The famous motto of the RAF, Per Ardua ad Astra (‘through adversity to the stars’), may have some resonance for us at this difficult time in our National and International lives.
Nothing can assuage historians’ and art lovers’, and Christians’ grief at the tragic fire at Notre Dame. It is a tragedy by any standards. Just imagine how we would feel if Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s had burned down. Yet we rejoice that the main structures and the towers seem to have been saved, and at the immediate determination to rebuild and restore this magnificent icon of France, of Europe, and of Christianity.
It’s been a pretty awful week in other ways too. As well as the obvious Brexit turmoil, the rise of Nigel Farage’s new Party (and his recruitment of Nancy Mogg) and the need for a change at the top of the Conservative party (22 runners and riders so far – see below), there are troubles afoot more or less wherever you look. My Constituent, Professor Sir Roger Scruton should not have been sacked for what were, at the worst possible interpretation, no more than misconstruable words (although he must have been nuts to say them to the New Statesman of all leftie publications); Julian Assange must be tried for the Swedish rape allegations, but I have real doubts about his extradition to America. What about freedom of speech, equally denied to Scruton? And what possible reason is there to give Miss Begum, who is alleged to have used her spare time sewing people into suicide vests, legal aid to argue against her loss of British citizenship? She went off to fight for, or at least to marry, Daesh. That should be enough. She is not welcome back on these shores.
The story of Holy Week traces Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Cleansing on Monday (throwing the money changers out of the Temple at Jerusalem), the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, Crucifixion, of course, on Good Friday, and the Resurrection on Easter Day. My minister Father rather disapproved of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Rock Musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, because it ends with the Crucifixion, and misses out the most important day of all - the Resurrection on Easter Day.
So one message of Notre Dame and of Easter is that no matter how awful the circumstances, rebuilding, rebirth, freshness, resurrection, is just around the corner, (and the awfulness may even be a necessary prerequisite for the rebirth.) Here in Wiltshire we rejoice at the lambs gambolling, the ducklings waddling behind their mothers, the arrival of the swallows, the green shoots springing up everywhere presaging new life, rebuilding, the Summer which is to come. So let us not be downhearted – by Notre Dame nor the other troubles which have been besieging us for months now. Let us look forward to the newness, the freshness, the restoration of our souls and our National life which comes with Spring, and with Easter. After all, things can only get better. Per Ardua ad Astra.
With all best wishes to you and yours for a very Happy Easter.
PS: Runners and Riders so far (in no particular order): Johnson, Raab, Rees-Mogg, Rudd, Harper, Ellwood, Cleverley, Malthouse, Tughendat, Morgan, Javid, Gove, Hancock, Hunt, Leadsom, Mordaunt, Davis, Stewart (Rory), McVey, Truss, Sir Graham Brady, Mercer.
We have had the best part of three years to negotiate our departure from the EU and I find it hard to imagine how a further six months will make much of a difference. It will of course, cost us an enormous amount of money, including £100 million pounds to run the EU elections. But unless something significant changes we will find ourselves in exactly the same position on Halloween as we are today.
So what might change? First and foremost, we now urgently need a new Leader. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative loyalist and have never publicly called for the removal of any of my previous leaders – all eight of them! Indeed, I remember being told that I had secured the nomination for the North Wiltshire seat because, in the interview, I refused to nominate an alternative to our then Prime Minister John Major, whereas my opponent, Desmond Swayne openly touted John Redwood! But there comes a time when the personality at the top of the party needs to change and this is it. The Party Conference in October needs a fresh approach. We need a new leader, who by then will have successfully negotiated our departure from the EU and who can offer a new idea for governing Britain. A quick pencil and paper exercise tells me that there are currently twenty-three possible leadership contenders. I will interview them all.
Second, it is now clear that the Conservative Party and the DUP will not pass the Withdrawal Agreement as printed, yet it is plain that the EU will not change it. Is this the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object? Perhaps not. However, the Political Statement which is attached to it, is negotiable, and I hope that a new and dynamic leader would be able to take advantage of that wiggle room to reunite the party and crucially bring the DUP with him or her.
Third, the half-hearted negotiations with the Labour Party are not only disgraceful but also pointless. Jeremy Corbyn, governed as he is by the hard left Momentum Group, wants nothing other than a General Election. He is hardly likely to throw a life belt to the drowning Mrs May. And if per chance she gave in to his demands, acceding for example to full membership of the Customs Union, alignment to the Single Market and perhaps a second referendum, then she would lose any residual support in the Conservative Party. In the vote last week to extend Article 50 for example, 98 Conservatives voted against a three line whip, and a further 80 abstained, including 4 Cabinet ministers and the Deputy Chief Whip. That means that she only achieved a majority on the back of support from Labour and other opposition parties, with only 31% of her backing coming from 131 Conservative MPs. If that were to be repeated, with a Conservative PM only achieving something with the support of Labour, then her credibility as leader of the Conservative Party would once and for all be shot.
Fourth, it now looks as if we are going to have to take part in the EU elections, at enormous cost and for precious little purpose. My own view is that we should field no Conservative candidates at all, leaving the field open to various extreme Brexiteer parties who would then no doubt make it their business to demonstrate to the EU Parliament why they should be so keen to get rid of us.
It is all a mess and we can only start to rebuild respect for this Conservative Government and indeed for Parliament under a new Prime Minister. He or she must remember that politics is the art of the possible and seek to achieve what presently seems to be impossible, namely some sort of consensus within the Conservative Party.
In a dangerous constitutional change, Oliver Letwin took control of government for one day and threatens to do so again on Monday next week. Whether or not you like what he was proposing, the very fact that it was possible for Parliament, whose job it is to scrutinise the Executive, to pretend to be that Executive, is extremely damaging to our parliamentary democracy. Who is to scrutinise what the Letwin mini-government does? Who is to hold them to account? Government’s job is to govern, Parliament’s job is to scrutinise what they are doing.
At all events, the exercise failed, since the House simply voted against all of the eight options. Mr Letwin promised to bring it back next week with fewer options, and of this I am sure – that if he whittles it down to two options, one or other will have a majority. However, that in itself is not sufficient to indicate any merit in that outcome.
Parliament is unusually sitting on Friday in an attempt to prevent that constitutional outrage occurring, by once again considering the Withdrawal Agreement. It is as yet unclear whether or not the Speaker will allow such a third vote or whether it will be necessary for the Government to ascertain the views of the House by some other means. That might for example be the Second Reading debate on the Withdrawal Bill itself, incorporating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. As you will know, I remain deeply unhappy about the agreement, which seems to me to have dire consequences for the future. However I have concluded that it is less bad than any other option available to us. I, together with a number of other colleagues from the ERG, have therefore signalled that we will support the third Meaningful Vote, in whatever form it comes back. The DUP are currently indicating that they will not support it, in which case we will need the support of a substantial number of Labour MPs if it is to pass. I am at all events confident that the deal will secure more votes than any of Oliver Letwin’s bogus alternatives.
My hope is that by Monday, Parliament will have agreed on the way forward, based one way or another on the Prime Minister’s deal, and we can then move forward to the second stage of negotiations – on the trade agreement, with a new leader at our head by the summer.
On a personal level I respect Mrs May’s integrity and her strength and determination, but fear that she has been a wholly unsuccessful Prime Minister. She simply did not have the ability to secure something as difficult as Brexit in a minority government and has now paid the price for it. I wish her well in her retirement and look forward to new and dynamic leadership from the Brexit wing of the party from the Summer.
17.4 Million people – 52% of those who voted – asked to leave the EU two years after triggering Article 50. It was clear that that meant severing all ties- in particular leaving the Single Market, the Customs Union, the European Court of Justice; and by that means regaining control of our laws, our borders and our money. Remember all that?
Well a chain of events this week (adding to many others over the last two years since Mrs May’s disastrous miscalculation and mishandling of an unnecessary General Election in 2017) seem to me to be hurtling us towards the destruction of that dream.
Since I last wrote- a couple of days ago:
- Eccentric backbencher Sir Oliver Letwin has taken control of the Government in a constitutional outrage, aided and abetted by Mr Speaker Bercow, whose incumbency of the Chair may be viewed with some disdain by constitutional historians in the future.
- Letwin tried to persuade the Commons to agree to a series of votes on matters ranging from No Brexit, No Hard exit, a second referendum. All were defeated; and none achieved even the level of votes which the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement had reached the previous week. (In numbers, it remains the most popular option.)
- Thwarted, Letwin now changed tack, and on Wednesday he brought in his own Bill to ban leaving with No Deal, to force the PM to seek an extension to Article 50, and for Parliament to approve that extension. (Despite the fact that the EC might well not agree to it themselves.) He forced the Bill through the House of Commons, abusing or ignoring most of the rules and conventions built over 1000 years to ensure that we get good law; and in the end he won by one vote. Interesting to see that one of the MPs voting with Letwin is recently out of jail for a criminal offence. I wonder if the Midnight vote breached her curfew arrangements!
- Simultaneously, Mrs May having concluded that she could not take her own Party with her, entered into serious negotiations with the Marxist leader of the Labour Party to see if she could secure their support. I do not for a second believe she will. Mr Corbyn will plainly demand things (Customs Union, Single Market, second referendum) which are abhorrent to the Tories. If May goes along with Corbyn, her only chance would be to win using Labour, against her own Party. Not since the Corn Laws has that occurred; it would be a national humiliation and mean the certain death of the Conservative Party. She must not be allowed to do it.
- Trade Secretary Liam Fox was at the same moment addressing the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. He assured us that the Customs Union was wholly obnoxious, would prevent us from entering into Trade Deals of our own, and that our Manifesto Commitment to leave the CU was unassailable. I wonder if he had discussed that with the PM, or with Mr Corbyn before he appeared in front of us.
- Any and all of this demands a further extension to Article 50. We may persuade the EU to agree 22 May, which is the last date before we would have to fight the European Parliamentary elections. The EU do not want us to do so, because it jiggers the party political balance of the various committees and groupings. One thing they do not want would be 50 or 60 extreme Brexiteers in their hallowed portals.
The end result of all of this, as of Thursday 4 April, is that no-one has the faintest clue what happens next. We are still due to leave on Friday 12th, but of course the Letwin law supercedes that. We may not leave without a Deal, but then we have no Deal to offer. Stalemate.
Those who would argue that a Second Referendum or even a General Election would somehow or another untangle this Gordian knot are of course ’talking their own book’. A referendum would be divisive and indecisive, and anyhow, would not be possible within the time frame which the EU would allow us. A General Election would be a nightmare for all concerned. I have a great deal of sympathy with Brenda from Bristol (“Not another one.”)
So the only option left to Mrs May is to try once again to force the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons prior to next Wednesday, and then try to sort the mess out after we have left.
If we do not do so, I can see no way in which Brexit can happen at all. That would be a disgraceful destruction of democracy; it would outrage the 17.4 million, and a great many Remainers too who nonetheless fundamentally respect democracy.
I shudder to think what the short and longer term consequences of that would be.
The annual High Sheriff’s Rule of Law service was in Malmesbury Abbey last Sunday. This magnificent service has in previous years been held in Salisbury Cathedral, so it was a great privilege to be able to welcome the other High Sheriffs, Judges, Barristers, QCs, mayors and a myriad of other magnificently clad dignitaries to Malmesbury for the first time ever. Our High Sheriff, Nicky Alberry, lives near Calne, and I guess it must have been her idea. She’s had a great year as High Sheriff and this splendid service was its pinnacle.
The message from the service- symbolised by the robes, the chains of office, the maces, even the excellent new vicar and choir in their respective robes and badges of office, is that decent, well-run, civilised society depends on our collective acceptance of the Rule of Law. It was Malmesbury man, Thomas Hobbes, who famously opined that if it was not for these things, life would indeed be ‘Nasty, brutish and short.’ We collectively sign up to rules and laws, and norms of behaviour which we would not otherwise necessarily accept for the better avoidance of anarchy. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies gives us a similar message.
Its been hard to keep up with the Brexit process this week, so fast is its rate of change. Even in the process of writing and despatching this Column, it is quite likely that things will once again have changed. I opposed Mrs May’s deal on two occasions, then decided that the only way we would get any kind of Brexit was by deeply reluctantly supporting it. Then I had even that opportunity cut from under my feet by Mr Speaker Bercow’s ruling, based on a 1604 precedent not used for 100 years or more, that the third vote could not happen. Mrs May has now been granted a short extension to Article 50, but only if she secures support in the House of Commons for her deal. I will give her that, but this seems to me to be an open invitation to my more die-hard colleagues to withhold their support, and as they would see it, by that means secure a No Deal Brexit next Friday. (I personally suspect that, in line with the House’s motion last week, the Government will seek to prevent that, in which case we will simultaneously have No Deal, but also a prevention of No Deal occurring.)
Parliament could learn something from the Rue of Law service in Malmesbury. Whichever side of the argument you may happen to be on, what is sure is that the whole thing is a muddle and has been handled terribly badly- by the PM, who is on her last legs, by the Speaker, by Parliament as a whole. This is not how you should run a Parliament nor a Government.
Chaos, nihilism and anarchy prevail when the rule of law, procedures, normal rules of behaviour break down. Without in any way endorsing the PM’s rather self-regarding blaming of Parliament for what has occurred, I nonetheless do think that every branch of Government and Parliament must be to a degree blameworthy for the events of the last few weeks. An urgent post-Brexit priority must be the re-establishment of respect and good order in the machinery of The State.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA