March 27th, 2019
I never much liked the Withdrawal Agreement.
There was so much wrong with it – not just the Northern Ireland back stop. It is a monster complete with bells and whistles dreamed up by civil servants on both sides of the English Channel. It was designed, it seemed, to antagonise both sides of the Brexit divide in the Conservative Party.
When I voted ‘Leave’ back in June 2016, I expected Article 50 to be triggered within a month, to be out of the European Union by the end of July 2018, and “the best and most far reaching free trade agreement ever between the EU and a third nation” to be in place – the EU’s words, not mine.
Instead, a cautious Prime Minister who had voted Remain took advice from civil servants and created a behemoth. She succeeded in alienating not only her own Party, but also the DUP who believed the integrity of the United Kingdom would be at risk.
Members of the ERG, including myself, wanted nothing to do with it. Yet, despite all, I was encouraged as since last year, both the British and EU civil services have been passing tranches of legislation making a No Deal Brexit both palatable and workable.
Jacob Rees-Mogg had said on a number of occasions that members of the ERG need to keep calm, vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, and the default legal position would be that we would drop out of the EU without any Deal.
I was not so sure. Having been a whip, looking at the numbers, and having understood the reforming nature of our Speaker and his willingness to create precedent by overturning years of procedure, I was less sanguine. But no one likes a know it all especially when it runs counter to the popular mood.
So nevertheless, despite my personal misgivings, when the Withdrawal Agreement came before Parliament on 15th January and then again on 12th March, I voted with my heart and opposed it. Twice.
In the interim period I had tried hard to explain to individual ERG members in precise detail how Parliament could seize control of the agenda by suspending Article 14(1) of Standing Orders of the House of Commons whereby the Government controls how time for debate is allocated. Some understood the mechanism and were worried; others understood, but thought it would never happen; and others –most worryingly of all – just couldn’t grasp it.
But on Monday morning, all became vividly clear. Oliver Letwin tabled a motion which seized control of the Parliamentary agenda for a day so that indicative votes could be held which would make a mockery of Brexit.
In her statement on Monday, the Prime Minister sought to calm MPs by saying that these votes would only be indicative and not be binding on the Government. But any hope of that was dashed by Nick Boles and others who said that if the PM ignored them, they would seize Parliamentary time once more; this time to pass legislation forcing the Government to abide by Parliament’s wishes.
On Monday night, reality stalked a stunned ERG meeting.
Its Chairman, Jacob Rees Mogg, courageously admitted he had been wrong about advising the ERG to stand firm. He told the ERG, some alarmed, some approving, that reluctantly he would now have to vote for the Prime Minister’s Deal as the least worst option.
Others were furious. One officer of the EU said it would be a betrayal of everything he believed in. In so many ways, I share his heartache.
But tactics and timing are everything in politics as in life. The ERG had already botched its coup attempt when Theresa May won a vote of No Confidence 200 votes to 117. So some members of the ERG on Monday night had already begun to doubt the infallibility of the tactics of the ERG. Many thought that with a new ‘Leave’ Prime Minister, even this accursed Deal could be made to work in time.
For my part, I told the ERG I may now reluctantly vote with my head and no longer with my heart. I explained that if the Withdrawal Agreement is not passed on Thursday or early next week, our Remainer Parliament will seize control and destroy Brexit.
And there will be no Oliver Cromwell to save us from them this time.