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SOPHY RIDGE: Well joining us now is George Eustice, who until Thursday was the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, so thank you very much for coming on the show, it feels like the right week to have you for many reasons. We were just hearing there some of the many concerns from farmers, the people I spoke to were very worried about the lack of clarity but also very worried about no-deal and they are not alone. We can just take a look now at something that the current President of the National Farmers Union said on this show: “This is huge for every single person and it’s not understood what no-deal means, it would be absolutely savage for us.” Are farmers right to be this worried?
GEORGE EUSTICE: No, they’re wrong. It would be difficult, there would be some turbulence but we have done a huge amount of planning for this eventuality so the truth is we have already agreed that we will have tariff rates suspension on goods that we don’t produce, things like citrus, so that we can keep prices stable but we will also put in place tariffs to protect some of those sensitive sectors including beef, including sheep and possibly some of the dairy sectors as well. We have also done a great deal of work in terms of how we can continue to get our exports into the European Union, making sure we have got the IT in place to do export health certificates, having some discussions with for instance authorities in Calais and in French about how they would handle customs checks and border inspection posts.
SR: I mean you’ve been in this for months and months and months, you know what’s happening behind the scenes when perhaps we on the outside don’t have that clarity, so are food prices going to go up or down, do we know?
GEORGE EUSTICE: We will be aiming through our tariff policy to keep food prices stable but the truth is the biggest impact on food prices will be exchange rates and if for example there was say a 10% devaluation in sterling, well that might increase food prices by about 2.5% but just to …
SR: That would be quite a lot.
GEORGE EUSTICE: Just to put it into context, food prices go up or down by 5-10% in any typical year so it is a relatively small jolt but it is nonetheless a jolt which is why we obviously want an agreement, that’s preferable and I will be voting for the Prime Minister’s agreement when it returns to the House but we mustn’t be fearful of leaving without an agreement if we can’t get an agreement in place. The truth is, the British civil service have done a sterling job in terms of making sure we are ready to leave, we are good to go if Parliament has the courage to decide to go.
SR: Now you just said there that you are going to vote for Theresa May’s deal so what I don’t quite understand is why did you resign if you are going to vote for her deal anyway?
GEORGE EUSTICE: Well you know, always in politics there is a question of where you can have most influence and as a general rule that’s staying within government to try to influence policy and I’ve stuck with the government through a lot of undignified retreats over the last couple of years but what happened last week I think was fundamentally different because what effectively happened is that the government was taken hostage and some Cabinet members in government colluded in that hostage taking so we have to ask the question, is it any longer worthwhile being in that government when we have weeks to go on the biggest decision the country has faced for half a century?
SR: So who took the government hostage?
GEORGE EUSTICE: Well there were Parliament [inaudible] very clearly …
SR: And some members of the Cabinet, you’re saying as well?
GEORGE EUSTICE: Some members of the Cabinet were clear that Parliament had to have a vote which would, as they put it, ‘take no deal off the table.’ As soon as you take no deal off the table you dramatically undermine your credibility as a country, you undermine Geoffrey Cox who is trying to get some final changes to this and I just think fundamentally that was a big mistake but look, they’ve done it and we are where we are but …
SR: Who’s ‘they’?
GEORGE EUSTICE: Well there were three who actually wrote it up, I can’t remember which ones they were now but to be honest that’s last week’s news. From my point of view I just wanted to be free to participate in this debate at a critical hour because I’ll back the Prime Minister’s deal and hope that Geoffrey Cox can come back with some changes that can reassure others so that they might too but you know, if Parliament cannot accept this deal we have to have the confidence and the courage as a country to walk away first and talk after. The other thing about no deal is it doesn’t mean no deal forever more, it’s a bit of a misnomer. No deal probably in effect means an informal transition period for nine months and we already know with all of our dealings with the European Union that pretty much across the piece, they are looking for informal arrangements where there will be very little change for a period of nine months and that gives you a window in which talks could continue.
SR: Now according to reports you gave the Prime Minister both barrels at a meeting with her and some of her other Ministers last week, so what happened at that meeting? What did she say that got you so riled up?
GEORGE EUSTICE: Well I don't think I did get riled up and some said that I was irate but look, I’m not going into the details of the meeting but pretty much everything I said in my resignation letter were the points that I raised. The fundamental question is this, if Parliament takes no deal off the table and signals to the European Union that we’re too scared as a country to walk out the door and then demand that the Prime Minister go cap in hand to Brussels at the 11th hour with maybe just ten days to go, to beg for an extension – what happens next? The EU will dictate the terms of that extension, they will come back and say no, it has to be two years, they may say there has to be a very large financial cost to that extension and what will Parliament do at that point when it maybe at this stage has three or four days until Brexit day and it is faced with some impossible demands from the European Union? So I don't think those in Parliament who sought to frustrate this process and sought to create an option to delay Brexit have actually full thought through what they are actually doing.
SR: Do you think Theresa May listens more to the Remainers in the Cabinet than she does to the Brexit supporting Ministers?
GEORGE EUSTICE: No, I don't think that’s fair. I think the truth is Theresa May has had a very difficult task because from the beginning she has been undermined by those in Parliament who refused to respect the referendum result and there is a large number of them aiming for a second referendum, trying to frustrate this process but she has also faced a European Union that has seen the weakness, seen the lack of resolve from Parliament, seen that Parliament is trying to frustrate the process and so have not been in any mood to negotiate in good faith and the European Union have deliberately played games to drag this process out to make it difficult, so the Prime Minister has had a very difficult hand, I don’t dispute that and as I said in my letter, she has shown a great deal of resilience and a great deal of tenacity but what we need from all political leaders now, every MP in Parliament since they have taken control, is the courage to be willing to walk away.
SR: George Eustice, thank you very much.