Arriving in Westminster
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): When you were elected in May 2015, did you think, ‘Okay, this is going to be a Parliament that is going to be dominated by the referendum on Europe’?
Jess Phillips (JP): Not at all. This is a terrible thing to admit, but I’m going to say it, I’d be happy to stand by it. I think I even missed, in the 2015 election, that the Tories had even made a manifesto pledge to have a referendum. It’s hard to remember, because there is so much water under the bridge and so much has changed.
It certainly was never something that anyone said to me on the doorstep in the 2015 general election. It was not a thing I campaigned for or against or had really any opinion, going into Parliament, about. Certainly, it would never have been a feature of anything that I was saying, in order to be elected, and it wasn’t something that I was ever asked about. So, no, I didn’t expect for Europe even to be a major factor in what I was going to be doing in Parliament then.
UKICE: And then, obviously immediately after the election, Ed Miliband stood down and there was a Labour leadership contest. I just wondered whether Europe featured at all in that? In particular, when it looked as though Jeremy Corbyn was in with a shout, whether you felt his position on Europe was a big issue at all in that leadership contest?
JP: Not that I can remember. My first memory of it being an internal Labour Party issue was – and you’ll forgive me, I can’t remember the exact chronology of when this happened – was some talk about Chuka Umunna being in his Shadow Cabinet, so it must have been immediately after he was elected as the Leader of the Labour Party. I remember Chuka asking him a question about how they would campaign in the referendum, and not liking the answer.
But in the election of Jeremy Corbyn, I don’t remember the EU issue featuring. The single issue in that was the Welfare Bill vote. It was the only real legislative platform around what had happened in Parliament that became a feature of that contest at the time. So, no, I don’t recall. I don’t recall knowing even who Jeremy Corbyn was before the leadership election, or knowing his particular view on Europe even, throughout it.
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Do you remember when you first started campaigning in the referendum, when you first started going out and making the case for Remain? Would it have been the start of 2016?
Jess Phillips (JP): To be honest, I don’t think it was until the referendum was in full swing that we actually went out and campaigned. Obviously, the chronology of us voting to have the referendum was just after Jeremy Corbyn had been elected, and everything was just so up in the air. And, as a new Member of Parliament, you were a bit like, ‘Well, we are going to have to vote for the referendum to happen.’ I wish now that I had given that considerably more thought, as a new Member of Parliament, with a new leader that I knew very little about. But I don’t recall the timeframe between voting for the referendum and the campaign getting into full swing. I imagine it was relatively quickly, wasn’t it?
Because the things we were voting on were what day it was – it got down to that level of granular detail of ‘It’s got to be on this day.’ There was quite a lot of ‘Who can vote in it?’ debates. There was a huge amount of votes, I seem to recall. We filed through the lobby a lot, on the particulars of the referendum.
And you’re never quite sure … I actually recall, on one occasion, being in the same lobby as David Cameron and turning around to him. Lots of people, people on the Tory side, whether they like him or not, whoever is the Prime Minister of the day, they revere them. So you feel you can’t have an idle chit chat.
Now, I don’t feel like that about anyone, so I remember turning to him in the lobby on one of the referendum votes, and saying, ‘What are we voting on? Why am I in the same lobby as you? I shouldn’t be in this lobby with you?’ And he said to me, ‘I don’t know.’ And I just thought, ‘If the Prime Minister doesn’t know exactly what we’re voting on, as a newly-elected Member of Parliament, I felt slightly better, that maybe I wouldn’t always be across the detail every single time.
UKICE: Were you or he in the wrong lobby?
JP: You do that, when you walk into the lobby, you look around and think, ‘Am I in the right bloody one?’ Because there was quite a lot of granular detail about that. But there was certainly no campaigning, from my perspective, while that was even going on. It wasn’t really an issue in my constituency, it wasn’t something that people were talking to me about or that I was talking to people about, particularly.
I suppose, to me, it felt similar to how it must have felt in the Scottish referendum, as a process that we’re going to go through. So, it became very ‘processy’, like this is the day, these are the people who can vote… So, when you say ‘campaign’, I didn’t start feeling like I was campaigning until the campaign was launched. We had to go through all that, ‘Who is going to be the official campaign?’ nonsense, I seem to recall. And I suppose, for me, the starting pistol was when Stuart Rose? – made that first speech.
UKICE: As a new MP, were you mainly campaigning in Birmingham and so on, or were you going around the UK?
JP: No, I didn’t go elsewhere, actually, particularly. I did some in London, because obviously I’m based in both places, so I did some referendum campaigning, phone banking, attack unit sort of thing. Like when we have those debates, there were loads of debates that went on, on the telly, and I would go to the Remain campaign place and be one of the people, meeting, responding. So, I did some of that in London. But no, mainly in Birmingham.
UKICE: And what did you make of the official Remain campaign?
JP: It’s very hard to judge it from the point of view of knowledge at the time because I was not somebody who had been heavily involved in anything other than grassroots campaigning in a local area. I’m not man and boy in the movement to change the ILO on this or that convention or whatever. So, it seemed to me to be distant. But I didn’t know to expect anything else, particularly. But it wasn’t like any campaigning I’d ever done before, it was completely different.
UKICE: Did you expect more from Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership in the Remain campaign?
JP: If I’m honest, I never really expected much of Jeremy Corbyn. I think I wanted the Labour Party to be more firmly and clearly Remain, I expected that. I expected the Labour Party to work as part of the official campaign. I know they had their fingers burned in the Scottish referendum, appearing alongside the Tories. And, you know, we’d just seen all of our MPs wiped away in Scotland, so I could understand the need for a specific Labour campaign.
But yes, I remember somebody was telling me – and doesn’t this bloody speak volumes – that the best rating Remain got was when David Cameron appeared on the television, talking about it. I remember somebody in one of the campaign centres saying that to me, that he was actually a trusted voice as the Prime Minister. But I remember my husband saying to me – and my husband is a deeply passionate European – ‘I feel like I want to vote the other way because David Cameron is telling me to say it.’ So, I was getting two counter-views on that particular point. But yes, I definitely wanted the Labour Party to be out there, campaigning about it. Yes, I think I was quite disappointed.
UKICE: Even if your constituency hadn’t been very exercised about EU, were your constituents fussed about immigration? Was that a big doorstep issue?
JP: Yes, it is always a big doorstep issue, even in a place like Birmingham, where the vast majority of people are immigrants. Largely, if you are Caucasian in Birmingham, you’ve got Irish heritage. So, I would be lying if I said people didn’t moan about immigrants to me on the doorstep, they absolutely do. During the referendum campaign, people did talk about immigration, yes.
UKICE: Was there a moment when you suddenly thought, ‘We are not going to win this one, this is going to go Leave?’
JP: Yes, there was a moment when I thought that. It’s a very sombre and sad moment, I’m afraid. In the recall of Parliament, after the murder of Jo, Jo Cox, I was sat in the chamber and David Cameron was on the front bench. Obviously, it was not a good occasion.. He looked terrified. And I thought, ‘You know something I don’t know. You can see some data that I can’t see, and it’s not looking good.’ And I remember that so vividly. He looked beaten.
UKICE: That’s very interesting. And when that was finally confirmed on the night of the referendum, what were your immediate reactions to realising Leave had won?
JP: I thought, by the day itself, we were going to lose. The campaign finished in Birmingham and David Cameron, Harriet Harman, Gordon Brown all did this big rally at Birmingham University and they made us come along. Anna Soubry was there, she fed my child a sweet, and it made his teeth bleed. I said, ‘This is why you shouldn’t take things from Tories.’ He was literally coughing up blood in front of David Cameron. I had to go and take the kids to see the Hero Ninja Turtles because, apparently, the weight of history being on their shoulders and going to an historic event was not enough to convince them to leave the house. They both have talked about it since, funnily enough, which is interesting. I think they were glad that they were there.
And, at that, again he seemed deflated. And he said to me, ‘I just want to say a massive thank you for coming out and supporting me,’ and it was like the sorrow of a fallen leader. Like, ‘You’re still here.’ And I was just like, ‘Yes, mate, you just were local, and Gordon Brown asked me.’
So, on the day of the election, I thought we were going to lose, I felt like we were going to lose. And when we were out door-knocking on the day, the level of organisation and targeting of people we would want became impossible, because the Labour Party systems didn’t marry up – and for data reasons, couldn’t marry-up. So, you had absolutely no way of knowing how to get out your vote.
Now, this is something that I am a genius and expert at. I know where my voters are and I know how to get them out, and I just felt like I was literally shooting in the dark. We were just randomly knocking doors of people, and phone-banking people who were Labour voters. Because what else did we have? We didn’t have anything else really that we could go on, to try and get people out to vote.
It was just really depressing. And it wasn’t even just people saying, ‘I’m going to vote Leave,’ it was lots of people saying, ‘I’m just not interested, I’m not going to vote.’ Genuinely, lots of people saying to me, ‘We’re not sure, so my husband has voted Leave and I’ve voted Remain.’ And it’s just like, ‘Oh God, this is terrible. We have not communicated this with these people well at all.’ I take my own responsibility for that. But it was very clear on election day that the level of communication that people had, had not been enough.
UKICE: So, do you think that something different could have been done, if the campaign had been better, or the Remain arguments had been communicated in a different way?
JP: The Remain campaign fundamentally did not get the idea of a protest, and the deliciousness of a protest. But I can sit here and criticise that now. I actually wrote some things, they asked me to write some things, a patriotic and compassion piece for remaining. And there just wasn’t enough of that. But it’s very easy to criticise, it’s very, very difficult to formulate a passion about the status quo, in reality.
You know, so we can sit as armchair critics and say, ‘Well, there wasn’t enough of this, there wasn’t enough of that,’ but the reality is that enthusiasm for the status quo doesn’t exist. ‘Steady on’ is not like a cracking campaign slogan, is it? Like, ‘Whoa, be careful.’ It’s like what teachers say in road safety videos. So, it became incredibly patronising, as if people weren’t in charge of their own lives. It became, ‘Let me tell you what this spoonful of sugar will do for the medicine.’ But there is no way around that. So, who can say?
The May Government's Brexit approach
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): As a Labour MP, sitting there and watching the Conservatives take ownership of Brexit and setting the course, were you surprised how Theresa May and her new government went about Brexit? Or is that exactly what you expected to happen?
Jess Phillips (JP): Well, it’s very difficult, because she was new to the job. I had worked with her quite closely in the Home Office, prior to being elected to Parliament, so I’d had quite a lot of dealings with her department. And diligent was certainly something you’d say about her. You know, whether I agreed with her or not, she was sort of diligent and does her homework, that sort of woman.
So, the way that she responded initially, I think she was hampered terribly by the fact that she had not been particularly vocal during the campaign. The famous submarine, she was described as. It was very, very difficult, in the early days, to actually assess what she thought. And I find it – just because of my own particular persuasion of politics – very, very difficult to take direction from somebody dialling it in, playing by the numbers, triangulating a little bit.
So, it was very much like, ‘Do you know what? I actually genuinely don’t know what she thinks‘ And do you know what? Now, I do. I know what Theresa May thinks of it, now that she’s sitting behind him, telling us. At the time, I just thought, ‘I don’t know what you think.’ So, she felt she had to make these ridiculously big statements.
I’ll bet every morning, she wakes up and regrets saying, ‘No deal is better than a bad deal.’ I mean, that has got to be, surely, the worst thing that anyone has ever said. And the whole ‘red, white and blue Brexit’. It felt as if she was saying things because she thought that’s what she should be saying. I can’t remember, a single time, thinking it was being managed well in the aftermath.
UKICE: And despite all that, all those reservations, you voted to trigger Article 50, when the government had lost the Miller case and that came back. So, why did you do that?
JP: I voted to Trigger Article 50 because I knew how I would feel, as an individual, if Remain had won and they had carried on voting to distance themselves from the EU. I genuinely felt, and still do feel, that. If I had to make that decision again today, I would make the same decision. There was a democratic vote.
UKICE: So, were you then happy with the line that Labour took, in it’s 2017 General Election manifesto: accepting the result of the referendum, but looking for a bit of a closer relationship with Europe?
JP: Yes, actually. In the 2017 General Election, I wasn’t doing cartwheels about things, particularly, but I definitely feel I could have defended that position very, very easily from my own perspective, absolutely. Yes, I think I would say that I was not dissatisfied with that position.
I repeatedly said to Theresa May, in the Commons, ‘Why are you not working with us? Give me a call.’ I literally started begging the Prime Minister to call me. And then, when she did, I was genuinely having my nails done and I was in a nail bar. So, I had to be, like, ‘I really can’t talk to you now.’
UKICE: So, when did she call you, Jess?
JP: I think it was at the point when we were in the meaningful vote stage, at that stage.
UKICE: Not before the 2017 election?
JP: No, no. But it was very much like, ‘Give us something that we can feel confident in. Close relationships, Single Market, customs union, all of that sort of stuff. And there is a place where we can get to where we could support this.’ You know, there were lots of times I was saying to Government ministers, Government whips, ‘I want to be able to vote for a good deal. I voted to trigger Article 50, I want to be able to do this.’
The problem with Theresa May, at every stage, when we were at the meaningful vote stage and prior to that, is that she was held hostage. She allowed herself to be held hostage. And you could feel it. It felt a lot like you were trying sometimes to give them a rope, to pull her out, and say, ‘Look, come a bit closer and we’ll vote for it.’
UKICE: Were you surprised that she ploughed on, rather than reach out cross-party after the general election? That could have been a moment to do that.
JP: Absolutely. It’s like the country had told us to do that. It’s like they were in a massive WhatsApp group and they had a plan, that they wanted us to sort it out together. And that’s what they delivered back to Parliament. It was at that point that I was saying, ‘Please come to us, come over, talk to us. Say what you can’t give up and we’ll say what we can’t give up, and we’ll try and find a way.’
Yet she ploughed on. I remember, one time, literally saying to her, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do about this protocol. Today’s protocol will be tomorrow’s new tiny infraction, that they are using to get rid of you. And if you cannot see that… Why do you keep giving in to them? Just ignore them.’ And I literally said it in those terms to her face, in the chamber.
UKICE: It sounds like you had quite a lot of personal sympathy for her at various points?
JP: Huge amounts. Huge amounts of personal sympathy for her. But disappointment. Be steelier, be tougher about it. I know it’s not easy, but there was an opportunity to get more Labour votes. And once she’d missed it, she’d missed it forever.
UKICE: Just after the election, Chuka Umunna tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech about staying in the Single Market, and you rebelled to vote for it. Was that a signal that you were becoming a bit frustrated at the lack of a concrete position from Labour?
JP: What, because I voted for it? Do you want to know the real reason that I voted for that? That was actually the only time in Parliament, bar one, that I voted for something based on the debate, rather than on a pre-conceived vote. And it was entirely – and I feel incredibly vindicated by what I’m about to say – the fault of the MP, Charlie Elphicke, and what he said in the Commons.
I was watching it on my TV in my office. And he stood in front of Chuka Umunna, the MP for Streatham, and told him that he didn’t understand immigration in our country. And said, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like. As the MP for Dover, because I’ve got a port, this is what I’m telling you I think.’
And I just thought, ‘You absolute arsehole. How dare you tell people who live in places like where I live that we don’t understand what being in the Single Market means, and the pressures of immigration and the need for trade access. How dare you tell that to people like me.’
And so incensed was I by Charlie Elphicke, a man who I continued to be incensed by, for quite some time afterwards, I literally made the decision on the whim of the moment, and voted with Chuka. Because I thought how could I possibly align myself with people making this sort of claim? When I know that, for where I live, the Single Market is a benefit, not a hindrance.
UKICE: You had a Leave constituency and many of your colleagues were particularly concerned about the Single Market as an option, because they couldn’t persuade their constituents of the case for retaining freedom of movement. Did you think your constituents ultimately could be persuaded that freedom of movement was a price worth paying?
JP: Yes, easily. Without question. I think that my constituents could understand and be persuaded. What’s more, I think that they could be persuaded that, even if they didn’t agree with me on it, there was loads that they did agree with me on. It wasn’t something that I considered to be difficult. Do you know how many times my constituents have raised the Single Market with me?
UKICE: Why do you think so many of your fellow MPs weren’t as convinced as you were that you could have sold it?
JP: I was a good saleswoman? I can’t answer why I think that. But I felt confident in my constituency, I felt confident in the relationship that I have with my constituents. There are some who were absolutely right, and it was a much bigger issue for them as it turned out. So, if I look at the Stoke seats, I don’t think that they are not brilliant Members of Parliament who could sell snow to the Eskimos. It was just a considerably bigger issue for them to have to sell it than it was for me. What I was confident of is that it was not the thing that would be the deciding factor in whether my constituents would vote for me or not. And I decided that they quite like it when they disagree with me. They like me enough to like disagreeing with me. I like disagreeing with my husband.
Supporting a People's Vote
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): So, on this journey, when did you start coming to the view that, actually, it was worth backing a referendum?
Jess Phillips (JP): It’s hard to say when I decided. I was wholly unconvinced by the People’s Vote prior to the 2017 General Election. I think it’s a style thing. I don’t like boys shouting at me. And it felt very London-centric at times. And it wasn’t that I hated them, I just really wasn’t particularly engaged with it. I used to hear gossip from Stella Creasy, she had the office opposite mine. Other than that, I had almost nothing to do with it.
So, I suppose it took an active decision on my part to start taking it up. And I think it was genuinely a reaction to the fact that there had to be some way out. Not necessarily some way to remain. I remember one time, being in the corridors at the back of the chamber, literally begging a Government whip, saying, ‘I really want to get this over and done with, I want it done.’ I was sick of it, I was bored of it, I wanted to be talking about other things. And I think that after impasse after impasse after impasse, I’d just got to the point where I was like, ‘Okay, we’re not good enough to do this. Let the people decide.’
UKICE: So, you said the People’s Vote was kind of London-centric. I wonder what you think they got wrong and what you think they got right?
JP: I mean, in the beginning, it definitely was very London-centric. And they tried really hard, post-2017 election, to stop that being the case. Their mouthpieces, whilst I loved a lot of them very dearly as people, it can seem a bit bullish at times. So, I stood on the stage at the People’s Vote, the one million People Vote march, and, amongst other things, I said that I had a lasagne in the oven and I had to get back to it, so I couldn’t speak for long. But I pleaded with the people there not to think that people where I live don’t give shit about the country, because they do.
So, what they got wrong was that people didn’t get that message, necessarily. Some did, and some switched their view. But I don’t think that they made enough of a case for people who had voted Leave and why they should want another say.
UKICE: One of the things that we’ve heard is that they didn’t really get out and organise on the ground?
JP: Yes, they didn’t get out and organise on the ground. I remember once, sitting down, and somebody, one of the many people who left the Labour Party and then went to work for the People’s Vote campaign – literally almost all people who worked at the Labour Party – sitting down with me one time and saying, ‘What shall we do in your area?’
I said, ‘Okay, let’s do a direct mail to my constituents, with a survey, speaking to them specifically. You’ll get loads of returns, we’ll get loads of data, we’ll be able to target.’ And they were just like, ‘Oh, you know…’ That wasn’t what they were going to do.
So, they were up against the alternative campaign, which was an amazing, mega, unethical in places, targeted campaign online. But also, they were not doing the grassroots campaigning stuff. There didn’t seem to be the same ability to do the same targeting, and there wasn’t the appetite to do the same grassroots campaigning either.
UKICE: And what about within the Labour Party? Did you play any part beginning to push the leadership towards accepting the need for a referendum?
JP: It’s very difficult to judge what was happening in the Labour Party at the time, because 50% of it at least was a proxy war. That is the honest truth. So, it is quite hard to say. I’d say trying to push Keir (Starmer) was more the game. I think that was the honest game, rather than the proxy. But yes, that was a huge amount of our effort.
And a huge amount of the really honest organisation was going on, largely by people like Alison McGovern and Stephen Doughty, trying to meet with Members of Parliament and get where they were coming from. Talking to the ones who were never going to be with us, and about how we could make this easier for them. Like, what is it we can do that is going to make it easier for Ruth Smeeth?
You know, there was quite a lot of that work that was going on, really good, honest organisation, to move the Labour Party. And to move the leadership to where the membership were. But I’ve made it sound much nicer than it was. It was horrible, and there were lots of people fighting all the time, and people taking everything in bad faith. And people who you’re best friends with, you’re drawing swords against them within the Labour Party. So, it wasn’t easy. I managed never to fall out or put a nose out of joint of people like Ruth and Gareth (Snell). I managed to maintain a friendship with Caroline Flint throughout. That is not the case for everybody.
UKICE: Was it an advantage in making the argument, to Keir Starmer and to other people, that the membership was clearly on side on a referendum? Did that help move things?
JP: Yes. Membership of the Labour Party is, once again, part of the proxy war, isn’t it? Where you get to use them at your will, when they agree with you, and ignore them when you don’t. That is a criticism I will make of literally every leader of the Labour Party, ever. That’s not unique to Jeremy Corbyn, to bang on about the membership and then ignore them when they stop agreeing with him. But, you know, that is the case across the board.
UKICE: Just on the other side of the argument, on Brexit, how did you feel when some people left the Labour Party and started a new party? And do you think ultimately that was one of the triggers that meant that Labour had to move on the referendum?
JP: Yes, definitely, that was the trigger, that definitely made the Labour Party shift, without question. It didn’t make it shift on the other things that they were complaining about so much, but it did make it shift on that. It was literally like days later, that the position started to shift. So, yes, I have no doubt.
UKICE: Was that because they were worried about other people defecting? Leaving the Labour Party? Other MPs? Or do you think it was more to do with the electoral threat?
JP: It’s impossible for me to say what was going through the Labour leadership’s mind at the time. To be honest, I don’t think they were anxious about more of us leaving, I think they’d have been pleased. It’s very, very difficult for me to have an objective view. But I think that they were worried that they would show them up in a way that the Lib Dems had not managed to.
UKICE: Labour Party conferences were the scene of some manoeuvring around Brexit. There were a couple of occasions when the leadership managed to move Brexit off the agenda, Keir came and slipped in the option of Remaining off-script, etc. And then we get the 2019 Labour Conference, which was the one during – you probably remember – the Supreme Court ruling…
JP: I do remember. I was in Portugal and I had to fly home. I was not happy about the Supreme Court judgment, is all I’ve got to say. I was happy with the prorogued Parliament. That’s not true, by the way – I was very happy with it!
UKICE: But even that morning, actually, it was Len McCluskey coming out against a referendum that appeared to be influential?
JP: There were elements, obviously, of the union movement that were on the side of the second referendum and were coming around to the second referendum, and all that sort of thing. They were really anxious, the Labour Party were really, really anxious, at the time. I remember, as I was stood in the airport in the Algarve, receiving a telephone call from the leader’s office, saying to me, ‘We’ve just heard a rumour that you’re about to launch a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.’ And I was just literally like, ‘Well, I don’t think so, because I’m in Portugal.’
But they were really base-camp-like terrified of everything, trying to keep everything together. The level of paranoia about what the next thing that was going to slip out of their control going to be. So, shifting things at conference, when they’re in control of the agenda, and they are in a terrible paranoid state, it just became total chaos.
UKICE: So, if we go back into Parliament. You’ve already mentioned that you were talking a bit to the whips and even Theresa May a bit, about how she might break this deadlock in Parliament in early 2019. I just wondered what your reflections were about the way Parliament operated then. And, whether you held out any hope that something might come out of cross-party collaboration and the negotiations with Labour, to try and get her Brexit through.
JP: Yes, you know, I didn’t think anything would come out of it because she was so neutered by that point from all sides. She was inert. At the point she started having those conversations and people were walking over to 10 Downing Street, she was so diminished by her own side and, by this point, the now-perceived argument of putting any deal back to the people.
The idea of it being ‘the deal’ that goes back to them, rather than the choice of remaining. That had taken such hold, that it was almost impossible for her to have enough, by that point, to offer a way out. So, it made her look even weaker, and like she was offering even less.
UKICE: And was there any point when you thought you ought to vote for this May withdrawal agreement,” with all the stuff she seemed to be prepared to offer to Gareth Snell and people, on protections and things like that? Did you ever think that’s probably better than letting the ERG take control, if the Conservatives managed to get rid of her.”
JP: Yes, I thought that lots of times. And in the iterative process that we did – whatever that was called now, I can’t even bloody remember.
UKICE: The indicative votes?
JP: Oh God, it was like, ‘How do I fill this form in?’ I voted for everything. I literally voted for every single one. I was just like, ‘Yes, I’ll take it all. I will do anything to make this end. I’ll vote for a second referendum, I’ll vote for ‘common market 2.0,’ or whatever the hell it was called, ‘Kinnock, I’ll go with you.’ I was literally like, ‘Get this done.’ And if everybody was willing to flex a little bit, on the thing that they could accept, then we might get somewhere.
You know, in hindsight, it’s very easy to say I think we should have voted for May’s deal, and what we’ve got is much worse, no doubt about it. But you just don’t know that that’s going to happen at the time. And there were times when I was just like, ‘Yes, I’m ready to do it, I’m ready to vote for a deal,’ but then it was just so shitty.
UKICE: During this period, you had all this stuff about stopping no deal and the indicative votes. And you’re sort of working across with people from all different parties. As an MP in that period, did the atmosphere feel different in Parliament?
JP: Oh, totally. I was literally probably raised with an effigy of Oliver Letwin in my house. My dad kept ringing me and saying- ‘I just want to remind you of the proximity of Oliver Letwin to Mrs Thatcher.’ Like literally would call me. So, yes. I really like him, he’s a really nice chap. But yes, it felt completely different. It feels very different to how it feels now, I have to say. It felt like my vote and my position in Parliament was as important as the Prime Minister’s.
And the amount that you could sweat that asset on things that you cared about sometimes was remarkable. There are things that the government agreed to in that time that I would definitely not have got through now. So, yes, it felt different.
But at home and outside, it felt so awful, it was not a period of history that I would seek to repeat in my life. It’s like a collective grief, as well, that you never get over, with what had happened. And then you’re under so much threat as well. It was just really awful. Really awful.
UKICE: I just wondered how you felt when people did leave to start another party?
JP: Yes. I mean, I wept, watching Luciana (Berger), because she’s my friend. But I felt like it was going to fail, and that’s why I didn’t do it.
UKICE: Did you try and persuade them not to, or did you not know it was going on?
JP: I did know it was going on. No, I didn’t try and persuade them, there was no point. That would be like trying to persuade Caroline Flint to vote for a second referendum. Their minds were made up.
The Johnson Government
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Theresa May stepped down, and then the Conservatives embarked on the leadership election and Boris Johnson won. I just wondered how things felt when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister?
Jess Phillips (JP): It was just awful. I feel like I should tell you about one moment, a thing that I’ve forgotten, from the period before that happened. I have a series of emails from one Dominic Cummings, who would reach out to me. In the impasse, he got in touch with me and he said, ‘I know you don’t know me-‘ It’s a hilarious email, in hindsight, when I re-read it the other day. Because it says, ‘Hi, I’m Dominic Cummings, I led the Leave campaign,’ with a little bit of a blurb about who he is.
He tried to reach out to me, to try and get me to help. Not him, per se, actually, I’ll give him more credit than that. To look at campaigning ways to get through it, which I think is interesting. We kept missing each other. We arranged to meet each other a couple of times and then never met up. And then Boris Johnson won and then this all happened, and he ended up back in Number 10.
UKICE: Did you get any sense of what Dominic Cummings was going to propose to you?
JP: I could probably get a sense, if I went back and read over the emails, but it would take a while, because he’s not very brief.
I went to see him, after all the nastiness, I went to see him at 10 Downing Street, and I asked him why he had been in touch with me. And he said, ‘I read some stuff that you’d written and said and I just thought you probably had a voice that could try and sort through the mess.’
UKICE: That’s interesting.
JP: ‘You’re good at campaigning,’ was what he said. He sent me an awful lot of stuff about meta data, academic articles. So, I think the truth is, is that there were actors. I am not suggesting Dominic Cummings, for a second, is one of these. I am suggesting that I was one. There were actors, throughout the impasse, before the Boris days, who could have been employed better, to make this work, and to find a way. Not just politicians, there were good faith actors on both sides. And the opportunities were just missed, left, right and centre. To his credit, to Dominic Cummings’ credit, a man who knew I didn’t agree with him on this, he wanted to talk to me about it. To his credit. That is the only credit I’m going to give him, forever. That’s his credit, done.
So, when Boris and Dominic Cummings took over, I have to say, whilst it was dark and gloomy, you could see the ramping up of the rhetoric, that Theresa May had given a shot at very early on, and failed. You could see the ramping up of the rhetoric, and that was really, really horrible. But it still felt like they had no power. They felt neutered still. And so there was an element of hope, still, in that.
I remember the Prime Minister talking to me in one of the lobbies, it was on Private Members Day, and he was loitering around the area where people sign the ballot thing. I said, ‘Oh, Prime Minister, are you-?’ Once again, showing my lack of reverence for the Prime Minister. I said, ‘Oh, Prime Minister, are you entering the private members ballot, because that’s the only way you’ll be able to change a law?’ taking the piss out of the fact that he couldn’t get anything through.
And then he just turned to me, in a sort of begging tone, like literally, ‘Jess, what would it take, for you to join us. Come on. What can I offer you?’ like begging me. And I just said, ‘Just agree to put any deal to the people, and I’m there, I’ll do it, I’ll vote for it, I’ll high-five it all the way to the bank.’ And he was just like, ‘Really?’ like it was the first time anyone had suggested that to him. I was a bit like, ‘Have you not heard of this concept before’ But anyway. So, yes, it still felt like the power was there to be had, in those days.
UKICE: So, were you then surprised, when you saw the deal that he did bring back, to ‘get Brexit done?’
JP: Hmm. I can’t remember how I felt about it, at the time. The truth is, the way that it was pitched as a war meant that I couldn’t see or hear any reasonableness anymore. I had people literally trying to kill me. So, I was no longer able to see anything that Boris Johnson might have been offering, is the truth of how that played out. And because of the massive ramping up of the rhetoric and the sacking of all the people. Everything he did then started to feel like bad faith, to me.
I think that, when he came back with what had been agreed and everything, I just thought it wasn’t good enough. But I can’t tell you whether that analysis was based on anything accurate, other than feelings. Which is not a great thing to say, as a politician, but it is the fact.
UKICE: Did you feel, once he got the deal, that that was it, he’d get his general election at some point? Or did you think you’d be able to stop him?
JP: I thought we’d be able to stop him. Because we did stop him, repeatedly. I thought that we’d be able to grind them down, which is the business of being an opposition politician. I still thought there was an outside chance of winning.
UKICE: Presumably then you felt it was a mistake when Jo Swinson and then the SNP agreed to the election?
JP: Total mistake. Idiots. I didn’t vote for it. Total mistake. Shouldn’t have done it. Terrible. You get what you deserve, frankly, Jo Swinson. That was purely politicking, as far as I can see. And woe betide you base your entire life on how you think the electorate might behave in six weeks.
UKICE: I suppose, for the SNP, it’s a more rational decision though, isn’t it, really?
JP: They’re nationalists. How they have managed to be pro-European from a nationalist point of view is one that I will never understand, but we will go with it. My nan once said to me, ‘Nothing good ever comes from nationalism,’ and I feel she might have been right.
UKICE: So, on the doorstep in that 2019 campaign, how much did Brexit come up for you?
JP: Not as much as you’d think. More than it ever had before, but not as much as you would think. Less than 10% of the people would talk about it. Yes, it didn’t come up very much.
UKICE: And was it more, ‘Just want it over with’?
JP: Yes, ‘Just want it done, just want to stop talking about it,’ was definitely the view, not anything else. There were some people who were viciously like, ‘I voted for this, how dare you,’ sort of thing. But there are lots of people who don’t vote in a General Election, so…
UKICE: We’ve had four really polarising, divisive, years, where people have started defining themselves as Leave and Remain, which has defined a lot of politics and been more powerful, in some ways, than party loyalties or anything else really, do you think we’re stuck with that forever? Is that the legacy? Or do you think we’re getting over that?
JP: No. People don’t care about it anymore. People where I live don’t care about it anymore. I’m not sure they ever cared that much. No, people don’t define themselves as Leavers or Remainers. They might start to define them brutally as Remainers again if things go really badly, those that were already Remain. Those that voted Leave, and lose their jobs in Jaguar Land Rover or wherever, if they do, they won’t perceive it as being related to Brexit, they’ll perceive it as being something else.
Whether it is something else, in fact. You know, I’m not saying that it isn’t, and that their perception is wrong, but they won’t naturally blame Brexit. You know, they’re just not in that space to do that. I think that most people have left it behind. The Labour Party is currently going through, I don’t know some sort of meltdown, about how it might vote. Nobody has mentioned it to me.