Justine Greening says we need a second EU referendum because the Commons is by its very nature unfit to break the deadlock: “It has been like putting diesel petrol in an unleaded car of Parliament. It’s like going to a Chinese takeaway and wanting pizza.”
The former Education Secretary reckons that because Brexit “cuts across party politics”, Parliament cannot solve it, so the only way to break the gridlock is through another referendum.
She describes the Conservative Party’s decision to bar People’s Vote, which campaigns for a second referendum, from the party conference as “counter-productive”. Greening contends that although her constituents in Putney voted heavily for Remain, it is the minority of Leavers who are most opposed to the Chequers proposals, and who would therefore most like to have another say.
She is herself a Remainer, but she describes the Chequers proposals as “the worst of all worlds”, and wants the second referendum to offer three choices: hard Brexit, soft Brexit and Remain. She dismisses the contention that MPs should instead just implement the result of the 2016 referendum, and says that “behind the scenes” there is “a lot of support” from Conservatives for her view, and none at all for trying to break the deadlock by means of a general election.
Greening laments that Brexit has supplanted the much more important task of enabling young people to break through the “class ceiling” which is thought to prevent them from getting the careers they want and deserve: “We have to once again be seen to be the party of effort and reward. We need to be seen to be a party that stands for equality of opportunity and lifting people, which was what I felt Margaret Thatcher was talking about in the 1980s.”
ConHome: “Is it right that the party should ban an organisation like People’s Vote from the Party Conference handbook?”
Greening: “I think it’s counter-productive, to be honest, I mean it’s been a brilliant advertising mechanism. No, I think it should be a broad church and they should allow debate.”
ConHome: “It’s worse than counter-productive, isn’t it? It’s really bad if there are Conservatives like yourself who think a second referendum is the right thing to do. One can imagine one might ban the Socialist Workers’ Party from setting up shop at the Conservative Party Conference.”
Greening: “We never banned people who were wanting to say ‘We should not be in the EU’, during all those years we were in and there was no referendum proposed. You don’t win a debate by not allowing it to happen. Maybe as Labour are finding out with Keir Starmer’s speech, you can say something’s not going to be on the ballot paper, but actually fundamentally if people want it then they will have their voices heard eventually.”
ConHome: “Well they’re more likely to, yes, though it took a long time to get the 2016 referendum. You made quite a splash by coming out in July this year for a second referendum. You were the first senior Conservative to do so, and it was a very outspoken piece that you wrote for The Times. You didn’t pull your punches.”
Greening: “I did not. Maybe it’s my blunt Yorkshire roots.”
ConHome: “Well I hope your blunt Yorkshire roots will always be visible in the course of this interview. But is a referendum possible? Labour, despite Keir Starmer, isn’t exactly committed to it, and Theresa May is very firmly against it, and so are lots of Conservatives.
“And as Paul Goodman pointed out in a piece for ConHome after your article came out, the actual legislation would take a long time. The last Referendum Bill took more than six months to pass through Parliament. You have to decide on the franchise, the questions – you want a three-way question, is that right?”
Greening: “I decided that rather than just saying we should have a second referendum, I should take responsibility for saying how it could meaningfully happen. And it seemed to me there are practically three options facing us, which are hard Brexit with a clean break, which I think probably is what most Leavers want, they think you should listen to people like David Davis; a soft Brexit; or Remain.”
ConHome: “But weren’t we told that the previous referendum was binding?”
ConHome: “Aren’t people going to be so cross that you will almost undoubtedly get a much bigger vote for a hard Brexit?”
Greening: “I think a lot of people in Britain have totally lost the will to live on Brexit now. They’re very concerned about what the future holds if we don’t find a clear-cut route forward and draw a line under it. A lot of people are very worried about the absolute focus on Brexit.”
ConHome: “Isn’t it up to MPs to sort it out?”
Greening: “Well you’d have thought so.”
ConHome: “If you’ve given people a referendum and you’ve told everyone this is what will happen, however difficult it is, you have to make it happen.”
Greening: “My assessment is that Parliament isn’t going to be able to do that. As I said in the summer, it’s at stalemate. And you can either canter up to that moment and then express faux surprise with no plan, or you actually get ahead of that possibility, which I think is what is going to happen, and today you’ve heard Labour is going to vote down the Prime Minister’s deal, which makes that more likely.
“So I think you either ignore reality or you actually confront it, and take some responsibility as a Parliament for saying what are we actually going to do about that prospect.”
ConHome: “Surely you don’t give up at this point. You exhaust the parliamentary options.”
Greening: “What I’m saying is first of all, I feel Chequers is the worst of all worlds, I think that’s self-evident.”
ConHome: “Lots of Remainers think that, yes.”
Greening: “Look, I’m a pragmatist on Brexit, to be clear. I didn’t come into politics to debate Brexit ceaselessly. I came into politics to do other things.
“What really concerned me about the Chequers deal when I went through the detail of the White Paper was as a former minister, I couldn’t actually see it working. I was concerned about the fact you would not be able to keep a common rulebook updated and at times Parliament was most fragile, for example in a minority government, that political instability would transmit through to the economy.
“But perhaps most fundamental for me was listening to my own community and how unhappy Leavers were.”
ConHome: “What was the vote in Putney?”
Greening: “It was 30 per cent Leave and 70 per cent Remain. But 30 per cent, that’s a lot of people who feel that this isn’t delivering the Brexit they voted for.
“As for my Remainers, I think that they just thought they’d lost track of what this was all about. So if you were doing a version of Brexit that the people who wanted it didn’t want, then they were all saying we can’t really see what the point of this is any more. But the most vociferous people in my community were the Leavers, and I don’t think they should be ignored.”
ConHome: “Sorry, they actually want another referendum, these Leavers? That’s very odd, because many people just suspect the second referendum is a device to reverse the first referendum.”
Greening: “I think what they were articulating, and I was articulating on their behalf, is that Chequers was not a deal that delivered on the vote. Simple as that. And again, I’m a practical person.”
ConHome: “But that’s a practical problem that should be sorted out by the Government and Parliament. And if Parliament can’t sort it out, we should elect another Parliament. The traditional solution would be to have a general election.”
Greening: “And of course this is not a traditional political problem. Because it’s not a party political question. The problem is this is above party politics, it cuts across party politics, and therefore if Parliament is in a gridlock, which it is, then the only way to unblock it is to allow people to unblock it through voting.
“But a party-political vote doesn’t match the question. And the reason we’re in this predicament is that Brexit doesn’t work on party lines. It has been like putting diesel petrol in an unleaded car of Parliament. It’s like going to a Chinese takeaway and wanting pizza.”
ConHome: “We got into the Common Market in 1971 because a large number of Labour MPs voted with Edward Heath. Couldn’t something like that happen at the end of a parliamentary process?”
Greening: “Well first of all, there’s no evidence the Government is planning a free vote, for us all either genuinely to represent our constituencies or our consciences or whatever. But secondly Prime Ministers on these questions I think have understood that they cut across party politics and therefore have to be fought out in a different arena. It’s precisely why Harold Wilson had the 1975 referendum.”
ConHome: “Well he had that to keep the Labour Party together.”
Greening: “Well precisely my point! To try to sort out these issues within conventional party lines is very hard for the parties.”
ConHome: “There was a terrible atmosphere during the 2016 referendum and a really low standard of debate as well. I was slightly on the fence because I could see strong arguments both ways. I eventually voted Remain because my wife said she’d divorce me if I didn’t.”
Greening: “A very practical approach to voting.”
ConHome: “Exactly. But do we want to go through all that again, with neither side listening to the other’s arguments? It was very divisive.”
Greening: “If I felt that Parliament wasn’t gridlocked, it would be a different position.”
ConHome: “The very fact that you want three questions on the ballot paper is a symptom of how complicated it is, and just because it’s complicated, you can’t really expect voters to spend all their time mastering the details of it. That’s one reason why we have a representative democracy. You should go through the process until you find whether it is gridlocked.”
Greening: “My judgment is that all those votes will result in a vote against whatever route forward is being presented to Parliament, and yet Britain does need to go somewhere.”
ConHome: “So it’s like reform of the House of Lords. There won’t be a majority for any of the options.”
Greening: “Correct. I think we should take the responsibility for preparing for what happens in that eventuality.”
ConHome: “So when would the referendum happen?”
Greening: “Well that of course has to be resolved in Parliament. What I do think the British need is for Parliament to grasp the nettle and start planning instead of just putting its head in the sand and hoping everything’s going to be OK.”
ConHome: “How much support are you getting among Conservatives for this view?”
Greening: “I think there’s a lot of support behind the scenes actually. I can’t believe that anyone would think that having a general election to solve something that cuts across party politics, especially given the last election we had, would be in any way a sensible response.”
ConHome: “Your majority fell from 10,180 in 2015 to only 1,554 in 2017.”
Greening [consulting a framed and signed testimonial presented to her by her local activists in 2015, congratulating her on her third election victory and thanking her for “ten years of dedicated service to the communities of Putney, Roehampton and Southfields”}: “Back in 2015 I had the biggest majority since 1935 and I had the biggest vote share since 1955.
“Putney’s always been a very swing seat, because actually it’s very mixed. At the same time, it’s very, very young, and therefore for me it always feels as if you’re fighting the election after the one everyone else is currently fighting.
“I’ve got to be almost talking to people who represent our future early. You win in politics by taking people’s priorities and making them your own, and delivering on them. That’s always been my formula.”
ConHome: “Do you think Theresa May will still be Prime Minister in a year’s time?”
Greening: “Politics is so uncertain at the moment, it’s impossible to know what will be the situation in a year’s time or who any of the players will be.
“There’s a real frustration among many young people that I represent that they don’t really have a stake in this country like they want. They don’t really have the chance to make the most of themselves like generations before, and that is something they want resolved quickly.
“They feel that’s the urgent issue for government. We have to once again be seen to be the party of effort and reward. We need to be seen to be a party that stands for equality of opportunity and lifting people, which was what I felt Margaret Thatcher was talking about in the 1980s.
“And I sort of feel at the moment if you asked people they wouldn’t talk about that. Yet for me that’s at the core of what we stand for. How can we lift up people so they’re not left behind?
“How can we enable every single person to be the best version of themselves? For me, social mobility has never just been about very gifted people being able to get to the top, even though they started off right at the bottom. It’s about everyone being able to do better for themselves on their own terms.
“More opportunity for more young people is good for all of us. I don’t think people should have to accept second best. For me that’s why I’m a Conservative.”
ConHome: “Do you have policies that can dramatise this? Because obviously the sale of council houses did that after 1979.”
Greening: “Well I will be setting out some initial thinking at conference in my speech on Sunday afternoon, but I think there needs to be reform across the whole of government, starting with Treasury. I think you need to properly start valuing investment in people and how that has a long-term return.
“In the Department of Education we were starting to value up investment. It’s easy enough to do. It’s what I spent many, many years in business doing. Otherwise there’ll always be a road that competes.
“We do have to get on with a domestic agenda that will make a difference. Lack of opportunity for people and the inequality of opportunity is like this structural deficit in the economy, it’s something quite structural in terms of how Britain runs.
“At the Department of Education we had launched our social mobility action plan, which was about really starting in the early years of a child’s life to make sure the gaps don’t even open up. But what I’m doing on the Social Mobility Pledge is working with companies to make sure that talent can get really used by businesses.
“Talent is spread evenly round our country. The problem Britain faces is that opportunity isn’t. Labour constantly says that business is a problem, whereas for me as a Conservative business is the solution to how you fix opportunity, and the more I can get business mobilised to start working with schools or careers and mentoring to open up their doors for work experience and apprenticeships, and to make sure that their recruitment practices really are fair, then the more that investment in education really can find its way through to the economy.
“That’s better for everybody, and equality of opportunity means that people feel they’ve really got a fair shot at getting the career they want, it’s not just who you know. There’s some really shocking stats around about the percentage of people who still think it’s who you know, not what you know that matters – that there’s a class ceiling. I think we’re better placed to fix it than Labour.”