Brexit reflections from Stewart Jackson

Brexit reflections from Stewart Jackson

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 former Conservative MP Stewart Jackson, who served as David Davis’s Chief of Staff while he was Brexit Secretary.

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.

I have been a committed Eurosceptic for many years and at least since the ERM debacle in 1992. It hasn’t always been easy. I was gently leant on when I stood in the 1997 and 2001 general elections and pledged in my own election address to never support the European Single Currency and was told that this was not a great career move – but my views have been consistent and my principles were always more important than climbing the greasy pole. That’s why I quit as a PPS to Owen Paterson in 2011 to vote for the EU referendum.

In retrospect, a cataclysmic denouement in the Conservative Party over our relationship with what became the European Union was perhaps inevitable. David Cameron started well with his decision to leave the European People’s Party in 2009, but it became apparent quite quickly after the Coalition took office that he as Prime Minister was never prepared to expend serious political capital on really trying to reform the EU from inside and the Europhile Establishment in the Foreign Office and Treasury certainly wasn’t. The 2016 “renegotiation” was in truth a charade which was predicated on Remain winning the ensuing referendum reasonably comfortably.

The EU’s intransigence was clearly a major factor in delivering the Leave vote in June 2016, but fundamentally the neoliberal, globalist geopolitical settlement at the heart of the EU and favoured by Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron had failed and people wanted something more radically different. I saw this in my own constituency in Peterborough with the impact of unrestricted EU migration. I tried to address the issue in my 2012 Ten-Minute Rule Bill, the EU Free Movement Directive (Disapplication) Bill. I felt like a voice in the wilderness. I met Theresa May, then Home Secretary, to discuss the bill but she showed little interest and predictably there was no substantive government response. It was that which persuaded me that only a break from the EU and Brexit would deliver real control and independent parliamentary sovereignty as a nation state – something unexceptional in scores of countries across the world.

Personally, I’ve always tried to understand and respect the views of other member states in the EU, not least as I travelled with David Davis as his Chief of Staff at DEXEU in 2017-18 during the early part of the Article 50 negotiations. The project is noble and often an emotional one – and for the Germans a redemptive one – in a continent which has suffered war and tyranny over the last two hundred years: it’s better to trade with our neighbours than kill them in battle! And if you have suffered the tyranny of despots and dictators, as they have in Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal, why would you not trust a supranational entity to protect your future prosperity, civil and human rights and those of your children?

The UK has never experienced that same trauma and the drive to greater centralisation and integration means that we have chosen to take a different path. We should still wish our friends and neighbours in Europe a safe and happy journey. We’re leaving a political project, not a continent, after all. For me, it’s always been about self-government and restoring our role as an open, global trading nation, nothing to do with ludicrous accusations of xenophobia, illiberalism or imperial nostalgia – or the Remainers’ obsession with the colour of passports… 

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

Canvassing for Vote Leave on the Dogsthorpe estate in Peterborough and knocking on the door of a family where the father said: “None of us have voted for 25 years. You’re all liars and cheats. But we’re voting Leave because this time, we think our vote is actually going to count for something.” On the night of the referendum, in the drizzle outside a polling station, a man came up to me and his voice almost breaking said: “We’re not going to bottle it, are we Mr Jackson?” There was so much hope and concern in that simple question and I knew exactly what he meant. It has to be said too that I got my first ever dog bite which needed two stitches at Peterborough City hospital on referendum day!

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?

I spoke at a rally at the Kingsgate Community Centre in Peterborough in front of about 800 supporters a week before polling day with Nigel Farage, Brendan Chilton of Labour Leave and my friend Patrick O’Flynn, then an MEP. The atmosphere was electric and I knew victory was in our grasp. I got a great cheer describing arch-Remoaner Bob Geldof as a “superannuated soap dodger”. Although I was part of Parliamentary Vote Leave, it was the rallies and street stalls and public debates in April, May and June 2016 that set the whole contest alight and captured the spirit of rebellion and democratic renewal at the heart of our campaign. Later that night, I stumbled across a very merry Nigel Farage at a Greek restaurant with his entourage, celebrating someone’s 50th birthday in traditional uproarious Faragiste style.

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

I was as at my local authority count, immortalised in the iconic Daily Mail front page of Saturday 25th June. It was by pure chance the Mail used this picture from Peterborough, but it summed up the diversity of people who had backed our cause – young women, older men, Muslims, black people, gay people… It was a reproach to those who characterised the struggle for Brexit and independence as a project by “Little Englanders”, “racists” or “gammons”. Naturally, I was euphoric. Little did I know that, by a strange route, it would cost me my Commons seat less than twelve months later but at the time, I was pretty emotional and felt that a titanic battle had been won and a new chapter was beginning for our country.

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

I have to admit that I never imagined that Parliament and the Establishment and much of the media would try as hard as they did to thwart Brexit, delegitimise the result and those people who in good faith backed Leave; and I never understood how emotionally attached to the EU in almost a quasi-religious way, so many smart and sensible people actually were. It felt like Stockholm Syndrome writ large. I did fear at one point that the Conservative Party might split because so many of the people who had run the party since the 1960s right through to today had accepted EU membership as gospel and were unused to having their cultural assumptions and worldview challenged.

I used my knowledge as a former Whip of the parliamentary party to help build the database for the Back Boris campaign which was pivotal in getting Boris Johnson through the Commons’ leadership votes but at the time, it felt a very lonely and forlorn exercise, given the received wisdom then that he had no chance of success. What a difference a year makes and frankly, without Boris Johnson and indeed David Davis, we wouldn’t have got here.

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

I was very close to the action on Article 50 both as David Davis’s PPS in 2016-17 and as his Chief of Staff and Special Advisor in DExEU in 2017-18. There were two “low” moments when I thought a meaningful Brexit was in serious jeopardy: the Chequers Cabinet meeting in July 2018 when the extent of the “shadow operation” involving the Treasury, Cabinet Office and BEIS, to engineer a so-called “soft Brexit” – which precipitated David Davis’s and Boris Johnson’s resignations – was apparent and it was clear that Brexiteers in Cabinet had been sidelined and frankly misled by 10 Downing Street. I felt badly let down by the then Prime Minister for whom I had worked loyally up to that point. Perhaps I was naive? I certainly felt pretty jaundiced by the subterfuge.

The second “pinch point” was the outrageous judicial activism of the Supreme Court in striking down the Government’s decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks in September 2019. Hindsight is great but it felt at the time like a massive hammer blow and also like a concerted strategy by the EU and their UK confederates to “play for time” until a second referendum – with a “nobbled” electorate and ballot paper question – could be organised in order to facilitate a vote to Remain. Thank heavens it never happened.

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?

Brexit – phase one – will end on 31st January 2020 (my birthday as it happens!) and it will be a moment of epoch-making significance, there’s no doubt, but the process will still be an integral part of government activity for many years to come and the trade negotiations, trade treaties, stakeholder engagement and bilateral agreements will continue to take a lot of political bandwidth both in Parliament and Whitehall and the regions and nations of the UK. The last three years have been painful and frustrating and have tested the efficacy and durability of our Constitution to its very limits.

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?

I see Brexit very positively as a chance for a real One Nation strategy from the Boris Johnson administration to take root and for the promises made by Theresa May, in Nick Timothy’s words, in July 2016 on the steps of Downing Street to come to fruition under her successor – rebalancing our economy outside of London and the South East, refocusing on regional governance, new infrastructure, civic pride, a leaner and more self-confident Parliament and civil service, better technical and vocational education and the UK becoming a true global trader, a competitive and high-wage and highly-skilled nation which consolidates our reputation for soft power and influence across the planet.

Brexit has shaken up politics permanently but we will only know by how much in (say) ten or more years’ time. In the interim, it may have caused the total eclipse of the Labour Party as an electoral force and perhaps the Liberal Democrats too. I described the Brexit process in my Telegraph column as like witnessing the detritus on the harbour floor when the tide goes out and the process since 2016 has certainly exposed the deficiencies and collective herd mentality of so many institutions – from big business, Whitehall mandarins, the judiciary, Parliament and the Speaker and higher education, to name but a few. Constitutional reform must be on the agenda in the not too distant future.

Our party now has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset politics and government “for the many and not the few” and we mustn’t squander the chance. I believe time will ameliorate the bitterness and rancour that we have seen since 2015 and most fair-minded people – however they voted in 2016 – will just want to make the very best of the new dispensation and opportunities that beckon in the next ten or more years.

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

I will be partying into the early hours of 1st February 2020, welcoming in a new era and counting myself fortunate to have lived through and been part of such a massive historic event and such interesting times – and that the faith and trust in democracy that British people have always had was reconfirmed at the General Election. I am hugely optimistic about our country’s destiny and future prospects.

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.

It’s that photo from the Peterborough count as featured on front page of the Daily Mail on 25th June 2016 as discussed above.