We return to Brexit, the negotiation and customs – but neither via the Government’s clarified position on the Northern Ireland-related “backstop”, nor its plan to render the use of this backstop unnecessary (namely, staying tied to the Customs Union until 2021). Instead, our route is a Commons vote on Wednesday evening which the Government won by 301 votes to 269. Here is part of the story of how Ministers got there.
After Theresa May became Prime Minister and as the last general election drew nearer, Conservative MPs were increasingly accused, in their constituencies, of supporting policies anathema to floating voters – NHS cuts, for example. When they protested, and said that they had never supported any such plans, their votes against Commons Opposition Day motions were thrown back in their faces. These Labour motions were deliberately written in terms unacceptable to Tory Ministers. So Conservative MPs duly voted against them. And were then accused, in their seats, of opposing everything written into them – support for current or increased levels of NHS spending, say.
All this is part of the warp and woof of party politics, but there is a twist. Politics has got nastier. If you doubt it, glance back to last summer’s general election, and the experience of candidates who became targets for racist abuse, anti-semitism, death threats on social media, and physical intimidation. This was so for people of all parties, but Conservatives got the worst of it. Sheryll Murray had swastikas carved into her posters. Social media posts about her said ‘burn the witch’ and ‘Stab the c***”. Andrew Percy was subject to anti-semitic abuse, and his staff were spat at. On this site, Joy Morrissey reported defaced election posters and screams of hatred. There was much more.
At some point after he became May’s Chief Whip in 2016, Gavin Williamson settled on a scheme to reduce, since he could not prevent, some of the thuggery. Conservative MPs would no longer be whipped to vote against some Opposition Day motions. They would have a slightly easier time in their seats in consequence. And, because they were no longer required to be in the Commons on Wednesday afternoons, when those Opposition Day debates often took place, those MPs with marginal seats a long way away from Westminster would be able to return to them earlier, work in their constituences for longer, and boost their campaigning for re-election too. Meanwhile, the Government would simply ignore the terms of the Labour motions passed in consequence.
John Bercow didn’t like this shift at all. He complained that the balance of our constitutional settlement would be threatened if the executive stopped responding to the legislature. Ministers took no notice. Then, last year, Labour hit on a device to make them do so, at least in some cases – namely the Humble Address, whose passing by the Commons would compel the Government to release papers. Guido Fawkes reports that Bercow himself first suggested the move to Keir Starmer, who was looking for a way of embarrassing the Government over its Brexit plans.
The revival of the Humble Address paved the way for a first-class inter-Tory flare-up. Starmer put down an Opposition Day motion demanding that the Government release details of its so-called impact assessments on the effects of leaving the EU. As Ministers debated how to respond, Davis Davis and Williamson fell out. The Brexit Secretary’s friends say that the whips advised that the motion would not be binding if passed. But the two men had different views of what to do about Opposition Day motions in any event. Williamson’s approach was not to risk losing votes. Furthermore, he didn’t want to whip Tory MPs against those motions anyway – for the reason described earlier. Davis’s take was that the Government could sometimes win votes that Williamson thought it would lose. He also believed that all governments with small majorities, or none at all, will lose some whipped motions anyway – and must take the results on the chin.
What happened next is now history. Conservative MPs weren’t whipped to vote against Starmer’s motion. The Government was compelled to release the papers. Davis was hauled before the Brexit Select Committee, before which he summoned a legion of angels to dance on a forest of pins – in other words, he set out to persuade the committee of the difference between an informal assessment of an impact…and a formal impact assessment. In short, the Brexit Secretary took yet more bullets for the Government, while the Chief Whip added further to his record of never having lost a whipped vote.
Later, Williamson was promoted to Defence Secretary. His deputy, Julian Smith, succeeded him as Chief Whip. He took much the same approach to Opposition Day motions as his predecessor.
And so we come to this Wednesday’s vote. Once again, Labour put down a Humble Address motion. Once again, it would have compelled Ministers to release papers – this time, all those concerning the customs partnership and maximum facilitation proposals considered by the so-called “War Cabinet”. Once again, the whips warned that the Government could lose the vote. ConservativeHome is told that senior civil servants went tonto. Untune that string, they cried; release those papers, and hark what discord will follow. Confidential decision-making in Government will become impossible. Our negotiation options will be laid bare to our EU interlocuters. Ministers weighed in – not just leavers such as Davis, but former Remainers as senior as David Lidington.
A decision was taken. The vote was whipped. And the Government won by the relatively comfortable margin of 32.
Now stand back, for a moment, from this strange history. Never mind, for our purposes, who was right and wrong. Whether Williamson was right to seek to protect Tory MPs from abuse in their seats. Whether Bercow was right instead to champion the potency of Parliament. Whether Davis was right to say that sometimes governments must risk a bloody nose, and sock it to the opposition.
Instead, mull the thought that the Government may be able to win some votes that the whips are convinced it will lose. Which returns us, at last, to Theresa May’s customs options. Staying tied to the Customs Union for longer, putting back dates at which new technology may become operable, keeping the discredited customs partnership option in play: much of the Government’s internal hesitation, paralysis and anguish is driven by the belief that there is a Commons majority for the Customs Union.
The lesson of this week is that there might not be – that, when push comes to shove, some Labour MPs in Leave-backing midlands and northern seats won’t vote for one or, more likely, will abstain. We end by repeating what a Cabinet Minister told this site last week –
“Personally I am not convinced of a CU majority. I think we can burn off a few of ours plus get a few Labour votes and, equally important, absentions”. The slight danger with the Flints [see here] is that they are not reliable allies and you are probably going to put them in an abstain column as against supporting the Government.”
“We have managed to let this narrative establish that the Commons doesn’t support Customs Union exit and frankly we have only ourselves to blame. I think we will need to vote on it, and we have a very decent chance of winning, but it will be tight. The danger is that Number Ten will take a bigger gamble by avoiding the inevitable, and you end up pleasing no-one by trying to get a broken compromise.”