Dominic Raab: "Remain are getting jittery – we’re winning this debate"
The ‘panicked’ Remain camp may be resorting to ‘personal insults’ as the EU campaign enters its final two weeks, but Dominic Raab insists Vote Leave will stay firmly focused on the positive case for Brexit. And the justice minister believes his side have their opponents on the run
With two weeks to go until the EU referendum, voters up and down the land are united in a common view: thank goodness it is nearly over.
Dominic Raab, however, has a warning for those who think that the announcement of the result at some point on 24 June will signal the end of the European debate for the foreseeable future.
Assuming the bookies are right and there is a (probably narrow) vote to Remain, the Tory MP for Esher and Walton reckons we could get a couple of years of relative peace and quiet before it cranks up all over again.
The catalyst next time, he says, will be when David Cameron announces he is standing down as prime minister and Conservative leader some time between now and 2019.
“You would be naïve to suggest that it wouldn’t become a factor and one element in that,” says Raab. “I think the sensible thing, if it’s very close – within a couple of points – would be to take pause, respect the verdict of the British people and effectively shelve this debate until that point, which I hope is going to be as close to the 2020 election as possible.
“I think that’s the pragmatic, sensible approach. Then we can all get on with delivering the business of government.”
This “pause for breath” would give the public the chance to see if membership of the EU was as good for the country as the Remain camp are currently claiming.
Raab adds: “I think the public would expect us to accept their verdict, but of course things change. I’m just realistic and I’d like people to acknowledge that whenever the Tory leadership election is, I think it’s obvious that it will be part of that.
“If the verdict is to stay in the EU, and it’s close, I think those that do want to revisit it should just pause for a few years and shelve it.”
The lesson of the Scottish referendum in 2014 would suggest that Raab’s analysis is correct. Even a relatively comfortable 55% to 45% result has failed to close down the issue for a generation, as Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond both promised. If anything, calls for a new poll north of the Border have only increased in the last 18 months.
Not that Raab is expecting a Remain victory, of course. Indeed, he is visibly bullish about the Leave camp’s prospects as the clock ticks down to 23 June.
Some recent polls have put Leave in the lead, as the Brexit camp’s focus on immigration seems to be bearing fruit. Raab is cautiously optimistic, but it is clear that Vote Leave – for whom he is one of the main public faces – feel they have their opponents on the run.
“When we were down I never worried about what the bookies or the polls were saying, and now that we’re up I’m going to be careful,” he says.
“The raw truth is we’ve got two weeks to make the positive case for Out. The most interesting thing last week was not the polls, but how well Michel Gove performed on Sky in making the positive case, and in particular how warmly it was received by the studio audience.
“The prime minister did well, but got a tougher reception from the audience the previous night. I think opinion is coming our way and I think we need to be fairly resilient about the panicky state of the Remain campaign and the personalised insults coming our way.
“I think they’re very jittery and any time in a debate where you see people resort to personalised jibes or attacks I always think ‘we’ve got them, we’re winning this debate on the substance’. Our job is to keep our cool, stay focused on the substance and keep making the positive case for leaving the EU.”
Raab’s confidence emanates from the feedback he says he is getting from “shy Brexiteers” who are apparently being turned off by Remain’s warning of economic catastrophe if Brexit occurs.
He says: “My feeling is that support at grass roots level on the doorstep is stronger than reflected on the polling. The truth is we don’t quite know, and turnout will make a difference.
“A big part of this will be persuading people to come out and vote and I think the Remain campaign has been so pessimistic and those campaigning for Leave look like they are fired up. When you’re trying to sell a vision of the future that is important.
“We feel like the optimists in this debate and that’s important. The Remain campaign are expressing a lack of confidence in the very people they want to come out on 23 June.”
Unlike others in Vote Leave – most notably Boris Johnson – Raab stops short of being openly critical of the Remain campaign’s reliance on heavyweight warnings about the economic and security risks of Brexit. He also refuses to criticise the way David Cameron has conducted himself in the campaign.
“You would expect the prime minister to be as energetic as he could be. That’s why he’s such a great leader and prime minister – you would expect him to throw the kitchen sink at it.
“This is a prime minister that delivered a referendum and on top of that he’s given ministers a licence to be true to their convictions. So I don’t have anything bad to say about the prime minister.
“But it’s noticeable that it’s people like John Major or Michael Heseltine who are being wheeled out [to attack Vote Leave]. My experience is that the majority of our MPs, particularly those who were scarred by Maastricht, appreciate the opportunity to ventilate this debate.”
The Leave campaign’s main reasons for wanting Brexit have been well rehearsed. As well as immigration, they say that only by leaving the EU can Britain regain full sovereignty, giving voters the inalienable right to hire and fire those who set their laws.
But Raab says the scale of waste and corruption at the heart of the Brussels machine has been overlooked and that is something he plans to remedy.
In their most recent report, OLAF – the EU’s anti-fraud body – found that $888m were lost to fraud in 2015. That is slightly down on the year before – but twice as much as was lost in 2013.
Raab says it makes no sense for the British taxpayer to continue giving money to an organisation which wastes so much of it.
He says: “The bottom line is that you’ve got record levels of fraudulent use of EU funds going on at the moment. The EU is a signatory of the UN convention against corruption and the very first thing you’ve got to do is have a review of your systems and practices and they haven’t done that.
“If the EU was an African developing country, we wouldn’t be able to give them aid on that basis, so we are putting in a £350m per week gross contribution to an organisation that is representing a rich part of the world and if it was a poorer country we wouldn’t be able to give them a dime.
“We’ve got a relatively clean system of both politics and business. A lot of people are still cynical about our system, but my God it’s worse at the EU and we’re pouring money into it and giving them more and more powers.”
He adds: “My wife’s from Brazil and there’s a phrase there when they find corrupt politicians which is ‘they rob from me but they get things done’. Woe betide this country where we get into a situation where we put up with endemic corruption and fraud from an institution that doesn’t get things done.”
Raab also refuses to concede that Leave has been forced to focus on immigration because every major economic body has come out against Brexit.
IMF head Christine Lagarde has backed Remain as a “political favour” to George Osborne, he says, while he is also critical of Bank of England governor Mark Carney. “When he went to the Treasury Committee he was more even handed because he had the deputy governor by his side,” he says. “But when he went on Andrew Marr he felt like he was in much more political territory.”
Raab adds: “It seems to me in quite a few of these cases the political appointees have said something that looks quite partisan, but many of the experts are saying something different.
“I’m convinced that you need to take account of being free of the regulation that stymies small businesses. We’ll be better off if we’re freed up to trade more energetically with the growth markets like Latin America and Asia. I think it will be good for job creation and also cut prices in the stores.
“In all of their assessments Remain have massively airbrushed out of the picture the risks of staying in the EU. I don’t buy those dire warnings.”
Footage emerged earlier this week of a tired and emotional Jean Claude Juncker – the European Commission’s president – larking around with some clearly uncomfortable EU leaders.
For Dominic Raab, this encapsulated all that is wrong about the European project. “I thought it was shocking, but also telling,” he says. “Could you imagine a leader of this country doing that and it not being the first item of news on the BBC News at Ten?
“The bottom line is you don’t get nearly the kind of scrutiny or accountability in Brussels, whether it’s at the level of what are our leaders doing right the way through to the systemic checks and balances, which means we’re not pouring down the drain into a corrupt system millions of taxpayers’ money every week. And I think that’s a very glaring piece of evidence for coming out of the EU.”
Two more weeks of knocking on doors and handing out leaflets lie ahead, after which the voters will finally get to give the answer to the European question. Until the question is asked again, that is.