Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says he made it clear to voters during the Brexit campaign that they ran the risk of the UK leaving without a deal.
In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the former Vote Leave campaigner was challenged on whether the result of the 2016 referendum gave ministers a mandate to take Britain out of Europe without a withdrawal agreement.
Boris Johnson’s administration has said it wants to renegotiate the agreement that Theresa May struck with Brussels but failed to get past parliament – but the new government says it is prepared to leave on 31 October, deal or no deal.
Asked about what he said during the referendum campaign, Mr Raab told the BBC:
“We made clear – those on the campaign – that we should strive for a good deal, but if that wasn’t available, that we should go on and make a success of Brexit, and so that was discussed…
“I was questioned on it by the BBC almost every time I appeared and so was Michael Gove… There’s all sorts of interviews which said that of course we’d prefer a deal, but that there would be a risk.”
Challenged on the accuracy of his memory by the interviewer, Mr Raab added: “In fairness, the institutional memory of the BBC is a bit sketchy on this as a whole, so you’re not alone.”
We’ve listened to as many clips as we can find of interviews given by Mr Raab and Mr Gove between February 2016, when the EU referendum campaign unofficially began, and the vote on 23 June 2016.
We can’t find an interview where Mr Raab warned explicitly about the possibility of a no-deal Brexit during the referendum campaign.
The closest thing we can find are two references to the possibility of the EU refusing to agree trading terms with Britain out of spite – but in both cases Mr Raab was at pains to point out that he did not think this was a realistic outcome of negotiations.
In an article for the Daily Telegraph published on 23 February 2016, Mr Raab wrote: “The Remain campaign assert the EU would cut off its nose to spite its face, vindictively defying its own interests by shutting Britain out of its markets altogether.
“That’s not remotely credible. And, if it were, fear of their spite is hardly a compelling reason to stay in the EU.”
In a similar vein, appearing on the BBC’s Daily Politics show alongside the then-Labour MP Chuka Umunna on 19 April 2016, Mr Raab said:
“There is a strong mutual interest. The only reason that we would be in trouble outside is if the EU is going to behave in an utterly vindictive, spiteful way that ran against its own interest. And I would say this: Chuka, is that the kind of club we really want to be a part of?”
In most of the interviews he gave during the referendum campaign, Mr Raab repeated the idea that the EU would allow Britain to trade with the bloc on favourable terms because it would be in Europe’s economic interests.
In an BBC interview in April 2016, he said: “I think we would not see any trade barriers go up because we’re the fifth biggest economy in the world…
“Look at the options being put out there – Swiss, Norwegian, Turkish,” he said “…We’re very well placed and mutual self-interest suggests we’d cut a very good deal. And it’s certainly not in the Europeans’ interest to erect trade barriers.”
On several occasions, Dominic Raab specifically shot down suggestions that Europe might introduce tariffs or other barriers to free trade – which will happen under a no-deal scenario.
Appearing on Question Time on 03 March 2016, Mr Raab told the audience: “We heard this week the suggestion that we’d be locked out of trade. Actually, if you look what Britain’s former ambassador to the EU Lord Kerr has said, there’s no doubt we’d keep having a strong trading relationship with the EU if we were out.
“The CBI have said we’d have a high-level, ambitious free trade deal. And even the prime minister has said it’d be scaremongering to suggest otherwise. So let’s talk about the facts and the substance and enlighten the debate – not try and cast a shadow over it.”
In a Telegraph article two days before the vote, he wrote: “Of course we’ll continue trading with the EU. Only a suicidal German chancellor or French president would go into their 2017 elections promising to put thousands of German car workers and French farmers out of jobs by hiking tariffs with Britain.”
It has to be said that the prospect of a no-deal Brexit did not feature heavily in questions that journalists or Remainers were asking during the referendum. Indeed, Chuka Umunna told him in their debate that insisting that a deal would be possible was “a bit of a straw man argument” because “I’m not saying that we wouldn’t be able to trade with our European partners or with others… It’s a question of the terms.”
The first clear examples we can find of Mr Raab acknowledging “no deal” as a realistic possibility come after the referendum result.
Writing in the Times a month after Vote Leave won, Mr Raab said: “The British Batna (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) is to leave the EU with no deal and rely on World Trade Organisation rules.”
What about Michael Gove?
Dominic Raab said fellow Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove was also questioned repeatedly by journalists about a no-deal Brexit. We can’t find any evidence of this either.
In fact, Mr Gove was questioned by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on 8 May 2016 and specifically asked about the World Trade Organisation rules which would govern trade in the event of “no deal”.
Mr Marr said: “Once we’re outside we either have to negotiate a new agreement with the EU or we don’t. Those agreements become null and void once we leave. That’s the point of leaving.
Mr Gove replied: “I think this is a misunderstanding that many people have… If you don’t have tariffs, both sides can accept that there is no need to erect them.”
If Mr Gove did raise the possibility of a no-deal Brexit in the referendum campaign, it must have been an accident, because he wrote this in a Daily Mail article in March this year:
“But we didn’t vote to leave without a deal. That wasn’t the message of the campaign I helped lead. During that campaign, we said we should do a deal with the EU and be part of the network of free trade deals that covers all Europe, from Iceland to Turkey.
“Leaving without a deal on March 29 would not honour that commitment. It would undoubtedly cause economic turbulence.”
Mr Raab appears to be wrong about his colleague Michael Gove warning about the risk of a no-deal Brexit during the EU referendum campaign. Mr Gove says that “wasn’t the message of the campaign I helped lead”.
We can’t find any evidence of Mr Raab talking about the dangers of leaving without a deal before the vote either.
But we need to be cautious about declaring that it’s Mr Raab’s memory that is “sketchy” here.
There are BBC interviews from the time that we can’t access, because the footage and transcripts are no longer online.
It’s possible that there are interview clips out there somewhere that back Mr Raab’s recollection of the referendum campaign.
We have asked his aides for help in tracking down material that supports his version of events.
Of course we will update this blog if we find anything.