Was it vaguely flattering to be called to speak in the House of Commons this week by Mr Speaker Bercow as “James Gray, a sort of Gandalf figure”? He was (unwittingly perhaps) accurate, since in the Hobbit, Gandalf is known as ‘Gandalf the grey.’ But I will graciously accept the intended accolade and its hints of aged wisdom and great leadership, with all due modesty, and without speculating as to whether the soon-to-depart Speaker is himself a bit of a Gollum?
For having secured a Deal, (which to the purist Brexiteer may be less than perfect, but not as bad as Theresa May’s), our Frodo Baggins Prime Minister was all set to have it approved at the special sitting of the House last Saturday, and to press ahead with it this week. But Gollum then allowed Sir Orc Letwin to scupper that idea with a Remainer amendment. Undeterred, Frodo secured a general acceptance of the Withdrawal Bill at Second Reading by a handsome majority of 30, only to have the essential timetabling which would allow it to become law frustrated by the Orcs. (Enough Hobbit references, ed.)
So as I write there is a great debate at the heart of government. The bolder element would have us declare an end to it all with an immediate General Election. They argue that even if we gave Labour more time to scrutinise the Bill, the risk is that they would wreck it by amendments, and/or delay it even further. “Labour are in disarray”, they would argue, “but they might get themselves sorted out if we give them time to do so.”
The more cautious wing of Prime Ministerial advisers urge caution. “We have got a reasonable Deal; you got a record majority at Second Reading of the Bill, so let’s now find time to debate it in full even if that means a few weeks’ extension to the 31 October deadline for Brexit. If the Remainers really do try to wreck the Bill, that’s the time when we can go to the people and ask for their endorsement.”
It’s the old debate - weighing up the merits of urgent and dramatic action against caution, reason and steadiness under fire. I personally also feel uneasy about some of the logistics surrounding an Election on 12 December - problems with the new Electoral Register, closeness to Christmas, poor weather are but a few of them.
So Gandalf Gray calls on the PM to celebrate having got as far as we have with his deal and Parliamentary approval of it; allow, however, as much more time as may be needed for proper consideration of the detail of the Bill, while always reserving the right to pull it if its opponents seek to wreck it. That would secure Brexit, and Frodo Johnson could then then go to the Country for approval of it in the Spring.
The Quest of the Ring may otherwise start to look like a piece of cake by comparison with getting Brexit over the line.
I am writing this (and technology permitting) you will be reading it, on Friday 18th October. The PM has come back from Brussels, having secured (against all of the predictions of the Remain-leaning pundits) a new deal from the EU. There is still much which is less than perfect about it. But it removes some of the most obnoxious parts of the Theresa May deal - especially with regard to the Northern Irish backstop (although I am disappointed that the DUP are not supporting it), and with regard to defence matters.
At all events, of one thing I am certain: It’s the best that we are going to get. I hope that we secure a majority for it in the House tomorrow and I personally will most certainly be voting for it. If we do not, there will be no better deal, and we will very probably not leave the EU at all, thereby destroying all public credence in the democratic process itself.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats seem determined to block the Deal. The Liberal Democrats, of course, espouse a second referendum instead, nonetheless making it clear that whatever the outcome of that Referendum, they would oppose it unless it happened to agree with their own pro-EU views. “Let’s ask the people, but only pay any attention to it if they agree with us.” How Liberal. How Democratic. Labour, so far as I can understand it, say that they would renegotiate Brexit, hold a ‘confirmatory referendum’ and then campaign against whatever it is that they have negotiated.
Yet I come across very few people who would relish the notion of a further six months of division, uncertainty and rancour as a second referendum is fought over. It would be divisive and inconclusive; it might, of course, land us up precisely where we are now. The time for discussion is over. The people voted; we have secured the best deal that we possibly can. The House must now vote for it, and we must proceed to put the necessary legislation in place to leave the EU on 31st October. If they do not do so, then we must have an immediate General Election, during which they may well be hard oppressed to explain their actions to the electorate.
So let’s just get on with it.
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.
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.’
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.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.