UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Your first political outing was as a candidate for the UK Independence Party in the 1999 European Parliament elections. I wondered what had attracted you to the UK Independence Party and to stand in those elections.
George Eustice (GE): I first really got politicised and engaged in politics during the 1997 general election. I, basically, campaigned for the Referendum Party, which was a party that Sir James Goldsmith and others had formed, opposing joining the single currency, but then they broadened it out into a referendum on the overall relationship.
After the death of Sir James Goldsmith, the Referendum Party carried on as a small campaign group, but was no longer a force in politics. I was still very much engaged in the issue. My family business where I had worked for about 10 years was actually quite badly affected by the Exchange Rate Mechanism. So, I had quite a strong view, as did a lot of other similar business people, that the Euro was a mistake and that we shouldn’t join the single currency.
At that point in the European elections, while I thought it was probably counterproductive for UKIP to stand in Westminster elections, I thought it would be good for UKIP to have a strong showing in the European elections, which they did, actually. It was the point at which they broke through, but after that I was very much of the view that we really needed to focus on the debate about the Euro and that UKIP was probably counterproductive to the anti-Euro campaign because it made the debate about the EU more widely rather than just the specific decision about euro membership.
I also concluded during the campaign that I was probably closer to the Conservative position than the UKIP position. By that stage I was genuinely what you would have called a ‘Conservative re-negotiator’ in that I didn’t actually think, at that point, that we should leave the European Union. I felt, though, that we needed a fundamental renegotiation and restoration of powers in some areas, and the Conservative Party was closest to that position at that point.
UKICE: So, there was William Hague as leader then, followed by Michael Howard, but you then worked for Michael Howard, I think, in the 2005 election, and then went on to work for David Cameron.
One of Cameron’s mantras was that the Conservatives needed to stop banging on about Europe. Just what did you make of the sort of approach David Cameron was taking when he became leader? Were you convinced he was Eurosceptic enough for people like you in the Conservative Party?
GE: Yes. Just coming before that, I had actually been part of the anti-Euro campaign, so I worked for Business for Sterling for four years, that then became the ‘No’ campaign. That was a formative period for me where I learnt a great deal about campaigning. During that time, I worked closely with Nick Herbert who was then the Campaign Director and also Dominic Cummings and Alex Hickman. Business for Sterling was Chaired by Rodney Leach who had assembled a powerful group of business leaders and industrialists including Sir Stanley Kalms of Dixons, Lord (John) Sainsbury, Anthony Bamford of JCB, Malcolm McAlpine from the construction firm Robert McAlpine and Simon Wolfson of Next as well as hundreds of others. We also worked quite closely with Lord Owen, who was at that point running a group called ‘New Europe’ that was arguing for reform.
We were campaigning at that point, just for the UK to stay outside the Euro under the slogan “Europe yes, euro no”. The objective of the campaign was to make the political challenge of taking the UK into the euro so great that Tony Blair would never dare attempt a referendum. So, after Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decided not to join the Euro, for me, at that point, it made sense to go and work for the Conservative Party, first for Michael Howard and then for David Cameron.
To answer your initial question, I think David Cameron’s view was very similar to mine, which is that we probably shouldn’t leave the EU, but we should never join the Euro, and that we should seek to renegotiate our terms of EU membership. In fact, during around 2006/7, there was quite an audacious plan put together, which was to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty that the UK by that point, I think, had ratified, but some EU countries hadn’t.
David Cameron formed an agreement with the Czech government, which was then dominated by a party called the ODS, and that was Eurosceptic. Mirek Topolánek was the Czech Prime Minister at the time, and the Czech ODS government had agreed not to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, in order to, effectively, buy time. Then, if David Cameron formed a government in 2010, his plan had been to hold an early referendum on Lisbon and then, basically, block it and make clear that we weren’t going to ratify that treaty after all, and use that as a vantage point, if you like, to renegotiate our terms of membership. The message from a Cameron led government was to be that we would only grant the rest of the EU permission to proceed with their plans under the Lisbon Treaty if UK objectives on the repatriation of powers were accommodated.
UKICE: But that all went wrong when Lisbon was ratified before the 2010 election.
GE: That’s right. So, what happened? I think we all recognised, as we put together this somewhat audacious plan where the Czechs would buy time and then the UK, under David Cameron, would force a renegotiation of the whole Lisbon Treaty, there were obviously, things that could go wrong along the way. Indeed, I remember on one occasion as we talked through the communications for the agreement with the ODS, David Cameron described how he would come back with the agreement and he picked up a piece of paper and waved it in the air in the style of Neville Chamberlain in jest. David could always be a realist but, at that point, he was also very serious about giving the manoeuvre a go.
What went wrong is that the Czech ODS Party got into political trouble and then needed to bring the Green Party, in the Czech Republic, into the coalition. The Greens insisted on immediate ratification as the price for propping up the government, and the Czech Republic was the last man standing. So, once the Czechs had ratified, things went into a different order because, once every member state had ratified, it became part of the acquis.
At that point, you couldn’t really hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty when it had already been incorporated into EU law. That caused quite a problem for David Cameron because he had no option, really, but to say, “We can no longer have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty,” but the point is that wasn’t received very well from many people within a Conservative Party.
The only elegant new position he could adopt from then is that we would renegotiate our terms of membership with the European Union, but not to promise a referendum. That’s what we went into the 2010 election, essentially, saying.
UKICE: Then, of course, we get a coalition with the very pro-European Liberal Democrats. Were you surprised when David Cameron felt the freedom to make the Bloomberg speech in 2013? Did you think, “This is good, this is coming back. This is getting us back to where we might have been if we hadn’t to go into coalition”?
GE: I think David Cameron recognised that he needed to find a way to progress his agenda of repatriating powers despite the coalition. It was quite difficult, I think, for the civil service at that point because he had a coalition government, and what David Cameron did was, effectively, carve out a position for the Conservative Party within that coalition government.
The government itself, including the Liberal Democrats did concede a process which was, essentially, looking at areas where EU law could be improved and, I think, what was termed “the balance of competencies review”, which was code from a Conservative point of view – for renegotiation, but, of course, to others such as the Liberal Democrats a balance of competencies review could have meant reaffirming that the current division of responsibilities was about right. So, that was the fudge, if you like, that the coalition government came to, but it did free David Cameron to be able to make the case, as he did, for a renegotiation.
UKICE: When you joined government, you were in Defra which is one of the departments most impacted by Europe, in government. Were you very involved in the Balance of Competences Review? What did you make of doing business in Europe? Did it confirm your views, or did you find it very different to what you’d expected from having seen Europe, working from the outside?
GE: At the point I entered government I was what I would term a ‘confirmed re-negotiator’, which is I didn’t actually think we should leave the EU, but I did think we should try to have a fundamental change in the relationship with a return of certain competences, particularly around agriculture, and fisheries, and some financial services areas as well. From the moment, really, I got into Defra and had to wrestle with EU law and its consequences my position started to harden. Every month I attended the AGRIFISH Council, and I saw up close how things actually worked or didn’t work and I had to deal, week in, week out, with disallowance risks, as they’re called within Defra.
Disallowance is a word you don’t hear in Defra anymore, but, while we were an EU member, scarcely a day would go by without the risk of a disallowance penalty because we hadn’t used the correct type of form, or, although we felt we had complied fully with EU law, it would transpire that we hadn’t done things in quite the way EU auditors wanted. It was infuriating.
We used to be fined about £100m per year. There were times when we considered challenging decisions at the ECJ but the advice from officials and from Law Officers was usually that the ECJ could not be relied on to correct these injustices as we saw them based on previous experience. I even recall at least one instance where a UK domestic court issued an order requiring the government to change its approach on an area relating to desinewed meat only to then face infraction proceedings from the EU for abiding by an order from a domestic court. So the government was damned either way. This was the sort of routine muddle and chaos that was a consequence of EU law in my view. The chilling effect that this had on governance, I thought, was really quite toxic because it meant that you couldn’t have a creative discussion about how to do policy better within Defra. Any attempt at trying to do policy better would be confronted immediately, with lawyers warning about the risks of disallowance because, “The Commission wouldn’t like this.” I thought that that was actually quite debilitating.
The other thing that early on I found extraordinary – and I hadn’t realised this, even though I’d followed EU law for some time – is just the extent to which the UK was not allowed, or was unable, to speak with its own voice on international fora.
I can remember going to the IWC, the International Whaling Commission, and the UK had a slightly different position to the EU on some issues. We were actually closer to the South American countries and the US on some issues, but it was literally unlawful for us to take a position that was at odds with the European Union.
I can remember chaotic scenes where there would be some development at the IWC, and all of the EU member states were scurrying around, trying to argue with the European Commissioner in a way that looked absolutely ridiculous, before finally the Commissioner would say none of us had any rights to say this, and this is what the Commission were going to do.
I thought that was quite a humiliating place, really, for a country like the UK that had been involved with the IWC right from the beginning and had converted it from a fisheries management body to something that was much more about conservation. It was quite bizarre that we weren’t able to speak freely.
That was largely because the EU had to accommodate Denmark, which had its uneasy relationship with the Faroes, which was a whaling nation. Therefore, the EU’s position was weakened on the world stage, and the UK’s position with it.
On another occasion, I remember officials telling me that they intended to persuade Bermuda to ask the UK to raise an issue at ICCAT on their behalf so that we could actually say what we wanted to. Ironically, the UK government was allowed to speak on behalf of the overseas territories on some of these fora but was forbidden from speaking in her own right as the UK. I just found it extraordinary. On other occasions, officials would contrive to visit Norway ostensibly to discuss a shared approach to research on whales so that they might also be able to broach a discussion about the EU-Norway fisheries negotiations in the margins. Although the EU-Norway agreement was almost exclusively related to UK interests within the EU, the UK was not permitted to play a part in those formal negotiations.
So, there were a few instances like that, principally around disallowance risk and infraction risk, but also around the undermining of the UK on the world stage in some of the regional fisheries management organisations, that actually moved me more back towards my original roots in UKIP, if you like.
Renegotiation under David Cameron
UKICE: So, when David Cameron won a majority, perhaps slightly by surprise, in 2015, and embarked on the renegotiation, were you thinking, “I’m not sure that David Cameron can deliver enough for me in this to make me support him”? How did you then judge the terms that he brought back from Brussels in 2016?
GE: I really wanted him to succeed. As they were preparing the negotiation, I actually gave some instructions to Defra to feed in some ideas to the Cabinet Office or the Foreign Office that were holding the ring in terms of the negotiating mandate.
For instance, we argued that we should step partially back from the Common Agricultural Policy. We argued, as Gordon Brown had about nine years earlier, that we should, effectively, repatriate regional policy, and come out of the EU structural funds, and run those funds ourselves. That had been a long-standing Treasury position, actually.
We also argued that we should try and come out of the Common Fisheries Policy and replace it with something that was more around cooperation rather than it being a ceded competence to the EU. Finally, we considered whether we could remain committed to EU and international conventions on the environment but repatriate full responsibility for their implementation. In fact, I remember as I floated what I considered this novel idea, one experienced official explained to me that this was precisely what the Labour government of Callaghan had advocated in the late 1970s before the EU made environmental policy an EU competence.
The problem on all of these things is that the word kept coming back, from a combination of the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office, that simply said all of these things were ‘not negotiable’. So, negotiability was the watchword for the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office. It was pretty clear that they didn’t really think anything was negotiable really, other than something, maybe, that was a slightly optical announcement to help the PM with a domestic political situation.
I think the emergency brake meant that we could request permission from the Commission not to have to pay benefits out, but there wasn’t any proper repatriation of powers in the final mandate.
So, I think, although many of us after the election really wanted this to succeed and did everything we could, it became apparent, by around October, November 2015, that actually the Foreign Office, and the government machine generally, had decided that, really, nothing would be negotiable and that we were into, at that point, some kind of optical announcement that didn’t really change things. I remember having an exasperated discussion with Mats Perrson who was then a Special Adviser on Europe in No 10. I had known Mats for many years since Business for Sterling had given some assistance to the Swedish No campaign in their referendum. He told me that he could not get officials in Whitehall to understand the gravity of the situation and the importance of getting a genuine repatriation of powers. I remember him saying that he had told them that if this goes wrong, they will be the ones left trying to work out how to leave the EU entirely. It was quite prescient.
The decision to abandon any hope of a meaningful re-negotiation was quite a big moment for the Conservative Party, I would say, because the belief in renegotiation was a fragile but very important seam that held together two parts of the Conservative Party.
There were those who were more stridently Eurosceptic and probably regret joining the EU in the first place, but they would have lived with a renegotiation with some powers brought back. They would also, probably, have been content with staying in the single market at that point.
Then there was another wing, who were much more enthusiastic about EU membership but recognised that it had many, many faults. Both those wings of the party were happy to coalesce around the idea of a renegotiation, but, once the renegotiation mask was pulled away and we were, effectively, told that “Renegotiation is not possible, you take it or leave it,” it polarised opinion within the Conservative Party in a way that I don’t think David Cameron, perhaps, had foreseen, but in a way that then led to an unfolding of events over the proceeding six months.
UKICE: So, by the time David Cameron set off to renegotiate, you were almost of the view that this was too unambitious and couldn’t possibly deliver something that was good enough for you when it came to the referendum, to make you support the Prime Minister.
GE: Yes. In essence, yes, and I can remember David Cameron had asked me, in around October 2015, whether I might help lead a campaign to stay in the European Union. It was quite an awkward thing for me. I’d been David Cameron’s Press Secretary. I was very close to him. We’d been in the trenches together in opposition for some time.
I subsequently had a meeting with Ed Llewellyn where, effectively, I had to break the news to them that, although I was in government, I would probably, as things stand, end up on the other side. If necessary, I’d resign from the government to do it.
That was a meeting that we had in around November 2015. Obviously, it was quite difficult. I’d tried to implore Ed Llewellyn, I remember, quite strongly, to take longer over this because the critics of the approach said, “You can’t just go to the EU and think you’re going to get a new deal within two or three months,” which is effectively what we were trying to do. “If you do that, well, you’re not going to get very much.”
I actually felt it would have been better to have played this long, to have taken two or three years and actually have put somebody like Oliver Letwin, who was a master of detail, and just solidly put him on this with the European Commission, over a long period of time, so that you actually could have got a genuine renegotiation that might have kept things together.
But I think the counterargument that came, particularly from Ed Llewellyn, is that there were French elections the following year, and German elections the year after that. They felt that they had a small window when any kind of negotiation would be possible, and there was never going to be a good time. I think they wanted to get it over and done with. I think, with hindsight, that was a mistake. I do think it would have been better to have taken longer on the renegotiation.
UKICE: Did you ever, at that stage, float the idea that the UK should leave the EU but join – consider joining – the EEA, which was one of the ideas you put forward a bit later, which would take us out of the CFP and the CAP?
GE: Not at that point, because, to be honest, because a referendum would be so high stakes for everyone, whichever side of the argument they were on, I actually felt it would have been better to have come up with a renegotiation that was a reasonable settlement. So, I probably would have tolerated something even less free, as it were, than the EEA or EFTA at that point, in order to avoid all of the inherent risks that would have gone with a referendum. So, at that point, it was much more around trying to get ambition into the renegotiation that David Cameron was contemplating.
The idea of EFTA and EEA, that came later, after the referendum. That’s because I genuinely felt that you had to recognise that, although it was a clear referendum result, it was also quite close. The right thing to do would have been to have left the European Union, but in a cautious way.
I felt that EFTA and EEA was probably a reasonable settlement to unblock the problem that we had with the hung Parliament between 2017 and 2019. I’d hoped that both sides could unite behind it. Unfortunately, they did both unite, but against it, in that you had one wing saying, “This is no good. We want to do trade deals with America and we can’t tolerate any kind of alignment with the EU.” You had another side saying, “This is no good. We just need a second referendum, and that’s the end of it.”
So, while I’d hoped to get Parliament to do what it should do in these instances, which is to find common ground and compromise, in fact Parliament just was not in the mood for doing it. You had two tribes that were never going to reconcile and that only another general election could solve it.
UKICE: So David Cameron’s renegotiation didn’t deliver nearly enough for you. Were you surprised by the reaction in the Cabinet? Did you expect more people in the Cabinet to campaign for ‘Leave’? Were you surprised by some of the big figures that did come over to the ‘Leave’ campaign, like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson? Clearly, David Cameron seemed to be rather surprised and concerned.
GE: I think it was broadly what I expected, in that, so when it comes, for instance, to Michael Gove, that didn’t surprise me, because I knew that he was genuinely torn on the issue. In fact, when David Cameron had asked me whether I might play a role leading the ‘Yes to EU’ campaign, I had a conversation with Michael Gove about it at that point.
Again, that was around about November 2015, and I just asked him whether Cabinet had a plan to try to get some ambition in the negotiation, because I felt we were heading for a difficult position. I told him that, as things stood, I was probably going to have to end up being on the other side.
It was clear to me that he was basically in exactly the same position but really was torn on this, in that he was also close, like I was, to David Cameron. He was quite interested in what I was going to do and how I was going to approach it, because I think he was going through the same internal struggle.
I think, with Boris Johnson, it was less clear what he would do, and he had shown less interest in the issue previously. Then, beyond that, it didn’t really surprise me. There were quite a lot of ministers at Minister of State level who felt, like me, that this was such a big issue, a historic moment, probably the last chance ever to step back from the European Union if we were going to, and that, if we accepted the terms of the renegotiation that were not really a renegotiation at all, that would, of itself, set off a chain of events where it wouldn’t be long before people were talking about joining the Euro again, and so forth.
So, for a lot of them, they just recognised that this was a bigger decision than the position of the current government and current Prime Minister. Then, for many others, they would have shared the nervousness but they would have held their nose and, basically, just supported David Cameron and George Osborne because they felt that the government should pull together on this. So, I think it was probably what I’d expected: that there were a few cabinet ministers but then quite a lot of junior ministers who came out on the ‘Leave’ side.
UKICE: You were working in a department where the Secretary of State, Liz Truss, I think, was one of the more high-profile ‘Remain’ campaigners and where a lot of officials who spent their life working with Brussels. How easy was it to contract departmental business while at the same time the different sides were emerging and the campaign was running?
GE: Yes, they were. It was awkward. There are no two ways about it. If you’ve got the Minister of State, who has been in the department for some time, on the ‘Leave’ side, and the Secretary of State taking a lead role on the government position, obviously that’s quite difficult. Everyone was very keen to send me off to the G7 in Japan and G20 in China.
Liz Truss at that time, when I discussed it with her, had confided in me that she didn’t really have any enthusiasm for the EU and probably wouldn’t mind if we left, but just felt that the country probably wasn’t going to do that anyway. And, as a government, we should try and show some solidarity. She didn’t campaign for the EU out of any enthusiasm. It was more a feeling that the government had to try to stick together and support David Cameron, the then Prime Minister.
Within the department, I think it’s fair to say, in a department like Defra, probably the majority – a significant majority – would have been in favour of remaining, but not universally so. I used to walk around the department, and I remember some occasions when civil servants would check over their shoulder and then give me a double thumbs-up.
It was clear that there were Leavers within Defra, which on one level wouldn’t be surprising, since they, like me, had seen the difficulty of trying to have sensible positions on the IWC and other international fora when you’re hamstrung by the EU. Many of them spent their days fretting about disallowance risk and infraction, so, although most of them were in favour of staying in the EU, there were, I would say, a significant minority who felt the same way as I did.
UKICE: What was your reading of the way the vote might go in the farming and fishing community? You are MP for Camborne and Redruth down in Cornwall. Do you think they were actually very keen to get out of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, or were they nervous about future trade relations?
GE: I think, on balance, that the fishing industry was very strongly in favour of leaving, because they saw countries like Norway able to punch above their weight in international negotiations, able to negotiate in their own right, with much more access to the resources in their waters.
There was one sector of the fishing industry that was more nervous, and that was the shellfish sector, those involved with mussels, and oysters, and scallops and so on. That’s because the export market to the European Union was very important to them, but they weren’t subject to any of the EU’s quotas. So, they had least to gain by leaving the EU and were most sceptical about leaving, but overall the fishing industry was strongly in favour.
Then, I think, the agriculture industry was really quite divided. On the one hand, obviously, there was a recognition that they received subsidies at the moment, and there would have been doubts about whether they would still get those subsidies after we left the European Union.
On the other hand, farmers were deeply frustrated by the rulebook that came with the Common Agricultural Policy that often made very little sense, led to very unfair penalties on farmers. That attempt to navigate some of these really arcane bodies of EU law meant that many of them were also quite sceptical about EU membership in the long term.
UKICE: You said that Liz Truss had assumed that the government would win, that ‘Remain’ would win. Did you think ‘Leave’ would win from the start? Or, if not, when did it suddenly dawn on you that ‘Leave’ might well win?
GE: Initially I actually thought that Leave would probably not win. In my previous role in the campaign against the euro I had studied previous referendums in some depth. If you study referendums, the dynamics of them, it tends to be the case that in a fiercely contested debate, caution sets in and people tend to vote for the status quo. That is why both Denmark and Sweden voted to stay outside the euro and why the UK voted to remain in the EU in 1975. It is the reason why I would have settled for a genuine renegotiation because the risks in a referendum are high for anyone advocating change.
I think that is what David Cameron, and certainly George Osborne, had hoped or assumed would happen in this case: that in a ferociously fought campaign, people would stick with what they know. But I think it became quite clear to me, probably in the final month, as I was going out on the road, that the public were really quite engaged in this debate and recognised that it was quite a big deal, and recognised too that it was probably the last chance for the UK to step away from the European Union if it wanted to.
There was quite an appetite just to take back control. So, I think the message of ‘take back control’ was really quite potent because – and this is often misunderstood – people didn’t, in my view, vote ‘Leave’ because they wanted to do trade deals or end migration. Immigration was a factor, but not the primary factor, in my view.
It was much more that they were weary of electing governments on manifestos, only to find that they really couldn’t do any of the things they said they were going to do, and often discovering that this was because supranational EU law was the thing that trumped it, and very little could be done.
I just think they really wanted that ability again to have a national government that could decide things and do things. You started to detect that out in the country, particularly away from London.
UKICE: Where were you when you heard the result?
GE: I was sat at home, actually. I decided to avoid going to the ‘No’ campaign’s HQ. I did some media, and I can remember I was live on Sky News when, I think it was, the Sunderland results came through.
It was the moment that the pound tanked against the Euro, literally within seconds of that result coming through, because it was a weather-vane part of the country and people hadn’t expected it to go ‘Leave’. That was a big change, and that’s when I realised we were in for quite an interesting night.
UKICE: Then you see David Cameron, who you were very close to, coming out of Downing Street. Had you expected that he would have to resign if the vote went against him?
GE: No, I hadn’t, actually. I still maintain to this day that he didn’t need to resign, and it would have been better if he hadn’t. I understood his logic. He felt that whatever he did would be judged not to be good enough and it would be too difficult. It needed, in his view, somebody who was a genuine believer, to deliver it, but I think a lot of us were surprised, including, I would say, Michael Gove as well as certainly myself.
That’s because I’d known David Cameron for quite a few years, and I think there were two things I’d say. One is he could be quite a versatile politician. Many of us remembered he campaigned ferociously against the Lib Dems in 2010 and then was all smiles in the Rose Garden as he put together quite an audacious coalition government, the first for many, many years in the UK, with his arch-rival Nick Clegg.
So, he could be quite versatile and could come out and recognise new political situations, and embrace them and make them work, but I think the second thing is that those of us who knew David Cameron and he was a bit like Oliver Letwin in this sense, he wasn’t actually, really, a true believer in the European Union in the way that, say, Ken Clarke was or others. He wasn’t like a Michael Heseltine type figure. He was of a different generation. He was an adviser to Norman Lamont during the ERM fiasco and he never gave the impression of having any authentic belief in the European project.
I think the reality about David Cameron’s position on the EU is that he probably wouldn’t campaign to join it if we hadn’t joined in the first place, in that he thought it had many faults. Anyone who’d discussed it with him in private company knew that he wasn’t really a true believer in the EU. Oliver Letwin was the same – he was often called the ‘secret outer’ among Eurosceptic circles because he was known, really, to be unpersuaded by the intellectual case for EU membership. I remember once being given an account of a meeting chaired by Oliver Letwin where civil servants were proposing a campaign message around influence and ‘place at the table.’ They were somewhat shocked that Oliver Letwin was completely dismissive of the notion of influence on the basis that the UK was routinely outvoted on virtually everything that mattered.
But both Oliver Letwin and David Cameron had the same view, which was that, while they would never have joined the EU in the first place, since we did join in the 70s, we had sold the pass. You had decades of integration, and the process of trying to extract ourselves from the EU at this stage would be far too difficult, and complicated, and would suck the oxygen out of everything. On that analysis, I suppose, they were probably correct. It’s just that some of us were applying a very different test to the decision we were all confronted with.
After the referendum and May government
UKICE: Did you think that the next Prime Minister needed to be somebody who’d campaigned for ‘Leave’? How did you see that leadership election that ended up with Theresa May as Prime Minister?
GE: Yes, my preference had been that David Cameron would have stayed on but would have tasked Oliver Letwin and Michael Gove to be joint negotiators for the UK mandate, because I actually think, in Oliver Letwin, you had someone who was a master of detail. In Michael Gove, you had somebody who was a genuine believer in leaving the EU, and had campaigned for it and had credibility, but was also a pragmatist when necessary.
I think that would have been a winning team, but obviously that chance was missed. At that point, I felt it would have been better if you could have had the combination of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to lead a government but to work very hard to make sure you pulled all the wings of the party back together.
Of course, none of those things happened, due to the turbulence and the fallout between Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, which was very regrettable. I don’t really think that Theresa May was very well placed to do the negotiation, and even less well so after she lost her majority.
UKICE: Do you think Andrea Leadsom would have been better placed?
GE: No. I personally think that at that point the best person, probably, would have been Michael Gove, because I think he could do detail, but he could have brought the level of pragmatism needed to ensure that it was done properly and cognisant of some of the risks of coming out in the wrong way.
UKICE: I’m intrigued by that. Do you think somebody who’d voted ‘Leave’ would have been more flexible than Theresa May was initially in the approach to negotiations and taking account of, if you like, the closeness of the result that you mentioned earlier?
GE: Yes, I think so, because they would have had the credibility of having been a ‘Leave’ campaigner and would have been in a much stronger position to take those MPs who had campaigned to leave, to take them with them on a journey to a pragmatic means of exit, in a way that delivered everything people had voted for but was done in a pragmatic way.
I think it was harder for someone who’d been a ‘Remain’ campaigner to do that, because there would always have been the suspicion that they were still a Remainer and that was in their heart as they approached these things, so I think it was… I think a ‘Leave’ campaigner would have had more versatility, actually, to have done this a bit differently.
UKICE: Going back inside Defra, we always write lots about ministerial churn, but you’re the counterweight to that, having spent all your ministerial career in one department and providing continuity.
How did you assess the task ahead, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum and Theresa May becoming Prime Minister, for the department, with your new Secretary of State, Andrea Leadsom? How did you think through what was confronting you then?
GE: I think the first thing is there was a very high degree of shellshock among civil servants in the department, in that, I think, none of them had expected this to happen. As I said, most of them would have felt and would have been on the ‘Remain’ side, would have felt we should have stayed in the EU.
So, morale was in a difficult place as you tried to get the civil service to focus on this challenge ahead, even though they felt quite uneasy about what the country had just voted to do. My view was, to get people past that point, you needed to really start to focus them on the task in hand, rather than dwell too much on the rights and wrongs. Although the political argument about Brexit was to carry on for years, and years, and years, you needed to get the civil service focused on the policy agenda that they were now free to decide for themselves.
I think what I’d say is the first part of the department to really recognise the opportunities, actually, were those in fisheries because they could really see that this did create a lot of opportunities. So, I felt that the teams working on fisheries policy reconciled themselves quite quickly to what had been decided.
Shortly after that, I think, once we started talking about future agriculture policy, and how we could do it differently and have payments for public goods, and a focus on the environment and so on, the teams around future agriculture policy also started to get quietly excited by the prospect of being able to do things differently again and actually to think about policy, rather than just thinking about how to implement policy that had been handed down from Brussels. So, they got quite enthusiastic.
The bit of the department that was probably slowest to spot the opportunities, I would say, is on the environment front. That’s, I think, because the green NGOs were very wedded to the legal architecture that we had in the European Union, the Habitats Directive and so on.
I think they found it hardest to spot the opportunities to do things differently and better, but even there, by the time we drafted the first version of the Environment Bill in around 2018, again, I think people had started to see some of the opportunities.
UKICE: So, was that associated with Michael Gove becoming Secretary of State in June 2017, after the 2017 election, because he certainly seemed to see Defra as a bit of, if you like, a test case for the opportunities from Brexit?
GE: Yes. Michael Gove is a tremendous operator, really. He was able to go into any department, Defra included, and energise people, make people feel valued, keep things moving forward. So, I think he really did help. It changed the status of Defra because the truth is that Theresa May should never have sacked Michael Gove, but she sacked Oliver Letwin, Michael Gove, George Osborne. In fact, most of the key, intellectual talents within the previous government were removed from her Cabinet.
That was a terrible mistake, and she realised it a year after and obviously needed to bring Michael Gove back into the heart of government. The place she chose was Defra, but it was obvious all along that he was also to play a much larger, cross-cutting role in government generally, as well.
UKICE: What about relations with other departments? We’ve got the Department for Exiting the EU. You’ve got Number 10 and then the Cabinet Office of Olly Robbins’ Europe Unit getting involved in this, and see some signs in 2017, 2018, of tensions emerging, initial tensions emerging between Defra and the new Department of International Trade.
Did the machinery for working out what government wanted, and making sure that the whole range of Defra concerns were properly taken account of in the withdrawal negotiations, but also the preparations for the future relationship, work well?
GE: I think it was quite different because, obviously, by 2017, Theresa May had lost her majority. Probably, in normal circumstances, a Prime Minister returning as the largest party but without a majority would probably, at that point, have said, “On the issue of leaving the EU, we need to try and develop a cross-party consensus.” But that needed people to be quite big and quite magnanimous on all sides.
On the one hand, Jeremy Corbyn has not traditionally been a supporter of EU membership and probably was secretly quite pleased that we were leaving, but he was also quite hamstrung by the makeup of his own party at that point.
Also, temperamentally, Theresa May just wasn’t the sort to reach out to Jeremy Corbyn and say, “Let’s try and build a grand, cross-party consensus on this,” but that’s probably what was needed at that point, but it wasn’t done. It was judged that it couldn’t be done.
Then, I think, what you were in for from that point was just a very difficult few years as the minority government attempted to do this incredibly difficult task, without a parliamentary majority and with Parliament, latterly, in a position to be able to hijack the order paper and, effectively, become a de facto government on the backbenches.
UKICE: Did you or Defra have much input into the evolving position on where the UK might land as Theresa May developed it through her party conference speech, Lancaster House, Florence, Mansion House and things like that? Or did you feel you were a bit on the side-lines and just taking dictation from the centre as to what they were gradually working out?
GE: I think that Michael Gove would have had some influence on what they were doing and saying, but certainly this is a great frustration in government for anybody who’s a junior minister, whether that’s a parliamentary undersecretary or a Minister of State. You’re often asked to go out and defend things, but seldom do people ask your opinion before they announce what they’re going to do.
So, my personal input, beyond the input that I made via Michael Gove – and I did lots in that way – was quite limited. I sat on what became the XO Committee, which was a Cabinet subcommittee that dealt with managing Brexit operations. So, on lots of the technical detail, I was very involved, but, on the overall strategy and tactics of the negotiation, others were making those decisions. I had very little input.
UKICE: Were you spending huge amounts of time in Parliament? Because Defra isn’t usually a department that does that much domestic legislation, or wasn’t before Brexit, but suddenly had a lot of really big bills to get through: agriculture, fisheries, environment,
GE: Yes, absolutely. That was taking a lot of my time. There were two big bills that I was responsible for: the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill that both, in the end, were lost in the 2019 election, but we were working on those during 2017 and ‘18.
On top of that, Defra had more Statutory Instruments linked to the EU Withdrawal Act than any other department. In fact, I think it might be close to the truth to say we probably had as many SIs to bring forward as the rest of government put together. I think the Department for Transport was the second largest, but so much Defra legislation was EU derived – around 80% of it, in fact – that the number of Statutory Instruments we needed to bring across retained EU law was really quite enormous.
Then, because it was so enormous and such a huge task, inevitably errors were sometimes made in the drafting of those various SIs, and I can remember often having to go back to Parliament to lay an amendment SI to fix a problem in one that had been done six months previously.
UKICE: Defra expanded enormously. What was it like, being in a department which was changing shape so quickly? Were you always surprised by who turned up at your meetings or to support you, and how long they’d been in the department?
GE: It expanded very quickly because Defra, as a department, had probably contracted in terms of headcount, I think, by about 25%, maybe 30% in the coalition government years, up until 2015-16. So, you got used to there being, really, typically 20 people that held the thing together on any given policy area, in terms of policy officials.
Of course, we suddenly had bills to take through and so there was a significant increase in headcount. I can’t remember precisely, but I think it might have been in the region of around 4,000 additional civil servants in Defra to manage the Brexit process.
UKICE: As well as the legislative process, how much were you involved in ‘No Deal’ planning? You mentioned you were on the XO Committee, which I think was under Boris Johnson, but, under Theresa May, did you think that there was a real possibility of ‘No Deal’ at that stage?
GE: Yes, there was, because there should have been because we’d actually passed a clause in the act that said we would leave, come what may, in the end of March. So, I was on the committee. It was actually chaired by Michael Gove, who I think I’m trying to think, actually, who chaired it before Michael Gove, but I was basically delegated to attend it throughout the Theresa May years, as well.
So, at that key exit committee I often represented Defra. I think I attended about 170 meetings of that particular committee in the end, and we discussed everything, from how to manage Operation Stack should there be a problem in the Short Straits, to what we would do about live, day-old chicks that somebody might be transporting, what we would do about perishable goods like fish, and then everything else in between: regulation of bottled water, SPS issues, the export of eels, seed potatoes and so forth. There were just multiple, multiple issues, with quite narrow technical detail, that we dealt with in that meeting.
UKICE: Were you confident that ‘No Deal’ could be managed across the UK, working with the devolved governments?
GE: Yes. It undoubtedly would have been messy, but it could have been managed, and we had planned to be able to deliver it. The big fear, I think, was that, in the absence of an agreement, the thing we couldn’t really predict is whether the European Union would just be deliberately bloody-minded and make things more difficult than even they should be under the terms of their regulation.
That was the fear, so we knew that, if the EU simply imposed their own official control regime, we were ready to manage that. We were going to have a light-touch, phased approach to any checks coming into the UK, so we weren’t going to put any unnecessary friction on trade coming from the EU to the UK.
We had worked out ways of managing it, but the thing we couldn’t really know for sure is what would happen if the European Union deliberately caused chaos at the Short Straits. That would then start to affect food supply, and that was something we had to plan for quite a lot. I can remember one project where we assessed domestic production capacity and stocks in store of every single food category as part of that contingency planning.
UKICE: What did you make of the agreement at Chequers? Were you well sighted on what was going into the potential Chequers agreement? Did Michael Gove share with you where things were headed? Then, when you saw David Davis, then Boris Johnson, resign over it, did you think, maybe, you should resign as well, or were you quite pleased with the direction that the government was heading in?
GE: “Pleased about it” is the wrong thing to say, because I was worried about the so-called ‘backstop provision’ in particular. I was worried that the European Union would have no incentive to try to find a sensible arrangement. A lot of it was really pushing the can down the road, so you weren’t negotiating an exit. You were simply creating yet another set of negotiations about how to avoid the backstop.
So, my fear was that we could end up, effectively, captured in the backstop, legally, unable to get out of it without paying a steep price to the European Union. So, I was very nervous about it, but, as often is the case in government, I had to balance that against the fact that I felt me flouncing off at that point wouldn’t necessarily have changed very much.
I was very involved in taking forward two bills in Parliament that were critical to delivering Brexit, and I had command of the detail of that, and I wanted to keep ownership of that. Crucially, I felt there was still a lot to do to prepare for possible Brexit. Therefore, that wasn’t the right time to leave. Obviously, I felt differently later, but at that point I felt that I should hold my nose and vote for it, even though I had concerns about the backstop.
UKICE: What then tipped you over in February 2019, into resigning?
GE: I’m somebody who’d always been of the view that I would tolerate all sorts of compromise in order to get a settlement, but then I felt we would look very weak and feeble, as a country, if we didn’t see through what we’d said we’d do, which is to leave without an agreement, if necessary.
So, I was open to all sorts of compromises, including swallowing the deal that Theresa May’s government had put together, but I think, for me, the moment at which the country vacillated and collapsed in the face of a possible ‘No Deal’ and stepped away from that – and, worse still, went to the European Union, effectively cap in hand, to beg them to give us an extension – I thought that that was a very bad move that would put the EU in the strongest possible position, since the continuation of us delaying ‘No Deal’ was then, basically, at the discretion of the European Union itself. So, it gave them all of the cards, and I thought that that was a big mistake.
I also felt, by that point, that this was the stage at which Oliver Letwin and others had hijacked the order paper and were, effectively, writing the UK’s negotiating mandate from the backbenches. I felt that at that point the government wasn’t really in control of the situation. The plane had been, if you like, hijacked, and there wasn’t much point staying in government at that stage, when the government was no longer calling the shots.
Then the final thing for me was I had come to the view at this point that the EFTA/EEA exit model was probably the best thing to do at that point. I felt somebody on the Eurosceptic side, the ‘Leave’ side, needed to make that case and so I, fundamentally, left government so that I was free to argue the case for the EFTA/EEA option.
UKICE: Did you see that as a transitional arrangement to getting more out, as some people, some very long-standing advocates of Brexit, had? Or did you think that was a permanent arrangement for the UK? Of course, Theresa May had said she didn’t think that would work for the UK, because we just wouldn’t be happy as a rule taker inside the EEA.
GE: I think, if you really go back in history, my view is that membership of the European Union – or, indeed, European Community before it – never really sat very comfortably with the British constitution, because of the role of the monarchy in our constitution, and the role of Parliament, and Parliament being sovereign. It was always known that the sacrifices to your sovereignty that come with EU membership were quite difficult to swallow.
That’s why, throughout the 1950s and the early ‘60s, there was a cross-party consensus, both from Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, that the UK should not join the European Community and that we should actually do something different, which we did, which was to form EFTA, the European Free Trade Association.
In those early days, we had Ireland, we had Spain, we had both Norway and Sweden. Austria were involved. It was quite plausible that that model of European cooperation that was envisaged in EFTA could actually become the dominant force, had we not had a terrible failure of national will and decided to throw it away and join the European Community. So, that was my analysis of history: that actually we were wrong to leave EFTA and join the European Community in the first place.
Then, when it comes to the EEA, I saw that as a neater exit solution, better than the Transition Agreement, because the European Union, more than anything else, believes in its treaties and believes in legal form. The UK was a signatory in its own right to the treaty that established the EEA.
Technically, we didn’t leave the EEA unless we gave notice to leave it. Under the Vienna Convention, there’s an obligation on the parties to try to make treaties work when there’s a change. Therefore, I thought it was much easier to be able to assert our legal rights as an existing EEA signatory and use that as a stepping stone back, from which you might then have negotiated other arrangements.
So, it was EFTA, in the long term, and EEA potentially as a stepping stone or as an alternative transition out, but it was one where we had legal rights, as an EEA signatory. That was the key point.
UKICE: So, you saw some Remainers, like Nick Boles, suggesting, I think, something a bit like that as well, Ken Clarke proposing customs union, and we had those indicative votes in Parliament. Did you ever have any hopes that the indicative votes might show a different way forward, or did you think they were too late?
GE: I was an optimist because you have to be when things are that difficult. So, I had decided by that point, because I’d left government, that Theresa May’s approach had failed, and the government approach wasn’t going anywhere, and that, therefore, indicative votes to try to identify where a consensus in Parliament lay was the correct thing to do.
I had my own option. I think there were five, and my option, which was EFTA and EA, didn’t attract a huge amount of support. I think it was seventy, for all the reasons I said earlier. I think, on both sides, people found reasons not to like it, but yes, so I was hopeful that that would have at least created a consensus for something that the government would have then felt compelled to follow, but, sadly, it didn’t happen. Parliament, basically, concluded it didn’t know what to do.
UKICE: Did you ever, at this stage, think that Brexit might be lost entirely, that there was a risk that there might be a second referendum if the government got too bogged down and people’s views might have changed, or that Brexit would just run into the ground?
GE: Yes, I did. I was genuinely concerned. It’s one of the reasons why, for me, the trigger for resigning was the failure to stick to the timeframe for leaving, because I think, once you had indicated once that you didn’t really have the resolve to do this, the European Union really had no incentive to negotiate with you sensibly at that point. They would assume that, when push came to shove, the UK would always cave in, and they would assume that they should just bide their time until there were a different government of a different colour, at which point they might be able to get a second referendum.
So, I was genuinely concerned that we were embarking on a journey that would have meant multiple extensions of the transition period, or delays to leaving the European Union, culminating in an eventual collapse in the government and then, potentially, a government that called a second referendum to take us back in.
Boris Johnson government
UKICE: So, we did get not a change of government but a change of Prime Minister, in summer 2019. You supported Michael Gove that time. Did you expect him to win?
GE: I think we all knew that Boris Johnson was likely to win at that point, but I’ve always had a very clear view, personally, on leadership campaigns, that if you’re the Members of Parliament in a particular party, you will know the individuals better than anybody else.
You can’t just go the way the wind is blowing and hope it might stand you in good stead. I think there’s a big responsibility on you at that moment, to say what you think should happen, irrespective of their chances of success. So, I backed David Cameron in 2005, when he was an underdog, and worked on his campaign. That worked out well.
In the most recent one, I actually backed Grant Shapps, who didn’t even get off the start line, but, for two of those leadership elections, I felt that Michael Gove was what was needed to deal with the complexity of the situation we faced.
UKICE: But then, when Boris Johnson did win, you went back into government. You went back to Defra again. I wondered, how different was it to be working in Defra under the Boris Johnson government, to working in Defra under Theresa May’s government?
GE: Really, initially, it was very refreshing. Obviously, despite everything that has happened since, I knew Dominic Cummings very well. He and I had worked together on Business for Sterling for three years, between 1999 and 2002.
Whatever people think about him, and he has got plenty of detractors and he leaves lots of casualties in his wake when he gets involved in something, but he does have an ability to shake things up, and move things, and get things done when it’s difficult and stuck.
I think his influence in those early months was quite helpful when he was applying himself in the right place, and it was quite refreshing, actually, to be trying to finally get this done.
UKICE: Did you have any reservations about things like the prorogation or the expulsion of 20 or so quite well-known, veteran Conservatives from the party, over supporting the Benn-Burt Act? Or were you just in a sort of ‘whatever it takes’ mood to get this over the line?
GE: Yes, I think at that point we just felt you have to do whatever it takes. The proroguing of Parliament, I think it’s often misunderstood. On the one hand, you might not have expected there to be a legal challenge. On the other hand, knowing how Dominic Cummings operates, a big part of what he wanted was he was already, at that point, thinking that it probably needed a general election to solve things and he was provoking opponents into errors that would pave the way for eventual triumph in an election.
In a rather ruthless way, he would have concluded, if you’re going into a general election, you don’t want Remainer Conservatives returning, because they will continue to be in the way. So, removing the whip from them and no longer having them in the party, strategically, was the correct thing to do. Brutal, yes, but he would have judged that that was the right thing to do.
In terms of the proroguing of Parliament, he would have judged that the sight of MPs or judges pontificating on whether we could have an election or not, or whether we could prorogue Parliament, or whether certain things the government was trying to do were judged lawful, all of that just reinforced the view in the public that this debate was about the establishment against the people. That paved the way for the ‘Get Brexit Done’ message.
UKICE: Which was clearly very successful. Did you have reservations? You said you had reservations about the backstop in the withdrawal agreement. Did you have reservations about the deal done on Northern Ireland, which some people described as a ‘front stop’, accepting at least some sort of border in the Irish Sea?
GE: I had some, but I think, by that point, we just had to get an agreement done. I thought it was better than the Theresa May agreement in that it was more final in that sense. It didn’t postpone as much. Theresa May’s negotiation, essentially, delayed the main meat of the negotiation to a future date, but what Boris Johnson’s deal did was postpone some quite difficult, tricky decisions and negotiations about the Northern Ireland protocol to a future date, but, in every other respect, it was a cleaner Brexit.
UKICE: So, when you became Secretary of State in the February 2020 reshuffle, I wondered whether you expected to be very involved in the negotiations on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement because obviously, agriculture and fisheries are quite big issues there. Were you very involved by David Frost and Boris Johnson in those negotiations, or were they very much running the show themselves, with relatively small input from the rest of Whitehall?
GE: At that point, as the Secretary of State, I would say I was very involved in those negotiations and, again, continued to attend not just the XO Cabinet Subcommittee, focused on operations and delivery, but I was also on the so-called XS Cabinet Subcommittee, which was about the strategy for the negotiation.
So, I felt very involved. Not every Cabinet member, obviously, was on that, but it was recognised that the approach on agri-food trade, SPS issues, and fisheries, were of significant importance and a key part that we needed to get right in the TCA.
UKICE: Do you think that they did get that right in the TCA?
GE: My one reservation was on the fisheries side, it was a very difficult dilemma because I’d always, basically, understood that a sensible landing space with the European Union would have been a multi-annual agreement running to, maybe, five years, where you would continue to agree reasonably generous access, but preferably not in our territorial waters – i.e. the nought to twelve miles – and where you would, essentially, during that period, gradually see a transfer of quota from the EU fleet to the UK fleet so that you ended up with a fairer sharing arrangement after five years.
I had been of the view, probably in around about June 2020, that to try and unblock the fisheries discussion, we probably should have broached that subject and made such an offer, just to get the discussion going.
The view of Lord Frost was, “The trouble with the EU is, if you offer that, they will bank it and then come back for more.” I can see that argument. That may well have been right, but the problem with delaying all the discussions on fishing until the end is that our negotiators from Defra spent several nights in a row arguing about individual species of fish and what quota would be transferred as part of the agreement.
There were even scenes where the Commission had got their numbers wrong but then claimed they couldn’t change their numbers, because they couldn’t go back and change their mandate now and so on, which we had to reject in very strong terms. The reason it took so long in those final days was protracted arguments about fisheries. So, it was a bit like having 10 December fisheries councils wrapped up in one set of negotiations right at the end of the TCA discussion.
I think, with hindsight, it probably would have been better to have tried to open that discussion earlier, but it would have needed us to level with our own fishing industry and be straight with them about what a likely outcome was, but we might have got to a better place than we did in the end.
UKICE: David Frost had been notoriously, in his Brussels speech in February 2020, quite dismissive about non-tariff barriers and their impacts. Were you, in Defra, at all concerned about the impact of all those SPS checks on UK agricultural exports?
GE: Not really, because we’d done quite a bit of work on this, and most of our exports were lamb, and mackerel, and salmon. Those were the big ones, and on each of those you tend to get a single consignment, with an articulated lorry going to one distributor in a European country. So, you only needed one phytosanitary certificate or one export health certificate to accompany that consignment.
Indeed, the mackerel producers, the salmon producers, and the lamb producers, while they had a little bit of extra paperwork, it’s not something that particularly bothered them in the scheme of things once we left. Where it was always going to be much more difficult – and we didn’t have an answer to this – is your small, artisan cheese producer that was sending a small consignment to one small retailer in France or small consignments of shellfish direct to restaurants in the EU.
The trouble is that the cost of doing the paperwork was probably going to mean that those types of trades would be much harder, but the theory behind the single market, originally, was that you could cut out the idea of wholesalers and distributors, and have more direct business-to-business trade. It was always, I think, understood that, in some of those sectors where you had small consignments and small volumes, you’d probably need to see a reversion to more of a wholesaler and distributor-type model.
UKICE: What about trade policy more generally? We’d seen some initial skirmishes over a possible US trade deal between Michael Gove and Liam Fox, but then, post-Brexit we negotiate lots of rollover deals, similar terms to the EU, but the flagship deals as well with Australia and New Zealand, which you’ve expressed concerns about and had some run-ins with Liz Truss when she was Trade Secretary. Do you think the government got its approach to those trade deals right?
GE: Look, I’m pretty clearly on the record in that I’d spoken in Parliament on this: My view was that with trade deals, it’s a tough world out there. Every other country, while feigning a belief in trade liberalisation, looks after their own interests. That’s precisely the case with Australia, who still maintain a protectionist ban on British beef going there, and the United States, who will find reasons not to allow particular competitors in their market.
So, I always felt that these are tough negotiations on trade, and you should always seek reciprocal access for the access you’re giving to your own market. I favoured a much more muscular approach because the UK, measured by import value, is the third largest market for food in the world, after only China and Japan.
That’s partly because we do import a lot of what we consume here, and partly because it’s quite a high-value, sophisticated market. It means that a lot of countries want access to the UK market. After China and Japan, we’re the next most important market to get your product into.
I felt that gave us a strong negotiating position, a strong enough position, in fact, that we could protect our sensitive sectors and say that we would have an enduring TRQ. That’s like a fixed volume, a fixed envelope of volume, particularly on beef in the case of Australia, and lamb as well.
That was the main disagreement I had with the Department of International Trade. It was a new department. To be honest, it had less expertise than Defra. Defra had always been involved in EU trade negotiations and had done huge amounts on market access. It knew how to do this thing.
I thought there was a culture of naivety in the Department for International Trade, and often made worse by a rather idealistic approach, a, sort of, Adam Smith viewpoint that said, “You should just unilaterally liberalise your markets.”
That wasn’t really conducive to getting a sensible agreement with those countries, so I favoured a more muscular approach where we had enduring TRQs on sensitive sectors.
UKICE: Talking about purist approaches, Michel Gove had set out his vision for payments for public goods and, in his initial iterations at least, had excluded food production as a public good. Did you think that he bequeathed you a slightly over-idealised view of the future of farm payments, transitioning away from the Common Agricultural Policy? How do you think the Farm Payment Reform is going now?
GE: No. On that one, I was the Minister of State, designing a lot of this policy while Michael was the Secretary of State. I always had a clear view that saying that food production is not a public good is not the same as saying it’s not important and you don’t value it. It’s just that the market should value food production.
The concept of the public good is often misunderstood. The concept of the public good is you are rewarding farmers and landowners for doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise be rewarded for in the marketplace. So, doing the right thing for the environment, improving water quality, increasing tree planting, the government has to enter that space to create the rewards because the market, left to its own volition, won’t necessarily do so.
When it comes to food production, I always felt that that should be rewarded through the marketplace, but then there’s a separate thing, which is does food security matter? The answer is yes. So, we committed, in the Agriculture Act, to three-yearly reviews, run by the ONS, of our food security in the round.
I think, particularly since Covid, there was a growing appreciation that food security isn’t just about making sure you’ve got open markets around the world, although that’s part of it. You gain national resilience through having successful, profitable domestic production.
The way you get profitable domestic production is the right regulatory environment, grants to help invest, to help businesses invest, more of an industrial strategy, if you like, for food producers. I always supported that. So, conceptually, people sometimes misunderstand it, but in saying that food is not a public good, it doesn’t mean I’m saying it’s not valuable.
UKICE: Okay, so you’re happy with where the Farm Payment Scheme is now, or is it still too early to say?
GE: Yes, I am. It gets its critics, but we took a very clear decision in 2019 that we would make this an evolution rather than a revolution. We recognised the dependency on the old legacy payments and so we set out a seven-year transition to gradually phase those out and gradually roll out the replacement scheme.
Now, initially, the NFU, another campaign group, said, “Well, you should just keep the benefit, keep the subsidy payment. We don’t want change.” Now, ironically, they’re saying, “It’s not changing fast enough. We can’t see all the final pieces of the jigsaw.” There’s only one way we could speed up a seven-year transition, and that’s to cut the legacy payment faster, but I don’t think they want that, either.
My view is, although it has been criticised, it has continued, even after my departure, to run to exactly the timeframe that I’d envisaged in 2019.
UKICE: Talking of other things that farmers complain about, they also complain quite a lot about the problems they’re facing with labour shortages and the fact that the UK keeps on delaying border controls for EU exporters trying to access the UK market. Do you think they have a point about this?
GE: Yes, and I had these arguments a lot in government. So, on the issue of labour, I’d never particularly believed in the so-called ‘skills-based’ immigration policy. I felt that you should have a needs-based immigration policy.
I wanted us to have control of immigration, but I, personally, would have had, particularly for a period, more transitional visas for sectors where there were staff shortages, so things like adult social care, and the food industry and certain other sectors. I would have had sector-specific visa schemes for, maybe, two or three years.
Then I also would have sought to negotiate bilateral youth mobility schemes with individual EU countries. That’s a reserved matter for EU countries. France has a youth mobility scheme, for instance, with Canada. Again, you could have had a two-year visa scheme for under-30s or under-35s, with most EU countries. I would have progressed that, as well.
I fought very hard to get government approval for a seasonal agricultural worker scheme. While it led to a lot of friction between Defra and the Home Office, it is an agenda where routinely Number 10, under various occupants, would side with Defra against the Home Office. That’s why we’ve got a seasonal agricultural worker scheme.
Then on the issue of checks, personally I would have just brought them in, but, first of all, there were worries about Covid. “Now is not the time” became the order of the day because people were worried that, with tests and everything, it would make it worse.
Then, of course, you had labour shortages, and shortages of lorry drivers, so they felt that that was a reason to delay it. The advocates of delay tended to be, first of all, Lord Frost while he was in government. Then, after he went, even with greater vigour, the case for delaying everything came from Jacob Rees-Mogg.
My view was, if you want us to be independent, and leave the single market, and take control of our borders and decide whether goods that come here are safe or not, you needed to walk the walk.
I found it surprising that my fellow Brexiteers were the ones that actually stepped back from doing this. I don’t think it would have created any real friction, because we were going to do it in a very proportionate way, testing a tiny percentage of the total number of consignments and requiring certain bits of paper. It would have been quite a light-touch approach that we took, and we could have gradually phased it in.
The thing that I found most frustrating is we had a very talented team of officials in Defra, who worked very hard to put in place the architecture to do these checks. We even recruited, or asked port authorities to recruit, around 400 to 500 people to start doing the checks on time. It was all ready to go, and everyone had been trained, and then they were all stood down and made redundant. That was, I think, very regrettable because we’d done all of the work to get ready for this.
UKICE: Final question: it’s now seven years or so since the referendum, three years since we left the European Union. Do you think the government is doing enough to take the opportunities from Brexit? Has it gone slower/faster than you expected, and was it worth it?
GE: I still think it was worth it because, fundamentally, coming back to what I said earlier, I have a personal perspective on this that not everyone shares. In raising it, I’m not attempting to refight the Brexit referendum. We spent long enough doing that, but my personal view is that, with hindsight, the UK should never have left EFTA.
That was a UK creation, done for a purpose which recognised that EU membership was never likely to sit comfortably with the British constitution in the long term. Therefore, insofar as we’ve become a genuinely self-governing country again, for me it’s worth it.
I don’t think you’ll necessarily see all the benefits immediately. Nor should we expect to, but I have a view that in, probably, 10 to 15 years, nobody will be talking about re-joining the European Union. It would be accepted that it was a historical mistake to join the EU in the 70s, but that mistake was put right fifty years later. History will record that EU membership was never the end of our national story but simply a chapter within it.
There was a painful debate at the moment that we re-established that independence again, but we shouldn’t be impatient about the pace of change. We shouldn’t rush trade deals. We should be pragmatic about migration policy in the meantime, recognising that there are chronic labour shortages in some sectors.
We shouldn’t rush to necessarily remove EU law for the sake of it, but where we see retained EU law that’s not working, then we’ve got the power now to amend it when that becomes apparent. So, I’m much more relaxed about the pace of it. I’ve no regrets about the decision to leave nor my part in trying to make it work but it certainly was quite a painful journey.