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SOPHY RIDGE: Well just over three weeks ago Esther McVey quit her job in the Cabinet over Theresa May’s Brexit plan. In her resignation letter she said the deal does not honour the result of the referendum and fails to secure the right outcome for the future of our country and she joins us now for her first TV interview since leaving government. Esther, welcome. It seems as if we’ve heard everybody else’s account of what happened in that meeting in which Theresa May’s Brexit plan was signed off, apart from yours. So what did happen?
ESTHER McVEY: Well obviously I am not going to breach confidences of what happens in Cabinet, I never have and I won’t start now but I can put some of the record straight that has already been in the paper. Fundamentally at the end, after we’d all been discussing for five hours about the Brexit deal, there were voices of dissent, people saying different things so I asked on the most crucial issue of a generation, could we have a vote of the Cabinet to see exactly where the various Secretaries of State, where the Cabinet Ministers were on the issue. It has happened before under previous administrations, so you could have a vote but obviously it is down to the Prime Minister, it is her Cabinet, she can choose to elect what she does but as I said, there were various voices of dissent and I felt that we needed to focus the mind of people who were taking a decision that would last longer than us being in Cabinet, longer than us being in Parliament but was about the future of the United Kingdom.
SR: So you didn’t cry then?
ESTHER McVEY: No.
SR: Why do you think people are so obsessed with whether female politicians cry?
ESTHER McVEY: I wonder whether … It was obviously briefed to the papers afterwards and maybe they thought that would see me in a negative light. People who know me know that I’m forthright, I am feisty, I am a straight talker and quite rightly I am passionate about this issue but all you needed to know was what did people think and in all honesty I think it said there was a ‘meltdown’ in the Cabinet. The ‘meltdown’ was from the others not wanting to put their name next to a vote, it certainly wasn’t from me asking for one.
SR: I am keen to talk about this because it does seem that some of the briefings were pretty unusual, shall we say, around you. According to reports in the press your behaviour was described as hysterical and aggressive, as you say people said you had a meltdown, someone in the Treasury said of you ‘The only thing she knows how to do well is a blow dry’. Is that sexist do you think?
ESTHER McVEY: Well look, different people use the media in different ways to portray a story and to get an issue out there. There were two things that I wanted to deliver and that was a) Brexit that the UK voted for, but unfortunately in the Cabinet the majority of people and those in the key posts all voted Remain from the Prime Minister to the Chancellor to the Deputy Prime Minister to the Home Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, so there is obviously an issue there and the other thing that I wanted to do was to get more money for Universal Credit because yes, it does a heck of a lot of good but for the most vulnerable it wasn’t supporting so I succeeded getting in the Budget £4.5 billion extra and again, at the time, everybody didn’t want that to happen either. So that could be, right, you’ve had briefings, particularly as it was on two issues – 1) more money for Universal Credit and 2) deliver the Brexit vote that the people of the UK put forward.
SR: Shall we deal with Universal Credit because it feels as if there has been a lot written about it, people’s feelings run very, very strongly about Universal Credit and I know that’s something that you were responsible for up to your resignation. Now according to the Trussell Trust, they say on average 12 months after Universal Credit is rolled out, food banks see a 52% increase in demand, 70% of recipients find themselves in debt or waiting for their payments and only 8% says that payment covers their cost of living. Is that a record you’re proud of?
ESTHER McVEY: Well the Trussell Trust there, you’ve got to look at where the source is coming from, who have been interviewed to give those comments and those are from people coming in to the Trussell Trust, so those results weren’t authenticated, they weren’t sort of verified as such but …
SR: But some people were in hardship when they had to wait for those payments to come through.
ESTHER McVEY: Well I will say is that’s what I spent eight months doing, saying okay how do we sort out one sort of extreme of people saying it isn’t working at all to other people who are saying it’s the best thing that ever happened. So for 85% of people or more, they are saying it’s helping us into work, we’re working more than ever before, which we’ve seen. A thousand people every day, each and every day since 2010 are in work so it’s working there but what I looked at is ah, but for the people it’s not working for, so those are the people who will find themselves going into the Trussell Trust, those are people who find themselves going to support groups and budget groups, Christians Against Poverty, CAB, those sorts of institutions. So I met with all them and said what can we do? Hence I fought for the extra £4.5 billion in the budget, hence I fought for £1.5 billion to make sure that the severe disability premium was there for half a million extra people. So I said how do we make it work, what money needs to come forward but not just money, it was about how it was delivered too. So people would say how can we make sure that the payment period and the assessment period doesn’t knock out our payment? How do we make sure that we get money straight away which you can get with an advance and going forward, how do we make sure it is not always paid monthly? It could be paid weekly, fortnightly, three weekly, four weekly. So a lot of that I have already put in place, some of it will be coming through after the vote in the House and then further monies are coming forward next year and that’s on delivery. So I said we have got to have outreach work, we’ve got to have a flexible fund, we have got to look at those people who you will be hearing from who it doesn’t work for at the moment. So a good government, a proper government and how this system was set up was to be about being agile, it’s about being able to quickly respond to people’s needs and that’s what we needed to and that’s what we are doing and should continue to do as a compassionate Conservative government and again I said, how can you give 39 billion to the EU and for what for and yet I’m fighting desperately for a few billion for the most vulnerable people in the UK. That cannot be right.
SR: Now that you’re not in government anymore and you don’t have to defend Universal Credit, are you sorry for any of the hardships that some people faced?
ESTHER McVEY: What I will say, and I think you have got to look at it in its entirety, the legacy system it replaced wasn’t working so people who could have got out of poverty and into work, it wasn’t working for them. They couldn’t work more than 16 hours, 24 hours, 30 hours so they were trapped in poverty. This for the first time ever makes work pay, it allows people to come forward and come out of poverty so again thousands, thousands, three and a half million more people we’ve helped but those who it wasn’t working for we knew we had got to make it do better. Equally, under Labour, the benefits bill shot up by 60%, they made the benefits system unaffordable and unsustainable going forward. I’ve always said we took difficult decisions in 2010 and 2015 to make it affordable, but do you know what, as we come out of austerity, as we want to make this work, that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve now got to look at the freeze on benefits, do we still need that? Maybe not, remove that and [inaudible] couples in the New Year, how do we support them?
SR: Let’s look forward to next week now because this vote on Tuesday, if it happens, is going to be absolutely crucial. A lot of MPs are saying that they can’t support the Prime Minister’s deal, if it gets voted down as we expect it will, what do you think needs to happen then?
ESTHER McVEY: The Prime Minister immediately has to go to the EU and get a better deal, that’s what she must do. There are two key things, people talk about the 585 page document, there are two key things in there. One is the backstop, we don’t need the backstop, we shouldn’t have the backstop. The EU says it doesn’t want it, we don’t want it so why is it there? Remove it.
SR: But at the same time you can say no one wants to be in a traffic jam so why should there be a traffic jam? The reason there is a backstop is to avoid that border.
ESTHER McVEY: I don't think that’s the same thing. A traffic jam is there, no we are creating the backstop. It isn’t there, nobody wants it, therefore remove it. And the other bit is the £39 billion. Why oh why are we handing over £39 billion and what for? That £39 billion shouldn’t be for the withdrawal agreement and nothing else, that £39 billion has to be used for the future agreement, that has to be for a future trade agreement with them and if that isn’t happening we cannot agree to this withdrawal.
SR: If Theresa May cannot get what you want her to, what should she do? Should she move to a second referendum, should she call an election or do you think she should then move to a managed no deal?
ESTHER McVEY: Well what she said, and I’ve agreed with her since she started, we have got to come out of the customs union, we’ve got to come out the single market and …
SR: So that’s not an option for you then?
ESTHER McVEY: No, we have got to have control of our borders, of our money, of our sovereignty, of movement of people and therefore she has got to say, as she has always said, no deal is better than a bad deal. That’s what she said, that’s what we agreed on. Article 50 is there and we are coming out of the EU, as she replied to me in Prime Minister’s Questions, we are coming out on the 29th March.
SR: So no deal is better than the deal on the table is what you’re saying?
ESTHER McVEY: We’ve always said that if we cannot come to an agreement then we will be coming out without one, so we have always said that no deal is better than a bad deal. Not remain, remain was never there and the people voted for out so what she’s got to say because the EU doesn’t want no deal, we don’t want no deal so between us of course we can get a better deal for the UK. The backstop goes, the £39 billion is for a future agreement. Not to talk about an agreement – who’d pay £39 billion to talk about an agreement? £39 billion is for that agreement.
SR: At the same time though there have been some pretty concerning warnings about the impact of no deal and I know there is a lot of scepticism about some of the forecasts but it does feel as if there is perhaps a unanimous recognition that there will be an economic hit if there is no deal. Is that a price worth paying?
ESTHER McVEY: We’ve heard project fear when we heard all of these and we got told in my department that we even voted for the referendum that half a million more people would be unemployed. That did not happen, we’ve still got record rates of employment. In fact the UK has created since 2010 more jobs than France, Spain, Ireland, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Norway put together so I’ve heard the project fear stories and this is yet more. Of course we can succeed and of course we want to make sure that there is a managed process so if there is no deal so we would have, as we have got now, an implementation period by which we would work together. We could even say here’s half the money up front and then half at the end when we have got …
SR: But if there is no deal there won’t be an implementation period.
ESTHER McVEY: Why not? Of course you could arrange to have one because you pay for the implementation period, it’s £10 billion. That is not true, if you have got an implementation for a deal you would negotiate to have an implementation for no deal because we pay for that implementation period and of course if the EU don’t want no deal, we don’t want no deal, what we both want is to be good neighbours, good allies, good friends, we are in the same geography so let’s get that free trade agreement, I believe it is there to get.
SR: The other people who don’t want no deal are UK MPs, are you not concerned that because there is such a majority in the House against a no deal scenario, that by voting down the Prime Minister’s deal all you are doing is making a second referendum more likely and no Brexit at all.
ESTHER McVEY: Look, MPs come to Parliament because the people elected them. Now in Parliament by a vast majority we said the people should have a say. We gave the referendum to the people to have a say and they told us it was either in or out and they said out. Now that’s what the people said, unfortunately in the House there are too many MPs who voted Remain so they are going against the people so when you talk about trust, trust in Parliament, trust in government, that’s what it’s about. They’ve said you asked us, we have given you our decision now go away and do that. Don’t try and confuse us, and in fact something I heard at the weekend when I was meeting with my constituents, they said do you know what Est, when people can’t convince people they try and confuse people and that’s what we feel politicians are doing to us now. We don’t want you to confuse us, we know we can get a better deal. What are we paying for? Nobody wants this backstop, give us what we asked for which is Brexit, which is to come out of the EU.
SR: You said just then that too many MPs backed Remain, you were talking earlier about the number of Remain supporters in the Cabinet, do you think the next leader of the Conservative party needs to be a Brexiteer?
ESTHER McVEY: I think that first of all we have got to take one step at a time and if, and I’m led to believe today that the Prime Minister is going to go and have another go at negotiating with the EU which she wasn’t prepared to do, which I asked her to do in Cabinet and she wasn’t prepared to do. If she goes out and gets this deal that we want on those two key points, well then she will remain as our Prime Minister because she will have done the deal that she does have to do.
SR: And if she doesn’t?
ESTHER McVEY: And if she doesn’t then it is going to be very difficult for her but fundamentally what she needs to do is …
SR: So she needs to resign if she can’t get the deal that you want?
ESTHER McVEY: Well let’s take – and it’s not what I want, it’s what the public wants, what we voted for, in and out was on that ballot sheet and the country voted …
SR: Well it’s difficult to know exactly what everybody voted for isn’t it because they voted for different reasons.
ESTHER McVEY: No, it isn’t because we always said we’re coming out of the customs union, we’re coming out of the single market, we will be in control of our borders, our laws, our money, our sovereignty. People knew what that was, the Prime Minister has said that for the last two years, in Parliament she has said that for two years so we all knew what it was. Obviously there was a significant debate beforehand and people knew what it was for and that’s what we’ve got to do because it is about how do we get – which Jon was talking about before – the division in the country. People are saying look, I feel not only let down by our Parliament and our MPs who give us a referendum and defer choice to us and what we should be doing or they defer choice upwards to another greater authority, the EU. Whatever our elected MPs are doing, they need to be making our decisions and with that, making domestic decisions so we want more money for the police, we want more police on the street. £39 billion, wouldn’t that be better spent at home as well as getting a better deal? And also a trading deficit of £100 billion with the EU that has grown over the time that we’ve been in the EU. No, let’s strike free trade deals around the world. That now, as the EU admits, 90% 9-0% of future growth is outside the EU, not inside. We are an outward looking global nation, we’ve been traders with the globe, that’s what we need to do.
SR: And finally just to end on a leadership point, if Theresa May fails to get her deal through, if she can’t get what you want her to get from Brussels, would you consider putting in a letter of no confidence?
ESTHER McVEY: Well I stood down from the government because I didn’t have confidence in what it was doing so I’ve done that because I didn’t have confidence in what it was doing and where it was going. However, if the Prime Minister goes back to the EU like she’s saying now, and gets a better deal, something she was not prepared to do when I asked her in Cabinet, if she is then I am fully behind her if she can get a better deal.
SR: Would you ever run for leader yourself?
ESTHER McVEY: At the moment I am looking for a person who can unite the party behind a Brexit deal, a person who believes in Brexit, who has got really the full passion to deliver …
SR: Can you see someone who’s doing that?
ESTHER McVEY: Well I’ve seen the array of people who have come forward at the moment and I think if we can all get behind one – for me the most important thing is not the personalities, it is the deal for our country needs to be better …
SR: So you’re not ruling it out then, running for the leadership?
ESTHER McVEY: If people asked me, then of course you’d give it serious concern and do it if people asked me but at the moment I’m looking at who’s in the papers, who we can get behind but it shouldn’t be about the personality, it should be about the country and this deal.
SR: Okay, Esther McVey, thank you very much.
ESTHER McVEY: Thank you.