Dominic Raab: “We have been too grey and gloomy about Brexit. We need positive pragmatism"
Dominic Raab believes the Prime Minister is returning to Brussels with a “strengthened hand” as she seeks to save her Brexit deal. But the former Secretary of State for Exiting the EU fears the government is still approaching crunch talks with an “Eeyorish pessimism”. He talks to Kevin Schofield
Dominic Raab seems to be a happy man. Reclining in an armchair in his office on the fourth-floor of Portcullis House, he says Parliament’s Brexiteers “had a good day on Tuesday”.
He is referring, of course, to the House of Commons backing Sir Graham Brady’s amendment calling for “alternative arrangements” to be found to the Irish backstop.
The precise details of what those arrangements might be remain something of a mystery, but the result at least gives Theresa May something to point to when the EU asks what kind of deal might be ratified by MPs.
Raab says: “From the Government’s point of view, the Prime Minister listened to the concerns people have been raising and caused the biggest parliamentary defeat in modern history and she got the backing of MPs as a result.
“That helps strengthen her hand going back to Brussels to renegotiate two or three key bits which can give MPs and the country confidence that they’re getting a good deal.”
The former Brexit Secretary is equally satisfied that the Cooper amendment, which aimed to give Parliament the power to extend Article 50 if no deal is agreed by the end of February, was defeated.
It was, he says, little more than an “attempt to derail, frustrate or delay Brexit”, something he says most of country will not stand for.
“A lot of people now just want this done,” he observes. “People are steadily, quietly resolute about leaving the EU, partly to get this done and deliver on the referendum, but we’ve all had enough of Brexit and there are other things we want to talk about, like the cost of living, schools and hospitals.”
He believes that if the EU continues to set its face against any renegotiation, that sentiment will only grow stronger.
“The path now is very clear – we’ll either get the changes necessary to pass the deal, or we leave on WTO terms,” Raab says. “I’d much rather leave with a deal, but equally the public out there want this done and they want us to move on.
“There’s a growing feeling in the Commons that is reflecting back that public shift in mood. That’s only going to get stronger if the EU rebuff us. The country does not like seeing a British Prime Minister go over and be treated like that.”
For now at least, the Prime Minister continues to insist that winning the necessary concessions from the EU is possible. To that end, she has bolstered the UK’s negotiating team by asking her de facto deputy, David Lidington, and attorney general Geoffrey Cox to assist Stephen Barclay, the man who succeeded Raab as Brexit Secretary.
Raab, however, can see a flaw in the plan. He says sending the famously-europhilic Lidington to negotiate on the UK’s behalf is a tactic that could well backfire.
“The problem is that if David Lidington is leading it – and he’s one of the most brilliant ministers that we’ve got and he’s got huge diplomatic expertise – I sense there’ll be a perception, perhaps unfairly, that this is a guy who wanted us to stay in the EU, he also was negotiating the Cameron deal, is he really going to have the kind of Brexiteer credentials to get this deal delivered in a way that is palatable back home?,” Raab says.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll get some compromise from the EU, but it’s probably 50/50. The problem is that if we get some substantive compromise which has to be weighed up, the risk is if you don’t have a Brexiteer leading that process, that actually we haven’t fought hard enough for it. Whether that’s fair or not, that’s probably the perception.
“There may be also a perception that they don’t have to give so much in Brussels to someone who was on the Remain campaign side and is widely seen as an advocate of the customs union option.”
Unsurprisingly given his stridently pro-Brexit views, an eventual outcome which sees the UK outside the European Union but still a member of its customs union is anathema to Raab. It is, however, what many pro-Remain Tories, including some in the Cabinet, as the only way for the Prime Minister to get her deal through the Commons.
“Anyone in Cabinet suggesting that we go for the customs union is arguing for the Government to break the manifesto pledge the Prime Minister and every Conservative member here made in the 2017 election and I think that’s a pretty shabby look to the public,” Raab declares.
“I think it’s the wrong thing for the country. We would suffocate all the opportunities of Brexit if we were inside the customs union if we don’t have control over our trade policy.
“But from a public trust point of view, customs union is a direct and flagrant breach of the manifesto commitment. I don’t see how we can countenance that, and the Prime Minister has been right to rule that out so far. I don’t think we’ll put Brexit behind us until we deliver on our promises and staying in the customs union doesn’t do that.”
Raab, of course, had his own opportunity to shape the Government’s approach to leaving the EU during five months as Brexit Secretary, a spell in office which ended when he resigned in protest at the deal Theresa May signed up to.
It was clearly a frustrating time, during which he believes promises he was made in advance about the extent of his influence were not kept. In short, he believes the PM allowed the civil servants – led by Olly Robbins – to have far too much say influence in the negotiation process.
Raab says: “I enjoyed working with all the civil servants. The mistake that’s been made is that you need to have ministerial accountability.
“I was given certain assurances when I took the job about deputising for the PM on the negotiations. The reason I felt that was important was you need to have the people who are substantively driving the negotiations making the decisions and the compromises that are inevitable, so they can defend them.
“In my period it started off fine, but Number 10 licensed the technical teams to do far more of the substantive negotiation than should have taken place. And as a result, they weren’t pushing things with a political antenna. That’s not knocking anyone individually, it’s just reflecting that the end game was always going to be political and the EU certainly treated it that way. If that’s the case, there was always a risk that what came back would not be crafted in a way that was politically sellable.”
He continues: “My fear was that we would end up with a deal which was not only bad for the country, but almost politically unsellable in Parliament and if you look at the vote then that judgement was right.
“It was a difference between directing and controlling the negotiation, and then at the end what was happening was Olly was out there with the team doing a brilliant job, but I wasn’t convinced that the positive proposals that we should be making were actually being articulated in Brussels.”
Raab takes particular issue with the EU’s claim, which has been repeated on several occasions in the wake of last week’s Commons votes, that the Irish backstop was a British idea.
He says: “If you ask David Davis and if you ask me, that is almost impossible to conceive. Neither one of us proposed the backstop. It must have come from the technical teams, and this is the type of problems you get. The negotiations must be driven by political leadership.”
Despite his misgivings about the make-up of the British negotiating team, Raab has not given up all hope of the EU offering up some concessions to the Prime Minister.
“It’s clear there needs to be some meaningful change, otherwise we won’t get this deal through Parliament,” he says. “And that presents a choice for Brussels and will focus their minds.
“Everyone’s leapt on the fact the usual suspects have jumped up and said we won’t change anything, but the EU is far broader and has more diverse opinions than those people who have commented and I think there are quite a few signs of a desire to get a deal done.
“But if they stay stubborn, that will be their choice. Brexit will define the UK, but it will also help to define them.”
Asked if he would vote down the deal again if Theresa May comes back empty-handed, Raab replies: “Absolutely.”
“I will not support a bad deal for this country,” he says. “Unless we know how we get out of that backstop and have a clear transition to a positive relationship for the future, I don’t see how I could defend it.”
A second meaningful vote defeat would significantly increase the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, forcing the UK to sign up to World Trade Organisation rules – something which many in government dread. Just last week, Treasury minister Mel Stride told The House that “in the short-to-medium term, I think it could be extremely difficult”.
Raab acknowledges that there will be “buffeting” if the UK leaves without an agreement in place but insists that any economic disruption will last six months at most. It would also help if the Government could be a bit more upbeat about the country’s prospects, he says.
“I’m not saying there isn’t any risk of short-term disruption, but it’s manageable,” Raab says. “The far bigger risk would be if we signed up to the deal as it’s currently set out, let alone the massive breach of public trust that it would involve.
“I feel that throughout this we have been too grey and gloomy about the whole exercise. We need that positive pragmatism to drive the Government through and also give the public a sense that this is a worthwhile endeavour, we believe in our country. If the British government doesn’t do it, who else is going to?”
What he sees as an overly-pessimistic approach in Whitehall towards Brexit is a theme Raab returns to again and again during the interview. Like his fellow Brexiteer Boris Johnson, the former minister seems to believe that the UK can make a success of leaving the EU through force of will alone.
He says: “If you look at the Cabinet as a whole, there is a gloominess about Brexit. But there are bright spots there – I think Jeremy Hunt and Saj have been more positive about this by saying ‘ok, we didn’t vote for Brexit but we’re going to make a success of Brexit’.
“The message as a whole from government has not been positive enough. It almost feels as if we’re tip-toeing up to this big decision for the country, rather than really taking a good, long fast and confident run-up to it. You can’t jump a ditch with two leaps, ok? You need to go at this with some confidence.
“There’s a case between Eeyorish pessimism and Tiggerish optimism for a bit of stubborn optimism – honest about the risks, but confident about the opportunities.”
But with warnings from numerous sources that leaving the EU without a deal will inevitably lead to economic pain, it is understandable why many are worried. Asked whether any job losses would result, Raab again says that “short-term buffeting” is to be expected, but that by the end of the year everything will be back to normal. Maybe that is what he means by stubborn optimism.
He says: “Businesses are hiring and letting people go at any one time, and what that is attributable to is hard to say.
“If we take a run at this with some self-confidence I think that by the end of 2019 we will see the economy in a stable, positive way.”
By then, the entire make-up of government may have changed. Theresa May has already confirmed that she will not lead the Conservatives into the 2022 election, and many of her own MPs would be happy to see her depart the scene once Brexit is finalised.
A fiercely ambitious politician, Raab is always included in any list of May’s potential successors. Asked the inevitable question about whether he wants the job, he is very careful not to rule himself out.
“I’ve always said that debate is for when we’re well beyond Brexit and the Prime Minister has made clear her intentions,” he says. “I think some of the speculation naturally followed from her statement that she won’t lead us into the next election.
“It’s a distraction and it feels a self-indulgent one to be talking about anything other than how we help forge the consensus to leave the EU in a responsible, successful and optimistic way. I’ve never ruled it out, but I don’t think it’s the subject for today.”
As Raab well knows, however, it is the subject of many a tea room conversation. Come the final run-off, he can be stubbornly optimistic that his name will be in the frame.