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LONDON – Theresa May must deliver warring cabinet ministers a “reality check,” or risk taking the blame for a “traumatic” Brexit, leading Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry has told Business Insider.
The former Conservative minister accused government ministers of misleading the public over the harsh economic reality of a “hard Brexit” outside the customs union and the single market and urged the prime minister to limit public expectations about what is possible to achieve.
In a wide-ranging interview with BI, conducted last week, the leading Remain campaigner:
- Accused Conservative ministers of jeopardising Brexit talks. Said that the Conservatives had given the public false expectations of what was possible from Brexit. Warned that the modernisation of the Conservative Party under David Cameron was now being “undone in a matter of weeks and months.” Accused “hard Brexiteer” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn of conning the public by claiming to believe in a soft Brexit.
“I think there’s a frustration in Europe at the attitude that has been struck by the British government, that’s not always been helpful,” Soubry told BI.
“Some of the rhetoric has damaged our cause hugely. Saying ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ and ‘they need us more than we need them’, these things are madnesses. It’s not true. We need a reality check. I’m looking forward to the prime minister’s speech [Friday, September 22] and I hope that it delivers a reality check.”
Soubry’s remarks, come amidst the breakdown of unity in Theresa May’s Cabinet over Brexit, after the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson published a 4,000 word essay setting out his vision for Brexit just days before May plans to set out her own vision.
Johnson’s intervention was followed by a public row with the head of the UK Statistics Authority, over his repeated use of the EU referendum campaign claim that Brexit will provide Britain with an extra £350 million a week to spend on the NHS.
In an interview with Soubry conducted last week, she told BI that the behaviour of leading Leave campaigners in government was damaging Britain’s prospects in negotiations.
“Some in government have overly built up expectations of the British people,” she said.
“They said it would a piece of cake and really easy to deliver more benefits than adverse impacts. This is simply not true and the British people have been conned by Leavers about this. It is not easy and if we leave without a deal it’ll have traumatic impacts on the British economy.”
“We’ve got to be realistic”
- REUTERS/Toby Melville
Soubry, who served as Minister for Small Business under David Cameron, is one of Parliament’s most vocal Remain-supporting MPs. For months she has lambasted May’s government from the back benches, pleading with May, Brexit Secretary Davis Davis and the rest of the Cabinet to steer Britain clear of a hard Brexit.
“Things have now changed,” she declared to the Commons days after her party’s disastrous election result, and now she believes the government is much more willing to engage with the concerns of her and other MPs. “The government is in a much better place now,” she told BI. “The government is listening now.”
However, she is “very worried” about how little time remains for British negotiators to secure an exit deal and avoid the “traumatic” impact of a no-deal scenario, and believes a transition deal keeping Britain both in the single market and customs union – commonly referred to as a “standstill” or “status quo” transition – is the key to securing the time Britain “desperately needs” to avoid disaster.
“Hopefully we’ll have a transition deal that delivers the status quo. You can call it what you want. I’m not interested in names, I am interested in what it delivers,” she said.
“It must deliver the benefits of the single market and the benefits of the customs union. We need certainty. British business has got to know now what to expect,” she insisted, thumping the tabletop with her knuckles.
“We need to stop all this over-puffiness of how wonderful everything is going to be when we leave the EU. Because it’s not. It’s going to be very damaging for huge sectors of British industry. We’ve got to be realistic.
“There isn’t a queue of people waiting to sign free trade deals within a matter of months and indeed this whole deal and all the other things we need to be done in a 10-month window. It’s not going to happen.”
Remain supporters are being “conned” by Corbyn
Soubry also took aim at “closet Brexiteers” Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who she believes ought to share just as much blame as Leavers should Britain suffer as a result of the Brexit vote.
The Tory MP urged voters not to be “conned” by Corbyn as Labour seemingly repositions itself as the party of soft Brexit. In recent weeks Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, Sir Keir Starmer, has said a Labour government would keep Britain in both the single market and customs union during a transitional period, and even consider keeping Britain in both on a permanent basis should that be the only means of retaining their benefits after March 2019.
“Labour is getting its act together,” Soubry said, “but people shouldn’t be conned by Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell.
It is deeply ironic that so many people under the age of 50 who supported Remain have been conned into thinking that Corbyn agrees with them.
“They don’t agree with what they are putting forward. They don’t agree with the single market, they don’t agree with the customs union. They are Brexiteers. They’re hard Brexiteers, just like their political ally Dennis Skinner. You saw Skinner vote in favour of the bill the other night because Skinner is a Brexiteer just like Corbyn and McDonnell.
“They’re old, proper Bennite socialists who have always been cynical about the EU and never supported it,” she added.
“Jeremy is doing this for political expediency and understandably so. It is deeply ironic that so many people under the age of 50 who supported Remain have been conned into thinking that Corbyn agrees with them. He doesn’t agree with them. The proof of that is not just the seven and a half he gave the EU but the fact that if he put half as effort into the Remain campaign as he did the election, we wouldn’t have voted in the way we did.”
Brexit could damage the Tories forever
Was Soubry fearful that a painful Brexit could ruin the Conservative Party image forever? “Of course, because we will take the blame,” she claimed. “The blame should be with all the Leavers and all the closest Leavers like Jeremy Corbyn. But it is my party that will be blamed and that would be most unfair.”
The former Cabinet minister expressed concern that “ten years of hard work” done by former party leader David Cameron and others in modernising the party in order to appeal to younger voters has been “undone in a matter of weeks and months” by the government’s handling of Brexit.
“The work has begun on turning it back to where it should be,” she was keen to stress, but said the cause was not aided by the party’s general election manifesto, which she described as “exceptionally-badly prepared, exceedingly-badly explained and I’m afraid to say delivered as well.”
However, she claimed she is determined to play a key role in diverting both her party and the country from disaster.
Last week Labour MP David Lammy accused Soubry of being “all bark, no action” over her decision to vote for the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, despite the concerns she has with the legislation. The Broxtowe MP laughed this off, insisting the committee stage is where parliamentarians like herself will truly take the government to task.
“I think the really interesting debate will surround Chris Leslie’s clause,” she explained, “which wants the government to be under a duty to seek to retain the benefits of the single market and customs union in a transition period for at least two years.”
“The government must listen to us,” she repeated, and said all eyes will be on Prime Minister May when the party gets together for its annual autumn conference in Manchester next month.
“People are going to be listening. People are waiting to hear what the prime minister and her cabinet have to say. These people are deeply disappointed that we lost our majority.”
Is Soubry looking forward to conference? “I liked conferences before we got into government,” she laughed.
“Before then the people who came along were nice Tory mates. Then suddenly it was full of thrusting young men on their mobile phones strutting around looking terribly important.”