David Lidington’s career has, in a sense, been defined by the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. Shortly after the Conservative MP and former cabinet minister was first elected in 1992, John Major’s fortunes suffered an irreparable blow following the UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. “I don’t think we recovered from Black Wednesday for a decade,” Lidington, 65, told me when we recently met for breakfast at the Ivy restaurant in London.
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During his time as William Hague’s parliamentary private secretary (PPS), the lingering divisions over Europe (“like picking at scabs”) were a constant source of difficulty. And when the Conservatives returned to office in 2010, those same divisions stalked David Cameron’s premiership and, by extension, Lidington’s ministerial career (he became the UK’s longest-serving Europe minister after holding the post throughout Cameron’s tenure).
“I think David certainly saw Europe as an issue like fox hunting where, from time to time, he would have to sling the red meat at the wolves who are harrying the sled,” Lidington recalled.
Not for the first or last time in our conversation he laughed: “Of course, the problem is the wolves keep coming back for more.”
The concession of an EU referendum and the eventual Brexit vote ended Cameron’s premiership in 2016, but also led to a promotion for Lidington to leader of the House of Commons where, once more, European affairs dominated. His last role in government was as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster from 2018 to 2019, making him Theresa May’s de facto deputy and a crucial player in the Brexit negotiations both in Westminster and Brussels.
Now he is the new chair of the Conservative European Forum, a group founded 52 years ago by Tory MPs with a mission to restore the influence of the party’s pro-Europeans. He had two motives for taking the role: the first was a fear that “the relationships between the UK and the other European democracies were important, and in danger of being overlooked”. The second is less comfortable for Conservative Remainers: “The Remain wing of the Conservative Party needs to move on from grieving about 2016, stop looking backwards and wishing for a different result,” Lidington said. “However many times you play the tape, you lost!”
He added: “It feels a bit like being in 1997 in the wake of the Blair landslide, and the party was just completely shell-shocked. Half of its MPs, half of its cabinet ministers were gone, and I was PPS to William Hague for the first two years of his time as leader, when the task was just getting the party to come to terms with the fact that, yes, we lost.”
If that sounds like a counsel of despair, it isn’t – or, at least, not for Lidington, who was in good humour throughout our conversation. He laughingly recalled his first meeting with Keir Starmer, then Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, in 2019 to discuss whether a cross-party accord could be reached on Europe. “The first time Keir was allowed to come and meet to chat about possible areas of common ground, the Corbyn office didn’t trust him to come alone. I was on my own, and they sent Seumas [Milne] and someone else from the leader’s office who would sit and take notes. It was like when you saw the Russian ambassador, and you knew that the guy from the FSB [the Russian Federal Security Service] sitting there taking notes was there to take notes on the ambassador, not on me. It was clear to me that when the revolution came, Keir and I were both going in front of the firing squad: the only difference was one of sequence not of principle!”
Although he conceded that “what the next generation decides is for them”, Lidington believed that, for the moment, rejoining is “the last thing that the British people and the last thing 27 other governments want”. Instead, the big question, he thinks, is what type of relationship the EU and the UK have. The agreement reached between the two is “designed to be built on”, Lidington reminded me, but he fears that there is “a sort of neuralgia” in the government’s mind. There’s a danger, he said, “that you end up with a Europe-shaped hole in the midst of the Global Britain vision”.
“The D10 idea is a good one,” he said of Boris Johnson’s idea of combining the G7 with the three leading democracies of the Asia-Pacific region: India, Australia and South Korea. But he noted that, “At that point, you’re bringing the EU in, because they won’t, no matter how much you may wish it, behave as individual countries.”
Lidington had no illusions about having embarked on a project that will take “at least five years, probably longer” and that will outlast his tenure as chair of the European forum. But he believes that events and shared interests mean the EU and the UK will have to forge a more sustainable working relationship than at present.
“There is mistrust on both sides. Now to some extent this is inevitable. We had an earthquake, and we’re going through the aftershocks. And to some extent, both sides are still looking to vindicate their own positions.” But, he predicted, “common interests will force people together”.
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century