’ve got to … you referred to status, I don't think your status in the party is the key issue. The question is whether you keep to your promises and you understand – and our promises, we all know that the 2017 election manifesto – you understand when you go into a vote like that where it is very clear how serious this was, giving Jeremy Corbyn that control over the House of Commons, over the Brexit negotiations, they voted as they did knowingly and I think Boris Johnson was right – and I say this with regret and in sorrow, not in anger – to follow through on that.

SR: Do you think they should be offered a way back?

DOMINIC RAAB: I think we always want to keep building bridges and to make sure that there are ways to keep the family together but I think it’s very difficult having not just once but on a number of occasions now, voted on those confidence issues with the implications that they’ve had, making it so much harder for us to get the deal with the EU that everyone in the Conservative party wants. I think they have made that very difficult but that was a choice that they made knowingly and aware of all the consequences and implications.

SR: Is Dominic Cummings a member of the Conservative party?

DOMINIC RAAB: I don't know, you’d have to ask him. I don't know, I’ve never had the conversation with him.

SR: He doesn’t do interviews.

DOMINIC RAAB: No? Well you know, advisors advise ministers but actually the key thing with all of this is that the people – and this is I think a big change – that we’ve got Ministerial accountability. We didn’t have that in fairness in my experience of Brexit with Olly Robbins, with the greatest respect to the civil servants, and I think we do have that now so I think it’s right that elected politicians take responsibility like I’m doing on this show with you.

SR: Do you think that it’s a bit strange that you don’t know if he is a member or not?

DOMINIC RAAB: No, there are loads of people that I don’t ask those sorts of questions of.

SR: Not loads of people are advising the Prime Minister though perhaps. #

DOMINIC RAAB: Well I can say that I have never had that conversation with anyone who advise the Prime Minister. Actually there is a story about John Mann who is a Labour MP that is helping with some of this stuff on the position of issues, an appointment under Theresa May, in relation to anti-Semitism and he is obviously not a Conservative. We are a broad church, actually the Conservative party is at its best when we are a big tent, broad church and we do need to keep the family together and I want to see that happen but I do also think that on some of these key issues people need to understand – and the voters get it – that we’ve got to keep to the plan and stick to the plan. We can’t delegate any of this stuff to Jeremy Corbyn, it’s too dangerous.

SR: Let’s talk about the plan then because I’m really keen to try and work out what the plan actually is and just to … we discussed Amber Rudd’s resignation a little bit earlier and I just want to look at what she said in her resignation letter when it comes to the deal because she said one of the main reasons for quitting is: “I no longer believe that leaving with a deal is the government’s main objective. The government is expending a lot of energy to prepare for no deal but I have not seen the same level of intensity go into our talks with the European Union who have asked us to present alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop.” I mean lots of people will read that and they will be worried.

DOMINIC RAAB: Well first of all it’s not correct and firstly because we have had intense negotiations. David Frost, the political appointment, the special advisor to the Prime Minister, Steve Barclay’s been out, I’ve been out to Helsinki to speak to EU Foreign Ministers, I’ve seen a whole range of them to talk about Brexit but also all of the other issues we’re working on but also one point about the no deal planning, of course that is crucial to getting a deal because it sends the message to Brussels that we want a deal, we’ve set that out but also that we’re going to leave at the end of October if they continue to play hard ball. So those two things are actually linked and the big frustration I’ve got this week is MPs who have tried to take no deal off the table, explaining that they want an extension. That sends the wrong message at the wrong time.

SR: But the main thing stopping a deal though is the fact that you want to get rid of the backstop but the EU says you have to come up with alternative proposals. Have you actually come up with some different plans?

DOMINIC RAAB: It’s very clear there are a whole range of possibilities. We’ve got the Prime Minister’s letter which sets out the framework for it and David Frost and Steve Barclay have been working …

SR: Have you actually put forward anything?

DOMINIC RAAB: So we are engaged in discussions. What we are slightly reticent about doing given past experience is putting pieces of paper which will get leaked and rubbished by the other side but the proposals will be around things like intelligence led checks away from the border, exemptions for small businesses, trusted trader routes, making sure that we can look at maintaining the island of Ireland and not having infrastructure at the border. Those conversations have been ongoing and actually there’s a really credible way to sort this problem out but it does require political will from Dublin and from the rest of the EU. We will continue these negotiations, the Prime Minister is seeing the Irish Taoiseach early next week, we are committed absolutely to getting a deal but one of the things that’s crucial is that no deal isn’t taken off the table. First of all it’s the responsible thing to plan for and secondly it gives the EU that crucial message that we are serious about leaving and they need to move too.

SR: So let’s try and work out what happens if you can’t get a deal.


SR: If we take you at your word a deal is still your main objective but what happens if it doesn’t happen by the deadline? Do you accept that the legislation passed by Parliament, the law passed by Parliament, compels Boris Johnson to ask for an extension rather than seeking no deal if we can’t get a deal?

DOMINIC RAAB: Well first of all the key thing with an extension is it requires agreement on both sides and it is very difficult for the legislation to micro-manage in detail how that conversation will go. We will adhere to the law but we will also, because this is such a bad piece of legislation, the surrender bill that Jeremy Corbyn backed – we will also want to test to the limit what it does actually lawfully require.

SR: What does that mean then?

DOMINIC RAAB: Well we’ll look very carefully at the implications and our interpretation of it to make sure …

SR: [inaudible] do you mean?

DOMINIC RAAB: No, I mean across the board we will look very carefully legally at what it requires and what it doesn’t require. I think that’s not only the lawful thing to do, it’s also the responsible thing to do and again I’ll repeat, that legislation is lousy. It envisages multiple delays, it would effectively try and force us to accept conditions however vindictive, punitive or harsh they may be and if we ended up extending – and the Prime Minister made clear he will not do it – it would cost the UK tax payers, gross figures, a billion pounds each month. That is a lousy piece of legislation.

SR: So the Prime Minister will not extend in any circumstances, is that what you’re saying?

DOMINIC RAAB: He’s been very clear about it this week.

SR: So he will either ignore the legislation put forward or he’d resign?

DOMINIC RAAB: We are always going to behave lawfully as a government, of course you’d expect that and anyway it will be challenged in the court but we are going to deal with that legislation and test it very carefully, what it does and doesn’t require and that is not only the lawful thing to do but I think it’s the responsible thing to do. The irresponsible thing to do was to support that legislation which weakens our negotiating position in Brussels.

SR: Are you prepared to take it to the courts to test it if that’s what it takes?

DOMINIC RAAB: We can’t necessarily control that, people at various points challenge the government over Brexit. We have had two legal challenges last week alone but we won both of those but we need to look at it very carefully…

SR: Just a minute, so you are effectively saying that you are prepared to ignore this law that’s been passed and then be challenged on it in the courts if that’s what it takes?

DOMINIC RAAB: As you know, Sophy, that’s not what I said, what I said is we are going to look at it very carefully, test what it legally requires and what it doesn’t require and that’s the responsible thing to do because it’s such a bad piece of legislation and I think it was deeply irresponsible for Jeremy Corbyn to put his weight behind it. He is trying to drag this country into the quicksand, deeper and deeper, whereas what Boris Johnson is trying to do is get us out of the Brexit rut and get the country moving forward.

SR: Some people will look at this and think this is an example of Boris Johnson effectively thinking that the rules apply to everyone else and he doesn’t have to play …

DOMINIC RAAB: No, I don't think that is true at all. What you are seeing is a Prime Minister that has made a series of very clear promises to get out of the EU, preferably with a deal, to talk about all the other issues like policing, schools, social care, and sticking to his word. I think if anything people are a bit surprised that he’s sticking to his guns and keeping his word. It’s what the voters expect.

SR: Some are saying he would even go to prison if he can’t [avoid] this legislation.

DOMINIC RAAB: This is ridiculous, of course he’s not going to break the law and I think it is all politically motivated comments but the reality is that we see from some of the polling that we see now just today with the Sunday Times and elsewhere, actually the voters recognise we have got a Prime Minister who is trying to get us out of the rut and we’ve got Jeremy Corbyn who has got the handbrake on Brexit and is not allowing the country to move forward.

SR: But even if it goes down well with the public, you have got to get to the election first and you’ve been blocked from doing that.

DOMINIC RAAB: What a terrible look that is for Jeremy Corbyn, never in history have I ever known a leader of an opposition refuse to go to the polls to let the voters decide. It shows he doesn’t trust the voters and it doesn’t say a lot about his confidence in his own ability to win that election and I’m afraid that every Labour MP again on Monday when we are going to have another vote on this, is going to have to day by day explain that to their voters, why they are not allowing the country to move forward and they are not allowing us to resolve this with an election.

SR: If it doesn’t happen on Monday are you going to try again?

DOMINIC RAAB: We are going to keep to the plan which is to get a deal by the end of October and if not, to leave on WTO terms. If we can’t get that deal then of course we are going to, as a matter of necessity and not because we want it, go to the country to get their backing and a mandate for it.

SR: Just have a quick look at something Boris Johnson said during the leadership campaign. This was in July 2019, “I think the people in this country are utterly fed up with politicians coming back to them with more elections, it’s totally wrong.” Do you ever wonder why on earth people have such little trust in politicians when they say one thing and then a couple of months later they are doing exactly the opposite?

DOMINIC RAAB: Look, the reality is that we don’t want an election but it is being forced on us and it is being forced on us because we don’t have control over the numbers in Parliament. When that happens …

SR: It’s not being forced on you, you’re trying to make it happen.

DOMINIC RAAB: No, it’s being forced on us because we have so limited options because of this surrender bill that Jeremy Corbyn supported and led the charge on in the House of Commons. What else can we do in that scenario? It’s not something we want but it’s a necessity if we can’t continue with the plan and actually the thing that undermines people’s trust in politicians is when they don’t keep their promises. What Boris Johnson wants to do is keep his promises, to get Brexit delivered and also then to move on and talk about all the other things that we want to do with broadband, levelling up schools funding, dealing with gripping social issues like social care. So I think he’s sticking to his guns and that’s the right thing to do and I think the voters appreciate that.

SR: Talking about sticking to your guns, I remember into the election campaign you said the Conservative party would be toast if you don’t leave by the end of October. If we don’t leave by the end of October will you resign on that basis?

DOMINIC RAAB: I don't think I ever said I was going to resign, Sophy. What I’m going to do is redouble our efforts to get a deal but in any event to leave by the end of October, I think that’s the right thing to do. Of course if we can’t do that, it is very clear that the blockage is Jeremy Corbyn, the Liberal Democrat’s and others who are not willing to respect the referendum and in the Liberal Democrat’s case, if there was a second referendum and people voted to leave they wouldn’t respect that either. I think people will say this comes down to politicians keeping their promises and it’s about trust and I will do everything I can to make sure I keep my promises and that the government of the day under Boris Johnson delivers.

SR: Could you still be part of a government that extends?

DOMINIC RAAB: The Prime Minister has been quite clear on this, we are not extending and I think it is very dangerous. The reality is, what are the problems that we’ve got, what are the challenges that we’ve got that would get easier if we extended again? We’d just have more dither, more delay, which is why the PM is absolutely right to say he won’t countenance it.

SR: And just finally, my colleague Sam Coates discovered this week that the Prime Minister called David Cameron a girly swot and he was overhead, Boris Johnson in Prime Minister’s Questions, also calling Jeremy Corbyn a big girl’s blouse. Is the word girl an insult?

DOMINIC RAAB: Certainly not. I don't know any of those comments, I didn’t pick them up but I think the point he is making about Jeremy Corbyn is that he has been calling for an election for months if not years and now he doesn’t want to see it through so I think most people will see that for what it is.

SR: So girly swot is a compliment then?

DOMINIC RAAB: You can call me a girly swot any time!

SR: Thank you very much, Dominic Raab.