Sophy Ridge on Sunday interview with Theresa May

Sunday 18 November 2018


Sophy Ridge: Joining us now to discuss that is the Prime Minister, Theresa May. Thank you very much for being with us – it’s been a difficult week, shall we say, you’ve lost seven members of your team including your Brexit secretary, we’ve seen Conservative MPs parading letters of no confidence in you in front of those TV cameras. Have you ever thought at any stage, about just giving up? What’s the point?

Theresa May: No, I haven’t, and of course it’s been a tough week, actually these negotiations have been tough right from the start. But it was always going to get more difficult right towards the end when we’re coming to that conclusion. What I think is this isn’t about me – it’s actually about what’s right for the people of this country, it’s about what’s in the national interest. That’s what drives me and that’s what I’m being driven to deliver. That’s what I want to deliver for people and that’s what I believe this deal does. I think it is the right deal in the national interest. These next seven days are going to be critical – they are about the future of this country – it’s about people’s jobs, it’s about their livelihoods, it’s about the future for their children and grandchildren.

SR: You said it’s been a difficult week – that’s an understatement. At one point it looked like the whole house of cards could come falling down but you did manage to hold on to those crucial Brexiteer cabinet members – people like Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom. But they seem to be saying they will only stay if there is more movement on the deal. We can have a look at something that Andrea Leadsom said on the deal, she said: ‘there is still more to be done and we do still have time before the EU Council’. Is she right? Is there any space for manoeuvre?

TM: There is indeed more negotiation taking place and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. But perhaps I could explain the nature of the deal because, actually, there are two parts to this deal. There’s what you like might be called the ‘leaving part of the deal’ and then there’s the future relationship, the future deal we’re going to have with the European Union. What that future deal does is delivers on the vote the people gave us in the referendum in 2016. It delivers a Brexit which gives us back control on our money, on our laws and our borders, it means we bring an end to free movement once and for all – for example, no jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That’s the future, that delivers on Brexit for the people. There’s been some controversy and concern about the leaving part of the deal, about this thing called the backstop or the insurance policy for Northern Ireland, but that will only be temporary. What is going to determine our future relationship, bring that end to free movement and end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, is that future part of the deal. These two go together, and we won’t agree the leaving part until we’ve got the future part.

SR: Let’s be clear. You said there’s more space for negotiation – is it the leaving part that’s done and dusted, is the negotiation going to come when it comes to what is written in that future declaration?

TM: As I say we won’t agree the leaving part, the withdrawal agreement, until we’ve got what we want in the future because these two go together. The focus this week will be on the future relationship, and when we were in the House of Commons, a number of members of Parliament were saying we want some more detail on that future relationship – that’s what we’re working on this week. But it’s the future relationship that delivers on the Brexit vote. It’s the future relationship that actually says ‘this is the right deal for the future of our country because it’s a deal that’s in the national interest, in the interest of people up and down this country; worried about their jobs and worried about their children’s future.’

SR: It’s been two years to get to this point, so are you really saying you are going to change the future relationship deal in the next seven days? That’s a pretty tight timetable.

TM: Over the two years there’s been a lot of negotiation, a lot of the negotiations have focused on the withdrawal part, the leaving part, and just to give an example, Sophy, right at the very beginning I said those people from the European Union living here in the UK and UK citizens who are living in the other 27 countries of the European Union, we need to make sure that their life choice is protected, their rights are protected. So there was early negotiation on that, for example. What we’re now focused on is getting more detail on what the future relationship will be so that we make sure we deliver for people. That’s what this is about. It’s about delivering Brexit for people.

SR: What are you going to do in the next seven days? It’s not long, the clock is ticking.

TM: We’ll be negotiating. I’ll be going back to Brussels.

SR: When will you be going back to Brussels?

TM: The negotiating teams are working as we speak, and obviously which day I go back to Brussels – when I go back – will be determined, partly, by how those negotiations go. I’ll be going back to Brussels and be in touch with other leaders as well. Because the summit next week, and it is next week this special European Council, will be among the European leaders.

SR: So who will you be meeting in Brussels?

TM: Well I want to meet, I will, meet Jean-Claude Juncker and sit down with him and talk to him. He’s responsible for the commission side of all of this.

SR: Is the withdrawal agreement on the table when you have this meeting?

TM: The withdrawal agreement, we agreed the withdrawal agreement in principle on last week, the withdrawal agreement goes alongside the future relationship, it’s the future relationship that actually delivers, if you like, on people’s concerns in the withdrawal agreement. Getting that future relationship right is necessary but nothing’s agreed until everything is agreed.

SR: I understand you’re keen to talk about the future relationship. But if you look at the two documents, the future relationship and the divorce deal if you like – the withdrawal agreement – one is 585 pages long, the other is seven pages long. One is meticulously detailed and the other one is fairly vague – there are no legal commitments in there. Do you ever worry that you’re being played here? That the EU is asking you to hand over £39bn on a few conveyed promises.

TM: No, there’s a reason – it may seem a boring reason – but there’s a reason why there’s a difference between these two documents. We can’t actually sign up to that detailed legal text, indeed negotiate much of that legal text, until we’ve actually left the European Union. If anybody’s in any doubt, we are actually going to leave the European Union on the 29th March 2019. So what we need from that future relationship is an agreement between us, between the UK and the European Union, that this what that future relationship is going to be. And if you think back to where the European Union started on this, they wanted us as a country to take an off-the-shelf model – a Norway or Canada-style treaty for Great Britain only, not for the whole United Kingdom. We fought that, we stood our ground and we said no, we’re the UK, actually, we can have a better, more ambitious, relationship with you that would be good for citizens, people in the UK and for people in the EU as well. It took time, but they have come round to that and they’ve said ‘yes, we’ll agree a more ambitious relationship with the UK that we, the EU, at first thought we could give you.

SR: I do want to focus on the backstop, because this is effectively why you have lost your Brexit secretary this week. Lots of people are very concerned about it and just one part, in particular, of that withdrawal agreement that we can look at. The withdrawal agreement says ‘the backstop can only be brought to an end: “If the Union and the United Kingdom decide jointly that it is no longer necessary to achieve its objectives.” This is what Dominic Raab was concerned about, isn’t it? This idea that we can’t unilaterally decide the backstop. It’s a bit like the Hotel California – you can never leave.

TM: No, you can leave.

SR: Only if the EU says it’s OK.

TM: First of all, let’s look at what this backstop is. The backstop is an insurance policy, that backstop is saying to the people of Northern Ireland…

SR: But it might happen, I know you don’t want it to happen but it might happen.

TM: If I can just explain because there are various stages in this. There’s an assumption that this is the only option on the table and it’s not, that’s the first thing that’s important for me to say to you. This is an insurance policy, it says that if we get, come to a point in time where the future relationship that we’re negotiating can’t be fully in place by the end of December 2020, and we fully intend to ensure that it can be and that’s what we’re working to, but if there’s a short period of time where we need this insurance policy, we need to make sure that the people of Northern Ireland still have the reassurance of no hard border between them and Ireland. We’ve got two options at that stage and we can choose whether to have this backstop – the phrase which has come into common parlance – or whether to extend the implementation period for a brief period of time.

SR: The issue is about being able to leave unilaterally, we can leave the EU unilaterally by triggering Article 50 – it’s about sovereignty.

TM: I think as you’ve just seen, from two years of negotiations on the withdrawal agreement for us leaving the European Union, that yes there was an article there to leave the European Union, but it’s about a negotiation between both sides about how that is going to be done. That’s what we’ve been entering into. In the backstop, there will be a review of the backstop, and both sides can say ‘yes, we agree that arrangements are in place – a deal that provides for the people of Northern Ireland and therefore that the backstop is no longer necessary.’

SR: Can we unilaterally leave the backstop? Yes or no? We can’t, can we?

TM: Sophy. Just think about if you took out an insurance policy, and if you were coming up to the point where that insurance policy was being used, and suddenly people providing that insurance policy pull the plug on it for you, and you were left without that insurance policy, without having any say in it, what would you think? Actually what we’re talking about is a backstop that we never intend to use, the EU doesn’t want to use it either, it’s not the only option that is on the table, were it to have to be used then both sides can review it and the process by which we can prove that there are other arrangements in place so that the backstop can be stopped. And the backstop can only ever be temporary under the legal arrangements of the European Union. They cannot enter into a permanent relationship on the basis of this withdrawal agreement, it can only be temporary. And then that’s why I focus on the future relationship, because the thing that’s going to make a difference, to people’s jobs, to people’s livelihoods and people’s futures in this country, is the future relationship we negotiate with the European Union. That’s what we must put front and foremost. It is in the national interest to get that deal right – to ensure that, yes, we’re leaving the European Union and we can have those trade deals around the world, we can bring jobs to this country, we can make that better future for these people.

SR: I’m no mathematician, but I don’t see how this deal can get through parliament. Labour has said they want to vote against it, the DUP has said they’ll vote against it, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats – dozens of your own MPs. It’s not going to get through, is it?

TM: Well when it comes to parliament, members of parliament are going to have to look at the deal. But I think, as I’ve previously said, they should also think what this is about, this is about delivering on Brexit. It’s about ensuring we deliver what people in this country voted for.

SR: I know you think it’s a good deal, but it’s not going to get through parliament right now

TM: When people come to look at this deal, that’s what they need to think about. But let’s look at some of the positions that you said the other parties have taken. Jeremy Corbyn is clear he is going to vote against this whatever, he hasn’t even fully read it – he doesn’t know what’s fully in it, and yet already he’s saying he’s going to vote against it. Why? Because he’s playing party politics with this. This isn’t about party politics, this is about what matters for this country, it’s about what is in the national interest – that’s what I’m determined to deliver: A deal that’s good for the people of this country.

SR: What happens if it doesn’t get through parliament? Would you be prepared to bring it back for another vote?

TM: There’s a process that parliament will go through, were it the case that the deal is lost then the government will come back with their proposals for what the next step is. But we’re not at that point, we’re at the point of a weeks further to go in the negotiation, when we have that agreement with the European Union at the EU council and bring it back to the House of Commons. What I’m saying is I think every member of parliament will look at the deal – they’ll want to ask themselves, how can I make sure that we deliver Brexit and how can I do it in a way that’s good for my constituents? Remember there are those, in the House of Commons, who just want to stop Brexit. I believe it’s essential for people’s trust in politics, and trust in parliament, that we deliver on Brexit for people.

SR: This weekend your future is hanging by a thread. Conservative MPs we know are submitting letters of no confidence to the Chair of the 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady. If that reaches 48, there will be a vote of no confidence in your leadership. When was the last time that you spoke to Sir Graham Brady?

TM: I spoke to Sir Graham Brady at the end of last week.

SR: Do you know if he’s reached the 48 letters?

TM: I have regular conversations with Sir Graham Brady. Graham Brady will make it known if 48 letters have been reached.

SR: Do you know?

TM: I have not – as far as I know, no. The answer to your question is no.

SR: The answer to the question is the 48 limit has not been reached?

TM: As far as I know, no, it has not. Let me just address this issue about the question of leadership. This isn’t about me, it’s about what’s right for the country, and as far I’m concerned we’re not going to be distracted from this important job in this critical week of negotiations of making sure we do get that final good deal for this country. A change of leadership at this point isn’t going to make the negotiations any easier, and it’s not going to change the parliamentary arithmetic. What it will do is bring in a degree of uncertainty, that’s uncertainty for people and their jobs, and what it will do is mean that it will be a risk if we delay those negotiations, and that’s a risk if Brexit gets delayed and frustrated. I’m clear that if people voted for us to leave, we will leave and we will leave on the 29th March 2019.

SR: The last week must have been personally very difficult for you. We can have a look at something your Chief Whip said in a letter to MPs: “The Prime Minister will not be bullied and will not change course.” Do you think some MPs have been trying to bully you and what would be your message to them?

TM: This is an issue on which some people have had very strong views and some have held those very strong views for a very long time. We’re coming to the point where some difficult decisions have to be taken about how we ensure that we deliver Brexit for the British people. I think obviously people have been making their views known and that’s understandable – we live in a democracy. But when it comes to it, I ask all my colleagues to think about this, to think about ensuring that we can deliver Brexit for the British people, to think about ensuring that we are doing it in a way that’s good for our constituents – not some debate for Westminster. It’s very easy in Westminster to get involved in intricacies of debate and not to remember that what this is about is not us, it’s about people out there and their futures.

SR: You say it’s not about us but at the same time your leadership is at a critical point right now and I’m interested in the impact it’s had on you personally, because some of the language we’ve heard – some of the enormous briefings – have been, frankly, pretty horrific. We’ve heard talk of killing zones, nooses, assassinations, I mean how does that make you feel?

TM: First of all, I think all of us in politics have a responsibility to make sure that when we talk about things we do so responsibly, and that we think about some of the terminology and language that we’re using. It doesn’t distract me from the main task at hand.

SR: Does it upset you?

TM: Politics is a tough business and I’ve been in it a long time. So I’ve seen the ups and downs of politics – I’ve been through some tough times myself in politics. I always think the important thing to say is: ‘What are we here for? Who are we here for?’ And we’re here for our constituents, as Prime Minister I’m here for the people of this country and that’s what we must put first and foremost; their interests. That’s what must drive us. It’s what drives me and it’s what’s going to drive me in the negotiations in the next week.

SR: In a week where people have been queueing up to criticise decisions that you’ve made, they believe that you’re going down the wrong track for better or worse. I just wonder what it is that makes you keep going. In the past you’ve spoken about your father’s sense of duty – he was a vicar – has your faith helped?

TM: That is an integral part of me, if you like. What drives me, what keeps me going in this, is knowing that actually we have a duty in this government – I think we have a duty as a parliament – to listen to people. If you think back pre-2016 referendum, parliament overwhelmingly said this must be a choice of the British people, and we gave people that vote and they gave us their vote and they said ‘let’s leave’. I believe it’s absolutely critical that we do that. We can have debates in Westminster about is this the perfect Brexit for one person’s viewpoint, or the perfect Brexit from somebody else’s viewpoint, what matters is that we deliver Brexit and what matters is when people come to look at this deal and vote for it in parliament, they recognise the importance of ensuring we deliver Brexit. I don’t want to risk ending up in a situation where Brexit is somehow delayed, or people try stop it from happening. We are going to deliver for people and we’re going to leave the EU, and that’s going to happen next March.

SR: Just finally, Prime Minister. There have been some studies over the years that have shown in good times, companies are more likely to appoint men in leadership positions but in times of crisis, they are more likely to appoint women. Why do you think that is?

TM: [Laughter] I haven’t seen that research so I don’t know what the basis of that research is. All I will say is that I look at this as a politician, a member of parliament, a Prime Minister, I will hope every member of the House of Commons would think not about themselves, not about the theological arguments of Brexit but actually think about what happens for people up and down this country. Let’s give them the certainty of this bright future, that’s delivering Brexit on a good deal. That’s this deal.

SR: Ok big questions for all MPs coming up. Prime Minister, thank you very much for being with us this morning.