John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay,
‘May you live in interesting times’, goes the old saying. For those that lived through it, the saying might closely be applied to the long 2017-2019 session of Parliament, which has easily been the most extraordinary in our lifetimes. This session saw the aftermath of a bungled general election, the drama of the Article 50 court case and its triggering, the largest Government defeat in history, a change of Prime Minister, the announcement of a change of Speaker, topped off by a charged prorogation. It has been quite a ride.
The period has confirmed that this is a Remain Parliament which has not reconciled itself to leaving the EU. The triggering of Article 50 by an overwhelming majority in 2017 which clearly endorsed the UK’s departure with or without a deal by March 29th 2019 has long been forgotten – Remain MPs have now extended the deadline twice, and have legislated for a third delay. This hinders Brexit for the time being, but it also offers the Prime Minister an opportunity.
If he can hold his nerve and maintain possession of the narrative and truth that the Conservatives are working to implement the result of the 2016 referendum, in opposition to this Remain Parliament, then the Tories can win through at the forthcoming election. However, a core of Conservative backbench MPs, not necessarily members of the ERG, see any excessive compromise in an effort to secure a deal costing the Party dear.
Seen through this lens, the increasingly shrill anti-Brexit moves by Continuity Remain Parliamentarians is grist to the Conservatives’ mill. These tactics have become ever more desperate: just before prorogation they succeeded in re-jigging how emergency debates have always been understood to operate in order to pass the so-called ‘Surrender Act’, which will deprive the British Government of its ability to walk away from the Brexit negotiations if no good deal is on offer.
Quite apart from shifting the balance to the EU’s advantage, this Act apparently compels the Prime Minister to accept the EU’s chosen extension date – which could be a century or a millennium from now – unless the Government can win a vote to reject it. This the current Parliament would clearly never do.
Equally egregiously, Remainers used the same emergency debate ruse to pass a motion compelling gGovernment officials to surrender their personal devices and data, and also compelling the Government to publish confidential internal documents regarding preparations for a No Deal Brexit, should it occur. This represents an enormous breach of privacy – presumably Parliament could also vote to compel me to divulge my personal e-mails, or you to divulge yours – from those usually quick to associate themselves with standing up for civil liberties and human rights.
Moreover, by depriving ministers and officials of a ‘safe space’ in which the pros and cons of policies can be freely and frankly debated, Remainers have adversely affected policymaking and indeed the public record of ministerial decision-making. Officials and ministers will simply stop writing things down, which will help no-one. They may also put commercially sensitive information into the public domain, making No Deal planning more difficult than it would have been otherwise.
Opposition parties are also at sixes and sevens. As its own party conference opens, the endless quandary of Labour’s Brexit position continues. At present, its Labour’s ridiculous position, as elucidated by Emily Thornberry recently on the BBC’s Question Time, is that it would renegotiate a Brexit deal with the EU, which they would then bring back to the electorate in a second referendum during which they would campaign for Remain against the deal that they themselves had negotiated.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have been campaigning hard for a second referendum, in which they would campaign to remain. However, a second referendum would be very likely to return a second Leave vote, probably even larger than the 2016 outcome. As the Liberal Democrats have refused to accept the outcome of the first referendum, there is little chance they would accept the outcome of a second referendum which went the ‘wrong’ way. At their own party conference last week, they have even voted to endorse an out-and-out policy of revoking Article 50 should they win the election.
Not to be outdone, the Scottish National Party is campaigning for two second referendums – one on EU membership, and one on Scottish independence. Yet all their criticisms of Brexit read over to their central policy of breaking up the UK – the Irish/Scottish customs border, which they claim will inevitably lead to a hard border, and the fact that undoing a 47-year old union is too difficult, despite their desire to unpick a vastly deeper union of over three centuries’ standing. Scotland’s largest export market – by far – is the rest of the United Kingdom.
Opposition parties are so out of touch that, despite calling for an early general election almost every day since the last one, they have this week either abstained or even actively voted against Government attempts to call an early poll. These same people have urged their supporters to take to the streets to ‘stop the coup’, yet it is an unusual coup when the Government wants to consult the people but the opposition blocks this from happening.
There is little evidence of a significant shift of 2016 leave voters, and so the Government’s policy of reminding the electorate that it is they who are keeping faith with the largest democratic exercise in our country’s political history is correct. It may be that Parliament, via the Surrender Act, compels the Prime Minister to seek yet another extension of our exit date, in which case the Government should take each and every opportunity to point the finger at the Remain-supporting MPs who voted through this legislation.
If the Prime Minister sticks to his guns, the Conservatives will do well at the general election – whenever it comes. However, all of his advantages will be squandered if he, as some suggest, brings back to Parliament a re-heated version of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement – with the backstop intact – for ‘MV4’ sometime in October. He must put on his tin hat, keep calm and carry on.