Malcolm Rifkind: Boris is “primarily a journalist” who “gives more attention to the headlines”

The Conservative grandee on how the hard Brexiteers could bring about their own undoing

November 29, 2018
Photo: Laura Lean/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: Laura Lean/PA Archive/PA Images

Britain is on the verge of its biggest constitutional rupture in living memory. The decision to upend 45 years’ of integration with Europe has sent Westminster into meltdown and left politicians and journalists scrambling to work out the consequences. What does Brexit mean for our political system? What is going to happen?

Few are more qualified to answer than Malcolm Rifkind. Now 72, he is one of Britain’s elder statesmen, holding a host of cabinet positions under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, rising to Defence and then Foreign Secretary. He was MP for Edinburgh Pentlands from 1974 to 1997 and Kensington from 2010 to 2015, during which time he also chaired parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Few have been thinking about Britain’s political institutions—and international alliances—for so long.

When we met in Prospect’s Westminster offices we discussed the decision to leave the EU and the political fallout of Theresa May’s teetering Brexit plan. But first, what did he make of the blonde-haired man who helped to swing the vote? Rifkind, in his polite way, was damning.

Boris Johnson is “primarily a journalist,” he told me. He “gives more attention to the headlines.” I shifted slightly in my seat. The MP for Uxbridge is “highly intelligent on the vast majority of issues,” but Jeremy Hunt is a “significant improvement” as Foreign Secretary, Rifkind continued, peering through the glasses on the end of his nose.

“The big mistake was after the referendum. He had to be given a senior job in government, obviously given the prominence in the Brexit campaign. I think in retrospect it would have been better if he’d been put in charge of a domestic department, not because there wouldn’t have been embarrassments—but if there had been, they would have been national embarrassments. The rest of the world wouldn’t have noticed.” He didn’t stop there. Harold MacMillan, he reminded me, said foreign secretaries “are either dull or dangerous, and Boris wasn’t dull.”

Johnson is no longer at the Foreign Office, having walked out over Theresa May’s diluted Brexit approach. He now stirs up trouble from the backbenches, delivering withering assessments of the prime minister’s plans in his Telegraph columns. When the draft withdrawal agreement was presented earlier this month, Johnson was one of its fiercest Tory critics, along with Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The Conservative Party is now hopelessly divided over what to do. Hardline Eurosceptics will vote against the deal in the hope that we crash out, and it is entirely possible they will succeed in killing it off. But have they miscalculated? According to Rifkind, if MPs reject the deal then Brexit could be delayed—even cancelled altogether. The hard Brexiteers are “utterly unrealistic as to what they’re trying to achieve, because if they’re not careful they’re going to win the battle, but they will lose the war.” They have lost sight of the central issue, which “is whether we leave the European Union on 29th March next year.”

If the deal is voted down, "it could even lead to another referendum”
Rifkind—who voted Remain—now thinks Brexit must be implemented. But “If I was Mr Rees-Mogg and Mr Johnson having a private conversation at the moment, I would say we have been right until now to put maximum pressure on the government not to make further concessions. That's been entirely logical and the right thing for us to do.

“Now we have to ask ourselves what will actually happen if the government is defeated. Yes it will feel good. The first 24 hours are a ‘we’ve got rid of this rotten miserable lousy deal.’ But if you’re serious about these issues, you have to say: well what direction does that push us?”

The answer is towards a softer Brexit—not a harder one. “If the government loses control, parliament will take control of that process. And although we can’t be certain what option parliament would ultimately vote for, we can be certain that 500 MPs will not accept no deal.” The outcome could be Brexiteers’ worst nightmare. “It opens up a strong possibility that Brexit is indefinitely delayed and could even lead to another referendum.”

This is an extreme scenario. In Rifkind’s view it is unlikely that Brexit is halted altogether. “The option most likely to fill the gap would be a customs union on a more permanent basis… that is the official Labour Party position. It's a position which probably 200 out of the 330 Conservative MPs could live with.”

He continued: “I support the government’s proposal. If that is undeliverable… then I personally find the customs union the least bad alternative.” In such a scenario the Tory Party would erupt with cries of betrayal. A customs union would prevent our striking independent trade deals—a key Brexit prize. Liam Fox could be out of a job. Tariffs would be aligned with the EU’s and we would not have the freedom to go our own way.

But Rifkind urged perspective: “I am very positively in favour of having the opportunity, if we can, to have free trade agreements with the US and other countries, but if for the time being that would create more problems than it would solve, then we might have to defer that luxury. We do 40 per cent of our trade with the EU, much more than we do with the US.

“And I don't see any reason to believe that the US is going to come up with such a fantastic set of offerings while demanding nothing in return, that we’d say ‘Ah, we don’t need to worry now about losing huge chunks of European trade because guess what? The Americans are going to fill the gap.’ That's not going to happen.”

The immediate question now is whether May’s deal passes on 11th December. “I think she may still pull it off. She’s turned into a much more impressive lady than many people were prepared to give her credit for.”

Whatever happens next month, it seems highly likely that Britain will leave the EU. Will we be diminished on the outside? “I think we are sacrificing one important dimension of our influence by leaving,” Rifkind said. “However, we are not Slovenia. We are not Portugal. Our influence is not just because of our membership of Europe, or even from institutional arrangements with the Security Council, Commonwealth, NATO, our relationship with the United States.

“It also is because the world is actually very short of countries that have a long history of stability combined with liberal values and the rule of law—and we remain one of the largest economies in the world. That’s the primary source of our input.” Whatever happens, he believes, Britain will remain a global player.