David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.
I wrote the first of these columns as a Conservative MP. I write my second still a Conservative and still an MP – but not as a Conservative MP. However, it is not the purpose of this column to debate the wisdom of withdrawing the whip from 21 Conservative MPs – we are where we are – other than to make two points.
First, if the objective of the threat to withdraw the whip was designed to deter and see off a rebellion, it obviously failed. If anything, attitudes amongst potential rebels hardened as a consequence of the Number 10 approach. The number of rebels had been expected to be 15 but ended up at 21.
Second, all that has happened since the rebellion of September 3 has confirmed the analysis held by the 21. This was that the Government had not developed a strategy to reach a deal (as confirmed by Amber Rudd); that crashing out on 31 October would be hugely damaging (as confirmed by the Operation Yellowhammer assessment) and that Boris Johnson was determined – unless Parliament intervened – to leave on October 31 ‘come what may’ (as confirmed by, well, Boris Johnson).
In other words, but for the intervention of 21 now former Conservative MPs, the UK would be crashing out of the EU at the end of the next month and facing a whole host of problems. If anyone is expecting an apology for this action from the 21 MPs, they are going to be disappointed.
So given the string of reversals the Government has suffered, what does it do next? What are the broad, strategic choices available to it?
The first option – perhaps best described as the ‘Cummings option’ – is to double-down, stick with a strategy of squeezing out the Brexit Party, appeal to Labour leavers, take on the ‘Remoaner Establishment’ (Parliament, the courts, rich people who live in London), try to recreate the coalition of voters who voted leave in 2016 and smash divided opponents led by the abysmal Jeremy Corbyn. “A general Eelection cannot be far away, now’s the time to hold our nerve, ignore the Westminster bubble, a battle may have been lost but complete victory is in sight,” say the strategy’s proponents. “Dom has everyone exactly where he wants them.”
It will not surprise many readers to know that I am not a fan of such a strategy, but it deserves to be taken seriously. There are plenty of people who are fed up with the Brexit saga, just want to get on with it and think that this Parliament is in the way. Johnson is a good campaigner; he could tap into that mood and, if an election is framed as Boris & Brexit versus Corbyn, even some of those nervous about No Deal would back the Conservatives. A vote share of 35 per cent might be enough to win a stonking majority.
Putting aside the small matter that a No Deal Brexit is a terrible outcome for the country: even on pure electoral terms alone, it is a strategy that has enormous risks. The Conservative Party would split. Don’t expect all of the rebels to go gently into that good night. More importantly, do not expect millions of moderate Conservative voters to buy the choice between No Deal and Jeremy Corbyn. Many will conclude that it is perfectly possible to use their vote to try to avoid both disasters.
And do not underestimate how hard it will be to win over Labour Leave seats to replace the inevitable losses in Scotland, London and the Home Counties and Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginals wherever they might be. As a recent report by Bristol University shows, in many of the seats that would need to be won, Labour leavers simply will not vote Conservative (as we discovered in 2017).
I also want to make a point about what such a campaign would do to our politics. It would be confrontational, divisive, bitter. It would pit the ‘people’ against our institutions. It would motivate people by provoking anger and hatred. Regardless of whether it was successful electorally or not, it would leave this country a less pleasant place in which to live.
All of this points towards an alternative strategy. The law means an extension will have to be sought if a deal has not been reached. How about getting a deal? (To be fair, even with a deal, an extension will be needed to put in place the legislation, but that was always the case.)
This approach means being realistic as to our demands of the EU (so that rules out scrapping the backstop without a workable replacement) and looking to deliver a deal that will have some cross-party support (assuming that some Conservative MPs won’t support any kind of deal).
This is my preferred option for a number of reasons, including the fact that it would enable the recent split in the Parliamentary Party to be reversed (on which point, I obviously have a personal interest to declare). But, to be fair, it is worth acknowledging the problems.
First, there is no guarantee of getting a Parliamentary majority for a deal. A lot of work will be needed with MPs across the House. (This might be easier were the Commons sitting, but that is another matter.)
Second, it means taking on Nigel Farage and, potentially, losing the support of voters enthusiastic about No Deal. It is a real problem for the Conservative Party. Too many of our voters have listened to those who have argued that any compromise constituted a betrayal, and that this great nation had nothing to fear from a no deal Brexit.
That type of rhetoric has boxed the Government in and made it harder for us as a country and Party to face up to the trade-offs inherent in reaching a sustainable compromise. Only a very skilled communicator could move from being an opponent of compromise to an advocate for it. In my view, we have a Prime Minister with the capacity to do that, but it will not be easy.
In short, Johnson has two options if he is going to face an imminent general election. Tough it out, be a No Deal Brexit Party and lose votes to the Liberal Democrats. Or get a deal and risk the return of the Brexit Party.
There is a third option, of course, if a majority for a deal cannot be assembled. Try to resolve Brexit this side of a general glection by holding a referendum, as suggested recently by Oliver Letwin. This could mean that Brexit will have been resolved by the time we get to that election and, the argument goes, the traditional Conservative coalition of voters can be restored.
This, too, has its risks and downsides. Speaking for myself, I have long argued against a second referendum and still want to avoid it. But unless we can make rapid progress towards Parliament supporting a deal, those calls are only going to grow.
No choice will be easy. Over to you, Prime Minister.