On the morning of a big vote, you suddenly find friends that you never thought you had. Messages from Ministers whom you long thought had forgotten your existence. Smiling colleagues who haven’t spoken to you for while putting a friendly arm around your shoulder and asking how you are feeling. The whips’ office seems to double in size as they ply their dark arts and try to persuade recalcitrant MPs like me to follow them on the path of righteousness and truth and into the correct division lobby.
For me, messages from two unlikely sources were key to my support for the Prime Minister’s motion: an intervention in the House of Commons from Labour MP and Chairman of the Brexit Committee Hilary Benn; and a WhatsApp message from the editor of this very publication.
Firstly, the Chairman of the Select Committee. I will quote from Hansard. “Having just read the motion, if [it] is passed, the UK will be granted an extension until 22nd May. At that point it will no longer be possible for the United Kingdom to apply for a further extension, because we would have failed to make the arrangements necessary to take part in European elections.” He went on to make it even clearer. “Therefore, to pass this motion will preclude the United Kingdom from asking for any further extension.” It was then that my training kicked in. I immediately sought a copy of the motion and read the document. I am not a natural rebel, and hope began to surge inside me. Perhaps I could support this wretched motion after all.
This hope was sealed by a message from Jonathan Isaby. He clearly set out in his article [link] the agonising, the heartache, but in the end the political reality. The numbers. There simply isn’t the majority for the Clean Global Brexit that he and I have been advocating. Worse, there isn’t even a majority of MPs who voted to leave. And we know all too well about those MPs who now see it as their mission in life to thwart the will of the people.
We should be leaving tonight. At 11pm. But the Prime Minister decided to change that and present us with two alternatives: 12th April or 22nd May. A key question that I was asked, even during today’s debate, was why don’t we just hold out for the 12th April? Would that we could! But the cold reality is the arithmetic, the numbers, and the fact that the Government has lost control of Business in the Chamber. In addition, there is the sad fact that the Prime Minister does not seem able to take us out on a Clean Global Brexit. This all points towards a long extension. And they don’t even have to ask permission from the House of Commons. Of course, we saw what happened when they did. The joyous division lobby of Wednesday night, when the mighty 105 voted against extending Brexit beyond the 29th March. And it was joyous. But we lost by 441 to 105 – a crushing majority of 336.
This leads me on to what should happen now.
I am very concerned at the recent suggestion of a longer extension, which the Prime Minister said would almost certainly require the United Kingdom to participate in the European Parliament elections, and which I believe the EU would grant at the emergency summit now set for the 10th April.
“The idea of the British people going to the polls to elect MEPs three years after voting to leave the EU hardly bears thinking about. There could be no more potent symbol of Parliament’s collective political failure.”
These are not my words, but the very words of our Prime Minister. And I completely agree.
But having such an extension, long or otherwise, with or without European elections is still a choice. It is a political choice. The Prime Minister does not need to propose such an extension.
The Prime Minister has repeated said that Brexit means Brexit, and that we will make a success of it. That is the central task of her premiership. I know that readers of this publication believe in our country, in the ingenuity of the British people, and in our country’s future outside the European Union. I believe that the Prime Minister does too.
Further, it is palpably clear how much the Prime Minister values the Conservative Party and grassroots, and all the hard work that goes in day in day out, not least in the run up to local elections. The damage that would be done by a long delay or failing to deliver, and the breakdown of trust between politician and people will be intolerable. It is clear that the PM gets this, and has rightly recognised this numerous times at the despatch box.
The whips did their job well today, and the majority against was slashed by more than half to 58. But it is still a significant defeat. A change of approach must be adopted. Changes to the backstop must be sought. Yes. Actually asked for. And there is still time before the 12th April. But above all else, we must not have the spectre of that political failure: we must not hold those European elections.
Published on Brexit Central March 2019