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.
This time last week, I was hoping against hope that the Attorney General would bring back some concession on the Irish Backstop, which would be sufficient for me to support the PM’s badly flawed Deal. And to begin with I was quite encouraged. ”She cannot have made that last minute dash to Strasbourg for meetings with M Barnier unless she really had achieved some kind of a breakthrough,” I reasoned. “Her Deal was so thoroughly beaten last time round on account of the obnoxious Back-stop arrangements. She must have got them removed, or at least a firm end-date inserted.”
So, to begin with on Tuesday I was rather inclined to support her Deal. Better than No Deal, perhaps, and certainly better than No Brexit, which might otherwise be the consequence. I went along to the Attorney General’s Statement. He would be an enthusiastic supporter of the negotiation, presumably, which would enable me to firm up my support. Sadly not. His support for the deal was wishy-washy to say the least. Afterwards it was strongly rumoured that he had told the PM that he could not support it at all and was offered the revolver and bottle of whisky treatment as a result. The Deal was as bad as it had always been, with no redeeming Cox’s Codpiece to make it any better. So my decision was clear- I voted against it for the second time. The majority was smaller, but still overwhelming. Had it been closer; had I felt that my vote would have really mattered, then perhaps I would have been persuaded. But the DUP and most of my ERG colleagues, decided to vote against the Deal, so there was really no purpose in my compromising my Brexit principles. Or at least, not yet.
For the astonishing events of Wednesday and Thursday very probably mean that we will now either have to accept Mrs May’s Deal, atrocious as it is in many ways, or conclude that we really cannot leave the EU after all, and remain diminished and humiliated slaves of the Brussels hegemony for all time. On Wednesday, the PM’s motion proposed that we should not leave on 29 March with No Deal. Dame Caroline Spellman moved an amendment that that should become a permanent No to ‘No Deal’. Then she tried to change her mind and pull her amendment, which a Labour MP nonetheless moved on her behalf, which was then won by 4 votes. So now having been a three line whip to support the PM’s motion, it became a three line whip to vote against it. Yet in an unprecedented breach of collective responsibility, a gang of Ministers including Devizes MP, Claire Perry, rebelled against a three line whip, abstained, and by that means allowed the amended motion to be carried. Sarah Newton was the only honourable minister to resign. The rest should be ashamed of themselves. The end result of their culpable disloyalty is that Brexit is suddenly starting to look increasingly unlikely.
Now this is a very fast-moving scene, and the outlook changes daily if not hourly. However whatever now happens, I am finding it increasingly hard to conclude anything other than that the only way we can achieve anything which even vaguely resembles the Brexit that 17.4 million people voted for is indeed the PM’s deeply flawed and in parts wholly obnoxious deal. It breaks my heart to say it, but my strong instinct is that our efforts to produce a Clean Brexit, a full Brexit, even a No Deal Brexit have now failed. There comes a time in any war when the losing side has to recognise defeat and seek to extract the best possible terms for their troops. The End Game, as it is known in chess.
I think we are now there. So my expectation is that when the same old deal is brought back before us next week, I for one, and I hope enough of my ERG colleagues to make it pass, will march through the Ayes lobby in support of the Deal, with our heads held high having fought a good fight. Its not what we wanted, but it now looks like the best we can actually get. To my strong Brexit electorate I would say: “I am sorry. You know that I tried my best.” To my Remainer electorate: “I hope that you will at least be pleased at a much softer Brexit than people like me might have liked”, and to my pragmatic reasonable middle grounders: “I think you will understand my dilemma and my eventual decision.” And to you all, please understand the heavy burden of responsibility which all MPs feel resting on their shoulders. These decisions will affect life in Britain for generations to come. They are mot made lightly nor easily.
I remember playing the mad slave, Lucky, in our school production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but I just can’t remember how it all ended (nor even whether or not it did.) I feel a bit like slave Lucky in the current production of Waiting for Brexit. But I am just beginning to think that we may be nearing the denouement.
A gang of Ministers had threatened their resignations this week, and a trio of junior ministers (one of them very local to here) had penned an article in the Daily Mail disagreeing with Government policy on the matter, in an astonishing breach of Ministerial collective responsibility. In any normal times, that would without doubt have resulted in their immediate sacking.
In these volatile times, that ministerial disobedience, even defiance, resulted in the PM finally agreeing to their demands. Mrs May was forced to announce that she would allow Parliamentary votes on 12/13/14 March respectively: on her Deal, on taking No Deal off the table, and on the (?Indefinite) extension of Article 50. That would be truly Waiting for Brexit….
So what’s next? Well, I can only hope that Mrs May is able to persuade the European Union to make sufficient changes to the current draft deal to allow people like me to support her and her deal on Tuesday 12th March. We need at very least some kind of binding agreement that the Irish Backstop will not under any circumstances lead to our permanent membership of any kind of Customs Union, and giving us the unilateral right to walk away from it. If the PM and Attorney General can come up with some such concession from the EU, then the consecutive votes which she has announced will strongly tempt me towards voting for her Deal on 12th March.
I will not be happy doing so, and know that I will be disappointing my Brexit supporters, and probably not really satisfying Remain supporters either. But just think about it: if on 12th March the Commons were to vote against her Deal as amended, then on 13th they will certainly find a majority in favour of stopping No Deal, and on 14th they will extend the Waiting for Brexit Game into the dim distant future. So I am beginning to move towards thinking that if we can extract some binding concession from the EU, then holding my nose and crossing my fingers, I will vote to support her Deal, warts and all. It’s a Bad Deal, but is very probably better than No Brexit at all.
Slave Lucky and his Masters, Vladimir and Estragon just cannot go on like this. We cannot extend the division and rancour which has surrounded the Brexit debate in recent months. Most businesses and private citizens alike wanted to see an end to these proceedings and to know what the outcome is. Supporting the PM on 12th March - albeit reluctantly -may well be the only way of finding an end to Waiting for Brexit.
MPs will be asked to decide next week in a series of Parliamentary votes, the outcomes of which will have a decisive influence over life in Britain for decades and generations to come. It is a heavy personal responsibility.
Most ‘decisions’ in Parliament are pretty easy. MPs follow their Manifesto, listen to their Party Whips, consider constituency interests, in deciding on every single thing they do. But by and large the route forward is pretty straightforward. Not this time.
A huge spread of influences and pressures bear down on the MP. What do the constituents think? (very probably more or less split down the middle, so no help there.) The subtle black arts of whipping, influence, patronage; opinion in the media and social media; the views of well-respected colleagues; long-standing political beliefs. These and a thousand other influences crowd in on the MP’s thinking, which is all then distilled down into a vote- either Aye or Noe- on Tuesday next at 7PM.
I have been listening carefully- reading and replying to every one of the many thousands of letters from constituents; meeting with my European Research Group colleagues; a briefing in NO 10 from arch-Remainer, the PM’s Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell. We have talked of little else for two or three years. Yet I still cannot tell you definitively how I will vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. That depends entirely on what Attorney General Geoffrey Cox brings back from Brussels over the weekend. If it is a substantial change to the obnoxious and unsupportable Back Stop arrangements, then I will be inclined, and under pressure probably will, support the Deal. It will be through gritted teeth, and will definitely be a vote for the least bad of a very bad lot. But it will be hard to resist. On the other hand, If the Attorney General fails to come up with something convincing, it will be pretty straightforward- I will vote against the deal.
I will vote against Wednesday’s rather childish attempt to take ‘No Deal‘ off the table. (I felt that Amber Rudd, its authoress, was given a surprisingly easy time of it at a speech she made in North Wiltshire last Friday). And I will vote against any unreasonable extension of Article 50 on Thursday (other than perhaps a small technical extension to give time for the necessary legislations and so on.)
But as I have often said, I vote from conviction, and from careful consideration of the various arguments, from a lifelong dislike of the EU, for the 52% who voted to leave in North Wilts. All of those things come together to dictate my Eurosceptic stance, and my determination to deliver on the Brexit the people voted for in the Referendum three years ago. But I hope I am humble and modest enough to acknowledge that I can but hope against hope, nay pray, that I am right in doing so.
This week’s decision by Honda to relocate their manufacturing from Swindon back to Japan in 2022, with a potential loss of 3500 jobs directly, plus others from the supply chain, is of course deeply regrettable. Many people in North Wiltshire will be very concerned about it, and I will gladly do whatever I can to help with their particular circumstances. I attended the first meeting in Swindon yesterday of the Taskforce set up to deal with the repercussions of the decision. Amongst other things, I reminded the meeting of Dyson’s £200 million investment in electric car Research and Development just 20 miles up the M-4 at Hullavington. Maybe our area could become a national hub for electric car R and D, perhaps even manufacturing. That would be one good way or using what will by then be an empty, but high-quality car plant. Might even be of interest to Sir James?
It is also worth remembering that unemployment in North Wiltshire (and across England) is at an historic low. 800 people are currently registering in this area, which has been the same for several years. Most of those people are transitting between jobs. There is a great deal of expansion and opportunity across the area, and I am hopeful that after the initial shock has passed, the Honda employees will come to realise the opportunities in the area which will now open up for them.
The automotive industry is going through troublous times globally- Nissan’s announcement about its diesel 4x 4, Jaguar Landrover’s difficulties, even Dyson’s decision to move their corporate HQ (albeit only two highly paid top executives, one of whom already works in Singapore) may even be a part of it all. Its about a Global downturn in demand, environmental concerns over diesel emissions, competition from electric cars and much improved public transport in many places.
Brexit, and uncertainty caused by it, cannot have helped. But it is in no sense to blame. 85% of the cars manufactured in Swindon are destined for the US market; a large part of the balance is domestic. Those who have their own political reasons for doing so, will try to blame Brexit, but that really is both misleading and forlorn. There is no evidence at all of any kind of economic downturn as a result of, or in anticipation of Brexit; and it is ruthless and relentless scaremongering to suggest otherwise. These people are playing with workers’ personal concerns for their families, and it is quite wrong.
The split in the Labour Party is perhaps more directly attributable to Brexit, as well as to a general disaffection with their Leadership. I hear that up to 100 Labour MPs are being threatened with deselection by their Momentum-swelled local Labour Associations. One colleague was telling me that his Association has gone from 200 members, each of whom he knew personally for many years to a staggering 8,000 members, none of whom he knows at all. The obvious presumption is that these are communist infiltrators seeking to take over the Labour Party. By any stretch that must be a deeply damaging prospect for democracy in general as well as for Labour.
So I salute the bravery of the magnificent seven, and of those who will follow their lead. They may well be sacrificing their own careers and livelihoods in favour of their beliefs and background. That takes courage politically, and they should be congratulated and supported in their decision.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA