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.
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.
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.
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.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.