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Coffee House General Election 2017

Theresa May’s Today interview, full transcript

19 April 2017

9:00 AM

19 April 2017

9:00 AM

Nick Robinson: You have often presented yourself – you did when you ran for the leadership and to be Prime Minister – as the daughter of a vicar, committed to public service. ‘I just get on with the job in front of me,’ you said. So do you now regret giving your word and so flagrantly breaking it?

Theresa May: I do get on with the job that is in front of me. When I became Prime Minister last July, I felt that the most important thing was stability for the country. We’d had the referendum, which had come out with a result in terms of voting to leave the European Union that hadn’t been expected. Obviously David Cameron had resigned, I’d taken over as Conservative party leader and Prime Minister and I felt it was important to have a period of stability at that stage. And to ensure that the British people could have confidence that their government was going to deliver on what they voted for, which was leaving the European Union. And so getting through that process through the early work of preparation for – and then triggering Article 50 – was very important. When it came to triggering Article 50, around that time it became clear the extent to which the opposition parties in Westminster were intent on what I would describe as frustrating the Brexit process. Because Brexit isn’t just about the letter that says, ‘we want to leave’. It is about negotiating the deal, it is about getting the right deal from Europe and when we have been told by the Liberal Democrats they want to grind the Government to a standstill, Labour threatening to vote against the deal, the SNP saying they would vote against us legislating to leave the European Union. I felt it was important that the country is united. I think there is a unity of purpose in the country.

NR: You are blaming the opposition for your change of mind. I mean, you’ve changed your mind, you’ve said something and you are now saying exactly the opposite. And let’s be clear, it is only a matter of weeks ago that you said, in Scotland, now is not the time, you said. All our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the European Union. Everything you just described you knew when you said that.

TM: What we are now going to be able to do, I believe, with this election, is actually strengthen our position in terms of our negotiation with the European Union.

NR: Strengthen, why?

TM: I think people have a unity of purpose. The public want us to deliver on leaving the European Union and they want us to build that stronger Britain for the future beyond leaving the European Union. That is what having an election now, it gives us that opportunity for stability and certainty for that longer period.

NR: Let me explore your reasons, if I may. You’ve blamed your opponents just now, you blame them yesterday. Just explain to people, how many times have you been defeated in the House of Commons on Brexit.

TM: We got the Article 50 legislation through.

NR: None. No defeats. 

TM: No defeats in the House of Commons.

NR: A majority of 384, so where are these divisions in Westminster that are doing you so much damage?

TM: Let’s just look at what has happened over the last nine months or so, Nick. When we took Article 50 legislation through, it was very clear, and we were able to say to people that this was delivering on the vote of the British people in the referendum. They wanted us to trigger Article 50, they wanted us to get on with the job of putting Brexit into practice of actually leaving the European Union. But what became clear around that time was, yes people voted in the House of Commons to trigger that process but they were intent on frustrating the necessary things that we have to do afterwards.

NR: It is the duty of the opposition to oppose. We see headlines this morning, let’s look at the Daily Mail: ‘Crush the saboteurs’. Is that how you regard people who simply don’t agree with the direction you are taking the country? 

TM: Absolutely not. Politics and democracy are about, of course, people having different opinions, different views. It is important in Parliament that people are able to challenge what the Government is doing, that there is proper debate and scrutiny about what the Government is doing. And there will be. We will be putting legislation through – a great repeal bill to repeal the European Communities Act that took us into the European Union as it has become. But what is important is that we are able to get through the process of negotiation and, with the deal, actually ensure that we get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom, the best possible deal for people across the whole of the UK. And ensure that we are able to put that into practice.

NR: See, all of this you could have known, and you have known for very many months, indeed since you became Prime Minister. Which leaves people to ask this, doesn’t it, which is: What is it about the recent 20 per cent opinion poll that first attracted you to the idea of a general election?

TM: Look, I have taken this decision, and I took it reluctantly. I thought about it, as I said yesterday before Easter I had the opportunity to really take some time out to think about this, having seen what was happening, having heard the statements being made by opposition parties about what they wanted to do to the Brexit process.

NR: Isn’t the truth that your colleagues said to you: we can’t resist this, Prime Minister, we are going to win, we’re going to win big, we’re going to crush the saboteurs, defeat the Labour party: let’s get on with it.

TM: Look, Nick, every election has a risk, no politician wants to go into an election just for the sake of having an election. I have taken this decision because I genuinely believe it is in the national interest. You describe me earlier as someone who likes to roll up my sleeves and get on with the job. I do. But I also want to take the right decisions and the right decisions for the UK in the long term. And I believe that will strengthen our hand.

NR: Can you just spell that out for us a little bit, because you have said very interestingly. Forgive me, but I’ll just quote something you said in the Sun this morning: Now we will be much freer. Now why will you be freer as a result as a result of having an election two years earlier than the original?

TM: Well there is two things. First of all, if the public. I trust the British public, I am asking them to put their trust in me. And if they do that, and if they give me a mandate for these negotiations, for the plan for Brexit that the government has, the plan for a stronger Britain beyond Brexit that we have, then I think that will strengthen our hand. But also as I pointed out yesterday, if you look at the timetable had the election been in 2020, we would have been coming up to the most crucial part at the end of the negotiations in what would be starting to be the run-up to a general election.

NR: That is the extra two years I was talking about. In other words, you delay the general election which will follow Brexit. It gives you wiggle room, doesn’t it, it gives you what you call freedom. It gives you the chance to compromise.

TM: This negotiation is going to be about getting the best possible deal for the UK. The best possible deal for people in every part of the United Kingdom, because I want us to build that truly stronger, global Britain that can take the opportunities that are offered by Brexit for the future, for better prosperity for all, for ensuring that we are playing a strong role in the world.

NR: It certainly gives her an opportunity, said the Home Secretary yesterday, to arrive at potential compromises within the EU. Buying yourself extra time gives you the capacity to say to your party, doesn’t it, I may have to carry on with a few judgements from the European Court of Justice, we may have to live with freedom of movement for a little bit longer. And don’t worry because we’re not facing the electorate till 2020, so I can do it.

TM: Well, you talk about giving extra time. I have been very clear, which I was in the Article 50 letter, and I remain absolutely of this view that it is possible and we will aim and we should be able to complete the negotiations within the two year time frame which is set within the treaty.

NR: Well complete the negotiations, but that does not necessarily mean, Prime Minister, unless you want to tell us that it does, that in 2019, at the end of that process there will be no more rulings from the hated European Court of Justice, hated by people who want to leave, or indeed, no more freedom of movement, you can’t give us that reassurance, can you?

TM: When people voted to leave the European Union, they did vote to end free movement, as it has been having. I have been very clear, people want control of our borders. They did vote for us to have control of our laws, so that we are not subject to the European Court of Justice.

NR: So let me be clear, in your manifesto, there will be a guarantee that there we will be clear of both those things as soon as Brexit happens, so 2020, you will have absolute clarity?

TM: We will be ensuring that we negotiate the best possible deal with the European Union. A deal that will cover the various issues which people have, that are really concerned about, in terms of ensuring we have control of our borders, control of our laws, control of our money. I also want to see the best possible trade deal with the European Union. I believe that is important for us, I believe that it is important for the remaining 27 countries of the European Union.

NR: So you are calling for a mandate. Now forgive me, you are using phrases like ‘best possible’. Now nobody is not in favour of a best possible deal, everyone is in favour of the best possible deal, of course we are. What people are entitled to say to you, if you are putting yourself before the electorate is, what sort of deal? So will you now spell out your Brexit prospectus? Or are you asking people to vote for a blank cheque?

TM: No, I have already spelled out the Brexit prospectus. I have already spelled out, in the speech I gave in Lancaster House in January of this year, we followed that up with a white paper. That was followed up, of course, by what was put into the letter that I sent to the European Union for triggering Article 50, of the sort of relationship that we want to have with the European Union.

NR: So, no more detail in the manifesto? No fresh prospectus?

TM: Our manifesto will be a manifesto for taking this country forward. It will be a manifesto with our plan for Brexit, but also the plan, sticking to our plan for building a stronger Britain, ensuring that we have a Britain that is working for everyone, ensuring that we can encourage, yes, trade with the European Union, but trade around the rest of the world as well, bringing jobs and prosperity to the UK. And making sure those jobs and prosperity are around the whole of the United Kingdom.

NR: Well you say it’s not a blank cheque, let’s talk about the jobs that immigrants might do. Will you be clear with people that you want an immigration system that delivers roughly the immigration that we have now? 270,000 net migration. 100,000 which was the maximum of your target, tens of thousands. Will you commit, in your manifesto, as to what will come out of those Brexit negotiations?

TM: Nick, I have spent six years as Home Secretary before I became Prime Minister, working on the issue of migration and reducing migration, and, yes, over that time migration had gone up, and come down, and we have seen various changes in it. What people want is for us to have control of our borders and I am very clear that we want migration at sustainable levels, I haven’t changed my view on that. What we will now have, when we leave the European Union, is the ability to have control in relation to people moving to the UK from the European Union.

NR: You seem committed to fighting an election without spelling anything new out at all, nothing new about Brexit, nothing new about immigration, nothing new about trade. That is what people call seeking a blank cheque, just saying to me, ‘Trust me, I’m in control. I’ll get it sorted’.

TM: Well, if I may, with due respect, it is not seeking a blank cheque when I say to people: Look at what we have done already. Look what we have delivered as a Government already. Look at the modern industrial strategy we are working on. Look at the, er, policies that we have and the aims that we have in terms of a good school place for every child. Look at the changes that we are making in terms of technical education for young people.

NR: None of these are Brexit which is why, you say, we are having the election

TM: We are having the election in order to ensure that we strengthen our position for dealing with the EU in the negotiations. But I’ve also been clear, as I said yesterday, and I’m happy to say it again now, that I believe this is the way that we can ensure we get clarity and stability into the future. We get the strong leadership we need for the United Kingdom going beyond Brexit. We’ve got to get the Brexit process right, we want to make a success of it but we also want to ensure that we’ve set out a plan for this country beyond Brexit for a stronger, global Britain.

NR: One last one on Brexit because people will want to know this, it’s the reason you’ve given for the election. I think you’re saying to the electorate, aren’t you: this is it. Give me my mandate and you don’t get another say. You don’t get another election, you don’t get another referendum and indeed I will say, to those the Mail calls the ‘saboteurs’ in Parliament, I will say ‘you may not oppose me on Brexit, because the people will have given me their backing’.

TM: As we go through Parliament with the legislation, there will of course be challenge, there will of course be scrutiny and there will of course be debate. But what the British people want is for the Government to deliver on the vote they gave last year to leave the European Union, and that’s what we’ll do.

NR: Just for clarity if you would, for a Remainer you’re saying ‘that’s it, it’s over. If I’m elected, it’s over’?

TM: I’ve been very clear from last July when I became Prime Minister: there will be no second referendum. The British people voted–

NR: There won’t even be a meaningful parliamentary vote, will there?

TM: There will be a vote. We’ve been very clear, there will be a vote in Parliament on the final deal before that is actually put into place, and I would expect that to be before the European Parliament has voted on it. But I also remain clear that the British people voted last year to leave the European Union and we’ve taken that key step of triggering Article 50. The process is in motion, there can be no turning back but now we have to ensure that we deliver on Brexit, deliver a successful Brexit and deliver for everybody across the United Kingdom.

NR: You feel so strongly about this as you’ve been clear about, decided to change your mind on this. Presumably therefore you’ll take every opportunity you can to debate with your opponents.

TM: I’m constantly debating with my opponents.

NR: On television, like David Cameron did?

TM: We won’t be doing the television debates, because I actually–

NR: So you won’t face Jeremy Corbyn on any stage, at any time?

TM: I actually face Jeremy Corbyn later today in the House of Commons, as I face him most Wednesdays of the year in the House of Commons.

NR: You know what I mean. Why are you running scared of debating your political opponents?

TM: I’m not. Because I believe in campaigns where politicians actually get out and about and meet the voters. It’s what I’ve always believed in and I still do it as Prime Minister. As a constituency MP, I still go out and knock on doors in my constituency. That’s what I believe in doing, and that’s what I’m going to be doing around this campaign.

NR: You see, the reason I asked you at the beginning about that description, ‘vicar’s daughter’, is because it seems to me the pitch you made and have been very successful in making is that you’re straight, that you get on, that you don’t play games, to use your phrase. It seems to me that a lot of people looking today think that is precisely what you’re doing. Tearing up a promise to take a political opportunity to destroy your political opponents.

TM: Well, what I’ve done is come to a decision, which I did come to reluctantly, because you’re right I did say that there shouldn’t be an election before 2020. I came to the decision because when I looked at what was happening, what we needed to do was strengthen our hand with the European Union. What we also needed to do was give this country certainty and clarity beyond Brexit. That is what this early election enables us to do.

NR: And just finally, you once told the country with apparent certainty that we should remain in the EU, that was in our national interest. You now say with equal certainty leave is going to be good for the future. You once said that an early election would be wrong for the country, you now say with apparently equal certainty that it is the right thing for the country to do. Does the vicar’s daughter do doubt?

TM: First of all, on the question of Remain and Leave, yes I did campaign to Remain but I also said that if we left the European Union the sky would not fall in. What I think, the British people voted and it’s up to their government, it’s up to their politicians to say we put out trust in the people, now we will deliver for them. And that’s what we will be doing. When I spoke about Remain and Leave, if you’ll remember, I spoke about people making a balanced judgment about which side of the argument they wanted to come down on –

NR: Having doubts now about this decision forgive me.

TM: Oh sorry, what about the decision to hold an election?

NR: Yeah, in other words… you looked at me a little bit like I was being very personal there, I think because, in part, it is about leadership and you’ve presented yourself in a very particular way and I think there are some people who are cheering you on in Brexit but they’re very worried that this is the sort of political opportunism that they don’t much like.

TM: No, this is… I genuinely came to this decision reluctantly, having looked at the circumstances and having looked ahead at the process of negotiation. I want this country to be able to play the strongest hand possible in these negotiations, to get the best possible deal, because that’s in our long-term interests. That’s what this is about. It’s about asking the people to trust me, to trust us in government, to give us a mandate to go and get that really good deal for the United Kingdom.

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