Stewart Jackson was Conservative MP for Peterborough 2005-17 and was Chief of Staff and Special Advisor to Rt Hon David Davis MP 2017-18.
There has understandably been a cacophonous upsurge of often poorly-sourced comment this week in the wake of ultra-Remainer Dominic Grieve’s efforts to disapply the Standing Orders of the Commons to amend the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 to allow the latter more influence over the steps the Government takes if – as seems likely – the Prime Minister’s unloved EU deal is defeated next week.
It’s the end of Brexit, or a close an approximation – or so it is said. On Tuesday night, a jubilant Labour MP couldn’t help braying to me that “No Deal was dead.” He’s wrong – but it’s complicated.
It’s certainly the view of many who voted Leave in the EU referendum in 2016 that this is an Establishment stitch up by the Remain-dominated Commons to thwart Brexit using Parliamentary tricks and in so doing, repudiate the decision that millions of people voted for, whereby we took back control of our laws, borders and money.
Those, like Nick Boles, George Freeman and Oliver Letwin who are pushing a permanent EEA/EFTA/Norway solution, must explain to their Associations and electors how this equates with the manifesto on which they were all elected last year, which specifically commits our party to respecting the referendum result by leaving the Customs Union and Single Market, ending enormous payments to the EU and stopping free movement. It’s puzzling that Boles’s “Norway for Now” schtick has morphed into Norway Forever.
Grieve’s Parliamentary stunt – with the inevitable connivance of the Speaker – is perceived by many MPs to have been an arms-length operation undertaken with the Conservative Whips’ blessing. It suits their purpose, after all: it shores up the flank of soft Leave Conservatives who – whilst knowing that the Prime Minister’s deal is an abject humiliation, not authentic Brexit and will in all certainty prolong the Tory civil war on Europe – are nevertheless still looking for an excuse to support it.
All this should come as no surprise, however. Hardcore Remoaners, who pay lip service to honouring the result of the referendum, were always likely to attack the neutral motion enshrined in s.13 of the EU Withdrawal Act as a vehicle to undermine and destroy Brexit – by either positing a second referendum or, more likely, the extension of Article 50. The coincidence of an ECJ legal opinion by the Advocate General of the latter’s unilateral member state revocability, together with Project Fear hearings by the Treasury Select Committee and dystopian post Brexit projections by the Bank of England and the Treasury is hardly credible. These guys are co-ordinating each choreographed day.
Conservative MPs have been told that voting down the Withdrawal Agreement will mean a General Election (it won’t), No Deal (not true), an Article 50 “pause mechanism” (it doesn’t exist), or the end of the confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionists (unlikely – but who the Conservative leader and Prime Minister is will nonetheless be imperative).
These threats and promises are not cutting through, so the final strategy is threatening some weaker MPs with the bogeyman of no Brexit. In truth, all they have left is what Robbie Gibb has only ever had: the fallacious notion that we run the risk of no Brexit if the Prime Minister’s substandard deal is eviscerated.
In some respects, it’s the last shot in Gavin Barwell and Smith’s locker. They’ve not moved the dial on polling (YouGov on Wednesday showed a 2:1 ratio of opposition to the Prime Minister’s deal (46 per cent to 23 per cent); Associations and activists are on strike and refusing to deliver CCHQ pro-deal propaganda, Conservative MPs are continuing to declare against, and business is lukewarm at best (as evidenced by the CBI e-mail embarrassment). Their last chance to prevent a potential blowout next week is to present the starkest of binary choices: Theresa May’s abysmal deal versus no Brexit.
Liam Fox is the latest to gild the lily. Apparently, key legislation like the Fisheries Bill and the Trade Bill, we’re told contingent on the UK’s departure from the EU, is liable to be deluged by wrecking amendments.
Really? In fact, none of these Bills are critical to our actual legal departure on 29th March 2019. Indeed, in the case of the Trade Bill a full five months elapsed between Committee and Report Stage (in order to avoid defeats), the Agriculture Bill has passed Second Reading without incident, and the Immigration Bill has yet to see the light of day: the point being that the power of business managers to table and guillotine legislation is hugely significant even in a hung parliament. They do not need to bring any of these Bills forward prior to exit day.
I believe that Grieve et al have also scored a pyrrhic victory in showing their hand too soon. Their belief that the “will of the House” – a House which is hopelessly split in any case on a range of post-Brexit options – can trump statute law is specious. The notion that the legislature can wrest control of an international treaty negotiation from the Executive is unprecedented, untested, and certainly undesirable. The Commons has fully exercised its powers hitherto by using legislation to pass the EU Referendum Act 2015, the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 and the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, which gave rise to the referendum and the Brexit vote. All were supported in the main with large majorities.
The fact is that leaving the EU is a legal reality, by dint of domestic legislation and international treaty obligation. Any effort to stop Brexit can only in practice be at the behest of the Government and the Cabinet – with the caveat that of course the Executive can be removed at any time by a successful no confidence motion. In that, Parliament is supreme.
We are in totally unchartered constitutional territory, not seen since the stand-off between the Commons and Lords over Lloyd George’s People’s Budget in 1909, which gave us the Parliament Act 1911, and duly circumscribed the power of the Upper House. In that case, Lloyd George had a strong mandate at the 1906 general election.
Today, those who want to see an honest, clean Brexit have a greater mandate – that of the biggest plebiscite in British history, and an 85 per cent vote for parties promising to honour the referendum result in last year’s election. They are the democrats and not the rebels. There is growing evidence that many Conservative supporters are more interested in backing Brexit than their local Tory candidate, and a three per cent swing to Labour would see 44 Conservative MPs lose their seats.
MPs who seek to use Parliamentary parlour games, subterfuge and obscure process to cheat the British people out of the result that they in good faith voted for in 2016 will pay a heavy price for the shenanigans, and invite electoral calamity upon themselves and their party from an already jaundiced and cynical electorate.