- Video report by ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston
I interviewed the new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt today, shortly after he met his Dutch opposite number, Stef Blok, in The Hague as part of Hunt’s whirlwind tour of European capitals to sell Theresa May’s Brexit plan to the EU.
In what was his first substantial TV interview since replacing Boris Johnson a month ago, he made three big points that will define his early months as this country’s envoy to the rest of the world.
First, the choice facing the rest of the EU on Brexit is a version of Theresa May’s Chequers plan or chaos - and he thinks that with the risks of failure slowly dawning on other EU governments he is at last gaining traction in talks with his opposite numbers.
Second, making remarks that will alarm his predecessor Boris Johnson, the former Brexit secretary David Davis and the Brexiter wing of his party led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, he said the Chequers plan is not "take it or leave it"; he would be prepared to make compromises and concessions to secure an EU agreement, including possibly accepting the EU’s enduring power to control future social and environmental legislation in the UK.
Third, he argued that to ward off what he sees as a life-or-death challenge to our "democratic, liberal, Western model", countries with values like ours should co-operate and stand together.
In pursuit of that ambition he will go to Washington next week to try to make an entente with a Trump administration that does not conspicuously share all the values of Britain mainstream parties!
And in a less ambitious but equally compelling aside, Hunt also queried whether Boris Johnson, in his remarks about burkas, had shown the judgement of a "political leader".
Here are the highlights of what he said:
I asked him if the Chequers plan, captured in a White Paper cordially and not-so-cordially loathed by Brexiter colleagues, was being presented to negotiators for the EU as all-or-nothing.
His answer was "no". He said: "It is a framework on which I believe the ultimate deal will be based."
Jacob Rees-Mogg will bristle. But Hunt hoped ultimately most of the Tory Brexiters will lump it.
Having met 15 EU foreign ministers so far, he said: "There are some early signs of real pragmatic engagement in that White Paper plan...People are very concerned to avoid no deal by accident."
And where might Theresa May, Hunt and the Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab give ground to the EU?
Well I asked if they would be prepared to continue to take environmental and social rules from the EU, to secure their cherished frictionless and costless access to the EU for goods and food.
He replied that he would be open to persuasion if the EU could demonstrate that fair competition, a level playing field, depended on us taking their social and environmental laws forever: "We totally understand the need to have a level playing field...We would have so see what their proposal was. Some of those things can have an impact on the level playing field."
Hunt put his habitual brave face on a chaotic no-deal exit from the EU: "It would be a difficult period we would have to get through, but the UK would eventually find a way to prosper and thrive, as we have so many times in our history."
But no deal "would be a huge geo-strategic mistake". Referencing what he sees as the malignant activities of Russia, inter alia, he said: "This is a situation where countries with similar values need to be standing together on the world stage...
“It [no deal] would be a mistake that we would regret for generations if we were to see a fissure, if we were to have a messy, ugly divorce."
And he fears the pain would be exported: "If we have a very messy divorce that causes problems on both sides of the channel then inevitably, that will change British attitudes to Europe and we don’t want that to happen."
That said, he does not think even a no-deal Brexit should be ratified by voters in another referendum. "That would be an absolutely fatal mistake," he said.
I asked him, pace today’s Telegraph, whether MI6 is bugging the eurocrats in Brussels. "Foreign secretaries never comment on intelligence matters," he said, before implying that was an absurd idea (though is it?).
He laughed when I asked him why the PM had asked him to sell Brexit to the rest of the EU when she had more-or-less banned Johnson from having any formal Brexit role - and then added that "the role of the foreign secretary in situations like this is to go round European capitals and point out that the implications of not getting a deal are profound in terms of geo-stratregic relations, in terms of our diplomatic relations, in terms of our friendship and our cooperation with European countries...
"If you look at the threats we face in the world this is a time when countries with similar values need to be standing together.
"Next week I am going to the United States for my first bilateral there. And I think that is equally true of the Transatlantic relationship.
"We need to be working together with the United States on as many issues as we can - because really for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, many people are starting to ask fundamental questions about the democratic, liberal, Western model.
"And all of us believe that it is fundamental, incredibly important. Countries that share those values should be talking and working together."
So what about his predecessor’s contentious remarks likening women who wear the burka and niqab to letterboxes and robbers? Does Hunt think Johnson needs diversity training?
"In a liberal society people need to be able to say what they want; they need to be able to say things that offend other people. That is part of what happens in countries with free speech," he said.
"But also political leaders need to be careful not to say things that cause divisions.
"We have a process inside the Conservative Party [to assess whether Johnson crossed an important line]. We have to let that process happen."
To nutshell, Hunt is a foreign secretary whose turning of a new page in the UK’s diplomatic story does not include deferring to the last holder of his great office of state.