By Campaign Agent Matthew Waterfield
Crispin Blunt is the Conservative MP for the constituency of Reigate in Surrey, a position he has held since he first entered the House of Commons in 1997. A former British Army officer and Durham University graduate, Blunt has enjoyed a series of prominent positions in both opposition and government, including his appointment as a party whip under former Conservative leader Michael Howard and his chairing of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee from 2015 to 2017. Our campaign agent, Matthew Waterfield, interviews him below.
MW: The first question I wanted to ask you is regarding your career before Parliament in the army in the 1980s - did serving in the forces influence your decision to come into politics and if not what other factors were involved in it?
CB: My life plan aged 18 included politics, and in effect I both wanted to be a soldier and in politics. I saw a route by which I could join the army and then in effect postpone the decision about politics until I’d served until at least 1989 and by which stage in 1987, I probably then came to a conclusion that I would then attempt to get into politics. My first efforts were to see whether I was good enough to compete against other people seeking nomination to be Conservative candidates in parliamentary seats.
MW: Okay. You stood in West Bromwich East in 1992?
CB: Yes. I then quietly, without the army knowing, applied to be an approved Conservative candidate on the central Conservative candidates list and sat the Parliamentary Assessment Board and passed that in 1988. That satisfied myself that I at least met the first criteria and that I would have at least a chance of getting selected somewhere. Then, I quietly sought selection and when I had got somewhere in that process with the second seat I was interviewed in and indeed got to the final three, on the day of the final I told my commanding officer I was going to resign my commission.
MW: The 1992 election wasn’t one the Conservatives expected to win, and you were fighting what was quite a solid Labour seat back then...
CB: Well it wasn’t that solid actually, it was down as a target red seat in our definition. The majority was 983, from memory, in 1987. So it was a marginal and there were 4 seats in the Borough of Sandwell, of which West Bromwich East was the one that was the least safe for Labour and in 1983, during the election campaign, it looked like the Conservatives were going to win that seat during the campaign. Whereupon the local Labour Party threw all their resources at it to try and save it, which they did by 298 votes, from memory, in 1983 and Peter Snape, who was the sitting MP at the time, claimed he’d trebled his majority twice in a row from 298 to 983 and then to 2,800 against me in 1992. Even though with that result in 1992, I did about 1% better than the average Conservative candidate in the West Midlands so there was roughly a 1% smaller swing against me than there was against the average candidate. So my claim is that would’ve been just enough to get me over the finishing line had I fought it in 1987, but I didn’t.
MW: At what age did you first join the Conservative Party?
CB: I joined briefly in my Oxbridge term at school. And then of course I then joined the army two weeks after I left school, at which point I did nothing more about my membership. So I briefly tested the water when I was 18 years old.
MW: One of the things that marks you out among Conservative MPs is that as far as I know you are the only one to oppose Trident.
CB: In the latest vote, I was the only one to vote against the successor program, or the Dreadnought program.
MW: I was reading a PoliticsHome article you wrote a few years ago and you were saying that your opposition to it was mainly on economic grounds. Of course, most left wing opposition to it comes from a moral viewpoint – do you agree with the moral case against Trident or would you be happy to have nuclear weapons as long as they were at a lesser cost to the government?
CB: The latter. So it’s a proper assessment of what’s best for the defence of the United Kingdom. We'd be spending a third of the procurement budget for the next decade on a weapons system that is a pretty doubtful utility and particularly in the long term, putting it in a submarine which you rather hope is going to be invisible in 30 years’ time in the oceans when all the acquisition technology would suggest the opposite and the geometric growth in the ability to identify all the various signals that come from a large metal tube moving through the ocean. So there’s a practical case as to whether once you no longer have a triad - i.e. bombs, sea based missiles and air borne missiles - if you’ve only got one leg of it left and it’s the most expensive leg and you think it’s going to be invulnerable, you might be in for quite a rude surprise when you try to use it. But I’ve written about this so my full position is published on my website, seeing as I was only given 3 or 4 minutes to make the case in the debate on this issue because of the number of people who wanted to speak.
MW: In terms of foreign policy, you’ve sometimes been described as an 'Arabist'. What is it do you think that means that so many Conservative MPs don’t tend towards the same 'Arabist' foreign policy views as you?
CB: Well the strict interpretation of an Arabist would mean that I can speak Arabic, which I can’t – I can barely speak English. Since my first visit to Israel, I’ve had sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and that’s really rather conditioned my view of the issue, that something needs to be done about the historic injustice meted out to the Palestinians. That’s come from academic study I was doing at the time, in studying Government and Politics in the Middle East at Durham University, as well as then a visit there in 1993. So that’s the background to the conditioning of my views on it. Until then, I probably pretty much held a similar view to many people of significant sympathy for the state of Israel, finding itself surrounded by states that have been determined to throttle it from the moment of its birth. One grew up with the background of the Holocaust and all the writings about it which obviously then leads into the formation of the state of Israel so, if you like, the romance and the high moral purpose of the creation of the state of Israel, would then be the traditional background view that people would instinctively have. And, if you’re coming from the United Kingdom, it’s only getting familiar with the actual situation on the ground that gives you at least a more balanced view.
MW: So what was it that you saw when you went to Israel for the first time that so influenced your views on the situation there?
CB: Well I think about four of us, students at Durham at the time, hired a car and we drove round and we went up to the Golan Heights and we went up to the Lebanese border and we drove round and we saw what we saw - the state of the Palestinians, and from that we drew our own conclusions.
MW: You were Prisons Minister for two years - first, what changes were made to the prisons system during your tenure at the Ministry of Justice? Second, today there is a lot of talk about how there is a prisons crisis in the UK – do you believe that the government’s handling of prisons over the last seven years has contributed to this crisis?
CB: Well, it was doing alright until 2012, but there was a very serious and significant change in policy after Ken Clarke and I left the Ministry of Justice. We inherited a position in 2010 where the prison population was heading from 85,000 to 96,000 - from all the predictions we were given - and one of the urgent requirements was to take that pressure off. Some of that was done by the messaging from Ken Clarke when he gave his first major speech on prisons policy in June 2010, remarkably the prison population then stabilised for reasons we didn’t understand. This was because of the sentence inflation that had been built into the criminal justice system through sentencing guidelines and law passed by Parliament, not least the utterly disgraceful 2003 Criminal Justice Act, possibly the worst piece of legislation to ever pass the House of Commons, which introduced this appalling concept of indeterminate sentences for public protection. So rather than having politicians yelling at judges for not making sentences long enough, we were actually inviting them to sentence appropriately and as far as I can tell, they responded accordingly to the general message we put out about prioritising rehabilitation and the effective use of custody rather simply a retributive use of it.
In terms of legislation, the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (the ‘Punishment of Offenders’ bit was inserted by Number 10 I might add – to try and get the messaging right) abolished indeterminate sentences for public protection and changed requirements around bail and remand, which would then further lower the pressure on the prison population.
MW: In parts of government there has been a trend back towards increasing the prison population – the ‘tough on crime’ approach - do you think that since 2012, the government policy towards prisons has worked?
CB: Well plainly not, but the responsibility for this is not only on the Secretary of State from 2012 to 2015, the responsibility sits on the Prison Officers’ Association and the National Offenders Management Service.
In 2012, we were commencing a competition programme for a number of public sector prisons to see if the private sector should have the opportunity to bid to run them and it was inevitable that the private sector were going to win those competitions because of the cost structure associated with the public sector. We had completed one prison until that point, Birmingham Prison, which was a competition process we inherited from the Labour government up until 2010. We completed that competition and the public sector threw the kitchen sink at trying to win that bid and they stripped the proposed establishment of the prison down to the bare bones in order to try and deliver that and they still didn’t win. G4S won that competition with about 150 extra staff in the prison over and above the public sector bid. The deal done with the Secretary of State by the Prison Officers’ Association and the National Offenders Management Service was that if he stopped the competition programme and left all the prisons in the public sector, they would deliver him the savings he was required to deliver to the Chancellor of the Exchequer because the Ministry of Justice was an unprotected department. So, he said ‘well, give me the money, I don’t care’ or words to that effect, as in is eyes he was already achieving quite a lot of privatisation, so he decided that was a compromise worth making.
The result was that prison establishments, over the next two or three years, from 2013 to 2014, were stripped down to the bones and it all then played out in terms of the manning of the prisons – it was entirely predictable.
MW: It’s broadly acknowledged that public awareness of select committees is quite low; a fair proportion of the public don’t really know what their role is. You spent more than two years as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee - what was your role?
CB: Well, I would suggest you go and examine the reports we wrote as a result of the inquiries we had in those two years and you will see some fairly profound pieces of work on the big ticket items, which included a review of our intervention in Libya, which was pretty critical of the government’s handling of it.
Also, we set the terms of the debate about whether or not military action should be extended from Iraq into Syria, in terms of air operations against ISIS, and that vote happened in November/December 2015, following our select committee inquiry that then said that the government had to answer these seven or eight issues that we’d raised. Indeed, uniquely, that report was replied to by the Prime Minister, not by the Foreign Secretary, with a thirty-eight page reply – that’s never happened before with a select committee. On that basis, Parliament, with my support, approved the extension of military action.
We then wrote a report on political Islam, which was a very important piece of work in attempting to set the grounds on which it’s appropriate to engage with people who put Islam at the centre of their politics – religious based politics.
And then there’s a whole raft of other reports on our relations with Russia and Turkey, which were all pretty important in their own right in terms of our bilateral relations with those countries, as well as the human rights issues and other annual work of the committee that comes around in overseeing the management and finances of the department.
MW: I’ve spoken to a fair few Conservative activists about what it was like for them campaigning during the 2017 election and the general consensus is that it was incredibly demoralising. Although you do represent a fairly safe seat, how was it for you as a Conservative MP watching as unpopular policy announcements hurt the party and polls changed dramatically throughout the campaign?
CB: I don’t think we realised that we were ever going to lose our majority, so I think that came as a pretty disagreeable surprise to the Prime Minister on election night. A conventional understanding would mean that the Labour Party electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader had made it unelectable and certainly we went into the campaign with a twenty point lead with the data supporting that analysis. We plainly didn’t spot what was happening on social media in terms of mobilising students to register, and not only did they register in very large numbers but they then voted! These were phenomena that were new.
Of course a vast majority of Labour MPs were campaigning to save their seats saying ‘you can vote for me, we’re not going to win, it’s okay, it’s safe’. Then you obviously have the Conservative manifesto launch, which was not an unqualified success, and all the other events of the campaign that people are familiar with e.g. Jeremy Corbyn deciding with twenty-four hours’ notice to take part in a debate that he was otherwise not going to, quite effectively outmanoeuvring the Prime Minister.
Also, the enthusiasm was there for Jeremy Corbyn. As usual, the Reigate Conservative Association went and helped in other constituencies, so we were helping in Brighton Kemptown and Carshalton & Wallington. Certainly I don’t think any of us saw it coming in Brighton Kemptown but that was partly due to the way we were invited to campaign – we were merely delivering leaflets in safe Conservative areas, making sure we got the Conservative vote out. We weren’t canvassing in the centre of Brighton, which is the more competitive part of that constituency.
MW: When I was speaking to activists they said that one of the things that really stuck out for them was when they were out on the streets at stalls – bearing in mind that these were people in places like Sutton, in Conservative-Lib Dem marginals – they said it was ridiculous that they were being told to say ‘Who do you want as prime minister, Corbyn or May?’, when it was a fight between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. That was one of the major criticisms but the other one, which peculiarly enough hasn’t received much attention, is that fox hunting was a massive issue for a lot of people at the election. As a young person, one of the only issues I saw my non-political friends ever interested in was fox hunting.
CB: It was an act of madness to put a pledge to give government time to a private members’ bill into a manifesto when no one would understand what would happen if government time was given to a private members’ bill. So we realised the salience of an issue that was singularly unwise to do so and didn’t need to. It was always going to be a free vote issue so the fact that it was a pledge in there was an indication of gross overconfidence.
MW: Leading on from that, as you say there was a massive increase in youth turnout and this did mainly benefit the Labour Party. What do you think the Conservative Party can do to get more young supporters?
CB: That is the $64m question and obviously involves a combination. The 18-25 year old region have fallen out of love with us as a consequence of what’s happened in the housing market combined with a change in policy on university tuition funding. Changes can be made to the margins, and housing policy is being changed and will be changed, bit by bit, but it is simply not going to be dramatic – you’ll do it in five years, reversing the massive asset price inflation there has been in properties therefore screening out of reach non-property owners relative to earnings. That gets addressed over the long term, presumably with some market correction, although it’s impossible to predict when that’s going to happen, but also addressing housing supply and what support you give to first time buyers and the rest of it. None of that is wildly sexy in terms of appealing to the youth. We’ve then got to win the argument on sound economics and that again is more challenging because there is no memory amongst people under the age of forty now of what it was like in the 1970s. So I’m talking ancient history when I point out we were the sick man of Europe, that in 1976 we were screaming off to the IMF for a bailout, that the country was effectively ungovernable because the most powerful man in the country was the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
All of this is now an interesting bit of history. The fact is the Labour Party is now led by somebody who is a product of those Labour policies of that period and he hasn’t changed much. The irony is one of his appeals is his consistency and therefore his integrity, that he’s stuck to an unpopular position. He has arrived at a place where there are systemic problems right now concerning young people’s access to the housing market and education and there’s a view that ‘well sod it, the system’s broken, it doesn’t matter if we smash it up a bit further by electing this unlikely prospect to run the country’. So we’ve got to find the answer to that.
I think you’ve also got to stick to the netting – the Conservative Party is about sound administration and sound finance and being trusted to run the country properly in a responsible way. So we should use social media and everything else to get that message out – I really don’t think there’s another choice. I wish there was a stronger focus on freedom and liberty within the message about responsibility so I would personally go back to having the logo of the party as the torch of freedom. One of the issues I’m engaged with is addressing the prohibition of drugs and trying to get us into a grown up place on policy there and having a policy in line with sensible practicality around regulations and licensing around illegal drugs – what are currently illegal drugs – rather than patronisingly telling people what they can and can’t do and then effectively bringing our own legislation into disrepute, as it’s then widely ignored by large sections of the population.
MW: You served as a special adviser to Malcolm Rifkind back in the 1990s when the John Major administration was very weak. A fellow Conservative MP of yours, Gary Streeter, recently said that this period is beginning to feel like that period. Do you think that that is an accurate characterisation?
CB: I suppose what’s in common is that the economy’s doing alright but nobody’s taking any notice, but the challenges are very different. Obviously Europe sits at the heart of some of the parliamentary difficulties but getting the Maastricht Treaty through was probably a cakewalk compared to delivering the whole debate around Brexit. But, if it gets done then you’re not then faced with the issues John Major was i.e. once the Maastricht battle had been completed in 1993, the central economic credibility of the government had been punctured if not destroyed by the forced exit from the ERM in 1992. Moreover, the Conservative Party by that stage had been in office for fifteen years, so by 1994 demand for change was overwhelming and then the Labour Party produced Tony Blair as their leader who was doing everything to enable Labour to be competitive.
MW: There’s been a lot of criticism of Theresa May, similar to John Major, and although there hasn’t been a leadership challenge yet, five years is a long time, especially given continuing divisions over the EU...
CB: The central division on the EU will cease once we’ve left, and even so, 90% of the parliamentary party is behind the Prime Minister over strategy. There is a small group, led by Ken Clarke, who would happily reverse the process if he could, but even he is publicly saying ‘it’s done, we’re leaving’ and it’s now about what the future arrangement is and none of the dozen or so Conservative ‘Awkward Squad’ members over Brexit are yet saying ‘we can stop this’, so they’re not yet in the position of the Lib Dems.
On the assumption it is done, and obviously there was a massive majority to trigger Article 50 following the referendum, we’re on the path to it and it’s very difficult to see how it is unpicked at this stage, given how the numbers sit. The Lib Dem position looks irrelevant, once we’ve left, and whether we’ve had a transition period or not, by the time we get to the next general election in 2022, the political picture is not going to be the same as in 1997.
MW: You mention the Lib Dems, and funnily enough, a month after the election there was all this talk of the ‘Tories in turmoil’, but the Conservatives and Labour are still pretty much on level pegging. Arguably, that’s mainly due to the fact that the Lib Dems are so weak, they can’t attract the Tory Remainer vote. Do you think that if there is the fabled trinity of the Major years, the final thing – a recession – do you think that would be the final nail in the coffin as it were for the Conservatives’ hopes of winning the next election?
CB: You can never predict with a recession because people could turn to the government for fear of something worse, which you could argue happened in 1992. People could think that the situation is far too serious to let Jeremy Corbyn have a go or whether the economy is going like a fair and people think ‘well it’s going alright, it doesn’t matter if we let these lunatics in’. So in that sense there are different opinions about whether it’s good for the Conservatives if it’s rainy or sunny on polling day; people will be able to tell you what the answer is in retrospect, but not in advance.
MW: The main issue, and a serious one, dominating Westminster in the last month or so has been the sexual harassment scandal. What is your view on it? Do you think that changes should be made?
CB: Well, you’ve got an important societal change taking place, where the abuse of power where someone seeks to take advantage within a relationship is now obviously unacceptable. On the back of Harvey Weinstein being exposed, that then opened up the issue and it’s at once given confidence to people to then expose or claim what has happened to them. So you’ve kind of got twenty years, if not longer, of pent up hidden stories and hurt, pouring out.
Of course, if you’re a public figure, you’re horribly exposed to this - you’ve seen from the spreadsheet of MPs, a Conservative researcher’s spreadsheet, stuff that ranged from gossip through to things that were allegedly cruel. You’ve also then got the frankly utterly disgraceful Mail on Sunday story about Chris Pincher, from something that happened nine years before he became a Member of Parliament where a rather humiliatingly amusing pass was made by him – 5 foot 7 – to a 6 foot 8 Olympic oarsman. This was a story that was disgraceful to print. What was the public interest there? There was plainly titillation and interest, which the Mail on Sunday used by printing a photograph of the rower wearing an extremely tight pair of shorts from his Olympic rowing days but exactly what the alleged offence was there, from someone nine years before he became a Member of Parliament, is hard to calculate. That’s an example of where it’s utterly egregious to the process that’s happening now to people like Charlie Elphicke, where his wife spoke quite eloquently in the Sunday Times about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that, when you haven’t got a clue what the complaint’s about.
MW: I also wanted to ask about your views on Donald Trump's presidency. You are an Arabist, you’ve got great sympathy towards Palestinians, and Trump hasn’t always had the best reputation for being sympathetic to the people of the Middle East. What are your views on not only his presidency so far but how America’s relationship with Britain is going to change over the next few years as his presidency runs its course?
CB: Well the thing about this presidency is that it’s a little unpredictable, so it is quite difficult to predict what will happen. Certainly there is greater order now in the administration now that some of his advisers have been shown the door and the military establishment appears to be running his private office, national security operations and the Pentagon, and you have a grown-up as Secretary of State.
MW: Back when the Conservatives had a considerable polling lead, there was a general view that the Conservatives could afford to be more lenient on Trump, they didn’t always have to criticise him because they needed to prioritise that relationship with America...
CB: And there’s an important free trade deal to be secured with the United States after we leave the European Union! The Republicans certainly need to re-establish their free trade credentials, as a party of the centre-right, and what better way to do it then a deal with the good old United Kingdom? We are indeed in the process of establishing political direction to American trade negotiators, not to nail your negotiating partner against the wall and beat them into pulp in a negotiation, exploiting your relative size. So it is now a political priority to get a deal. And that’s one of the reasons why Theresa May’s speech to the Republican caucus in Philadelphia was so warmly received and successful; Congress is critical for this. There is now unusually a political drive to secure a free trade agreement with the US so there’s every possibility that this will turn to the United Kingdom’s advantage.
MW: With the US-UK relationship, when Trump first became President, Theresa May had been critical of him in the past, but arguably had become more lenient recently - possibly as a result of not wanting to jeopardise a trade deal, even if it makes her unpopular in the UK. Now that the polls have narrowed and she can’t afford to irritate the public anymore, do you think there’s going to be a tougher line on Trump when he does things that outrage the British public or do you think she’ll continue to hold her tongue in fear of jeopardising a possible trading relationship?
CB: Well I’m not sure I entirely buy the premise of the question. She’s advancing the British national interest – being gratuitously rude to the head of state of the most powerful nation on Earth is probably not the wisest way of advancing your nation’s interest. We’ve seen since the election the administration settling down and becoming administratively 'house trained', things have improved and are improving significantly. Since the election, they’ve now got things to do and we’ll see where that goes.
MW: You’ve now been an MP for just over 20 years and you represent a seat where, although nothing’s impossible, it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to lose it. Do you have any ideas about what you might want to do after leaving Parliament or at the moment, are you planning on staying in Parliament for the foreseeable future?
CB: My intention is certainly to stand in the next general election, assuming it’s in 2022 and then if there’s a five year Parliament after that, I will have arrived at a normal retirement age. So if there is a ‘life plan’, that is it. But as you say, the world has changed slightly, so you can’t make assumptions about anything anymore. So that would be my internal planning assumption.
MW: This is quite a brief question but I’ve seen other MPs asked this and I think the answers are quite interesting – out of all the current non-Conservative MPs, who do you admire the most?
CB: Oh god. Someone else asked me that and I still can’t produce an answer. Actually I think my answer was that I didn’t want to put a single individual on a pedestal because there is something admirable about nearly everybody who gets elected to the House of Commons. You need to find out what their strengths are and what they can really speak with authority on and then it’s worth listening, given their life experiences, and it can be something that might not be thought of as very important by some people but it’s unusual to find a member of Parliament that doesn’t have some area of expertise that might be unique to them and produces insight. And it depends on how people have chosen to advance or not advance their career, given what they’ve tried to achieve.
MW: So there’s no particular MP?
CB: I’m afraid there isn’t a particular individual, I don’t have an answer on you for that one. It’s interesting though, it’s the second time I’ve been asked that question.
MW: Right now in British politics, there’s a fairly widespread consensus that Theresa May, although she may stay on as Prime Minister for a number of years, will not be fighting the next general election as Prime Minister. At the moment, is there any particular Conservative MP who you think would make a good prime minister to succeed Theresa May?
CB: Well if she gets us through Brexit in good order then the market regarding Theresa May will re-evaluate itself and we will then see whether the admiration for the steel she would’ve shown by having the staying power to get through 2017, which by any standards was not her greatest year, if she then has a successful 2018 and 2019 and she delivers Brexit then people will reassess. So it is too early to write her off in terms of 2022.
MW: I think there is a lot of admiration for her steel and her dedication to the job but just in terms of the election campaign that was just fought, she went from being the party’s main advantage to its main weakness...
CB: Well you’re advancing the case for the prosecution as it were. But, she wasn’t solely responsible for the misjudgements around the campaign – as the leader she must principally take responsibility, but the truth is there were quite a few hands on that particular dagger that we stuck into ourselves.
MW: One final question – you are now an unencumbered backbench MP. What are your aims over the course of this Parliament?
CB: I mean the most important issue for Reigate and Banstead is around planning and the environment. I’ve just been elected as the co-chair of the new all-party group on London’s Green Belt and that’s going to get tucked into the whole planning policy debate and that’s a very important priority. Trains and planes will continue to be an important local concern. More widely, a new area I intend to get into in detail is drug reform policy around challenging the global prohibition of drugs, where the argument is moving globally and it’s a very interesting time to have the freedom as a backbencher to be associated with it and to be the boy who’s going to point out that the Emperor has no clothes in terms of the practical consequences of our drugs policy. Then I’ll continue to work with the APPG on international LGBT rights and I will sustain an interest particularly in the Middle East but in foreign affairs more widely and obviously all that will appear post-Brexit, once we’ve seen what the land looks like, about what Britain’s future role in the world should be and how it should be presented and shaped.
MW: Thank you very much!
Interview conducted on 13/11/17
Image: Overseas Development Institute @ Flickr