Though it lacked the pomp of Donald Trump’s Singapore summit with the leader of North Korea, David Davis and Dominic Grieve’s public coffee in Parliament this week was an unlikely rapprochement between two leading Conservative figures with diametrically opposed views on Brexit.
Having served as chief of staff to both senior Tories, did Dominic Raab help broker a peace deal behind the scenes? “I wouldn’t put it any way like that, but I know them both very well. I’m a huge fan of both of them. I like both of them as friends,” he replies. “I make the point to everyone that wants to listen and certainly to my good friend Dominic, that we need to keep the team together.”
Raab cuts a relaxed figure in his pokey parliament office as we convene on the day the government sees off a rebellion over a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal. A key figure in the Leave campaign, he takes a cordial approach on the EU debate. The ‘latte summit’ between Grieve and Davis was right up his alley.
That said, and with the Withdrawal Bill now out of the way, the Housing Minister believes his Tory colleagues should be mindful of the referendum and the party’s manifesto as crunch votes loom over the customs union. “We were very clear we were coming out of the customs union, there can’t be any tricksy fudging of that. There’s good reasons why we want to come out of the customs union. We all need to be true to the promises that we made,” he says.
“At the same time, all my professional experience – I started my life as a business lawyer at Linklaters, I spent six years at the Foreign Office doing all sorts of things – shows that you want teams together that get the best out of everyone, no matter what their skillset and what their viewpoint is. I think we’ve got a great opportunity to do that. I’ve worked with Dominic, I’ve worked with DD. I’ve worked with David Lidington, Sajid Javid and now with James Brokenshire – all people on the Remain side. I’ve never had a row, a flounce or anything like that with any of my colleagues that have taken a different view.
“What we’ve got to do as a government and as a parliamentary party and indeed as a country, is show that we are bigger than the sum of our parts. If we take a bit more of that approach, a bit more unity of purpose, we’ll get a great result out of Brexit. We’ll also unite the country, which is what I think most people, whether they voted Leave or Remain, feel that is our responsibility as politicians to do.”
Raab has previously said he supports “full fat” Brexit. Amid talk of an extended transition period and efforts to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU, does he fear we are heading for a diet version?
“No, I think if we’re true to our promises that we’ve made in our manifesto – and the mandate that we got from the referendum, which was to take back control over our borders, our laws and our money – I think we ought to on the Brexit side be flexible about the bridge to that end state,” he says. “So, for example, on the implementation period, I thought actually that was quite a sensible approach, because we’re giving businesses the certainty to prepare and plan, but also it’s given us some finality because we know it will be done by December 2020.”
But does he believe, as Downing St has claimed, that Britain stands to benefit from a Brexit dividend? “Um, look, the way I describe it is I think there are all sorts of – by the way, I never said there weren’t risks with Brexit. I said that during the referendum campaign,” he replies. “The truth is, there are risks and there are rewards; there are risks and there are opportunities. We need to manage the risks, and I’ve talked about some of them with the implementation period, but we also need to be confident about grasping the opportunities.
“Britain is a great country. We’ve got a huge amount going for us, from our commercial nous and the ability of our entrepreneurs, through to English as the lingua franca for business, for law, and all those cultural soft power aspects.
“We should go into these negotiations with a bit of economic self-confidence. The economy has held up and proved far more resilient than some of the naysayers suggested. We should go into it with political ambition.
“One thing I get nervous about, or anxious, is that we don’t cower in a corner, so fixated on the risk that we look somehow afraid of our own shadow. Britain is a hell of a lot better than that.
“So, yes, let’s take the risks seriously. I don’t want to be cavalier about that. But let’s also grasp the opportunities. If we do that and we show a team effort, then this country will go onto bigger, better things.”
Raab returned to ministerial life after the election, following a brief interlude on the backbenches in the wake of the referendum. In January, the Esher and Walton MP switched from the Ministry of Justice to taking on the housing brief. And he was thrown in at the deep end, with the PM earmarking housing as her number one domestic priority and the Grenfell disaster, which took the lives of 72 people, looming large in the public consciousness.
Raab witnessed the “live, raw grief” of the survivors and a “very powerful sense of resilience and strength” in the community during services dedicated to the disaster earlier this month. “It’s one of those moments in your career where I guess everything else almost pales into insignificance and you just want to do what you can to help. I feel a huge sense of responsibility,” he says.
“I actually feel quite a strong sense of privilege, because I’ve got to know quite a number of the families and Grenfell United and they’re smart people, they’re proud people, they’ve been through hell and back. You just want to help them as best you can.”
But with families yet to be rehoused and the Grenfell inquiry stuttering into gear, have the government and Kensington and Chelsea council done right by those affected? “There’s all sorts of lessons that can be learned. Certainly, for example on the rehousing, it has not happened swiftly enough,” replies Raab, who adds that progress has been made but “not nearly fast enough”. “I think rather than getting into the blame game… I’m focused relentlessly on helping the individuals and the needs and support to move.”
The Hackitt report into building regulations and fire safety did not call for a ban on flammable cladding, leading local MP Emma Dent Coad to conclude that the families had been “betrayed”. But Raab says that the government will outlaw combustible materials on high rise residential buildings, and is consulting on the right way to do so.
Ministers also “rule nothing out”, Raab adds, on looking at measures to see that leaseholders in the private sector are not “unfairly burdened” by having to pay to replace such cladding on their buildings.
Housing could well be a key factor at the next election. On the day we meet, Tory MPs head to No10 armed with a series of proposals they claim would build more homes amid concerns it is slipping off the government’s radar.
Raab meets with MPs every day, he says, to hear their ideas. He hails the 217,000 new homes that were built last year, but concedes there is further to go. He once more finds himself “restless” to ensure that every policy lever is pulled to “get the right homes built in the right places and to bring the affordability down”. And he is excited by the prospect of building more modular homes, which can be erected at a swifter pace and, as they are produced in factories, come with less disruption than traditional methods.
But a lot is at stake for the government to mend the broken system. Can they win back the voters they need without doing so?
Raab argues that Labour and Jeremy Corbyn “do not believe in home ownership”, citing the party’s opposition to cuts to stamp duty and position on Right to Buy. He adds: “One of the problems we’ve got is we’ve been selling this dream of Britain as a property-owning democracy and I think a lot of young people look at it and think well, actually this is well beyond our reach.
“So, the problem for us is less that Labour are offering something compelling, but that we’re being held to our promises. That’s absolutely right, that young people hold us to the promises we’ve made and the dream that we’ve set out and want to see that made a reality. So, it’s definitely a challenge, but one that we should be excited about grasping. It’s only the Conservatives that really believe in home ownership in this country.”
He adds: “I do think that come the next election we need to revive the dream of home ownership. It’s not just for the next generation, it’s for really anyone on a lower and middling income who are doing the right thing, working, putting in those extra hours, believing what we believe in which is that home ownership is a great stepping stone for social mobility. We need to make that a reality for them.”
Will leaving the European Union help with this endeavour? Raab, the son of a Czech-born Jewish father, stands by his claim, based on data from his own department, that immigration has an upward pressure on house prices.
“Immigration has got huge benefits to this country, and indeed to the construction sector which has been very reliant on cheap, skilled and semi-skilled labour from abroad,” he says.
“I’m the son of a refugee. I’ve got a Brazilian wife. No one understand more from a very personal point of view the huge advantages of immigration. But we ought to have a sensible, balanced approach and take into account the pressures that uncontrolled immigration can have too.”
Though Raab disagrees with his fellow leaver, Priti Patel, who told The House earlier this month that the government is being “relentlessly negative” on Brexit, he adds: “We need to really make sure that we come up with that aspirational message, we are talking about the tangible opportunities, and do not allow the din of criticism to swallow up the debate.”
Raab believes that Brexit could see an improvement in the cost of living for “ordinary lower and middle-income families”, which he says is the “inexorable result of an energetic and liberal approach to free trade”.
So, if the public stand to benefit from lower house prices and improved living standards, as Raab claims, why aren’t they hearing about it?
“Well, they are from me,” he smiles. “Look, we’ve obviously got to address some of the criticisms as well. That’s the responsible thing to do. There are many and they tend to dominate the debate, because Brexit, as so much with our political life these days, has shown that the fringes on both sides tend to dominate the political discourse.”
He concludes: “Sometimes, we do need to reach out beyond the bubble to what ordinary people are thinking about. Frankly, whether they voted Leave or Remain, most people think we should get on with Brexit, make a success of it, and want to see a bit of unity of purpose among their politicians.
“That’s what I’m certainly committed to trying to do.”