Interview: Nicholas Soames—There’s no such thing as “Project Fear”

Why Boris Johnson has made "a really bad decision"

April 15, 2016
Sir Nicholas Soames MP before the unveiling of a bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. ©Andrew Matthews/PA Archive/Press Association Images
Sir Nicholas Soames MP before the unveiling of a bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. ©Andrew Matthews/PA Archive/Press Association Images
Read more: Twelve things you need to know about Brexit 

“I don’t know which ass—and ass is the most moderate word that I can think of—thought of the name ‘Project Fear’ but there is no such thing… [The term] was probably invented by some little twerp in a think tank.”

In an exclusive interview with Prospect Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP for Mid Sussex, former Defence Secretary under John Major and grandson of Winston Churchill, argued that it is the campaign to leave the European Union (EU) that is too insular, not the campaign to remain in it. When I asked what he thinks the result of the referendum on 23rd June will be, he said, “I hope that ‘Remain’ will carry the day, just on the grounds of common sense.”

He continued: “People from all over the world look to Britain as a leader, and to see Britain opting out of the world—which is effectively what [a ‘Leave’ vote] would be—I think is anathema to everything that we stand for, so I am passionate about it.” Soames, who has been an MP for 33 years, is highly respected among the Conservative Party faithful. His comments come at a time when the party is deeply divided over Europe. Over 130 Conservative MPs have declared that they will vote to leave the EU, in opposition to the Prime Minister, who is campaigning for Britain to stay in. Those in favour of Brexit often accuse the “Remain” campaign of scaremongering, alleging that it whips up hysteria about the economic consequences of leaving the EU.

“This is a campaign in which both sides are trying to persuade people of the importance and validity of their arguments. I believe very strongly that we live in an era of consequences… Tony Blair said it brilliantly once—brilliantly! He said, if I remember it rightly, the thing has been shuffled, ‘the pieces are in flux.’ And the world is in flux—this is an era of great uncertainty. I don’t think it’s ‘Project Fear’ to say there will be consequences for Britain’s place in the world if we leave [the EU].”

Soames describes the “Leave” campaign as “a very cramped campaign, a very negative campaign,” arguing that “a lot of what they say is rubbish,” and also, he added, distinctly un-British. “I think one of the laughable things about poor old Brexit is that they’re so cross—they’re furious with everyone. But this isn’t a cross country; this is a generous and optimistic country. We need to get rid of this lack of self-confidence that [makes us think that] the ‘wily foreigners’ are always stealing a march on us. Be a bit brave. This country has always led from the front and it should continue to do so.”

Soames says that Brexit would endanger our national security. This contrasts with the case made by former Head of MI6 Richard Dearlove in the April issue of Prospect. “I think to leave Europe would be a threat on the one hand to our economic security and on the other our national security,” said Soames.

“Why, when we’re the leading intelligence power in Europe, would we absent ourselves from the table where other European nations discuss how to make improvements in their own security and intelligence arrangements? Our experience is really needed and wanted.”

“Our partners, allies and friends, not only in Nato but also the EU, would be absolutely horrified if we were to leave.”

The government has spent £9m on a postal campaign to make the case for remaining in the EU. What is Soames’s opinion on state intervention of this kind? “[I heard Nigel] Farage blustering away like the little cad he is this morning on the wireless, about how appalling it is that the government should make their views known to the electorate.

“And then listen to him saying that it’s absolutely outrageous if President Barack Obama should intervene. My colleague Liam Fox even had the impertinence to write a letter to the American Ambassador. People need to take a reality check. President Obama is the leader of the greatest nation on earth and our closest ally. It is absurd to think he would come here and not let people know [his view.] That is not in any way to interfere.”

A key figure campaigning for Britain to leave the EU is Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who came out in favour of Brexit in February. It was, Johnson claims, an “agonisingly difficult” choice.

“I think he’s made a really bad decision,” said Soames. “It’s a courageous decision on his part because I know he’s not an outer. He’s told me, often.” Soames continued, “I’m very sorry that we find ourselves in staunch and defiant disagreement. We have a date to dine, and I’m looking forward to it.”

The MP for Mid Sussex summed up his thoughts on the referendum. “Perhaps I would have liked to have been born when England still had an empire, but actually, if you were to wish it on a child to be born, you would wish it on it now. With all the advantages of modern science and opportunity and also the world is much more inter-dependent than it’s ever been. To my mind, in this century, isolationism really is not an option.”