Dominic Raab: In politics you never know what’s around the corner
The former justice minister talks about backing the wrong horse for the Tory leadership, his new life on the backbenches and next steps for Brexit.
On 9 May, five Tory Brexiteers sat down for dinner to take stock of the referendum campaign. The dust was settling after regional and local elections, and sights were set squarely on Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
Congregated that early summer evening were then-ministers Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom and Dominic Raab, joined by Boris Johnson, who that week completed his tenure as London mayor.
With polls indicating a narrow Remain victory and the Government machine unabated by purdah, momentum was with the status quo. But two of those present – namely Leadsom and Raab - made what at the time was seemingly a bold prediction, that Brits would back Brexit.
More than a month later on referendum night, Raab was tucked up in bed at 10.30pm. The father of two young children perhaps relished the opportunity for sleep, before awakening at 5am to a text message on his phone from a journalist with one solitary word: “Gobsmacked”.
“So that’s how I found out we voted to leave,” he explains, with the Palace of Westminster overlooking our second floor meeting room in Portcullis House.
“The minute we got the decision we were immediately into the Prime Minister’s resignation… So there was no real pause for breath.”
That is something of an understatement. Three hours after the result was finalised, David Cameron was announcing his intention to stand down as prime minister, triggering a brief but tumultuous Tory leadership contest.
Raab, who initially supported Johnson’s bid for the Tory top job, switched allegiances to Gove. Why did he dump Boris? Raab says he urged Gove to put himself forward from the outset, but the former justice secretary instead informed him of the plan to build a “dream team” around an axis of Johnson as leader.
Speaking some three months later, Raab is keen not to “rake over old coals”. But he says: “Once the team aspect of that… fell away, I felt the case for that model fell away. So it was quite frankly an easy decision. But I of course knew that the odds in the circumstances and particularly the way it was written up were going to make it very difficult.”
He adds: “Equally, that’s all water under the bridge, I can see huge strengths in Theresa May, I’m not going to sit here and flannel you and pretend she was my number one choice, but equally I want to make Theresa May’s premiership work.”
As it was, Gove’s decision to stand at the expense of his fellow Leave campaigner triggered an almighty fall from grace that culminated in him being deposed as justice secretary, along with his allies. Raab, the former justice minister, was one of the 17-person casualties of the PM’s ruthless reshuffle. So was he punished for not supporting the right candidate?
Not quite, suggests Raab. Rather, he reveals that he was offered a ministerial role only to turn it down due to family commitments.
“Theresa May has been absolutely right to pick her team, because she is the one that then is held to account whether or not they deliver,” he says. “I was offered a position, I’d made clear I wanted a role that I could really get my teeth into, I’ve also got a very young family. So I don’t know whether there was a miscommunication, but there was no way I would accept a role which involved such a huge amount of long haul travel.”
So what was the role offered up by the Tory leader? Raab does not want to be drawn on specifics, though the reference to long distance travel narrows down the shortlist somewhat.
“I don’t think I really want to say, because it’s not fair on the people that are doing the jobs. But I was offered a job that involved a huge amount of long haul and I’d made it very clear to the whips… it would be very difficult for me to do that without a promotion in order to make sure we had the arrangements at home,"
The former also minister rejects the idea that there is a collection of disgruntled Tory heavyweights looking to thwart the government’s agenda in frenzied retribution. Though he believes there could be some wasted ability in the Conservative ranks.
“I think there’s a bigger question of whether talent like Michael Gove ought not to be put to the best use. But again, that’s a question for any Prime Minister and I’m not going to start picking governments or teams for prime ministers.”
Raab, the son of a Czech father, was elected to the Commons in 2010 as MP for Esher and Walton. The lawyer joined the Foreign Office in 2000, before working for David Davis and Dominic Grieve between 2006 and 2010. The long-time civil liberties defender has written books and papers on human rights and was appointed justice minister after the 2015 election.
While no longer at the top table of government, his passion for Brexit and issues surrounding social mobility remain well fuelled. There are echoes of this in the 42-year-old’s persona; amiable while serious and motivated - a bundle of Tory energy.
He brandishes his ‘Meritocrat’s manifesto’, produced for the Social Market Foundation in 2014, mid-way through our interview. The paper illuminates his backing for new grammar schools (May has at least one former minister on side with this policy it seems) coupled with concentrating on non-graduate routes into professions, encouraging kids to start-up businesses, among other ideas to improve social mobility.
“Let’s face it, people still think of the Tories more as the party of their heads than their hearts. The social vision is probably still the Achilles heel of the Tory party, notwithstanding the brilliant work on welfare and schools by Gove and IDS did,” he explains, arguing May, given her background, is not as “restricted” by Cameron in putting forward the “meritocratic view of just deserts”.
“If we do that we can forge a really powerful alliance between the working class and middle class, and we will be not only doing the right thing for the country, but be a formidable election machine.”
He is also considering writing a book titled ‘Brexit for Remainers’. Raab believes the government must have two targets on Brexit; delivering the public’s verdict in full, and convincing at least half of the 48% who wanted to stay in the EU of the merits of leaving. “If we do those two things, we would have nailed Brexit,” he says, his smile broadening.
Raab, a member of Brexit group Vote Leave, is no more sanguine than talking about our exit from the EU. He believes the UK can conjure up its own “bespoke” trade deal, not based on existing arrangements, be they the Norway model, WTO or otherwise. A believer in “full fat” Brexit, he wants to see repatriated control over our laws, immigration policy and our money.
He contends the UK will get “pretty close to tariff-free trade, maybe slightly less free access than the current status quo” given our trade deficit with the bloc. However, Raab insists the free movement of people must not be used as leverage in negotiations for retaining single market access, with the focus instead on trade. The European Union would not ask a country to contribute to its budget or bequeath control over immigration to the bloc when striking free trade arrangements, so he can only see it “going one way”, he says.
On the triggering of Brexit, Raab is relaxed. He predicts Article 50 will be initiated by Easter after the Government has informed business of the “contours of the negotiations”, but says he will be serene if it has not been triggered by early summer. The government’s equivocation over what Brexit will entail does not ruffle him, he says, welcoming the obfuscation that protects against apparent U-turns.
Unsurprisingly, while he believes parliament should “definitely scrutinise every comma and every semi-colon in the deal”, he does not think the Commons should have a say in when Brexit is kicked into action. He claims the referendum was not billed as “advisory”, and the British people produced a “decisive verdict”.
“So I think our duty is to deliver and implement it. So parliamentary scrutiny yes, but I don’t think that the Brexit deniers or those who will never reconcile themselves to Brexit should be given some power to either hold up or try and frustrate the Brexit process,” he says, sternly.
Though the Government has shown willing in following through on the referendum result, Theresa May’s administration has indicated a change of tack in the ministry of justice.
As justice minister, Raab oversaw plans to install a British bill of rights – a twice Tory manifesto pledge. The Tory MP believes justice secretary Liz Truss should get going with introducing the legislation, which is “ready to go as a consultation paper with a lot of meat on the bones”, now the referendum is out the way.
“Let’s get cracking with it,” he says. Raab would also like to see Truss make headway with her predecessor’s reform agenda – something she failed to commit to during her first select committee appearance. Is Raab concerned Gove’s plans are being put on ice?
“Every new minister, every new government, has got to chart their own course. Michael Gove didn’t take forward everything that his predecessor did,” he says. But he argues the bill of rights and prison reform, which he brands “absolutely crucial”, have a mandate from the public.
“Again, I want to see and I’m confident Theresa May can be a really strong, reforming Prime Minister. But we’ll have to take on vested interests, we’ll have to make sure that prisons are a place not just for incarceration and public protection, but also because we want to drive down crime and protect the public in places where criminals go in and when they come out they’re not worse. That ought to be the objective whether you’re a social reformer or you take a tough approach to crime.
“So I hope we don’t go slow or give up on that.”
Turning to the future, Raab insists he stands willing to fill a ministerial void should one arise, subject to terms and conditions.
“I stand ready, as I’ve always said, to serve the government. I’ve explained things that I feel I would be able to contribute in doing, and I would never close the door to that. Equally I have no fear from pursuing and pushing the agenda, whether it’s Brexit, whether it’s the meritocratic agenda for Britain, and I look forward to frankly, supporting in either capacity the government delivering both those areas and on the economy.
“So, who knows? I think politics can be so frothy you never know quite what’s round the corner, but I feel very comfortable in my own skin.”