On the eve of a Conservative Party conference expected to be dominated by splits over Brexit, Pudsey MP and Defence Minister Stuart Andrew insists ‘common sense will prevail’ and a withdrawal deal will be done. Arj Singh reports.
At a Conservative Party conference expected to be dominated by splits at a crucial moment in Brexit negotiations, many would expect party whips to be turning to the blackest of dark arts to try and keep noises off to a minimum.
But one recent practitioner of maintaining party discipline, Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew, insists the House of Cards vision of bullying and manipulation is merely a “myth”.
Now a Defence Minister, the 46 year-old was part of the Government Whips’ team that guided the mammoth EU (Withdrawal) Bill through hours of parliamentary debate and knife-edge votes.
And despite insisting that his role was mainly about listening and acting on colleagues’ concerns where possible, he admits: “Of course there are times when you have got to persuade, and in a Parliament where the parliamentary arithmetic is tight then there are challenging moments.”
Showing the strain of a brutal and chaotic parliamentary year, he adds: “The Chinese say may you live in interesting times, sometimes I wonder whether I agree with that given how interesting it has been.”
Much of the recent discord at the heart of the Conservative Party has focused on Theresa May’s controversial Chequers blueprint for Brexit.
Rejected by the EU and MPs from her own party in both Remain and Leave camps, it will come under intense bombardment at the Birmingham conference, with Boris Johnson expected to hold a hundreds-strong “chuck Chequers” rally.
But Mr Andrew, who voted Leave, declares himself happy with the proposals and insists voters in Pudsey market or Morrisons supermarkets in Guiseley and Horsforth want to see the Government just “get on with it” rather than fighting like cats in a sack.
Echoing Brexiteer-turned-Chequers supporter Michael Gove, the former charity worker adds: “Nobody is going to get everything they want, that is the realistic and pragmatic approach and that is where I think most of the public are.
“People just want us to get on with it and move on, and yes if there’s stuff we have to deal with later down the line let’s do it.”
And despite Labour threatening to vote down any Brexit deal with anywhere between 40 and 80 Brexiteer Tories, depending on who you believe, he says: “I genuinely don’t think there will be a no deal, I am sure common sense will prevail.
“Some of the conversations I’ve had in the EU - what I’m hearing is they recognise a no deal is bad for them too.”
Brexit, of course, is not the only source of discontent among Tory MPs at the moment.
A long-running row over defence spending was kicked down the road earlier this year.
But with the Autumn Budget in a matter of weeks, followed by a wider spending review and the Government’s Modernising Defence Programme, many expect to see calls for more cash for the armed forces resurface at the party conference.
It is something Mr Andrew feels keenly in his new job, as the Minister responsible for defence equipment.
“Whichever department you are in the challenge of finance is always acute, of course it is, because where we are - we’ve had a very difficult financial and economic time, obviously we have been coming out of that steadily,” he says.
“And yes there will always be a need for more money but that’s why we are doing the Modernising Defence Programme, because this is not just the Ministry of Defence coming out with what it needs, we are working closely with the Treasury and the Prime Minister is heavily involved in that.
“That is going to be fundamental how we go forward, to acknowledge the challenge that we face and how to address that.”
Another key part of the Welshman’s role is boosting defence exports, which he sees as a way to bridge the funding gap.
But it is a policy area that has come under an intense spotlight in recent years as Britain sells arms to Saudi Arabia, which is leading a controversial coalition fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Saudis have faced accusations of targeting civilians in air strikes in a conflict which has created the worst man made humanitarian crisis in the world right now, according to the UN.
But Mr Andrew defends the continuation of arms exports to Saudi Arabia despite widespread criticism, claiming the situation could be worse if the coalition was using less advanced and less precise munitions.
“If you’re going to sell bombs they are going to be used,” he says.
“What I mean by that is our technology is so advanced now that the bombs that we have, the targeting is really precise.
“There are other bombs out there that people may make that will not have that precision and the impact could be even worse.
“And Saudi Arabia have real concerns about terror cells forming and they are obviously trying to defend themselves.”
Despite the controversy, Mr Andrew insists defence exports are vital for the UK economy, pointing out that there is a company in every single British parliamentary constituency supplying something to the renewal of Trident nuclear deterrent submarines, including LBBC Technologies in Pudsey, which is providing hatches.
“It just shows that defence has quite an impact on our economy and this is why you can hear sometimes people are critical of exporting, but then if we don’t get the contracts for those shipyards, for those factories, for the supply chain, they are then critical that we haven’t got the work for them,” he says.
“We have got to look at an industry that is keeping us safe but is also keeping a lot of our people in work.”
'I'm really keen to see a new cross-Pennine rail link'
Stuart Andrew’s Conservative colleagues at the Department for Transport have been fiercely criticised for the rail chaos that has gripped the North this year.
The “unacceptable” delays caused to his Pudsey constituents as well as his own “incredibly frustrating” experiences travelling around the country have only strengthened his backing for a new cross-Pennine rail link.
“It has struck me how long it takes me to get back to my constituency, to my home.
“I may be accompanying somebody who has to go back to London - recently we were in Deeside in North Wales, right next to Chester - it took me four and a half hours to get home on the train whereas colleagues who were with me who were going back to London were probably having their dinner.
“I would be really keen to see HS3, that’s something that would be really good for the North.”