The purpose of Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, which is now being pored over by Downing Street, was to stop Britain leaving the EU without a deal. There is no disagreement that this was its intent. But, by seeking to ensure that the Commons can block a no deal outcome, it also held open a door to other outcomes. Under its terms, MPs could have sought, for example, to join the EEA, though this looks rather less likely given the outcome of yesterday’s Commons vote. ConservativeHome has been arguing for weeks that there is a soft underbelly of potential pro-Brexit votes among Labour MPs who represent pro-Leave constituencies.
So yesterday’s vote suggested, with old-time Eurosceptics, such as Frank Field and Kate Hoey, being joined by Mike Hill (Hartlepool, Labour majority 7,650), Gareth Snell (Stoke on Trent Central, Labour majority 3,897), Laura Smith (Crewe and Natwich, Labour majority 48) and, above all, by Caroline Flint, who is turning out to be an arresting spokesman for Labour’s Leave heartlands. Her majority is just over 5000. There may be an opportunity for the Government here as the customs and trade bills loom.
However, Grieve’s amendment had wider possibilites. If the Commons could, under it terms, not only direct the Government to seek renewed EEA membership but – using the very same power – instruct it to try to delay or even cancel Brexit. The Beaconsfield MP met yesterday with an anti-Leave caucus in the European Commission’s London headquarters. Those present included Open Britain (the official wing of the campaign to reverse leaving the EU), Best for Britain (the provisional wing), Alastair Campbell, a few Tory or ex-Tory peers and A.C.Grayling, the unthinking Remainers’ thinking man. No wonder the Daily Mail asks what Grieve was doing there.
His answer is that he went to explain where his amendment, narrowly, and Brexit, more broadly, has got to – and would do the same were his hosts to be a pro-Leave group. On a point of fact, ConservativeHome is told that Grieve himself is not committed to part c) of his own amendment – the element of it that would give power to the Commons to “direct” the Government on Brexit, and thus open up a fast track for MPs to seek an end to leaving the EU. He apparently sees the constitutional problems it raises that we and others have explored. Downing Street insists that the Government is unambiguously opposed to it.
The door is thus open to an Oliver-Letwin assisted compromise today between the Government and Grieve. The question is whether it does or doesn’t pass the three tests set for it by Davis Davis and his department: not undermining the negotiations, not changing the constitutional role of Parliament and Government in negotiating international treaties, and respecting the referendum result. We expect to learn more later today.
Our sense is that Grieve takes the Arthur Hugh Clough view of Brexit: “Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive / Officiously to keep alive”. Some of those who know him believe that this super-brainy QC is now driven less by his mind than his guts – by a romantic attachment to the European ideal, and a reflexive hostility to the arch-Brexiteers. He is a good man (though, in our view, a misguided one). But at any rate, he and every other MP has the right, under the high and correct Burkean view of how MPs should act, to follow their consciences – whatever the whips, their Associations or even their voters may say. MPs are representatives, not delegates.
By the same token, their constituents have a right not to re-elect them, the Party to remove the whip, and those Associations not to re-select them (a consideration that apparently doesn’t relate to Grieve, since he seems not to be seeking to stand again). Our advice to all concerned, for what it’s worth, is to hang loose, stay cool, and see what happens next. Long-standing Leavers, who for year after year stood out for personal conviction against the Party leadership, should have some understanding of Remainers who are now in the same position. But even if they don’t, they should take their cue from “Ice” in West Side Story.
As for Grieve, he should have a long, hard think about the philosopher with whom he met yesterday, and reflect. To morph into the A.C.Grayling of Westminster would be a sanity-straining end to a distinguished career.