David Lidington is the most powerful minister you’ve never heard of. He is Theresa May’s de facto deputy, tasked with both supervising the domestic agenda and solving the trickiest Brexit conundrums. Much of government business is, nowadays, done through committees of cabinet members: he chairs seven such committees and sits on another 20. ‘I am the man who stands on the stage spinning plates on the top of poles,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Every now and then the PM gives me another plate and I have to keep that going as well.’ That’s hardly a metaphor that inspires much confidence in the running of the government, but everybody will know what he means.
Lidington was Europe minister under David Cameron and a committed Remainer in the referendum. Now he has been tasked with preparing for a no-deal Brexit, the Prime Minister’s new Plan B. The meetings he chairs, he says, underline why there need not be chaos on the UK side of the border. ‘We would wave it through in the same way as now,’ he says. Hauliers would not be asked to pay tariffs en route. ‘We would take the revenue risk, rather than stop trucks at the border.’ If there are tariffs to be paid, they’ll be billed later. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, he suspects, would do likewise. ‘I don’t think the French really want to see the A16 from Calais nose-to-tail with stranded trucks.’
Nonetheless, Lidington adds: ‘There’s no getting away from the fact that if we were to get to a crash at the end of March there would be some dislocation to trade and to normal life.’
Throughout the referendum campaign, he said leaving the European Union was an awful idea that would make Britain poorer and less safe. Does he feel any sense of personal vindication when he sits in these no-deal meetings? He throws his head back in laughter before saying: ‘I don’t resile from anything I said in the referendum campaign.’ That will be a ‘yes,’ then.
If he has given up on May’s chances of getting her Brexit deal agreed — as many of his cabinet colleagues have done — then he does a brilliant job of hiding it. Chequers, he says, was not rejected at the Salzburg summit last week. ‘Indeed, the language that Donald Tusk used was pretty high-level and lacked detail.’ Didn’t Tusk say, rather bluntly, that the Chequers plan ‘will not work’? That the EU will not separate freedom of movement of goods from that of people? ‘No, I don’t think that was said with clarity,’ he insists, almost plausibly. ‘Neither Tusk nor Barnier have spelled out in detail exactly what it is that they don’t like.’ This is the British strategy: to offer Chequers, then keep offering it.
We speak the day after John McDonnell delivered his speech to the Labour party conference promising all kinds of radical socialism. The polls show a striking level of public approval for his schemes. The Labour plans, says Lidington, are terrifying: some ‘straight out of the Chávez or Maduro playbook’ for Venezuela. But aren’t some of Corbyn’s ideas also straight out of the 2017 Tory manifesto? Take, for example, obliging companies to put ‘workers’ on their boards: wasn’t this a Theresa May idea before it was a Jeremy Corbyn one? ‘There is a profound philosophical difference between the two,’ he protests. ‘Corbyn is about 1970s Bennite control. What we floated — and we’ve not brought in any legislation on this — is more consultation with employees of a company. We are looking for ways in which to encourage the sort of partnership schemes that work for John Lewis.’
Lidington is, by now, adept at echoing the voice of the woman he calls ‘the boss’ — so much so that it’s hard to work out if, in private, he worries about the party’s ability to renew under her leadership. His predecessor, Damian Green, was a genuine May admirer and would say, when asked, that he wanted her to lead the party into the next election. Does he say the same?
‘She said to the party that she will remain leader for as long as they want her to and I think at the moment people are absolutely backing her.’ But does he, personally, want her to stay? ‘She will decide, in due course, what she wants to do. But now, she is focusing on the task in hand.’ For a two-times University Challenge winner who can answer any question in complete paragraphs, his replies seem oddly ambiguous.
He is more certain about her chances of agreeing a Brexit deal. There is simply too much at stake for the EU to pass up the chance of a deal with Britain, he says. ‘You have the United States questioning its 60-year commitment to European security,’ he says, as well as a revanchist Russia and a surge in global migration.
But Lidington does not expect a Brexit triumph. The deal ‘won’t give everybody on any side of the European debate in the UK what they want’. Interestingly, he sees some similarity between the Chequers plan and President’s Macron vision of Europe — one of concentric circles, with the eurozone in the middle, then other full EU members, and then Britain. Macron, he says, ‘talked about a Europe of circles — if you draw a Venn diagram, there’s surely overlap between that and the traditional UK idea of variable geometry and a flexible Europe’.
Lidington might have one of the most demanding jobs in government, but he tries not to let it keep him up at night. He says that Douglas Hurd, his first boss in politics, advised him to always read something non-political before going to sleep. He’s currently reading the ‘zen-Calvinist’ Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig. Given how much he is trying to juggle, that seems a good choice.