Robert Goodwill interview: ‘It’s not helpful for ministers to be briefing about Brexit’

MP Robert Goodwill
MP Robert Goodwill

During his time in Government, Scarborough and Whitby MP Robert Goodwill has been given responsibility for some of Westminster’s thorniest issues. He speaks to Kate Langston about life on the front benches and the need for ministers to show a united front.

The first hint that Scarborough and Whitby MP Robert Goodwill could be in line for a frontbench promotion came in the form of a news bulletin.

He had woken up early to do some tilling in the fields on his family farm when the radio presenter announced the Prime Minister was going to do a re-shuffle.

“It came on [that] he was going to promote women and northern people,” he recalls.

“So I thought, perhaps I should go down to London and see what’s happening..”

That was back in 2013 when he secured his first ministerial role at the Department for Transport.

Since then, he has also held a position at the Home Office, before recently being appointed to the Department for Education.

He describes the new job as a welcome change to his previous assignments, which saw him charged with handling a number of political hot potatoes.

“I was the minister for High Speed 2 for three years. That was a fairly tricky parliamentary process and tricky managing colleagues as well – particularly when we were going to start bulldozing houses in their constituencies,” he explains.

“I was also the minister for aviation at a time we were making those important decisions on Heathrow and Gatwick, and I managed to steer our way through that without getting myself into too much trouble.

“Whether I was building a high speed railway, or potentially building a runway, or deporting foreign criminals, I always felt a little bit like the bad guy in the pantomime where people hiss when they come on the stage.

“This role at education is challenging in a different way... I wouldn’t quite describe myself as the fairy godmother, but it’s great to be doing positive things, helping people, making sure children have a better life.”

Goodwill’s promotion to the DfT came after four years of experience as a party whip – a position he believes all MPs should hold prior to entering Government in order “to learn the ropes in Parliament”.

He admits to being surprised at surviving for so long on the front benches, and puts his longevity down to being seen “as a safe pair of hands”.

This is an attribute which will become increasingly invaluable in a minister as the Prime Minister seeks to navigate the tempestuous waters of Brexit.

Demonstrating his loyalty, Goodwill praises Theresa May for bringing together “a Government of all the talents” and providing “steady hand at the tiller”. And he hits out at his colleagues in Government who have sought to sow division.

“I think its right and proper that within a political party you should have a debate about the issues,” he states. “But that debate around the Cabinet table should be precisely that – around the table.

“The cabinet need to come to a view as to what the position is, and then everybody should abide by collective responsibility and deliver on that.

“It’s not helpful for people to be briefing outside that particular scenario... I think [that] gives the impression to some people we’re divided.

“We’re not a debating society, we’re a party in government.”

Despite backing the Remain campaign in last year’s referendum, Goodwill now describes himself as a “Releaver” who is committed to delivering a “genuine” Brexit.

This is in contrast to so-called ‘Remoaners’ like Anna Soubry who the Scarborough MP claims is one of “a very small number of people in the party who don’t accept the [referendum] result”.

“I did vote to remain, it was a very closely balanced decision. But I understand democracy and we need to deliver on Brexit,” he says.

“I am optimistic that we can deliver a good Brexit... not just for the people who voted to leave but for the people who voted to stay.”

Outside of politics, he oversees the running of the family farm in Terrington, North Yorkshire, which has been home to the Goodwills since the 1850s. This includes occasionally helping to dig graves in the farm’s eco-friendly green burial site – an enterprise inspired by businesses in the US.

Asked whether he has ever been tipped for a job at Defra (the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) he jokes that David Cameron once came very close to giving him a farming role.“I went in to see the Prime Minister in Number 10 when he told me he’d like me to be Transport Minister. There was a bit of a silence, which I broke by saying ‘funnily enough I was on my tractor this morning listening about the reshuffle’.

“[Cameron] said ‘Oh you’re a farmer Robert, are you? I’ve just given the farming job to someone else’.”

The 60-year-old is due to take part in next month’s London-Brighton run, and maintains a small collection of steam engines, a passion he has fostered since childhood when his father would take him to the Castle-Howard traction engine rallies. He claims his father lifted him up on a steam-powered Showman’s engine at the age of four and from that moment he was hooked.

He laments that he does not get as much time to work on the vehicles as he would like, but claims it is a good way to take his mind off work: “If I’m doing any tractor driving I get to a chance to think about other things. If I’m on the steam engine, I really don’t have a chance to think about anything else.”