A UK cabinet minister has said the British public is throwing its support behind a no-deal Brexit, suggesting that MPs will be thwarting democracy if they block such an outcome.
Penny Mordaunt, the Eurosceptic international development secretary, said that the country’s stance was hardening on leaving the EU without a deal — in favour of the alternative of trading with the bloc on World Trade Organisation terms.
“You see this shift to no-deal. It’s not because [voters] particularly want WTO terms, it’s because they want it done,” she told the Financial Times in an interview. “That’s not necessarily because that’s their preferred option. But I think the public want to send us a message that, end of March, we expect you to leave the EU, and that is the most important thing. To them, no Brexit is worse than no-deal.”
Despite government warnings about economic and administrative disruption, a quarter of Britons now say that a no-deal Brexit is their preferred outcome, according to two recent polls. More than half of Conservative members say they would be “delighted”, “pleased” or “relieved” if it happened.
Speaking in the wake of the 432-202 House of Commons defeat of Theresa May’s deal with the EU, Ms Mordaunt admitted that the UK’s institutions “look a little crazy” and that voters felt the Brexit process had been “a bit grim”. But she added: “I think we will look back on this with pride as a nation.”
She also decried a bid by backbench MPs to prevent the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal treaty as failing to respect the victory for Leave.
The Commons will be voting on Tuesday on the amendment, which seeks to create a route to extend Brexit talks if the government does not win support for its deal by the end of February. At present, the UK is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29.
“If you’re planning on doing something that’s not going to help [pass the deal], don’t do it,” said Ms Mordaunt, who campaigned for Brexit in the 2016 referendum and now backs Mrs May’s deal. “We have to honour this. Get on with it, politicians.”
But the proposal, put forward by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and the Conservatives’ Nicky Morgan and Nick Boles, is expected to pass thanks to the support of the opposition Labour party and Europhile Conservatives.
The government itself remains deeply split on no-deal. Mrs May acknowledges concerns about the economic impact of leaving without a deal, but says the UK cannot rule out such an option.
Other ministers see no-deal as a “disaster” — in marked contrast with Ms Mordaunt, who instead reserved her scorn for one proposed Brexit compromise — keeping the UK in the EU’s customs union. She said such an option did not have a majority in parliament and “wouldn’t fly with the public”.
The MP for Portsmouth North was widely criticised in the 2016 campaign for wrongly claiming that the UK could not veto Turkey joining the EU. She was appointed to lead the Department of International Development in November 2017, after her predecessor Priti Patel resigned over undeclared visits to Israel.
Since then, she has tried to use part of the UK’s £14bn aid budget to lure private investors to poor countries. She travelled to Davos this week to drum up support for her strategy.
“There has been a real appetite and engagement from the City in this investment idea,” she said. “If we could just get 1 per cent of the funds under investment in the City invested in Africa, it would more than double global aid flows.”
She dismissed suggestions that such investments were “too high-risk”, adding that people had been “very surprised” by the profits earned by CDC, the UK’s development finance organisation.
Dfid is also trying to make it easier for British citizens to give directly to projects that tackle the UN’s 17 Global Goals, such as zero hunger and reducing inequalities. It will be consulting focus groups this year to gauge how British citizens want to make such investments.
The future of Ms Mordaunt’s department was cast into doubt when Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and a potential future prime minister, suggested that it should be closed down and rolled back into the Foreign Office.
Asked if Dfid would definitely exist in five years, she declined to give a give a categoric answer. She said that it was in any case “not an independent department” — because of cross-Whitehall co-operation.
“My staff are sat here [in London], in Scotland, 70 of them are in [Department for International] Trade, there are some of them in the Foreign Office . . . we now have a base in the Cabinet Office because we’re looking at cross-government funds,” she said. “We are a technical department, and a hugely valuable entity. We are a development superpower, that’s how people refer to us.”
Ms Mordaunt pointed to her good relations with Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary. “When I came into this department, I initiated all of my ministerial team going to the Foreign Office and having joint [morning meetings] with the foreign secretary, and Jeremy has continued that,” she said. “I’m working very closely with him, as I am with [trade secretary] Liam Fox, and other international-facing departments, but also health and education.”
The UK is one of only two G7 countries to meet the UN benchmark of spending 0.7 per cent of its national income on aid. However, both aid spending and Dfid itself remain unpopular among some Conservative MPs, who argue that Britain could spend the money better on domestic priorities or more directly projecting its influence abroad.
“The debate has somewhat moved on from 0.7,” Ms Mordaunt said. “I think a lot of the discussion that you’ll see . . . will focus less on that number and what we’re doing with it. I think that people recognise that we’re not just an international nation, we’re a global nation.”
This story has been amended to correct an earlier misspelling of Ms Mordaunt’s name
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