POLITICS

Crispin Blunt Interview: Brexit Shouldn't Worry Us, It May Trigger Scottish Independence, But That's OK

09/07/2015 10:09 BST | Updated 09/07/2015 10:59 BST

Crispin Blunt speaks to The Huffington Post about Brexit, Grexit, Isis, Scottish independence, Nigel Farage, surviving deselection by his local Tory party, rainbow flags and why Conservative cabinet ministers need to be blocked from voting on Heathrow expansion.

British exit from the European Union is not, the new chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee says, "something we should be worried about".

Much of Crispin Blunt's time over the next year will be spent examining the impact of David Cameron's impending in/out referendum.

But it is clear that Blunt is not especially bothered by the prospect of Brexit. "Our unique selling point as a country is global, not regional. Our industries have a pitch to the world, rather than simply trade with Europe," he explains. "For an island off the coast of Europe, this is an institution that suits continental Europe. Which is why we have always been rather uncomfortable in it because it doesn't quite work for us."

The MP for Reigate is speaking to The Huffington Post in his parliamentary office as MPs in the Commons chamber debate English votes for English laws - or Evel. And as an Englishman representing a Surrey constituency, he volunteers that a vote to leave the EU would likely trigger a second Scottish independence referendum.

"It probably reopens the United Kingdom question if we left," he says."It might be enough to push the Scottish nationalists over the finishing line."

"You would have to accept that whilst the Scottish question should not be reopened under current circumstances for a generation, it would require it to be reconsidered."

The prospect does not seem to worry him too much. "Personally, I am sanguine about that. It allows, in my judgement, England to get a rather more realistic foreign policy and an understanding of its role in the world if, whatever it is, 90% of the UK found itself on its own."

"You've got to take the risk that Scotland would then vote for independence in order to then apply to be a member of the EU. The stupidity of that position would probably reveal itself and the illogicality of leaving one union to join another union might at some point occur to the Scots," he says.

"I am a unionist. But I'm a unionist up to the point of, if other people don't want to be in a union with me then, well, fine. It's not an imperialist position, I am not forcing this union on you. It's two nations. If this thing is to work it has to have support. If the Scottish people think they would be better off out, then good luck to them."

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The prime minister is busying himself trying to convince European leaders to give Britain a looser relationship with Brussels in order to convince eurosceptics, inside and outside his party, to vote to stay inside the EU.

For Blunt, what matters most is the position non-euro members of the Union will end up in as a result of any new deal.

"What protection do the peripheral states or the non-euro states get in the renegotiation? That's quite difficult without a treaty change," he observes sceptically. Treaty change does not seem likely. "And even if they are, this is an organisation that is inevitably going to get dragged by the massive common interest by the people in the euro have."

He adds: "Is there an alternate role for the UK outside the EU? I think absolutely there is. It shouldn’t be something we should be worried about."

Blunt served as a justice minister during the coalition years. And is quick to answer when asked if current ministers should be allowed to remain in office while campaigning on the opposite side of the referendum debate to the prime minister.

"Obviously," he says. "There isn't a right answer here. So the idea the government is moving through the haze and then, 'oh, we’ve renegotiated and it's so good we are all going to recommend it' is for the birds. It's just illogical. Every individual is going to asses the different factors about whether we should stay or go differently. They are going to place different importance on different things."

The former soldier offers a tactical prediction: "The 'Yes' campaign will try and present the people campaigning for 'No' as being foreigner-hating xenophobes."

As well as a piece of advice: "If the 'No' campaign is clever, it will use the slogan I have seen kicking around: 'No thanks, we're going global'."

MPs and activists on both sides are already positioning themselves for the referendum campaign - not least Nigel Farage.

However Blunt greets the question about whether the Ukip leader should take a leading role in the 'No' campaign with barely disguised contempt. "Well the answer to that is blindingly obvious isn't it? He would be a disaster to lead this campaign, to lead that campaign.

"You just need to look back at 1975. Enoch Powell and Tony Benn led the 'No' campaign and the bulk of the country looked at them and thought: 'you know, they look a bit odd, we will go with the other guys, they seem moderate and sane and sensible'.

Blunt says Ukip should "do the 'No' campaign a favour" by, to put it simply, shutting up. With a vote on the repeal of the fox hunting ban on the horizon, Blunt advises Ukip to behave how the Countryside Alliance does by "quietly supporting" Brexit in a "discreet" way and using its organisational heft rather than "frightening voters".

"They have won themselves a role. It is the central purpose of their party. So they are going to have to make that judgement. If I was running the 'No' campaign I wouldn't be suggesting this is a Ukip production."

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Cameron's attempts to convince Europe to pay attention to British complaints have been made even harder by the crisis in the eurozone. Angela Merkel's focus is on Athens, not London.

Blunt is unequivocal about what the Greeks should do. "They can’t stay in the euro. It's not sustainable," he says. "If I was the Greek government, I would be saying: 'thank you very much. You have pushed us out of this currency, we are going. And I'm afraid your €180bn has gone with us because we are writing it off'.

"And then I'd turn around to the Greek people and say 'no one is going to lend us any money now, so folks, we have to pay our taxes, because if you don't pay your taxes we don't have any hospitals or schools'."

Such a move, Blunt says, would give the government of Alexis Tsipras "a patriotic motive to address the chaotic situation inside Greece". The crisis, he says, was "everybody's fault" - both the Greeks and the eurozone are to blame. However he is scathing about the way the Greek state has historically run its affairs. "Everyone and his wife goes on the payroll," Blunt says. It is a country of "graft and corruption".

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Blunt takes over the foreign affairs committee as the West, and the rest of the world, grapples with how to deal with the threat from Isis. It is less than a month since 30 Britons were killed in a terror attack on the beaches of Tunisia.

The flow of Britons travelling to Syria to join extremist groups needs to be tackled, Blut says. "It is not dissimilar to what we were facing 100 years ago in terms of the outbreak of communism in Bolshevik Russia," Blunt observes. "The bloodshed that then accompanies a new revolutionary ideology being put in to practise where people hold the belief so strongly that it's fine to massacre as many people as needed in order to establish, by terror or whatever, means your new and pure ideology that’s the game we are in."

To call Isis Medieval, Blunt adds, "might do it too much credit".

And he defends Cameron's suggestion that Muslims need to do more to confront extremism. "This ideological battle isn't ours. It's within Sunni Islam. People present this as a Shia-Sunni civil war. It's not. It's a war within Sunni Islam about what is the reasonable interpretation of Quran and their values. Well, that’s not something that I or any other secular Westerner is going to be seen as an authority on and to say what the appropriate interpretation of the Sunni version of Islam is.

"We have to look to everyone to say people are being deluded if they think the world can be made a dramatically simpler and better place by going back to the writings of the 7th Century and following them precisely to the letter - or their version of it."

However Blunt is less than impressed with the suggestion by defence secretary Michael Fallon that Britain may expand the RAF bombing campaign against Isis beyond Iraq and into Syria. "Given the size of our overall contribution, which is about 5% of the airpower there, in both theatres, It's not going to make any difference in the end," he sighs.

"The main question is focusing on the international plan to defeat Isis. That means the military defeat and therefore occupation and administration of the territories they currently control," he says. Britain, Blunt says, should be putting "diplomatic heft" behind Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to get more involved.

"It's probably not a good idea to do this with Iranian Shia or Shia militia soldiers. It is probably not a good idea to do this with Western soldiers. Therefore what actually needs to happen on the ground it needs to be Arab or Turkish Sunni soldiers to do the fighting and the occupation to defeat them," he says.

"The main point is," he insists. "Is there is no coherent international plan to defeat Isis or Daesh or whatever you want to call it."

Whatever it is called has occupied a great deal of the debate, with the prime minister insisting the BBC ditch the term 'Islamic State' in favour of ISIL. Other MPs prefer the term 'Daesh' as it is viewed as more offensive to the Islamic militants. "It matters a bit. But it is a third order issue, not a first order issue," he says.

"It's probably better we call them something vaguely insulting rather than something complimentary like 'Islamic State'. Does that make a barrel load of difference to someone who is so motivated to think that the Islamic State is the caliphate arrived and it's time to push off and kill and die for it? It probably doesn’t make much difference to them."

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Before the general election, Blunt was faced with an attempt by some in his local Conservative Party association to deselect him as the parliamentary candidate. There was a suggestion a few local Tories moved against him after he separated from his wife and came out as gay.

In the end however he easily saw off the challenge and jokes he won the ballot of Reigate Conservatives by a margin that was "almost Soviet in proportions".

"The effect of a small number of people on my executive who voted to open up the question to the whole membership was hugely strengthened my position locally," he claims.

He adds: "I wasn't facing a campaign organised on the ground to say 'Crispin has not done A, B and C this is why we should be thinking about getting a new candidate'. It became the opposition that dare not speak its name."

His position as chairman of the foreign affairs committee makes him one of the most senior LGBT politicians in Britain. And given the oppression gay people are subject to worldwide - it is still illegal in around 80 countries - there was consternation at Philip Hammond's decision not to fly the rainbow flag from the Foreign Office during London pride.

"I didn’t entirely understand why they changed their policy," Blunt says of Hammond's reversal of William Hague's position. "Of course it would have been appropriate. London Pride is a big event in the global celebration of freedom. It was a pity they didn't."

Despite pushing through same-sex marriage, Cameron has been criticised for appointing in succession two MPs who opposed the Bill to the job of equalities minister - first Nicky Morgan then Caroline Dinenage. "The issue is whether Caroline will do a good job as equalities minister. The chance is she will do a very good job," Blunt says.

He points to Morgan's change of mind. "Her position has, on the whole issue of same-sex marriage and everything else, has undergone a significant personal revision that is genuine, " he says of the education secretary. "Funnily enough it [the controversy over Morgan's appointment] has probably helped. She has had to face up to the reasons she voted in the way she did and explain it and then it becomes quite difficult to explain."

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Blunt won Reigate with an almost comical majority of 22,334 votes. But despite placing a bet before Christmas 2014 that the Conservatives would win a national majority, he did not wake up on May 7 expecting to be right. "The polls simply didn’t move as I anticipated," he says, recalling the last two weeks of the campaign. Ed Miliband and Labour, he says, were not "credible". But to his irritation, and that of most Tories, "the opinion polls weren't bloody moving".

"By polling day I was fairly depressed," he says. But then the Nuneaton result came in that showed Miliband had failed to capture the crucial swing seat. "The massacre that was going in Scotland and the massacre of the liberals, we then had a majority."

Now in charge of a majority, the prime minister has a headache that involves planes that carry passengers rather than those that carry bombs. Having kicked the decision down the road and past the election, he is being asked to decide where to build a new runway.

It is an area that pits the new foreign affairs committee chair against the foreign secretary. This time closer to both their homes. Hammond's West London constituency lies under the flight path of Heathrow. Blunt's Surrey seat is close to Gatwick. Neither man wants the new runway build on their patch.

Blunt has written to the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood demanding Hammond, as well as development secretary Justine Greening, Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers and chief secretary to the Treasury Greg Hands all recuse themselves from the impending airport decision.

"It is a straight piece of cabinet government. You are not allowed to bring your constituency issues to bear if you are a minister of the government," he says. "There is a plain conflict of interest."

And in Blunt's mind, and that of his fellow Surrey and Sussex MPs, the idea of expanding Gatwick rather than Heathrow is "over".

"If the government try to come to parliament and say we are going for Gatwick they will only be about 200 votes short if they try and put it to a division.

He adds finally: "It's not happening."