Conservative MPs can bring pressure to bear on a policy they oppose by lobbying Ministers. But if the latter insist on pursuing it, the former have a choice to make: they must either back down, when the matter comes to the Commons, or carry on – and vote against the policy in question. This is what constitutes that familiar feature of Westminster life, a “Tory revolt on Europe”, as a mass of headlines stretching back scores of years will confirm.
The most important votes of all tend to be on legislation, since it is by first proposing laws, and then getting Parliament to vote for them, that a Government demonstrates that it has authority: it can’t get its legislation through, it won’t last very long. The best-known Conservative rebellion over the EU proves the point. It was over the Maastricht Bill under John Major’s Government. Some 25 or so years later, some are fixated by those refuseniks from that period who are still members of the Commons, such as Iain Duncan Smith, Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin. Staff from an embassy of the one of the EU27 countries, discussing Brexit with ConservativeHome recently, were fixated by the former Maastricht rebels and their Leave-supporting successors today. They saw Downing Street’s main problem, when it came to party management on Europe, as being the Brexiteers.
Perhaps they will be proved right. But doesn’t the evidence since the referendum suggest that this view is out of date? For example, consider the fuss about a letter drafted by Change Britain, a successor campaign to Vote Leave, which which has been circulated to the European Research Group, the biggest pro-Leave group of Tory backbenchers, via their WhatsApp group. The main point of the letter is to oppose membership of the Single Market during any implementation arrangement. It is clearly part of the lobbying which Conservative MPs with views of what a deal should look like are undertaking. It is not “entirely at odds with Government policy”, as one former Remain-backing Tory MP has suggested. Rather, it seeks to head off an option which Ministers do not support now, but might conceivably do as negotiations continue.
Claims that Steve Baker, the DEXU Minister, encouraged backbenchers to sign the letter are not supported by the evidence. (Rather, he sent ERG members are note of thanks for their support during his debut from the Government front bench during yesterday’s DEXU oral questions.) ConservativeHome observes in passing that the letter’s circulation wouldn’t be a story at all were it not that it was circulated by a Government PPS, and one of the Chancellor’s, to boot. This person is, as this site recently described her, “the double-hatted Suella Fernandes – both a member of the Government and a pro-Leave group leader”. This was our headline above a recent interview with her conducted by Andrew Gimson. The bother about the letter is proof of the point we honed in on: that if one is both a member of the Government and the leader of a backbench group (Fernandes is the ERG’s Chairman), controversy is likely to follow.
None the less, a signature on a letter is not a vote in the lobbies – which returns us to Government legislation in general and the EU Withdrawal Bill in particular. The Bill presents Jeremy Corbyn with his main Parliamentary opportunity to inflict damage on the Government, just as the Maastricht Bill presented a similar opportunity to John Smith. He will only be able to do so, since Theresa May’s deal with the DUP gives her a small majority, if he is joined in the lobbies by Tory MPs. And those who have indicated hostility to parts of the Bill to date are not members of the ERG, or other MPs who backed Leave in the referendum. On the contrary, they supported Remain. Among their number are our columnist Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry, and Dominic Grieve. The first and last made speeches during the Second Reading debate on the Bill yestedray.
There is nothing wrong in principle with opposing Government legislation (unless one has indicated the contrary to one’s constituents), let alone seeking to improve it. Indeed, Grieve made one or two good suggestions, such as recommending a system of Parliamentary scrutiny for the correct farming out, as he put it, of different types of statutory instrument during the carrying-over of EU law into British law. But the view of the Bill taken by him and others enables us to make a point to that EU27 country embassy, and to others: namely, that Tory revolts on Europe are currently coming not from Leavers, but from former Remainers. Indeed, Cash and Jenkin and company are being very supportive of the Government. That might conceivably change were the role of the ECJ to stay the same during any transition period. But it is significant that continued payments to the EU post-Brexit have been a dog that has scarcely barked.
Amidst the cut and thrust of lobbying and debate, Tory Remainer and Leaver, ERG member and non-member alike are all of one mind in one respect. None of them oppose the withdrawal bill, at least as far as this site knows. They recognise that to oppose it, as Labour now does, is essentially to oppose Brexit itself. So while there may still be “Tory revolts on Europe”, they are limited, at least for the moment.