Enter – or rather exit – the Spartans

A dedicated band of Conservative pro-Brexit holdouts stands ready to perish rather than let May’s deal pass.

The battle of Thermopylae is famous in legend for the sacrifice of 300 Spartans.  They died in battle, but saved their city.  The tale has a modern day Brexit resonance.

As we approach a third “meaningful” vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the number of Conservative MPs still willing to oppose it is falling.  It was 118 in January, and 75 last week.

Switchers for last Tuesday’s second vote included David Davis, Graham Brady, Philip Davies and our columnist, Robert Halfon.  Among those who now suggest that they will switch on a third are Esther McVey, Simon Clarke and Daniel Kawczynski.

Which returns us to Thermopylae.

ConservativeHome is told that a hardcore of those determined to hold out now refer to themselves as “the Spartans”.  These include a significant chunk of the ERG – though calculations are complicated by the fact that not all those who oppose the deal are ERG members.

If the Prime Minister’s deal gets through, among the corpses of MPs slain in the pass should be those of: Peter Bone, Bill Cash, Christoper Chope, Mark Francois, Andrea Jenkyns, John Redwood and, we believe, Steve Baker.

Others who died at Thermopylae include Thespians, Helots and Thebans, history tells us.

Readers must decide for themselves which of these labels best describe Dominic Grieve’s band of pro-Second Referendum holdouts, but they, too, will surely stick against May’s deal – a fact that many of our media colleagues tend to overlook.

Last week, they included Guto Bebb, Damian Collins, Justine Greening, Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson, and Grieve himself.  It is unlikely that many of them will peel off.

As we write, Downing Street is striving to win the DUP over to the deal.

If it succeeds, the calculation for May will be whether enough Opposition MPs will back her deal to cancel out the Spartans who oppose it.  We would say that the former are among the Persians, but are in danger of stretching this historical analogy way too far.

Among those well placed to pronounce on the question is Boris Johnson.  What will he do when the vote comes?  Will he stand with the Spartans, and return “with my shield or on it”, as he sometimes likes to write?  Or will he swap sides and join the Persians?

His Daily Telegraph column today is ambiguous on the point.  We are less qualified to pronounce on classical history than the former Foreign Secretary, but can’t help questioning whether the analogy holds at all.

For in this case, the city wouldn’t be saved if the Spartans are massacred, since a consequence of their defeat would be the deal passing.

And in any case, this time round, the Spartans may actually win.

Iain Dale: Rudd, Clark, Gauke. After all their bluster about resigning, abstaining ministers took the cowardly way out

Plus: The Chief Whip’s swift transformation from Francis Urquhart to Mr Bean. And: why I can’t bring myself to vote Tory in the local elections.

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

Where to start. I write this before the Article 50 extension votes have taken place on Thursday, but let’s face it, the main damage as already been done.

The only conclusion one can draw from the sorry events of this week is that the Prime Minister’s reputation has been further damaged, her government has been damaged below the waterline, the prospects of Brexit ever happening have been severely damaged, the reputation of the 14 government ministers who so courageously abstained against a three-line whip has been damaged, and the whole concept of collective responsibility and accountability has perhaps irreparably been damaged.

That’s a whole lot of damage.

– – – – – – – – –

Let’s start with the four Cabinet Ministers, eight junior ministers and two PPSs who failed to obey a three-line whip and abstained on the No Deal amended motion.

They deserve to be named. They are Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, David Gauke, David Mundell, Stephen Hammond, Richard Harrington, Tobias Ellwood, Robert Buckland, Alistair Burt, Margot James, Anne Milton, Claire Perry, Vicky Ford and Bim Afolami.

Two others, Sarah Newton and Paul Masterton, voted against the three-line whip. At least they had the honour and courage to resign, unlike their abstaining colleagues.

had to laugh when I heard Greg Clark on Peston trying to make out he and his 13 colleagues had done something courageous. No. Abstaining is never an act of courage. Actually voting against a three-line whip and then resigning – that’s an act of political courage or honour.

Some weeks ago, we were told 40 ministers would resign if they were whipped to vote for a No Deal Brexit. A couple of weeks ago we were told a dozen would do so. In the event only one did. These ministers have all the courage of a an Italian tank commander with one forward gear and four reverse gears.

As Iain Duncan Smith has pointed out, why would any MP take a three-line whip seriously any longer? The traditional system of whipping is now dead. It’s now effectively a free for all.

Julian Smith, the chief whip, has been completely undermined by whoever it was in Number 10 who let it be known that no abstaining minister would lose their jobs. He must surely now be considering his position, too.

Because no-one will now ever again be able to believe any threat he issues. He’s gone from Francis Urquhart to Mr Bean in the space of a few hours. It’s not his fault, but that’s the reality he now faces. And all thanks to those brilliant political strategists in Number 10. If it wasn’t so tragic, you’d have to laugh.

– – – – – – – – –

A former Tory MP of my acquaintance texts to say he can’t possibly vote Conservative in the local elections on 2nd May. A lot of people will be feeling like that.

I won’t be doing so either, although that’s less to do with the hapless state of the Government, and more to do with the incompetence of my local Tory council in Tunbridge Wells, which, to coin a phrased used by Boris Johnson this week, is “spaffing” £92 million up the wall by building a totally unwanted and unneeded civic centre in one of the town’s most scenic parks.

I’ll be voting for the group of local protesters who are putting up candidates in every ward to fight it. Or at least, I hope they are. If I didn’t do the job I do, I’d stand myself.

– – – – – – – – –

It defies belief that Theresa May will now bring her Meaningful Vote back for a third try next week. It ought to be dead as a dodo. But of course, it’s straight from the Olly Robbins playbook. Back on 12th February he was overheard saying: “…Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March… Extension is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one…”.

And so it has come to pass. Project Fear triumphs. On Newsnight on Tuesday, Emily Maitlis asked me: “So when did it all go wrong for Theresa May?” My two co-panellists gave two very earnest answers. When my turn came, I replied: “When she started listening to Olly Robbins rather than David Davis.” Many a true word spoken in jest…

– – – – – – – – –

Tonight, I’m appearing on Any Questions on Radio 4. It’s about the tenth time I’ve been on the show and it’s one of those programmes I never say no to, mainly because I enjoy doing it and it enjoys a unique place in the listening public’s affections.

I must admit when I heard it entailed going all the way to Carlisle I did slightly hesitate. Not that I have got anything against Carlisle, but it means I won’t get home until 3 or 4am. It will be the last time I share an Any Questions platform with Jonathan Dimbleby, who is retiring from presenting the show in June. He’s an absolute pro and presents the show brilliantly.

I’m on with Therese Coffey, Layla Moran and Andy McDonald. I suspect that the questions will be dominated by Brexit, but the Spring Statement and Bloody Sunday will surely come up too. But there are always one or two questions which are impossible to anticipate. That’s when you show your metal. I wonder who will succeed Jonathan as the show’s presenter. Maybe I should apply… 😊

The 113 Conservative MPs who voted for May’s motion to extend Article 50

Gove and Davis followed the Prime Minister, but they were heavily outnumbered in the Parliamentary Conservative Party. The Chief Whip abstained.

Including tellers, 113 Conservative MPs voted for the Prime Minister’s motion to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit this evening – despite Theresa May promising an exit on 29th March more than 50 times. They were heavily outnumbered within their own Party: 190 Conservative MPs opposed extension, and in our survey over 77 per cent of Conservative members wanted MPs to vote against. The Chief Whip abstained, while Alun Cairns abstained by voting in both lobbies.

Here is the full list of those who backed May’s motion:

  • Bim Afolami
  • Peter Aldous
  • Edward Argar
  • Victoria Atkins
  • Richard Benyon
  • Paul Beresford
  • Nick Boles
  • Peter Bottomley
  • Andrew Bowie
  • Karen Bradley

 

  • Steve Brine
  • James Brokenshire
  • Robert Buckland
  • Alistair Burt
  • James Cartlidge
  • Alex Chalk
  • Greg Clark
  • Kenneth Clarke
  • Therese Coffey
  • Alberto Costa

 

  • Geoffrey Cox
  • Stephen Crabb
  • David Davis
  • Jonathan Djanogly
  • Oliver Dowden
  • David Duguid
  • Alan Duncan
  • Philip Dunne
  • Tobias Ellwood
  • Mark Field

 

  • Vicky Ford
  • Luzy Frazer
  • George Freeman
  • Mike Freer (teller)
  • Roger Gale
  • Mark Garnier
  • David Gauke
  • Nick Gibb
  • Cheryl Gillan
  • Robert Goodwill

 

  • Michael Gove
  • Luke Graham
  • Richard Graham
  • Bill Grant
  • Damian Green
  • Justine Greening
  • Dominic Grieve
  • Sam Gyimah
  • Philip Hammond
  • Stephen Hammond

 

  • Matt Hancock
  • Richard Harrington
  • Oliver Heald
  • Peter Heaton-Jones
  • Nick Herbert
  • Damian Hinds
  • Simon Hoare
  • George Hollingbery
  • Kevin Hollinrake
  • John Howell

 

  • Jeremy Hunt
  • Nick Hurd
  • Alister Jack (teller)
  • Margot James
  • Sajid Javid
  • Jo Johnson
  • Andrew Jones
  • Gillian Keegan
  • Seema Kennedy
  • Stephen Kerr

 

  • Mark Lancaster
  • Jeremy Lefroy
  • Oliver Letwin
  • Brandon Lewis
  • David Lidington
  • Paul Masterton
  • Theresa May
  • Patrick McLoughlin
  • Maria Miller
  • Anne Milton

 

  • Andrew Mitchell
  • Nicky Morgan
  • David Mundell
  • Bob Neill
  • Sarah Newton
  • Caroline Nokes
  • Neil Parish
  • Mark Pawsey
  • John Penrose
  • Claire Perry

 

  • Dan Poulter
  • Rebecca Pow
  • Victoria Prentis
  • Jeremy Quin
  • Amber Rudd
  • David Rutley
  • Antoinette Sandbach
  • Bob Seely
  • Alok Sharma
  • Alec Shelbrooke

 

  • Keith Simpson
  • Nicholas Soames
  • Caroline Spelman
  • John Stevenson
  • Rory Stewart
  • Gary Streeter
  • Mel Stride
  • Hugo Swire
  • Justin Tomlinson
  • David Tredinnick

 

  • Edward Vaizey
  • Robin Walker
  • Jeremy Wright

Robert Halfon: If you don’t like the backstop and you want a Brexit deal done quickly, there’s only one answer: Common Market 2.0

I voted for the Prime Minister’s deal today. But the Commons didn’t – and we now all need a positive alternative.

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Today, encouraged by the legal reassurances secured by the Prime Minister and the Brexit Secretary, I voted for Theresa May’s deal. Although I had not felt able to support it in January, it seemed to me that the risk of the UK getting stuck in the backstop had reduced, and the greater risk was that Brexit would be delayed or, worse, frustrated altogether, if MPs rejected the deal for a second time.

I wish more Conservative colleagues had followed the lead of such long-standing Brexiters as David Davis, Graham Brady, Mike Penning, Bob Blackman, Phillip Davies and Robert Syms. But we are where we are. After a second major defeat, it is clear that the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister is never going to get through the Commons. So now we must move on.

The good news is that there is a Brexit compromise that Leavers and Remainers should feel able to support.  I call it Common Market 2.0. It involves staying in the economic club of the European Economic Area (EEA) but leaving all of the political paraphernalia of the European Union. I’ve lost count of the number of times that people in Harlow have said to me, “I liked it when we were in the Common Market. I just can’t stand all the political stuff.” (Most of them use a rather punchier word than stuff, if truth be told.)

Common Market 2.0 would secure the jobs of British workers and the prosperity of the small businesses which are the backbone of the British economy. How? By keeping us in the Single Market and a customs arrangement which would maintain frictionless trading links with Europe.  But it would take us out of the EU’s common policies on agriculture, fish, justice and foreign affairs. We would escape the clutches of the European Court of Justice, and Parliament’s control of the laws that apply to us would be restored.

On freedom of movement, we would have new powers to restrict European migration in certain circumstances if our government deems it necessary, because the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement gives members the right to unilaterally suspend the freedom of movement if it can show that it is having “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.  If a large new country joined the EU and immigration reached extraordinary levels, like it did in the early 2000s, we would be able to trigger an emergency brake to limit the flow. That’s a power that’s not available to us in the EU.

In addition,  we would be able to tell those who, after three months, haven’t found work or got enough money to support themselves to return home.

For Conservatives, Common Market 2.0 has two powerful advantages: because it mostly involves us joining existing structures like the EEA and the European Free Trade Association (Efta), we should be able to implement it well before December 2020. This would mean that the dreaded backstop would never need to be activated, and there would be no risk of different rules applying to Northern Ireland than apply in all other parts of the UK.

The other advantage is this: all we need to do turn the Prime Minister’s deal into Common Market 2.0 is to renegotiate the Political Declaration.  We know that the EU won’t make problems, because they have already told us that they would be happy to agree to a future relationship that would keep us in the Single Market. Going for Common Market 2.0 would minimise the delay in delivering Brexit. It is the only Brexit compromise that really can be agreed and ratified in under 3 months.

The people I represent in Harlow, and working people across the country, want MPs to deliver Brexit without damaging businesses or destroying jobs.  Common Market 2.0 offers us a Brexit that respects the result of the referendum, secures our economy and avoids the backstop. If we get a move on, we can have it done and dusted by the early summer.  Let’s get on with it.

The 39 Conservative MPs who switched from opposing the Withdrawal Agreement to supporting it

Philip Davies, a famously long-standing and committed Brexiteer, is among their number.

Below is the full list of the 39 Conservative MPs who voted against the Prime Minister’s deal in January, but voted for it tonight.

It’s an indication of the remarkable debate underway among Leavers at the moment over the pros and cons of accepting or rejecting the deal that Philip Davies, such a long-standing Brexiteer that back in 2005 he became the only MP in the House of Commons to publicly support the UK leaving the EU, is among their number:

  • Sir David Amess
  • Bob Blackman
  • Ben Bradley
  • Sir Graham Brady
  • Fiona Bruce
  • Maria Caulfield
  • Tracey Crouch
  • Philip Davies
  • David Davis
  • Nadine Dorries

 

  • Steve Double
  • Nigel Evans
  • Sir David Evennett
  • Zac Goldsmith
  • Robert Halfon
  • Greg Hands
  • John Hayes
  • Sir Greg Knight
  • John Lamont
  • Tim Loughton

 

  • Scott Mann
  • Stephen McPartland
  • Johnny Mercer
  • Stephen Metcalfe
  • Nigel Mills
  • Andrew Mitchell
  • Damien Moore
  • Matthew Offord
  • Sir Mike Penning
  • Mark Pritchard

 

  • Will Quince
  • Julian Sturdy
  • Sir Hugo Swire
  • Sir Robert Syms
  • Derek Thomas
  • Martin Vickers
  • Giles Watling
  • Bill Wiggin
  • William Wragg

WATCH: Davis says deal is ‘dreadful’ on ‘many, many counts’, but is ‘rescuable’

“The negotiating strategy has gone wrong, and it has gone wrong largely because the Government has abandoned the one thing you can do, which is to walk away.”

Henry Newman: Get real, Eurosceptics. Your choice is May’s Deal – or no Brexit at all.

If her revised plan fails, the most likely outcomes are an even softer Brexit or a second referendum.

Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.

Brexiteers wake up! Eurosceptics wake up! Conservatives wake up! The Brexit options have changed. But the furious circular debate in Britain has not caught up. Smell the coffee, face the facts and bite the bullet. Fast. Time is slipping away.

Within the next week, Parliament will have another chance to vote on Theresa May’s exit deal. If it’s rejected, again, then Brexit itself will be increasingly at risk. The outcome is likely a softer exit or even no Brexit at all.

Some critics suggest that the deal can’t get any worse, or couldn’t be any softer. This is ludicrous. If you don’t like being in a customs territory with the EU, which the backstop would require, try the Single Market. Yes, the backstop – if we got there – would mean keeping the stock of EU goods rules (at least in Northern Ireland). But it would also give us freedom to regulate our wider economy and turn off the tap for new EU rules.

Single Market membership, or as it’s re-branded Common Market 2.0, would mean letting the EU set rules on employment, environmental protections and for the whole of our services industry. Even Mark Carney (hardly famous for his pro-Brexit proselytising) argues we can’t be a rule taker on financial services. UK taxpayers shouldn’t have to underwrite the balance sheets of our banks, but look to Europe to determine the rules.

There is now little prospect of a No Deal at the end of March. And the possibility of a very long delay to Brexit is growing. The first rule of politics – according to Lyndon B Johnson – is that its “practitioners need to be able to count.” Nothing is more fundamental. If you can’t win a vote, you can have all the lofty ideal visions you like, but they won’t come to much. And while it remains true that the default is still No Deal on March 29, the reality is we now know that the Government will first put that to the Commons and seek an extension at Parliament’s behest.

The EU will reluctantly grant such an extension. What Brussels and EU member states such as France are desperate to avoid is a situation in which the UK repeatedly requests rolling extensions of Article 50 – kicking the can a bit further down the road each time.

So Brussels is now looking at a 21-month extension (something that I warned in a recent ConHome column was favoured by some in France). EU sources are now suggesting that this could replace the transition and allow time to negotiate the future relationship (so potentially avoiding the need for a backstop). Of course we would have no guarantees about what the deal at the end of that time would be.

This new Brussels demarche should raise serious alarms. You don’t have to be a total cynic to think that the EU is looking to a long extension to allow time for politics to shift in the UK. That is, to let pro-Remain voices regroup as a political force. And they are not mistaken in seeing a path to a new referendum. A few MPs are already complaining that the mandate from nearly three years ago is in danger of expiring. By the end of 2020, we would be almost five years since the referendum.

Some Eurosceptics imagine that a delay to Article 50 would allow them to prepare for a managed No Deal in 21 months. Martin Howe was advocating something similar just yesterday on this site. Yet this risks chasing a mirage and forgets Lyndon Johnson’s fundamental rule, as above. Changing the leadership of the party won’t shift this basic problem, and could instead exacerbate it.

The inescapable fact is the Conservatives have no outright majority. The profound implications of this still seems not to have registered fully all around Westminster and in local Conservative Associations. Brussels sees it clearly. One senior source said to me recently that the single biggest mistake Theresa May has made (in a hotly contested field) was losing her majority in the 2017 general election. In a flash, back in June 2017, Brussels could see her authority melt away. The ability really to threaten to walk away was severely reduced, and in the immediate aftermath of that election David Davis accepted the phasing of the talks – setting the path to agreeing a backstop.

Our position is now if anything even more vulnerable. Although TIG has medium-term potential to do more damage to Labour, the Conservatives have also taken a hit. Defections mean that the Government’s majority, with the DUP, is wafer-thin. Lose four more MPs and it’s gone. Of course it’s offensive and wrong to say that the Tory party is run by extremists for extremists. But that doesn’t mean the accusation is not damaging. And having more former MPs running around repeating that is hardly a good look.

All this means that the possibility of a general election is rising. No one should be blithe about the risks that poses. While TIG could help the Conservatives in 2022, at this point it has no infrastructure, no candidates and no national support base. And the public are growing tired of arguing about Brexit – even dedicated leavers can’t understand why it hasn’t been sorted yet (I can see their point). The last thing anyone wants is another election, especially one to discuss more Brexit. And of course many Conservative MPs would rather Theresa May didn’t lead the party into a snap election (as 117 reminded her in last year’s leadership challenge). So a general election offers no certain path.

And yet the Government’s hold over power is just wafer-thin. A few more defections and there’s no prospect of a stable Tory administration. If that doesn’t result in a general election, it could instead lead to a cross-party administration, backing a softer Brexit. Backbench MPs of both main parties are currently considering precisely how to bring a government of national unity into power, bypassing Eurosceptics on one side and Corbynites on the other. This would be a disaster for conservatism.

So, yes, the current deal is far from perfect. May’s Government has made a Dog’s Brexit of things. But the alternatives are far worse. Now we are approaching the crunch point, an event horizon beyond which the prospect of a decent, but not perfect, Brexit deal will slip away.

Shortly after the defeated coup against May in December last year, a senior Eurosceptic ex-Cabinet minister remarked that he would now have to vote for her deal as it was the “hardest Brexit” on the table. That reading is still true. If the first rule of politics really is the ability to count, the fundamental challenge of politics is the requirement to decide between choices all of which are (to use a euphemism) sub-optimal.

That’s the decision which MPs now face: back May’s imperfect Brexit deal or risk losing Brexit altogether, with all the public wrath that would inevitably entail. So if Geoffrey Cox can bring back a sharper backstop exit mechanism from Brussels, plus reassurances for Stormont, MPs should reluctantly give him the benefit of the doubt, even if he can’t quite secure everything for which some had hoped.

Our survey. Next Tory leader – Johnson is top again. Here’s why he’s in pole position with minimum effort.

It is striking how little the former Foreign Secretary is doing to maintain his lead. Then again, he scarcely needs to stir – for the moment.

Last month, Boris Johnson led our Next Tory Leader question with 26 per cent of the vote.  This month, he is top with 24 per cent.  Dominic Raab was second with 12 per cent; now he is second with 13 per cent.  Michael Gove was third with nine per cent; this month, he is third with ten per cent.  The mass of potential candidates on single figures ratings continues.  These changes are footling.

It is striking how little the former Foreign Secretary is doing to maintain his lead.  This morning sees his weekly outing in the Daily Telegraph, in which he has pop at the apparently forthcoming Bloody Sunday prosecutions.  Most weeks, it rages against the Government over Brexit.

Otherwise, he is, by the standard of such a master of self-projection, withdrawn.  Although he is not absent from Brexit-related proceedings in the Commons – he quizzed the Prime Minister during her statement of February 12, for example – he is not at the forefront of them either, like say Yvette Cooper or Bill Cash.  For example, he didn’t participate in last week’s debate.

Nor does he appear on BBC Question Time or Any Questions.  Indeed, he doesn’t seem to like being on a panel, and expose himself to the scrutiny of other members, or the chairman, or the audience.  (Though he performed robustly in during the EU referendum TV debates.)  His preferred forum is the big set-piece speech, like that he delivered at last year’s Party Conference ConservativeHome fringe event.

So what is going on?  This site’s tentative answer is that the main obstacle to Johnson’s ambitions is not the voters.  Nor (clearly) is it Party members.  It is Conservative MPs, who may not forward his name to those members for the final stage of a leadership election.  Which is why his priority at present is wooing them.

In the meantime, activists’ confidence in the coherence of the Government is low, and this lowers the ratings of potential rivals.  So the former Foreign Secretary is able to sit it out, enjoying his regular double digit lead in this survey, with other polls also showing him in the lead.

The Daily Telegraph is many party members’ broadsheet of choice, so that weekly column is enough to remind them he’s still alive and kicking.  His main opponent is not hostile MPs or disillusioned Remain voters or Cabinet members.  It is the passing of time – and the prospect of someone else, someone new emerging who is less divisive, less scarred.

Eustice’s deep consistency. The ConservativeHome article that presaged his resignation.

The logic of his position was that the UK was leaving by March 29th. It hasn’t changed. The Government’s has. So he’s gone.

The flow of submissions to ConservativeHome critical of the Government’s Brexit policy is greater than that of those supportive.  This was perhaps especially so in the aftermath of the Chequers plan – which this site did not support.  So by way of balance we asked Downing Street for an article by a Government Minister backing the proposals.  There was a pause.  And then, towards the end of the month, a piece turned up by George Eustice.

Some articles by Government Ministers turn out to be boilerplate.  This was different.  The then Agriculture Minister had obviously written the piece himself rather than simply approved it.  It set out his background as a former UKIP candidate, his later support for fundamental negotiation as a Conservative, his parting of the ways with David Cameron, for whom he was once press spokesman, over the EU referendum vote.

At the heart of his argument for Chequers was the following: “Parliament has already passed into law the EU Withdrawal Act which will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and end the supremacy of EU law in March next year. In the final analysis, we do not need permission from the EU to leave. The referendum result was a decision to leave, not a negotiation to leave. All that we are really negotiating at the moment are the terms of a future partnership, so the baseline for these negotiations is completely different.”

Now you may or may not agree with his view but, in the light of his resignation today, Eustice’s words take on a new significance.  His take hasn’t changed.  In his letter to Theresa May, he explains that the reason for his quitting is not her proposed deal, but a possible extension – and the Government’s connivance in it.  ” I fear that developments this week will lead to a sequence of events culminating in the EU dictating the terms of any extension requested and the final humiliation of our country,” he writes.

Eustice thus joins David Davis, Boris Johnson, Esther McVey, Dominic Raab, Guto Bebb, Suella Braverman, Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson, Shailesh Vara, Conor Burns, Robert Courts, Chris Green, Ranil Jaywardena, Scott Mann, Will Quince and Ann-Marie Trevelyan in having resigned from the Government.  He thus becomes on our count the 17th person to do so, and is very much at the senior end, being a fully-fledged Minister of State.

All bar three of those who have quit tilt towards a harder rather than a softer Brexit: indeed, the exceptions, Bebb, Gyimah and Johnson all favour a second referendum.  Given the propensity of some pro-Remain and Soft Brexit Ministers to act otherwise, and publicly defy the policy of the Government to which they are formally committed, Eustice’s resignation is likely to tilt it in a pro-Soft Brexit and Remain direction.  He may not be the last pro-Brexit Minister to walk over the next few days.

For what it’s worth, he was also due to feature in one of this site’s planned but unpublished articles, provisionally titled “The Cabinet of people who know what they’re talking about”.  This is a way saying that he knows his Agriculture brief backwards and, were he not a white middle-aged married man, it is not at all impossible to have imagined him stepping up into the Environment Secretary job when Andrea Leadsom was reshuffled out of it.

There is sometimes more or less to a resignation than meets the eye but, when one looks back to Eustice’s article of last August, one can see a deep consistency in his decision to go.  His view hasn’t changed.  The Government’s approach has.  So he has decided to quit – even though, as irony would have it, it is possible to imagine a revised Brexit deal clearing the Commons before mid-March.  In which case there will be no extension and he will need not have gone.   Of the 16 previous resignations we can’t think of one more honourable.

Mark Francois: The voluntary party must now save us from ourselves

I welcome the suggestion that local Associations should follow the lead that the National Convention took last weekend.

Mark Francois is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.

Last weekend, the National Conservative Convention, sometimes described as the “Parliament” of the Voluntary Conservative Party, passed the following motion, by an emphatic majority of five to one.

“The National Convention supports the commitments the Prime Minister has made to the country to honour the European Union referendum result of 2016, that having triggered Article 50 we will leave the European Union on the 29 March 2019.

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.”

It is unusual for the National Convention to debate any substantive motion at all, so this was an event of significance for the Conservative Party as a whole.  Moreover, the voluntary party is arguably its heart and soul. If Conservative MPs are the Party’s “Officer Corps”, then the voluntary party, the Association Officers, councillors, activists and rank and file members are the Party’s “poor bloody infantry.”

They go out in all weathers, sometimes accompanied by their Conservative MP (where they have one) knocking on doors, delivering leaflets in the pouring rain, and engaging with the electorate, in good times and in bad. When the Party is doing well nationally, they tend to do well in local elections as well. When the reverse is true, they are the first to brutally cop it each first Thursday in May.

As an activist and councillor under John Major in the mid-1990s,  I well remember having doors slammed in my face, even in affluent areas. I also clearly recall hard-working, dedicated, local councillors being wiped out each May, simply because of the unpopularity of the party nationally.

In the 1993 County Council elections for instance, we lost every single county in the whole of England, save Buckinghamshire. A few more years of Conservative voters abstaining in their millions during the mid-90s led to our local government base being severely eroded. This was closely followed by one of the worst defeats in our Party’s entire history in 1997, which ushered in the Blair/Brown era. I believe we are now facing much the same fate this May if we carry on as we are.

The People versus the Establishment

However, the situation is even worse than that. The Government’s EU Policy is being dictated, at least day-to-day, by a small coterie of highly pro-EU inclined civil servants, led by the Prime Minister’s Chief Negotiator, Ollie Robbins, who have never really accepted the result of the 2016 referendum and who clearly believe that the British public, having made an obviously thick/bigoted/racist mistake, must now be saved, by their “betters”, from themselves.

Of course these civil servants care not a fig for the thousands of Conservative council candidates who could be wiped out in May; they are meant to be politically neutral after all. Amidst this burning desire effectively to keep Britain in the EU at all costs, they are aided and abetted by a number of senior cabinet Ministers, from Phillip Hammond through to Amber Rudd and a number of equally fanatical junior Ministers, who constantly threaten to resign (but never quite summon up the moral courage to actually do so), plus a relatively small number of ardent Europhile backbenchers, three of whom have recently moved on to pastures new.

Personally, I believe that the division in our country is now morphing, from “Leave” versus “Remain” to “The People” versus “The Establishment.” Put simply, the People voted to Leave and the Establishment, from the senior civil service and some traditional elements of the media, with many fellow travellers in the Commons and the Lords, now formally including the Labour Front bench as well, are doing absolutely everything in their power to stop them from leaving.

This is all despite the expressed wishes of 17.4 million UK citizens – the largest vote for any proposition in British history. The motion above is an expression of the growing anger of the rank and file at this trend but, as the sell-out continues and becomes ever more obvious, I believe that the public will grow increasingly angry too.

The collapse of collective responsibility within the Government

Meanwhile, in Parliament, the Government’s position is becoming increasingly shambolic. Pro-Remain Cabinet Ministers openly defy the Prime Minister – including ambushing her in Cabinet to rule out “No Deal” – and nothing happens. Supposedly Eurosceptic Cabinet Ministers, theoretically greater in number and several of them with future leadership ambitions, mumble disapprovingly into their coffee – but again nothing happens. Meanwhile, junior ministers write polemnical articles, openly opposing policies to which they are signed up as a consequence of the posts they hold – and yet again, absolutely nothing happens.

As everyone in the Commons now knows, any concept of collective responsibility has now completely broken down. Ministers of all ranks basically do whatever they like, without any fear of sanction from Number Ten whatsoever.

This reached truly farcical proportions yesterday, when Alberto Costa, a popular PPS, tabled a motion for yesterday’s European debate seeking to guarantee the future rights of EU citizens living in the UK. This was actually a statement of the Government’s existing policy, as demonstrated by Sajid Javid when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee shortly before the debate itself.

However, Alberto was then unceremoniously sacked as a PPS for tabling an amendment , as a PPS, without permission – even though the Government effectively then adopted his amendment several hours later at the end of the debate without a division. This is, to use a technical Parliamentary term, stark-staring bonkers.  In short, A Government which cannot impose discipline on its senior Ministers who oppose Government policy, none the less sacks a popular PPS instead for backing Government policy.

I have been an MP for 18 years and I have never seen anything even remotely like this. It is one rule for Europhile Ministers and another for everyone else. Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey, Steve Baker, Suella Braverman, Shailesh Vara and a host of honourable PPSs all resigned, in accordance with constitutional convention, as they could no longer support the European policy of the Government. By stark contrast, Europhile Ministers now break ranks on a virtually daily basis, but no-one ever resigns – and no-one even attempts to discipline them either.

In the midst of this maelstrom sit the poor, dispirited Whips Office, staffed by dedicated colleagues and led by a fundamentally decent man, Julian Smith, who is desperately trying to somehow keep the show on the road, amidst a near impossible situation.

However, the whips clearly appreciate that, when collective responsibility has already blatantly disintegrated, it is practically impossible to discipline understandably anxious backbenchers, who see Ministers doing whatever the hell they like without any meaningful sanction whatsoever. Do as I say, not as I do, does not generally impress Conservative MPs (or anyone else either).

The Voluntary Party must now save the Day

This brings us back to the Voluntary Party motion, which opposes a second referendum, which would be highly divisive for the country as a whole and which now very clearly distinguishes us from Corbyn and Labour.

The motion also says that “No deal” must stay on the table – which only makes sense. It is the one thing the EU are really frightened of, so why should we throw away our best negotiating card – for nothing? What sensible businessman or woman entering a tough negotiation would ever do such a crazy thing? The National Convention motion offered no qualification about not leaving in the event of No Deal. Indeed, the Manifesto on which I,  and virtually every other Conservative candidate stood at the 2017 General Election, declared that “we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK.”

I welcome the suggestion, advanced on this site and supported by Jacob Rees-Mogg and others, that local Conservative Associations should now follow the clear lead of their senior Voluntary Party colleagues by debating and passing the same motion, at their Annual General Meetings around the country, most of which will take place during the “AGM season” next month.

This would send a powerful signal to Downing Street and to CCHQ that the Voluntary Party is resolved – and can no longer be taken for granted. It is, after all, the necks of voluntary party members that will be on the block in May if this unforgivable shambles continues and so they should be allowed their say, from Hastings and Rye and Runnymede, right through to Portsmouth North and Bromsgrove.

Summary

In summary, collective responsibility has self-evidently broken down in Parliament and the Government is staggering from one daily crisis to the next. Yesterday’s events in the Commons made that undeniably apparent.

If we extend Article 50, and just kick the can down the road – yet again –  we are likely to see our local government candidates massively punished in the May local elections. Even leaving aside the so-called “Brexit Party” (with which I have absolutely no truck) this punishment will likely be administered by a mass abstention of Conservative voters, over 70 per cent of whom voted to Leave, but who are increasingly incensed by Conservative MPs, including Cabinet and junior ministers, blatantly doing all they can to try and stop us leaving the EU, despite the clear verdict of the 2016 Referendum.

So speaking purely for myself, and not for the ERG, I believe it is time for the rest of our local associations around the country to follow the clear lead of the National Conservative Convention and stand up and be counted before it is too late.  We have spent nearly three years waiting for Brexit. Now is the time for our party members, the poor bloody infantry, to ensure that we finally succeed in delivering it.

Finally, today, February 28, is also D-29.  If we hold our nerve as a Party then in under one month this country will be free. This is a great prize that 17.4 million of our fellow countrymen voted for – and is surely well worth fighting for.