Mark Francois is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.
Last weekend, the National Conservative Convention, sometimes described as the “Parliament” of the voluntary part of the Conservative Party, passed the following motion, by an emphatic majority of five to one.
“The National Convention supports the commitments the Prime Minister has made to the country to honour the European Union referendum result of 2016, that having triggered Article 50 we will leave the European Union on the 29 March 2019.
Another Referendum, a delay beyond the European elections, taking ‘no deal’ off the table or not leaving at all would betray the 2016 People’s Vote and damage democracy and our party for a generation.”
It is unusual for the National Convention to debate any substantive motion at all, so this was an event of significance for the Conservative Party as a whole. Moreover, the voluntary party is arguably its heart and soul. If Conservative MPs are the Party’s “Officer Corps”, then the voluntary party, the Association officers, councillors, activists and rank and file members are the Party’s “poor bloody infantry.”
They go out in all weathers, sometimes accompanied by their Conservative MP (where they have one) knocking on doors, delivering leaflets in the pouring rain, and engaging with the electorate, in good times and in bad. When the Party is doing well nationally, they tend to do well in local elections as well. When the reverse is true, they are the first to brutally cop it each first Thursday in May.
As an activist and councillor under John Major in the mid-1990s, I well remember having doors slammed in my face, even in affluent areas. I also clearly recall hard-working, dedicated, local councillors being wiped out each May, simply because of the unpopularity of the party nationally.
In the 1993 County Council elections for instance, we lost every single county in the whole of England, save Buckinghamshire. A few more years of Conservative voters abstaining in their millions during the mid-90s led to our local government base being severely eroded. This was closely followed by one of the worst defeats in our Party’s entire history in 1997, which ushered in the Blair/Brown era. I believe we are now facing much the same fate this May if we carry on as we are.
The People versus the Establishment
However, the situation is even worse than that. The Government’s EU Policy is being dictated, at least day-to-day, by a small coterie of highly pro-EU inclined civil servants, led by the Prime Minister’s Chief Negotiator, Ollie Robbins, who have never really accepted the result of the 2016 referendum and who clearly believe that the British public, having made an obviously thick/bigoted/racist mistake, must now be saved by their “betters” from themselves.
Of course these civil servants care not a fig for the thousands of Conservative council candidates who could be wiped out in May; they are meant to be politically neutral, after all. Amidst this burning desire effectively to keep Britain in the EU at all costs, they are aided and abetted by a number of senior cabinet Ministers, from Philip Hammond through to Amber Rudd and a number of equally fanatical junior Ministers, who constantly threaten to resign (but never quite summon up the moral courage to actually do so), plus a relatively small number of ardent Europhile backbenchers, three of whom have recently moved on to pastures new.
Personally, I believe that the division in our country is now morphing, from “Leave” versus “Remain” to “The People” versus “The Establishment.” Put simply, the People voted to Leave and the Establishment, from the senior civil service and some traditional elements of the media, with many fellow travellers in the Commons and the Lords, now formally including the Labour Front bench as well, are doing absolutely everything in their power to stop them from leaving.
This is all despite the expressed wishes of 17.4 million UK citizens – the largest vote for any proposition in British history. The motion above is an expression of the growing anger of the rank and file at this trend but, as the sell-out continues and becomes ever more obvious, I believe that the public will grow increasingly angry too.
The collapse of collective responsibility within the Government
Meanwhile, in Parliament, the Government’s position is becoming increasingly shambolic. Pro-Remain Cabinet Ministers openly defy the Prime Minister – including ambushing her to force a March ruling-out of “No Deal” in Cabinet – and nothing happens. Supposedly Eurosceptic Cabinet Ministers, theoretically greater in number and several of them with future leadership ambitions, mumble disapprovingly into their coffee – but again nothing happens. Meanwhile, junior ministers write polemnical articles, openly opposing policies to which they are signed up as a consequence of the posts they hold – and yet again, absolutely nothing happens.
As everyone in the Commons now knows, any concept of collective responsibility has now completely broken down. Ministers of all ranks basically do whatever they like, without any fear of sanction from Number Ten whatsoever.
This reached truly farcical proportions yesterday, when Alberto Costa, a popular PPS, tabled a motion for yesterday’s European debate seeking to guarantee the future rights of EU citizens living in the UK. This was actually a statement of the Government’s existing policy, as demonstrated by Sajid Javid when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee shortly before the debate itself.
However, Alberto was then unceremoniously sacked as a PPS for tabling an amendment , as a PPS, without permission – even though the Government effectively then adopted his amendment several hours later at the end of the debate without a division. This is, to use a technical Parliamentary term, stark-staring bonkers. In short, A Government which cannot impose discipline on its senior Ministers who oppose Government policy, none the less sacks a popular PPS instead for backing Government policy.
I have been an MP for 18 years and I have never seen anything even remotely like this. It is one rule for Europhile Ministers and another for everyone else. Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey, Steve Baker, Suella Braverman, Shailesh Vara and a host of honourable PPSs all resigned, in accordance with constitutional convention, as they could no longer support the European policy of the Government. By stark contrast, Europhile Ministers now break ranks on a virtually daily basis, but no-one ever resigns – and no-one even attempts to discipline them either.
In the midst of this maelstrom sit the poor, dispirited Whips Office, staffed by dedicated colleagues and led by a fundamentally decent man, Julian Smith, who is desperately trying to somehow keep the show on the road, amidst a near impossible situation.
However, the whips clearly appreciate that, when collective responsibility has already blatantly disintegrated, it is practically impossible to discipline understandably anxious backbenchers, who see Ministers doing whatever the hell they like without any meaningful sanction whatsoever. Do as I say, not as I do, does not generally impress Conservative MPs (or anyone else either).
The Voluntary Party must now save the day
This brings us back to the voluntary party motion, which opposes a second referendum, which would be highly divisive for the country as a whole and which now very clearly distinguishes us from Corbyn and Labour.
The motion also says that “No deal” must stay on the table – which only makes sense. It is the one thing the EU are really frightened of, so why should we throw away our best negotiating card – for nothing? What sensible businessman or woman entering a tough negotiation would ever do such a crazy thing? The National Convention motion offered no qualification about not leaving in the event of No Deal. Indeed, the manifesto on which I, and virtually every other Conservative candidate stood at the 2017 General Election, declared that “we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK.”
I welcome the suggestion, advanced on this site and supported by Jacob Rees-Mogg and others, that local Conservative Associations should now follow the clear lead of their senior Voluntary Party colleagues by debating and passing the same motion, at their Annual General Meetings around the country, most of which will take place during the “AGM season” next month.
This would send a powerful signal to Downing Street and to CCHQ that the Voluntary Party is resolved – and can no longer be taken for granted. It is, after all, the necks of voluntary party members that will be on the block in May if this unforgivable shambles continues and so they should be allowed their say, from Hastings and Rye and Runnymede, right through to Portsmouth North and Bromsgrove.
In summary, collective responsibility has self-evidently broken down in Parliament and the Government is staggering from one daily crisis to the next. Yesterday’s events in the Commons made that undeniably apparent.
If we extend Article 50, and just kick the can down the road – yet again – we are likely to see our local government candidates massively punished in the May local elections. Even leaving aside the so-called “Brexit Party” (with which I have absolutely no truck) this punishment will likely be administered by a mass abstention of Conservative voters, over 70 per cent of whom voted to Leave, but who are increasingly incensed by Conservative MPs, including Cabinet and junior ministers, blatantly doing all they can to try and stop us leaving the EU, despite the clear verdict of the 2016 Referendum.
So speaking purely for myself, and not for the ERG, I believe it is time for the rest of our local associations around the country to follow the clear lead of the National Conservative Convention and stand up and be counted before it is too late. We have spent nearly three years waiting for Brexit. Now is the time for our party members, the poor bloody infantry, to ensure that we finally succeed in delivering it.
Finally, today, February 28, is also D-29. If we hold our nerve as a Party then in under one month this country will be free. This is a great prize that 17.4 million of our fellow countrymen voted for – and is surely well worth fighting for.