Tom Tugendhat MP: “I’ve come across nothing quite so childish as British politics and parliament”
As chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat is well-practiced in scrutinising Boris Johnson’s actions. He sits down with Anoosh Chakelian to discuss prorogation, Parliament’s “childish” behaviour, and maintaining the UK’s global standing in the meantime
While the Palace of Westminster is strangely quiet during its controversial – and as we’ll later discover, unlawful – hiatus, Tom Tugendhat is hard at work in his pokey Commons office.
With piles of papers and books covering the surfaces, a mini-fridge packed full of cans of Coke Zero, a few unopened bottles lining one shelf, and a kettlebell on the floor, there’s an air of a student essay crisis to our surroundings. A large whiteboard on the wall opposite bears scrawls in Arabic, a language Tugendhat learned in Yemen during his Cambridge degree in Islamic Studies.
As chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tugendhat is preoccupied with the rights of British nationals overseas, particularly amid Hong Kong protests against Chinese extradition; as a Kent MP, there’s the looming prospect of his patch turning into a lorry park in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
He’s just returned from a meeting with the Treasury about such constituency matters when we sit down for a chat (it was a “full and frank discussion”, he grins, mocking the delicate language of diplomacy).
Cracking open one of the cans – which promptly fizzes all over the carpet – and pulling up the thick khaki socks beneath his suit trousers, Tugendhat’s boyish, mildly goofy, presence contrasts with the gravity of his in-tray as Brexit looms and Britain’s place in the world shifts.
“There’s an awful lot we need to look at now,” he tells me. “It’s not that we couldn’t wait until the 14 October or whatever, whenever Parliament’s back, it’s just in many ways many of these things should’ve been done months ago – this is very immediate.”
As we speak, the Supreme Court is across the road deciding whether Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament is lawful. Although Tugendhat has voted loyally with the government under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson on Brexit matters, his disdain for the constitutional chicanery is clear.
“I think the government has been spectacularly unwise in various areas. The prorogation looks like a cheap parlour game – no, it doesn’t, it looks like a cheap schoolboy stunt. That’s what it looks like,” asserts Tugendhat.
“And it’s failed. It was clearly pushed through in order to stop Parliament passing what I happen to think was an unwise law. But it failed. And actually, what it did is it forced people to act sooner than they would otherwise have done. It was confrontational and unnecessary and didn’t achieve its aim. I think that’s daft.”
No 10’s sledgehammer approach to leaving the European Union on 31 October “do or die” has seen some extraordinary scenes in the Commons and the Conservative Party. What did Tugendhat make of Johnson’s suspension of 21 Conservative MPs who rebelled on a vote to take over the parliamentary timetable to try and prevent no deal?
“I think they need to find ways to make sure that the party is able to include people from across the spectrum, because if you’re losing people like David Gauke and Rory Stewart, you’re losing some real talent,” he reflects. “And the idea that they’re not Conservative – really?”
To casual Westminster insiders, Tugendhat is known mainly as a former Army man, a rising star, and as that Tory MP who changed a nappy during a live phone interview with John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He started out as a journalist in Lebanon before embarking on a decade in the military and diplomacy, serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has dual British and French citizenship and his mother is French. His wife is also a supreme court judge in France.
Tugendhat, now 46, was selected in an open primary in 2014, and his credentials as a modern, outward-looking type of Tory are attractive to a certain wing of the party nostalgic for Cameroon openness.
Elected for the safe Tory seat of Tonbridge and Malling in 2015, he soon commanded the attention of his party when elected as chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee by a landslide in July 2017.
A few months later, as frustration at Theresa May mounted among Tory MPs, “Toog” was one of the names tipped as potential leadership material by those desperate for a fresh face. In October 2017, he told this magazine it would “be great” to be prime minister.
Yet the party chose a different path. Tugendhat himself backed Michael Gove during the summer’s Tory leadership election, and Boris Johnson – the former foreign secretary he spent a year scrutinising in committee – is now in charge. An outcome that’s taking all of Tugendhat’s diplomatic skills today to discuss, it seems. He told the Spectator last September that he “didn’t get into politics to talk about Boris”. Now he calls him “Johnson”.
“His behaviour isn’t a surprise,” he tells me, when asked about Johnson’s premiership so far. “Nor should it be a surprise to anybody. We’ve known what Johnson’s like for the best part of 20 years. We knew what he was like when he was shadow arts minister under Michael Howard, we knew what he was like when he was writing for the Times, when he was writing for the Telegraph. He hasn't changed.”
Tugendhat doesn’t specify, but it is clear which incidents he is referring to. Johnson was removed from the shadow frontbench in 2004 for dishonesty about his personal life (he’d called a story about his affair “piffle”), sacked from the Times for inventing a quote, and peddled dubious populist euroscepticism in his reports from Brussels for the Telegraph.
Although Tugendhat insists “the heart of the Conservative Party is still fair-minded, open”, he warns that Brexit is warping the way things work.
“The challenge we’ve all got at the moment is there is a single policy that’s got to be delivered, and that is distorting areas, and we’ve got to be very careful that we realise that Brexit is not an end state… The key to remember with Brexit is that the purpose is the happiness and prosperity of the British people, and as we are trying to deliver a policy outcome, we mustn’t leave a scorched earth behind us.”
Johnson’s administration ignoring the recently passed Benn Act could be one such example of a destructive legacy. Johnson himself has told party members he’s only bound by the legislation “in theory”, and the Brexiteer former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has encouraged him to “martyr” himself for Brexit by breaking the law and refusing to seek an extension to Article 50 in the event of no deal being agreed.
“The Prime Minister’s made it very clear that he won’t,” says Tugendhat.
But does he trust him?
“The prime minister has made it very clear that he won’t!” he repeats, smiling. “Look, governments can’t ignore the law. Now, I’m not telling you that he might not find some way around it – the routes I have heard run through everything from resignation to dissolving parliament and calling an election. So I have no idea what he’s planning, I haven’t a clue.
“But I think it’s very unlikely he can ignore – in fact, I’m going to change that, he can’t ignore the law,” he concludes. “And by the way, that’s not just because UK governments can’t ignore the law, it is such a fantastically bad idea.”
Although Tugendhat backed Remain in the EU referendum, he voted against the latest extension of the deadline; his argument against Johnson dismissing the Benn Act is one of justice rather than Brexit.
“The UK’s economic strength is based on open markets, fair markets, and that fairness comes from respecting the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Undermining that undermines the economic strength of the United Kingdom,” he says.
Another concern is that Brexit is pulling the British government’s focus from events abroad. “While the government is very tied up with obviously delivering one issue, I think it’s important for others who have the ability to reach beyond it to speak out, and that’s why I’m using a lot of time to speak about Hong Kong.”
He believes that Richard Ratcliffe is “absolutely right” in suggesting Brexit distracts from the case of his wife, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been wrongly imprisoned in Iran for over three years.
“The fact that now it’s three British nationals we know of who are being held effectively as hostages in Iran, tells you quite a lot,” he says. “But you can look more widely. You can look at our reaction to what appears to be – and I don’t know this to be so – an Iranian attack on a Saudi oil facility. You can look at Russian aggression in Georgia and see other areas where the UK frankly should be acting.
“We are a major global player. We do have some of the most capable military forces anywhere in the world, we are still a very major economy – it’s quite clear that we should be having a major say in these areas, and sadly at the moment, we seem to be wrapped around ourselves in the European Union.”
Yet Tugendhat remains optimistic about Britain’s global influence. “We are still one of the most stable and longstanding democracies in the world, we are still bound by the rule of law and the case that is going on in the Supreme Court is an example of that,” he insists. “Whatever decision it comes out with, that will hold. The government’s not going to call troops onto the streets or ignore it. The rule of law will apply.”
Ever the diplomat, Tugendhat praises “really talented people working in No 10” – including David Frost, the official now helming Brexit negotiations, and the charity policy wonk and Cameron’s former speechwriter, Danny Kruger, who is now Johnson’s political secretary. He won’t be drawn on Dominic Cummings, the maverick strategist said to be behind the recent unorthodox machinations, but insists “it’s very important he [Johnson] has a good support team around him”.
“Ministers are responsible for the teams they hire,” he adds. “The individuals are not responsible for being hired. So if Boris has got a good team, that’s Boris who chose a good team. If he’s got a bad team, that’s Boris who chose a bad team. Don’t blame the team.”
Throughout our conversation, Tugendhat repeatedly challenges Johnson to deliver the Brexit deal he has promised. “The one thing the prime minister of the United Kingdom must prove they can do is negotiate on the world stage for the benefit of the British people, and the benefit of the British people today is to have an agreement with the countries that make up half of their trading partners,” he says.
Although Tugendhat admits “I think it is very difficult” to do this deal, he holds Johnson to the promises of the Leave campaign. “Johnson and his team led the referendum clear that they could deliver an agreement in 2016, they were absolutely certain they could, they said it would be an easy deal”.
“Do it,” he commands an invisible PM. “You said you can do it, you promised you can do it. Do it. It’s the one thing you must do.”
Having voted with the government for a general election, Tugendhat is nevertheless scathing about the “people versus Parliament” set-up reportedly favoured by No 10. “That’s a really stupid framing, frankly,” he says. “If you don’t like parliament as it’s currently structured, vote for a different member of parliament… It’s daft. I have great faith in the British people and I think they are far more intelligent than some political apparatchiks seem to think.”
This type of election could also add fuel to the characterisation of MPs as “traitors”, “saboteurs” and “mutineers” in recent years – language Tugendhat calls “rather silly, it’s childish”.
“Barrack room jokes are supposed to be childish,” he adds, “I have to say I’ve come across nothing quite so childish as British politics and parliament.”
He warms to his theme. “People are unwilling to take decisions, unwilling to be responsible for their actions, unwilling to be responsible for their words, unwilling to face up to the consequences of their actions. It’s really quite extraordinary how childish many people here are.”
Does he miss military life, then? “One of the nice things about the Army is that it aligns accountability, responsibility and authority very clearly. So you know who’s done what, why, and who’s to blame, right?”
A loyal MP who decries parliament’s behaviour, an enthusiastic Conservative who laments his leader’s strategy, and a foreign policy expert who sees Britain neglecting vital concerns overseas, Tom Tugendhat’s frustration carries weight in such a divided party. Boris Johnson has yet to escape his scrutiny.
Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman