Theresa May should invoke Article 50 within weeks says John Whittingdale

first_img‘I danced away demotion blues in Ibiza club’When John Whittingdale was sacked as culture secretary in Theresa May’s brutal Cabinet cull, he decided to try something new. “I went clubbing in Ibiza. It was great,” the 56 year-old MP says. “Dance music in a club is as much about the light show, the atmosphere and the volume as the music itself. If you listen to it in your car it’s not quite the same.”The therapy clearly worked. Two months on and Mr Whittingdale seems relaxed and satisfied, reflecting on his time doing a Cabinet job he never expected to be given.As one of the most senior ministers to campaign for Brexit, he is also deeply happy that the country voted his way.The core task that David Cameron handed him when he was appointed after last year’s general election – negotiating the BBC’s new Charter – is now largely complete. “A lot of parents in my constituency aspire to send their children to grammar schools,” he says. “The reason being that they are incredibly good schools, they produce extraordinarily good results.”Is he angry with Mrs May for sacking him? “Something like 10 members of the Cabinet left office so I didn’t feel I had been singled out – and it’s her prerogative.”As for his own future, Mr Whittingdale jokes that it is “unlikely” he will ever be offered the job as chair the BBC board. But he spent a decade as chairman of the Commons culture select committee and remains committed to pursuing his love of music and the arts.Perhaps he will return to Ibiza one day, and even try his hand as a DJ himself?“I think I’m a bit old for that,” he says. Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily  Front Page newsletter and new  audio briefings. In his first major interview since he was left out of Mrs May’s Cabinet in July, Mr Whittingdale also sets out his three key red lines for the deal, including “absolute control” over migration and an end to contributions to the EU budget.His comments came as it emerged that Britons may have to apply for visas to travel in Europe once the UK leaves.A scheme apparently being debated by the executive body of the European Union suggests the 26-nation passport-free Schengen zone, which does not include the UK, could operate a visa programme. Under his Charter, the BBC must ensure its programming is “distinctive” and that its news coverage is “impartial”. Should Ofcom find it to be failing, the watchdog can impose fines, he warns.Brexit biasFor Mr Whittingdale, who broke ranks with Mr Cameron to campaign for Brexit, the BBC already has questions to answer about the bias in its coverage of the referendum.He accepts that covering Brexit was always going to be “horribly difficult” for the BBC.But, while he does not believe there was a “deliberate” plan to slant coverage against the Leave campaign, Mr Whittingdale does find fault with the pro-Remain “attitudes” from the broadcaster.“An awful lot was based on the assumption that we would vote to Remain and a lot of attention was given to the dire predictions,” he says.  This week will see the fruits of his work with the publication of the Charter, setting out the BBC’s future funding, governance and operational rules for the next 11 years.But Mr Whittingdale shows no desire to slope off quietly into retirement. He will be a critical fan of the broadcaster, and indeed of his own new party leader.In his first major interview since leaving the Cabinet, the Conservative MP for Maldon warns that the BBC must overcome its institutional bias against Brexit, and criticises the broadcaster for competing directly in ratings wars with ITV.He also calls on Mrs May to start the process for withdrawing from the EU within weeks and sets his key demands for her Brexit deal with Brussels, saying the government must win back “absolute control” over Britain’s borders.Poldark versus VictoriaAs Culture Secretary, Mr Whittingdale visited the impressive set of ITV’s flagship new costume drama, the glossy production of Victoria, starring Jenna Coleman as the young Queen. He clearly feels, however, that the commercial station is at an unfair disadvantage when it has to compete directly with the BBC’s new series of Poldark for Sunday night prime-time viewers. “My eyebrows do slightly go out when the flagship drama productions on the BBC and ITV for the autumn are Poldark and Victoria and they both go out at exactly the same time on a Sunday evening,” he says.  “The BBC gets licence fee so in a way ratings don’t matter so much for it. But in order to justify the amount of money they invest in it, ITV have to get a return.” Does he believe this amounted to a form of “institutional bias” against Brexit at the BBC? “Yes. That has always been part of the problem.“Probably most of the senior executives in the BBC were in favour of Remain and most of the staff – and the BBC is essentially an urban, London-centric organisation.”It wasn’t just the BBC. People in London generally had a completely different impression of the national mood from everybody outside London.” The BBC and other “establishment” media also seemed to be looking for evidence of an economic meltdown after the referendum result was announced, he says. “There was a sort of attitude of ‘let’s try and find as much evidence as we can that this is a disaster.’”Brexit BritainIn fact, Mr Whittingdale is clear that the establishment – including the former Chancellor, George Osborne – is being proved wrong to have emphasised the risks of leaving the EU so much. Clearly the period of withdrawal from the EU will not be easy, he says, “but most people have confidence in the underlying strength of the British economy which had nothing to do with whether or not we are in the European Union”.Leaving the EU is hugely complex and likely to take years. Mrs May has said she will not begin the formal process of exit negotiations by triggering Article 50 of the EU treaties until the early part of next year at the soonest, because the government needs time to prepare.Mr Whittingdale disagrees with her approach. “The Prime Minister has been admirably clear in saying that Britain has voted to leave so we are going to leave but until you embark on the formal process there will be some who will continue to suggest that somehow this can be fudged, that we can make some changes but still essentially remain a part of it and will attempt to find a way out,” he warns. Does he see any reason to wait until next year? “No. I personally would like to see it happen sooner than that. Article 50 is the beginning of the process rather than the end.“I don’t see what holds us back,” he says. “We do need to get the formal process under way. I don’t say that it has to happen tomorrow but I would like it to happen pretty soon, and by that I mean weeks, not months.” He is also clear that Mrs May’s Brexit deal should give British businesses “access” to the single market – but on three key conditions. Britain must have “absolute control” over immigration, the UK should pay nothing into the EU’s budget, and companies that do not trade with the EU must be set free from European regulations, he says.Grammar lessonsBrexit delays aside, how does he rate Mrs May’s performance as Prime Minister so far?“She is easily the most experienced of those who were standing for election and that shows every time she gets to her feet. She is an extremely accomplished Parliamentarian and minister.”Mr Whittingdale says he will “wait to see” whether she can deliver on her promise to tackle social divisions and inequality in society. But he strongly backs her radical plan to allow hundreds of new grammar schools to open across England. Theresa May must trigger the start of Britain’s formal withdrawal from the European Union within weeks, John Whittingdale says.In an interview with the Telegraph, the former culture secretary criticises the Prime Minister for delaying, warning that it leaves the door ajar for Remain campaigners hoping to stop Brexit.Mrs May has said she will wait until early next year before triggering Article 50 of the EU treaties, which would begin the formal two-year negotiating process that culminates in leaving. But Mr Whittingdale says he cannot see any reason to delay. “Article 50 is the beginning of the process rather than the end,” the leading Leave campaigner says.“We do need to get the formal process under way. I don’t say that it has to happen tomorrow but I would like it to happen pretty soon, and by that I mean weeks, not months.” He says he is “concerned” that such ratings wars will limit the ability of ITV to air costly costume dramas in future. “Not only does it inconvenience the viewer but also it makes it harder for ITV to demonstrate that spending a lot of money on high quality drama produces a return that makes it worthwhile.”Charter warsUnder the new Charter, the BBC will be regulated by the external watchdog Ofcom, rather than the discredited BBC Trust. A new board is also expected to include five government-appointed directors, including the chair and deputy chair, and will be more directly involved in the broadcaster than the Trust.But Mr Whittingdale reveals that some “hard-liners” in the corporation tried to block ministers from appointing any members of the BBC’s new board. Happily, he says, they seem to have backed down.last_img read more