Philip Hammond’s response to the Government treating this week’s vote as a confidence matter – and therefore to withdraw the Whip from MPs who choose to vote against the Government – sought to lay down some return fire. He tweeted:
‘If true, this would be staggeringly hypocritical: 8 members of the current cabinet have defied the party whip this year. I want to honour our 2017 manifesto which promised a “smooth and orderly” exit and a “deep and special partnership” with the EU. Not an undemocratic No Deal.’
As Steve Baker has pointed out this is comparing apples and oranges. What’s proposed by Hammond and others is not mere common-or-garden rebellion, an MP’s right to simply disagree with their party. It’s perfectly normal for people to do that and retain the Whip. The forthcoming vote, however, would have the effect of stripping the Government of its executive status, even to the point of collapsing it entirely. It’s very much not normal for MPs to vote to eject their party from government, and thereby elevate the opposition in its place, and nor is doing so compatible with retaining the Whip.
As a Government source puts it: “No one in cabinet voted to give control away to Corbyn – to keep the Government in place as a puppet while legislation is passed to neuter it, to undermine [the] negotiating position, and direct the PM. If you do not have confidence in the approach of the Government, we have to treat this as a confidence matter.”
I’m sure Hammond knows this. He isn’t a dunce or a greenhorn, and he will have considered these issues earlier this year when his allies including David Gauke defied a three-line whip but retained their Cabinet positions, in breach of all convention and good sense.
So he’s seeking to muddy the waters rather conveniently by blurring together the very different acts of defying the Whip and seeking to sink the Government.
But is the cover he claims for his actions – ‘honour[ing] our 2017 manifesto’ – correct? Again there seems to be a bit of selective reading going on.
The quotes he gives come from a sentence in the introduction of the manifesto: ‘We need to deliver a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe.’
Readers will note that this sentence does not commit to the continuing integration – or no-Brexit – which Hammond et al appear to be flirting with. Indeed, such an arrangement – with continued EU control of UK law – could hardly be described as a ‘partnership’ at all.
If there was any doubt about this, page 36 of the manifesto he wishes to ‘honour’ makes very clear that these are mutually exclusive states of being: ‘we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement.’
Alternatively, be charitable and assume Hammond is only opposing No Deal, not pushing a continued semi-membership which would breach page 36. In that scenario, he is still mistaken to imply that the “smooth and orderly” exit is the form of a deal.
On the contrary, page 30 draws a distinction between a deal and the exit as a means of delivering it: “The best possible deal for Britain as we leave the European Union delivered by a smooth, orderly Brexit.” If “smooth, orderly Brexit” simply meant striking the deal Hammond would like, why did the manifesto draw such a distinction?
It seems the “smooth, orderly” element was about the process of leaving. For example, the smooth and orderly guarantee of legal continuity delivered by the Withdrawal Act.
Hammond’s tweet implies a rather peculiar understanding of that manifesto as a guarantee of a specific outcome to the negotiation, and a pledge that Brexit was conditional on that outcome. It did no such thing – what we ‘need’ to do is not the same as a guarantee that it will come to pass. No Government could make such a guarantee in a negotiation which has two sides, in a manifesto which pledges Parliament will have a vote on the outcome.
Indeed, the manifesto which Hammond is keen to honour gave no sign of Brexit being conditional at all. ‘When we leave the European Union’ (pages 27 and 78); ‘when we have left the EU’ (page 38); ‘We are leaving the European Union’ (page 31); ‘the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union’ (page 35).
It couldn’t be much clearer – there is no line in the manifesto that says ‘we might leave the EU, but only if the process passes tests that Philip Hammond isn’t applying publicly at this stage’. The manifesto is in fact explicit that what Hammond now calls ‘undemocratic No Deal’ is a possibility, and preferable in the circumstance of a bad deal: ‘we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK’ (page 36).
The former Chancellor might still believe that May’s deal was a good deal. But if Parliament, and now the Government, disagrees with him, there’s nothing in the manifesto requiring them to postpone Brexit.