The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

Entering Number 10

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): If we can start at the beginning – when you arrived in Number 10 with Theresa May, did you have any inkling that Brexit would turn out to be so all-consuming?

Joanna Penn (JP): I think we knew it was the most important issue that we had to deal with. I think we thought we knew how challenging it would be. I think the thing, though, that I’d probably add in is that we interpreted the Brexit vote not just as an expression of a desire for change in our relationship with the EU, but also an expression for a desire for change at home, and a dissatisfaction with the political and economic settlement that people had in the UK. So, I think, when we did first come in, we wanted to pay due attention to that side of the vote, as well as the process of Brexit itself.

UKICE: This sounds like the ‘just about managing’ agenda we heard on the steps of Downing Street? In the very short space of time of the campaign, was that always something that Theresa May had talked about?

JP: Yes. I think, as you say, the leadership campaign itself was short and foreshortened. One of the things – one of the benefits – had it not been foreshortened would have been a bit more time and space to articulate more of that.

I think you do see it in two speeches she made, one on the day that actually Andrea Leadsom dropped out, and one to launch, and you see it articulated in those. This was when I was away and not working for her, but I think she also made a speech a few years earlier that had articulated some of that. So, that was definitely an integral part of what she viewed her government to be about.

UKICE: Would it have been useful to have been able to debate a full-blown Brexiteer for a little bit longer during that leadership contest? In other words, had it gone to a vote with Andrea Leadsom, would Theresa May have been able to articulate a slightly different vision for Brexit then the one she ended up articulating

JP: I don’t know whether she’d have ended up articulating a different vision for Brexit than the one she ended up articulating, but I do think that it would have, nonetheless, been useful to have had more of that debate early on.

To be honest, I don’t know how much detail and how much that debate would end up relating to the debate that we had towards the end of the process, but just the fact of having it and the fact of both MPs and party members, although not the general public, having – well, the public could see the debate and hear it. Then the people who had a vote in that process would have had a stake in the outcome. I think that definitely would have been helpful.

I think the other thing to say is, if Andrea Leadsom hadn’t dropped out, it wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion that Theresa May would have won that leadership contest, so, from the point of view of someone that supported Theresa becoming PM, that’s not a foregone conclusion. That would definitely have been useful, but not without, I guess, the alternative outcome also being in play.

The First May Government

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): There has been an awful lot said and written about the two Chiefs of Staff under Theresa May. Can you just give us a sense of what you saw as their strengths and weaknesses in that role?

JP: As you say, there has been an awful lot said. For me, they’re both very good friends of mine, and I think that they are also both very talented people who had worked in politics and government.

They were an integral part of the vision, both for how to respond to Brexit but also that wider interpretation of a desire for change in the UK, and a desire for the change in the settlement at home as well. They worked incredibly hard and contributed a lot.

UKICE: Procedurally, for instance, did you think that they didn’t appreciate early enough the importance of maintaining good and close links across the breadth of the Parliamentary Party? Because it seems to me that Parliamentary Party was quite quick to turn Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill after the election.

JP: I think the fact is that relations are always not as good as they could be between Number 10 and the Parliamentary Party. I remember I worked for David Cameron in Opposition, and that, I think, was an ongoing complaint from almost the start of his leadership.

I think that is something that is said about the current administration, and I think that, after the election result in 2017, there was a desire to assign blame and be able to move on. They were two prominent figures, and that’s where blame fell, but I don’t think that’s necessarily to do with the way that they took on their roles. I think it’s much more to do with the fact of the outcome of the election and then the need to be able to move forward from that.

UKICE: When it came to the decision to announce that Article 50 would be triggered by March, announced at the first policy conference, had you gone back and forth on that one? Or, did you just think, ‘We’re going to have to trigger it’?

JP: The debate was probably more about timing rather than whether to sit it out entirely. Thinking back to that time, it’s always different in retrospect, but I think that there was a huge amount of pressure to trigger immediately. I think that’s what Jeremy Corbyn had called for. I think even those who weren’t calling for the immediate triggering of Article 50 were not calling for not triggering it. Or there were definitely not a majority or many strong voices saying, ‘Don’t trigger at all,’ and so then the debate was around timing.

We felt that March gave us quite a bit of time to prepare and do the work that needed to be done, and was the maximum in terms of the time it gave us to prepare, whilst also not testing the tolerance of those who had just been on the other side of the debate. We were very much in the post-referendum period, and I think we were incredibly conscious that Theresa had campaigned for Remain, and so there was also a trust issue around actually delivering the outcomes that people had voted for. And we were conscious that when Article 50 should be triggered was being caught up in that as well.

UKICE: So you’ve set yourself a hard timetable, a hard deadline of when you’re going to trigger and start negotiations by, did you have a clear view of what – you’ve talked about preparation – what preparation needed to be done or what issues you needed clarity on before you went into those negotiations, at the latest at the end of March?

JP: I think we had some sense of that, but I think it was difficult to have a full sense because some of that actually emerged as progress towards that deadline was made. I think we fell into a pattern, from the lead-up to Lancaster House onwards, of the EU saying, and others domestically saying, ‘You need to tell us what you want,’ and a huge amount of work was done to articulate that.

Then we got a response saying, ‘That’s not really what we meant. You actually need to tell us in more detail,’ or, ‘That’s not realistic,’ or those kinds of things, without ever being able to extract from the other side: ‘What are your parameters? What do you want? What’s the dynamic on your side?’

I think that’s something that emerged after – potentially after – announcing the date for triggering Article 50, but I think it was quite a dynamic process.

UKICE: There’s a bit of a perception that Number 10, in this period, was reluctant to listen to people who were expert in the workings of the EU, either people within government or outside. Obviously, we had the big falling out with Ivan Rogers and his resignation. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?

JP: Look, I’m sure that there’s some validity in that. I think one of the things that was difficult in that period was not just the fact that we were preparing for the Brexit negotiations, but you have a new Prime Minister, a new set of people in Number 10, and navigating what that structure is like, and how it should operate, and making it work effectively.

You’re doing 12- or 13-hour days on all sorts of issues, not just Brexit, and you might not have the ability to lift your head up and know that there are people out there waiting for a call. In some respects, you might rely on other parts of Government to reach out in that way, but then DExEU was a new department.

I guess that sounds like I’m justifying it a bit. I think I’m more trying to say, ‘I’m sure there are lots of things that we could have improved about how we did things.’ But I don’t think it was a hugely deliberate approach not to pick up the phone to certain people.

Also, I guess, by the end of the Cameron period, he’d had around four years as Leader of Opposition, and six years as Prime Minister, and he was pretty well established in those roles. There was definitely a dynamic of a new Government coming in that would have affected that.

In terms of the Ivan Rogers relationship, obviously that was difficult and ended in a difficult way. I think the thing was that actually, in my view, he was listened to. He was part of all the important conversations and discussions about the approach.

I think one of the things that I found throughout the process over the course of three years was that definitely, as we moved forward – and particularly, potentially, in the last six months to year – opened up the process much more than at the beginning. One of the things that would get reflected back to me by the people that we engaged, and we spoke to, and listened to, and took on their thoughts and ideas, and put that into the process, was people would say, ‘I came and I gave you my view. Then you didn’t do what I said.’

I tried to explain to some people that, ‘We spoke to you in the morning, and in the afternoon we had someone giving us the diametrically opposite view. So, just because we’re getting lots of different points of view and we don’t come down with your specific one doesn’t mean that you were not part of the process, and that we haven’t listened to you and taken you seriously.’ I think with Ivan, he was listened to. His advice was taken seriously.

The 2017 General Election

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Can we take you to the General Election and ask what was your view on holding that election?

JP: I was in favour of holding the election. I was someone that helped to persuade the Prime Minister of the merits of holding the election. I think that we had a very clear sense by then of just how difficult Brexit would be in parliamentary terms. Looking back after the election, a majority of 15 or whatever it was looked huge, but I don’t think it would have necessarily been sufficient.

Although the outcome of the election did a huge amount of damage to our ability to deliver on Brexit, we were also conscious, without that election, we had a very small majority – and probably too small to be able to deliver Brexit through Parliament.

Then, coming back to the kind of question you asked before about if the leadership campaign had played out a bit more, I think there was also a sense of questioning – or we knew that there would be an increased questioning and pressure – around Theresa’s position legitimately as leader of the party. Particularly from the Brexit side, and also from the other perspective: the second referendum perspective and the ‘This was only advisory’ perspective, and quite a bit of pressure about the public legitimacy of the approach.

So those factors along with, to be very frank, a healthy poll lead and a view that this was an election that we could win, were crucial factors in the decision-making. Yes, I was someone that was in favour of it and fought to persuade the PM of the merits of it.

UKICE: Did you expect Brexit to feature more strongly in the election campaign than, in fact, it did?

JP: Yes and no. So, that’s not very helpful! I think what we struggled to do and what we did expect to feature more strongly was a sense that Brexit might still be contested and might not happen without a majority Conservative government in Parliament.

Actually, what was true for people was they felt that at that stage that we’d had the vote, the outcome of the vote had happened and we had left. Or leaving was not in question. I think what you saw in the 2019 election was that question come up again and feel much more real to people, I think, through everything that happened in the lead-up to that election.

When an election was framed in that way, it produced quite a clear result. Look, there were a lot of other dynamics between those two elections, but I do think that one of our reasonings for the election was the ability to deliver Brexit, and I don’t think that played out in the campaign.

UKICE: Can you give us some sense of just what it was like in Number 10 immediately after that election? I imagine the mood wasn’t great, but you had Brexit talks starting almost immediately. Was there a frantic sense of chaos? I mean how did the organisation respond to the shock of that election?

JP: I think there was definitely a period of time that it was very difficult. There was the process that was gone through to form the confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP. I think it’s hard to put my finger on how long. My sense of time for that period is a bit distorted and so the difference between forty-eight hours and two weeks is hard to divine.

I think the other thing personally, from my point of view, which frames my perspective on it, was, obviously, Nick (Timothy) and Fi(ona) Hill left. I think initially I was unsure of whether I would or should return. When I did, I think that was still in the back of my mind. Having fought the election I also think there was a week or two where I stood back from things a little bit or was not as directly involved as normal.

A lot happened in that time. So yes there was definitely, after the election, an impact of the outcome of that election in terms of the team, and Gavin (Barwell) came in very quickly. We formed a new team quite quickly. He was very good about creating that sense of a team. But in terms of tiredness, shock, having to form a confidence and supply arrangement, all of those things impacted.

So, yes, but I can’t give you a definition for how long that impact was, because I think, by the time we went into the summer, we were in a much stronger place. Actually, in terms of process, and operation, and focusing on the issues at hand, that was reset fairly quickly.

UKICE: Were you involved in the negotiations with the DUP?

JP: I was, yes. Not directly with them in the room, but in terms of with the Prime Minister, in considering what we were doing, and what the approach should be, and taking the decisions on that, yes.

UKICE: Did they bring up Brexit, and the border and all those things that were going to haunt the next year or two of your lives?

JP: Not to my recollection. That doesn’t mean that definitively, no, but that doesn’t stick out in my mind as the key issue or stumbling block in those discussions.

Brexit negotiations, July 2017-November 2018

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): How were relations when you moved into the talks very shortly after the election? How did you see the setup between Number 10, DExEU and Olly Robbins all working for that early phase of the talks?

Joanna Penn (JP): I don’t think we ever managed to get that setup right. I think there were different phases and moments where it worked better than others. I’d probably struggle to fit each phase of the talks into categories, or pinpoint those times when it worked well. It’s probably easier to pinpoint some of the moments where it was more difficult, but then there were also definitely moments where it worked fine. But I don’t think, even from the outset, we really managed to get that setup quite right and working quite right, in retrospect.

UKICE: After the election, a lot of people subsequently discussed this, but was there any talk amongst the team that the Brexit strategy needed to be changed because the absence of a majority meant that you were going to have to work crossbench to get a deal through? Was there any discussion of that?

JP: No. Again, it’s not something that sticks out strongly in my mind as something that came up, or came up in an in-depth way. I think the thing after that election was that, if you look at the Brexit platform that Labour had stood on, there was some ambiguity in there, but it wasn’t a hugely distant platform from the vision articulated by the Government. So, the progression towards a second referendum, the hardening on a customs union, I don’t think we were fully there yet.

I think the other thing was that after that election there was a threat immediately, as well as at various other points, to Theresa’s own leadership of the Conservative Party. I think, even when I reflect on when we did have those discussions with the Labour Party later on, the strength of feeling against that amongst our own benches was incredibly strong.

I think that is partly from a trust over delivering Brexit point of view. I think it was partly over the fact that the Labour Party was Corbyn’s Labour Party at that time, as well. That made it much more difficult.

I think I’ve heard quite a lot of people say, in retrospect, ‘Maybe we should have,’ but I think, taking myself back to that time, Labour – in their manifesto, at least – held less of a gap between their position and our position, even if beneath what was articulated there was more of a gap. But I think the political environment at that time would have made that incredibly difficult.

UKICE: There was no way of leveraging that fear of Labour by saying to the usual suspects on your own benches, ‘Look, we’ve got a choice here: you can either play nice and help us get this through, or we’re going to have no choice but to work across the aisle?’

JP: It depends which usual suspects you’re talking about, because I think one of the challenges that we had throughout were people who wanted … I’m trying to think of a way of not saying, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit, because that is something that drove Theresa absolutely nuts and she really rejected. But, for absence of a shorthand, we had people in the party who were prepared to rebel to achieve a looser relationship with the EU. We also had people in our party who were prepared to rebel and, as we saw later on, even be expelled in seeking a closer relationship with the EU. So, I think that was one of the challenges is that there was more than one set of usual suspects, and they wanted opposite things.

UKICE: I’m intrigued by this rejection of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit as anathema to Theresa May. How did she characterise the options and decisions she had to make if she wasn’t going to go for that sort of Barnier-style shorthand: ‘Where do you want to land on the staircase?’

JP: I think the shorthand of, ‘Where do you want to land on the staircase?’ without the simplicity it implied. I don’t want to comment on what has happened since, but I think the simplicity of, ‘Of course you can have either an EEA-style relationship or a CETA-style relationship’ has turned out not to be so simple or straightforward.

I also don’t necessarily want to say on Theresa’s behalf what she thought, but my understanding or my own interpretation would be that in the referendum campaign both sides had generally been clear, but it was probably even more clear from those articulating the Remain arguments that, if we were going to vote to leave, it was not a vote to stay in an EEA-style relationship.

What were the issues at stake? Whether it was freedom of movement of people, whether it was sovereignty, whatever, however you interpret what the vote was about, if the answer was then to leave, then an interpretation that then said, ‘The Single Market and the customs union is part of that,’ was my view, and I think Theresa’s.

So the fact of not being in the Single Market or the customs union being termed a ‘hard’ Brexit, I think was the dichotomy that she would probably reject. The much-coined ‘Brexit means Brexit’ phrase – I can’t remember when it first came up, it might have been in one of those two leadership speeches – was kind of an articulation of, ‘It doesn’t mean staying in the single market and the customs union.’

But, although you’ve decided to leave those two things, actually the outcome that you might seek in your negotiations after that – there’s a whole range of options. I think that’s part of why we found that kind of division to be unhelpful.

UKICE: Is it fair to say the whole furore over Grenfell and the Prime Minister’s visit to Grenfell weakened her considerably and snapped her authority at a time when she needed all the authority she could get. Do you think there’s any truth in that?

JP: I think it was definitely a difficult time. Just speaking personally, I think what was difficult was we clearly got the response wrong in the first 24 to 48 hours. The impact that had on the people that had been affected by that disaster was something that was very affecting because, when you’re in government, you’re there to try and be there for people when they’re affected by that kind of disaster. They’d been let down by that.

I think that was quite personally affecting for the Prime Minister, too. I think, though, what really knocked our political authority was the outcome of the election. What happened at Grenfell was an incredible tragedy, and the fact that we didn’t get our response right first time was very difficult, but I don’t think it had an ongoing impact on the negotiations and the politics around the ability to deliver Brexit.

UKICE: In Number 10, when did you realise that Northern Ireland was going to be the big issue getting in the way of getting the sufficient progress verdict and agreeing the joint report? It seems to have suddenly sprung up as the spanner in the works?

JP: Yes. I think I remember saying to someone, ‘Look, we’re nearly there on the money and the governance. We’ve had these big rows and we think we’ve got to a place that we can sell it. All we have is Northern Ireland, but that will be fine.’ Then, of course, the reverse is true.

I think there were several things that we were aware of. One was that Northern Ireland was actually a foreshadowing or an articulation of the issues that could come into the fore for the future relationship negotiations. So, we were conscious of it from that point of view. But I don’t think what we necessarily thought was that potentially an EU concern about that very fact would make a desire to solve the Northern Ireland question something that became a very hard issue to deal with in the withdrawal discussions.

I think our view was that, because it related to that future relationship in a lot of ways, it would be impossible to really, in any kind of detail, with any certainty, make a huge amount of progress on that. So, I think what blindsided us a bit was the desire to have something quite concrete on Northern Ireland as part of the withdrawal process, not as part of the future relationship process.

I remember quite clearly the issue of the joint report and the terminology in there. That felt like it had come a bit out of nowhere, really, and quite late on in the game.

UKICE: You obviously ultimately get a quite fudged piece of language in the joint report. Arlene Foster has warned you that it doesn’t really make sense as a landing point for the DUP. Did Number 10 then think, ‘Now what is our strategy after this joint report?

JP: I think our strategy was to make sense of the joint report through how we articulated what the future relationship was going to be. I think we still viewed it as very hard to resolve the issues that were in the joint report, without having a sense or that articulation of how you had the rest of the future relationship. I think there were tensions or contradictions in that language, but that was something that needed to be resolved.

I think something that we did find hard throughout was a bit of a sense that Northern Ireland/Ireland was a unique situation because of the Good Friday Agreement. So, it needed a unique or different approach. Whereas actually what it got bound up in being was the integrity of the Single Market. There was a feeling that, for the EU side, the ‘four freedoms’ of the Single Market and the integrity of the Single Market and the Single Market’s border, was the overriding concern when it came to resolving the issue in Northern Ireland. So, the implication of any solution in Northern Ireland in reading across to the rest of the future relationship was an overriding concern.

Whereas, I think, before the joint report, and even after the joint report, the perspective of the UK Government was that you might be able to find a form of compromise in Northern Ireland that you wouldn’t necessarily apply to the rest of the UK, because you were dealing with very unique circumstances.

Although what that compromise was in Northern Ireland would be tied up in the rest of the future relationship, because you need to know where GB is to know what the issues are and what the solutions you need to find for Ireland and Northern Ireland where you could take a different approach. Or an approach that involved more compromise, potentially in Northern Ireland.

UKICE: Did you actually find that where you’d ended up on Northern Ireland meant you had no option but to go for something that looked like Chequers – particularly the common rulebook on goods.

JP: I think that was definitely a factor. We had to find a solution that, from a unionist perspective – and I don’t mean a DUP perspective, but from a broader unionist perspective – worked. So, that definitely made it a factor in where Chequers was, but I think there were quite a lot of other considerations that contributed to Chequers.

I think one thing that did change over the course of that time was – I think quite early on – there was a perspective that services, and financial services, were so important to the British economy that that is what we needed to prioritise in negotiations. That was incredibly important. I think, by the time you get round to the build-up into Chequers, obviously the importance of services and financial services hasn’t diminished, but actually there has been a realisation or an articulation that actually, because of their importance, also there wasn’t a path to where you could have regulation being influenced or controlled by the EU on that.

Given the EU’s position, whilst we should go for as much access and as good a deal as possible, actually complete regulatory independence or more regulatory independence was important there. Whereas, on goods and supply chains, there was more of a feeling that ultimately, in terms of global standards, you have three spheres that influence – the US, China, or the EU.

On the making of X widget, we could have our regulatory independence and then have more checks and everything else. But, ultimately, the widget is probably going to be made to the EU standard anyway. So there were other factors in terms of how Chequers ended up being designed, and not just the Northern Ireland question.

UKICE: Just moving to that week, or the weekend itself of Chequers, can you talk us through your recollections, both of the process of trying to get your ducks – or, rather, your ministers – in a line for that, and the impact that the multiple resignations had? Were they expected? Did you think you could weather some, but not all?

JP: There was a huge amount of work that went into it. There was quite a lot of sitting down with Cabinet ministers in advance to try and put forward the different models, and articulate them, and get quite a lot of technical understanding of what the issues that we were going to be talking about, and trying to thrash through questions that people had on those.

There was quite a lot of thought that went into how the day should run. Was it useful to have external voices there? What were the arguments that we wanted to be articulated? There was a lot of preparation that went into it, and there was also definitely an awareness and a consciousness that you might not get everyone to sign up, and that it would be damaging if you did have resignations afterwards.

I think the resignation of DD (David Davis) and then Boris (Johnson) did have a big impact. It added momentum behind the opposition to Chequers. I don’t think it was totally fatal at that point, but I do think, not at that weekend, or even in the immediate aftermath of it, but I think there was probably a point at which, after the opposition to Chequers had grown within our own backbenches, that we should have reassessed how possible it was to get a deal through based on that model.

Brexit in Parliament

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): Once the deal was signed, what was the expectation in Number 10 about how it would be received by the Parliamentary Party? I mean were you more hopeful than, in retrospect, you should have been?

Joanna Penn (JP): I think the hope in Number 10 was that the reaching of a deal would create some momentum towards getting the deal over the line in Parliament. From my point of view, I was incredibly conscious that where we ended up when we did the deal, there was at least a high chance of Dominic Raab resigning and that killing off any sense of momentum that you might want to have from the deal to get it through.

I think at this point, this was when there was a hub set up in the Cabinet Office, to try and overcome the geographic boundaries of Number 10 and put together a team from the different parts of the building to be able to communicate the deal, to have people out there making the arguments for it, and that kind of thing.

Once the decision was taken to strike the deal at that time, there was a huge amount of work put into trying to create that sense of momentum behind it, but I think the resignation of Dom made that very difficult.

UKICE: When you made the decision to delay the meaningful vote, was it because you thought you were going to lose or you didn’t have an alternative, or because you had a plan to figure it out over Christmas?

JP: I think it was a decision where we knew we were going to lose, and we thought the scale of the loss would do more harm than good at that stage. So, whilst I don’t think there was at the moment of the decision a fully formed plan, there was talk of what we could do during that period of the delay that then needed to be taken away and be worked up into a plan.

But I think it was more a judgement call of which does more damage in the very immediate term: the decision to delay the vote, which we knew would do damage, or going ahead with the vote, and the scale of the loss that we expected?

UKICE: What did you think you could do between the meaningful vote in December and the meaningful vote in January, when you did take it back and have the vote? What were you thinking of in Number 10? Obviously, the Prime Minister has won the leadership vote in the interim. What did you think was going to change between the two that you might be able to get it over the line the second time?

JP: My memory means that I can’t even get the sequencing of some of those events right in my head now because it all then intensifies week by week.

On the leadership election, we didn’t know that that would happen necessarily when we killed the meaningful vote, I don’t think, but we definitely knew it was a possibility. The idea of a leadership challenge is something that is actually in the background all the way through, from even before we called the election onwards, but intensifies and is very, very much there that autumn. But the fact that that had happened and that we had won, there was definitely a hope that, ‘Okay, if that avenue is no longer there, then people might come behind the option that is there.’

Then there was work done by Olly to go back and speak to the Commission and Europe about whether we could get any further on the backstop and what ‘temporary’ meant, or an articulation of how you exit from that. But I can’t quite recall exactly when that work started. But that was a stream of work that happened throughout this time, and we did make some progress. We made enough progress that might mean that we very nearly got there in the end, but that was one stream of work.

Another stream of work was working with the DUP to try and get a clear articulation of what was needed to get them over the line, and to try and be able to deliver that. Then another stream of work was with our own MPs, to really flush out what exactly the issues were, but also the interplay with the leadership election and then, hopefully, after that leadership election, some of those MPs, maybe, coming on board.

Then there was a stream of work with the Labour MPs who we knew – some, at least – were potentially wavering or may have been supportive in the right way, with the right circumstances, and how we might be able to get them over the line.

So, there were all four of those strands of work going on. I mean from the doing of the deal onwards, but particularly from the fact that, when we knew the deal as it was wouldn’t get through, what we could try and deliver in each of those strands to try and get something over the line.

UKICE: When it eventually came, were you shocked by the scale of the defeat?

JP: No, I don’t think so. Part of the reason that we pulled the vote in the first place was the prospect of that scale of defeat. I think that we were aware that we hadn’t moved things on sufficiently, by the time we had to have the next vote, to avoid a significant defeat.

UKICE: At that point, did the Prime Minister consider her position?

JP: I don’t think she did, not in any way that I discussed with her. My interpretation was that she’d just seen off a leadership challenge in the context of the fact that there was still a huge amount of disquiet about the deal. So I don’t think the loss of that particular vote changed things, in terms of saying that we expected that loss.

I think, also, looking at the prospects for getting a way forward that would be a compromise or a solution that would seek to address the concerns of those from different perspectives, I don’t think that Theresa resigning would’ve enabled or engendered more of a compromise to have been found.

UKICE: Once you’d come off that defeat. What, inside Number 10, was the thinking about what to do next? We know that there was the sort of Malthouse move which led to the Brady amendment. Inside Number 10, what did you think on the day after that impressive defeat?

JP: I have talked about the different paths forward towards compromise that we saw and were pursuing. We re-examined each of those and tried to work up options for delivering on each of those.

Whether it was sitting down with the DUP again and understanding their concerns, or going back to Europe with the fact that we hadn’t been able to pass this deal and seeing whether there was any further clarity that they could provide on the concerns that MPs had expressed about aspects of the deal. Knowing that there were some Labour MPs who had at least expressed their support for the fact that Brexit needed to be delivered, and looking at what their concerns were and what we could do to address them. The Malthouse Compromise and ‘alternative arrangements’ was also something that we were looking at, both in the context of the DUP and in the context of the EU.

I think the other thing that was under discussion, from December onwards but didn’t go forward at that time – or, at least, when it was taken forward I think it was taken forward via Parliament’s own action – was a process of indicative votes or trying to devise a way to test if a majority lay anyway within Parliament for any of the options.

UKICE: So did you regard the Malthouse process, which seemed to be backbenchers and a minister acting on their initiative, as a helpful initiative to try to get the Conservative Party unified around something? Or, did you know that where they ended up was not really going to cut it and not be very helpful?

JP: I think it was intended to be helpful. I think that there is an element of having looked at aspects of that before, quite a few times, and it not providing a solution because it wouldn’t prove negotiable. I think it was also important, for trying to bring people together around a solution, that we took it seriously and looked at anything further that could be done on that.

Depending on how you define it, it was and could have been a solution to the issue, how you deal with the border in Northern Ireland and everything else. But I don’t think we experienced, at any stage, an indication from the Commission or the negotiators that it would be a possible negotiated outcome.

That proved very difficult because, I think, Barnier and others had various points of engagement with some of the proponents of some of these ideas. There were different interpretations of what was said or committed to in those meetings. I think that, also, gave people a sense that this was something that could be achieved if only we negotiated harder. I’m not sure that’s true. I think one of the things that is true is that, when we had a new Prime Minister and a new deal the alternative arrangements, or whichever version of it you want to see, is not something that was able to be negotiated.

UKICE: There was a point where the Prime Minister’s frustration and irritation with Parliament clearly boiled over, when she made that televised address about the way MPs were behaving. I suppose several things around that, could you talk us through that televised address and whether people warned her that this might not be the best way of bringing MPs back on side? Just what happened behind the scenes in Downing Street before and after it?

JP: I think it was after there had been some kind of indicative votes process and it had produced a majority for nothing.

That’s the context, in my head at least, of it. I think it was a bit of a failure of the team in Downing Street, myself included. I think we had been going at this process for an incredibly long time and felt quite strongly that, having gone through all the options and come up with no answer – but also having this process of Parliament saying no to no deal – there was quite a lot of concern around those who were saying ‘no to no deal’ not fully understanding that there was a real risk, at some point, of us leaving with no deal. Because the route out of saying ‘no to no deal’, having triggered Article 50, is agreeing a deal.

It was unclear, having tried multiple different avenues and then having had this process in Parliament, what deal could be achieved or whether MPs understood the need to get behind a deal and the risks run around an outcome that a lot of them professed not to want. So, I think it was a moment where we got our judgement wrong on that message. The intention wasn’t to blame MPs but we’d got to a point where every option had been rejected. So what did people want next? The inability to find a compromise way forward was really risking some outcomes that people really wanted to avoid.

I think we definitely got it wrong but it was quite a collective error, as it were. I think various people’s names have been put forward as to who was advocating for it, but I think that is wrong, rather it was  reflective of the mood in the building. It was definitely an example of when you’re in a small team working on something and you get your judgement wrong about how it will be received.

UKICE: You get a lot of commentary about a sort of bunker mentality at certain times in government. Is that what it’s like, is that what it feels like?

JP: There’s definitely the fact that you are, ultimately, quite a small set of people under quite a lot of pressure. I think, at that point, we had been doing quite a bit to reach out and engagement with lots of different people. But I think, ultimately, the decision-making and the pressure comes back to the Prime Minister and Number 10, I think that’s definitely true.

UKICE: Did you, during this process through to 29 March, ever think, ‘Actually, we really are going to end up with no deal’? Or, did you always think that Cabinet or Parliament would stop it?

JP: No, I think it’s something that the Prime Minister took seriously, if there wasn’t the ability to get a deal.

I think that there was also the very serious prospect of the EU putting us in a position where we didn’t end up with a deal. I don’t think the extensions that we secured each time were inevitable. I think there were three, maybe, in the end, two under Theresa and one under Boris. I don’t think each of those was inevitable.

I think you could make a clear argument for them, you knew that the EU didn’t want to be responsible for no deal, but given that it required unanimity, I think we were aware that there was a real risk, that you couldn’t discount, of not securing an extension in each  one of those examples. Definitely, with the first extension, the Prime Minister was very aware of the impact that would have in terms of the public’s faith in the process and the Government’s commitment to delivering on what had been voted for.

UKICE: You came pretty close with the meaningful vote in the end. Did you think you would get it over the line? What was the bit that didn’t fall into place, that could have?

JP:  By the last vote, I think it was definitely possible to get it over the line. I think the first two, we definitely knew the numbers were way off. The final vote, it was definitely in play. A big shift for that was getting the likes of Boris and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and some of the strongest voices in favour of a different Brexit deal to the one that we’d got, supporting that final vote.

I think there were three things, all of which could’ve maybe turned out differently. Although I’m sure, at least, some will disagree. I think there were the kinds of Brexiteers on our own benches who didn’t come in behind the deal. I’m sure Steve Baker will speak for himself, but I think he came very close to voting in favour of it on that final vote and would’ve bought, perhaps, enough others with him to get it over the line. I think that the DUP may have been persuaded to finally vote for the deal, but maybe that just never was the case. I think, in terms of how the deal would work for Northern Ireland, it was as close as it would get to something that tried to respect all perspectives on threading the needle of Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement. And I think if we’d managed to get a few of those Labour people, who accepted the outcome and thought we should deliver Brexit, through the lobbies…

So I think any of the three of those could have possibly happened. And, I think, could’ve added up to the numbers needed. When we went into it, I don’t think we thought we’d quite got there but we definitely thought that there was a prospect that we had.

The final months in Downing Street

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): That week, Theresa May announced that she would stand down once the Withdrawal Agreement was through. Did you think through what the arithmetic of that announcement would be in terms of the way it might affect votes on  the Conservative side? Did you think it might make it harder for people on the Labour side to vote with you?

Joanna Penn (JP): I think it was seen to be critical for getting votes on the Conservative side there. I think that was always going to have to be our central plank for getting a deal over the line. I understand that point but I think, ultimately, if you look at those Labour MPs who then voted for a deal under the next Prime Minister, it wasn’t necessarily that much of a barrier to them then. If you’d got those figures on side previously then this deal would’ve passed Parliament. So I think we have, further down the line, a demonstration that I’m not sure that was the critical point.

UKICE: Which of those groups of people who failed to support the deal when they might have done were you most irritated with?

JP: I don’t think that is a very constructive thing to get into, to be honest. I think, though, you can do your own assessment of which of those groups of people will be more or less satisfied with the new deal that we have.

I think the thing that made it difficult, and was true, and the point we were trying to make, although making it to different people in different ways made it difficult, was quite a lot of people were risking a really bad outcome, from their perspective, for the sake of not taking a compromise outcome. Because things have gone one way subsequently that means, for some people, they’ve got a worse outcome than they wanted.

I don’t think it’s inevitable that you wouldn’t have been able to, at some point, get a majority together in Parliament for a second referendum or something, and that be the outcome that had happened instead either. So, just because it’s played out in a certain way, I don’t think it was inevitable that it would. But I think those risks were there and I’m not sure people really engaged seriously enough with them.

There were a group of people, when we were in negotiations with Labour and others after that third vote, who were engaging in negotiations on a deal with us. But, you know, clearly a large part of Labour wanted a second referendum and leadership figures within Labour wanted a second referendum. For those people in Labour who thought a second referendum was a bad outcome, I’m not sure what other outcome they were seeking or hoping for in not supporting the deal that was on the table.

UKICE: What was Number 10’s view of John Bercow during the period of trying to get her deal through? Do you have understanding for him representing the views of Parliament or do you think he was running his own agenda?

JP: I think it was extremely problematic in the sense that I’ve mentioned before, about this false option of ‘no to no deal’. That is not a real option. Having triggered Article 50 the options are: do a deal, leave with no deal, maybe have an extension and have a second referendum, or revoke the whole process. Some of them would have complications and you could have questions about whether you can revoke or not, etc. But those are the options. ‘No to no deal’ without a deal that you’re in favour of, and the process of indicative votes that produced no majority for anything, created a dynamic that was not conducive to finding a way forwards and I think upset the balance.

I think there are other aspects that play into this. We also won a vote of confidence from Parliament in that time. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, both in our time and then the subsequent Government, also created a problematic dynamic. Again MPs, at some point, have to decide whether they have confidence in the Government or not. The Government needs to be able to say this vote equals that. You can’t have an option of rejecting the Government, the Government having no majority on something that they could say is a confidence issue, but we’re not going to form another Parliament, we’re not going to change it. Again, it created false options which I think, ultimately, didn’t help the process for coming to a conclusion or a decision.

UKICE: How difficult was Cabinet management during this period? Obviously, you’ve got occasions when Cabinet Ministers abstained on issues, and you are losing ministers at quite a regular rate. Was it very difficult, the atmosphere in Cabinet, or was everything else going quite swimmingly?

JP: I think it was difficult. The resignations that happened around the time of doing the deal were difficult. From the time it got from that point onwards, obviously, it was difficult just because it was a really difficult time for the Government. But the people that had stayed on board, the Cabinet that was in place then, was committed to finding a resolution and supporting the Government in getting a solution over the line. I’m sure members of the Cabinet found it a really difficult time and there was a lot at stake and there was also a lot of pressure. But it was probably less difficult than some of the other times, in the lead up to the deal, where you had resignations or concerns about resignations and differing views of the way forward. Whereas I think there were still suggestions and views for the way forward and people trying to find solutions, but I think people were on board with trying to get this over the line one way or another.

UKICE: Did you ever think that no deal was likely? Was the Prime Minister as relaxed about no deal as she tried to appear to be? That is to say, was she ever realistically willing to take us down a no deal path?

JP: I think, yes. An example of that was before we got to the deal. I think it was Salzburg, and not being able to find a solution on the Northern Ireland protocol was an example of where, if we couldn’t get the right deal for the United Kingdom, there would’ve been a prospect of having no deal.

I don’t think, at any point, she was relaxed about it. I don’t think even those who might have advocated more strongly for it were relaxed about it. I’ll try not to re-coin the phrase, but there is a point at which the deal that is on offer is a less good outcome than a no deal outcome. That doesn’t mean that no deal is a good outcome, it just means that there is a point at which the balance shifts.

UKICE: Was there anything you heard in briefings or from civil servants or from businesses that made you particularly concerned about no deal?

JP: I think no deal would’ve been a failure, and it was clear to lots of those involved that it would have problematic implications across the board. But the piece that I think particularly struck the Prime Minister was the implications for the union. If it was proving really difficult to solve the Northern Ireland issue in the context of a deal, that becomes even harder in no deal. So that had a particular resonance. But, of course, the concerns about impact on businesses and others were were relevant and also thought about.

To reflect on that, it wasn’t that the Government was relaxed about no deal – I think it was taken seriously, and its impacts were serious. But it remained a prospect while we couldn’t get a deal with the EU that we thought was reasonable and fair.

UKICE: At the moment it became inevitable that we were going to have the European parliamentary elections, was there a sense in Number 10 that the game was up? Did you realise just how bad they would be ahead of time?

JP: Yes, I’m not sure whether we ever quantified how bad they would be but that they would be very bad was definitely known to us and would be a really serious problem. Again, I’ll get the sequencing wrong though. After the third meaningful vote didn’t pass, and we started the process with Labour, it was when that process didn’t deliver any result that there were no more paths forward really.

UKICE: When was the decision made that resignation was the only option, and were you part of that decision?

JP: As would be expected, it was a discussion between Theresa and some of us who were her close advisors. It happened after the attempt at reaching some kind of agreement with Labour wasn’t going to go forwards. I think it was quite a short timeframe between: I think it was that Wednesday when she did a speech at PWC and maybe the Friday that she announced her intention to stand down. There wasn’t a big time lag.

UKICE: Did you ever have any realistic hopes about the outcome of the talks with Labour, did you think they could get somewhere?

JP:  I think there were different views. I was always quite sceptical, if I’m honest. You’ve spoken to Gavin. I think he, at the start of that process, was pretty positive about it. We didn’t have to get very far into it for me to see that … you know, Labour having their divisions and the tension between having Brexit happen and those in favour of a second referendum, it wasn’t clear how they were going to resolve it. Therefore, if that couldn’t be resolved then how could they provide a position that could support the Government in getting some kind of Brexit deal over the line?

I think the way that Labour could’ve enabled Brexit to happen would’ve been to whip less strongly those backbench MPs who may have been prepared to vote for a deal. We went into it with the intention of finding something that everyone could sign up to, that both sides could sign up to. You know, it was a good faith process. But I think I’d been sceptical, for quite a long period of time, about the prospect of a deal getting through on the back of Labour votes, at least frontbench Labour votes.

UKICE: What were the last weeks like in Downing Street, after talks broke down and the Conservative leadership kicks off?

JP: I think that there was just a real focus on delivering as much of the domestic agenda, that had been bubbling away in the background for the last three years, as possible. People, kind of, frame it in terms of looking for a legacy. I think it’s more that she’d come into office, we talked about it in the last interview, knowing how important Brexit would be but also with a strong feeling that the Brexit vote was about change at home as well as change our relationship with Europe.

I don’t think the desire to deliver on that agenda had ever diminished, it had just been overtaken and it takes a long time to get things done in government. Actually things that you might have started three years ago, you might be able to just about get over the line in that timeframe. So there were some important things, like introducing the Domestic Abuse Bill to Parliament. Things where, not the end of the line on delivery but making sure that delivery continued. I think people quite enjoyed the fact that we could focus on things that were not Brexit.

Back to all interviews
Result 1 of