Matthew Parris interview: ‘Nothing could be a bigger catastrophe than Brexit’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Witness, Autumn Term 2017 

The former Conservative MP turned Times and Spectator columnist talks on Brexit, the Conservative Party, the rise of populism, journalism and LGBT. 

“I can’t pretend to be immersed in affairs of State can I as you find me cleaning the balcony” he says, sitting down in his riverside Limehouse flat. A modest claim from someone who’s been recruited by MI6, went to Cambridge, had spells at the Foreign Office and Yale, served as an MP for seven years, was a private secretary for Mrs Thatcher, and won the Orwell Prize for journalism.

Though a lifelong member of the Conservative Party, Parris laments the current government’s performance. As someone who quite liked the manifesto, he chastises its formulation and presentation. “It appears to have been foisted on everybody, and even then, it could have been properly defended and it wasn’t. Mrs May first denied there was going to be any change and then completely capitulated”. He dismisses Jacob Rees-Mogg’s call for a binding ‘golden thread’ to be discovered. “That’s very Jacob Rees-Moggy, it sounds very grand but the distinctive characteristic of the Conservative Party is that it’s never really had an overarching philosophy. The thinking that you need some overarching theory of government and explanation of why you’ve been put on Earth in the first place leads to the sort of ideological madness that inhabits Jacob Rees-Mogg”.

He also disagrees that the party is suffering amidst a battle of ideas and attributes the problem to its leadership. “Mrs May is not a particularly well-qualified leader, and even to the extent that she is, she’s in an impossible position because she doesn’t have a majority”. This is causing the Tories to stumble against a buoyant Labour Party. “Where Labour can occasionally beat us on inspiration and the heart, we have always been strong on competence and the head. We are losing our reputation for competence.” Can this be repaired? “If we had good strong leadership, re-imposition of party discipline, and willingness by the anti-European cultists to either pipe down or back down I think the party would be able to revert to its good natured, middle of the road, pragmatic approach. But I see precious-little prospect of this”.

What about Brexit?  “I wouldn’t give Brexit more than a 50% chance of actually happening now. It’s dying in lots of ways… the best outcome is that we call it all off. The worst outcome is that we go for a hard Brexit and throw ourselves upon unrealistic dreams of world trade and empire”. When asked how bad he thinks the situation really is, he replies: “It’s even worse than Suez. Suez was at least a long way away”. Change in public opinion will be what stops Brexit. “The moment that happens the politicians will quickly run for cover. Labour will discover they were always against it, Remainers in the Conservative Party will find a new voice and new heart, and the Brexit people will be vanquished.”

“I wouldn’t give Brexit more than 50 per cent chance of actually happening”

In recognising the gathering populism against a foot-dragging Brexit government, he believes the British public are afflicted with a mental fever. “It’s a virus of political memes rather than a physical virus. I think it will pass if we just keep our heads. We can’t blame the EU, we can’t blame capitalism. We’ve only got a little bit poorer as nation but there are fairly good reasons for waiting for this to blow over”. Except, he admits “it might not”.

When it comes to criticising Remain voting MPs, Parris sympathises with their predicament in voting remain but pledging to respect the result. He furthers the Suez comparison. “With Suez, it was discovering that we were on our own in the world and the Americans were not going to support us that persuaded people to change their minds. So, it’s experience, it’s new facts that are going to change the direction of our path towards Brexit”.

His optimism ends there however. “It’s likely that the next government will be a Labour government, and it’s likely it will be led by Jeremy Corbyn. It would be catastrophe.” A bigger catastrophe than Brexit? “No. Nothing could be a bigger catastrophe than Brexit”. Though, the picture is not necessarily one of impending doom, he argues. “There are two scenarios with a Corbyn government. One, is the approaching proximity to power calms the Marxists in the party down and we just get a stumbling middle of the road soft-left government of the kind we endured under Harold Wilson. The other is that the morning after the election the stock market collapses, the pound collapses, the government struggles and falls quite quickly”.  Yet the hopeful Remainer in him continues to shine through. “The purpose of a Labour government, though I’m not advocating it, is that it could serve to stop Brexit”.

Parris now illustrates an almost tortured expression. He loathes Brexit, yet loves the party implementing it. “I’m a lifelong member of the Conservative Party, I’ve been a Conservative Party MP, I owe my whole career to the Conservative Party, and I do actually love the party though it’s a ghastly old party in lots of ways. My instincts of loyalty incline me to stay on, stay in and fight for my side of the argument. But were I your age [19] and wondering what party to join, I don’t think I would be joining the Conservative Party”.

“It’s likely that the next government will be a Labour government”

Despite the print newspaper’s recent reprieve since the Brexit vote, he does not see its future being long-term. “Once you go online and things can drift off in different directions so easily I struggle to believe that newspapers will be able to maintain their cohesion and their sense of personality as easily as they can offline.”

We finished talking on a very different subject. Parris is well known for his view that members of the LGBTQIA+ community don’t have much in common. Responding to the assertion that solidarity is needed in a community who share the experience of living in a society dominated by straight people, he maintains: “There is a good argument for solidarity but the solidarity has to be real and between people who really do have shared interests. You could say that paedophiles live in a society dominated by sexualities that are hostile to them. But I don’t feel inclined to stick with paedophiles”.

After qualifying that he hasn’t seen much polling on the subject he says “it wouldn’t surprise me if they [attitudes of gay men] varied as widely as the attitudes of straight men towards transgender issues. I’m very keen not to say transgender people don’t have an important cause and need for recognition and understanding… It’s terribly important for us that are gay men to assert we like being men. We are not men who want to be women. The transgender issue is much more complicated”. Is society overcomplicating things? “I think we’re getting quite obsessed by sex in lots of ways. But we’re not all moving into a fluid end state where we just drift from one thing to another and the label makes no difference”.

Will is Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Witness

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