On the day I interviewed John Redwood, he published a blog in which he set out “to dispel the wrong notion put around by some commentators that the rebellions are by the old and grumpy in the Conservative Parliamentary party, sitting in safe seats with no hope of preferment or recognition by the present leadership”.
Among the commentators he had in mind was Matthew Parris, who had claimed in his column in Saturday’s Times that “a group of Conservative backbench MPs” actually wants the party to “lose the coming general election”. According to Parris, these backbenchers are in the grip of “a quasi-religious fanaticism”, regard the European Union as “the Great Satan” and “will not rest” until they have got rid of David Cameron.
Redwood also had in mind the report on ConservativeHome of a Downing Street briefing according to which the letter to the Prime Minister from 95 Conservative backbenchers, calling for the Commons to be given a veto on EU legislation, had “backfired” and did not represent the views of the 2010 intake.
ConHome: “So you were considerably vexed by this briefing?”
Redwood: “I wasn’t vexed by the briefing at all. There seemed to be someone who’d been briefing and they clearly didn’t know the facts, and I think it’s good just to remind people what the facts are.”
It is characteristic of Redwood to appeal to “the facts”. He specialises in the merciless marshalling of facts. His rhetoric is so lucid and logical, so unadorned but deeply felt, that it sounds coercive. His powerful intellect seeks to compel agreement. On this occasion he set out to demonstrate that the Tory rebels, far from being the “fifth column” denounced by Parris, are actually the loyalest of the loyal, and are leading the party towards a more popular and successful future.
On the need to repatriate from Brussels the power to control our own borders and make our own energy policy, it is, according to Redwood, the rebels who know what needs to be done. Loyalty turns out to be conditional on the willingness of the leadership to change its mind and follow the rebels.
Redwood: “You know there are rebellions and rebellions, and I took [in his blog on Tuesday of this week] the four big ones in terms of numbers [calling for an EU referendum, opposing Lords reform, calling for a cut in the EU Budget, opposing military intervention in Syria], which were important rebellions, and in each case the Government’s position shifted as a result of the rebellion, so that was my definition.”
He proceeded to consider a fifth issue on which backbenchers are now challenging the Downing Street line: “Seventy-four people wanting change on the borders issue under Nigel Mills may or may not become a large rebellion, but it may well influence government policy, because it’s very clear the government is keen to move in that direction and has made announcements since Mr Mills tabled his amendment. So I wanted to look at the voting patterns on it. There is no monopoly of more elderly MPs supporting it. There is no monopoly of more experienced MPs supporting it. There is not even a monopoly of MPs with so-called safe seats supporting it.”
Generally speaking, Redwood believes, the rebels are more in touch with public opinion than the Government: “The resulting new Conservative policy is more popular than the one which it replaced. And so I think the rebels, as they were, have now become mainstream on each of those issues. Because they now are in line with the party, and I think the party was very wise to move their position into line with what was originally a rebel cause. It seems quite obvious to me that wanting a lower European Union budget is an extremely popular cause in the country. I should think it’s 95 per cent plus of the Conservatives that want a lower European Union budget, probably 100 per cent, and that doing that was very popular, a very wise move. The attempt to get Parliament to vote for a referendum wasn’t successful, but it is now official Conservative policy to hold a referendum when we have the votes to do so, and again I think that is a brilliant move by the leadership, and it’s just that a rebel group got there a little quicker than the leadership. And I think the Government’s decision not to intervene militarily in Syria was extremely wise. I’m very pleased we have a policy of not intervening militarily in Syria now, and I think that is a more popular policy. I think that’s probably true of the House of Lords reform but I don’t think it’s nearly such an important issue to the public at large as the European and Syrian issues. I hope the government will continue its rather good work of moving in the direction Mr Mills wants – that of course is extremely popular, that is probably the most popular of all the recommended courses of action of the so-called rebels.”
ConHome: “So this obviously is a complete rejection of the view advanced by people like Matthew Parris that there’s a section of the Tory party which wants the party to lose.”
Redwood: “I don’t know any Conservative MP who wants to lose the election. People have a very low view of MPs, but I thought the one thing everybody thinks about MPs is that they’re often too keen to win the election. So I think it’s complete nonsense. I’ve never met in private or public any Conservative MP who wants to lose the forthcoming election. I do regard the next election as a very crucial election and we’re all desperate to win it with a majority for the Conservatives because we haven’t had a majority Conservative government since 1997. We haven’t won a general election since 1992 so it’s a long time. Absence makes the heart grow fonder rather than less fond I think. Getting on with your backbenchers when they are trying to point you in a sensible direction is an extremely good thing to do. Sometimes rebel backbenchers are annoying, they go too far, they say things in public they shouldn’t say, that is reprehensible, but there are also occasions when governments respond too much in public and rather foolishly. Both sides need to do these things in private and vow to get on with each other wherever possible.”
ConHome: “And would you say the parliamentary party is generally loyal to David Cameron and George Osborne?”
Redwood: “Yes, the party is entirely loyal to Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne. There are no moves to change the leadership and nor should there be. The party is loyal and stories to the contrary are simply untrue. No one has ever come up to me and said, ‘I’m thinking of challenging for the leadership. Would you please sign a piece of paper saying you want a leadership challenge.’ It hasn’t happened. When that started to happen then journalists would have a very interesting story.”
ConHome: “What should be in the renegotiation on Europe to which Cameron has committed himself?”
Redwood: “Well my view is that the Conservative Party willingly and in a unified fashion voted against Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon, so we did not accept any of the treaty architecture that took away all of those vetoes that are so crucial to be able to run your own country. And that therefore we need a new treaty or a new arrangement as our new relationship with the European Union. I fully support the Prime Minister’s headline statements that we need a new relationship which isn’t just cosmetic and that should be put to the British people who will ultimately decide. That seems very good policy. But I do think we have to recognise that something like 300 vetoes have gone. You cannot govern your own country in the way that the British people wish you to with all those vetoes absent, with the European Union taking such a dominant role on so many important issues, and I mention just two at the moment because they happen to be at the centre of the modern political debate
“The first is energy prices, and Mr Miliband is right, energy prices are a big issue, and the coalition is right, there are some measures it can take to get energy prices down, which is a welcome response. But what both fail to admit is that the prices are this high because we are following a European policy of a big increase in renewables and closure of cheap plants which are said to be unacceptable now, too dirty, and that was a policy which Mr Miliband himself put in when he was climate change secretary, so he should know all about it. He is actually the guilty man when it comes to high energy prices. This government has to openly admit it’s not in a position to solve the whole energy price problem unless and until it wrestles some powers back from Brussels.”
ConHome: “Ministers hate saying that, don’t they.”
Redwood: “I don’t know why they hate saying it, because it’s the truth, and in a way it gets them off the hook, because if the minister says, well I’d love to help you but the previous people in office gave away the powers so I’m not in a position to do so, at least you’d know where you were. So I think we need a more honest debate about that.
“The second issue is of course migration. And all the major parties and a lot of the public would like a reduced number of migrants from parts of the European continent. You are not able to do it legally under European laws in ways that you might want. And again I think that has to be honestly explained to the British people. A big majority of the British people would like an energy policy and an immigration policy made in Britain and not made in Brussels. So they have in some way to be repatriated.
“Another argument which is a truth confronting any British government elected in 2015 of whatever persuasion on Europe and other matters, and that is this, that the United Kingdom, for better or worse, joined the European Economic Community and reaffirmed its wish to stay in that very early on in its life, when it was still arguably a market arrangement – I don’t think it ever was, but arguably it was a market arrangement. It is now completely different from that, but more importantly, the main act in the European Union is to consolidate and support the single currency. The single currency is the single most important act of union that most countries have committed. And it is expressly an act of union which the British public and the British government have not wished to embark on. And so any British government has to accept the truth that the treaty architecture and the legal architecture of the European Union is now evolving very quickly in the direction of a pretty comprehensive central set of controls and dictates in order to help the single currency, and we as non-members of it couldn’t conceivably want to be part of that very comprehensive set of arrangements and controls. So by definition we need a new relationship. And we may get the opportunity for that new relationship simply because the Germans and others are going to want treaty changes anyway to consolidate their euro amalgamation, so it’s a good opportunity to demand that we can’t go on like this pretending to be full members of something when we’ve opted out of one of the main parts of it.”
ConHome: “We can’t go on pretending we’re full members of a club when we’ve opted out of one of the main parts. If one isn’t a full member, is one a country member?”
Redwood: “Well they’re even talking about associate member. It depends what the rubric says, but I’m minded to say that isn’t what I want to be.”
ConHome: “What do you want to be?”
Redwood: “I want a new relationship with the euro area which guarantees our trade access and gives them their trade access, and has sensible arrangements about things we need to agree with each other about. We need to agree about air routes and pipeline routes and overfly routes and all that kind of thing. Of course you need all those sort of arrangements, you need trading arrangements.”
ConHome: “In fact nothing much beyond trade.”
Redwood: “I’m very happy to have political co-operation. But the political co-operation – that could go quite a long way in some areas – has to be based on the right to veto. It cannot be based on being outvoted. That’s the crucial thing. You see the veto was originally surrendered in the Eighties for a limited number of measures to complete the so-called single market. And then the European Union, as it evolved, decided that many more measures constituted the single market than they’d ever owned up to when they took the power of veto away. So that was the first problem. And then of course along came a Labour Government which willingly signed away massive powers without getting the consent of the British people, without getting the consent of a big chunk of the British Parliament. And now I find myself on the governing side of the House of Commons I haven’t suddenly changed my mind on Nice and Lisbon. You don’t suddenly say the world’s moved on, therefore I accept it. One of the most important principles of United Kingdom parliamentary sovereignty has always been that one Parliament cannot bind its successor, and so as far as I’m concerned, the previous Parliament wanted Nice and Lisbon – I didn’t. We should be able to change that. But under European rules the argument goes, well just because you lost the vote in the previous Parliament you now have to accept all of that because we’re not prepared to change it. Well you cannot have a sovereign Parliament or a normal democracy if an increasing number of areas are no longer amenable to change.”
ConHome: “You were in favour of the Single European Act [signed by Margaret Thatcher in 1987]? Were you at Number Ten at the time?”
Redwood: “No, I advised against it. I was head of the Policy Unit. It was one of my few failures.”
ConHome: “Well you were very much in a minority. I remember I was working at the Spectator at the time and they were the only publication against it.”
Redwood: “Anyhow, I was on the inside saying there were dangers in this. And then I became single market minister and I’m afraid I had my prejudices confirmed, because I found myself in the position of having to negotiate endless directives which they said would promote more trade, and I just didn’t think that was true in many cases. You do not promote free trade by laying down in law exactly how everybody does something. It was extremely restrictive and it was very anti-innovation. It was against challengers, it was in favour of big companies, and it was against innovation because they wanted to define in law what an insurance policy was or what a car looked like or whatever it was.”
The original purpose of this interview was to examine the newly formalised role of backbenchers in Tory policy making. It follows an interview with Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922, on this subject. But Redwood was not very forthcoming: “I am the chairman of the economic affairs committee of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, which is an elective office from the backbenches. So that is a non-payroll, non-government position where I work with 1922 committee colleagues, and I am their spokesman under Graham Brady on economic matters. And then there are these manifesto input opportunities which backbenchers’ committee chairmen and others have…It is a matter for the top team to prepare their manifesto as it always was, and so it will be the leadership that prepares the manifesto. But they very graciously said they will take ideas and advice from various people including myself on economic matters. So we will pass in our ideas, that will be done in private, and they will decide which ones they like and which ones they dislike, and I’m afraid I won’t be providing a running commentary on this process. If you’re working with colleagues you have to work confidentially as ministers do. I will obviously preserve that confidence.”
ConHome: “Who are your political and perhaps also your literary heroes?”
Redwood: “I do have a literary hero and that’s Shakespeare. Every time I read or see a Shakespeare play I’m bowled over by the complexity, the brilliance, the language, the nuance. You always see and hear something new and interesting. I think Lear is the greatest of the tragedies, but they’re all pretty good [laughter]. And then of the comedies I think my favourite is the sheer lyrical brilliance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, magic verse, wonderful Puck and all the rest of it. Love all that. In terms of political heroes and heroines, Elizabeth I. I think she was absolutely amazing because in those days you played for very high stakes, you played for your life, you didn’t just play for your position in politics. She managed to survive the extremely difficult mid-century crisis of Catholicism, and survive her sister’s ire, and then in a court of intelligent and powerful men she managed to be an intelligent and powerful woman who ran the men pretty well, and keep Britain alive at a time when the superpower of the day, Spain, was determined to crush us.”