Chris Grayling: "Every politician gets flak from time to time. You just have to take it on the chin”
Chris Grayling has spent almost nine consecutive years on the government payroll. During that time, he has accumulated his fair share of detractors. The Transport Secretary argues much of the angst against him comes from his pro-Brexit views, and vows to do what he thinks is right for the country, not what would get him praise in the media. He sits down with Sebastian Whale
Brexit has elicited some remarkable political events. A government found in contempt of parliament, the largest ever defeat suffered by a Prime Minister, the transformation of Andrew Adonis from straight-laced infrastructure tsar to cult Europhile figurehead.
Though many have grown weary of the drama, the spectre of Theresa May lobbying her own MPs to vote in a manner that undermined her Brexit deal was something to behold.
“I would argue it’s a Prime Minister listening,” Chris Grayling, one of the Tory leader’s most loyal advocates, argues. “She brought back a deal that she thought was right, parliament said, ‘sorry, most of it we can live with, the backstop we can’t’. The message clearly was go back and sort the backstop if you want to get a deal that we can agree with.”
Westminster is coming to terms with another dramatic evening in the Commons when Grayling and I meet in his room on ministerial corridor. The Government staved off defeats that would have seen Article 50 extended, and though MPs voted for a non-binding amendment against no deal, May enjoyed a rare night of relative success when Sir Graham Brady’s amendment calling for alternative arrangements to be put in place of the controversial backstop passed by a majority of 16.
Grayling says the PM now has a “fresh mandate” to negotiate an alternative solution to the Irish border conundrum. Given that all sides want a deal, he argues, the EU should be “smart enough to realise” that an agreement needs to be acceptable to the UK parliament, as well as other member states, to get across the line.
But doesn’t the Prime Minister also now have a mandate to rule out no deal? “You can’t rule out no deal because the only alternatives to no deal are agreeing a deal or reversing Brexit,” Grayling replies. “Reversing Brexit is clearly not acceptable to parliament. We do want a deal. But the reality is, until a deal has been agreed that both sides can live with and that our parliament can live with then no deal is the default option. It’s a myth to think you can rule it out.”
EU officials, including European Council President Donald Tusk, were quick to dismiss reopening the Withdrawal Agreement in the wake of the vote. Brexiteers, such as Boris Johnson, have made clear they want changes to the text of the agreement and would not accept other means such as an attached legal codicil for outlining changes to the backstop.
“It needs to be legally binding. So, what we have to have is a mechanism that ends the situation where the backstop is permanent or which replaces the current backstop with something that is acceptable,” Grayling says.
Given the mutually opposed positions of the EU and some Brexiteers, isn’t this just delaying the inevitable push to a softer Brexit that could pass through parliament with the support of Labour MPs? Grayling disagrees, and takes aim at the so-called Norway Plus option that would see the UK stay in the single market and customs union.
“Free movement was one of the key issues of the referendum campaign. If we go back to the people who voted to leave and say, ‘do you know what, actually we voted to keep EU laws, we voted to keep free movement’, I think there would be a sense of betrayal out there,” he argues.
“My view is we need to leave the single market, we need to leave the customs union, but we need to make sure that the basis of our future partnership is one that keeps us good friends and neighbours. What we can’t do, in my view, is to betray the result of the referendum.”
He adds: “I can’t see how the Norway option is consistent with the result of the referendum, and I do not believe there is a majority for it in the House.”
Grayling was one of six Cabinet ministers to back the official Brexit campaign Vote Leave during the referendum. Amid the impasse at Westminster, are events playing out how he envisaged?
“I’ve always believed that they would not want us to leave easily,” he says. But Grayling argues that negotiating a new trading arrangement with the EU will be a different kettle of fish, as the mechanics “are much easier than other trade deal negotiations because we start from a level playing field”. “The mechanics within the detail of a trade negotiation start from a very different place to where you would be starting if you were two entirely separate third countries negotiating a trade deal.”
Grayling is amenable to the Malthouse proposal, an arrangement in the name of housing minister Kit Malthouse and cooked up by unlikely co-conspirators Nicky Morgan, Stephen Hammond, Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg, among others. The plans would include extending the transition period by a year and pursuing an ERG-backed backstop arrangement to prevent a hard border in Ireland.
Grayling also puts some flesh on the bones of what “alternative arrangements” the government would consider to the backstop. “That could be a time limit, it could be an exit mechanism, it could be something like the Malthouse proposals, it could be something else that the European Union proposes, but one way or the other the backstop in its current form is not going to pass parliament so we’ve got to find an alternative for it,” he explains.
Grayling, MP for Epsom and Ewell, entered parliament in 2001 and has served as a government minister since 2010. He is also a staunch ally of the Prime Minister and ran her successful 2016 leadership bid to replace David Cameron.
Grayling has accumulated his fair share of detractors. He is often targeted for his time as Justice Secretary, with many of his reforms later overturned by his successors. His time in the Department for Transport has also been blighted by calls for his resignation after the rollout of new railway timetables led to weeks of travel chaos, as well as the Government’s handling of the East Coast Main Line rail franchise.
He most recently incurred the wrath of the British press over no deal preparations undertaken by his department. The DfT awarded £103m in contracts over the last few months to three companies – Seaborne Freight, Brittany Ferries and DFDS – to provide additional ferries between the UK and some European cities in the event of a no deal Brexit, to ease the burden on the port at Dover. But Seaborne Freight, which has been awarded a contract worth £14m to set up a route from Ramsgate to Ostend in Belgium, had never run a ferry service, nor had any ships.
Grayling insists that the money will only be paid as and when Seaborne Freight, a start-up business, fulfils its obligations. “The point is that we have carried out a tender exercise; we’ve invited ferry companies to come forward with proposals… They’ve come up with a bid that has passed external validation. Because they’re a new business, because they have not got everything into place yet, the deal we have done says we pay nothing unless and until they deliver the service,” he says.
Grayling dismisses questions about the visuals of the decision, insisting: “I’m interested in doing the right thing. I’m not interested in playing for press coverage.”
He adds: “Almost 90% of the value of these contracts is going to two big cross-channel operators. The question is why would we refuse what is an independently validated, credible business plan from a small business which may or may not get there, but if they don’t deliver – and this is only one part of what we’re doing to smooth trade flows after a no deal Brexit – why would we say no? What’s the basis? There’s no financial risk.
“All we would be doing is saying to a small start-up business, ‘because you’re a small start-up business we won’t have anything to do with you’. Government gets criticised all the time for not being supportive of SMEs, not being supportive of small ventures, and when there’s no financial risk at all to the taxpayer, I can’t see why you wouldn’t say, ‘okay, deliver it.’”
But given the optics, and the need to gain trust with the public that no deal preparations are running smoothly, why not consider the backlash granting Seaborne a contract would receive? “The most important thing is to deliver solutions. I’m quite prepared to take some flak from the media in order to deliver the right solutions.”
The DfT was also targeted for running a mock traffic jam at Manston Airfield in Kent, where only 89 of the 150 invited HGV drivers turned up.
“This is one of a whole series of tests which we were doing around the plans for Operation Brock, which is the replacement for Operation Stack,” Grayling explains. “They asked for more trucks than they needed because obviously on the day people don’t turn up because they’ve got unexpected work coming later in the day. They had plenty of trucks to do the test.”
As for the progress being made on the ground for Operation Brock, Grayling is confident that the work done on the M20 and M26 will ensure that traffic can keep flowing and “we can avoid the kind of disruption that we saw in 2015”. He continues: “I do not expect Kent to run to a halt, even if there are lorry jams, there are now places for those lorries to go. There is no reason for anybody in Kent to think that no deal Brexit is going to bring the county to a grinding halt.”
Taken all together, Grayling says the Government has a “comprehensive plan” to deal with congestion in Kent and proposals to ease pressure at Channel ports from a no deal Brexit. “There may very well not be [traffic jams]. I remain quite optimistic now that the flow of traffic through the Channel ports will carry on relatively normally even in a no deal Brexit. But people would expect us to be ready,” he adds.
A perusal of some of the recent newspaper articles on the Transport Secretary makes for tough reading. ‘How on earth is Chris Grayling still a Cabinet Minister?’ asks one Guardian article. The moniker ‘Failing Grayling’ pops up repeatedly.
Grayling himself says every politician “gets flak” from time to time. “You just take it on the chin and get on with the job.” He also notes that the RMT Union, an organisation that he says stands in the way of rail modernisation and deems Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour “too right wing to affiliate to”, has been one of his most vocal critics. “Inevitably, from an organised left-wing trade union, you’re going to get some missiles fired. But I’m going to do what I think is right,” he explains.
He continues: “I’ve also made some big calls – like the expansion of Heathrow, the right thing for the country but politically difficult and unpopular with some vested interests.
“And that’s similar with some people who want to have a go because I’m pro-Brexit. A lot of people out there want to frustrate the democratic will of the British people who voted to leave the EU and because I’m a prominent Brexiteer in the Cabinet who backs the Prime Minister’s deal I’m a lightning rod for the anti-Brexit brigade.
“But this is politics. I’m not afraid of making big and sometimes unpopular calls if they’re the right thing to do. And I believe in Britain and that we can make a success of ourselves as a country outside the EU.”