Craig Whittaker interview: Calder Valley MP trying to win over Tories with gentle persuasion ahead of crunch Brexit vote

With Tuesday's crunch Brexit vote looming, a West Yorkshire MP is among those leading the efforts to win over potentially rebellious Conservatives in Parliament. Westminster Correspondent Arj Singh went to meet him.
Calder Valley MP Craig WhittakerCalder Valley MP Craig Whittaker
Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker

Westminster is gearing up for its most important and momentous week – since the one that has just passed – as MPs prepare to vote on the Brexit withdrawal deal.

But with almost no-one giving Theresa May any chance of getting her agreement through the House of Commons, it seems like this will only be the start of another, even more combustible chapter in the Brexit saga.

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By the time the vote comes around on Tuesday evening, some parliamentarians may have been swayed by the Prime Minister’s media blitz, or speeches in the Commons by her or other MPs.

But one group of people lie at the heart of the mammoth task of trying to get the deal over the line with scores of Tories, 10 Democratic Unionists and all opposition parties likely to oppose it – the Government’s whips.

There is a healthy Yorkshire contingent among them, including the Chief Whip and Skipton MP Julian Smith, whose acute stress has been evident on the Government frontbench for weeks now.

Another, Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker, however shows few signs of the strain that comes with trying to cajole and induce rebellious colleagues to fall in line on an issue of monumental national importance.

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Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker. Picture by: Charlotte GrahamCalder Valley MP Craig Whittaker. Picture by: Charlotte Graham
Calder Valley MP Craig Whittaker. Picture by: Charlotte Graham

He says: “What a time to be a whip – one of the most historic times in our history and I don’t think the whips’ office has had to deal with anything like this for decades really.

“So it’s knife edge stuff on most days, but incredibly exciting and an absolute privilege to do it.”

The 56 year-old Tory has spent eight years in Parliament since winning his ultra-marginal seat under David Cameron in 2010, following a 30-year career in business in which he was a retail general manager of PC World for 11 years until 2009.

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Asked whether being a whip during the Brexit ‘crunch’ is the most stressful time of his life, he says: “In politics, without question, but I’ve had 30 years in the real world before this.

“Every bit of my managerial experience outside has stood me in incredibly good stead here, without that I don’t think I could do the job I currently do.

"Retail is very visual, this place is much more academic focused.

“But when you have situations like this it gets back to the visual stuff – looking people in the eye, having conversations with them, negotiating and looking at what concessions... just general negotiation.”

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Mr Whittaker goes on: “I always look at it as if I’ve got my England cap on – I’m serving as a Government Minister and I was never good at football or cricket, so this is my time to help make a difference, and hopefully that’s what we’re doing.”

Like the England football team, however, the deal seems doomed to failure and even Mr Whittaker as a Government Minister refuses to say he thinks it will pass first time, insisting the so-called meaningful vote on the deal is only part of a “process” that will finally determine some sort of Brexit outcome.

He says: “It’s a process, isn’t it? We’ve got the vote next week, it’s not the end of the deal if it doesn’t happen next week, there are 21 days to bring anything back that can be changed, if indeed it can be changed, and we’ll take a look at what happens then.”

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Mr Whittaker even suggests the Government could change its Brexit position if some of the six amendments that will be put down by opponents, including a cross-party group who want to block a no-deal withdrawal, are accepted.

Given the parliamentary arithmetic, it appears to be a threat to Eurosceptics that Brexit may be softened further if the deal does not pass first time.

“Whilst (the amendments) are not binding on the Government, because of course we already have in legislation that the default position is no deal, the political pressure would need the Government to take it seriously,” he says.

“We live in incredibly turbulent political times and pressure on a Government that does not have a majority, of course they have to take it seriously.”

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He adds: “I of course am working for us to get a win on Tuesday along with the whole whips’ team, and if that happens then so be it, if it doesn’t happen it’s only the start of a process - a rocky process, but we will get through it.”

With so much at stake, the whips are almost certainly using their darkest powers of persuasion in an attempt to save the deal, and possibly the Government as Labour threatens a vote of no confidence.

Ex-Chief Whip and Yorkshireman Gavin Williamson used to play up to this House of Cards stereotype, keeping a tarantula named Kronos on his office desk.

But Mr Whittaker prefers to keep his methods under wraps.

“I’ve heard the stories of the old days, and I can absolutely tell you the tactics we employ don’t use them anymore,” he says.

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“We hear the stories about Tony Blair’s henchmen pinning people up against the walls, that doesn’t happen.”

But with a wry smile, he adds: “Gentle persuasion and negotiation often wins the day.”

Ultimately, he will be telling colleagues to realise the withdrawal deal simply a “stepping stone” towards Britain’s future relationship with the EU, which will be negotiated during the transition period provided in the agreement.