Big Interview: Former Google travel head turned MP weighs up Brexit

Big Interview: Former Google travel head turned MP weighs up Brexit

Nigel Huddleston entered Parliament last year as Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire. The former Google head of travel has firm views on the referendum. He spoke to Ian Taylor

Disputes about the EU referendum dominate the news, but Nigel Huddleston MP seems relaxed.

“Few people are zero or 100% about Europe,” he says. “That is why so many are undecided. On balance, I’m in favour of staying in. The economic argument for staying is compelling. The dangers of coming out are truly alarming.

“There are issues with Europe – over democracy, transparency, sovereignty – though some of this gets confused with the European Court of Human Rights, which is separate from the EU. But the business case is very strong.”

So why did David Cameron call a referendum? Huddleston says: “This has been bubbling away for so long we needed to lance the boil. I’m not a fan of referendums, but I’m strongly in favour of the British public having a say. Plus, there is the political dimension. Ukip was doing very well [when Cameron called the referendum] and its key demand was for a referendum. It was time to do something, not dissimilar to Scotland.”

How does he view the outcome? “It depends how close it is. If there is a huge majority for Remain, it will probably signal the death of Ukip. But I would be surprised if the issue goes away because there are politicians whose whole political life has been spent on Europe.

“Whichever side wins, politicians need to respect the decision and do what is in the best interests of the British public.

“But I suspect the result will be quite narrow, the issue will rumble on and we’ll be talking about it for the next couple of decades.”

UK economy


At the same time, he says: “The EU will evolve and we’ll have a role shaping it, in or out.

“Europe is going to change. There is a rise in scepticism across Europe, an appetite for more democracy, greater transparency and less regulation.”

He adds: “One reason we have so many immigrants is because the UK economy is so strong. We need the rest of Europe to do well.

“I’m worried about the weaker euro countries. One area needs high interest rates and one low. Something has to give. In Greece there is the political will to stay in the eurozone, but the economic argument is to leave. That is different to the UK.

“I don’t have much confidence in the deal [we’ll get] if we leave. If we got some sort of soft deal and didn’t concede much in return, other countries would want the same. Then a whole series of dominoes would start to fall and the [EU] project would fall apart. Our EU friends wouldn’t allow that to happen. That is decisive to me – and the fact that we have an exemption from even closer union [in Cameron’s renegotiated deal].”

He dismisses the suggestion that a vote to remain could see the EU take the attitude, ‘You’ve had a vote, now put up and shut up’, insisting: “I can’t see that happening.

“You’re not seeing parties win [elections] in Europe saying, ‘We want more EU integration’.”

Huddleston added: “I question whether the Schengen Agreement has had its day in light of the recent terrorist attacks.”

Impact on travel


What about the impact of a Leave vote on travel? He says: “There is no doubt travel would be affected. EU regulations and the Open Skies agreement benefit the travel sector across Europe, but in particular the UK. It has made our holidays cheaper. Mobile tariffs have also made a difference.

“There is the ability to work, travel or retire overseas. That is extremely attractive. It is one of the reasons UK inbound traffic has been so strong. It has a significant impact and helps the industry.

“It’s scaremongering to say two million Brits [living elsewhere in the EU] would have to return. But people wanting to stay in EU countries in future would be affected.” He laughs: “People tell me they will vote out and they plan to retire to Spain.

“There is no doubt there would be a huge hit on the sterling exchange rate and on the stock market the day after [a Leave vote] and there would be huge uncertainty.

“Individual sectors would be hurt more than others. Large numbers of people from overseas work here in the domestic travel sector. It helps with wage costs, but there is also a supply issue. There would clearly be an impact. The supply of overseas labour would stop.”

Huddleston says: “I’m convinced we would negotiate a deal with the EU and the only way to get good terms would be to accept some version of freedom of movement. That is a good thing. The Leave side is being naive [if it thinks we won’t]. But there would be at least a temporary period of uncertainty and it would make the UK less attractive for some EU residents.

“There is another aspect: 80% of our economy is in services and we have a trade surplus in services across the EU and with every EU member. It’s the area that is our best for growth and it [a Leave vote] would impact services.”

He adds: “Abta produced an excellent report on the impact on travel [with Deloitte]. The travel sector has done a good job putting data into the debate. [EasyJet chief executive] Caroline McCall’s intervention was also needed. It does credit to the industry.”

Tory party division


Huddleston denies the referendum and the divisions over it in the Conservative Party have held up government business. He insists: “It’s a good media story to say the Tories are at one another’s throats, but it has not paralysed the government.”

By way of argument, he reels off a list of recent policy initiatives: “BBC reform, education, health – there is a lot going on.” Some of these have involved government U-turns on previously announced policies, of course.

But Huddleston insists the Conservatives will get over their divisions once the referendum is over. He says: “Some of my best friends in Parliament are on the other side. There are individuals for whom it has turned into a mission, but I would be surprised if there are resignations. Most Eurosceptics say they will accept the decision. The party will heal.”

He also concedes there has been scaremongering, but argues: “It is on both sides. There has been deliberate misinterpretation. Some politicians and journalists have done a disservice to the debate.”


Sixty seconds with Nigel

Q. Do MPs appreciate travel and tourism’s value?
A.
“It’s news to most. The industry has to find a way to lobby more effectively. UKinbound, Abta and the British Hospitality Association do a good job, but it’s a fragmented industry. The sector does a good job with new MPs. The SNP brings it up a lot. But more-senior MPs hardly come on the radar.”

Q. Why doesn’t travel command more attention?
A.
“Travel is not vastly demanding of government time, the industry is fragmented and the issues are fragmented – APD, HS2, airport capacity etc.”

Q. How was your first year in Parliament?
A.
“I’m finding my feet. The biggest thing is the diversity of issues and how quickly you have to focus on one topic, then another. I’m expected to know in depth what is going on all the time. The variety is fantastic.”

Q. Are you enjoying being an MP?
A.
“There is little I don’t like. I most enjoy constituency work. The biggest challenge is the cases in surgery you can’t do anything about. You don’t have a magic wand. I don’t like social media – it can be bloody awful.”

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