Brexit reflections from Steve Baker

Brexit reflections from Steve Baker

Here is the latest in our series reflecting on the Brexit process with regular BrexitCentral authors and others who have played an important role in our journey out of the European Union. Here are the answers to our questions from Conservative MP Steve Baker, Chairman of the European Research Group and Brexit Minister between 2017 and 2018, having been co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain in the run-up to the referendum.

BC: When did you first come to the view that the UK would be better off out of the EU? Did you ever think that the EU could be reformed from within to make membership tolerable for the UK? Tell us how your views developed over time on the issue.

It was when I read the bureaucratic Constitution for Europe. The process of ramming it through as the Lisbon Treaty against democratic rejection was the final nail in the coffin of the idea that the EU might consider changing direction. I had been pro-EU previously, on liberal internationalist grounds. Then I learned something about it.

BC: What was your most memorable moment during the referendum campaign?

Taking the wheels off George Osborne’s Punishment Budget. Following a tip-off from Vote Leave, I organised numbers of MPs, then went on Today after him to describe it as a campaigning device, not a Budget, and to pledge we would vote it down if it were brought forward, whatever the consequences. The night before, some MPs thought it couldn’t be done in the available time. Others complained later that they weren’t included in the list because I had not reached them. It would be easier today, thanks to WhatsApp broadcast lists.

BC: Who was the most unlikely ally you campaigned with or shared a platform with during the referendum? Did you strike up any unexpected new friendships across traditional political divides?

Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey. I have huge respect and admiration for both of them which will endure.

BC: Where were you on referendum night? How did it feel?

I was at the national count in Manchester. It was overwhelming, but also devastating because Wycombe District voted Remain. I knew it would be a lasting stone in my shoe. It has been.

BC: Did you think then that it would take as long as it has for Brexit to actually happen?

No. I always expected to win but we did so against all the odds – spending half the money of Remain and working against every main party leader and so many institutions – and we had built a campaign from nothing against the clock. While Business for Britain’s Change, or Go provided a blueprint for what to do, we had not had time to work out the schedule for a government to deliver. We were not meant to.

BC: Were there any moments in these last few years since the referendum when you thought the prize could yet be snatched from us?

Too many to list. My “bulldozer” speech was probably the nadir. I have given it to Tim Shipman to put in his next book.

BC: Do you think the British electoral landscape will return to type once Brexit has been delivered? Or will Brexit have caused a lasting change to the political map of Britain?

There are only three really important political ideas: liberalism of the old kind, socialism and conservatism. European Union membership cut across all three differently but they are still there. Once we are out, it will be interesting to see how the campaign to rejoin develops but the Conservative Party will continue to mix old liberals with mere conservatives, the LibDems will continue to be Rawlsian social democrats and the Labour Party will continue to be a disaster.

If the Conservative Party behaves responsibly and innovatively – a very big if – then we ought to be the only serious political choice in the UK for a generation.

BC: What changes do you want/hope to see made now that the UK has taken back control? Can you summarise your vision for Brexit Britain?

We should do the things in the Conservative manifesto, governing from the pro-market centre-right while transforming the institutions of government to fit them for a new age of global commerce and dynamic internationalism as the cost of distance evaporates.

BC: Do you have any special plans for 1st February, our first day outside the EU?

If I can avoid a hangover from the night before and the weather is good, I will go skydiving. Skydiving is always an event.

BC: Do you have a favourite photo of yourself from the Brexit process? If so, please share it and give us the context for it.

I suppose any photo of me at the Despatch Box putting through the EU (Withdrawal) Act will do. It is not something I ever expected to do and we were not expected to succeed in minority. When I was appointed, it was widely anticipated the Government would fall in the attempt.