Odd things, dreams. I woke up on Monday morning absolutely determined to back Graham Brady’s amendment to the debate on Tuesday. He called for the PM to return to Europe and demand a fundamental change to the Backstop arrangements, which was pretty much my own view. So I told the European Research Group via their WhatsApp, that that was what I was planning, and the whole world fell in on my head. I had phone calls from the very great, counter briefings, words of warning. I was one of only 15 people supporting the amendment; it was selling out; it could not get through; the DUP would not like it; we have an alternative plan etc.
But I ploughed ahead, seconded the Brady amendment, spoke at the ERG meeting in support of it (to a less than enthusiastic audience), did a bit of media and canvassed my friends and colleagues. Slowly but surely people came to realise that the deal – bad as many parts of it are – could just be tolerated if we could get rid of the backstop and that the Brady amendment just might be the way to do that. And at all events, opposing a motion which seemed at least on the face of it to be calling for exactly what we wanted would have been viewed as a little odd. During Tuesday more and more colleagues came round to that view, and of course we won the amendment in the end by 16 votes.
So now the PM has to go back to the EU and reopen the negotiations seeking a legally binding alternation to the backstop provisions. We gave her a means of doing so with the so-called Malthouse compromise, and we have done a lot of work on electronic alternatives to a hard Irish border. So we have the solutions for her, but she must now persuade the EU to accept them.
If they do not do so, then we will all know who to blame. The Conservative Party - and Parliament - came together to propose a solution to recent gridlock; we know what we want; we want a deal without the most obnoxious part to it. The EU must now step up to the mark. If they do not do so (and we will have another ‘meaningful vote’ on whatever they agree to later this month) - then they cannot be surprised if, come 29th March, we leave without any kind of agreement at all (which, of course, no-one wants.) The ball is now firmly in their court. I hope that they will enter into the spirit of the game.
So I am proud that - thanks apparently to inspiration in a dream - I helped persuade the ultra-sceptical 80 or so members of ERG to swallow their reservations (at least for now) and support the Brady amendment. As a result, we have a direction of travel which the whole Conservative Party and Government supports. With luck and a following wind, the EU will do what we want, and we will finally be able to leave the EU on 29th March with a clear agreement of the way forward.
I was but a small pawn in a big game, but on this occasion (rather immodestly) hope that I played a relatively decisive role in it. I am proud to have played some part in unlocking the Parliamentary gridlock, and therefore some little part in helping us towards leaving the EU.
I hope I am not being like Spike Milligan, whose Autobiography was immodestly entitled ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.’ ‘James Gray: How I helped Britain leave the EU.’ I hope it’s more as Shakespeare hath it, “A small thing, but mine own.”
Normal hectic Parliamentary life continues despite Brexit, as the BBC would say:
14/1 - speak at an oversubscribed Henry Jackson Society event on my latest book - Full English Brexit.
15/1 - see constituent Sir Roger Scruton at event on Freedom of Religion and the Test Acts; with rather a heavy heart rebel with 117 Conservative colleagues against the PM’s flawed deal; endless media means that I miss Jacob’s drinks party after the vote.
16/1 - contritely support Government in no confidence motion which we win by 19 votes.
17/1 - launch an Environment Committee report on oceans. We must do more on plastics.
18/1 - speak at an event in Melksham on - you guessed it - Brexit.
19/1 - busy constituency day, then dinner with friends in Cricklade.
20/1 - it’s a Sunday, so I won’t go in to studios. As a result BBC and Sky send live TV trucks to interview me from home on Brexit.
21/1 - briefing dinner with a Royal Navy admiral, where I challenge him on the Russian threat in the Arctic.
22/1 - chair Westminster Hall debate on privatising water companies. Good old-fashioned socialism. Very refreshing. Lunch with No 2 in Chinese Embassy to discuss Arctic. Very engaging. Take a lot of overseas students from the Royal College of Defence Studies for informal tours of Commons and Lords, then speak at their reception in magnificent Speaker’s State Apartments. Finish off the evening with a very jolly Burns Supper in the House of Lords. Too much eating. Do a lot of media on Dyson.
23/1 - ask a PMQ trying to correct the impression that Dyson are moving to Singapore. It’s only 2 senior executives, with 4000 employees staying in Malmesbury, £200 million investment in electric cars research and development at Hullavington. Nothing at all to do with Brexit…
That’s alongside several thousand letters and emails on Brexit, and all of the normal speaking and listening duties in the chamber and in committee; and it’s alongside wall to wall constituency engagements on a Friday.
It’s a diverse and fascinating whirligig of interests and events, campaigns and persuasion. It must be one of the best jobs, and I hope I am doing a few of the right things – for North Wiltshire and the nation – as well.
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.
So what’s next?
Well here are my own personal views of the various options being bruited about:
So for my money - and I shall be saying so very firmly to the PM - we should now seek an urgent and fundamental renegotiation with the EU, especially over the obnoxious Backstop proposals and if they will not play ball, then we must prepare ourselves for leaving without any kind of deal. It’s time for a better Deal or No Deal at all.
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.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.