Suella Fernandes is suddenly in demand. As Chairman (her preferred term) of the European Research Group of Conservative MPs, where she succeeded Steve Baker (who has just become a Brexit minister), she will tomorrow night appear on Any Questions?.
But ConservativeHome got to her first. Under Baker’s leadership, the ERG swiftly established a reputation as the most formidable pro-Brexit group within the parliamentary party, and Fernandes says it now has over 100 members.
She insists, in this interview, that Brexit will be “meaningless” if it does not include leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. Fernandes contends that although the Conservatives are “a broad church”, it is actually Labour figures such as Sir Keir Starmer and Lord Adonis who “don’t accept the result of the referendum”, are “trying to rerun the arguments which were settled at the referendum”, and want “to inject unnecessary and disproportionate negativity” in order to fudge the “inherent conflict and division within the Labour ranks”.
In Fernandes’ view, the positive effects of Brexit – including cheaper prices for food and clothing, the chance to move to a New Zealand system of agriculture, and “taking on big business through reform of tax regimes” – are getting insufficient attention from a commentariat which prefers to see Britain “begging the European Union for some mercy”.
She has recently become a Parliamentary Private Secretary, jointly with Chris Philp, to the Treasury team of ministers, with Kwasi Kwarteng as PPS to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but emphasised that she is speaking here in her ERG capacity.
ConHome: “I’m glad your becoming a PPS didn’t prevent us from doing this interview.”
Fernandes: “I didn’t really see a conflict, because the Government is wanting to deliver Brexit, it’s completely committed to that, and so am I, and want to support the Government.”
ConHome: “How do you dispose – I read your speech on Brexit in the Queen’s Speech debate, but most people won’t have done – of the conventional wisdom, which is that either we can get a good economic deal, but not very much control, or we can get control, but less access to the European market.”
Fernandes: “I think this narrative which is prevailing which is that we are begging the European Union for some mercy – that’s really not the way it should be cast by the commentariat.
“We are one of the biggest net contributors to the EU. We are one of their biggest customers, consumers of one million German cars last year alone. The economic well-being of the Germans and the French and the Spanish will prevail in the minds of their leaders. So I think getting a deal is eminently possible because of that mutual interest.
“In the event of no deal that’s great as well for us. The ideal is a free trade agreement but in the event of that not working, no deal is something we will capitalise on using our strengths and the opportunities that brings.”
ConHome: “And do you think a transitional period will be needed?”
Fernandes: “It’s sensible to have an implementation period, a strictly time-limited implementation period whilst we rise up to our new free-trade agreements, to provide predictability, to provide a soft landing for a hard Brexit, to use Steve Baker’s words.”
ConHome: So there’s absolutely no danger of queues on the road to Dover?
Fernandes. “I don’t think so. In fact, the ERG thanks to Charlie Elphicke has just published a paper called Ready On Day One that sets out a detailed plan to keep trade flowing, given that he’s the MP for Dover.”
ConHome: “The commentariat, which has got a lot of things wrong including the result of the referendum, is inclined to say we’ve got a much weaker government than was expected, and that’s going to be a problem in the negotations. You don’t see it that way?”
Fernandes: “I think Theresa May has a great opportunity ahead of her now, and she has the support of her MPs, and she has that opportunity to show the country, to show the world, to show the EU that tough negotiating that I mentioned. And I have complete confidence that she will deliver a successful and prosperity-led Brexit at the end of the day.”
ConHome: And will she then lead the party into the next general election?
Fernandes: “I’m not going to comment on things like that, because it’s above my pay grade. I hope Theresa May will continue for as long as she wants to, and that she will be able to harness the support that she’s got in the party to deliver this historic opportunity that the British people voted for. And that’s what I’m focussed on doing, which is supporting her and supporting all of our government ministers who are tasked with this challenge.”
ConHome: “And how does the ERG work? How many members do you have?”
Fernandes: “Well we have a communication group, and that has over a hundred people I think in it, since the general election. And we have briefings for our members, we provide research for them. I’m really glad that we’ve got Christopher Howarth providing the evidential ballast that they need.”
ConHome: “These hundred people are mostly Leavers?”
Fernandes: “Well I think it genuinely probably is a fair mix now. It’s probably dominated by people who voted Leave, but that feels to me as if that’s less of a material distinction now.”
ConHome: “Because everyone accepts that it’s going to happen?”
Fernandes: “Yes, and so the majority of Conservative MPs that I’ve come across through the ERG, and more widely, if they voted Remain, accept and want to get on with it, and to support the Government’s Lancaster House speech objectives.
“I just feel very passionate about the positive opportunities flowing from Brexit, and the ERG’s mission is to keep making that case in the Chamber, on the airwaves, in the newspapers, and through our members, and backed up by our research. And we want to keep encouraging that narrative, because there’s a need for it.
“And there are so many opportunities, not least whether it’s falling food prices and clothes prices, whether it’s being a real champion of fair trade, whether it’s really taking on big business through reform of tax regimes, whether it’s becoming more pro energy and the environment…”
ConHome: “So we can take on big business better if we’re running our own affairs?”
Fernandes: “Yes, I think so, there’s a real argument to be made, and it’s something coming out from the ERG soon, about tax arrangements, tax regimes, because of the EU, that actually…”
ConHome: “Well that is actually something that comes up a lot from voters. They get very, very cross that some of these international companies are paying very, very little tax.”
Fernandes: “Yes, and I think we’ve got a real opportunity here to make the new case for how the smaller businessman, the little man, can actually enjoy more freedoms and more fairness when we come out of the EU. Without even getting on to being free from ridiculous regulation, or our English courts having the last say on our disputes, or controlling our immigration.”
ConHome: “The commentariat have a vested interest in crisis. Crisis is more exciting than reporting that everything is going pretty well.”
Fernandes: “Yes, they’re desperate for a crisis, and as I said in Parliament, Brexit is not a crisis to manage, it’s an opportunity to grasp.
“We’ve automatically got a set of friends out there who are very eager to enter trade agreements with us.
“Crawford Falconer, the newly appointed trade negotiator, worked for New Zealand, and he is very, very optimistic, and ready for striking trade deals, because he said that after the UK cut our trade links with New Zealand, they had to embrace the rest of the world, it kick-started their agricultural sector and it made them a lot more profitable, efficient, competitive.”
ConHome: “They got rid of subsidies, basically. Is that what we’re going to do?”
Fernandes: “Well I think we need to be realistic as well. We need to look after our farmers, and that’s why it is right that the Government has guaranteed payments for our farmers to a point. But what’s exciting is that we have the opportunity for the first time in 45 years to design a long-term and sector-led agriculture policy. And we need to strike the right balance.”
ConHome: “But New Zealand wasn’t a balance. It was a very radical ‘let’s get rid of all the subsidies’, so that our farmers are actually linked up with markets rather than with bureaucrats.”
Fernandes: “That’s a long-term evolution, I think, in New Zealand. We will be flexing our muscles afresh when we start implementing a UK-based agricultural policy. I’m not saying we should mirror New Zealand but I think it’s a great example of how a country with similar features to the UK can thrive in that world.”
ConHome: “Paul Goodman wrote a piece the other day in which he said he couldn’t quite understand whether the Brexiteers are taking over the Government, or the Government – or more specifically the Whips – are taking over the Brexiteers. What happens when your view diverges from the Government’s view?”
Fernandes: “Well, I mean, I’m here to support the Government, and support the Chancellor and his ministerial team in making the case for sound public finances and a strong economy. And I’m also here to support the Government on delivering a successful Brexit. I don’t see those two things as incompatible.”
ConHome: “But a PPS also keeps ministers in touch with the wider parliamentary party. So you’ll obviously be conveying to them also what’s being said in the Tea Room.”
Fernandes: “Yes, a PPS is supposed to support ministers in the way that they need that.”
ConHome. “I suppose that as long as Steve Baker is a minister, one can assume that he is reasonably satisfied with the way things are going.”
Fernandes: “There’s a mixture of views in our parliamentary party. We are, to overuse the term, a broad church, and I think that makes us better for it. We like debate, we like discussing ideas in our party, and that’s our strong suit in our party, and we’ve got the intellectual rigour in our party, the talent and ability to respect each other, but also disagree on some points. And I think that’s healthy in any democracy.”
ConHome: “Yes, though Lord Lawson was on the Today programme on Tuesday, saying you shouldn’t actually have this row about whether to keep the pay cap, Cabinet ministers shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing.”
Fernandes: “Yes, I think that’s right. We need to make the strong economic case for what our party stands for. We stand for making sure that the poorest in our society can keep as much money that they earn as possible. We’ve got an amazing track record of radically reforming our income tax arrangements.”
ConHome: “Lord Adonis gave a speech a few days ago in the House of Lords where he was saying there’s an inverse ratio between distance and trade, so inevitably a lot of your trade will remain with countries like France and Germany which are very near to us, and he was painting a picture of terrible self-inflicted harm.
“What do you say to Adonis or someone like Sir Keir Starmer. It’s not only the commentariat actually, it’s people like them who are quite centrist figures compared to Corbyn, but they’re going round stirring up alarm and despondency.”
Fernandes: “Yes, I think it’s because they don’t accept the result of the referendum. And I think it’s because they are trying to rerun the arguments which were settled at the referendum. I think they’re trying to inject unnecessary and disproportionate negativity, and I think that is an insult to the British people.
“It also belies an inherent conflict and division within the Labour ranks. On Thursday with the Queen’s Speech the Labour Party was officially whipped, and the Labour Party line within their manifesto has been clear that they support withdrawal from the Single Market and Customs Union, and yet you’ve got outliers like Chuka Umunna who tables an amendment in direct contravention of that and gathers a merry band of rebels.
“And I think that that has really divided the Labour party. And I think the problem with them is they’ve tried to be pro-Brexit in their northern seats and pro-Remain in London, and they’ve managed to fudge that throughout the general election, and they will no longer be able to fudge it.
“And they’re going to have to be clear and take a line and take a position. So when Keir Starmer says we might stay in the Customs Union, I do think that is wishful thinking now, because I think the argument on the Customs Union and the Single Market has been settled.
“We saw that vote last week. Labour now accepts that we have to do it, because otherwise Brexit is meaningless. And that’s great. And it’s now for them to continue with their support and gather the dissenters as they continue supporting that line.”
ConHome: “Some people are saying let’s be like Norway. People like David Owen as well – the EEA is the only practical way of doing it. But you reject that?”
Fernandes: “I do. We need to be out of the jurisdiction of the ECJ. We need to control our immigration policy. We need to have freedom on trade. And none of those things are possible in any of these examples really. And that’s what people voted for, and it’s now our duty to deliver that.”
ConHome: “I did an interview with Peter Golds just after the 2015 general election and he was very pleased – he’d just had a nice letter from you, saying he was the first person you went out canvassing with, and he taught you how to canvass.”
Fernandes: “Well that is true, from Brent North days, where Peter took me by the hand up many garden paths [laughter].”
ConHome: “How old were you? I don’t want to suggest any impropriety.”
Fernandes: “My mother was there, and my father. It would have been in the early Nineties.”
ConHome: And your Mum was a councillor?
Fernandes: “She was a councillor, yes, and she got elected in the early Nineties, and she served 16 years. She worked with Peter, he was on the council. Bob Blackman was Leader of the council. And we had David Rutley, and Kwasi [Kwarteng], who was in Brent East, a bit later actually, in 2005. Mark Francois came to Brent as well as a parliamentary candidate in the ’97 election. A lot of people passed through Brent.”
Fernandes’ father arrived in Britain from Kenya in 1968, at the age of 20, her mother came from Mauritius at the age of 18 to train as a nurse, and she herself studied law at Cambridge and the Sorbonne before practising as a barrister. In 2005 she stood in Leicester East against Keith Vaz and in 2015 she gained election for the safe seat of Fareham, between Southampton and Portsmouth.