Sophie Ridge on Sunday Interview with Rishi Sunak


SOPHY RIDGE: We are joined now by one of Boris Johnson’s new Cabinet, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak. Thank you very much for coming on the programme. Well the papers are full of your Cabinet colleagues talking about their preparations for no deal so is the assumption that the EU isn’t going to negotiate a deal with us?

RISHI SUNAK: Well the government’s position is clear. The UK is leaving the European Union at the end of October. Now of course we’d prefer to do that with a new deal, the one that removes this undemocratic backstop, and we’re prepared to enter into those negotiations in a spirit of friendship and determination but if the EU doesn’t want to do that then it is right that we are absolutely prepared for that and that’s what the government is doing, we are turbo charging preparations for no deal and that is now the government’s number one priority.

SR: We just heard from Natalie Loiseau, the former Europe Minister, a close ally of the French President, she said that the choice is the Withdrawal Agreement including the backstop or no deal, so it looks like you are going to go for no deal.

RISHI SUNAK: Well it is absolutely right that we prepare for it. We must be able to leave on our own terms, we can’t be subject to the decisions of other people but we would be happy to enter into renegotiations. We want to remove this undemocratic backstop from the existing agreement but if the EU is not willing to talk about that then it’s right that we prepare properly with conviction and importantly with the financial resources that the Treasury will now supply properly for all departments to make those preparations for our coming departure.

SR: The Treasury will now supply properly, are you suggesting that under Philip Hammond they weren’t supplying that?

RISHI SUNAK: No, I think what you’re seeing now, you’ve seen a real step up in activity. I have only been in the Treasury a couple of day, the Chancellor Sajid Javid and I have been in meetings already on this issue and he’ll be making an announcement next week about the extra funding that we’ll be making available to make preparations, hiring 500 more Border Force guards for example, we are going to be investing in new IT infrastructure for people …

SR: Sorry, 500 new Border Force guards, they’re not going to be ready by October are they?

RISHI SUNAK: That’s on top of the ones that have already been hired but there are lots of things we’re doing, we will actually be helping small businesses prepare for this departure at the end of October, that’s one of the areas where people have said we could do more, we want to do more and you’ll hear more from us on that next week. We are going to have probably the largest public information campaign if not in history then certainly in a very long time to get this country properly prepared to leave the European Union at the end of October. That energy, that turbo charging, has happened already and we have really hit the ground running and there will be more to come.

SR: Your boss, the Chancellor Sajid Javid, has said this morning that all the money necessary will be available to departments to prepare for no deal. Is that a blank cheque?

RISHI SUNAK: Of course it’s not a blank cheque, I’ll obviously make sure that we get value for money whenever we spend money, it’s taxpayers money and people watching your show want to know that that money is being spent properly but what we want to do is make sure that we are a) fully prepared, and that does mean spending some money but it is important to know that a lot of that money would need to be spent anyway. We are going to be leaving the European Union, leaving the customs union and single market, that is going to mean change for our country and how we trade, so investing in new equipment, IT, border force, all of those are things we’d have to do anyway so it’s not money wasted, it’s just money that we are going to do right now to make sure that we are prepared to leave right now at the end of October.

SR: Okay, so if it’s not a blank cheque, how much money is it then?

RISHI SUNAK: Sajid will be making an announcement about this next week and he’ll …

SR: But there is a limit? There is a limit he will be announcing.

RISHI SUNAK: We are negotiating right now with all our departments to find out what exactly their plans are, to make sure they as operationally ready as they can be to leave at the end of October and Michael Gove is chairing a new set of structures to put some energy and urgency into this and you’ll be seeing – I mean we have only been in there for a couple of days and in a couple of days’ time you’ll be hearing from Sajid on exactly what we will be doing.

SR: I thought there was a million to one chance that we were going to be leaving with no deal, why are you spending all this money on something that’s a million to one chance?

RISHI SUNAK: We want to make sure that we are prepared. We need to be able to …

SR: For a million to one chance?

RISHI SUNAK: Well what we are hearing from the European Union and you had someone on your show just earlier, we want to try and renegotiate a deal, one that removes this undemocratic backstop. We stand ready, we are willing to negotiate, to engage in talks and we do that in a spirit of friendship and cooperation but also with determination and along with that determination it means we must be prepared to walk away, to leave on our own terms which is why these preparations are so important.

SR: We are hearing a lot about determination, about positive attitude, where is the money coming from?

RISHI SUNAK: Well the good news is that we can afford this and the reason we can afford this is because there has been some very careful management of the economy. There’s £26.6 billion of fiscal headroom next year and the good news is that we have met our fiscal targets already …

SR: Can you just say what … because headroom is one of those words that I think a lot of people don’t understand. That’s borrowing isn’t it? There’s a capacity to borrow more so what we are actually talking about here is borrowing more to make the preparations.

RISHI SUNAK: Borrowing now is at a 17 year low and that’s been very careful stewardship of the economy that we’ve had. The fiscal rules that we had set ourselves, that Philip Hammond had set, we actually met one year early so that’s where that capacity comes from but more broadly whether it is talking about affording no deal prep or whether it’s the investment in the police or levelling up all our regions and investing in our schools and NHS, the reason we can do all of that is because we do have strong economy. Wages are now rising at the fastest rate in over a decade, more people are in work than ever, unemployment is lower, investment in the UK is still very high, there is strong growth – all of that, that’s what you get with a Conservative government, that’s what gives us the ability to invest in our public services and make these vital preparations.

SR: I’m glad that you talked about some of the domestic policies as well because Boris Johnson has been really talking about all kinds of things that he wants to do, for example money for schools, 20,000 police, free TV licences, full cover broadband, billions of pounds of transport investment, tax cuts – I mean are you planning to outspend John McDonnell here?

RISHI SUNAK: No, we have the ability to spend, that’s because of the careful management of the economy … With John McDonnell what you get is a set of policies where taxes and borrowing would just go through the roof which would actually kill the economy and …

SR: it helped Boris Johnson.

RISHI SUNAK: … destroy our ability to actually invest in these things. I was with the Prime Minister yesterday in Manchester and he announced the funding of the new high speed rail line across the north between Leeds and Manchester. That is transformational, I’m a northern MP and it’s something I’ve been asking for, fighting for the ages. It cuts journey time to under half an hour between those two cities, you’d get a train every ten minutes, that’s the kind of exciting forward looking investment we’re seeing as well as putting more police on the streets, making people feel safer but again we can only do all of those things because of the careful management of the economy. You need to be able to do both things and Boris our Prime Minister has talked about this a lot, that symmetry between a free enterprise market economy and strong investment in public services.

SR: I can see it sounds exciting but you have got the hardest job in government haven’t you because you have got to work out how on earth to pay for it. Are you going to spend the summer hunting for a magic money tree?

RISHI SUNAK: No, there is no need for a magic money tree because as I said, we’ve done the careful management of the economy so the time is right now to look at this and to decide how to deploy that flexibility on the priorities that people want to see.

SR: Now during a TV debate during the leadership contest, Sajid Javid, now the Chancellor, asked his fellow candidates should we have an external investigation into the Conservative party into Islamophobia and all the candidates, including Boris Johnson, agreed. So when’s that going to start?

RISHI SUNAK: Well obviously that will be a decision for the Prime Minister and the new party Chairman, James Cleverly, to make but I do know that Boris has committed very firmly to rooting out Islamophobia from the party wherever it exists and including all other forms of prejudice and hate and discrimination. In terms of how that gets implemented, that will be a decision for the brand new party chairman who is equally as committed to that same aim.

SR: So you are expecting it to happen then?

RISHI SUNAK: That will be a question for James, I’m sure he will be on your show before too long but as I said, Boris is absolutely committed to rooting out discrimination, prejudice and hate. While we’re on the subject, if you just look at this new cabinet which I think you talked about on your show before, from an ethnic perspective it is one of the most diverse Cabinets in history.

SR: From quite a low bar to be fair.

RISHI SUNAK: That may be true but better to be where we are. You have got three of the four jobs being held by the children of immigrants and ethnic minorities, there are more people sitting round that table, you have got Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and these are very big roles. That is something to be celebrated, it’s a Cabinet that reflects modern Britain and better reflects the society that we now live in and that really is a welcome change.

SR: You talk there about being part of a record number of ethnic minority people in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, now just on that subject before we return to Islamophobia, one of your colleagues, the new Conservative party chairman, James Cleverly, got into a bit of a twitter row didn’t he when Clive Lewis tweeted to say ‘Genuine congratulations James, I mean it, I’m just sorry you and other black members of that Cabinet had to sell your souls and self-respect to get there. You serve under a racist Prime Minister and sit next to a Minister for Equality who was previously fired for the Windrush scandal.’ What do you make of that tweet?

RISHI SUNAK: Well I certainly didn’t sell my soul, I don't think anyone else sitting round that Cabinet table did. I think we’re there because we believe in this Prime Minister, we believe in his vision, not just for getting us out of the EU by October but also this inclusive and inspiring agenda for our domestic economy. That’s why we are all there, we are united in that cause and the fact that there are more people from ethnic minority backgrounds sitting round that table is not something to be denigrated and belittled as I think Clive has done in the past, it’s something to be celebrated and I’m sad that he doesn’t see that.

SR: I just want to go back to talk about the investigation into Islamophobia, whether or not there will be one and just to show you some recent polling that was done by YouGov amongst Conservative party members. It said that 40% want limits on the number of Muslims entering the UK, 43% agreed they would prefer to not have a Muslim Prime Minister and 39% believe Islamist terrorists reflect a widespread hostility to Britain amongst Muslims. Just looking at those figures, do you think there does need to be an investigation into Islamophobia in the Conservative party?

RISHI SUNAK: Well I think Boris as a candidate for the leadership and now as the Prime Minister, has committed to rooting out Islamophobia in the party wherever it exists.

SR: Well he committed to an investigation and now it’s all gone quiet.

RISHI SUNAK: Well that will be a decision for James and the Prime Minister to make together about exactly how is the best way to do it. I think what we care about is making sure that we do root out Islamophobia and finding out the best way to do it is a decision for them to make but make no mistake, there is an iron clad commitment to rooting it out. I just go back to the point that Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has just appointed the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in history and as a proud British Asian – I’m Hindu – I’m not feeling excluded at all from this administration, it’s someone who really cares deeply about making sure his Cabinet reflects modern Britain and you saw that when he was Mayor in London as well. So I feel from a personal perspective I feel we are in very good hands.

SR: Okay, just finally, do you think there is going to be an election?

RISHI SUNAK: Well that is certainly not what we are planning for, it’s certainly not out desire. We are committed wholeheartedly to getting the EU, to try and renegotiate the undemocratic backstop and if they are not prepared to do that, regardless of that we will be leaving the European Union at the end of October, that is the sole focus – well not the sole but the priority focus of this government over the next 95 days I think according to your counter. That’s what people want to see us doing and I don’t think we need elections, we certainly don’t need any more referendums but what we do need is a government that is delivering finally on this pledge to get us out of the European Union, restore that trust in British politics and then move on and have this conversation about all the other priorities that we have, whether it’s safer streets, more money in our schools, levelling up our regions and it’s that that people want to see us doing and that’s what we’ll be doing.

SR: The problem is, to do all those things you are going to need a majority. That’s why people are talking about an election aren’t they?

RISHI SUNAK: Well look, it’s a parliamentary democracy, people are always talking about elections, it serves other people’s interests to talk about elections. That’s not what we want, that’s not what the Prime Minister wants, he couldn’t have said it more unequivocally just the other day. What I’ve seen in the last few days is not planning for an election, it’s planning to make sure we can leave the European Union at the end of October, it’s turbo charging those no deal preparations. That’s the focus from everyone around the Cabinet table and that’s the message we’ve all got from the Prime Minister unequivocally and that’s what people I think want to see us doing.

SR: Okay, Rishi Sunak, thank you very much for being on the programme today.