Brexit, 2010 – 2017
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): As a backbencher, were you of the opinion that a referendum was inevitable and had to happen?
Gavin Barwell (GB): Yes. So, this is now quite a way back, at a time when some Conservative MPs were voting for motions demanding one. So, before I became a junior minister. I didn’t vote for that motion. But I think that the clear political pressures on the Conservative Party electorally were pushing the Cameron Government in that direction.
Having talked to them subsequently, rather than what I thought at that time, I think David (Cameron)’s judgment was that whoever came after him as Tory leader would almost certainly be pushed into holding one, and that the prospects of winning one were better if he did it then, rather than letting it happen down the line somewhere.
Now, obviously, things didn’t work out quite as he planned, but I think, for both of those reasons – the UKIP electoral pressure on the Conservative Party and the sense that, if it was going to come anyway, better do it when you’re in control of the situation and, hopefully, can get the result that he would have wanted – I think those were the two factors at play.
UKICE: I suppose along similar lines, do you think the 2017 General Election could or should have been avoided?
GB: I have mixed views on that. Obviously, it’s difficult for me to be completely objective about it because it brought to an end my parliamentary career. I think that Theresa (May) saw the problems that were coming down the line and believed that she needed a larger majority to be able to deal with those. I think that judgment has been proved correct by events.
I think the problems are two-fold. One, she would acknowledge herself, if she was talking to you, that she ran an absolutely disastrous campaign. Therefore, she didn’t get the result she was looking for. But secondly she was nervous about spelling out very bluntly what problems she foresaw, because they were about internal party management and the ability to get any deal she negotiated through. That, I think, made the election more difficult, because there was a little bit of, ‘Why are we having this election? Isn’t it just taking advantage of Labour being in a very weak strategic position?’
I also wonder – and this is, I think, the most interesting question – whether December 2019 demonstrates that, in order to get those Leave voters who are not normally Conservatives to vote Conservative, they had to see two years of Brexit being obstructed in Parliament. It wasn’t enough to warn them. In 2017, she was kind of saying, ‘Look, give me a clear mandate to negotiate and deliver what you’ve just voted for.’ Maybe that wasn’t enough, they had to see all the difficulties actually materialise before they would take this big step of switching their voting allegiance.
So, I suppose, in simple terms, I would answer your question: I think her judgment that she couldn’t deliver a deal with the numbers she had in Parliament has been proved correct. But I think her understandable reluctance to spell out exactly why she was calling the election made it more difficult. The really big question is, even if you’d run a perfect campaign, maybe to really get the result she was looking for, the voters needed to see more difficulty getting Brexit done before they were going to switch.
UKICE: What did you make of the way the Government was handling Brexit in the period after Theresa May became leader, through to the general election, sitting there as a junior minister, not around the Cabinet table?
GB: I’ll give you one slightly mealy-mouthed caveat, which is I was quite focused on housing policy. Although I’d campaigned for Remain, I wasn’t someone who had devoted my whole political career to obsessing about Europe. So, I wasn’t following it in huge detail.
I was a bit uncomfortable with bits of her 2016 conference speech. But I could see she was in a difficult position. She’d won the leadership election in the end, incredibly easily, mainly because the two main Leave candidates had sort of imploded each other. She clearly felt a need to demonstrate – both to those people in the country that had voted Leave, and to the bits of the Tory Party that had campaigned for it – that although she’d campaigned for Remain, she understood what was required. So, there was a little bit of proving that you can be trusted on this, I guess.
I understood the need for that, but I suppose with the benefit of hindsight. You’re asking me what I felt at the time, which was just a slight uneasiness, coupled with an understanding of why it was being done. With the benefit of hindsight, certainly there’s some truth that an expectation was built up then of what was going to be delivered that was always going to be difficult, given the parliamentary arithmetic, certainly post-2017, to deliver.
I can remember a particular meeting where I was briefing a whole load of Conservative backbench MPs on Chequers. At the end of the meeting John Redwood, Bernard Jenkin, and Bill Cash stayed behind, and we had an interminable further discussion about it.
I wrapped it up eventually. I just said to them, ‘Look, I just want to end by saying one thing, which is not specific to this at all, but it’s just a general observation. If David Cameron had come back from the renegotiation with something like this, you would have bitten his hands off. It’s only because you’ve seen the ‘Promised Land’, and think you can get exactly what you want, that you’re now being difficult about this.’ There’s a little bit of that in behind your question..
UKICE: Did they say, ‘Yes?’
GB: They said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Absolutely not. We’ve always been very clear that we wanted perfection and we’ve never been prepared to compromise for anything less. You’ve clearly misunderstood our position.’ But I’m absolutely certain it is true that, if in 2013 or 2014 they’d been offered something like that, they’d have leapt at it.
UKICE: Do you think she underestimated the strength of her position when she became leader, in some senses? That she didn’t really need to try quite as hard as she did to convince Leavers that she was now one of them?
GB: No, I don’t, really. There are two things that a lot of people that comment on this say which I don’t think are quite right. A lot of people say, like, ‘She left it too late to go down the cross-party route. We should have done that right from the start, after the referendum.’
Of course, if we didn’t operate in a world where our Government is inextricably linked with the legislature, if you had a presidential system, maybe that’s what a president would have done in that situation. But, from a party management perspective, if she had immediately, on taking the leadership, tried to pivot away from a section of her party and do some kind of cross-party deal, it would have been catastrophic to her position as party leader.
Then I think, in a way, what happened in the leadership election didn’t work in her favour. If Andrea (Leadsom) had carried on and there’d been a leadership election where, if you like, she had adopted a, sort of, ‘Brexit means Brexit but we also have to remember the Union, we’ve got to get some solution that works on all fronts,’ versus Andrea taking a more absolutist position, and she’d won a convincing majority in a leadership election on that intellectual argument, then I think she’d have been in a stronger position.
In a way, because all the opponents fell away, although the Tory Party was like, ‘Okay, right, Theresa May is in charge, away we go,’ she hadn’t won the argument for that policy with the mass membership at that point. So, I don’t think she was in as strong a position as some people think she was.
Arriving in Number 10
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Can you just think back to when you arrived in Number 10 as Chief of Staff, and describe what sort of state the place was in?
Gavin Barwell (GB): Yes, so she appointed me on the Saturday morning after the general election. I went down to see her at her house in Sonning and spent, I don’t know, three or four hours with her. Obviously, I’d served with her as an MP for seven years – so I knew her reasonably well, but I didn’t really know her and I wasn’t close to her particularly. And so I thought, ‘Look, if I’m going to do this job, I need to completely understand what she’s thinking, what she wants to do. Why does she think this election has gone wrong? I need to properly understand her mind.’
You can imagine, knowing Theresa, that was not an easy conversation to have initially. But I was very upfront about it. I said, ‘I can’t do the job unless I understand you. I know you hate having these kinds of conversations, so I’ve come up with a game to make it a bit easier. I’m going to tell you three things about Theresa May, three things you’ve done that I love and made me really proud as a Conservative MP, and three things you’ve said that I disagree with and don’t like. We’ll use that as a way of getting the conversation going.’
I put a lot of store in the relationship that we developed in that first conversation. Then I went into Number 10 on the Saturday evening and saw Jeremy (Heywood) and Peter Hill, who was her Principal Private Secretary. At that point, I think the Number 10 civil service was very pleased I’d been appointed because the political team was shredded. Obviously, she’d fired Nick (Timothy) and Fi(ona) Hill, and a couple of other people had handed in their notice. Many of the others were, understandably, very upset about what had happened, how it had turned out, and very worried about what the next few days might entail – both in terms of could we knit together a confidence and supply agreement, and what her position was going to be when she had to go before the 1922 Committee on the Monday.
The political operation was completely hollowed out and quite psychologically affected by what had happened. I would say, alongside Jeremy, who I think had been a key influence over those 36 hours between the election result and my turning up, the other person who played a very important role was Gavin Williamson as the Chief Whip, who I think had very quickly seen the need to get a confidence and supply agreement in place with the DUP to give the Government some solidity to its position, and had worked very well with the civil service to work out what that might look like. I think, by the point I was going into Number 10, he was already on his way over to Belfast to have discussions with them.
I suppose I would draw a contrast between the political team, and what state the political operation was in, with the civil service operation, which was very much focused on, ‘How do we ensure we’ve got a functioning Government?’ and Gavin as Chief Whip, who knew what needed to be done to secure it.
UKICE: Did you actually have any reservations about the implications of doing a confidence and supply agreement with the DUP for the Brexit talks. Did you think, ‘This is going to cause us problems down the line,’ or was it just the only port in a storm?
GB: I would say to you that I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t really see any alternative to it. We were in the situation we were in, in terms of the parliamentary arithmetic, and it seemed necessary.
To a degree, if you like, although the country had clearly not voted for a majority Government – a Conservative Government – it had voted in a way that didn’t leave any other option available. So this felt like the only option that was available with the parliamentary arithmetic.
UKICE: Was there anything specific that you didn’t like about it? Was it just the fact that you had to do the deal, or was there something about the DUP that worried you?
GB: I think it was more the constitutional position in Northern Ireland. Obviously, the UK Government has to be the arbiter of the Good Friday Agreement and so we had to be really careful that the arrangement we put in place to ensure that we had a stable UK Government wasn’t damaging to the prospects of getting the devolved assembly back up and running, and to the wider peace process in Northern Ireland.
Then, I think understandably, there was quite a lot of concern among the nationalist community about the arrangement. Theresa spent quite a lot of time talking to people about that and trying to reassure them about what the agreement involved and what it didn’t involve, essentially.
UKICE: When you came in the Government is about to kick off the Withdrawal Agreement talks. David Davis is about to go to Brussels. He’s been promising the row of the summer over sequencing. I just wondered whether you had any thoughts about how decisions were being made about the Government’s approach to those talks. Was it absolutely clear what the Government’s objectives were and how it was going to handle them? Or was that still very much a work in progress?
GB: It was definitely a work in progress. I would say we didn’t have a clear agenda for what we were trying to achieve until we adopted Chequers, if you’re talking about across the whole board about what our negotiating position was. It wasn’t until the Chequers white paper that we had absolute clarity on that
UKICE: Were you clear about what you were trying to do in the withdrawal talks, though, because that’s obviously the thing that’s immediately kicking off?
GB: Yes, I think that went reasonably smoothly until we hit a major problem in the autumn. First of all, I think a very big decision – and my memory is that this decision was made during the general election campaign; therefore, it has been made before I came into the building – was about sequencing. My memory is that we had agreed to that sequencing before I came into the building.
I understand entirely why it happened, and it may well have been impossible to avoid it, but it was a major factor in what followed. Sequencing was the genesis of the backstop, which is ultimately what stopped the deal getting through Parliament. The EU was saying – for understandable reasons – we have to address avoiding a hard border in the Northern Ireland before we go on to talk about the future relationship.
The three key issues in the negotiations in 2017 were the financial bill, citizens’ rights, and the arrangements in terms of Northern Ireland. My memory is that initially we made pretty good progress on citizens and on the money. I think the Treasury officials deserve a lot of credit for the technical way the negotiations on the financial sums were handled. On citizens’ rights, there was a lot of domestic political flak about whether you should just make a unilateral offer before you’d negotiated the reciprocal part of the arrangement, but actually, to a degree, both sides were trying to achieve a broadly similar thing, which was to protect the rights of their citizens on both sides of the Channel.
But my memory is that although there were some difficulties on points of detail – particularly the role of the CJEU (Court of Justice of the European Union) in enforcing the rights of citizens, which Theresa was obviously very keen to avoid – generally we made good progress on them over a period of time. But the difficulty, even that early on, was customs. We were already looking ahead to thinking about what kind of future relationship we wanted.
Towards the end of that summer – maybe in about August – we published, for the first time, some papers. I think they were originally called ‘MaxFac’, and then the ‘Single Customs Territory’ idea, essentially. The two models were published and were both put out there, maybe in about August of that year. But it was already quite clear that the issue of customs was going to be the most difficult issue, in my mind, by July or August – so a couple of months in, essentially.
UKICE: Can I just press you on the hypothetical? You’ve said that the insistence by the EU on a certain sequencing made it harder for Parliament to ultimately accept anything. Can you foresee an alternate reality, therefore, if the EU had said, ‘Okay, let’s accept what you’re saying about sequencing?’ Do you think we’d have ended up in a different place?
GB: I don’t think it would have been a lot easier. I think it would have been a bit easier. Leo Varadkar’s clear objective from the talks was to demonstrate to the Irish people that Brexit wasn’t going to lead to a change in the lived experience of people at the border, essentially.
So, if you had agreed a trade deal, it would have had to have been one that protected that. But I think the particularly difficult issue that ultimately stopped the Withdrawal Agreement going through was that, because you were discussing the backstop before you could see the trade deal. As a result, it couldn’t be time limited. That meant, from the point of view of Conservative backbenchers, that there was no route out of it. And the Government couldn’t say, ‘There is a route out of this.’
The crunch of the argument, when you come to the second and third meaningful votes, is essentially Theresa and Geoffrey Cox, if you think about his letter versus his performance at the despatch box – and we’re leaping forward quite a while here, but the crux of the argument – was basically, ‘You are right to say, ‘legally, there is no route out of this backstop.’ But we are telling you politically, that, now that we’ve changed the backstop to have a UK-wide customs element in it, the backstop is basically a bucket of cold sick to both sides. Therefore, the actual real prospect of the EU wanting to stay in an arrangement where we have zero-tariff access to their market, with no level playing field provisions and no deal on fishing, is zero.’
I think that argument that Geoffrey and Theresa were making has been totally vindicated by (Michel) Barnier’s position in the talks that are underway now, right? What they’re absolutely desperate to avoid is to give us tariff-free access to their market without level playing field provisions and a fishing deal. The backstop gave us those two things.
So, yes, the revised backstop would have been a horrible place for the UK to end up, but it would have been a horrible place for the EU to end up as well. Therefore, it wouldn’t have happened. That was the Government’s case, really.
I think that, because the two got separated that way, you got into this ‘What if?’ argument that wouldn’t have been there if the two were together. But if the two were together, it would have had some kind of customs arrangement that a bunch of Tory MPs would have found very uncomfortable. So, it wouldn’t have made it easy, but it would have at least got rid of the idea that, ‘We’re going to be trapped in this world forever.’
UKICE: Isn’t the logic of your position that the best deal the UK could get would be a permanent version of the backstop, because the only way out is to make concessions to the EU? I’m quite intrigued as to how you then sell anything else as better for the UK than the backstop.
GB: My view is that the best deal we could have got was a novel customs union. So, essentially, the Facilitated Customs Arrangement has ended up where what you’re trying to do is have a system where, when goods arrive at the UK border, you identify: are they solely for the UK market, in which case you can charge UK-only tariffs? Or are they going to go on into the EU, in which case you charge EU tariffs?
Right now, today, the technology has not proven how to do that, but most of the people we spoke to believe that that system is possible over a period of time. So, if you’re asking me – I’m not talking about Theresa now, if you’re asking me, personally – the best deal we could have got would have been alignment with the rules on goods so that you avoided the regulatory checks at the border. Not just NI to Ireland but UK to EU, and some kind of novel customs arrangement that avoided customs checks at the UK-EU border but, over time, would have given us some flexibility to vary our tariffs for third-country trade deals.
The crux of this issue has always been, I think, that the Brexiteers are right to say, the ability to do our own trade deals with other countries is an important part of what Brexit is all about. But we can’t have checks at the Northern Ireland border. That is the crunch point of the whole thing.
That’s where Theresa wanted to get, and I agree with her on that. You’d still have been in uncomfortable territory trying to sell that to Tory MPs. But you’d have been in a better place than trying to sell a backstop where you couldn’t demonstrate a way out.
UKICE: Just your style as Chief of Staff as much as anything else, did you come in having learnt some lessons from the experience of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill?
UKICE: Did you make a conscious decision to do things differently?
GB: No. Once I was there, I made that decision a little bit. I didn’t really know Fiona, but I knew Nick well. My personal experience of him, as the Housing Minister, was that he was an excellent Chief of Staff. When we were trying to agree the housing white paper there was quite a tension between the Treasury, which wanted planning reform and to build all the houses in London and the South East, where the demand is. And Theresa, who wanted market reform and to link housing policy with industrial strategy, and try and use it to shift where demand is.
We – Saj(idJavid) and I – were stuck in the middle and trying to negotiate a middle way, and Saj didn’t have a particularly good relationship with Number 10. There was quite a bit of hostile briefing going on in both directions, so I was used as the intermediary. I would meet regularly with Nick.
To me, he had all the qualities you’d want for someone in that role, which is he understood the policy detail that he was arguing with me about. He also knew the Prime Minister’s mind, so, if he did a deal with you, the Prime Minister’s letter that then would get sent a few days later would mirror what he had promised you as the deal. He had strong opinions but, if you had the arguments, you could change his mind. You could convince him that there was a different solution that would give the Prime Minister what she wanted. So, I had a very positive experience.
Obviously, I was aware of a little bit of the chatter in the media about the relationship Fiona and Nick has with some the Cabinet ministers. But, to be blunt with you, I was desperately trying – certainly in the election campaign – I was just focused on trying to save my seat, so I wasn’t paying a huge amount of attention to all of that.
When I came into the building, it very rapidly became clear that there had been a very toxic environment. I mean, talking to civil servants – and I met with most of the senior members of the Cabinet in the first 48 hours – I realised things were much worse than I had realised. Or let me put it this way: that my experience of Nick had not been mirrored by lots of other people’s experience of how that operation had worked.
So, then, yes, I was very keen to set a new tone. But you can probably imagine what the mood is like in that kind of situation. There’s a little bit of, ‘The King is dead. Long live the new King.’ Lots of people who had probably worked perfectly well with Nick and Fi kind of thought the mood was to criticise the previous regime.
I’d lost a number of Theresa’s key political advisors. Obviously, Nick and Fi had gone, and Will Tanner left. Chris Wilkins left, so a number of the senior SpAds had gone. I wanted to keep those that were still there, and particularly JoJo Penn, who was my deputy. So the mood I wanted to strike, if you like, was the people that advised Theresa before, clearly, had lots of qualities because she was in a very strong political position at the point that they called the 2017 election.
I also wanted to make clear: ‘Some mistakes were made in that campaign, and the mood in this building wasn’t right. So, there are some things we need to change.’ But I didn’t want the people that had been there before to feel that everything that they had done before was not wanted.
I think, when you’re in a leadership position like that, you’ve got to try and heal the wounds and bring people together. So, it was respecting a lot of the work they had done before, but trying to change the culture a bit and the mood of the place.
UKICE: How much of a repair job did you need to do with the parliamentary party more generally, not just the Cabinet?
GB: Theresa made a brilliant start at that. The 1922 meeting on the Monday night was one of the most impressive performances I saw from her in the whole period that I was working for her, because at that meeting I think her job was on the line when she walked into that room. She just got the tone absolutely right.
I came in with her, and she started off by saying, ‘Right, first thing: the relationship wasn’t right between Number 10 and the parliamentary party. I’ve taken one of the people who, sadly, lost his seat as a result of me making mistakes, and I’ve brought him in as Chief of Staff.’ They liked that. Some of them changed their minds over the subsequent two years but, initially at least, appointing me was a popular decision.
Then she just did a very good mea culpa. I can’t remember the exact line, but she said something like, ‘I got us into this mess, and I’m going to try and get us out of it.’ She didn’t in any way try and apologise or whitewash. She was very: ‘I’ve messed up. We’re in a hole because I’ve messed up. I understand why you’re all angry. This is what I’m going to try and do to get us out of it.’
Then that immediately got the room in the right frame of mind. That did allow her, later in the meeting, to gently say, ‘Look, what I’m about to say now is not in any way rowing back on, ‘I got us into this mess,’ but we have just got X million more votes than we got two years ago, and got the highest percentage share of the vote that the Conservative Party has got. That, kind of, tells you the underlying strategy wasn’t wrong. It’s just we executed it really poorly in the election. We could have got a really good result.’
I thought she was quite skilful in how she pitched to the room that day.
UKICE: Then what did you have to do, going forward?
GB: We had – I had – a lunch every week with a different group of Conservative MPs. I had regular interaction with the parliamentary party. For a long time, it really worked very well. The problems only really began when, basically, the parliamentary party split almost in two over Chequers.
From that point on, it was incredibly difficult, But I like to feel – you’ll have to ask others – I’d like to feel that, with a few exceptions, I remained on civil terms with everybody, even in the endgame when it was clearly incredibly difficult. There are a few people that won’t talk to me anymore, but they’re not really people whose conversations I mourn.
UKICE: One of the things that you inherited as you go into the first phase is what looks externally to be an increasingly difficult relationship between Olly Robbins and David Davis as Brexit secretary. How was that seen from Number 10?
GB: I don’t think we ever got it completely right. What I mean by that is with David (Davis), with Dominic (Raab), or with Steve (Barclay) it was a very difficult thing to get right. First of all Olly (Robbins) is, was, and hopefully at some point in the future will be, a brilliant civil servant. Intellectually, he had really mastered all the complexity of what needed doing, and led a great team of officials that carried out those negotiations. But I think he did think of himself very much as the Prime Minister’s sherpa, and saw himself reporting to the Prime Minister. Therefore, I think it was difficult for whoever was Secretary of State, who sometimes felt, ‘How do I fit into that relationship?’
I think also the way that European Councils tend to work, ultimately, obviously David, and then Dominic and Steve were having the interaction with Barnier, but at the crucial moments at the European Council it’s the Prime Minister in the room.
So, no, it wasn’t easy. At first Olly was holding two roles, as it were. He was the Permanent Secretary at DExEU (Department for Exiting the European Union), and he was the Prime Minister’s sherpa. We separated those two roles. I think that worked better because it at least made the Secretary of State feel that he had his own Permanent Secretary, and it probably meant that the Secretary of State felt that no deal preparation work was getting as much attention as it should be. I think he felt, when Olly was doing both jobs, that the focus was on the negotiations with not enough focus on the no deal preparation.
The evolution of Brexit policy
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): I want to move on to the Florence speech if that’s okay. Firstly, can you talk us through how the Prime Minister came to accept the need for an implementation period?
Gavin Barwell (GB): It’s something that the Chancellor had lobbied her for extensively but although she was initially cautious about committing to it, she’d always been open to the idea. In the speech she gave before the general election at Lancaster House she set out her principles, and that left open the possibility of an implementation period as I remember it. I wasn’t, obviously, involved in writing that, but that speech floated it as a possibility. She’d been nervous about committing to it, because she was keen on timetables and getting things done as quickly as possible. She didn’t want anything that felt like kicking the can down the road.
But I think that the Chancellor’s arguments – about giving business time to prepare, worries that a cliff edge was coming, and the prospect of people having to start taking decisions on the assumption that we might not have everything in place by then, and moving things that they might not actually need to move – that argument, I think, was quite powerful.
My memory also is that David Davis was quite helpful in that he was not unsympathetic to the arguments for an implementation period. That made it an easier thing to agree at Cabinet level. It wasn’t necessarily a Remain/Leave argument you had there around the Cabinet table.
UKICE: Did you think the vision that you set out in Florence for the future relationship, ‘We’ll stick with some rules, but we’ll have managed divergence’, did you think that was a realistic way forward? Did you think that was negotiable with the EU, or was that just what you’d get the Cabinet then sign up to?
GB: I thought Florence was a good step forward but didn’t take us to the answer, was my private view. I think, broadly, that is how the EU responded to it. There wasn’t enough detail behind some of the things we were saying there, but I think it was an important step forward. It worked reasonably well as a speech.
One of its political purposes, as well as trying to advance the process with the EU a bit, was that we also wanted to deal with the Brexit issue before party conference so that we could talk about some other things in her party conference speech. Obviously, that didn’t, in the end, work so well, given what happened at that party conference speech. But that was the plan.
At a political level, I thought the Florence speech was a good step forward, but if you’re saying to me, ‘Do I think – did I think at the time – this is the answer to all our problems here?’ No, I didn’t. I knew a further evolution was required.
We’ll probably come onto it in a bit, but there are two speeches she gave during my time as Chief of Staff that I am very proud of. One is the 2018 Party Conference speech, which you can imagine had quite a lot of pressure on it, given what had happened the previous year. The second is the Mansion House speech that I guess we’ll come on to shortly, which I think stands the test of time very well and, if you like, provided that further evolution and detail that Florence lacked but clearly was a continuing thread from Florence.
UKICE: How difficult was it for you facing the autumn, the talks seemingly getting very badly stalled, and coming off the back cover of that extraordinarily difficult party conference? Was that a time at Number 10 when it just seemed as though everything that could go wrong was going wrong, and no progress was being made? Or did you think, actually, ‘We’re landing this, we’re getting very close. We can really see our way through to getting into phase two of the talks?’
GB: I get appointed. The 1922 meeting goes well, so we get the confidence and supply agreement. So, for the first week or so, things went well.
Then, quite quickly, we were hit with Grenfell, which was just incredibly difficult. The whole team at Number 10 – myself included – made a terrible mistake not getting the Prime Minister down there on the day. It took a long time to recover from that, a huge amount of her time that no-one knows about, in private, with survivors, to rebuild her standing with them to get to a reasonable position.
Probably by about the summer recess, so the end of July, you felt we’d got back onto some kind of even keel. We then had not a bad couple of months during August and September. Then the party conference speech was a huge blow and set off the first bout of leadership wobbling, a little bit unfairly because those events were really beyond her control. But, nonetheless, you can’t say anything other than that it was an absolute nightmare.
My memory is that, by the point of conference, the negotiations felt like they were going okay and we had made progress on the financial settlement and citizens’ rights. We had a final compromise on citizens’ rights, which involved a sunset role for the CJEU for eight years..
It was only quite late in the process, quite shortly before we were hoping to get it agreed, that this new text emerged on Northern Ireland and what became, eventually, the Northern Ireland protocol. That was incredibly problematic and had got sprung on us. My memory is, although politically it was difficult post-conference, it was a little bit later than that that the real concerns about making significant progress emerged around the Northern Ireland issue.
UKICE: You sound as though you were surprised by the text on Northern Ireland.
UKICE: That seems to be a bit of a failure of the negotiating process?
GB: Right. You’re best, probably, talking to Olly (Robbins) on the detail about that, but I do think he, and his team, and we at political level, do feel that text was sprung on us, yes.
UKICE: Do you think there was a misreading by the UK side, of how insistent the Irish where and how much backing they had from the 27 member states?
GB: I think that’s unarguable, given what happened. Clearly we weren’t expecting text of that detail, and that’s what we got presented with. I think our expectation was there would have to be language in the joint report, but that we thought that there was an understanding that the issue could only be properly resolved in the future relationship.
We knew we were going to have to have some language in there, because one of the things that have bedevilled the UK in this whole process is we only ever think of our own politics. So, we’re only ever saying, ‘This is really tough for us politically. Can’t you do this or that?’
Of course, Varadkar had a confidence and supply agreement, not with a small minor party, with his main political opponent. He would have been complete toast then if he didn’t get something that was sufficient for his purposes. But clearly my view, based on my memory of the events, is that we were surprised at the text we were given, and really frustrated because we thought we had nearly got to something that was a joint report, and then we were landed with something that was incredibly problematic.
UKICE: When you signed off the text that was in the joint report, which was quite clearly fudgy, did you think, ‘We’ve got over that, we can now resolve that, going forward?’ Or did you think, ‘Okay, we’ve postponed this to another day, we need to get on with it and put out the UK interpretation of that text?’ One of the things quite a few people have said is that UK should have tabled a UK interpretation of the protocol early in 2018, and not leave the field blank for the Commission.
GB: What did we think? We certainly didn’t think we’d solved it. We knew there was a problem there that had to be resolved. I think our view was still ultimately that it had to be resolved in the future trading relationship and that, in a way, we hoped we had now got onto phase two and we could start talking about that.
In terms of publishing the text, again you’re probably better talking to others than me who have experience of other international negotiations. But based on my experience of what we’ve gone through with Brexit and watching what’s happening now, I don’t think it’s tremendously helpful when one side puts out a text out there. You set up a dynamic of ‘Are you going to stick to your guns, or are you going to fold?’ It doesn’t create a particularly healthy environment.
The times we made progress in the negotiations were when stuff stayed in the tunnel, and stuff was being exchanged and not put in the public domain. That’s when it was much easier to make progress.
You can argue that, if we put our own text out there, might that have helped? I don’t think it was particularly helpful the Commission put theirs out there. So, I’m not sure it would have been particularly helpful for us to do the same, but I suppose it’s a valid argument to say, ‘Given they did it, shouldn’t you have responded or beaten them to it?’ I suppose. But it’s not, in my view, an ideal way to conduct these negotiations.
UKICE: On Northern Ireland, it’s quite surprising in retrospect how late in the day it came to dominate things, given the extent to which it dominated things when it did. When did it start to dawn in Number 10 that Northern Ireland was going to be the issue?
GB: Pretty soon. All the meetings I can remember in July 2017, we were already very conscious of that difficulty and the interaction between Northern Ireland and UK customs policy being the Gordian knot that you had to cut. But I think, if you were looking at the whole process, it is definitely a very good observation to say that Northern Ireland hardly featured in the Brexit referendum itself and then became absolutely critical to the arguments about how to deliver Brexit.
So, I’m not disagreeing with you in one sense, but certainly from the point that Olly was involved … I remember I walked in and Olly gave me this A4 folder of all the negotiating papers to date, to read. The summary note made it really clear that this Northern Ireland versus customs tension was absolutely at the core of it.
UKICE: How important was the Union per se to the ERG (European Research Group), and how much was it really a proxy, in some ways, for something else – their worries about being stuck in the EU in all sorts of other ways?
GB: The ERG concern is about being in a customs union. It wasn’t about the Union at all. Theresa’s concern was about the Union. There were probably some people around the Cabinet table who, if you asked them privately, wouldn’t have been unhappy with an economic relationship that involved a continuing customs union with the EU.
Theresa was not in that position. The thing that drove her to this novel compromise that I was trying to describe earlier was balancing off what she wanted from Brexit with what she thought was necessary to maintain the unity of the United Kingdom.
If you like, again I’m leaping forward a bit, but when we get on later in the story to the fundamental argument between Boris (Johnson) and her, there were three points of disagreement. My view is that she has been vindicated on one of them. He has been vindicated on another, and the third is leaning towards her at the moment, but we don’t know.
The first of the three arguments were that he believed, if he became Prime Minister and declared the policy as no deal, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Rory Stewart and Greg Clark would all just be careerist, and fold and back him. He could get no deal through this Parliament, or the Parliament that was, as it were, pre-2019. He has been proved to be wrong on that.
His second argument was that, even if that didn’t happen, you could win an election before you had delivered Brexit, and he has been proven right about that. I don’t think Theresa could have done that. I think one of the genuine claims he had on his side was that she couldn’t repeat the trick of the 2017 election. But, if you change leader, you could have another go at it.
The third argument was that, if you deliver a no deal Brexit or a very hard Brexit, it may well end up breaking up the United Kingdom. We don’t know the answer to that yet, but there’s certainly initial evidence that validates the fear that she had about that.
UKICE: How much is that concern about the Union shared among other Conservative MPs?
GB: For some, absolutely core to their politics; for others, not so important. David Lidington, who was an absolute stalwart through all of this nightmare, is also a very strong conviction unionist. I can remember us talking at the time about concerns about attitudes within the parliamentary party to the Union, and in the wider population in England towards the Union.
I saw some polling the other day that showed England about neck and neck. They polled in all four nations, and Scotland was 55-45 independence. Northern Ireland and England were about neck and neck, and it was only in Wales that there was very strong support for the union. So, I think the truth of it is that the Conservative and Unionist Party is no longer wholly unionist in terms of the views of its MPs. There are still plenty who are, but it’s not universal.
UKICE: When you’ve got these sorts of issues going on with Ireland, you’ve also got the start of the passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill through Parliament. How surprised were you in Number 10 that you started to see the emergence of rebels like Dominic Grieve, leading up to the amendment of the Withdrawal Bill to provide for the meaningful vote? Were you surprised by that sort of development in Parliament?
GB: No. I felt early on that that we were resisting something that was inevitably going to happen anyway. But I think, given what eventually happened, you can entirely see why David Davis was very nervous about what these amendments might mean for the Government down the line. His political judgment, if you like, about the trouble that could ensue from that was entirely validated.
The only disagreement he and I had, when we used to talk about that, was about whether we had any prospect of resisting it, frankly, given the numbers in Parliament. It seemed to me it was inevitable that amendments like that were going to pass.
Maybe you were better seizing the high ground and trying to frame it in a way that, if you like, minimised the damage, accepting that it posed a significant risk to the Government, but that it wouldn’t be avoid a meaningful vote, trying your best to frame the legislation in ways that minimised that risk. Rather than trying to resist and ultimately losing, which is what happened.
UKICE: You mentioned Mansion House as a very significant policy staging post. Between the joint report, Mansion House and then to Chequers, we have the shape of what the Theresa May future relationship starts to look like, with the Prime Minister navigating that through a very split Cabinet. Could you talk us through how you went about getting that up and running from Number 10?
GB: Mansion House is probably, from Theresa’s point of view, the high point in the whole process. I haven’t got the text in front of me, but there’s a hard truths section of the speech which I think stands the test of time very well.
I was surprised, having worked incredibly hard on it over quite a period of time to get the text agreed, what a positive reaction it got. If you like, I was expecting quite a bit of what we eventually got in response to Chequers, to Mansion House. Actually, it got a pretty good reception here, and not a bad reception – at least in relative to other things we did – from the EU side, either. Mentally, my memory regards that as a high moment.
Having given the speech, we then got into trying to actually nail down the policy. There were two bits of the policy that were incredibly difficult. The first was whether you were going to commit to the UK staying aligned with those EU rules relating to goods, when goods cross a border. The second was the customs policy. It was clear that a number of members of the Cabinet had real problems with both of those policies. Particularly difficult, the Secretary of State (David Davis) was uncomfortable with both of those policies.
So, it was a hugely challenging situation for me, in my job, and for the political team at Number 10, because we had a strong regard for David. He was personally very helpful to the PM, at various key moments previously, and it was very uncomfortable that they clearly were in a different place about what needed to happen. But there was absolutely no evidence that what he wanted as a solution was going to be negotiable.
We had these interminable rounds with Barnier where David made his best effort to try and sell his case, but there was absolutely no evidence that that was negotiable. Therefore, we needed to think about a policy solution that might work.
My view of it is that, of the two – and both of them, as I said, were pretty unpopular with certain members of the Cabinet – the alignment policy on rules was an easier sell than the customs one because there was a degree of pragmatism. You could not like the alignment policy but live with it pragmatically.
Michael Gove would say, ‘The reality is, as Secretary of State for Defra, I have no plan to change any of the food standard rules that get checked at the border. There are things I want to do in my portfolio when we’ve left, but they’re not governed by the rules that are checked when agricultural goods cross a border, so I can pragmatically live with aligning with those. I can see that the risk of them changing over time in a way that I wouldn’t like is pretty small,’ and, likewise, the rules about car exhausts or things of that nature.
People didn’t like the principle of it, clearly. Theresa herself was uncomfortable with it, but you could get yourself in a position where you could think that the risk of us actually ending up with something that is contrary to British interests here is small. Whereas in other areas on the services side of the economy, it’s much more likely that the EU law is much less settled there. There’s a much higher chance of developments that we wouldn’t want to follow.
The customs policy was much more of a crunch. The problem there was that it got to the core of what Brexit was about: the ability to do your own trade deals. If you were a pragmatic Brexiteer you might say, ‘The chances of me doing a trade deal with the US where I let in chlorinated chicken, and the British public being happy with that, are very slim, but the chance of me doing a trade deal with the US where I want to vary tariffs on various goods is very high.’ So, the customs policy came up against much more of a pushback.
The problem is the novel solution that Theresa wanted to pursue, some people just didn’t think it was realistic. Because you couldn’t point anywhere in the world and say, ‘That system is in operation in this country right now,’ some people didn’t think it was a sufficiently credible thing to get behind.
UKICE: Why did Number 10 think trade policy thing was central and when the Prime Minister said, ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ that it meant an independent trade policy as the lead policy? After all, a lot of the economic analysis in Government says the impact is really quite trivial, and you’ve got quite a lot of lobbying from business. I just wondered how much influence that sort of economic thinking had in Number 10? You’ve also got the Chancellor would likely have been quite happy with a longer-term customs arrangement.
GB: Yes. You are voicing the Chancellor’s arguments very well. I think the Prime Minister absolutely shared the argument that putting up barriers, introducing friction at the UK-EU border, would be bad for the UK economy. She wanted to avoid that.
Her plan in her mind would have avoided that if she could have negotiated it, but she was more sceptical of the argument that there were small – only small – gains to be had from other trade deals. So, if you like, she was with the Chancellor on, ‘Don’t do damage to the free movement of goods that we have with the EU,’ but she would not have been so happy to say that we can’t have the potential to deliver others.
I think she was sceptical of the economic modelling a bit – not as much as others, who were outright dismissive of it, but she took a view that, yes, in the short term, the benefits might be reasonably small, but they could potentially grow and accrue in the long term.
UKICE: Who was influencing her on this? Who was she listening to for advice if she’s not really taking her Chancellor’s view on the economics of this?
GB: She would have been getting views from a wide range of Cabinet ministers that, as you can imagine, throughout this time were lobbying about their views on this. I think I was going to add, before you asked the question, that there was also the political calculation. The reality was that, whatever the Treasury’s economic analysis said, to a significant bunch of the parliamentary party these trade deals were important. So, to what they conceived of Brexit as being about, this was a big bit of the picture.
I think there’s also my view – and I want to be very clear now that I’m talking for myself not the Prime Minister – that, even if we had been able to negotiate exactly what Theresa May wanted – effectively, a single market in goods, but not services – Brexit would still, at least in the short to medium term, have done some economic damage to the UK. We would not have had the same access to services. Whether you choose to believe it or not, certainly the Treasury’s analysis would say, ‘Net migration benefits UK GDP,’ and we wouldn’t have had free movement any more.
To me, you had to have some upside. If you were going to sell this project politically, you had to have some upside. The trade deals with other countries, even if some people were sceptical about their total value, were at least some upside. So, politically, in narrative terms, whatever your view of the economics, it was a significant thing
UKICE: But surely, ending free movement is big – and taking back control of our borders is an even bigger – political upside, isn’t it?
GB: Now I think I can answer that question with confidence. Theresa would have said that, although not everyone in the House of Commons agreed with this, she would have said, ‘That is one of the fundamental things that Brexit must be about,’ because her view – and I think this was based partly on polling research but partly on her own anecdotal experience of knocking on doors during the referendum campaign – was the concern about free movement was one of the key drivers of people voting for Leave.
But look, if ever I get round to writing a book on this, one of the really interesting things is the very big gap between what motivates the people who championed Brexit and what motivates the people who voted for it. Boris Johnson is not an ‘End free movement, reduce immigration into this country’ politician. That’s not what animates him at all. I think that’s true for quite a lot of the people that campaigned for this.
What they wanted was, if you like, regulatory freedom. But that wasn’t what the Leave campaign pitched the thing as being all about in the referendum campaign. If you’re looking at the political difficulties the country has gone through, that gap between what actually motivated these people to pursue this project over a long period of time, and the arguments that were front and centre in the referendum campaign, is part of the issue here.
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): The Prime Minister went on something of a journey, didn’t she, from her initial statements in Lancaster House, through to Chequers? I was just wondering how you would account for that. Why did her position shift?
Gavin Barwell (GB): I think I’m going to try and answer the question as she would answer it to you. I think she would, first of all, say, ‘There’s not as big a shift as you’re implying,’ that actually, if you read Lancaster House, she floats things like a customs arrangement with the EU as one of the options in Lancaster House.
Now I’m going to add a bit of my commentary.I think there was quite a big rhetorical difference between the speeches. The language they use, the way it’s pitched is quite different, but I think she’s probably right that in policy thinking they’re not miles and miles apart. If you like, Lancaster House sets out a range, and Chequers falls at one end of that range, but they’re not miles apart.
Then, if she was acknowledging that there was some difference, what would she ascribe that to? I think she would ascribe it to a mixture of pragmatism and principle.
Pragmatism: she was trying to find something that could get through the Commons and keep the Conservative Party together. Some people may judge her harshly on this, but she was conscious both of her duties, as Prime Minister, to try and resolve this issue and deliver what people had voted for, but in a way that brought the country together and ended the argument. But she was also conscious of her duties, as leader of the Conservative Party, to try and keep the Conservative Party together through this process, as well.
Then on the principle side, if I was going to flag up one moment to you in particular, there was a visit we did to Northern Ireland which was primarily motivated about trying to get the devolved institutions back up and running. After we’d had one of those sometimes trying series of meetings with each of the five parties, she then had a coffee – or glass of wine, maybe – with six or seven community leaders. It was at Stormont and it’s one of the meetings that certainly left a very profound impression on me from my time at Number 10, and it left a profound impression on her.
They were mainly nationalists, there was one unionist. And they were very, very worried. Obviously, given their political leanings, they weren’t necessarily worried about the UK breaking up, although they did think there was an increasing trend in that direction. But they were worried about the peace process and the combination of Brexit and the absence of the devolved institutions, and where that was taking Northern Ireland.
I think her instinctive unionism, which is deep and has been there throughout her political career, was very strongly reinforced by that visit and led to a determination to find a solution that addressed the concerns of those people. If you like, she wanted to be able to go back to them and say, ‘I have to deliver Brexit, because the UK as a whole has voted for it, but I have found a version of it that absolutely addresses all the things that you were worried about in the project.’
I would say that combination – she would dispute your thesis a bit but, to the point that she accepted it, she would say a) pragmatism about trying to find a solution that worked in the Commons and worked for all four countries in the union, and b) that visit to Northern Ireland in particular focused her mind.
The final bit of commentary for me: I think, despite the fact that occasionally the discussions between them can get a bit techy, I think the Chancellor did solidify in her mind the importance of not introducing friction at the border in the trade of goods – not just at the Northern Ireland-Ireland border, but at the wider UK-EU border.
UKICE: You said that the most difficult thing was agreeing the UK-wide customs arrangement that you put forward before Chequers. Was that difficult to get that through the Cabinet itself?
GB: Yes. We had this, sort of, subcommittee that was formed to try and agree this. You can remember those press reports of meetings where the vote had gone this way, or it was tied. It was incredibly painful. These subgroups were set up and we eventually came up with, I think, the final name. I struggle now to remember the acronyms. I think the final name of the thing was ‘FCA’, but it was obvious that it was still going to be a very uncomfortable compromise.
I cannot tell you how much work was put in by the core political team. It would have been me, JoJo, Denzil Davidson, Raoul Ruparel, and Ed de Minckwitz, who by that point were her three special advisors on European policy, and a little bit by Stephen Parkinson and also Julian Smith, the Chief Whip. The time we spent with every single Cabinet member before Chequers, taking them through it, giving them all the factual briefings, trying to address any concerns. It was a huge operation that went into that.
Then, when we actually got to Chequers, the meeting itself went better than we could ever have hoped. One of the interventions there was from Michael Gove. I had not been sure, when I turned up that morning, what he was going to say. He very powerfully put the sceptical case in favour of it, if you like. At the end of the day, there were some tweaks made to the document. The Prime Minister accepted some changes to address some of the concerns people had.
One of the key tests that we had set up, which I think was very important for Liam (Fox), was an official assessment about whether the Chequers negotiating position would allow us still to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think the PM thought that a big deal with a whole number of potential partners that included quite a big services element, potentially was the key acid test.
The mood at the end of the day was almost euphoric. Boris (Johnson) was doing toasts with Philip Hammond, and it was just a great sense of relief among nearly all of the Cabinet that they’d been able to reach an agreed position. Whatever their personal views on Brexit, they knew it was a really bad thing that the Government had struggled for so long to come up with a clear articulation of what it wanted. So, they were frustrated at themselves collectively that they hadn’t been able to reach agreement, and I think relieved that they had been able to do so.
My only concern, really, was with David Davis because he had voiced his concerns. He’d done it in a very gracious way, acknowledging that it was awkward that he and the Prime Minister were not exactly on the same page. I was very impressed by the way he’d handled it, but I think he had been surprised that he hadn’t got more support and surprised at some of the people that had not backed his position. You could tell he was down, right? David is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, so I could tell at the end of the day he was unhappy. I had a brief conversation with him and acknowledged that he wasn’t happy. I knew he wasn’t comfortable with the paper.
UKICE: Were you surprised by the subsequent story that there was a parallel white paper process that DExEU were beavering away on, and then they had the Cabinet Office say ‘Here’s one we prepared earlier’ and Chequers sprung on them? Do you think that’s a fair characterisation?
GB: I don’t think that is a fair description of what happened. I think it is true that DExEU had been working on material, but there was a huge amount of engagement, in the three or four weeks leading up to Chequers, between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. There were lots of personal bilaterals between them, where she basically was taking him through where she wanted to go.
So, I don’t think what came to them would have come as a surprise to him at all. He knew that was where the Prime Minister was headed. They’d had some difficult and awkward conversations about what his concerns were about it and we tried to find ways to address them.
It’s certainly fair to say that DExEU had done a lot of work itself several weeks previously, but the suggestion that was aired in the media that this paper suddenly turned up the day before and came as a complete surprise is a nonsense because he must have had five or six bilaterals with the Prime Minister over the three or four weeks before Chequers, trying to get the two of them into the same place.
UKICE: At the Chequers conversation, was there much discussion of negotiability of the Prime Minister’s proposals with the EU, as opposed to could the Cabinet unify behind that?
UKICE: Did you expect Chequers to be positively received by the EU?
GB: Olly, and the Prime Minister and I, went to see Mark Rutte and Angela Merkel before Chequers. Or, actually, I phrased that badly. The Prime Minister went to see Angela Merkel and Mark Rutte before Chequers, and took Olly and me with her! Based on those two discussions, we had a high degree of confidence of getting a positive response from the EU to these proposals.
The Dutch meeting was, I think, leaders plus seven, and the PM went for a private walk with him, talked him through what was involved. He came back into the room, described it to his team, and basically invited his officials to try and pick holes in it. We had about 45 minutes of Q&A. Then, at the end, he turned to the guy who I think would have been his Perm Sec of Foreign Office equivalent, and said, ‘What do you think?’ The guy said, ‘I think it can work.’ That was particularly on the regulatory alignment policy rather than the customs one.
Then when we saw Angela (Merkel), it was literally just her, Uwe Corsepius, and the Prime Minister, Olly and myself. Uwe was a little bit more guarded and said, ‘Look, there are issues here about how much can you separate goods and services? You’re trying to say, ‘Goods are a completely different thing to services,’ but actually, when I buy a BMW now, I often buy a servicing package with it. The two are more intertwined than your plan is implying.’
He then, at the end of the meeting, turned to the Chancellor and said something along the lines of, ‘If the Prime Minister can get her Cabinet to agree this, it would be a very significant evolution of the British position. It would make me, for the first time, feel we’re in a space where we’ve got something to talk about.’
So, probably the best I ever felt about our prospects of getting Brexit over the line was on the plane back from Berlin that evening. The three of us genuinely felt: ‘If we can find a way of getting the Cabinet to adopt this plan, then we’re in with a shout at least.’ We certainly didn’t think, ‘They’ve signed it off and said it was all okay,’ but we felt we at least had something that they would be interested in talking about.
Once we got into the autumn, it was never worth to get involved in what-iffery about these people, because we were focused on trying to deal with where we were. But my perception, right or otherwise, is that the disaster of Chequers was that we then had to spend two months fighting an internal battle, following the resignations of DD (David Davis) and Boris, when we should have been out selling this thing to the Commission and to the other capitals. By the time we finally got back to talk to them, the Commission had killed it off, effectively.
UKICE: Can you tell us a bit about Salzburg, and the Prime Minister’s reaction when Chequer’s appeared to be rejected at the summit?
GB: What happens at the end of a European summit is that the PM would go and see [Donald] Tusk because he would do a press conference. If it was something where he was going to say something about Brexit, he would always then say to her, ‘This is what I’m going to say, just so that you’re aware, because you might get asked questions about it on your side.’
On this occasion, we went into this little room and the two of them went out on a balcony together, had a little walk and talk, came back in, and end of meeting. Then we went back to our delegation room and watched his press conference. He said something that he had not at all told the Prime Minister that he was going to say, which was, essentially, saying, ‘Chequers doesn’t work.’
So she was, understandably and rightfully, in my opinion, really angry about that. I think we had about seven or eight minutes’ prep to decide what she was going to say to the British media in response to this bombshell. But then, actually, in terms of domestic politics, arguably, that was one of the moments that actually played in her favour, because the British media loved the fact that everyone could see she was visibly really angry. That’s what Tory MPs had wanted: someone to bang the table, or hit someone with her handbag. That was the mood music they wanted.
In a way, the view of what the Tory Party has been conditioned to want in terms of dealing with the EU, which is banging a hand on the table, standing up, that’s to a degree what some Tory MPs had wanted her to do all along. Her style was calm, patient negotiation, but actually she was genuinely angry, and justifiably in my opinion, about what had happened. Therefore, it helped a lot in terms of some of the party management issues.
Brexit in Parliament
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Can you talk us through the process from Chequers and Salzburg, to ultimately reaching a deal.
Gavin Barwell (GB): There was slow progress is my memory, from Salzburg to actually getting the deal agreed. Then we ran into just the complete nightmare of trying to get parliamentary approval for it. My memory is we initiated the debate on the deal and it became very apparent we were going to lose, and lose very badly. So we then pulled the vote and had another go around with the EU to see if we could get anything improved.
It was very clear you were on a hiding to nothing on the first vote because I knew, as a former Whip, that once people have decided you’re going to lose some people vote against you who wouldn’t have voted against you if it was a 50/50 vote. Because they think, ‘Well, I’ll get some credit by voting against the Government now and then they can talk me round down the line,’ essentially.
So it was very clear that we were on a hiding to nothing on the first vote. Between the first and second votes was when Geoffrey Cox had an attempt at engaging with the EU, trying to see if we could find some alternative route out of the backstop. Then the second vote was the one that came after his – what has now become – infamous letter.
UKICE: That was after you did things like the Brady amendment and the series of humble addresses about the legal advice on the first backstop, and all those sorts of processes that we had in early January 2019.
GB: Brady was this cooked-together amendment to try to unify the Tory Party, which meant completely different things to different people.
UKICE: What did the Prime Minister think when she saw things like the Malthouse compromise? Did she regard that as a helpful move, or did she regard that as annoying?
GB: No. I think the Whips’ argument was it was helpful because it was trying to get the party all back on one page and something that we could all vote for together. But I think those of us who understood the policy positions were clear that what was being asked for was never going to be achievable.
UKICE: What impact did it have in Number 10 that you were simultaneously having the letters going into the 1922 Committee? Was that a high point, seeing off the leadership challenge, or was it a low point, the fact that it had materialised at all?
GB: Both, I suppose. The fact that it materialised told you that you were had a problem. But we thought it was a very significant miscalculation by the people who did it to do it at that moment in time. I can remember we were coming back from doing some negotiating in Brussels, and we got back quite late into Northolt. The PM and I were in the car, and I took a call saying it was leaking out on Twitter that enough letters had come in. She was very tired, we were both very tired, it had been a long and difficult day. So I told her the news, and she was obviously upset about it.
We got back to Downing Street and the whole political team was there. I will give particular credit here to Robbie Gibb, who was our Director of Communications. I suppose the PM and I had had a long and hard day and were exhausted, and he was just full of energy of, ‘Right, this is exactly what we want. We need this fight to re-establish your authority. They’ve gone too early. We can beat this. Let’s schedule this vote as quickly as we can. Let’s get onto Brady right now and get this vote scheduled as quickly as possible. Let’s get the campaign team set up.’
Her mood was transformed from despondency to energy by him and his reaction to it. So actually it did strengthen our position for a bit because she was secure for 12 months, at least nominally, under the rules from having won that contest. When she went and spoke to the parliamentary party, she performed really, really well. That definitely helped, and I think it helped move the dial a bit.
So to answer your question, obviously, the fact that it happened at all cannot be, in any way, anything other than a bad thing. It’s never good when a leader of a party faces that kind of challenge because it tells you you’ve got a significant minority of your people who are unhappy. But then, actually, the way it played out strengthened our position, at least for a little while.
UKICE: If you come into the parliamentary passage in the first quarter of 2019, you’ve got the first meaningful vote. You go down to this massive defeat. You then go off and try to get some assurances. How taken aback was Number 10 when the Attorney General came out with his statement on whether this made a difference, the extra side assurances the Prime Minister had negotiated?
GB: The statement to the House, I thought, was brilliant. If he hadn’t written the letter, I think the statement to the House on its own would have carried the day. The problem was the letter. So, essentially, Geoffrey’s position, and I agree with him completely, is that if the question is ‘Legally, is there a route out of the backstop?’, the answer is ‘No.’ But if you’re asking me that question, you’re asking me the wrong question. The question you should be asking me is ‘Politically, is it my judgement there is a risk that we will get stuck in this backstop?’ To that, my answer is also ‘No,’ because we have now made the backstop as popular as a bucket of cold sick to both sides. There is no way that the EU will want to stay in this new version of the backstop.
I would argue that subsequent events have absolutely proved us right about that. So that backstop had tariff-free access to the single market, with virtually no level-playing-field provisions and no deal on fishing. It is exactly the thing that Number 10 are trying to get at the moment, and clearly are not going to get.
UKICE: You had a bit of level playing field in there. You had some non-regression, and you did have some rules on state aid.
GB: But it was non-enforceable. None of it was covered by the dispute resolution mechanism. It was pretty thin. If you listen to what Emmanuel Macron had to say about it … There was the same argument on their side about ‘Have we given too much to the Brits here, by letting them have this thing?’
UKICE: Which is one of the interesting paradoxes of Brexit, that what was regarded as a major concession won by Theresa May from the EU – the UK-wide backstop – was regarded as such an anathema when she brought it back home.
GB: Yes. I think it just shows how differently the different sides look at it. I understand why the Tory Brexiteers didn’t like it, because you were in the customs arrangement and they didn’t want that. Their legal concern about the lack of a route out, was right. There wasn’t a legal route out. It’s rather ironic to me that a bunch of people who told me they couldn’t vote for the deal because the UK could never break international law, and the only way out was to break international law, are now very happy and all advocating breaking international law. So that principle didn’t last very long.
UKICE: One of the things you did for the first meaningful vote was when you put down the Swire amendment that did suggest we could break international law as a way of signalling to the party you could get out of the backstop.
GB: I doubt it will have been inspired by Number 10. It may well have been inspired by the Whip’s office, as a vehicle to try to bring people back on board.
UKICE: Before we get to the third meaningful vote, what are your reflections on the way the Speaker behaved through this period?
GB: I’m probably a little bit softer on the Speaker than anybody else you would speak to from the May regime. I would draw a distinction between some of the things he did. There were some areas where he could defend what he was doing by saying he was trying to support the will of the House. There was a will in the House to do something and he was enabling it.
But the two things that I would take real exception to are where we eventually got to on Letwin-Cooper, what he actually did was unilaterally make a ruling that tore up the rules, and that’s not great from my point of view. If the House wanted to do that, it would’ve been much better if he’d granted some time, in a general debate, for a motion on House business, where the House could have formally changed its rules to say that that was okay. Just putting it through by edict, I thought, was very bad.
Then the most frustrating thing, there was an occasion where he gave a ruling that you couldn’t put the same question multiple times. I thought that was not in the national interest. If you take John Bercow’s personal views about what he wanted, the way he behaved has ended up with the diametric opposite outcome from the one he was trying to get to.
But also, we were just about to get the DUP onside. We had a document that we were about to publish that was a deal with them and it got killed off because of that ruling.
Essentially, there were a whole series of issues that we were trying to look at: what could we do to guarantee movement of goods NI to GB, friction-free? There were a whole series of these concerns they had. It was a document that would have set out legislative proposals about how to try to address the various concerns they had. I can’t tell you that they signed on the dotted line, but we had got to the level of trying to agree a date and a time for when a statement would be made. We were close. It was the closest we ever got with the DUP.
UKICE: That’s interesting because, of course, you did bring it back, albeit dropping the Political Declaration, on the third meaningful vote, didn’t you? So you got around the Speaker’s prohibition.
GB: Yes. And actually, that was, to a degree, the EU being clever. If you remember, what happened was once the PM had made the decision that we weren’t going to try to leave on 29 March without a deal, and that we were going to go to the European Council and seek an extension, the EU framed the terms of the extension to say, ‘You can have it for this period of time, if the House has passed the Withdrawal Agreement, or for a much shorter period of time if it hasn’t.’
So I think they had spotted that there was a majority in the House for the Withdrawal Agreement. There wasn’t a majority for any particular version of the future relationship. Actually, with one tiny exception, which is Labour wanting to toughen up the position on workers’ rights in the backstop, from non-regression to alignment. But with that tiny, little nuance, the Labour Party, actually, didn’t have any problems with the Withdrawal Agreement.
Their concern was what the future relationship was going to be after it, or, in some cases, whether the whole thing should be conditional on a second referendum.
UKICE: You said that you thought you had a reasonable chance of getting the DUP onside at the last time of asking. Who else did you think you might get?
GB: I still think the third vote was winnable. Nominally, we were 28 or 29 votes down, but we were very close actually. There were three different groups of people who, in aggregate, were a lot more than 28 or 29 people, that we were trying to get over the line.
For the third vote we were working on three fronts at once. One was ‘How many Tories can we get onside?’ There was a crucial meeting at Chequers between the PM, Michael Gove, myself, the Chief Whip, and a number of the senior Brexiteers. David Davis had voted against us in vote one, for us in vote two. Then Jacob [Rees Mogg], Boris, IDS and Dom Raab, who all ended up voting for us on the third vote, and Steve Baker who ultimately didn’t. So there was a question of how many of them we could get over the line.
Then there was a group of Labour MPs. For example, about an hour before the third vote, the PM had about 11 Labour MPs in her office, trying to persuade them – and some of them were actually in tears about the pressure they were under from their whips – to vote for it. And then the DUP. Between those three groups of people, there were way more than the 28 votes that we needed. But they were all like, ‘I’m only going to jump if X jumps.’ The Labour MPs would say, ‘I could be ending my career if I vote for this. I only want to do it if you can promise me it’s going to get it over the line?’
We were like, ‘Well, we can’t promise you because we’ve got to get more of our Tories and the DUP, and some of them are asking the same question.’ So they wouldn’t all agree to get in the same room and all agree to jump together, which was what you actually needed.
UKICE: Was that ever suggested?
GB: Yes, I did at one point. I tried to say, ‘Why don’t you try to go and talk to the DUP yourselves and agree. You’re both, basically, saying the same thing.’
It was also very frustrating with some of the more senior people in the Labour Party. I sat down and spoke with a number of senior people on the Labour frontbench and backbenches and said, ‘Look, you know you don’t disagree with this Withdrawal Agreement. You either want a closer future relationship, or you want a second referendum. But if you vote for this motion today, we get a longer extension, so we’re not up against this cliff edge in two weeks’ time.’
‘The House will then have to come to a conclusion about the Political Declaration, and about whether there’s a majority in the House for a second referendum. So you’re not giving away Brexit and letting us do our version of Brexit by voting for the Withdrawal Agreement. You’re just telling the EU that the UK Parliament is happy with the Withdrawal Agreement, but is not yet resolved its position on the Political Declaration or a second referendum.’
UKICE: If you want to be in the European Economic Area, that’s okay with the Withdrawal Agreement; you can fight that fight. But if you sign the Withdrawal Agreement, you can’t then fight the fight to have a second referendum and remain permanently…
GB: Absolutely, you could. Ultimately, the argument on the second referendum was going to be decided when the Withdrawal Agreement Bill went through the House. There would have been an amendment put down to it to say, ‘This bill is conditional upon support from the public in a second referendum.’ The House would’ve voted, and there would or wouldn’t have been a majority.
That third vote would not have been a meaningful vote. It would not have led to Brexit happening. But it would’ve said there was a majority in the House of Commons to support the Withdrawal Agreement on its own, without the Political Declaration. That would have, in my opinion, cleared the way. You then would’ve had to have a discussion in the House about what needed to change in the Political Declaration to get a majority for it.
My view is, if you privately polled MPs, 500-odd didn’t object to the wording of that Withdrawal Agreement.
UKICE: What did those senior Labour figures tell you when you put that to them?
GB: The ones that were pro a second referendum would say, ‘I know you’re saying that the vote on that could come down the line, but our constituencies are strongly Remain, and it would be seen as us voting for Brexit, even though you’re right that, legally, that wouldn’t be the effect of it. And we can’t be seen to do that.’
A couple of them, who I knew well, I just said, ‘Look, what do you think is going to happen? If this gets voted down a third time, what do you think her longevity is?’ And my argument was it was going to be very difficult for her and if she was replaced it would be with someone who wanted a harder Brexit.
The end of the May Premiership
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): What was the thinking, then, that week behind the Prime Minister announcing that she wouldn’t be around for the second stage of the negotiations? You could take that as signalling to those Labour people that she would be replaced by someone who had a harder line on Brexit.
Gavin Barwell (GB): I think she had decided at that point that as far as she could take it was in getting Brexit done, just in terms of getting the Withdrawal Agreement through. And that the best way to maximise support on the Tory benches for doing that was to say, ‘Look, we can then have a fresh start, and work out exactly how we take forward the future relationship.’ She’d come to the view that she was not going to be able to get the whole process seen through right to its end, and that the national interest was served by trying to get the Agreement at least resolved and the log jam broken.
If that meant her putting an end date on when she was going to be Prime Minister, that was the price to be paid for breaking the log jam.
UKICE: When she was talking about the second extension, did she at any point suggest that it wouldn’t make sense to hold the European elections in the UK, given we were in this transitional phase of leaving, and this might not be a great idea?
GB: Yes. She hated extending, and she hated the idea of holding the European elections. She’s not a fool; she understood, politically, that was going to be a complete disaster for the Conservative Party. But the problem was that, under treaty obligations, if we were still a member you had to hold the elections. You, ultimately, couldn’t find a way around that.
So the whole period was a miserable situation because at the point at which we didn’t leave on 29 March, she entirely understood that that was going to be very damaging, among Leave voters, to perceptions of the Conservative Party. But she also felt that if you left without a deal a) she didn’t think Parliament would actually let it happen. If she’d tried to do it, her view was there was a majority in Parliament that would stop it. It would break the Government, and a majority would form to stop it. But b) she thought it would be catastrophic for the Union, for the future of the United Kingdom to do that.
But it was a deeply unhappy period because she was, equally, very uncomfortable, having always told people that we should leave on 29 March. Failing to deliver that was a deeply, deeply uncomfortable thing.
At some point in these several months of misery, there was an occasion when there were some indicative votes and the MPs voted against every single conceivable alternative. There was not a majority for anything. That prompted one of the worst mistakes we made. She went out and gave a statement outside Downing Street basically tearing a strip off them and saying, ‘It’s no good just telling me all the things that you don’t agree with. We’ve got to resolve this, and you’ve got to come to a majority for something.’
It was a classic example of what happens when you’re in a bunker, suffering from groupthink. The votes came through, and we were just all like, ‘This is just ridiculous. It’s one thing to not support what we’ve negotiated. But then to reject every other conceivable alternative, what are we going to do with that?’ Because we were all just absolutely fed up, we all reinforced each other. Then someone said, ‘Well, why doesn’t the Prime Minister go out and tell the country just how ridiculous these people are?’
You’ve all encouraged each other and this statement had gone ahead. She got very good press. And we got lots of lovely, supportive messages in from the public saying, ‘Damn right.’ So we were all sitting there, thinking, ‘This was great.’ The Chief Whip phoned me up and said, ‘What have you just done?’ I said, ‘It was really good, wasn’t it?’ He was like, ‘No, you’re idiots. These are the people we’ve got to get to vote for the thing, and you’ve just told the country they’re clowns.’
UKICE: This was clearly a very difficult time for Cabinet management in Number 10, with various different factions forming in the Cabinet, discipline breaking down, collective responsibility breaking down, some Cabinet members abstaining, and ministerial resignations going through the roof.
Did you want to reflect about how difficult it was to actually just keep the Government functioning in those circumstances?
GB: It was really difficult. We had these interminable Cabinet meetings or Cabinet conference calls. The problem was both sides had a point. The people who thought her deal was too much of a compromise would say to her, ‘You’re never going to get this through because we’re not going to get enough of our MPs to vote for it. The opposition are not going to save us from this. This isn’t going to work.’ So they would say, ‘We should leave without a deal.’
Then the other side would say, ‘But that’s not going to work, because some of us in this room won’t vote for that, and a number of other Tory backbenchers won’t vote for it. There’s no majority in Parliament for that.’ So you’d come to the same conclusion, which was that there was no formulation that commanded a majority in Parliament. They would all say to her, ‘Go back to Brussels again.’
She would be like, ‘There is a limit to how many times we can go around this circle. We are beginning to wear their patience slightly thin. I can’t keep going back and saying, ‘Can I have some more?’ There is no more.’ So everyone was frustrated because it wasn’t good for the country, it wasn’t good for the party. Nobody was happy with that state of affairs, but nobody really had a plan that could break the log jam.
Actually, if you look at what happened afterwards, despite extreme tactics, in terms of prorogation and all that, Boris couldn’t break the log jam. Ultimately, the tactic he had to resort to was having an election. That’s something Theresa, I think, couldn’t have done. Having tried that in 2017, that tactic wasn’t really available to her. So it was an incredibly difficult and frustrating time.
I would speak quite positively about the vast majority of the people in Cabinet. There were people on both sides who were uncomfortable with the compromise, and went quite a long way. We obviously had people who walked out and left, but the people who stayed did make a genuine effort to fight for the compromise, despite in many cases being quite uncomfortable with elements of it.
UKICE: Michael Gove would be an example of that?
GB: Yes, Michael, Chris Grayling, Liam (Fox), on the Brexiteer side, Andrea Leadsom, Penny (Mordaunt). All of them had significant reservations about some of the things they were being asked to support. On the other side of Cabinet, Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Amber Rudd, these people probably would’ve liked a closer relationship than what Theresa was proposing. The difficulty was that the Tory Party just didn’t agree on what kind of relationship it wanted with the EU afterwards. You were trying to create a compromise that held it together.
So it was a very unhappy time. But actually, I would give quite a lot of credit to a lot of those people. They did try really hard to work and help the Prime Minister sell the thing within the party. Michael, in particular, came quite close, I suspect, to not staying in Cabinet. But once he made his mind up he was going to stay, he fought for it, and probably damaged his standing with some of his ultra-Brexiteer colleagues as a result.
UKICE: Once you’ve got the additional extension, there’s then the opening up the formal talks with Labour. Can you talk us through how those went, and whether there was anything where you thought, ‘Well, if they’ll sign up to this, we can do that, and get everything back on the road.’
GB: Yes, there is a document on my computer that is, basically, what the deal would have been.
I think it was perfectly possible. John McDonnell was one of the people that was involved in their negotiating team, and – politics aside – I was very impressed with him. Essentially, I think the judgment, at the end, was that the kind of compromise that both sides could arrive on probably still wouldn’t command a majority in the House. Because if you take where we’d got to, on the Tory side, by meaningful vote three, the cross-party compromise would mean losing some Tory MPs from where we’d got to because we were moving back into a more close relationship with the EU after we left.
On the Labour side, there were a significant number of MPs who were saying, ‘I will not for anything that doesn’t have a second referendum in it.’ There was a moment, very early on in the cross-party talks, when Keir (Starmer) had run through all the policy things he wanted us to address, and then said, ‘Also, we’re interested in a second referendum.’
Steve Barclay, very rightly, made the point, ‘Keir, look, if we offered a second referendum, we wouldn’t need to talk to you. We know that if the Government adopted a second referendum, there’s a majority for our deal, without changing it at all. We could pass our deal, if we just added the second referendum rider to it. We know that, but the fact that we haven’t done that should tell you that we don’t want to have a second referendum.’
UKICE: Was anyone on your side advocating for that?
GB: There were a few people in Cabinet who would have said if that was the price to be paid to getting the deal through, they could live with it. Nobody in the Cabinet wanted it, I would say.
UKICE: What would Labour have offered as the alternative to the Prime Minister’s deal?
GB: Well, that was part of the problem. This was always my argument. Probably in the House there was a majority for deal or Remain. But I think the danger, if you’d pursued that as a policy, was that the Leave side would just boycott the referendum and say, ‘You’re, basically, offering us two options, neither of which are a proper Brexit, and we’re just not taking part.’ Then the referendum becomes invalid because a whole chunk of voters just don’t participate.
Some Tory Brexiteers began to say, at one point, ‘We could have a referendum that’s Theresa May’s deal versus no deal.’ Then, obviously, the people on the Remain side would say, ‘Well, that’s not offering the choice of not going ahead with this thing at all.’ Then some people started saying, ‘Well, you could have three options and some kind of preferential voting.’
But the PM was always very, very clear that she was not prepared to sanction a second referendum because she felt that was saying to voters, ‘Look, you told us what you wanted, and we’re now going back and saying to you, ‘Are you sure?’ Other countries have these second referendums when the Government gets given an answer it doesn’t like. We shouldn’t be like that. We have to honour the result.’ So it was always clear she wasn’t going to countenance that.
I think there were probably some people in Cabinet, near the end, who thought, ‘If there’s no other way out…’ Obviously, the people in Parliament who were behind the referendum campaign, their hope was that the longer the log jam went on, the more people would reluctantly say, ‘If the only way out of this is a referendum…’ That was their hope. That’s what they were counting on, I guess.
UKICE: When did you conclude that you were never going to get anywhere with Labour?
GB: We probably had two or three weeks of discussions. As you can imagine, we picked the people on the negotiating team to reflect the range of views in Cabinet because there was no point having a deal that that range of opinion couldn’t live with.
Their negotiating team, it probably won’t surprise you to know, also contained people who you felt, privately, actually wanted Brexit to go ahead, and wanted to find a way of doing it, but without Labour’s fingerprints being on it, essentially. And people who were on the negotiating team who were absolutely clear they didn’t want to deal with us.
I can say this because someone else has leaked it already. There was a very funny moment, in one of the meetings. This was probably the second meeting. We had an initial meeting, where we basically said to them, ‘Download to us the things that would need to change for you to be able to live with this deal.’ I was the secretary to the thing, so I sat there scribbling all these things down.
We came back to them and said, ‘Right, here’s our first draft of what an agreement would look like.’ They said, ‘We don’t like this. We don’t like that. Change this to that.’ So we came back with a revised version. Keir picked it up and looked at it, and said, ‘Well, I don’t like this wording on customs at all.’ I was like, ‘We literally put in the wording on customs from Jeremy Corbyn’s letter. You’ve just criticised your own language.’ He looked slight po-faced.
I would say, in terms of the official level, we were principally dealing with Andrew Fisher and Seumas Milne. There was a proper serious attempt to try to identify if there was a package that could work, and there was probably about a two- to three-week period of trying that. Then, eventually, they basically came to the conclusion – and for what it’s worth, I think they were right – that that package wouldn’t work because the numbers wouldn’t be there to pass it. That was endgame, at that point, basically.
UKICE: Do you want to just talk us through the final days?
GB: We did the speech, which was basically putting out into the public domain what the package had been that the deal would have been with Labour. It was very quickly clear that wasn’t going to work. So at that point, I don’t think the PM took much persuading. We just had a conversation. I said, ‘Look, I don’t have any other tricks up my sleeve. I don’t know what else we can try now. If we genuinely don’t have any other plan for getting this through, then probably we need to let someone else have a go and see if they can do it.’
UKICE: Did you have a fairly good idea that that someone else would be Boris Johnson?
GB: Yes. That was the thing that frustrated me about the people on the other side of the argument. I was like, ‘Well, if you’re not prepared to compromise and help us at all, then obviously she’s going to have to stand down. I don’t know how you think what comes next is going to be better for you because I’m pretty clear, having listening to what that side of the Conservative Party wants, it ain’t going to be better for you.”
I think they believed that, suddenly, magically, some majority for a second referendum would appear. But it was clear from the meaningful votes that it wasn’t there.
UKICE: Was that why it was so difficult to peel off people from the ERG (European Research Group) because they always knew that, in the end, they could force her out and get someone more to their liking in?
GB: Yes. How much of it was genuine policy difference, and how much was just wanting a change of leader, I don’t know. But I suppose had it looked like the people on the other side were willing to compromise, and that there was a way of getting Brexit through without them, it may have made the ERG more willing to compromise.
The basic description I would have is that I can remember a meeting, once, with a group of Conservative MPs. There were some people who were from the ERG, or that wing of the party, and some people who were from the second referendum camp. It got quite heated. They were both, basically, having a go at me from completely different perspectives. I just, at some point, put my papers down and said, ‘Look, why don’t we all just level with each other? Either we compromise or some of you are going to win and some of you are going to lose and possibly end up leaving the party.’
They both simultaneously said, ‘Yes, we’re not going to compromise because we’re going to win.’ That was the problem. It got into a winner-takes-it-all, and they both decided that risk was worth taking.
Reflections on Government
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Did the Prime Minister ever regret letting the no deal genie out of the bottle as a tolerable outcome, given that it was thrown back at her so repeatedly? If she could have managed Parliament, did she ever think that it really was worth leaving with no deal?
Gavin Barwell (GB): If the EU had stuck to its position of a border down the Irish Sea, I think she wouldn’t have agreed to that deal. Because I think she would have said, ‘In principle, breaking up the country in that way is wrong…’ And this is the exact problem the Government has got itself into now, right?
UKICE: Although she did vote for Boris Johnson’s deal when it came back, didn’t she?
GB: Look, it’s not my job to be a spokesman for her, but pretty reluctantly, I suspect, on the grounds that by that point that was the only way of delivering Brexit left on the table. Her view that you’ve got to honour the referendum would trump her many serious objections to the nature of the deal.
It was quite ironic to see her this week, of course, because we’re now in this bizarre position where a bunch of people who don’t really like that deal very much are, nonetheless, defending honouring the word of the Prime Minister against a Prime Minister who doesn’t seem to worry about defending that.
So did she ever regret letting that genie out of the bottle? I don’t think so. I think the genie was out of the bottle anyway, to be honest. I don’t think it was her, particularly, who let it out of the bottle. But I never heard her say that. Really up until the last minute, when she applied for the extension, her position was always that, ‘We’ve triggered Article 50, and we’re leaving on 29 March. If we can’t get a deal through, that is the logical consequence.’
Now, when it came to it, because she still thought there was a chance of getting the deal through if you just delayed a bit, she was willing to extend. But obviously, there was a very significant political price to pay for that, both in terms of her position within the party and more widely.
UKICE: Did you have any thoughts about how the Civil Service functioned with ministers through this time? It looked, to some of us, as though the Prime Minister was a bit reluctant to back up Olly Robbins when he became a target for some of the Brexit-supporting MPs.
GB: I don’t think that’s fair. My view would be that the Europe Unit did an amazing job, and they definitely won the professional respect of the EU negotiating team that they were up against. You could see that very clearly. I think with Olly – and I take some responsibility for this – we never really got it right in terms of his relationship with the DExEU Secretary, as well as the Prime Minister. He always saw himself as the Prime Minister’s Sherpa. Actually, I have quite a bit of sympathy with DD (David Davis), who found it very frustrating.
I think, initially, when I came in, Olly was both the PM’s sherpa and the Permanent Secretary, and I think DD felt, ‘Well, this person, who’s meant to be my lead official, basically sees himself as the Prime Minister’s person, not my person.’ We never really got that right. It’s interesting that Boris, in this formulation, carried on the DExEU Secretary initially, until we’d actually left. But actually he really ran the thing directly, with Frost reporting directly to him.
So I think that didn’t help. It didn’t help in terms of relations, and probably played a part in what followed.
UKICE: The other big change, obviously, by having David Frost is you have a political advisor leading the negotiations and leading the official team, rather than an official, if you’ve cut out your DExEU Secretary. Do you think that’s a sensible change?
GB: David is somewhere in between, isn’t he? So he’s an official, by background, who has transmogrified into being a political advisor.
What do I think about that? I’m more relaxed about having a political advisor be the Prime Minister’s sherpa than I am about being a National Security Advisor. I think it is quite a political position, and if you look at some of the people who do it for other heads of government, some of them are from a sort of political-ish background. It’s not a completely untenable solution.
I really felt for Olly, in terms of the degree of public attention he got, which I think was really uncomfortable for him, from a civil service background. I got it a bit towards the end as well, but then I was a political advisor and I was a former minister and MP, so it was water off a duck’s back to me. It didn’t bother me, but I think for him it was much more difficult.
UKICE: What was the impact of chemistry between May and the other European leaders? Was it irrelevant to all this? Was it, in the end, the fact that there was just no possible way that you could get this thing through, given the mathematics in Parliament and the difference of opinion between what the EU wanted and the UK wanted? Or did personal relations play a part? Do they always?
GB: They must play some part, I think. I would say it’s very variable. There were some EU leaders that she really, you felt, had struck up a good relationship with: Paolo Gentiloni, Mark Rutte, Juncker himself. You felt that there was some really good chemistry in some of those relationships. But in others – Varadkar – quite scratchy and difficult in the bilaterals quite often. Although we had one occasion where the two of them went out for dinner with just a small group of us, and it was a much better interaction than the usual bilateral meetings were.
I’m sure it must play a little bit of a role. But I think the main thing I would say is that what I think was crucial was the 2017 election result. Because that result diminished her standing within the Conservative Party, and it also weakened her at the negotiating table. Because – I think it wasn’t so much personal chemistry – the EU never really believed that she could get whatever deal they gave her through.
There was one time when to one person – someone senior on the EU side – I was saying, ‘If you just give us X, I think we can do this,’ and he, basically, said, ‘Look, I don’t think you can. It may well be that who comes next, we have to give something to. Why give concessions now, if we don’t think it’s going to actually make a difference to your ability… If I believed you and thought you could actually get this through, then maybe there are some things we could give you. But I don’t believe that, and so we’re not going to waste ammunition now, if we’re just literally throwing stuff away.’
There’s a kind of paradox there, right? So everybody has seen what I would call the Gloria De Piero point: ‘Why didn’t you vote for this deal, given what’s come afterwards?’ But the same is also true on the EU side. They’re now struggling with the IM (Internal Market) Bill, but they are partly responsible for the way events have played out.
If you look at the new version of the backstop, it’s got this consent mechanism in. Now, the reality of that consent mechanism is never going to be used because there’s no way the nationalist community are ever going to give consent to doing away with the protocol. But it would have allowed Geoffrey Cox to write a letter saying, ‘There is a way out of the backstop. It’s this consent mechanism that the Prime Minister has negotiated.’
UKICE: Given you had an all-UK backstop, could you have then had Stormont choosing whether the UK stays in an all-UK backstop? That’s the difference between the Boris Johnson consent mechanism and what you could have negotiated.
GB: Rationally, no, but politically, if it was necessary, yes. If the price for getting the thing through was to say, ‘The UK state is going to delegate to the Northern Ireland Assembly, whether the whole of the UK…’
UKICE: Which wasn’t sitting, at the moment.
GB: No. That was a problem as well, right? So if you’re asking me to draw up a list of things: the 2017 election result and the absence of the Assembly were really, really important. I say that because imagine a counterfactual where the Assembly comes back immediately after the 2017 election. The EU kind of had a view that Ireland and the nationalists in Ireland spoke for Northern Ireland.
If you’d had Arlene Foster as the First Minister, a) it would have moderated the EU position a bit because you’d have had to have something that the Northern Ireland Executive was happy with. But b) it would have made the DUP moderate their position. Essentially, you’ve got the DUP, with their Leave position, and Sinn Féin with their absolutely Remain position. For the Executive to come back, they’d have had to have developed some kind of soft Brexit compromise that they could both live with. Then it would’ve been very hard for the Irish Government, the British Government and the EU to knock on the head whatever model they were arguing for.
So I think the absence of the Assembly was definitely a factor.
UKICE: You could argue that one of the reasons the DUP had relatively little incentive to come back before the 2019 election was the fact that they had a lot of influence at Westminster, through the Confidence and Supply Agreement. Did you ever think that that was impeding the resurrection of the Assembly?
GB: Yes, I did. I think we were all uncomfortable about that agreement, and were always trying to make it clear to them that … Not everybody but there were definitely some people in the DUP who actually wouldn’t have minded a period of direct rule. So they would say to you, ‘Look, we’ve got this part of the United Kingdom that’s without any Government at the moment. It’s not right. You need to take action to do something about this.’ We were like, ‘No, you’re quite right; it’s not right. Get back into government. It’s not for Westminster to sort out; you sort it out.’
So that absolutely was a concern. I think what it took was the electoral evidence, in 2019, that Sinn Féin and the DUP were both being punished by voters in Northern Ireland for not being back in government. It wasn’t so much that the Confidence and Supply Agreement wasn’t needed anymore. I think it was more that the Alliance Party, in particular, but also to a degree the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) and the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party), were gaining on those two parties because of their attitudes to getting back into government that pushed them both back into doing it.
UKICE: What was it like trying to make Number 10 function in these very, very weird circumstances, and keeping the Government ticking over at the time?
GB: I think until the last few months, we did it pretty well actually. I hope that the civil servants would have found the regime in 2017 to 2019 a good one to work with. There would definitely be a bit of frustration. Those people who were working on policy areas that were nothing to do with Brexit would definitely say they got less of the Prime Minister’s time than they would be used to getting on their portfolios. So some people, I’m sure, would have found that frustrating.
But I felt that the building worked well. We had a good team. I had a very good relationship with Peter Hill, who was the Principal Private Secretary during the time that I was there. I think you can look at some of the advances in domestic policy, in certain areas, with some pride, and the handling of things like Syria and Salisbury, I think, showed the Prime Minister and the wider system in a good light.
UKICE: Did the loss of Jeremy Heywood make any difference?
GB: It was a massive, massive blow. I say that as someone who is a very good friend of Mark (Sedwill), so it’s not a criticism of Mark. But I think Mark’s strengths, as he would be the first to attest, are on the national security front. That is his background. Mark Sedwill is almost the perfect person to be NSA [National Security Advisor]. He’s run the Home Office. He’s run NATO’s operation in Afghanistan. His whole career has prepared him to be NSA. He stepped in and dual-hatted at a very, very difficult time, but what he didn’t have was Jeremy’s heft with some of the domestic departments.
When I think about when we were starting to work on the NHS Long-Term Plan, we would never have got the Treasury signed up to that quantity of money without Jeremy’s help. He knew the Treasury and that system and how it worked so well. Also, with Martin Fraser, for example, in Ireland, it was just a massive loss.
If I were to write a book, there would definitely be one chapter, at the end, which I might call something like, ‘What Might Have Been,’ which would be about the last eight or nine weeks, from when she made the statement that she was standing down as leader of the Conservative Party, to when we finally left. Because we literally came inside after she had that meeting and pulled a few of the key people in the room, and said, ‘Right, we’ve got eight weeks, three days,’ or whatever it was, ‘What can we do?’
‘It can’t be anything requiring primary legislation, because we haven’t got the time to pass it. What can we get done in that time?’ I think you could argue that quite a chunk of her domestic achievements were in those last eight weeks. The net zero announcement, for example, which is probably the biggest single long-term thing she did, came in those last few weeks, and there were several other quite significant policy announcements.
So I think she looks back on that period with a certain degree of wistfulness, as like, ‘What would my time of Prime Minister have been like if I didn’t have Brexit?’
The future of the Conservative Party
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): How fundamentally changed do you think is the Conservative Party as the result of all this and the result of Boris Johnson replacing Theresa May? Is it a very different Conservative Party to the one that you were involved in during those two years, or, fundamentally, is it still the same?
Gavin Barwell (GB): I think it’s changed quite a bit, and I think it’s going to change more. But I don’t say that is necessarily all in a bad way. The first thing I’d say is, just start with where we are now. Look at the Government now, versus the Cameron and May Governments. You would say that the Brexit shift is a very significant shift in the Conservative Party’s view on the UK’s place in the world. But it’s not like an overnight shift; it’s something that has been coming for quite a while, right?
Alongside that, I think you would say this is a Conservative Government that is more anti-establishment, less respectful of convention, more high spending, and less free market. It depends where you are on the political spectrum, but I would say the anti-establishment thing is good. Maybe the Tory Party, historically, is too comfortable with the establishment. Not respecting conventions, I don’t like. Then, probably, your attitude to the state, of spending and free market depends how free market you are, essentially.
So that’s where we are now. I think the more interesting question to ask is, what Boris has done has been to reshape the Conservative Party’s electoral coalition. My view is that that is going to be a permanent shift. I think it will be very hard for him, at the next election, to win back the kinds of voters in the south of England that he’s lost. So they’ve got to make the new coalition work.
If I’m right about that, I think that is likely to strengthen some of those changes over time. Maybe John Redwood hasn’t completely come to terms with what the new coalition that he’s now encouraged to develop is going to mean for some of the other things that he cares about. Because if that’s your coalition, you’re not going to be so pro-tax cuts for big business.
Then, I suppose, my final point would be, this doesn’t seem, to me, to be an isolated thing that’s just happened in the UK. It feels like politics is moving in most of the democratic world from being something where the divide is primarily a left/right economic divide to one where it’s a more cultural divide. So that, probably, argues that these changes are going to continue over time.
UKICE: Are you pessimistic, or sad about that?
GB: Well, I personally find it a bit uncomfortable, because it means, for someone who’s a small L liberal Conservative like me the Conservative Party is less in my image. But as I said, I’m not sure if there is an alternative strategy. The interesting thing here is I’m not sure if I buy the version of history where political parties get to decide for themselves what their coalitions are, or how much they have to respond to changes in currents of public opinion and thinking.
It’s not clear to me if you embarked on a completely different strategy, where the Conservative Party’s electoral coalition would be.
UKICE: Do you worry that long term that electoral coalition isn’t necessarily big enough to win the Conservative Party power or hegemony?
GB: There is a significant risk there, particularly if you embrace it too enthusiastically. It seems to me that basically the Conservative Party is going to be the party, for the next five or ten years, for the people who broadly wanted and are happy with the Brexit change. So you can’t go back to Philip Hammond’s policy agenda. That’s not going to work for that coalition. But you do need to make sure you hold seats like Dom Raab’s.
So if you embrace this new coalition too aggressively, then you’re risking some of the seats in London and the south east that have always been Tory seats, but won’t necessarily like too full-throated an exposition on that. My main concern isn’t so much that, if I’m honest. My main concern is: what does this mean for the union?
UKICE: Do you think this is opening up an inevitable trend towards the breakup of the union?
GB: All of the evidence is that the Government’s Brexit policy and the perceived handling of the pandemic are the two things that are driving division in Scotland. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but it’s looking pretty difficult if you care about the union at the moment. That was really at the core of why Theresa was pursuing a compromise.
I don’t think we ever really had a proper debate as a country that we’re a union of four nations, and two nations voted to leave, and two nations voted to remain. So what do you do? Clearly, the majority have to win, so we had to leave in some form. But we got ourselves into a position where a bunch of people basically argued, ‘It’s either pure Leave, or it’s not really Leave at all. Therefore, there is no compromise.’ What effect does that have on that union if that’s your basic position?
UKICE: Did you ever put that argument to the ERG? They claimed to be so interested in the union, and claimed to be supporting the DUP because of their interest in the union. What would they have said to that, if you’d put it to them?
GB: So some people would say, ‘The majority have got to win, and your thing isn’t Brexit. So we’ve got to go ahead with this, and then we’ve got to convince people it’s the right thing.’ But some people would try to pretend that they could actually back-sell the idea basically. And some people, bluntly, are not really very strongly unionists.
I think this is one of the most interesting paradoxes about what’s going on at the moment. The thing I find particularly interesting is that some Leavers don’t get it. They’re probably intellectually right that if the UK leaves the EU with a hard Brexit, it makes the case for Scottish independence more difficult. Because if Scotland leaves and then joins the EU that means a hard border between England and Scotland, and that is a really serious issue for the Scottish economy.
But emotionally, it makes the case for Scottish independence stronger. Maybe I’m being unfair, but given that they have just won the case of Brexit on basically emotional arguments, rather than pure dry, economic ones, I find it strange that they then rely on the dry, economic ones as to why this is going to be okay for the Union. If Brexit teaches us anything, it’s that these questions of identity are very powerful, and trump Philip Hammond’s spreadsheet.