Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with James Cleverly


NIALL PATERSON: An extra £1.8 billion for the NHS on top of the more than £20 billion already promised, more police officers on the streets, broadband for all – expensive pledges from our new Prime Minister. The spending taps seem to be back on after almost a decade of austerity and joining me now is the Conservative Party Chairman, James Cleverly. Mr Cleverly, good to see you. Just one point on the £1.8 billion for the health service, where is it coming from?

JAMES CLEVERLY: Well one of the great advantages of having more people in work than ever before, the lowest unemployment since the 1970s, wages growing at their fastest rate for a decade, businesses looking to invest in the UK, is the economy is working. We want to make sure it works for people and that means getting money into the NHS. Boris has made it absolutely clear that he wants to see that money reaching the front line of the NHS and that’s what this is about, there’s 20 extra hospitals getting equipment, making sure that people that money working for them.

NP: These are not new hospitals, this improvement to existing hospitals.

JAMES CLEVERLY: This is improvement to hospitals that we need to see as new equipment, repairs, upgrades, things that people will see in their everyday lives.

NP: So where is this money coming from?

JAMES CLEVERLY: Well as I say, the money is coming from economic growth. This is why it is so important that we keep the economy growing, that we do things like the Northern Powerhouse to make sure the economy is growing not just in London and the south-east but all over the country.

NP: But we have growth at 2009 levels don’t we?

JAMES CLEVERLY: All these decisions, all the things that Boris is announcing about Crossrail for the north, about the Midlands Engine, Freeport’s, this is all about this economic growth and that’s what gives us the tax receipts that enables us to spend money on those 20,000 extra police officers and the NHS and education funding, those domestic policy commitments that Boris has made.

NP: So this is future growth, this isn’t growth that’s current, this is growth that we are going to have to wait for in some point in the future otherwise we’re either going to have to be borrowing more – which seems to be the case, otherwise we’re going to have see Income Tax going up or Corporation Tax going up.

JAMES CLEVERLY: If you want to go to a party that’s going to do high taxes and unaffordable borrowing, that’s the Labour party and the Labour party committing to a thousand billion of unfunded commitments, they’re the ones that…

NP: Debt is under the Conservatives at the moment isn’t it?

JAMES CLEVERLY: The point is … The point is that the decisions that we made in government to get the economy in balance, we’re getting economic growth better than a lot of our other global competitors but not as much as we would want and that’s why Boris is talking about pump priming the economy, getting those things in place in the north, in the Midlands, yes in London and also in the other parts of the UK, to make sure we’ve got the growth to fund the public services that we want.

NP: The Nuffield Trust describes this as a drop in the ocean, the Health Foundation says that we need £6 billion to get the NHS back on track, a £6 billion repair bill currently existing. I mean £1.8 billion in additional funding will be welcomed but it comes nowhere close to getting the health service where it needs to be.

JAMES CLEVERLY: The health service is better funded now than ever before in its history and £1.8 billion is nothing to be sniffed at, it’s a significant commitment on top of what was already a very significant commitment to the NHS. Boris has made it absolutely clear that the NHS is a priority and we want to make sure it is ready to serve the people properly. That means investing in it, that means giving it to the front line so that people can feel the improvements in their daily lives, that’s what he is committed to and that’s what we’re doing.

NP: I wonder if we can talk about the Brecon by-election just for a moment. That must have been a huge disappointment particularly for yourself, the new Chairman of the party, that you couldn’t hold on to that seat and you are now sitting with a majority of just one.

JAMES CLEVERLY: Yes, of course it’s a disappointment, we don’t like losing elections, I don’t like losing elections. We campaign in these elections because we want to win, we came close in this one. My frustration – and I know you brought it up with Claire – my real frustration is that 3000 people who voted clearly because they wanted Brexit delivered have now got a Lib Dem MP who is going to make it her cause to try and prevent that.

NP: Maybe some people don’t believe you when you say you are going to deliver Brexit by October 31st.

JAMES CLEVERLY: Well they should because I’ll tell you now, we are going to deliver Brexit by 31st October, fact.

NP: No if’s, no but’s? It’s going to happen. If it doesn’t happen are you going to resign?

JAMES CLEVERLY: No if’s, no but’s. We are going to …

NP: If it doesn’t happen will you resign?

JAMES CLEVERLY: Look, the point is if it doesn’t happen the collapse in confidence in democracy … In a democracy you don’t pick and choose which election results you abide by. We had a referendum, we made it clear, both sides of the referendum made it clear that it would be delivered. The House of Commons voted to trigger Article 50 and Article 50 means that you leave at a date with or without a deal, the House of Commons voted for that and that is what we are going to …

NP: They voted on the proviso that we were going to get a deal.

JAMES CLEVERLY: No, no, no, Article 50 is clear, Article 50 is clear. If you cannot get a deal you leave anyway and the majority …

NP: So they voted for Article 50 knowing no deal was a possibility?

JAMES CLEVERLY: Article 50 is explicit. At the end of the process if you have not agreed a deal, you leave anyway. The House of Commons, including Jonathan Ashworth who you had on earlier, voted for Article 50 and explicit – not implicit but explicit in that is leaving without a deal if one cannot be agreed. The Prime Minister is trying to get a deal and if we can get rid of the undemocratic backstop we may be able to leave with a deal but if not we are going to leave on the 31st October.

NP: But which is it? There seems to be some vacillation in the message coming from Downing Street, particularly this week, as to where the likelihood of no deal is. On the one hand you have got the Prime Minister telling it is a million to one of a chance but Rishi Sunak on the show last week saying that no deal preparations are now the government’s number one priority. Frankly those two don’t tally.

JAMES CLEVERLY: No, they absolutely do, they absolutely do.

NP: A million to one it’s going to happen, it’s our number one priority?

JAMES CLEVERLY: The point the Prime Minister has made it clear that we want to leave with a deal and if the EU can demonstrate a degree of pragmatism and flexibility that can be done. But we are also making it absolutely clear that because we are going to leave on 31st October and if we have to leave without a deal that’s what we’re going to do, we are going to make sure that leaving without a deal is deliverable. In my former job in DEXEU that was my job, to make sure cross-government preparations were in place, those preparations are being enhanced because we want to make sure that if we can’t get a deal we are ready to leave anyway.

NP: £2 billion for no deal preparations, £2 billion roughly for the health service, an additional … recruiting 20,000 police officers. When did the Conservatives realise that austerity wasn’t the right policy?

JAMES CLEVERLY: The decisions that we made to get the public finances in balance were always meant to be in place until the public finances were in balance. The public finances are now in an infinitely better place than what we inherited …

NP: They may be in a better place but the debt is still rising.

JAMES CLEVERLY: … from the economic car crash that we inherited from Labour and we set about repairing that. That wasn’t easy but we are now in a place where the economy is performing significantly better, much better and that enables us to do what all governments want to do which is to make sure that the public services on which people rely are in good order and that means that money into the NHS and policing and education and infrastructure because these are things which we know are important, we’ve always known them to be important, and the economic decisions that we had to take in the aftermath of Labour’s ineptitude we’ve had to do to get the economy in the kind of place where we can spend money on it.

NP: Billions of pounds worth of spending has already been set out by Boris Johnson, as I say £2 billion for no deal, £2 billion for the health service. Look me in the eye and with a straight face tell me that there isn’t going to be a general election this year.

JAMES CLEVERLY: There isn’t … There is not going to be … We are not going to initiate a general election, we have elections all the time, we have elections…

NP: It feels very election-y right now with all this spending going on.

JAMES CLEVERLY: No, what we’ve got is a new Prime Minister who during the leadership campaign made a number of explicit commitments and he is setting about delivering on those commitments. Prime Minister’s making good on their promises is a good thing and that’s what we’re doing and what we are ensuring is the things that people have told us in the hustings around the country, in the online hustings that we had during the leadership, the things that they told us mattered to them we are delivering on and that is the good old traditional party of the British party. They want the NHS to work, they want to feel safe on their streets, they want to see the money getting to the frontline in health, politicking and education. That is what we are doing.

NP: I just wonder what’s going to happen – just one final question on your role as Chairman of the party. Of course you are not the first person of colour to hold the role, Baroness Warsi was there, but I just wonder how you feel about that YouGov poll that came out that suggested that 54% of Conservative rank and file think that Islam is generally a threat to the British way of life. Are we going to get an independent inquiry into Islamophobia within the Conservative party?

JAMES CLEVERLY: Two things: that survey was of people who claimed to be party members, we didn’t share our membership data with the polling company so we are not sure that they necessarily are. The point is, we have always taken a robust line with people who have said in inappropriate things or inappropriate behaviour, we will always do that.

NP: Will there be an independent inquiry?

JAMES CLEVERLY: There will be, yes, there will be and that will be …

NP: Specific to Islamophobia and not just on the racist …

JAMES CLEVERLY: One of the things we need to get is a definition on that so specifically on that point we will be guided by the formal definition of Islamophobia but the point is, we do and we always take firm action with anyone who steps outside the boundaries of appropriate behaviour.

NP: James Cleverly, many thanks for being with us.