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Westlake Legal Group > ToryDiary

The independent MPs who could hold May’s fate in their hands

In 1979, before Sinn Fein became an electoral force in Northern Ireland, Fermagh and South Tyrone was represented in the Commons by an independent Republican, Frank Maguire.  He was only an occasional attender – he ran Frank’s Bar, a pub in public house in Lisnaskea – but, that year, he made all the difference.

This infrequent Commons voter, inclined to abstentionism in the Irish Republican tradition, travelled to Westminster for a no-confidence debate in Jim Callaghan’s Government to “abstain in person”.  Callaghan lost by 311 votes to 310.

Today, as Wesminster’s rumour mill grinds out speculation about a coming general election, it is well worth casting an eye at Maguire’s successors today – the eight oddly-assorted independents who hold Theresa May’s fate in their hands in the event of tight votes, and could decide a no confidence motion one way or another.

Eight is not a large number – but big enough, it seems, to include no fewer than seven categories, five of them related to Labour.

Let’s go through them one by one in the manner that a Conservative Whip might.

  • O’Mara voted against the Government last week both on the Brexit “meaningful vote” and the no-confidence vote.  That would suggest that he will continue to vote with Labour.  Though one cannot be quite sure.
  • Hopkins voted in the same way.  But he is a committed Brexiteer. Might he be persuaded in future at least to abstain on key future votes?
  • Lloyd also voted against the Government last week both on the Brexit “meaningful vote” and the no-confidence vote.  But since his policy reason for leaving the Liberal Democrats is that he believes the referendum result should be honoured, might he too be persuaded in future at least to abstain on key future votes?
  • Field voted with the Government on the meaningful vote but against the Government on the no-confidence vote.  Can he persuaded in any future confidence vote at least to abstain?
  • Lewis voted against the Government on the meaningful vote and abstained the Government in the no-confidence vote.  That suggests that he would do the same in future no confidence votes, which would leave the combined opposition one down.
  • Woodcock also voted against the Government on the meaningful vote and abstained the Government in the no-confidence vote.  He made a speech strongly critical of Jeremy Corbyn in the latter.  Again, that suggests that he would do the same in future no confidence votes, which would leave the combined opposition two down.
  • A by-election is due in Onasanya’s constituency, since she has been found guilty of perverting the course of justice and she is unlikely to turn up to future votes.  She abstained last week both on the meaningful vote and the no-confidence vote, which suggests that the combined opposition is three down.
  • During the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years, Hermon tended to vote with Labour.  She left the Ulster Unionists when they went into formal alliance with the Conservatives for the 2010 election.  However, she abhors Jeremy Corbyn.  And she is a dedicated Remainer in a province in which the Remain cause is associated less with a second referendum than the Prime Minister’s deal.  This helps to explain why she is the only independent who voted with the Government on both the meaningful vote and the no confidence motion.  That takes the combined opposition four down and puts the Government one up – if this voting pattern continues, which there is reason to think it will.

Were ConservativeHome the Tory Whips, we would, rightly or wrongly, have special hopes of Woodcock, and to a lesser extent of Field, Lewis, Hopkins and Lloyd, probably in that order.  The third may be hoping for readmittance to Labour which would complicate the picture.

 

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25 questions about (another) early general election – and the horror show it could be for the Conservatives

I wrote in the Times last August about Brexit that “the most likely cathartic event is neither a new prime minister nor a second referendum but a general election”.  Of which there is talk again in the Westminster Village.  William Hague is reportedly saying that the media is underestimating the chances of a poll.

As Mark Wallace points out, the former Foreign Secretary pressed for an election before Theresa May obtained one in 2017.  We know how that turned out.

For the record, this site believed that she’d increase her majority, once she called it.  But we were very dubious about her calling the poll in the first place.  We take the same view now (as may Hague).  For although an election could become unavoidable before too long, believing that one could happen isn’t the same as thinking it should happen.  Here are some questions that help illustrate why.

  • What would the manifesto say about Brexit?
  • If it repackaged Theresa May’s deal, how would Conservative MPs who believe that No Deal is now inevitable, or back Norway Plus, or a Canada-type deal, or a second referendum, respond?
  • If it didn’t propose ruling out No Deal, what would the Cabinet group headed by Philip Hammond say and do?
  • If it did rule out No Deal, what would the Cabinet members who backed Leave in the EU referendum, plus Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, do?
  • Would the manifesto rule out extending Article 50?
  • How would May go about seeking to prevent a 1997-election type revolt – that time round, it was about ruling out joining the Euro – from Leavers?  Would she be prepared to bar the candidacies of hardline pro-Leave MPs?
  • By the same token, would she be prepared to bar the candidacies of their pro-Remain equivalents?
  • How would the Party handle Associations seeking to deselect their MPs?
  • What would the manifesto say about everything else bar Brexit?  The spending review?  Tax?  Social care?  Universal Credit?  Reducing net migration “to the tens of thousands”?  Health and food and lifestyle?  Selective schools?  Knife crime?  The pursuit of British servicemen through the courts?  Tuition fees?  Home ownership? HS2?  And what would it say about how Britain should be different after Brexit?
  • In particular, what would it say about Scotland, and what role would Ruth Davidson and/or Scottish Conservative MPs have in drawing up the contents, if any, especially about fishing?
  • What’s to stop the election turning into one on other matters than Brexit entirely, as the last one did?
  • Would the Party run candidates against the DUP in Northern Ireland?
  • Who would run the manifesto process – since Chris Skidmore, who was in charge of the Party’s policy review, has now been made a Minister and not replaced?
  • Would the Pickles review recommendations for drawing up the next Conservative manifesto be implemented – in other words, would senior Ministers play a major part in overseeing it?
  • Who would write it?
  • Since successive Party leaders have outsourced the running of recent election campaigns, who would run this one?  (Labour’s team from last time round would presumably remain much the same.)
  • Since Lynton Crosby is reported to be advising Boris Johnson, how could he return to CCHQ to spearhead a campaign?
  • Would such a solution be desirable anyway, given the Crosby/Textor/Messina contribution to the failure of the last campaign?
  • Even if it was, would Crosby accept this poisoned chalice in any event?
  • And why would anyone else do so, either – such as James Kanagasooriam?  Dominic Cummings?  (Who wouldn’t be asked anyway.)
  • In the absence of anyone else, has CCHQ really got the capacity to run an election campaign in-house, especially at almost no notice?
  • Given almost no notice, is CCHQ in a position to identify the right target seats?
  • If it can, doesn’t it need an equivalent of Team 2015 to help campaign in them and canvass them?  (And there isn’t one.)
  • Even if there was one, is the prospect of a Corbyn Government enough to get Party activists out campaigning, or will disillusion with the May Government hold them back?
  • What’s the answer to the same question when applied to donors?

And that’s all more or less off the top of my head.  There will be many more questions and better ones too.

P.S: And before you ask, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act isn’t an insuperable barrier to an election, as the events of 2017 proved.

P.P.S: The Prime Minister has of course promised recently, as before the 2017 poll, that she definitely won’t seek one…

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Eight in ten party members oppose extending Article 50, according to our snap survey

Westlake Legal Group ConHome-Survey-Article-50-Jan-19-1024x722 Eight in ten party members oppose extending Article 50, according to our snap survey ToryDiary ConservativeHome Members' Panel Brexit Article 50

This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given the relative lack of concern about a no-deal Brexit evinced by our panellists.

However, others may also take the view that the crucial decision point has not yet arrived and that the Government could yet get the Withdrawal Agreement (and the necessary legislation) through Parliament in time.

Either way, speculation is building that May may fold on extension if the Commons pushes for it.

This finding is a reminder that doing so would come with a cost as far as Party members are concerned, especially since it would be claimed, perhaps correctly, that extension was paving the way to revocation.

 

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Our survey. A second referendum is as unpopular as ever amongst grassroots Conservatives.

Westlake Legal Group ConHome-Survey-2nd-Referendum-Jan-19-1024x689 Our survey. A second referendum is as unpopular as ever amongst grassroots Conservatives. ToryDiary Second EU Referendum ConservativeHome Members' Panel Brexit

These results are essentially unchanged since we last ran the question back in December.  There’s no room for manoeuvre on the matter for Theresa May, assuming she might want any, at least as far as Party members are concerned.

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As matters stand, almost half of Party members line up behind No Deal, our snap survey finds

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-01-18-at-18.13.28 As matters stand, almost half of Party members line up behind No Deal, our snap survey finds ToryDiary Norway Europe EU ConservativeHome Members' Panel Canada Brexit

On the BBC’s Question Time edition this week, the audience cheered for No Deal.  The closer the prospect of it gets, the more some people warm to it.

This was also our explanation when we last asked a broadly comparable question to this one, and found that No Deal was the most popular option with 44 per cent support.

That’s now up slightly to 48 per cent, while backing for a Canada option is down marginally from 27 per cent to 24 per cent.  In short, there’s not much change since last year in relation to any of the options.

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Our survey. May’s Deal. A majority of Party members would support it were the UK able unilaterally to leave the backstop

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-01-18-at-17.47.15 Our survey. May’s Deal. A majority of Party members would support it were the UK able unilaterally to leave the backstop United Kingdom ToryDiary The Union Northern Ireland ireland Highlights Europe EU ConservativeHome Members' Panel Brexit

  • When we last asked a roughly comparable question, Theresa May’s Brexit deal had the support of 26 per cent of our panel members.  That’s now down to 13 per cent.  Doubtless part if not most of the reason is its defeat by a record margin in the Commons this week.  The Prime Minister may believe it can be revived.  This finding suggests Party members believe that it can’t.
  • Well over two in five respondents say that the deal is not acceptable – rejecting it entirely.  The total is not that far off half.
  • None the less, two in five replies also say that the deal would be acceptable were the UK to have the right to leave the backstop unilaterally.  Add the 40 per cent concerned to that 13 per cent, and May wins a majority for such an amended deal among our members’ panel.  But one almost as tight as the referendum result.

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Esther McVey: Now that May’s Brexit deal has been voted down, we need to win back trust. Here’s how.

Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.

The fallout from Parliament’s rejection of the Meaningful Vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal continues, but what is clear is that something has gone very wrong in our politics.  As most of this this site’s readers know, I resigned from the Cabinet over the deal. And in my resignation letter, I wrote about the danger of trust being lost. As a political class, we have stretched public trust to the limit in recent years but, if we now fail to honour the biggest democratic vote in our history, we risk severing trust entirely.

Parliament is awash with competing views about what needs to happen next. What is most startling is how most of these views have nothing to do with implementing the will of the people, and expose just how out of touch that political class is.

For a majority of Labour MPs, in particular ,this is about overturning a result they have never accepted. They believe people were too stupid to make an informed decision about how the EU affects their lives. Amidst the metropolitan bubble, they have convinced themselves that people across the country are clamouring to listen to their betters, and do as they are told in a second referendum. This view is deluded – and if they ever managed to block Brexit it could genuinely break politics as we know it.

However, it is the Conservatives who are most in danger of severing trust with the voters and suffering the consequences. We are the party in office – the party that introduced the referendum, and the party whose members predominantly support sovereignty and exiting the EU. We should take no false comfort in whatever polls might predict the election result to be when all trust has been lost. Not even the economic destruction threatened by the Marxist alternative might be enough to save us.

The Withdrawal Agreement falls short of delivering what people voted for, but it is the compromises doing the rounds that have the potential really to pour petrol on the fire. The current deal would leave us tied to the EU and their its indefinitely. So how is an alternative such as Norway Plus or Common Market 2.0, which look even less like Brexit, a potential solution? Not to mention that delivering either could only be achieved with the collusion of Labour MPs. What is worse is that at the heart of these developments is not what is best for the country, or genuinely delivering on the votes of 17.4 million people, but rather getting politicians out of a muddle of their own creation.

After the resounding rejection of the deal, the Prime Minister now needs to go back to the EU to get a better deal – fundamentally, to ensure the removal of the backstop, and that the payment of the £39 billion gains us a future trade deal along the lines outlined by Donald Tusk back in March 2018, sometimes referred to as Canada Plus.

At the same time, so that the EU can be in no doubt of our Government’s will to deliver for the people, and for our Party to live up to our general election manifesto commitment that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, we need to show how we would spend that £39 billion at home if we left without a deal; reveal to the public all the no deal preparations already done by the civil service; explain what World Trade Organisations rules are, and set out the side deals we need to secure.

We also need to look at a ‘no deal transition period’ just like the kind we had for a ‘deal transition period’ –  i.e: a payment for a period of time whereby we and the EU adjust to the changes ahead of us. This would continue as already planned until Dec 2020. We are good neighbours, and seek to remain as such.

What we can’t do is shackle ourselves to a bad deal simply to get Brexit over and done with because politicians think the effort of coming out of the EU is too much hard work. Nor can we keep the public in the dark about our options post-29th March, simply because politicians don’t want change. Change is inevitable – and preparations and planning are the solution. For the idea that somehow things will move on and people will forget what they voted for in the biggest referendum of a life time is fantasy. Let me assure my colleagues that if we break the public trust on something as big as this we will not be easily forgiven.

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Not yet angry – but patriotic and bewildered. Fear of betrayal is the dominant emotion at the Leave Means Leave rally

An orderly queue formed last night outside Methodist Central Hall for the Leave Means Leave rally. As we entered we were handed small Union Jacks to wave during speeches by Kate Hoey, Rocco Forte, Iain Duncan Smith, Tim Martin, Nigel Farage and Esther McVey.

The Labour people who gave out Union Jacks to the crowd which applauded Tony Blair’s entry into Downing Street in 1997 were onto something. Here is a delightful way to demonstrate patriotism.

But last night’s crowd, about 2,000 strong, rather than celebrating victory, were anxiously hoping to avert defeat.

The mood of these Brexit supporters has not yet turned angry. It is one of bewildered patriotism. For although they won the referendum, they now question whether they can trust the very politicians to whom they decided to return power.

As the man sitting next to me put it:

“I just don’t think it’s right that we have to concede a second referendum. People had a choice. They voted as they did. I think it’s right for the country to leave the EU, personally.”

He is 45 years old, has a job in insurance, and had never attended such a rally before. His tone was modest, almost apologetic, yet conveyed a sense of incredulity at the outrageous injustice which may be about to be perpetrated.

All six speakers wrestled with the paradox of a Parliament most of whose members yearn to avert Brexit, even though it gives more power to Parliament. Hoey, a Labour MP since 1989, warned that “the great betrayal has begun” and is now “moving apace”.

Richard Tice, the clean-cut Englishman, somehow reminiscent of an American evangelist, who runs Leave Means Leave and introduced the speakers, insisted “we can begin to smell” the betrayal. He urged people to chant “Let’s go WTO”.

Forte, who spoke as a businessman, said “I have not known such defeatism…by the ruling class…since the Seventies” [applause]. He described the elite’s lack of belief in the British people as  “almost treasonable”.

A heckler interrupted at this point by shouting very loudly. He was quite near to me, but I could not make out what he was saying. Forte, being somewhat inexperienced as a public speaker, fell silent, and members of the crowd started shouting “Out, out, out”.

Tice poured oil on troubled waters by saying, “We respect the right of free speech and we urge them to do the same”, for apparently there was more than one protester. The heckler near to me was ushered from the hall and someone shouted after him “At least you can leave”, which produced rueful laughter.

Duncan Smith started with some jokes, including the funny story he told when interviewed by ConservativeHome in 2013, and went on to talk of “this enormous Establishment plot” to tell us “we are a miserable little nation” and “a hopeless little island”.

He added that Parliament “doesn’t represent the British people any more”. But he and the minority of MPs who think like him “will not rest” until Britain is “fully free once again”.

Tim Martin, founder and Chairman of the Wetherspoon pub chain, bore as he came on stage a fleeting but disconcerting resemblance to the satirist Craig Brown.

Martin’s main message was “don’t believe Project Fear”. He recalled that car manufacturers said “they’d all f*ck off to the continent” if Britain didn’t join the euro.

And he reported that “if you really want to annoy people”, you should “try going into a pub in Sunderland” and asking people there if it was true they “didn’t understand” what they were voting for in the referendum.

This produced laughter of the usual good-natured yet rueful kind.

Farage received the most enthusiastic welcome of anyone: a standing ovation before he had said a word.

He walked to and fro across the front of the stage, his amplified voice painfully loud as he warned that “we tonight here in Westminster are in the heart of enemy territory”, for “our political class” never respected the referendum result “from day one”.

Theresa May’s deal with the EU “looked more like a surrender document” [applause], and was the culmination of “50 years of lies from the British Establishment”.

He fears the whole referendum battle will have to be fought all over again, urged everyone to prepare for it, and concluded: “Next time, as far as I’m concerned, it’s no more Mr Nice Guy.”

One could not help suspecting that as in the first referendum campaign, Farage being nasty could have an off-putting effect on those voters who do not already agree with him.

McVey delivered an apologia for her time in government: “We thought we could trust our MPs.” On realising last November that the Prime Minister’s deal failed to honour the referendum result, she resigned.

And that was that. The event lasted two hours, felt decorous and respectable, and can be watched on Youtube. The audience was almost entirely white, but mixed by age and sex. It wanted to feel reassured that Brexit is going to turn out fine, but none of the six speakers could set at rest the fear that Parliament is about to refuse to do what the people have voted for.

The drawback of upholding an old-fashioned belief in parliamentary sovereignty turns out to be that a majority of MPs would much rather we had remained in the EU.

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Decision time for Javid and Hunt?

One can see how it could happen.  David Lidington will mastermind a negotiation with Labour Soft Brexiteers and others.  Michael Gove will provide Eurosceptic cover, and make the case for what emerges on Today and in the Commons.  The negotiation will settle on formal Customs Union membership, or something so close to it as to make no difference.  In the passive way that so defines her, Theresa May will swallow it.  Lidington will tell her that, if she doesn’t, she will lose a no confidence vote, with a tiny band of fixated Remainer Conservatives, perhaps led by Dominic Grieve, abstaining – and so making the difference.  Philip Hammond and other Cabinet Soft Brexiteers are already pushing this outcome and briefing bigger business to this effect.

On this site today, Stewart Jackson sets out the risk of such a course – nothing less than splitting the Conservative Party from top to bottom.  The most crucial Tory actor in the talks with other parties and politicians is thus neither Gove nor even Lidington, but Julian Smith – though he is only one voice in that three-man team appointed for talks.

Such a formal endorsement of a softer Brexit – further concessions to Customs Union membership and new ones to Labour’s social model – would bear other perils, equally dramatic though less profound.  First, even tacking on to it more alignment with the Single Market, thus bringing the proposed treatment of Great Britain into line with that of Northern Ireland, might not satisfy the DUP, which is a Leave party.  Second, Jeremy Corbyn might not swallow this softer Brexit, even if it satisfied his party’s conditions for a deal.  It would cramp a hard left Labour Government’s room for socialist manoeuvre.   And he is temperamentally inclined to oppose the Tories at all costs. Furthermore, a Norwegian option is not compatible with ending free movement, to which lots of Labour MPs are opposed.  One can see how a coalition of the Labour front bench and the ERG might find ways of sinking any such softer Brexit.

This morning, some are claiming that the Prime Minister is about to make exactly such a pivot – with the EU, that “rules-based organisation”, then rewriting the Withdrawal Agreement (which its pro-Remain British fan club currently tells us is impossible) to deliver the compromise.  Others say that she won’t.

The most likely course still is that she hopes to continue her chicken game and suck politicians from other parties into supporting her deal.  Another way of viewing the three man negotiating team is that Gove will act as a restraint on Lidington, teaming up with Smith to block any move towards formal Customs Union membership.  The Environment Secretary is not currently a contender for the Conservative leadership, but though he is unpopular in the country he is indispensible in the Commons, as his swashbuckling performance in yesterday’s no confidence debate reminded us.  And he is currently the most creative head of any Government department.  He is the Government’s most eloquent voice and the Cabinet’s lead swing voter.  A crushing weight of responsibility is thus descending on his shoulders.

Talk of Cabinet Ministers leads us to the Cabinet Leavers – those who voted for Brexit in the referendum: Steve Barclay, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling, Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom, Geoffrey Cox.  Unlike Dominic Raab and Esther McVey, they didn’t resign over May’s deal (Barclay of course was not in place then).

There were arguments for and against them doing so.  But it is indisputable that formal Customs Union membership is incompatible with the Conservative manifesto, any prospect whatsoever of deep and meaningful trade deals with non-EU countries, and the Brexit vision for which they campaigned.  A big moment may be approaching for them, too – as well as for those who didn’t back Leave in the referendum but are now sympathetic to a Canada-type future, such as Liz Truss.  She seems to have future leadership ambitions. There’s no doubt at all that Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt do so.  But were they to nod reluctant assent to a Customs Union scheme, it is very unlikely indeed that whatever would be left of the Conservative membership would choose either of them to replace May.

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Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Nobody is yet saying “Send for Corbyn”

Jeremy Corbyn is a better Leader of the Opposition than he was, but still does not sound like a Prime Minister in waiting. As he opened the No Confidence debate, he took the precaution of taking few interventions from other MPs.

But those interventions were still sufficient to demonstrate the utter nullity of his European policy. When Alistair Carmichael asked if Labour supports a second referendum, Corbyn could only say that “all options are on the table”.

He said the Prime Minister should keep all options on the table too, but proceeded to contradict himself by urging her to “rule out No Deal”.

Corbyn went on to allow an intervention from Anna Soubry (Con, Broxtowe). She pointed out that the Conservatives are six points ahead in the opinion polls, and wondered whether this could be because “he’s the most hopeless Leader of the Opposition we’ve ever had”.

Corbyn could have replied that her remark did not exactly constitute a declaration of confidence in the Prime Minister. He instead insisted, less ambitiously, that he looked forward to testing public opinion in a general election. But he admitted that many people think we have had quite enough elections and referendums in recent years to be going on with.

And he did not even sound very enthusiastic himself about the idea of an election. The longer he spoke, the less sense one had that he was convincing himself, let alone anyone else.

“Send for Corbyn” is not yet a message that leaps to people’s lips. In that sense, the whole occasion sounded rather bogus, an obligatory ritual rather than a genuine attempt to throw out the Government.

“Stick with May” is still a message the Tory benches are prepared to heed. But the Father of the House, Ken Clarke, had already told her at Prime Minister’s Questions, from his bench a few yards behind her: “She must now modify her red lines…and find a cross-party majority.”

Clarke nodded quietly when Angela Eagle and Yvette Cooper made the same point from the Labour benches.

This was difficult territory for the Prime Minister. She had to show she is prepared to listen to reasonable suggestions from across the House about Brexit, without making her own Eurosceptics fear she is about to outflank them by forming an alliance with Labour moderates.

Liam Byrne (Lab, Birmingham Hodge Hill) said she was imprisoned in “a cage of red lions”, which sounded a dangerous place to be, but it turned out that he had said “a cage of red lines”, which sounded a bit less bad.

May naturally flung at him the famous note he left in 2010 for his successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, “I’m afraid there is no money left.”

Byrne said in his own defence, “I was naive to honour a Treasury tradition that went back to Churchill.” By now, the heat was clearly off May. But it was also clear that no one, including herself, yet knows how to devise a Brexit policy which can command a Commons majority.

 

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