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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "Europe"

James Frayne: What impact will the Independent Group have on the Conservative Party?

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

What impact will the Independent Group’s launch have on the Conservative Party? Not unreasonably, analyists and commentators are only just beginning to get round to the question. But Conservative strategists will already be thinking about potential effects. Since it’s extremely difficult to test voter attitudes towards a hypothetical scenario such as a formal new party launch, in turn it’s extremely difficult now to predict the impact. But testing voter attitudes benefits from having a set of political hypotheses to test in the first place. So what should those hypotheses be?

Let’s consider the short-term and then the long-term. Thinking about the next few months first, we should assume there’s likely to be a hit to Jeremy Corbyn’s poll ratings and Labour’s performance in top-line national voting intention ratings. The early reporting around the group has been framed negatively: that Luciana Berger and Labour colleagues are leaving the Party because of the leadership’s inability and unwillingness to deal with racism within its ranks – and because the leadership has been unwilling to fight back on Brexit. The positive vision that Berger and others have has naturally been drowned out in the immediate aftermath of their announcement.

As I’ve written on these pages before, Corbyn’s personal ratings have been poor for a long time. Swing voters think he is incompetent and lacking in intelligence and leadership qualities. However, to date, he hasn’t been seen as a “bad” person; furthermore, voters have generally drawn a distinction between the Labour leadership (Corbyn and John McDonnell) and the wider Labour Party. Labour’s fundamental brand – of sticking up for the poor – remains strong.

It is possible that Berger and others’ presentation of the Party leadership and the wider Party as immoral will make those cultural attacks that the Conservatives have been making in recent years stick. By that, I mean the Conservatives’ allegations that Corbyn is dangerous rather than stupid. This shift in the public mood from thinking Corbyn is incompetent to unpleasant could drag his ratings down further and for longer; it’s too early to say.

It’s possible that some Conservative MPs will be tempted away if no deal looks possible. But on balance it seems more likely that the Government would do pretty much anything to avoid this; it’s therefore currently hard to imagine a mass exodus of Conservative Remainers. The Independent Group is therefore probably a Labour-ish Party for the foreseeable future. (The danger for the Conservatives looks to be primarily on the Right, but that’s for another day).

Again these are all hypotheses for testing, but, with that in mind, the launch of the new group looks therefore likely to be a major short-term positive for the Conservatives. Not only are Corbyn and Labour’s ratings likely to go down but, in practice, the initiative makes voters’ defections from the Conservative Party at least somewhat less likely. It surely also makes it less likely that Conservative Remainers – who are by their nature self-consciously internationalist – will defect to a Labour Party that has been so badly tainted with the brush of racism.

And, again, certainly in the short-term, these voters will not be able to turn to a new Party that has no meaningful infrastructure. Finally, it is worth pointing out the obvious: that these MPs will split the left-leaning vote in any elections that come up soon. But all this is about the short-term; things could change quickly.

The longer-term is obviously more difficult to predict. But, again, let’s think through a hypothesis. Let us assume four things: firstly, that there’s some sort of deal with the EU; secondly, that the Group becomes a Party and develops a positive, centrist vision somewhere between the governing philosophies of Gordon Brown and the 2005-2010 version of David Cameron; thirdly, that the new Party develops, Macron-style, a rudimentary campaigning vehicle that can see it compete nationally; and, fourthly, that at least a few Conservative MPs leave the Party to join it. All of these things seem reasonable to assume, even if we acknowledge that launching a new party formally is logistically very difficult.

The big question is: would such a party take votes away from the Conservatives? In any vaguely similar space to the one they’re staking out, the Independent Party would be attractive, theoretically, to around a third of voters: these are the International Free Traders (around 10 per cent of the electorate) and the Social Democrats (around 25 per cent) that I wrote about here recently.

Because of this, and because of their launch politicians, it would make more sense for such a party to veer somewhat left rather than somewhat right; there look to be more votes from it here. That means ramping up issues like public service reform, poverty, welfare and dealing with capitalist excess. (While they’ll obsess about Europe in the short-term, they can’t build a party on that stance – given that things might all be over by the middle of the year; they’ll need a more durable focus.)

With such a platform, they will find it easy enough to attract MPs like Allen, who aren’t policy-oriented and who travel light ideologically, but would presumably struggle to attract more mainstream Conservatives. And this left-leaning stance would make it more difficult to attract the business-minded Remain voters of the South of England to back this party. Wall Street Journal Conservatives – to use an Americanism – would think twice about a left-leaning party.

But while their campaigning platform will surely lean left, that doesn’t mean that the Independent Party would only eat into Labour’s vote. After all, many of those that we might call Social Democrats voted for David Cameron in 2010 and 2015 (much less so for Theresa May in 2017). In fact, we should assume that an Independent Party, if it commits itself to a capitalist economy of sorts (with a commitment to ethical business etc) looks highly attractive to those younger, urban, professional voters that shifted from Blair to Cameron as the Labour Party shifted to the hard-left under Ed Miliband. This narrows the Conservatives’ pathway to a majority. But it’s hard not to conclude that an Independent Party’s campaigning won’t disproportionately affect electoral life for the Labour Party.

There is a giant caveat to this point – one that won’t surprise occasional readers of this column. This is that the Conservatives are somewhat more insulated from the Independent Party if they continue to embrace a conservatism that appeals primarily to working class and lower middle class voters. In such a scenario, the Conservatives continue to hollow out Labour’s working class base while solidifying its lead amongst lower middle class swing voters. As this is happening, the Independent Party starts to attract middle class voters that have recently shifted from the Conservatives to Labour. If the Conservatives junk this strategy, they risk losing their attraction to provincial working class and lower middle class voters and end up in a war they might not be able to win for these Social Democrats.

Two final points on the Independent Group. Firstly, the name is great; it plays to the public’s desire for change and to the idea that people should put country ahead of party. Secondly, they can’t, however,  credibly claim to be changing politics given they’re fronted by people that look and sound like they’ve spent their entire existence focusing on Westminster politics. Macron smashed his way into power in France by being different; at this point in time the Independent Group looks simply like a nicer version of the people you usually get offered during elections.

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Iain Mansfield: We have nothing to fear from No Deal

Iain Mansfield is a former senior civil servant, winner of the Institute of Economic Affairs Brexit prize and a Conservative councillor candidate. He writes in a personal capacity.

One constant on our journey to leave the EU is that the predictions of Project Fear have repeatedly failed to come true. Despite the predictions of the Treasury, there was no immediate recession, “immediate and profound economic shock”, ten per cent drop in house prices or ‘’Punishment Budget’ as a consequence of the vote to Leave. Instead we’ve seen a growing economy, the highest ever level of employment, growing wages, falling inflation and an £11.8bn increase in exports in 2018.

The new bogeyman is No Deal. The summer of 2018 saw repeated stories of planes being grounded in the event of No Deal, only for, entirely predictably, the EU to make provision in December for flights to continue for twelve months to allow alternative measures to be put in place. More recently, claims that our trade to other countries would grind to a halt are being refuted by the regular drumbeat of mutual recognition agreements signed by the Department of International Trade, including one last week with our largest non-EU trade partner, the USA. I do not say that there will be no short-term impact in the event of No Deal, but it will be vastly less than is being suggested.

In my 2014 prize-winning paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs, I explicitly considered the possibility of No Deal. No Deal was not the preferred outcome – I would have preferred a Free Trade Agreement, outside both the Single Market and Customs Union, similar to the position set out by Vote Leave in June 2016. It was, however, always a potential outcome, and it was important to consider how to put in place policies to make a success of it. In this article, I set out a high-level set of policies for making a success of No Deal, drawing on that paper and ongoing developments in the four years since.

Making a success of a Managed No Deal

Citizen’s RightsThe welfare of both UK and EU citizens is of the highest priority. As the Prime Minister has already announced, all EU citizens living in the UK should continue to be able to do so, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations. Many EU countries have already put in place equivalent arrangements for UK citizens and similar commitments should be sought from those that have yet to do so.

Visas and Migration: The UK should put in place visa-free arrangements for short-term tourist and business travel, covering up to 90 days in any 180 day period, mirroring the scheme already announced by the EU. Immigration rules for EU nationals should be brought in to line with those for non-EU nationals, ending the current discriminatory arrangements. There should be no cap on the number of EU students, but students arriving after March 2019 should not receive government-funded loans and should pay fees at international rates.

‘Divorce bill’: In the event of No Deal, it is self-evident that no money should be paid to the EU.

Trade and tariffsThe UK should abide by WTO rules and impose the same tariffs on EU importe that are currently faced by imports from outside the EU. Notwithstanding the theoretical positive economic case for unilaterally removing tariff barriers, it is important that shutting the UK out of EU markets is not a cost-free decision for continental business, in order to build the environment for a future deal once the political climate has altered.

Due to the UK’s trade deficit with the EU, estimates suggest we stand to collect up to an extra £13 billion a year from tariffs, while the EU would gain only £5 billion. Some of these funds should be used to help industries most impacted by EU trade barriers adjust and find new markets, in a strictly time-limited and tapering way to prevent them fostering inefficiency and rent-seeking behaviour. The rest should be reinvested into infrastructure and other competitiveness-enhancing investments.

Within six months of leaving, the UK should draw up a list of goods on which the EU has imposed unnecessarily high tariffs. This should prioritise consumer goods that the UK produces little of itself – from oranges to textiles – to directly reduce the cost of living without harming jobs.

Industrial StrategyIn contrast to Project Fear’s claims, EY’s 2018 UK Attractiveness Survey – an annual examination of the performance and perceptions of the UK as an investment destination – confirmed that the UK remains the number one destination for inward investment in Europe, with the number of investment projects up six per cent from the year before. Though Brexit has had an impact, it is small: 79 per cent of businesses say that they’ve increased or not changed their plans to invest since the Brexit vote, with only eight per cent saying they are likely to relocate assets within the next three years.

The UK should capitalise on this investor confidence. With full freedom to set our own regulatory affairs, the UK should rapidly seek to reform business regulation in areas where the EU has imposed unnecessary bureaucracy, particularly in sectors where this has directly targeted UK competitiveness. Existing labour rights and environmental standards should be maintained.

Broader measures to promote business investment should also be brought forward. A step-wise lowering of corporation tax to 15 per cent by 2022, an enhancement of R&D tax credits, the creation of special export zones and increased transport infrastructure, particularly in the Midlands and North, are all ideas that should be considered for fast-track implementation.            

UK-Ireland land border: No physical barriers should be erected on the Irish border. Importers bringing goods across the border should be required to register and pay tariffs on any imports using an online portal, with compliance enforced via spot-checks on industrial and commercial facilities and an enhancement of the existing cross-border arrangements used to combat smuggling. The success of this system should be reviewed 12 months after exit, ideally in partnership with the Republic of Ireland, and limited border checks introduced only if both parties agree it is necessary.

Individuals should be allowed to move freely across the island of Ireland, with eligibility for work, residency and benefits checked only when a person applied for such. A generous allowance for transport of goods for personal consumption should be put in place.

Existing controls would remain in place at airports and ports to monitor travel between the island of Ireland and Great Britain.

If the Republic of Ireland chooses to erect physical barriers on the border, that would be its decision, not the UK’s.

Future EU Relations: The UK should not seek to immediately negotiate a trade deal with the  EU. After the acrimony of the current negotiations, this would be unlikely to lead to a positive outcome. Instead, the UK should increase business certainty by clearly pursuing an economic path that lies outside the EU.

The year immediately following exit should be used to regularise agreements in essential areas, such as air travel, which will initially be covered by emergency arrangements. These should largely be technical affairs modelled on the EU’s and UK’s arrangements with third parties. It may also be possible to negotiate entry into stand-alone, uncontroversial, programmes such as those on scientific cooperation.

It is likely that in three to five years’ time the political situation may have calmed sufficiently to seek to negotiate a stand-alone trade agreement. This should be modelled on the Canada Free Trade Agreement and would take as its status quo the No Deal arrangements, in order to avoid unreasonable expectations on either side.

We have nothing to fear from No Deal

I am not a No Deal fanatic. Last year on this site I advocated support for Chequers, and I still believe that, if the backstop is removed from the Withdrawal Agreement, the deal would be worth signing. We must not, however, accept a deal at any cost. To succeed in any negotiation, one must be prepared to walk away – and the actions of MPs who have effectively announced that they will take any deal, however bad, have undoubtedly hamstrung our negotiations.

The Conservative Manifesto set it out clearly: No Deal is better than a bad deal. I continue to hope that a compromise will be found, and that the EU will agree to remove or place a time-limit on the backstop. However, rather than accept a deal which yokes us indefinitely to the EU, we should embrace a future outside. No Deal would bring with it many compensations, including regulatory freedom, tariff income and £39 billion of cold, hard cash. Britain’s fundamental economic strengths, competitiveness and international relationships, supported by an appropriate set of domestic policies, mean it is abundantly clear that we can have a positive economic future in this scenario.

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“History will judge us all.” May’s letter to Conservative MPs: full text

Dear Colleague,

Following last week’s vote in the House, I am writing to set out what the Government will be doing this week to take forward our work to secure a withdrawal agreement that can command the support of Parliament.

Whilst the motion was not a binding one, the result on Thursday was nonetheless disappointing and has made our job more difficult. A combination of opposition MPs voting against us and a number of Conservative colleagues abstaining meant that our motion was defeated and Parliament, in effect, agreed to nothing. It is still the case that Parliament’s only positive expression of its desired means to achieve our exit fronm the EU is the motion that was passed on 29 January – that the UK should leave the EU with a deal and that legally-binding changes to the backstop are required in order for it to support a withdrawal agreement. On the basis or that mandate, the Government will continue its work to secure changes to the backstop.

This week I will return to Brussels. Since I met President Juncker on 7 February to begin discussions on how we can address the concerns of Parliament, our respective teams have been holding talks to find a way forward that will work for both sides. I look forward to continuing those talks with him.

I am also continuing my engagement with the leaders of the other EU member states. Over the last few days I have spoken to: Chancellor Angela Merkel; President Emmanuel Macron; the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar; the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte; the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel; President Klaus Johannis of Romania; the Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Costa; Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria; the Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Liifven; President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania; the Estonian Prime Minister, Jiiri Ratas; the Prime Minister or Malta, Joseph Muscat; the Italian Prime lvlinster, Giuseppe Conte; the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz lvlorawiecki; the Prime Minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenkovic; President Nicos Anastasiades of Cyprus; the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban; and the Prime Minister or Finland, Juha Sipilii. It is my intention to speak to or meet every other EU27 leader as soon as possible.

My message to each or them, and to the leaders of the EU institutions, is the same: the UK wants to leave the EU as scheduled on 29 March with a guarantee that there will be no hard border in Northern Ireland, there is a majority in Parliament for a revised Withdrawal Agreement, and we need legally-binding changes to the backstop in order to secure that majority.

Ministerial colleagues are also playing a key role in that engagement. On Monday, Steve Barclay will again meet Michel Barnier to talk through the proposals put forward by colleagues in the Alternative Arrangements Working Group. The Government’s preference is to avoid the need to use the backstop by agreeing a future relationship with the EU before the end of the implementation period. However, if we have not, the agreement reached in the political declaration means that we can bring an end to the backstop, or avoid using it altogether, by agreeing alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The process of positive engagement that Steve Barclay is leading with colleagues on the Alternative Arrangements Working Group is helping to inform the formulation of our policy in this area. We are working on whether alternative arrangements could replace the current backstop proposals now and, as Steve Barclay told the House on 14 February, we are investing civil service resource in all this work.

Geoffrey Cox will also be in Brussels this week to discuss the backstop with Michel Barnier and officials from the European Commission. Later in the week, he will make a speech setting out in detail his thinking on what can be done to eliminate any legal risk that the backstop nlight be applied indefinitely. As I told the House of Commons last Tuesday, this could take the form of a legally-binding time limit to the existing backstop or a legally-binding unilateral exit clause. Colleagues rightly put a great deal of weight on Geoffrey’s legal advice at the time of the last meaningful vote, and we are determined to secure changes to the backstop that will provide colleagues with the legal reassurance they need.

I am very grateful to all colleagues who supported the Government’s motion on Thursday. I want to thank in particular those colleagues who did not feel able to support the withdrawal agreement in the meaningful vote last month, but who nevertheless supported the Government in the lobbies on Thursday. They demonstrated a determination to find a way forward for our country. It is also encouraging that our confidence and supply partners the DUP voted with the Government last week.

Delivering Brexit is not an easy process for our party. Proudly, we are a broad church in which a wide range of views co-exist, united behind shared Conservative principles. The UK’s membership of the EU has long been a source of disagreement for us – just as it has more widely in the country we serve – and ending that membership after four decades was always going to be a test.

In leading the party over the last two and a half years, I have sought to steer a course that can unite all pragmatic points of view behind a clear and coherent policy: to honour the result of a referendum which we as Conservatives were united in putting to the British people, and to do so by leaving the EU with a negotiated deal that protects our close economic relationship, maintains our security co-operation and meets the needs of all parts of the United Kingdom.

History will judge us all for the parts we have played in this process. I believe that a country with our innate strengths, enviable resources, and enormous talent can face the future with confidence that our best days lie ahead. But we stand now at a crucial moment. I do not underestimate how deeply or how sincerely colleagues hold the views which they do on this important issue – or that we are all motivated by a common desire to do what is best for our country, even if we disagree on the means of doing so. But I believe that a failure to make the compromises necessary to reach and take through Parliament a withdrawal agreement which delivers on the result of the referendum will let down the people who sent us to represent them and risk the bright future that they all deserve.

Without a withdrawal agreement we risk a combination forming in Parliament that will stop Brexit altogether, whatever the long-term consequences for trust in our democracy. Alternatively, the UK might exit the EU without a deal or an implementation period. That would cause disruption to our economy and to people’s daily lives, damaging jobs both at home and across the EU.

Instead, our party can do what it has done so often in the past: move beyond what divides us and come together behind what unites us; sacrific.e if necessary our own personal preferences in the higher service of the national interest; and rise to the level of events in a way that restores the faith of he British people in our political process.

It would be the action of a Conservative and Unionist Party worthy of that proud name.

With best wishes,

Theresa May

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Fabio Conti: A plea for Conservative unity in these fractious times – and how we must plan for the challenges of the future

Fabio Conti is a GP in West London and a former Ealing councillor.  He contested Ealing Southall in the 2017 general election.

We are at a moment in which the tone of our national discourse has become so corrosive that, at times, it appears to be wearing through the very fabric that holds our nation together. The febrile nature of political debate, especially on social media, hasn’t been helped by the choice of language by some of our MPs, who have at times appeared to use increasing hyperbole in order to further their own agenda. There is division at every level of society – from within political parties to within families. This raises the question of how our nation can be brought together once we move beyond this chapter in our collective history.

Looking at our own Party, we’ve seen MPs, members and supporters express everything, during recent months, from unhappiness to despair at what others in the Party are saying and doing. People from all parts of it are feeling frustrated – and, at times, intolerant about the actions of others. It seems that we are often forgetting the common thread of values that unite all of us: opportunity; believing that not just government but people should be given the power to make decisions about their own lives; free enterprise and sound money, and the belief that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get on in life. As we encounter some of the most testing times in our Party’s history, we should remember the values we share, and realise there is often more that binds us together than draws us apart.

At this challenging time, it is vital that members who feel disillusioned with the Party do not turn their backs on it. We need to debate ideas, and work together to renew and define ourselves beyond Brexit with a positive vision for the future of our country, rooted in our uniting common values.

If we do not, the appealing proposition to a weary electorate of Jeremy Corbyn’s easy answers to complex challenges will hand him the keys to Number Ten whenever the next election comes. It is our duty to prevent what this would inflict on our country from happening.

When speaking to people on the doorstep, or talking to colleagues or friends, it is rarely Brexit that people raise. It is concerns about the NHS; their local school; the difficulties faced by social care, or the rise in violent crime. Additionally, there are too many people in our country who feel that they have been left behind. For some, this may have been a driving force to voting Leave in 2016. Looking beyond Brexit, we need to tackle the barriers of poor mental health, generational unemployment and inequality of opportunity. When in our country today just five elite schools send more pupils to Oxbridge than two-thirds of all state secondaries, and one in four prisoners and 70 per cent of sex workers grew up in care, it shows that we have a lot work to do to improve life chances and unlock opportunity for all.

Tacking these issues could be the uniting mission that can help bring our party and the country back together. We need to set our country on a new course, healing the divisions of the last few years – and move on to dealing with the big domestic issues of our day.

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Why did the Government craft its own defeat yesterday evening?

The crucial words in yesterday’s Government motion were that the Commons “reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January 2019”.

That risked being read as a reference not only to the Brady amendment (which supported the removal of the backstop) but also to the Spelman amendment (which effectively called for No Brexit if the choice was between No Brexit and No Deal).

Remainers such as Guto Bebb and Justine Greening were never going to vote for Brady.  And Leavers such as Steve Baker were never going to vote for Spelman.

There are more members of the European Research Group than Conservative second referendum supporters, which helps to explain why the former are in the spotlight this morning.  But most of both joined in not backing Theresa May.

So why did the Government not slap down a bland motion that didn’t risk giving second referendum supporters and ERG members alike  reasons or excuses to revolt?

One explanation being floated by Government loyalists is that Downing Street or the whips or both were attempting to stave off the resignation of pro-Soft Brexit and Remain Ministers over the prospect of No Deal.

But most of these seem to believe that they don’t need to quit yet to achieve that end.  And there is a questionmark over whether many will at all.

Another is that the whips or Number Ten or both were trying to thwart the Letwin/Cooper/Boles attempt to make the legislature, in effect, the executive.  But there was no prospect of the Commons voting for that plan yesterday.

Then there is a conspiracy theory – that the whips were seeking to flush out the number of ERG members who might in due course oppose a deal with an amended backstop, but miscalculated.  This is fantastical.

To date, the EU appears to have decided that it would rather negotiate with Theresa May than the Commons.  That is the most natural reading of its decision to engage in further talks with the Government after the House voted for the Brady amendment.

So a further question this morning is whether the EU will pull the plug during the next few days.  If it doesn’t, then the consequences of the Government’s defeat yesterday will be few.  If it does, they could be many.

Either way, experienced hands like Robert Syms and Nicky Morgan were asking yesterday afternoon what on earth the Government was trying to achieve.  Perhaps today will bring answers.

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Nearly a quarter of Conservative MPs failed to support the Prime Minister today

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-02-14-at-18.49.42 Nearly a quarter of Conservative MPs failed to support the Prime Minister today MPs ETC House of Commons (general) Europe EU Brexit   Five Conservative MPs voted against the Government’s motion –

  • Peter Bone
  • Christopher Chope
  • Philip Hollobone
  • Anne Marie Morris
  • Sarah Wollaston

That’s four Leavers and one Remainer.  Chope has recently been scragged by senior Ministers after blocking Zac Goldsmith’s Bill on female genital mutiliation.  His vote looks like a form of revenge.

And two Conservative MPs backed the SNP’s anti-Brexit amendment –

  • Ken Clarke
  • Sarah Wollaston

– together with 13 Labour MPs

  • Debbie Abrahams
  • Tonia Antoniazzi
  • Ben Bradshaw
  • Karen Buck
  • Ann Clwyd
  • Ann Coffey
  • Mary Creagh
  • Stella Creasy
  • Geraint Davies
  • Rosie Duffield
  • Mike Gapes
  • Kate Green
  • Meg Hillier

Meanwhile, it is claimed that 67 Conservative MPs abstained, 44 of whom have been named as follows –

  • Heidi Allen
  • David Amess
  • Steve Baker
  • Guto Bebb
  • Suella Braverman
  • Andrew Bridgen
  • Bill Cash
  • Rehman Chishti
  • Simon Clarke
  • Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
  • Nadine Dorries
  • Richard Drax
  • Iain Duncan-Smith
  • Charlie Elphicke
  • Mark Francois
  • Marcus Fysh
  • Chris Green
  • Justine Greening
  • Sam Gyimah
  • Mark Harper
  • Ranil Jayawardena
  • Bernard Jenkin
  • Boris Johnson
  • Jo Johnson
  • Pauline Latham
  • Andrew Lewer
  • Julian Lewis
  • Jonathan Lord
  • Tim Loughton
  • Esther McVey
  • Sheryll Murray
  • Priti Patel
  • Owen Paterson
  • John Redwood
  • Jacob Rees-Mogg
  • Andrew Rosindell
  • Douglas Ross
  • Antoinette Sandbach
  • Grant Shapps
  • Anna Soubry
  • Bob Stewart
  • Anne-Marie Trevelyan
  • Shailesh Vara
  • John Whittingdale

One has to be a bit careful with absentions – since an MP who doesn’t vote may be ill, or absent for reasons other than believing that he can’t support his party in the lobbies.

But this list of ERG supporters and other Hard Brexiteers, sprinked with Remainers and some Soft Brexiteers, is clearly full of Conservative MPs who deliberately deprived May of their suppport.

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May’s new Brexit hell. An alliance of hard and soft Brexiteers humiliates her. And any sense of Government progress is lost.

Had Anna Soubry insisted on putting her amendment to the vote – and the Speaker would surely have selected it for that purpose – Theresa May would on balance have been helped rather than harmed.

This is because although the Government would have been subject to the embarrassment of releasing papers relating to No Deal (or risk being found in contempt of Parliament), it would not endured the greater indignity of losing its own main motion.

For if Soubry’s amendment had been passed, the Prime Minister’s motion would then not have been put to the Commons at all.  So it would not have been subject to defeat by 303 votes to 258.

The motion was defeated precisely because some Remainers and Soft Brexiteers, such as Phillip Lee, and the bulk of the European Reseach Group – Bernard Jenkin and others – joined together to abstain.

By crafting a motion that seemed both to back the Spelman and Brady amendments passed last month – the first explicitly opposed to No Deal; the second implicitly preparded, however reluctantly, to accept it – the Government created not so much a rod as a hammer for its own back.

Lee and his like didn’t like the Brady amendment; Jenkins and his ilk didn’t like the Spelman one.  Furthermore, and as we wrote this morning, Olly Robbins remarks in a Brussels bar have revived fears in the ERG that Downing Street is seeking to play them.

The sum of all this is that May, having laboriously sweated her way to the top of a hill last month, has now fallen back down it.  She briefly got most of the Conservative Party behind her for a vote, and has now promptly lost its backing once again.

This afternoon, Oliver Letwin was speaking in the Commons of turning the legislature into the executive, and the Commons taking control of the negotiation altogether.  That would have profound and baleful constitutional implications.

Labour seems to be on the verge of a split, with some of its own MPs defying the Whip.  But the Prime Minister has to lead a government, not the opposition, and her exposure to political damage is therefore greater.

The EU’s conduct since the January votes has implied that it still seeks to give her more time.  Hence its decision to allow new deadlines for new discussions.  Whether it will continue to do so in the light of this latest debacle remains to be seen.

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Trust

The consequences can be argued either way.  If the Government is defeated again in the Commons later today, and the cause is European Research Group or other pro-Brexit MPs withholding support, this could turn out be to helpful to the Prime Minister – because the EU will conclude that she needs concessions on the Brexit deal she has agreed to get it though the House.

More likely, a loss of this kind would be harmful, because the EU would judge in consequence that Theresa May really can’t get MPs to back her for very long about anything whatsoever.  That would make them less inclined, not more, to rework the backstop.  Which in turn would risk the Cooper amendment, or something like it, being carried in the Commons sooner rather than later.  Which would make Brexit less likely to happen in any form at all.

Either way, the central problem for Downing Street is that trust in it, from all parts of the Parliamentary party, is very low indeed.  The success of the Brady amendment a fortnight ago only masked this problem, rather than solving it.  The ERG doesn’t trust the Prime Minister to seek meaningful changes to the backstop.  Nor does it believe that she will pursue the solution proposed by the Malthouse Compromise – but, rather, will aim for additions to the backstop rather than changes in its text, let alone scrapping it (as the Brady amendment proposed).

Furthermore, the ERG itself isn’t united on its own aims.  Some of its members, plus other Brexiteering MPs, could live with a codicil to the backstop.  Others insist that the problems posed by May’s deal reach much wider than the backstop, anyway: this point was obscured by the whole group throwing its weight behind the Brady amendment.  There is no way of knowing how the numbers break down.  What is clear that Olly Robbins’ overheard conversation in a Brussels bar has done her no good whatsoever.

Whatever Number Ten’s intentions when it drafted the terms of its motion for debate today, the ERG is now even more suspicious of May than it was before – over her intentions in relation to extension, and to the Customs Union, as well as to the backstop.  And no wonder, since it is clear that under the latest timetable the Government will almost certainly need a short technical extension, at best.

This is because she is simply running out of time for a Withdrawal Bill, and other necessary measures, to pass Parliament before March 29 even if a revised deal wins MPs’ approval next month.  That Downing Street continues to deny this helps to explain why trust, as well as time, is almost exhausted.

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The most pro-intervention speech by a Defence Secretary since the Iraq War

Some of the Conservative Party’s most knowledgeable foreign affairs specialists are a bit sniffy about Gavin Williamson’s defence policy speech earlier this week.  One of its centre pieces was the announcement that “the first operational mission of the HMS Queen Elizabeth will include the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Pacific region.  “Significantly, British and American F35s will be embedded in the carrier’s air wing,” he continued, with a nod to our close relationship with America, before speaking of enhancing “the reach and lethality of our armed forces”.

That sounds a lot like a metaphorical, though certainly not a literal, shot across China’s bows in that last case.  One senior MP with an interest in security policy told ConservativeHome that he is all for stepping up activity in the South China Sea.  But “if you go out every few years for a few months, there’s no point.  It doesn’t show strength, it advertises weakness”.

Williamson’s answer to that might be to highlight the £1 billion that he screwed out of Philip Hammond in last autumn’s Budget, which itself came on top of an £800 million increase during the summer.  One point of the speech was to signal that he will soon be back for more: after all, there is a £7 billion black hole in the Ministry of Defence’s equipment budgets.  Without money to help reduce it, and more, the Defence Secretary will have no chance whatsoever of achieving the aims he set out.  These were so striking that it is well worth pondering their implications.

Only a few years ago, when the Coalition Government was formed, Russia was not considered a serious danger to national security at all.  It was only last year that Williamson tore up previous assumptions and told the Defence Select Committee that it is now a bigger threat to us than terrorism.  And earlier this week, he duly added China to the list of British security problems: “all the while, [it] is developing its modern military capability and its commercial power,” he said.  It was the most pro-intervention speech that any Defence Secretary has made since the Iraq War, listing “Kuwait, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo” as earlier, successful, valuable incursions.

Hence his reference not only to cyber and to new drones for the RAF, but to new Poseidon P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, new equipment for the army, and two naval “littoral strike groups complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters. One would be based East of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and one based West of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic”.

All this raises three questions.  First, is it the Government’s collective position that China is no longer the friend that George Osborne saw it as, but is instead, in effect, a foe – or at least to be treated with a premis of suspicion?  Second, are the voters really up for a more interventionist-leaning foreign and defence posture, especially at a time when America seems to be entering a period of relative isolationism?  (“We stand ready to support our friends in Ukraine and the Balkans,” the Defence Secretary declared.)  Finally, Williamson’s programme implies higher defence spending still.  Is the Treasury willing to fund it?

The speech might have been delivered in much the same way were Britain not due to leave the EU.  There is no necessary connection between the re-ordering to which the Defence Secretary referred and Brexit.  But quitting the EU does make a difference to defence policy.  If we are to remain committed to our common continent, that implies solidifying the army presence in Eastern Europe – at a time when its manpower is at its lowest for more than a century.  And if we are also to become Global Britain, that suggests extending our reach and capabilities.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Williamson has no military background and, in the Conservative Party, the post that he holds is greatly prized – and seen as almost on a rank with the great offices of state.  His promotion was therefore not a popular one, and he has been widely briefed against.

Furthermore, the speech is bound to be read, by a cynical Westminster Village, as a leadership election preparation exercise.  Our plea for the Defence Secretary is that he is damned if he does and also if he doesn’t.  If he sets out a policy direction, he will be accused of ulterior motives. If he doesn’t, it will be claimed that he has nothing to say.

At a time when Brexit is all-consuming, and most Cabinet Ministers other than Michael Gove seem unwilling to make an impression, it ought to be thoroughly welcome that one of the others is developing a policy, even if you don’t agree it – which by and large we do, as believers in higher defence spending.

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What does the EU want?

What does the EU want? Imagine for a moment that the EU had refused last week to engage in further Brexit talks with the UK.  There would now be less of a prospect, if any, of the two parties agreeing to a revised deal.

It follows that a new wind would have been blown into the sails of Yvette Cooper’s amendment to give the Commons control of the negotiation (or into those of a similar amendment proposed by someone else).  She and her supporters would have been able to argue that the talks were definitely getting nowhere, and that the legislature should take them over from the executive.  Her amendment was beaten by only 23 votes late last month.  In these circumstances, it might well have passed.  Control of the negotiation would thus have been wrested from the Government.

The EU knows all this perfectly well.  So why didn’t it move to deliver the coup de grace to the Prime Minister last week – rather than, instead, help both to prop her up and kick the can down the road?

A plausible answer is that the conventional wisdom is turning out to be wrong.  It holds that the EU couldn’t care less who governs Britain, and is willing to press, in all circumstances, for the softest of Brexits or else for the whole project to fold.  But were this so, it surely wouldn’t be acting as it is now.  For all Donald Tusk’s antipathetic rhetoric, EU references to Gibraltar as a “colony” and Jean-Claude Juncker’s brandishing of an anti-British card from Ireland, the EU is effectively keeping Theresa May’s Government on life support – with the possibility in turn of a full recovery.

It has behaved in this way before.  When the two sides of the negotiating table were gridlocked late in 2017, it conceded enough ground to allow the joint report to be signed.

Here is a possible explanation.  Rather than help punt the negotiation into the Commons’ hands, the EU prefers to stick with the devil it knows.  It doesn’t want a disorderly Brexit on its north-west frontier.  It is busy enough as it is with a coming new Commission, difficult European Parliamentary elections, populist turmoil in France, a row between that country and Italy, worries about migration everywhere, and the grisly prospect of recession – which a No Deal Brexit would make worse.  All this might help to explain why the EU’s arrangements for No Deal are less punitive than some expected.

At any rate, it has helped to craft a timetable which will deliver the Prime Minister an offer on the backstop.  She will report “progress” on February 27.  And the backstop plus a codicil will be offered to the EU in the wake of the next Council meeting on March 21.

Now you may well argue that this plan won’t work – that the Commons would reject anything short of the removal of the backstop.  And you may well be right.  But that doesn’t mean that the EU and the Government aren’t preparing to try precisely this.  If – and we repeat if – the ploy succeeded, the way would be prepared for a short technical extension to allow time for a Withdrawal Bill, following a Commons vote on the deal, to pass Parliament.  This type of extension with a clear aim and endpoint would be very different to a three month or nine month or two year one with neither.

As we say, we are not betting the ConservativeHome ranch on the EU aiming to prop up May at all costs, making a concession on the backstop that is arguably meaningful – against the wishes of an unhappy Leo Varadkar and the Irish Government.

But what we have set out is a persuasive reading of current events.  Obtaining an accurate one is made very hard by the limitations of British journalism, at least when it comes to covering Brussels rather than Westminster.  Media outlets devote more resources to Westminster than Brussels.  The culture that governs coverage of the former is more critical than that of the latter.  Some of the Brussels correspondents are superb, but they are not well set up to know what Berlin is saying to the Commission, or Berlin to Paris, or what the latest Brexit take is (if any) in southern or Eastern Europe.  This unevenness of reporting is a constant barrier to understanding.

And for all the relative unity of the EU during the negotiation,.different bits of it have different perspectives and interests: consider, for example, French and Irish perspectives on border checks.  Which is why we ask again: what does the EU want?

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