We’re in the eye of the Brexit Storm. Further turbulence is due over the next couple of weeks with the EU Summit, the sitting of Parliament on Saturday, the votes on the Queen’s Speech and Halloween all rushing up at us at breakneck speed. (The good news of 31 October will be the end of an era - as Mr Speaker Bercow, the President of the EU Parliament’s new best friend, stands down.)
The Queen comes to Parliament on Monday to lay out the legislative programme for the year ahead, although few of us expect it to happen this side of a General Election. She will arrive with the full panoply of state ceremony, always assuming that XR allow her carriage through. (I’d have thought real horsepower might be preferable to a carbon-guzzling Rolls Royce.) I must say, they were very polite in the various interactions I had with Extinction Rebellion last week. I rather support their agenda, but just wish they could make their point without putting everyone else in London to such inconvenience.
By contrast, I attended a thoroughly civilised debate on Climate Change and the Environment at Royal Wootton Bassett Academy last Friday. People there made their views very plain, and I agreed with most of them. However I do wonder about the use of the expression ‘Climate Emergency’. Surely an ‘Emergency’ is an event to which there is an immediate and urgent remedy. The house is on fire, so we evacuate and call the Fire Brigade. There is realistically no such immediate, obvious and dramatic solution to our Global Carbon crisis. That means that when we meet this time next year, it may well be hard to discern much urgent change. You can’t have an indefinite Emergency.
Leaving semantics on one side, I was also glad to take part in a debate in Parliament during the week on Amazon fires and deforestation, and then to chair a very full debate on Climate Change and the Net Zero Target. Those debates - and that in RWB Academy - may have been prompted by the XR activists glueing themselves to lorries outside; but that does not necessarily justify their behaviour, which, had the Police not countered it so effectively, have actually prevented Parliament from meeting to discuss their concerns. What an irony that would have been.
For the first time in 23 years I am to spend this weekend in Westminster attending the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (always assuming that the delegates from all over the World can actually get there through the protestors.) Events in Syria are a true Emergency. The Turks, who are members of NATO are attacking the Syrian Kurds who are supported by the Americans and Brits, also of course NATO members. Get this one wrong and the whole Middle East could very easily be engulfed in warfare, which would make Brexit and Climate Change look insignificant by comparison. That is truly an Emergency, and I am happy to give up a Wiltshire weekend to discuss it.
Brexit is an Emergency. We have days to sort it out; and we must make sure that we get it right. Our votes in Parliament, our negotiations in Brussels, have an immediate and crucial effect on our futures and our belief in democracy. Syria is an emergency, and I hope that our NATO debates over the weekend may help to damp it down at least a little. Climate Change is just as (or arguably more) important; but it is, prima facie, less of an ‘Emergency.’
Do you remember all the bogus fuss about Prorogation? Labour were determined to ‘keep us all in Westminster to hold the Government to account.’ They even, mean-mindedly, cancelled the Recess to allow us to attend the Tory Party Conference in Manchester. Well I did my duty. I cleared the diary. I travelled up to London, and sat around the Commons for three days, during which absolutely NOTHING happened. No votes; no Government business (it was all wrapped up ages ago), no PMQs (Boris was in Manchester and Diane Abbott couldn’t count up to six, the number of questions she is allocated.) The noisiest things about Parliament during this period of great national crisis were the snores from the Commons library and the tumbleweed drifting down the corridors of power.
And then on Thursday a horseman appeared on the horizon. It was Clint Boris Eastwood with an offer which the EU would be foolish to ignore. None of us love it. There is a great deal that is wrong with it, but the most obnoxious elements of the NI Backstop have been solved. The DUP are prepared to accept it; the European Reform Group are looking at the small print, but all of the indications are that we will (perhaps reluctantly) go along with it; the 21 Tory colleagues who lost the Whip will support it; there are even rumours that up to about 20 Labour colleagues from Brexit seats will support it. In other words, for the first time since the Brady Amendment, there is a very good chance that this Deal, dislike some details of it as some of us do, may well get through the Commons with a reasonable majority.
All we need now is for the EU - who want a deal as much as we do- and the Irish to agree to it (or at least to enter into serious negotiations over it) and we will indeed be leaving the EU with a Deal on 31 October as promised. The fuss over Prorogation would be forgotten; the Benn Act forcing an extension to Article 50 would be redundant; the fake worries about ‘No Deal crashing out, cliff edges’ and all of that would be consigned to the rhetorical dustbin of Brexit history. Leavers and Remainers alike up and down the land would breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve had enough of it all. All we want now is to get Brexit done.
The next few days of negotiation will be crucial and very delicate. But I call on the European negotiators to realise that this is a good compromise offer; that it’s as far as we can go; that we need it done within a very short space of time. We Tories have a healthy lead in the polls, which means that if they mess around we will have an inexorable General Election, and a Tory majority in all probability, in which case they would then have to accept our proposals. So from the EU’s standpoint this is about as good as it’s ever going to get, and if they truly have the interests of their people at heart they will now agree it, and the Brexit saga will be ended.
It’s too early to be triumphant; but for the first time in a very long time I feel genuinely optimistic that a Deal can be done, and we can deliver what 17.4 million people voted for. Then, and only then, will Parliament arouse itself properly and get on with discussing health and education, defence and foreign affairs. And then and only then can Britain – a free and independent nation state- truly start to make our own way in the wider world. We are so close now. Let’s make it happen.
It used to be said that ’There’s no ice in Iceland; and Greenland isn’t green.’ The former, as I discovered this week, is becoming true; and the latter, as I discovered this time last year is rapidly becoming false. There were once plenty of glaciers in Iceland but they are disappearing at a rapid rate; and the Greenland ice-shelf is similarly sliding into the sea, leaving large parts of Greenland ’green’. This week I was in Iceland leading a little cross-party expedition of Parliamentarians.
There are those in the world who deny that Climate Change is real; there are others who argue that it has nothing to do with human activity and is merely cyclical. Either group should have come with me to Iceland. They would have seen the diminishing glaciers (one of them, Okjokull, now known as simply Ok, disappearing altogether and for good); they would have felt the unseasonal warmth; they would have heard about the warm water fish which are now routinely found in the High North Atlantic, and about the very worrying changes to migratory patterns of the Arctic geese and others. They would have discovered that the Chinese and Russians are investing billions in the promised ‘Northern Sea Route’, which will allow 100,000 tonne tankers and bulk carriers to sail freely around, or even eventually across, the North Pole.
These things are not the mad imaginings of some weird environmental enthusiasts trying to destroy our Western away of life, as the climate change deniers would argue. These things are real, and very visible at the far end of an Icelandair flight to Reykjavik. Climate Change is real; it is having a devastating effect on large parts of the Arctic (far worse than the rest of the world so far); it has come about as a result of our increased carbon emissions, coupled with deforestation in the Amazon and elsewhere; and it can only be contained or reversed by us if we take urgent and dramatic action.
I was delighted by the announcement this week that COP 26 (the multinational Conference of the Parties on Climate Change) is to be held in Glasgow next year; and I hope that under the Presidency of my (soon to be former) neighbouring MP from Devizes, Claire Perry, it will be able to take forward the agenda set by the last COP in Paris, or the others stretching back to the first, which I attended in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. I also welcome the appointment of my friend and arch-environmentalist, Zac Goldsmith as a Minister of State in the Department of the Environment. If anyone can shake up our stance on these matters it is he. I welcome the Government’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, and hope that it can be sooner and more dramatic than that; and I am proud of the 25 year Environmental programme which we have laid out. This is truly a green government, and I am proud of it. But there is so much more that we can (and must) do.
We can change human behaviour, and we must do so. Electric cars must become the norm; we must act to prevent Brazilian deforestation of the Amazon jungle; persuade China and India to stop building coal-fired power stations and so much else. We ourselves must be ready to make changes in our everyday lives, many of which are perfectly easy and just take a bit of self-discipline. Less car and plastic usage is a good example.
Climate change is real; it is here; and it is our doing. We must now act- dramatically and decisively- to halt; and then, we hope, reverse it.
The problem with Parliament and the political system is that we have become fixated by ourselves and our inability to carry out the will of the people. The moment the rugby club becomes obsessed with its constitution is the moment it starts losing matches. And most of this week’s turbulence and acrimony has all of the hallmarks of a rugby club committee falling out with itself.
The Supreme Court’s judgement is important. Of course it is. But it disagrees with the Master of The Rolls, and a great many other very senior judges. It is in fact making a new law; and that it is a serious matter for our constitution. Who runs Britain? Parliament? Or the Government? Or the Judiciary? These are complex and delicate constitutional matters which great minds will ponder over for many decades to come. They are most certainly not the material for political knock-about as they have become this week.
I anyhow maintain my view that Proroguing was the right and the perfectly normal thing to do. We do it every year at this time, leaving time for the Party Conferences followed by a Queen’s Speech. The Labour and Liberal parties, having presided over a shambles of a Conference have now refused the Tory request to allow ours to continue as normal. Good democracy there, eh? The Supreme Court ruling means that there can be no certainty about a Queen’s Speech, making this the longest ever Parliament, and removing the Government’s right to legislate and run the country. The Judges may be legally correct; but their judgement will have very real consequences for our constitution and for future governments’ ability to govern.
In the meantime, Mr Speaker Bercow has allowed the whole principle of Parliamentary democracy to be undermined by one seemingly harmless or obscure change to Parliamentary procedure - namely allowing Standing Order 24 debates to have Executive authority. That has allowed backbenchers to take control of the Government. They did so in July and passed a law requiring the PM to write to the EU requesting an extension to Article 50. The PM is so far refusing to do so, although I suspect that the lawyers are preparing for another field day over it.
All of this is being discussed in an atmosphere of discord and acrimony of a kind I have never seen, and which does our Parliamentary reputation no favours. Its like a very bad-tempered football match – teams support Rangers or Celtic, and never the twain shall meet. It’s a binary choice - Remain or Leave - with often very little sane and balanced discussion entering into it. Only a General Election will lance the boil which is at the heart of our political discourse. Yet Labour and the Lib Dems will not allow us to call one. Is that because they are afraid that they would lose? Or is it because many parts of the Labour Party are terrified of the thought of their own Leader in No 10?
There is no way out of this impasse without a General Election. We have no majority; we are being hamstrung in our efforts to carry out the will of the people so clearly expressed in the Referendum; we cannot prorogue; and the Labour and Liberal parties are trying to prevent us going to the people in a General Election.
They would frustrate the will of the people. And apparently they do not think twice about doing so by scrapping so much that is good and essential about our laws and constitution and Parliamentary tradition. The only truth is that the people voted to leave the EU. That is what we must now do.
No matter which side of the Brexit debate you may be on, and regardless whether you view the current Prorogation as a normal part of the Parliamentary year (my view), or as some kind of a dastardly Machiavellian plot to take Britain out of the EU with no deal; either way round, I hope that you will agree with me on one thing.
Parliament and its proceedings only work if they are respected, admired and understood by the people at large. Parliament is simply the “place where people talk” deriving from the old French ‘parlez’. Whitehall is where government work is done; Parliament is the place where we discuss what they are doing. If the public’s respect for Parliament is diminished, then we cannot hold the Executive branch to account as they would wish. Now that respect, comes - amongst many other things- from the age-old customs and structures; the building; the ceremony; courtesy and respect; and the primacy of Parliamentary procedure as laid down in the Clerks’ Bible, Erskine-May. If any part of all of that falls away, then it is a very short step to people starting to ask: ‘What is Parliament for anyhow’, and that way lies either dictatorship or anarchy.
John Bercow had some good instincts, and some achievements to his name. He has strengthened Parliament in some ways. But he has also diminished its standing, its procedures and traditions; the invisible mystery which gives it acceptance and respect by all. You may laugh at the funny uniforms, at the ceremony surrounding Monday’s Prorogation; at addressing each other by constituency and in the third person; at gravitas and decency and good manners in all we do; at a rule against clapping, which diminishes proceedings; at a Speaker who is impartial, at an Opposition which is ‘Loyal’; at a functioning Party system. But those things, and many more, are the invisible glue which holds our Parliamentary democracy together. They are the product of 1000 years of development; and we cast them aside at our peril.
That is why the events of this week are so worrying. The Speaker has become more and more blatant in his pro-Remain and pro-Labour bias. He has become ruder and ruder, more and more puffed up and dismissive of others; more and more bullying. On our busy final day’s business, how can he have allowed two hours of sycophantic ‘tributes’ to himself, at the expense of time, amongst other things to discuss Northern Ireland? It is alleged that he knew about, if not actually conniving in, the disgraceful scenes on Monday evening with Labour, Liberal and SNP MPs scuffling round the Speakers Chair; with his open defiance of Her Majesty’s Prorogation of Parliament; with posters being waved, Black Rod ignored, and the Red Flag being sung in the Chamber. These things do nothing to heighten respect for our Parliament in Britain or abroad, and Mr Speaker Bercow did nothing to stop them.
So one of the urgent tasks now facing us must be restoring that mystical, invisible, hard to define element of ‘Respect’ for Parliament. Mr Speaker Bercow’s departure, a General Election in November after an orderly departure from the EU in October, is the opportunity for that renaissance of the greatness Parliament.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA