Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Rory Stewart International Development Secretary


SOPHY RIDGE: Well after the local election results, it’s not the easiest week for Cabinet Ministers to come on shows like this and defend the government but fortunately the Cabinet’s newest member, Rory Stewart, is used to all that after months of defending the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal on the airways. His reward is he has been made the new International Development Secretary and he is here in the studio now. Thank you very much for being on the programme. It feels we should start with the local election results which were really a bit of a bloodbath for the Conservative Party, I mean down more than 1300 councillors. I’m sure that you followed the results very closely as they came in, at what point did you realise just how bad things were?

RORY STEWART: Well I think it became clear quite early and I think one of the very interesting things about this is how much this is about Brexit. It’s not really about the local councillors who, many of them have done an incredible job and I think it’s hugely frustrating for them because they are trying to focus on issues that really matter to people locally and I think it’s important for our local democracy that people vote for people for what they’re responsible for.

SR: So they are paying the price for the government’s failure to take the UK out of the EU?

RORY STEWART: Labour and Conservatives at the moment are suffering from this whole Brexit thing, tortuous, endless Brexit thing and we’ve got to get beyond it. The message of this is we’ve got to get beyond it and there is another message, if you look at the detail of those results – look at places like St Alban’s, look at the fact that really where the Conservatives were losing their votes most were in the moderate centre ground seats and that shows we need a Brexit deal, that we shouldn’t follow this idea that somehow the future of the Conservative party is trying to outdo Nigel Farage. The future of parties like the Conservatives, and indeed it should be true for Labour too, is in the centre ground of British politics.

SR: Are you worried that the remaining voting Conservatives will never come back to the party?

RORY STEWART: I believe they will come back but I believe we have got to work very, very hard to get them back and we’ve got to reassure them above all that we are not going to go for an unnecessary damaging no-deal Brexit, that we can get a Brexit that is pragmatic, works well and keeps us close to Europe economically.

SR: I just want to have a look at something to illustrate just how bad the night was for the Conservatives. I mean these show your local election results from 1995 to 2019 and you can see that really the only comparable result is back in 1995. It is going to take you a long time to recover from this isn’t it?

RORY STEWART: So it’s been a big impact. If you look at those results what you’ll see is that Labour actually lost a lot of seats during the Blair government but they tended to lose them more steadily. In our case this is … we did reasonably well in 2015 as a governing party and as you see there we suffered badly in 2019 but this is a Brexit effect. This is people’s frustration, the fact that Parliament is not delivering. They want it done, they want to move on. There are so many things that all of us can talk about, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Lib Dem or Labour or Conservative, about this country, about housing, about climate particularly at the moment and we’ve got to get back to that centre ground and that’s the way that we will take these seats back, that’s the way we’ll win an election but above all, that’s the way we’ll restore people’s faith in government.

SR: I just wonder if your analysis is right, you focus on those remain voting seats in the local elections where clearly it did go badly. The Brexit Party weren’t standing so in the European elections we could see a completely different picture couldn’t we, much worse?

RORY STEWART: It’s true they weren’t standing but it’s also very important to understand that in 2017, if we get onto the electoral maths of this, most Brexit voters voted for the Conservative party. If the Conservative party were to make the mistake of trying to outdo Nigel Farage, which I’m sure we won’t but it is something that a few of my colleagues are talking about, then we would lose those four million remain voters, we’d lose young people, we’d lose Scotland, we’d lose London and we’d lose a lot of the most energetic parts of this country. We’ve got to be a broad party, we’ve got to be able to stretch all the way from Ken Clarke right the way through to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

SR: Is the problem partly your leader? Iain Duncan Smith has called on Theresa May to announce her resignation.

RORY STEWART: I really strongly disagree with this. I think this idea that somehow it is all to do with an individual is naïve, this is about Brexit. This is about the fact that we have a country that is divided right down the middle.

SR: But the Prime Minister must be responsible for the Brexit policy.

RORY STEWART: Well the Prime Minister is responsible for the Brexit policy and she’s done …

SR: She hasn’t been able to get through despite several attempts.

RORY STEWART: That is true, so she has put a very courageous effort into trying to get something through a divided parliament without a majority and with a very split country but honestly I don't think anybody doing that role, I don't think if some sort of superhero turned up, if George Clooney suddenly became Prime Minister, I don’t think he’d be able to charm his way through this problem. The problem is not the individual, the problem is Brexit.

SR: Now that’s something I’d like to see! Theresa May has written a piece in the Mail on Sunday today effectively laying down the gauntlet for Jeremy Corbyn to back a deal together. Let’s listen to what the voters said in the local elections, she says, let’s do a deal. I mean, do you think that is now the way forward?

RORY STEWART: It’s not my preference, it’s not the Prime Minister’s preference. We would have much preferred the Prime Minister’s deal but yes, now that has to be the right option.

SR: Even if it’s a customs union, a permanent customs union?

RORY STEWART: Well the details would have to be worked out but I don't think that Labour wants to restrict our future trade policy, I don't think they want to allow unrestricted immigration and we’d have control over immigration, so we agree on so many things.

SR: What Labour want is a permanent customs union and we had it from Jon Ashworth earlier in the programme, we’ve had it consistently from them so …

RORY STEWART: What they’ve been talking about is they keep saying they want a permanent customs union where the UK has control over trade negotiations with other countries so they are talking about something that doesn’t really exist out there, they are talking sort of about Turkey triple plus. We need to see the details of this but really our positions, we’re about a quarter of an inch apart. We agree on 99% of this stuff and there is an advantage to this which people are not talking about which is if we can get a cross party deal there is a possibility that it will remain, it will be more sustainable. In other words when a government changes, parliament changes, we are not going to have Brexit suddenly turned on its head. We need investors to feel this will be there for thirty years and not just for four years and a cross party deal is the way to do that.

SR: But that’s exactly what some people in your party are so scared about isn’t it, that a customs union will be agreed with Labour which in their minds takes away all of the benefits of leaving the European Union and makes it harder to unpick it.

RORY STEWART: Well two things, firstly it is no true that this will take away all of the benefits from leaving the European Union but even in the very worst case scenario Turkey is obviously not in the European Union and if you were to go down that option you would have full control of freedom of movement, the City of London wouldn’t be regulated, you’d be free on services, you wouldn’t be paying tens of billions of pounds a year to the European Union …

SR: You wouldn’t put that on a bus though would you? Vote to leave and be like Turkey.

RORY STEWART: Well we are a much bigger economy than that, we are an amazing country. We are a much larger economy and we have far more potential than that but the point I am trying to make is that some of my colleagues say that Britain would be a vassal state, that is an extreme exaggeration. This would be a real Brexit, we’d leave the European Commission, we’d leave the Parliament but more important than that, and I keep coming back to that, is that what we really need for the country is a deal that lasts and pushing for an extreme Farage style deal which has no real majority support in the country and no majority support in Parliament, is firstly impossible and secondly, wouldn’t last through changes in Parliament so it wouldn’t be any good for investors.

SR: Okay, do you think a deal is going to be done?

RORY STEWART: I think a deal can be done …

SR: But do you think it will be done?

RORY STEWART: A lot of this rests to be honest on one man and whether Jeremy Corbyn really wants to deliver a Brexit deal but I think if he wants to do it, it would be actually surprisingly easy to do because our positions are very, very close.

SR: So the PM’s happy to do the deal, it’s Jeremy Corbyn who’s the question mark?

RORY STEWART: We are keen to get a good Brexit deal done as soon as possible so that we can move on to talk, in my case, about things like climate and that’s why I am very excited to be the international Development Secretary. I want to talk about climate, I want to talk about the environment, I want to engage young people and I don’t want us to spend the next ten years sitting in a studio talking about the details of Brexit.

SR: I look forward to an interview that we can do on things that aren’t just about Brexit but away from Brexit, you have had a bit of a roller coaster week. You were one of the beneficiaries of the extraordinary sacking of Gavin Williamson and if you look in the papers today there is some pretty vicious briefing about Gavin Williamson isn’t there? Are you comfortable with some of the stories that are coming out? People are obviously leaking them.

RORY STEWART: Well I haven’t read all of that. I would say firstly he was an energetic Defence Minister and I don’t like criticising colleagues in any way at all. Equally the National Security Council has to be kept secret, it’s the core, the Head of MI6 sits there, the head of MI5 sits there, this is where intelligence from our agents in the field comes, this is where intelligence from the United States and our other allies comes. It is incredibly important that we do a refresh so it seems like unfortunately that Gavin, although he had been an energetic Defence Secretary, appears to have repeated things that were in that meeting.

SR: Although he denies that.

RORY STEWART: Yes. I know Mark Sedwill, who seems to be at the centre of this, very well, I knew him back in the day when we were both in Afghanistan together 12, 14 years ago, I have enormous admiration for him and I think that he will have thought about this carefully and made the right step and the reason why this is important is to be a serious country in the world we have got to be able to disagree with each other. One of the reasons we got into a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan is we weren’t good enough at the equivalent of the National Security Council of really saying that isn’t going to work in a way that could never leak because sometimes there are things that you have to say that you wouldn’t want to see printed in the papers.

SR: You talk there about knowing Sir Mark Sedwill, are you concerned that some of your colleagues seem to be briefing against him in this tit for tat?

RORY STEWART: Yes, absolutely. I think it is incredibly important that our civil servants are left totally out of this. One of the reasons I am very proud of the government is because of our civil service, they work all the hours that God gives them, they are very dedicated, they are non-political people and it’s totally unfair to put them in the firing line now.

SR: Just finally, it is refreshing to interview somebody who is very open about the fact that you’d like to be the next Prime Minister, so are you going to throw your hat in the ring when there’s a vacancy?

RORY STEWART: Yes but I am now so excited to be the International Development Secretary and to be honest the thing that matters even more to me than that is getting this thing right because climate change is a cataclysm facing us. This is our biggest instrument to engage with the environment internationally, potentially – without being too pretentious – save the planet and ultimately save us. So what gets me out of bed in the morning, the reason I am proud to communicate this to my two year old and my four year old, is that I think I’ve got the greatest gift on earth to be the International Development Secretary.

SR: I think you need to let your colleagues know how you have managed to do it, how you’ve managed to be completely open about the fact that you want to be the Prime Minister and yet you have somehow been promoted and been seen as a loyalist as well, how has that happened?

RORY STEWART: Well you have just got to be straight. If people feel that they would like to get into that competition they should say so and we should talk about what we believe in. I think talking about what we believe in matters in everyday life but it also matters just in doing good policy. I felt this in prisons, that just being honest about not the waffle but is this prison clean, have we cleaned up the garbage, are we searching people properly at the gates? Well in terms of DFID, okay we are dealing with Ebola, a thousand people have now died in DRC and this is a disease that could come to Britain again unless we deal with it but it is also being honest about problems with refrigeration, about that fridge made in Bognor Regis by a British company, which is now in the jungles of the DRC and getting that right, getting the temperatures right. Getting the basics right is the key to government.

SR: There you go, an interview on everything from Brexit to fridges! Thank you very much for being on the programme, Rory Stewart.

RORY STEWART: Thank you.