Boris Johnson is lumbering to the rescue of Sarah Wollaston. The Totnes MP is reportedly under threat of deselection. But regardless of what Tony Benn used to pronounce as the pershonalitish, what about the ishoos? Should Conservative MPs who are in breach of the manifesto pledges that they stood on last year be given the heave-ho?
One starts with the thought that some may not be flouting those commitments at all. What must count is not what the Tory Manifesto promised to all voters, but what each Conservative MP pledged to his constituents. This principle has a striking effect in this case – namely, that the more phobic the MP in question is about Brexit, the more likely he is to have made that view plain, last year, to voters in his patch. To pick a seat almost at random, few voters in Beaconsfield with an interest in Britain’s future relationship with Europe will have been unaware of the take of their local MP. The same is doubtless true in Totnes.
The next consideration throws the question back into the lap of the each Association member. What is the appropriate sanction if the MP in question clearly is in breach? To that each individual must ultimately give his lonely answer. Is the MP a good local representative? Does he stand up for his constituents? Is he in thrall to the whips – especially when the party is in government when, since he can rebel against legislation, his vote counts, in terms of crude political weight, for more? These questions matter. Reselection and deselection is not a single-policy trick.
Then there’s another dimension. MPs are sometimes in breach of manifesto commitments anyway – even, arguably, often. For example, consider the case of the Conservative Manifesto commitment to lift the cap on Catholic faith schools (solemnly spelt out on page 50 of the text, for those with a special interest in the case). For one reason or another, Damian Hinds decided to breach the pledge, and keep the cap on new Catholic free schools while also backing new Catholic voluntary-aided schools. Most Tory MPs have not chirruped a peep about the decision. Why does any one violation matter more than another? Each local member must make up his own mind.
What should count most is what an MP does rather than what he says, in other words how he votes. Many talk about the Conservative Manifesto and votes on a Brexit deal. Fewer may have read the manifesto about which they pronounce. The unsurprising truth is that the document is infuriatingly vague: no wonder, since it will deliberately have been crafted to be so. Much may turn on how one inteprets the clear commitment to have “certainty and clarity” over the “control of our own laws”. If any deal reached between the Government and the EU flouts that pledge than Tory MPs would be entitled not to vote for it.
Next, there is the second referendum question. A commitment to honour the 2016 referendum result was unambiguously inferred in last year’s manifesto, which gives those MPs such as Wollaston no room for manoeuvre at all, unless they set out their position last summer. “Following the historic referendum on 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union,” the manifesto said. It also referred to Theresa May’s twelve Lancaster House principles, one of which was “control of our own laws…that means taking control of our own affairs, as those who voted in their millions to leave the European Union demanded we must”.
So local Association members would be within their rights to take a severe view of any MP who voted for a second referendum, especially in circumstances where the vote was not merely declaratory. But that prospect takes us into known unknowns and unknown unknows. We won’t be in second referendum territory unless we are also in Brexit postponement territory. And we won’t be in that until or unless any deal is voted down. If we are, and some Conservative MPs vote for a second referendum, the whips may take a view in any event – especially if an election looms into view and a second referendum is again ruled out.
A final point. Each local member isn’t automatically entitled to a reselection vote. It is the Association Executive that decides whether to accept an MP’s formal application for re-adoption. So those who have joined their local party to deselect their local MP are likely to be disappointed. They will have handed over £25 for nothing, as they see it, save to help fund the Party led by the author of Chequers.