Robert Peston: Now it’s time for our big interview and I’m absolutely delighted to be joined by the Home Secretary and leadership frontrunner Theresa May. Very good to see you.
Theresa May: Good to see you Robert.
Peston: Home Secretary, there’s a lot of talk this morning that you’re streets ahead of the other candidates. If, in the course of the early rounds of this election, it was clear that you had the overwhelming support of MPs, and the whips came to you and said ‘Look, what we would like is a coronation – just one name going forward to Tory members rather than a contest of two, what would you tell the whips?
May: That I think there should be a contest. I think it’s important that members have their opportunity to have their say and I think that what people want to hear is what the arguments are, and people putting those arguments together. And this isn’t a new position that I’ve taken. Back in 2005, when there was a move to stop the party membership from having a say in the leadership election, I campaigned to ensure that one member, one vote stayed. I think it’s important.
Peston: So, just to be clear, if grandees, to use a phrase that we don’t often hear these days, but grandees in the party came to you and said, ‘Actually, this perception of divisions at the top of government is damaging the party but also damaging the country,’ you would categorically say ‘No, we can’t have a coronation. There must be a proper contest’?
May: I believe there should be a proper contest. I think there should be a proper contest and that I… obviously I hope I’m one of the candidates that will go forward to the membership. I don’t take anything for granted. I never do in elections, but I think it’s important that the arguments are heard.
Peston: Now, passions are running very high and lots of those who campaigned for Leave – you campaigned for Remain – said it is impossible to really get the party back together again if it is led by somebody who is a Remainer, and you are a Remainer. How do you respond to that criticism?
May: Well, I think what’s important, if we look at what happened just over a week ago, 17 million people voted to Leave, 16 million people voted to Remain, but now we have a decision that we will Leave. I’ve been clear that Brexit means Brexit. What we need to do is to bring those two sides together, bring Leave and Remain together, and bring the country together and move forward. And I think the question is not, ‘What was your view ten days ago? What did you vote ten days ago?’, [but] ‘What are you going to do now? And How are you going to look at the future? And how are you going to take this forward?’
Peston: And so you can be trusted to fulfil the mandate of that referendum to take us out? And how are you going to persuade Tory party members, most of whom we understand voted for Leave, how are you going to persuade party members that you can be truted to fulfil that mandate to take us out?
May: I think for party members and indeed for others, I would say look at my record. I think they can see that I’m somebody who gets on with the job, but I’m also somebody who says it as I see it and actually delivers on what I say. And that’s, I think, important for people. So that’s the first thing, but the second thing is, when people look at this, they’re not just looking at somebody who’s going to negotiate the Brexit. That’s going to be a hugely important part of the task that faces government in the months and years ahead. But actually, we’ve still got all the other jobs of government to do. So, they’re not looking for a Prime Minister who’s just the Brexit Prime Minister, but a Prime Minister that can govern for the whole of the country, and that’s what’s important. We’ve still got a very important agenda, social justice, that I want to see put forward by the Conservative government, building on David Cameron’s legacy. Ensuring that we’re a government for all the people.
Peston: Now, you said you’ve delivered on what you’ve promised, but you are the minister responsible for immigration from outside the EU. You are part of a government that promised to bring immigration down to tens of thousands, but immigration from outside the EU has been… it’s way above that. What has gone wrong, and do you take personal responsibility for that failure?
May: Well, obviously I’ve been working on the immigration issue for six years, and what I know is there’s no single silver bullet, that actually solves the problems and concerns people have on immigration. And we took action on a number of areas, from people coming into the UK from outside the EU and we were getting the numbers down. Then, when our economy started to do better, we saw the numbers going back up, so there’s still a job to be done for people from outside the EU. There’s also of course, the future negotiation in relation to free movement for people coming from inside the EU. I’m very clear that Brexit vote gave us a very clear message from people, that we couldn’t allow freedom of movement to continue as it had done hitherto. We need to bring control in to movement of people coming into the UK from the EU, so we’ve got to move ahead with an immigration… looking across immigration, dealing with both those types of immigration. But still I believe, we should have that goal of bringing immigration down to sustainable levels.
Peston: And it can be done, can it? Without the economy tanking? I mean, if the economy tanks, people won’t come. But without the economy falling into a terrible mess, you think we can get it down to tens of thousands?
May: What we’ve been doing in terms of the different rules and changes we’ve put in place already is saying we want to welcome the brightest and the best to come to the UK. People who want to contribute in the UK, who want to contribute to our economy, and make their life here and contribute to our society. So we’ve been rebalancing the way that we look at immigration, and I think, yes, we can bring immigration levels down to sustainable levels.
Peston: Over what time period?
May: Well, you can’t – what I’ve also discovered over the last six years is that this is somewhere you’re constantly having to work at it, so you can’t just set a time period and we know for example that, if we’re looking ahead over the coming months and years – once we get the issue of the EU negotiation sorted, the right deal for Britain – we may very well see in the run up to that people wanting to come here to the UK before that exit happens. So there are factors that you can’t always predict and what the timing and the numbers of those will be.
Peston: Now there’s a lot of anxiety among migrants who’ve come here from the rest of the EU about whether they’ll be allowed to stay. There’s also quite a lot of anxiety among Brits living in the rest of Europe. What would you say to them?
May: What I’d say is that, at the moment we’re still a member of the EU, and the arrangements still continue, so there is no change to their position currently. But of course, as part of the negotiation, we will need to look at this question of people who are here in the UK from the EU, and I want to be able to ensure that we’re able to not just guarantee a position for those people, but guarantee the position for British citizens who are over in other member states, in other countries in Europe and living there.
Peston: So you would like people both… you’d like Brits abroad and migrants here to stay? Forever basically?
May: Well, nobody necessarily stays anywhere forever. But I think what’s important…
Peston: But at their choice?
May: What’s important is there will be a negotiation here as to how we deal with that issue of people who are already here and who have established a life here and Brits who’ve established a life in other countries within the European Union. And that is, their position at the moment is as it has been. There’s no change at the moment, but of course we have to factor that into the negotiations.
Peston: Now, if you are Prime Minister, when will we be out of the EU?
May: Well, there’ll be a process… I don’t think it’s possible to say there’s an absolute deadline because what’s important is that we do this in the right timescale and that we do it to get the right deal for the UK. So I’ve said that we shouldn’t invoke Article 50 immediately. I think we need to…
Peston: Come on!
May: Well, I’ve said that it shouldn’t be before the end of the year. We need to establish our own negotiating position. Of course, once we hit Article 50, once we invoke that, the process at the EU level starts. They say that that could take up to two years. What’s important for us though, is that we get the right deal, and that’s a deal that is about controlling free movement, but it’s also about ensuring that we’ve got the best deal possible in trade, in goods and services.
Peston: So just to be clear if, say your rival candidates like Andrea Leadsom seem to be implying that we’ve got to trigger Article 50 immediately, you won’t be hurried into this?
May: No. I think we’ve got to be clear about what our negotiating stance is before we trigger that Article 50, because once we trigger it, then all the processes start.
Peston: Now, businesses, economists say that if we don’t get full access to the single market, there will be a long term economic price to pay. In your view, is that economic price worth paying for great ability to control immigration?
May: Well, I think we do need that greater ability to control immigration. But that’s why I say we’ve got to work hard at getting the right deal in terms of trading goods and services…
Peston: But we would be prepared, in a sense, to see the country poorer?
May: Well, you say – no, I don’t it’s about seeing the country poorer, because I think we’ve got now to look, not just focus on what we’re doing in relation to the EU – of course, we’ve actually got to get out there around the rest of the world. We’re going to have to negotiate a whole range of trade deals with the rest of the world, and we need to look at our economy and say ‘Where are the new opportunities? What can we now be doing outside the European Union?’ and making sure that we’re taking those opportunities.
Peston: Now, very briefly because we’ve got to go into the break in a second, what’s the big lesson that you take from the referendum?
May: Well, we take a very clear message from the British people in terms of their vote. I think there [are] some wider issues we need to look at. I’ve already mentioned that I think… for a lot of people who voted Brexit, immigration was an important issue. We must listen to that voice, and act on it. But I also think that we need to look across the country, because I feel that there [are] people in our society who feels the world has moved on and they’ve been left behind. And that’s why I say it’s so important, and a government, if I were Prime Minister, the government that I would be leading, would be very clear that we would be a government for all of the people and all of the country.
Peston: It was pointed out there that many people think that one of the things Gordon Brown did wrong was not to go to the country when he succeeded Tony Blair. You’ve said, on the record, you don’t think there needs to be a general election till 2020. Don’t you think you need to get a mandate earlier than that?
May: No, if we just look at this, the Conservative Party was elected into government with a mandate on the basis of our manifesto only a year ago. A lot’s happened in politics since, but we were elected a year ago, and I think it’s important for us to continue to deliver on the manifesto on which we were elected. There’s another factor for me in terms of a potential general election, an early general election. We got this huge issue of negotiating the Brexit, we’ve got the concerns about stability and the economy and the future of the UK, and I think if we were to have an early general election it would just introduce another destabilising factor. I don’t think that would be good for the economy, and I don’t think it would be good for people and their jobs.
Peston: Now, we’ve had enormous damage to Britain’s reputation, and the German Foreign Minister desrcibes what we’re going through as a ‘full blown crisis’. The Dutch Prime Minister says we’ve collapsed. This is not a good look for Britain. How do we get our reputation for stability back?
May: Well, I think it’s important to have the right leadership in order to be able to show that stability. That’s why I’m standing…
Peston: Was it a colossal mistake to have a referendum?
May: No, if you think about it, we’ve – it’s over 40 years since British people last had their say, and for some time now, the issue of Europe has been one of those things that people have been discussing, arguing about. There’ve been strongly held views on both sides. I think it was right to say, ‘No we need to put this to the British people and give them their say. They’ve given… They’ve told the politicians they want to come out. We will come out, but at the same time we need to make sure we’re maintaining good relations with other countries in Europe., but that we’re looking outside Europe to the rest of the world as well. I think we need to be very clear that we will still be playing a leading role in the other international organisations we’re involved in, organisations like NATO, and we need to be forging those deals, trade deals with other countries around the world. This is not the UK retreating into itself. This is about the UK going centre stage in the world.
Peston: Now, people will want to know more about you as a person since you’re putting yourself up for the big job. You’re a vicar’s daughter. Andrea Leadsom said today that she prays a lot. Do you pray a lot?
May: Well, look, I’m a practising Christian. Coming here has meant that I wasn’t able to go to church this morning, so… but I’m also somebody who thinks that actually when you’re looking at politicians, what you should be doing is looking at what we do and how we deliver for people, rather than, you know, looking at whether…
Peston: But your private life will be pored over. Are you ready for that, because you’re quite a private person?
May: Yes, no, I recognise that there are things that people are going to want to know about me, so people will want to look more at the private life.
Peston: Can I ask one thing, because she said she’d publish her tax return? Will you publish your tax return?
May: Well, look I think it’s important that politicians are actually judged by what they do and how they deliver for people, and I don’t think it’s the case that all Members of Parliament should have their tax returns published.
Peston: But somebody in your position?
May: Yes, if people feel that who is going to be Prime Minister should have to publish their tax return then I will do that because mine’s very simple and straightforward.
Peston: Now, we haven’t got a lot of time, so I’m going to ask you two very quick questions. One is, you say, you’re on the public record as saying you love cooking, so why do you hate Delia and love Ottolenghi? And secondly, I understand that you live quite close to Glen Hoddle and know him quite well, so should he be the new England manager?
May: Ah, now that second question, I’m not… (she laughs) I don’t have the capacity to deal with…
Peston: You don’t regard football as one of your specialist subjects?
May: …I’m afraid that’s above my pay grade to decide who the new England manager should be. But on the first one, it’s… Delia is very precise, and when she did her television programmes, they were always very precise, and I like a bit of… throw a bit here and a bit there, and Ottolenghi is really interesting in the stuff that he does. I have over 100 cookbooks.
Peston: But that’s quite interesting because, if there’s a criticism of you, it is that, in politics, you’re a bit of a control freak, and they worry actually that in practise, the problem with you being Prime Minister is that you won’t react fast enough to events outside, but you’re saying as a cook you take a different approach, do you?
May: Yes, but just look at the control freak issue. Actually, I think it’s important that you are on top of things, you’re on top of your brief, you work hard in your brief. But I think if the view is that somehow that I was a control freak and that people didn’t get on and like my style, we wouldn’t have a majority of ministers who’ve worked with me actually backing me for Prime Minister. And also, I’m somebody who’s – if you look at what I’ve done in policing, I’ve actually given power away from the centre, not just talked about it, I’ve done it. So, Police and Crime Commissioners, they make the decisions about their force budgets and their strategies, and sometimes they find it difficult. I’ve said they can take over Fire and Rescue, and they say to me ‘Yes, but do you want us to?’ It’s your decision. That’s what devolving power is about.
Peston: Theresa May, thank you so much for coming in today, and I’m looking forward to chatting more in the days and weeks ahead.
May: I’m sure we will Robert.