Andrew Mitchell is a former Chief Whip, and is MP for Sutton Coldfield.
At midday on Saturday 11 June, Sutton Coldfield’s Great European Union Debate will take place in our historic town hall, when some of the biggest names in British politics will descend on the town to debate Britain’s membership of the European Union. During the general election last year, I promised my constituents to organise this discussion to help them make up their minds on what is one of the crucial issues of our time.
Taking to the stage will be Michael Heseltine and Paddy Ashdown for Remain against Nigel Farage and Gisela Stuart for Leave. Equally importantly, Isabella Copplestone from Sutton Grammar School for Girls and Tim Clark from the Arthur Terry Academy will speak, representing opposing views on behalf of young people in Sutton Coldfield. After all, this is a decision which will affect their generation even more than mine.
When tickets went on sale at 8am last Monday morning, my constituents were queuing round the block, and all tickets were gone within 30 minutes. The tickets sold out with Glastonbury-like speed – underlining the intense political excitement and interest on this issue.
As I am chairing the debate, I thought it would be discourteous to my constituents to voice an opinion before it has taken place. Besides, as the skilful rhetoric of four of Britain’s clearest voices on this matter soars through our town Hall, I may change my mind – as I may, too, in listening to Tim and Isabella.
My own views are being formed very much by the opinions of my younger constituents and my children. On Europe, the six officers of the Sutton Coldfield Conservative Association are split 50-50. Three are for and three are against – but our Chairman, Ewan Mackey, runs a tight ship, and dissent within the Association has been expressed in the most courteous of tones. Such forbearance has not characterised the comments of all of my Parliamentary colleagues, where feelings are every bit as strong as they were back during the 1990s, when we Government whips piloted the Maastricht Treaty through Parliament.
In those days, only five members of the Parliamentary Party wished to leave the EU. Today, that number has swelled to probably half of the Conservative Parliamentary benches. To say that relations are strained on this issue within the Parliamentary Party would be an understatement. I noticed during the recent Conservative Parliamentary away day in Oxford that the Prime Minister’s personal protection squad had doubled. Fortunately, the airport scanner style protection at the entrance enforced the normal rules on firearms and knuckledusters. Behind closed doors, particular contempt is reserved for a handful of colleagues – on both sides, who, for reasons which may broadly be labelled “careerist”, have chosen to change their traditional views.
But we are a robust breed in the Tory Parliamentary Party. You don’t come in to modern British politics if you are a blushing violet or sensitive wallflower. It has always been a myth that Parliamentary whips successfully bully their flocks. Strong-arm tactics normally have the opposite effect or are met with a two word riposte – the second of which is “off.”
Nor have relations reached the point they did when the late and delightful Teresa Gorman, then MP for Billericay, chased me through the division lobby beating me with a rolled-up Order Paper. Consequently, another whip ordered her into the Government Lobby with the words: “Get in there at once, you silly old tart.” She subsequently complained to the Government Chief Whip about being called “old”.
Most Conservative MPs are perfectly capable of fiercely arguing with each other on matters of principle without allowing it to turn personal. After all, this is an issue which divides families and friends. However, in this referendum we have been teetering on the edge. What really matters is that after 23 June, when our constituents have voted and the people have spoken, we all put this behind us and accept the result whichever way it goes. In the famous words of Margaret Thatcher: “there is no alternative.”
We were elected last year as a progressive One Nation Government. The result came as a joyous surprise to many of us. So after the 23rd, our constituents will expect – nay demand – that we pursue with vigour policies which promote social mobility and cohesion and make consumer capitalism work for the many. Quite apart from reducing and eliminating the deficit, we must chart our country’s passage through the sea of international turbulence and misery which is the Middle East – with all its consequences for Europe and for Britain.
It is not necessary to look in the crystal ball to define the consequences for our Party forming a circular firing squad and continuing to obsess about the European Union thereafter. We did it in 1992, and it was 23 years before we next won an election. The electorate on this occasion will never forgive us if we behave as we did then. And they will be right. Those of my Parliamentary colleagues who feel the temptation to do otherwise should go and lie down in a darkened room until the feeling passes.