Steve Baker interview (9/10/2019) – English transcript

UKpoliticsPL: A few days ago you said the House of Commons that ‘we now glimpse a possibility of a tolerable deal”, does it mean that you will back Mr Johnson’s proposal in a vote in the House of Commons?

Steve Baker: I’ve tried to be totally straightforward about this: until we can see the final text of a deal it is not possible to say. That is why I said we can glimpse the possibility of a tolerable deal. I’d like to be able to vote for a good deal. I’d like to be able to vote for a tolerable deal but till I can actually see the text I can’t tell you how I’m going to vote. What Boris has proposed in relation to Northern Ireland is acceptable to me. It’s not my job to be more unionist than the DUP but I’m conscious that there are other problems in the Withdrawal Agreement which I and other colleagues have long, long spoken about.

Obviously with the money, it is a problem that it is as much as 39bn pounds but it’s also a problem that the figure is not actually fixed. It is not connected to the achievement of a trade agreement and it also involves the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. All of those things are problems for us as we leave the EU.

Second thing is Article 4 of the Withdrawal Agreement that preserves the supremacy of the EU law in  the UK. And that of course cuts across straight the purpose of leaving. Thirdly, the Joint Committee, including in particular the written procedure, has some really undesirable consequences for the amendment of the Withdrawal Agreement and how it would apply to the UK. It’s quite extraordinary how easy it would be for two officials to exchange letters and bind the UK.

There’s generally a problem with continuing jurisdiction of the EU Supreme Court. We’re trying to become an independent third country so to continue having any ECJ jurisdiction is a problem. You know the European Union wouldn’t accept the jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court and neither should the UK accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ, so that is also a problem.

The political declaration is just unacceptable leading, as it does, to a high-alignment exit where we are rule-followers and it’s also not at all desirable that article 184 should again give the ECJ rights to rule in the negotiations on that position.

I believe all of that is problems that can be solved and I know that the Prime Minister and his negotiating team are well-aware of the views of my colleagues and mine about those problems. And I believe the EU should engage with all of those issues in a good faith but until the EU is willing to engage seriously on the issue of the Irish border it’s clear we won’t be coming to these other problems.

Just a few months ago you were considering voting for Mrs May’s deal which was much more soft…

SB: I did not vote for it, I concluded that the right thing to do is to vote against it and the reason for voting against it in the end is Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement puts the UK in a far worse position than membership, an intolerable position and would not be politically stable for the UK’s relationship to go on and the only reason I even considered it was in order to get the UK out by the 29th of March and the best argument for voting for this deal was to avoid the chaos which we now came to. But I took the decision then that it was better to risk the chaos we are currently experiencing rather than having the certainty of being tied to those arrangements. Therefore I voted against it.

So Boris Johnsons understands your further concerns…

SB: There are not further concerns, they are concerns that we always had. And Boris is well-aware of them, well remember Boris voted against that agreement twice. So these are not new concerns these are long-standing concerns and we are looking forward to seeing the final text.

You didn’t agree to serve as a member of Boris Johnson’s government, was it because of lack of trust [in him delivering the Brexit you want]?

SB: There is no issue of trust. I completely rely on Boris Johnson to do the right thing.

Raoul Ruparel writes in today’s Politico that instead of opting-in the regulatory alignment, there could be an opt-out mechanism for Northern Ireland.

SB: There is no point in me speculating on ideas and rumours. I’m willing to support the PM’s proposal in relation to the Irish border and I’m looking forward to seeing the text of an agreed deal which I very much hope will deal with some of the other problems in the Withdrawal Agreement. But if I may, just to step back here, I think I can speak for the overwhelming majority of my colleagues, I think really all of them if I say that I‘d like to reach a relationship with the European Union of the character that Donald Tusk offered us in March last year. And that was a Free Trade Agreement, defence and security cooperation, participation in institutions of research and innovation, education and culture and he raised the absurdity of a threat to flights and I would add some other absurdities that we should deal with. That is the relationship that I want. It is consistent with being an independent country, a broad and deep and healthy relationship. The EU has a treaty obligation of being a good neighbour with us and with adjacent countries and that’s how the happy, deep and broad relationship that I want and it’s a grave, grave pity that we’ve ended up distracting / distracted from what could be a happy and productive future together but this endless row within which the European Unions [is], I think breaking the Good Friday Agreement by seeking to obtain Ireland as a kind of enclave of the UK within the EU. This is not acceptable.

So if I understand correctly if Boris Johnson goes for any kind of softer deal with Northern Ireland in EU’s customs union of time-limited NI only backstop you wouldn’t vote for it?

I know all journalists are desperate to get me on the record on what I will or will not vote for. I can only repeat what I said before. I will support what Boris Johnson has currently proposed on the Irish border and I’m looking forward to see what is actually agreed but until there is a legal text I cannot tell you how I’m going to vote. You’re asking me to answer the question when the question is not defined until there is a legal text. There is the possibility of a deal. I’m looking to support a deal. It’s only got to be tolerable at this point but tolerable means that it is a deal capable of delivering a serious exit from the EU into the relationship of the character the EU offered us. That is a reasonable landing ground. There is common ground between me and President Tusk or there was at least about where we should land up but what we can’t do is accept exit in name only, we can’t accept long-term jurisdiction of the European Court over any part of EU law or any part of the United Kingdom.

But if there is no agreement by 19th of October the so-called Benn Act will come into force, but Downing Street insists Britain will leave the EU on 31/10 anyway. How is it possible?

SB: I can think of three ways that it could be possible but I’m not going to speculate on them because in the environment we face where Remain MPs are willing to overthrow very important aspect of our constitution and try to stop brexit there is absolutely no way I’m going to help them by speculating in public on how it could be achieved but I am clear that the only that the PM can both obey the law and deliver exit from the EU is to find the way through that Benn Act but as I say can’t speculate on it.

Yesterday’s Sun reported that Boris Johnson could ask the Queen not to be removed from his office even if he loses a vote of no confidence. I’m struggling to comprehend how this will be possible.

SB: It’s because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. It is an abomination which need to be repealed but it has two mechanisms for getting to the General Election: having two no confidence votes 14 days apart or having a supermajority of 2/3 if the House of Commons vote for a General Election. So the Act does not specify that the Prime Minister must resign and my understanding of the design of that act was that David Cameron and Nick Clegg put it through in order to facilitate a collapse of the coalition we had at that time, a reestablishment of the coalition agreement and for the government to be formed and go on. It is in such circumstances that the government would have lost a confidence vote, rebuilt a coalition agreement and continued so I think this is entirely within the intentions and requirements of the act that if Boris Johnson loses a confidence vote he stays on as Prime Minister until the 2nd confidence vote has been lost at which point we go for the General Election. And I think this is entirely constitutionally proper what is constitutionally improper, however, is that members of parliament who have clearly withdrawn the majority the government needs to govern and yet they will not allow the government to fall and go for a General Election. And that is really unconstitutional. So Boris today can’t govern, can’t get to a GE, faces the Commons that won’t vote for a deal, won’t vote for no deal and this is entirely wrong. MPs are not being responsible if they were responsible they would vote for a General Election.

Daniel Kawczynski, a Conservative MP of Polish origin, said a few times that he asked Polish government to veto the extension if Boris Johnson is forced by parliament to ask for it. Do you think it is a wise way?

SB: I have never asked a [foreign] government to veto our extension, I don’t think it is for  backbencher member to do it, but I don’t wish to be critical of Daniel, he perhaps has a different relationship with the government of Poland and it’s for him to decide. I don’t think it’s for me to do it. What I can say is that it cannot possible be in the interest of the EU Member States for us to continue as a reluctant member. We have voted to leave and leave we must. The only question now is when and how and it can’t possibly be in the interest of member states for us to continue. What is in our interests is to get to that relationship that Donald Tusk offered us on behalf of the EU.

The sessions of the House of Commons have been much more aggressive in recent days, how do you think should be blamed for that?

SB: I’m trying to avoid blame allocation but I think history will show that this situation we are in is the consequence of members of Parlament not respecting the electorate. That respect could take several forms: most recently member of parliament have not kept their promises to respect the referendum result, not kept their manifesto promises to respect the referendum result and also now are rebelling against the law which they themselves passed to take us out of the EU but more than that this political chaos is the culmination of failing to secure the consent of the British people to the institutions which the EU actually has and this is a central point. When I was about 21 there was an enormous row in this country about the Maastricht Treaty which none of us understood. But what we now can see plainly that the Maastricht Treaty established the institutions of the European Union essentially and we should have had an honest referendum then. If we had an honest referendum on the Maastricht Treaty or whether the UK wish to participate in that direction of integration I’m quite confident the UK would have said no and left without this debacle. We also should have had a referendum on the constitution for Europe but you’ll know that the constitution for Europe was rejected in two referenda so they stop holding them and instead run through the Lisbon Treaty forcing the Irish to vote twice and changing the French constitution to avoid a referendum and I’m afraid this is because of that disgraceful record and abuse of voters trust and consent that we are in this debacle and I think every European politician in the UK and elsewhere who did his part in building the EU without the consent of the British people should really share the blame for what has gone on but for the moment what is actually required is to raise above blame allocation to show a bit of state craft and deliver the relationship of the kind Donald Tusk offered us.

You have said that if it comes to General Election before Brexit there should be an electoral pact with the Brexit Party. How would it work in practice? Should the Conservative Party put a no deal in their manifesto?

SB: The first thing I want to say is that whatever happens we must secure the rights and the prosperity of the British people and I mean everyone who lives on these islands including our highly valued Polish community I’m extremely grateful to Polish people in the UK for the contribution that they make and their right to remain is undoubted. So if we get to a General Election my view is that we must leave the EU and our responsibility as practical politicians is to find a way to do that so what we cannot allow is to get ourselves into a position when the Brexit Party runs candidates against Conservatives everywhere, that we split leave vote and end up losing not only the government but also our capacity to exit the EU. I think that leave voters and leave politicians in both the Conservative Party and the Brexit Party have enough pragmatism to find a way through this but I’m not going to specify today what any agreements or arrangements should look like but what I want is to be able to resolve this debacle in the interest of all of Europe and the United Kingdom and that may mean coming to some arrangements which allows us to deliver a leave majority in the House of Commons which is desperately needed by us all.

If there is no deal now on the withdrawal process, do you think there still will be a space to agree a Free Trade Agreement with the EU within a few years?

SB: Yes I do and I say that because one of the major embassies said to me very clearly that – by the way I very much regret that people think that I want a no deal, I want a deal by the character the EU offered us, but the current WA is intolerable – but this major embassy thought I wanted no deal and they said to me: Mr Baker there is no such thing as a no deal, if you leave without an agreement we will need to move very quickly to put arrangements in place and that is precisely my position because the reality today is both sides put in place unilateral and in some cases reciprocal arrangements to ensure the disruption is minimised so for example derivatives trading will continue because there is a lot of money involved, there is  arrangements for hauliers, arrangements for flights and so forth so these things will need to be dealt with very quickly. We can agree a temporary free trade agreement so the trade could continue on the current basis. It would require customs declarations but there would be no tariffs, no quantitative restrictions, all of that can be done and can be done swiftly if there is good will but I’m afraid at the heart of all of this  is a simple question: are all parties on both sides of the channel willing to accept the principle of democracy that the public must get the opportunity to consent or withdraw their consent from political arrangements. Because if everyone accepts democracy then they should accept that we can leave the EU and the EU doesn’t get a veto.

Allow me to go back to a no deal scenario. EU proposed 17 sets of arrangements on hauliers, airports etc., but they are unilateral, there was no talks, no conversation on that with the UK.

SB: Yes, it is absolutely right that the EU has put in place measures to smooth our exit in an event of lack of the withdrawal agreement but yes you are right they have been done unilaterally and that makes good common sense and I’m very pleased to see the EU is willing to act rationally in the event we leave without a withdrawal agreement.

But if they all unilateral the EU can at some point drop them…

SB: Yes, you’re right the EU can act against its own interest if it so wishes. I think this is the heart of the misunderstanding between us all. The UK wishes to be an independent country, outside the European Union and in relations between independent countries I’m afraid countries sometime do things that are counterproductive and damaging and my appeal to the EU would be please do things that are in our mutual interests which you have a treaty obligation to do.

There are already tensions in the Brexit debate and they may get higher if there is no deal, have you thought about the broader geopolitical consequence of more divisions in Europe?

SB: Yes, I always have an eye to broader geopolitical situation and I am grateful you asked me because I have said time and again in my ten years in politics that the whole advanced western world is in a profound crisis of political economy. The global financial crisis is one symptom, Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party is another, the rise of so-called freedom parties, which are far right is another, the League and Five Star in Italy is another. You know this is not normal and it is taking place right across the developed world and I think each responsible person needs to ask why is this happening, why is the ECB about to resume a QE program of 20bn euros a month and yet there is still unemployment in important places, there is a massive human toll and yet the ECB’s best answer is to resume QE. There is obviously a major crisis of political economy evolving but there is a crisis of big government, high taxes, deficit spending and debt and currency debasement because that is what the evidence shows and each of us who is responsible yes must thing about the geopolitics but the geopolitical solution will not be more of the same. It will be to stand by some of the principles which have built up our civilisation together and those principles include: liberty under the rule of law and democracy and that is why we must leave the European Union. And we must ask some responsible people to show some statecraft and recognise that it is in their interest to let us go.

Following the referendum we have seen a rise in application for British Passport among Polish community in the UK which means they could be eligible to vote. What is your message to them, should they vote the Conservative Party?

SB: Of course they should vote and I hope they’ll choose to vote Conservative. Our party is open and liberal and tolerant and welcomes them being here and I hugely, hugely regret that there is ever been anyone placing any of that that in the slightest doubt but only the Conservative Party is capable of governing this country in a way consisted with a sensible free market, pro-welfare policies which will enhance their lives. The Labour Party is led by extremists, now independent former Labour MPs like Ian Austin have set it out. Liberal Democrats can’t form a government and have proven themselves not to respect democracy. I genuinely believe that only the Conservative Party can secure the future of the United Kingdom, including our highly valued Polish community

But you want to change immigration policy… so in the future it could be more difficult to, for example, bring your family from Poland to the UK.

SB: We said people should be able to come and go for vists visa free. I have to say to you that about 17% of my electorate in Wickham are British Asian people and British Asian people often object to be treated categorically differently to people from Europe and it’s not consistent for the UK to go on treating one part of the world much more advantageously than the rest. We’re not going to have a very dramatic change in our immigration arrangement; I don’t see that at all. What I would say it’s in the interest of all the people in the UK that we have a migration system that enjoys democratic consent and one that treats people around the world much more equally because I cannot emphasise too strongly that for many of my British people in Wickham – Pakistan in particularly – is only a few seconds away on Skype and Facetime, it’s only a few hours away by airline. We have to accept that the UK has a truly global place in the world and that means having a migration system which treats the world much more equally. The migration system we have is not very consistent with the population we actually have.  

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