12 May 2016

“Britain has never played its full hand in Europe”: interview with Sir Nicholas Soames


“Britain has never played its full hand in Europe. And that is because of feckless, weak, unimaginative and pretty cowardly governments.”

Sir Nicholas Soames is a man not known for pulling his punches.

“For the press and people like you this EU debate is meat and drink from heaven. You’ve got bugger all else to do the rest of the time but to look for splits, and here you have it, a huge split.”

The former Tory defence minister, now prominent backbencher, was rather dismissive of the overzealous interest of political journalists into the Conservative division over Europe, though he did admit there would be scars.

“It has been a big thing in Tory politics for fifty years. It’s been a very difficult thing for a long term.

“For anyone who was in Parliament during the Maastricht issue, it was really, very unpleasant. But you can’t say the Tory party has not gone onto significant successes since then. At the end of the day the party will dust itself down and carry on.

“The idea that the Tory party is in a civil war is just not true. It’s for the birds.

“It’s just rubbish and a fiction.”

He was also keen to stress that talk of a post-referendum leadership election should be kept to a minimum. It was certainly not the time for the anti-Cameron knives to come out.

“The Prime Minister got a lot of the young men and women in the party elected to this place. They owe him a debt of gratitude and a debt of loyalty.”

As well as the machinations of political journalists, Sir Nicholas placed both Putin and Marine Le Pen squarely in his sights as he set out his stall over the European debate.

“The security side of this debate is incredibly important.

“The only significant political leader wanting Britain to vote out is Putin. Why, because Britain, leaving the EU will leave it a weaker, far more incoherent place than it is now, certainly in terms of defence.

“What the Russians really fear is a coherent European Union. Because a coherent EU is capable of stopping Gazprom buying up any little country in Europe.”

He had no kind words for Gerhard Schröder either.

“Now this is a very serious thing to say, but how exactly does a former German Chancellor become a director of Gazprom?

“Russia has a forty year operation to undermine Germany, Italy, and other big European countries, funding the far right.

“Marine le Pen has quite openly said she is taking money off the Russians.

“This is very dangerous for Britain, so I think it is bloody important for Britain to stay in”

Sir Nicholas was particularly critical of the manner in which domestic handwringing had limited Britain’s role in Europe, to the detriment of both.

“I take the view that Britain has never played its full hand in Europe. And that is because of feckless, weak, unimaginative and pretty cowardly governments.

“Every now and again there is a great drama and a Prime Minister shows what he can actually do.

“We have a vision, we have ideas, and we will play a role in setting out a sane and sensible path for Europe, and god knows it bloody needs it!”

While he was keen to stress the strength of his friendship with those in the Brexit camp of the Conservative party, he had less concern for treating their arguments quite so gently.

“There is something terribly un-British about the Brexit campaign. They are frightfully cross with everyone, they’re baity as hell, they’re terrible chippy and difficult and nervous.

“This is not a cross country. This is a generous and optimistic country. And we have allies that really expect us to play a role in the battle of life.”

Sir Nicholas ultimately struggled to understand the emotional drive of the Brexit camp.

“I can’t explain the instinct behind Brexit because it seems to me so completely daft! It’s dressed up in all sorts of things like sovereignty, but what sort of sovereignty do we have in NATO? And why is that alright?

“Despite all this talk of a European army, we already have one.

“It’s controlled by the Americans!”

George Greenwood is a freelance political journalist, published in the New Statesman, The Independent and The International Business Times.