Mark Francois is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.
For every MP and for Conservative MPs in particular, the last few months have been a torrid time. We have seen an orgy of “Blue on Blue”: Remainers versus Leavers, Cabinet versus backbenchers, Ministers versus officials, Ministers versus Whips (who are themselves Ministers) and now, even between some members of the ERG, what you might call “Dark Blue on Blue” .
To date, over 25 Ministers have resigned as a result of these increasingly acrimonious disputes. This is about nothing less than our national destiny, what Churchill famously called “Our Island Story” which is why colleagues on all sides, quite rightly, feel so passionately about it.
The Establishment Aim – Stop Brexit at all costs
This debate has all taken place in a political context of the “British Establishment” – the powerful Remain cabal in the Cabinet, led by Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd; the senior staffers at Number Ten; the upper echelons of the civil service; the CBI, the TUC, the achingly Europhile BBC – all effectively combining with the Letwins and Grieves of this world, to keep us in the EU at almost any cost.
The Party’s National Convention recently voted by five to one to leave on 29 March, if necessary with No Deal, but nobody in Downing Street or the Cabinet took the blindest bit of notice. The public are now, finally, waking up to all of this, with a recent poll finding that some 55 per cent of the public now agree with the assertion that the Establishment has been trying to prevent Brexit.
At one point, despite all this acrimony, there was a grand compromise on offer. That was on January 29, when almost the entire Parliamentary Party, including all but three members of the ERG, voted for the Brady Amendment and the associated “Malthouse Compromise” to replace the hated backstop with alternative arrangements on the NI Border. (I had to whip Bill Cash and Owen Patterson to vote for it.)
But, having literally begged some of us to support it – and then having won the Commons vote, and thus secured a negotiating mandate for the Prime Minister, the Government then effectively threw it all back in our faces, by refusing to even put the plan seriously to the EU. A combination of Olly Robbins and Gavin Barwell allegedly vetoed it and the question was never properly asked.
Olly Robbins, Government’s Chief Negotiator, notoriously gave the game away in a bar in Brussels recently when he blurted out that the Government’s objective was, in the end, to force the Eurosceptics into a corner, threaten them with a long extension to Article 50 and thus ram the Withdrawal Agreement through regardless.
This is precisely what the Government has subsequently sought to do – and with some success. It has been deliberate from the very outset, and the highly choreographed 1922 Committee meeting on Wednesday evening – an absolute classic of its type and subsequently described by my good friend and colleague Steve Baker as a “pantomime” – was a piece of skilfully-orchestrated theatre, dedicated entirely to that end. Any Conservative MP who has ever been to a major meeting of the 1922 Committee and who was there on Wednesday will, in their heart of hearts, instinctively understand exactly what I am talking about.
As Tory MPs, we have repeatedly been brutally threatened – by our own Government – with a long extension of Article 50, which won’t now happen (for the reasons given below) or, alternatively, with the constitutional bogeyman of Cooper/Boles/Letwin, if we foolishly continue to resist.
In short, we have basically been told, “accept the Withdrawal Agreement, even with the backstop and a customs union, or you will get…a customs union.” This is specifically designed to panic us into voting for something to which many of us have been instinctively opposed since Chequers, when David Davis’s carefully-prepared draft White Paper was deliberately switched for the Robbins version. Boris Johnson and Davis, to their great credit, both resigned on principle shortly thereafter.
Dark Blue on Blue – exactly what Number Ten has wanted all along
So, just as the Government has always hoped, we now have a lively disagreement between some Eurosceptic colleagues, over two competing but equally honourable propositions. On the one hand, it is argued that the deal is fundamentally rotten (almost all Eurosceptics – who have generally read it – seem to agree on this).
Nevertheless, it is contended by some that we should take the bird in the hand, swallow the continuing role of the ECJ, the unaccountability of the Joint Committee, the £39 billion for nothing in return and all the rest of it, and just “leave” now and sort the rest out later. This includes subsequently abrogating parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the dreaded backstop.
It is argued that somehow, e.g. via Article 62 of the Vienna Convention, we can legally do this (even though the ERG’s own “Star Chamber” of legal eagles, who were asked to “rule” on the applicability of Article 62 in this context, have said unequivocally that it won’t work).
Conversely, many of us (myself included) believe that the deal is so fundamentally flawed, that, post the Brady debacle, we could never, ever vote for it. We also believe that, the EU being highly legalistic (when it suits its purposes), we cannot simply unilaterally abrogate an international treaty. Therefore, if we sign it, we could be trapped in the backstop forever. And when we bitterly complained, even years later, we would be told blunty (and you can almost imagine Michel Barnier saying the words), “Well, if you didn’t like it, you shouldn’t have signed it!”
But by then, of course, it would all be too late. All this would have costed us a fortune for nothing guaranteed in return, undermined the union with Northern Ireland, encouraged separatism in Scotland and, ultimately, made the UK a vassal state – something it has not been for almost a thousand years.
Thus, we now have the ultimate “dark blue on blue.” Eurosceptic passionately fights Eurosceptic – both sides genuinely and utterly convinced that they are fighting to defend Brexit and thus save their country, exactly as Robbins, Barwell and Robbie Gibb game-planned it all along. It is almost tactically brilliant – but it is still not going to work – and let me tell you why.
Why the EU won’t extend Article 50 again.
On Wednesday night, the Commons passed a Statutory Instrument (SI) to extend Article 50 temporarily. Under its terms, we will now leave the EU on one of two alternative dates.
Firstly, we could leave on 22 May, the day just prior to the European elections on 23 – 26 May. The Prime Minister asked for 30 June but, instead, the EU Council settled upon 22 May, but strictly contingent on the House Commons having approved the Withdrawal Agreement first. If it goes through, we “leave” on that date, but having probably given up the Easter Recess to go through upwards of a month of Parliamentary trench warfare on the Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill to ratify the new treaty first. However, as a result, there are then no European Elections in the UK.
Conversely, the EU Council offered the alternative date of Apri 12. This is the legal “drop dead date” by which the Government would have to initiate the necessary instructions to commence the European elections in the UK if the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved. They would then take place, as originally envisaged, on Thursday May 23.
The increasingly interventionist Electoral Commission has already written to all the main parties, to inform them that the “long campaign” (for the purposes of recording European election expenses) began in January. To the potential horror of our local councillors, if there are to be European Elections on May 23, which cannot be brought forward (otherwise it would pre-empt all the other European contests) then the Government would probably have to pass regulations to move the local elections backwards, to the same date.
The necessary orders to do this are apparently already drafted and sitting in the Cabinet Office – just in case. If we have not left the EU cleanly by this time, the electoral consequences of this, not only for our MEPs but also for our many hard-working local councillors up and down the country, are starkly obvious.
The new Article 50 SI and the European Elections
On Wednesday evening, during the 90 minute debate on approving the SI, I explained in the Commons why I firmly believe the EU Council will not agree to any extension beyond April 12, if we vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, as it would inevitably result in European Elections having to take place in the UK.
In fairness, the Government has effectively already confirmed the same thing, so I will not rehearse the whole argument again now. Nevertheless, (or should I say “notwithstanding” that, Sir William) the bottom line is that UK elections to the European Parliament (EP) under our PR system, would be likely to produce 35 – 40 or so Brexit Party MPs.
They, in turn, would almost certainly combine with other “populists” in the EP (as the Eurocrats derisively describe those who are sceptical about “The Project”) to form a powerful blocking minority. Ironically, under the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament can, effectively, derail the plans by Emmanuel Macron and others to press ahead with a more federal Europe.
Those who believe passionately in the Project will never be prepared to take this risk – which is exactly why they deliberately brought the trigger dates at the EU Council forward in the first place. Guy Verhofstadt, The Parliament’s lead on Brexit is on the record as saying that itwill never allow European elections to take place again in the UK. Therefore, the threat of a “long extension”, deliberately used for months to try and browbeat committed Eurosceptics into submission is, ultimately, a massive bluff by the Government, simply to try and get the Withdrawal Agreement through.
But for the ardent Remainers in the Cabinet and in Number Ten, it is now going wrong. Because of the way the SI is drafted (based directly on the EU Council decision) if we don’t approve the Withdrawal Agreement by 11.00pm tonight at the latest (“the relevant time” in the SI), the UK will then leave the UK at 11.00pm on Friday 12 April, initially on WTO Terms.
No Deal is not a “desired end state”, as many Remainers, especially in the BBC, genuinely believe the ERG to want but, rather, a transitional period, until we can negotiate the new free trade deal that we ultimately desire. In its defence, the ERG has not always been good at explaining this, partly because its members have been involved in so much passionate argument about the massive disadvantages of the Withdrawal Agreement itself. Much of this draft wording for the new FTA has already been sitting in DeXU for months, as it formed the basis of Davis’s White Paper.
I realise that I cannot prove in advance that the EU will not grant a long extension. You either believe me or you don’t. However, as my bona fides in the matter, I submit that I was the Party’s Shadow Europe Minister from 2007-10; I lead day to day on the Lisbon Treaty debates (which is what finally convinced me we had to leave the EU and run our own country again) and, of most relevance in this context, I led David Cameron’s ever so slightly challenging project in 2007-09, to take the Conservative delegation in the European Parliament out of the EPP.
Just about everybody said it couldn’t be done- including about half the delegation themselves as I recall – but, with the help of some brave MEPs, such as our very own Geoffrey Van Orden, and Jan Zharadil from the Czech ODS Party, we did it anyway. So I know quite a bit about the European institutions, and, in particular about the European Parliament and what makes it tick.
So what should Tory MPs do today?
If I’m right, then if we vote down the Withdrawal Agreement this afternoon, the EU Council will not grant a further extension for fear of UK EU elections, and we will therefore become a free country again at 11.00pm on Friday 12 April – under both EU and UK Law.
The only other alternative would be if Letwin and company can ram a bill through both Houses within a fortnight – which, as a former Ops officer for the Whips Office (2010-12) I contend is difficult at best, particularly given the very different procedures in the Lords.
So when the bells ring at 2.30pm in the House of Commons this afternoon, and despite all of the Government’s brutal kidology, I still believe that the “Dark Blue on Blue” strategy will fail, and the despised Withdrawal Agreement will be defeated.
The DUP, who have grasped the threat of the Withdrawal Agreement to the Union from the outset, will vote against it and so will all the major parties, now even including The Independent Group (TIG). That means, having lost the Second Meaningful Vote by 149 votes, the only place that the Governmnt can now look for the remaining votes they need to get it through is the ERG – indeed they would need almost the entire ERG to yield today and that is simply not going to happen. There is an inner core within the ERG, recently characterised as “The Spartans” who will never vote for their country to become a vassal state under any circumstances whatsoever.
So, I believe that the Withdrawal Agreement will still be very clearly defeated third time around today and that the Speaker will not permit a fourth attempt. As a result, we will leave the EU – for real – shortly thereafter. Pericles of Athens once said: “Freedom is the sole possession of those who have the courage to defend it.” We shall see, at 2.30 pm this afternoon, where that courage really lies.