Given that the political situation in Westminster remains so fluid, it is worth taking stock of why we are where we are.
In 2015, the Conservatives promised that, if elected, we would hold a decisive in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The party was returned to Government with more votes and MPs. The EU Referendum Act was subsequently passed by a ratio of six to one in the Commons, with Parliament deliberately and voluntarily giving responsibility for the final decision on our membership of the EU to the British people.
A Government leaflet (costing the taxpayer over £9 million) confirmed that this “once in a generation decision” was “…your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.” 17.4 million people then voted to leave the EU – more than have ever voted for any issue or party in British history.
In 2017, the Conservatives stood on a Manifesto pledge that “we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union.” At the top of page 36 – and since repeated by the Prime Minister over 100 times – it said, “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The Conservatives won more votes than any party for 25 years. Labour gave the same message, so that 85 per cent of the votes cast in the election were for parties which defined Brexit as leaving the Single Market, the Customs Union and the remit of the ECJ.
In its commitment to deliver on that promise, the Conservative Party is not divided. My own Association voted unanimously last month that Brexit, as defined in the Manifesto, must be delivered on time and in full. The National Conservative Convention–- the senior body in the voluntary party – passed a similar motion by an emphatic ratio of five to one, which also stated that: “Another referendum, a delay beyond the European elections, taking ‘no deal’ off the table or not leaving at all would betray the 2016 People’s Vote and damage democracy and our party for a generation.”
Many party donors have made their continued support conditional on the Manifesto being honoured or have stopped giving already, infuriated by the Government’s dither and delay. That is why it is so bizarre that the Prime Minister has now opened the door to extending Article 50, caving in to troublemaking Remain Ministers publishing articles attacking the Manifesto and Government policy, who are far outliers on the Conservative spectrum. The Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, TIGgers and now even Labour are standing on a platform of overruling the largest democratic verdict in British history, so the Remain market for votes is becoming very crowded.
In contrast, the market for the 17.4 million Leave votes and all the votes of Conservative members loyal to the Party’s manifesto commitments are up for grabs. They are not simply going to go away and forget about it. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The Conservatives can be their natural home, but only if we are genuinely committed to honouring the result of the 2016 referendum.
But how ludicrous will Conservative MPs – in fact, all MPs – look if we usher in a deal that ties us, perhaps perpetually, to EU rules with no say as to how those laws are made or how we end this arrangement?
I can picture the spectacle. The EU goes ahead with a ban on glyphosate, which some Member States have advocated but the UK has resisted. I rise in the House of Commons to argue that without glyphosate, fighting weeds will be more expensive and more complicated, forcing farmers to resort to extensive ploughing. I say that it is the most effective herbicide available and that, by using it, farmers in my constituency have been able to develop environmentally-friendly no-till practices to promote heathier soil and improve biodiversity, leading to a big increase in barn owl numbers.
I ask the Minister what can be done. He replies: “Nothing. But the Rt Hon Gentleman has no right to complain. After all, he voted for the deal.” Another MP wants to see the Government make gas and electricity bills VAT-free, giving a boost to those on the lowest incomes. But these fall foul of the “level-playing field” agreements. What can be done, Minister? “Nothing, but the Rt Hon Lady has no right to complain. After all, she voted for the deal.”
On and on this would go. It would be utterly intolerable. It would be a complete affront to parliamentary democracy. Yet it is exactly what could await if the Prime Minister brings back the same deal she had before and “takes no deal off the table.” The only way forward is for the Prime Minister to hold her nerve, continue her efforts to improve the deal, but be absolutely determined to leave on March 29 without one, as the law currently demands. That way, she will do so with her party, and the country, behind her.
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