I long for the day when my weekly column can be about something other than Brexit. But when I have allowed my thoughts to stray on the odd occasion of recent weeks I was immediately upbraided by serious-minded readers concerned that I was ignoring Brexit! I have thought of little else for the last three years at least.
So when I was ‘door-stepped’ on my way to a reception in No 10 Downing Street this week, I ironically told the BBC that I would make up my mind depending on the quality of champagne and canapes available at the reception. It looks as if irony does not translate to TV very well, as I received a number of emails from ‘outraged’ that I should be treating such a serious subject so flippantly!
What I meant, of course, was that my views are so clear and so clearly expressed to my constituents and others, that not the finest vintage champagne in the land could possibly make me alter my views.
In the end it was a very pleasant event in the grand reception rooms in No 10 looking out over all that’s left of the old Whitehall Palace (mainly the Real Tennis Court.) We had a long chat with the Prime Minister, but even then she was reluctant to raise Brexit. I had to do it for her and make sure that she was aware that people like me will simply not support her Brexit deal at very least unless and until she removed the obnoxious Northern Ireland backstop element to it. Even then, I would be a bit reluctant, as there are, in the analysis of the Spectator, 40 fatal flaws in the deal, for which we are paying out £39 billion. (£60 million per constituency – it would mend a lot of pot holes round North Wiltshire, or 26,000 nurses for forty years).
It’s been a week of Parliamentary shenanigans of one sort or another, and I am sure that will continue up to the meaningful vote on Tuesday. Assuming that she goes ahead with it (and nothing is certain in this fast-moving world), then she will without doubt lose. I hope that that will be enough to persuade the EU to change their stance and allow a modest level of renegotiation to occur, especially with, but not limited to, the backstop. If it does, I might - just might - be ready to support the deal, albeit with my fingers crossed and a clothes peg on my nose!
We all want to leave the EU on 29 March with a fair and agreed deal. And most of the details we need to thrash out on a wide variety of details - from air traffic control to the supply of medicines - have already been agreed. But if we are to persuade the EU negotiators to do the right thing, we have to hold out the possibility of leaving with no deal, and putting arrangements in place against that possibility. Only then might the EU negotiators who were crowing this week in a German newspaper that they had ‘won’ be forced to realise that they need a deal as much as we do, and so start to accommodate some of our demands.
It’s all there to play for, but we have to keep playing. And keep playing hard into injury time.
If you were of a gloomy disposition, the start of 2019 would give you plenty to be gloomy about. No matter which side of the argument you may be on, Brexit looks a trifle choppy for a few months to come at very least; a minority government will find it hard to do very much in Parliament. It is true that the economy remains strong, which, as we used to predict in the City Markets, means that it has only one way to go - down. The EU is looking pretty sick, with no answer to the Italian Budget conundrum; Merkel having lost her authority, Macron a grave disappointment to all; perhaps we are leaving at just the right time? President Trump seems unable to hold his administration together; the US is in shut-down over $5 Billion to build a pointless and porous wall with Mexico; their withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan seems premature and unplanned; and their trade war with China a potential disaster. The Middle East remains on the brink of Armageddon; and the migrant crisis moves ever closer to home.
It’s going to be an exciting year. Or, as old Jock Fraser used to say in Dad’s Army “Ye’re all doomed’.
Yet even a little travelling - across Europe, and even more so in Middle East, Africa, South America - should be enough to remind us how very lucky we are. We have huge prosperity by comparison with most places and most times in history. We are, after all, the fourth or fifth richest country in the world. I remember my father reminiscing about how he was the only boy at his primary school in working class Coatbridge to have shoes. The others went barefoot. Nowadays we consider ourselves poor if we don’t have the latest designer trainers. We have free education and healthcare, which have their problems but are overall the envy of the world. We moan about potholes, but frankly our road networks are better than most; our trains a little late and the sandwiches curling; and train travel costs a pretty penny. Yet we are lucky to have them; our airlines and airports (drones permitting) are amongst the best and the busiest in the world. We have effective full employment, with more people, more women, more young people employed than ever in our history; we have super-prosperous businesses; first class apprenticeships and University education; a beautiful environment and countryside; decent defence and law and order. Of course, we can moan and groan about most of those things. But the truth is that by comparison with most people anywhere in the world and ever in our own history we really are exceptionally lucky.
Not only all of that, but the future looks even brighter in so many ways. Our young people have the health, dynamism, education and long-life expectancy to play a real role in the world; our economy, industry and commerce top most charts; our innovation, inventiveness, entrepreneurship the envy of most. And it’s my view (although not all will agree) that Brexit is the opportunity to build on all of that and create a truly prosperous, healthy and happy UK for generations to come.
So, let us not be too gloomy. It really is all there to play for. We are amongst the most fortunate people in the world, and we have the capabilities to make ourselves truly world leaders in every respect. Greatness is there to be grasped. Let us make 2019 the year when we do so.
With my very best wishes for a Healthy, Happy and Prosperous New Year.
When my old friend, 102-year old Kitty Sparkes, grasps you by the hand, fixes you with her glittering eye and tells you what’s what… well, you listen. “It doesn’t matter what she says or doesn’t. Mrs May is the Prime Minister and you must support her,” she said at a lunch on Friday. And I do. I am proud of the picture on the front of my Christmas card this year of 120 soldiers in Westminster Hall being welcomed in by the PM and me. And I mean no disrespect by the cartoon inside the card of me falling down the PM’s Private staircase in Parliament, clutching my controversial book, Full English Brexit. There is just a little kitten heel showing from the PM’s door, and the inevitable caption “Did he fall or was he pushed?”
Later last weekend I was at the superb Youth Action Wiltshire Carols evening in Malmesbury Abbey arranged by my dynamic constituent Rebecca Worsley, and attended (amongst others) by HRH the Duchess of Cornwall. (She must have had enough of me by then- we were at the Wiltshire Air Ambulance launch that morning, then at the opening of the lovely Moravian Church Museum in Malmesbury earlier in the evening.) I was particularly moved by Sheila Hancock’s reading of the old story of the Christmas Truce. The Germans started off by lighting Christmas trees all along their trenches, then joining the Tommies singing carols round a campfire in No Man’s Land, and then of course on Christmas Day itself playing a famous game of football before the fighting started again on Boxing day.
Kitty’s wise words, and the image of bitter enemies singing carols and playing football, together with the general message of good will and hope and cheerfulness which surrounds Christmas made me view the dramatic events of the previous week in Parliament in a new light.
Everywhere I go round the constituency people tell me that they want Brexit sorted; they want to fulfil the people’s expectations in the Referendum of a Clean English Brexit; they want certainty and clarity; they want an end to the national humiliation which we are suffering at the hands of the EU; and to a very significant extent, they want us to stand up to Brussels in a real way and tell them how it is. And perhaps more than anything else they want us in Parliament to stop bickering about it; stop the in-fighting and name calling and behave like Statemen not school children.
So I renew my plea for sense and sensibility in Parliament. The real enemy is not each other- Jacob against Ken Clarke; IDS against Anna Soubry. The enemy for once is not even the Labour Party, who are as split over Europe as are we Tories. The enemy in M Barnier, and Juncker and the rest of them. They are the ones who are preventing a fair Brexit by their insistence on the wholly unnecessary backstop. They are holding us out to dry (and up to ridicule) and they are doing their best to give us a good punishment beating too, no doubt to warn other wavering EU states of what will happen to them if they have the barefaced effrontery to want to leave their rotten little club.
Well I think it’s time for Britons -all of us collectively- to stand up to them. “The people voted to leave and leave you must now let us do on honourable terms. And if you do not, come the 29th of March we will leave anyhow.”
I wholly endorse the outrage over Jeremy Corbyn calling the PM a ‘stupid woman’. There is an unpleasant hint of misogyny about it and it’s the sort of language- and abuse - which sours out Parliamentary discourse. However, did it really justify the massive outpouring of Parliamentary anger spreading over more than an hour, and covering pages of newsprint the next day? Why is Ken Clarke calling her ‘a bloody difficult woman’ so much more acceptable? And why was there so much less when, it is alleged, Mr Speaker said something very similar to Andrea Leadsom?
Quite a lot of it was about Mr Bercow himself and his apparently biased way of handling it all. For once I found myself totally in accord with Anna Soubry. But I also think it was a symptom of something much deeper. Anger, antipathy and bitterness after the most difficult year in recent political history. Frustration that no-one seems able to find a solution; exhaustion at arguing the case. The tensions and stresses of the last few weeks seemed to boil over into seething anger of a kind I had not seen in my 21 years as your MP.
Well it won’t do. Our Parliament is the envy of the world- and its model- because historically we have been able to discuss and agree upon the most difficult and intractable of problems. Parliamentary process and protocols- using the third person, using people’s constituency name to identify them, maintaining the courtesies albeit occasionally through gritted teeth. These are the things which allowed reasoned debate over world wars, general strikes, famine, poverty, and so much else. By observing the niceties, the courtesies, the protocols of Parliamentary debate, we have always avoided the kind of unpleasant bitterness and anger which now seems close to the surface.
So as we break up for Christmas, and as we face another helter-skelter, passion-filled year in 2019, I hope that my colleagues will take something of a lesson from the Christmas story of peace and goodwill even amongst the census, the murder of the first-born and so much other Biblical chaos and uncertainty. I’m planning a good deal of sleep and contemplation amongst the tinsel and Christmas cheer, and hope that some good old Rest and Recuperation at home will restore my spirits and determination to try to do the right thing in the New Year.
For now, I simply wish you all a peaceful New Year.
Discussions continue over the EU Withdrawal Act. In one respect, I am glad that the Prime Minister chose not to progress with the “meaningful vote” on the deal which she has so far negotiated, because I believe it to be fundamentally flawed in a variety of ways. If we are to save the Union the so-called backstop with regard to the Northern Irish border must be deleted. But there are several other aspects of the deal which are almost equally unacceptable.
The Prime Minister must therefore now seek a fundamental renegotiation with the European Union; and if they are not prepared to consider the points we make, then we must urgently prepare to leave the EU on the 29th March without any further discussions. I am increasingly of the view that that could be managed, albeit with a period of turbulence in the short term. Most of the world’s trade is conducted under WTO terms and there is really no reason why we should not do so as well. At the very least we must be ready to make it plain to our EU partners that we are fully ready to leave without having come to any formal agreement with them, which may of itself be sufficient to make them see reason. After all, EU countries need a trade agreement with the UK at least as much as we need one with them.
While I greatly admire her dogged determination and stamina, if the PM is unable to initiate that fundamental renegotiation in the time available, then I am beginning to come to the view that she must step aside in favour of a tougher negotiator who may be better able to deliver what 17.4 million people voted for on the 23rd June 2016, namely a clean and straightforward break with the European Union. Whatever the outcome of last evening’s vote of no confidence in Mrs May, the mere fact that it occurred and that a significant number of Conservative MPs indicated their lack of confidence in her should surely be enough to demonstrate to her and to those around her in 10 Downing Street that she must now renegotiate the deal or risk losing the confidence of her Party.
This is a complex and fast-moving area of politics and I will, of course, try to keep you up to date on it as we go along. I know that my approach will be highly satisfactory to the 52% of my constituents who voted to leave, will be a slight disappointment to those with whom I disagree about holding a second referendum, and will no doubt be disappointing (although unsurprising) to those who would like to remain in the EU. As your MP I believe it to be my duty to lay out plainly what I believe knowing that many of my constituents with whom I am otherwise in alignment will not agree with me. That is the very nature of a binary decision such as this, and I would much prefer that my constituents should at least know with clarity where I stand even if they do not agree with me.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA