Tuesday, 2 March 2021

British foreign and European policy: An interview with Sir John Redwood MP

In this interview, James Rogers talks to The Rt. Hon. Sir John Redwood, Member of Parliament for Wokingham, about British foreign policy, particularly in relation to Europe.

JR: As a leading advocate of withdrawing from the European Union (EU), how important do you think it is that the next leader of the Conservative Party – and Prime Minister – completes the task by 31st October 2019?

JR: It is crucial for our democracy that we leave on the 31st of October. Many members of the public were bitterly disappointed about the delay, when the previous Prime Minister promised us repeatedly that we would have left the EU at the end of March this year. People feel it has been dragging on for far too long. The public remembers very clearly that the government and parliament told the electorate that we the voters would be making the decision. The government confirmed it to parliament, parliament went along with it, both main parties accepted it, and so people expected us to leave in reasonable time, after the decision was taken in the summer of 2016. It is now the summer of 2019. Three long years have passed, very little has been achieved, there has been a huge amount of reheated debate, very reminiscent of the long, good debate we had before the referendum. Not many people have changed their minds, so we need to get on with implementing it. 

Boris Johnson has made it a central feature of his leadership campaign that we will leave on the 31st October. One of the main differences between him and Jeremy Hunt, his rival for leadership of the Conservative Party, is on the issue of date of departure, where Mr Hunt is more willing to contemplate further delay. But Mr Johnson has made a very firm pledge; I think he fully understands the importance of that pledge, not just to the Conservative Party where it was extremely popular, but also to the wider electorate.

I feel very sorry for those businesses who feel uncertain because they are not sure how the decision of the British people is going to be implemented and that it has been dragging on for so long. Quite a number of businesses made some expensive preparations for exit at the end of March. We do not need more of that so it is very important now that both the government and parliament stick to their word and that we leave the EU on 31st October 2019.

JR: In trying to leave the EU, where do you think Mrs May, the Prime Minister, went wrong?

JR: Unfortunately, Mrs May made a very big error of judgement when she decided upon the Chequers Plan and conceded to the EU over the Withdrawal Agreement. Mrs May started well as Prime Minister: she was very clear that, although she had herself voted Remain, she accepted the verdict of the British people and understood that it was the task of her government to lead the United Kingdom (UK) out of the EU by the end of March 2019. In her early speeches and policy, she was very strong in saying that leaving meant: leaving the customs union and leaving the single market – things that both Leave and Remain had agreed on in the referendum campaign. She also repeated the mantra which the EU used to hold, which is that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

Mrs May then accepted advice to go back on a very important manifesto promise. The Conservative Party’s 2017 Manifesto promised that the UK would conduct negotiations on any withdrawal matters in parallel with the negotiation that mattered more to the UK, namely the negotiation of the future relationship. So everybody recognised and voted accordingly in the 2017 general election that the government would understand linkages and would only make compromises or sacrifices on the withdrawal issues that the EU were putting up if there was going to be something worthwhile or longer-term. Unfortunately, she resiled from that and she went off and made a series of concessions to the EU, and decided – I think wrongly – that Britain needed twenty-one months, or maybe even forty-five months of additional delay, because she had been persuaded that two to three years was not sufficient to prepare the country to leave the EU.

Mrs May paid a very high price for this, in terms of offering the EU huge sums of money, in terms of making Britain accept a whole set of laws over a long time period that it would have absolutely no influence over and making long-term concessions along future liabilities and legal structures that did not really amount to leaving. Understandably, that caused huge consternation amongst the Leave majority, but it also did not impress the Remain minority. They were saying: ‘Well, your withdrawal agreement looks a bit like being in the EU, so why don’t we just stay in the EU? Because we have to accept so many of the requirements and we have to pay the EU lots of money, so wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep the vote and voice at the same time?’ Neither side was happy. Consequently, Mrs May managed to unite Leave and Remain – a rather difficult thing to do – against her Withdrawal Agreement.

The final humiliation came with the results of the European Parliament elections, which Mrs May decided to visit upon the country, because she delayed Britain’s exit. In that election only the Conservative Party under Mrs May supported the Withdrawal Agreement and the party got 9% of the vote. It is possible to argue that the Withdrawal Agreement attracted even less than 9% of the vote because there were some Conservatives who felt they still needed to vote Conservative even though they disliked the Withdrawal Agreement.

So that was what went wrong for Mrs May: she backed a deeply unpopular withdrawal agreement, which Leave voters decided was not leaving and which Remain voters thought was less good than staying.

JR: Once the UK has withdrawn from the EU, do you think the British government should establish a new narrative on Europe? In other words, should the UK provide an alternative vision for Europe, to compete with the EU? And, if so, what should this narrative look like?

JR: Of course we need to provide a new narrative about the UK’s relationship with the EU. We can talk about ‘Europe’, which has never been coterminous with the EU. There have always been some countries that have been part of the European continent but are not in the EU. The balance will shift further when the UK leaves the EU because it is obviously a rather large country, so the number of people outside the EU, relative to the EU, will rise considerably.

I want Britain to have a very warm, positive narrative where it will wish by agreement to carry on doing a lot of things with European countries both inside the EU and outside the EU. Britain will want to do some things by agreement with the EU. It will obviously want a very strong and positive trading relationship, and I trust the UK will be offering the EU a comprehensive free trade agreement. And I would have thought that once the EU realises that the UK is going to leave, it would become more interested in discussing a new trade arrangement.

But I do not think it is for the UK to dictate or try to influence what the EU wants to do. I think if you leave something, you wish them well because they are friends and allies. Of course, Britain does not favour closer and closer European integration. The UK has said it does not like that but it is not for it to provide a rival to the European perspective, if the main countries of the continent wish to be governed as one. I do not want to stop them or even try to stop them. I do not think it is in Britain’s power to stop them and it is not a friendly thing to do. All I ask is that EU governments make sure that their people want what the EU is offering and they put it together in a way which is going to be harmonious, because it will not be easy to do.

JR: A fortnight ago, a British-registered oil tanker was seized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard, after a similar attempt was made – and thwarted by a Royal Navy frigate – the previous week. Why is the UK being targeted? And how do you think the British government should respond?

JR: I look forward to the government’s statement today [22 July 2019] in the House of Commons, because I think it needs to explain what it has been doing. It is a matter of concern. First of all we need a proper explanation of their role in the detention of the Iranian tanker in Gibraltar and we need reassurance about the legal base and what they are trying to do with it. It is very important that we act responsibly and in accordance with international law if we are dealing with a regime that may do otherwise. Then we need to know why it was that the advice offered was not received and understood by the British-flagged tanker, so that it actually got in harm’s way in the Gulf. I am also sure parliamentarians will want a probe on what use we are making of our existing naval resources and whether they can be strengthened easily and whether we should be doing more in conjunction with allies. After all, the US’ Abraham Lincoln carrier group is in the region and the UK has its own flotilla in Bahrain, with minesweepers, which are armed with 30mm guns.

JR: Would you support increases to British defence spending? And if so, by how much?

JR: Yes, I do think we need to spend a bit more money on defence. We hit the minimum North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) target – 2% of national income – which is more than many other allies do. But it is a minimum commitment and it does include some other items, such as pension costs and so forth. I think most people looking at it would think the UK is quite strained in all the three main services on the budgets it currently has. However, I would not want to provide my own figure because, I do not think the way you go shopping is to say: ‘I’ve got a billion pounds to spend, now what can I get for it?’ I think the way to go shopping is to say: ‘What are the things I most need?’ Whether it be increased personnel or some extra naval vessels or better tanks and transports, whatever it is – and Britain may need some of all of those things – it is important to start to cost the list and then come to compromises. This is because whenever you go shopping with your own budget, you set out what you would really like and then you work out what the price is and you come to a compromise about whether you want fewer and better or more and cheaper – or whatever it may be. That is exactly what has to be done in this situation.

JR: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!

– This interview was undertaken the day before Boris Johnson became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

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