A Churchill history lesson for Brexit Britain

War of words over former PM’s legacy taps into UK’s misguided wartime nostalgia.

LONDON — To dare to criticize Winston Churchill in 21st century Britain is to risk the ire and outrage of the collective power of the media, the public and ministers of state. For to do so is to challenge the greatest sacred cow of them all — the myth of “Britain’s finest hour.”

U.K. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell found this out the hard way, when he sparked outrage by calling the wartime prime minister — and Britain’s greatest icon — a “villain” for using excessive force to crush a picket line in the Welsh town of Tonypandy in 1910.

Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames chimed in first, branding McDonnell a “Poundland Lenin.” Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson took to Twitter to trot out a not very accurate history lesson. Thousands of enraged voices predictably followed.

That a jab at Churchill would provoke such an outpouring of furious patriotism was perhaps inevitable.

The man changed political parties twice and held often starkly contradictory views; some of the things he did were heroic, others quite the opposite. But if truth was the first casualty of the Brexit civil war, then nuance perished in the shockwaves that followed.

The British people put up with rationing and the Blitz not because there was something indomitable and unique in their character but because they had little alternative.

You see, the U.K. has a chronic and potentially fatal illness. And while Brexit is the most obvious symptom, it is not the sickness itself.

Britain’s acute case of “the wars,” reinforced by an unending diet of books, TV programs, films and documentaries, goes something like this: In the early 20th century, the peace of a contented and prosperous nation was rudely interrupted by humorless continental ruffians in spiky helmets who didn’t know one end of a cricket bat from another. For four long years, noble Tommys single-handedly took on Germany while the French sat around playing accordions and eating moules, before our cousins from America turned up and helped us finish the job.

Having taught Germany a “jolly good lesson,” the sons of the first wave of soldiers had to go out and do it all over again. In 1940, Britain stood alone against the full might of Nazi Germany while her allies capitulated.

Having dusted ourselves down from Dunkirk, we survived the Battle of Britain, cracked the Enigma code, cheerfully put up with a bit of heavy bombing and then led the charge back again — defeating the Germans once and for all in 1945 (while the Americans took our women).

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has caused a stir with his comment about Winston Churchill | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

There are walk-on roles for the Soviet Union and Australia, sure, but the overarching narrative is one of a proud and indomitable island nation winning against the odds — as surely as David defeated Goliath.

It’s nonsense of course.

In 1940 Great Britain was a superpower. The Indian army alone had 2.5 million men. We were out-producing the German aircraft war machine by two to one, and had the first integrated and fully co-ordinated air defense system in the world. Britain was not held together by bits of string. The British people put up with rationing and the Blitz not because there was something indomitable and unique in their character but because they had little alternative.

Most British people are wholly ignorant of the fact that the war left far greater devastation in Europe than was ever visited on Britain. And where Germany and the defeated axis powers were forced to come to terms with events, Britain continued to repeat the tropes of propaganda.

Growing up in the post-war era, a whole generation of children were fed a diet of wartime films that armor-plated the folklores and myths of our part in saving the world.

The war is ours; our sacrifice, our victory, our sacred relic. It’s a simplistic version of events that reduces the vast complexity of war into a navel gazing exercise of good versus evil. It’s a story in which we are always good and the dark and foreboding Continent is a source of malevolence and threat.

Nigel Farage and his UKIP party continually invoked World War II during the Brexit referendum campaign | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

For some, that deep-held belief means we won the war but lost the peace. In their eyes, the European Union is Germany’s plot to finish what it started with those spiky-headed Huns in August 1914.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, therefore, that the Brexit referendum to “take back control” was laced with the iconography of World War II, embarrassing and unforgivable as it was.

Nigel Farage and his UKIP party were forever invoking it, calling Brexit the next “Battle for Britain” and piping music from “The Great Escape” from the campaign bus. It practically became a religion.

As Brexit D-Day approaches, the big guns of the Leave campaign have come out time and time again to remind us if “we” won the war — and “we”  put up with rationing and bombing and sacrifice and could handle that — then “we” can handle a no-deal Brexit. Who do these Europeans think they are?

What Britain needs more than ever is less “Churchill history” and more actual history.

Of course, none of these Brexiteers were actually there. They grew up in a prosperous and peaceful world born out of the cost of those who put up with the misery of that devastating war, and who voted for us to be part of the European Economic Community in 1975 — in part so that it might not happen again.

What Britain needs more than ever is less “Churchill history” and more actual history.

Perhaps a good place to start is in questioning the unassailable reputation of a man who was broadly disliked enough by many Britons during the war that they rejected him at the first post-war election.

“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes,” wrote Bertolt Brecht. To which we might add, “and unnecessary referendums as well.”

Otto English is a writer and playwright based in London. He has contributed to the Independent, New Statesman and Byline Times.


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Nicky Morgan: Brexit. Country before Party? It’s a false choice. The country needs the governing party to deliver.

The best outcome is for the Government and its partners to deliver the majority verdict of the referendum and of the last election.

Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.

What does the ‘national interest’ now demand of MPs?

We know that Brexit is an extraordinary political process, putting unusual strain on our party political system and our constitution. We also know that the stakes are getting higher, as March 29th gets closer.

Whatever one thinks about leaving the EU, it cannot be denied that it represents a fundamental change in relations with our nearest neighbours and our trading relationships with the world. Some people think that this change is long overdue, whilst others regret that it is happening at all. The issues are so important that the phrase ‘the national interest’ is being used more and more to argue that various matters relating to Brexit are or are not ‘in the national interest’.

I’ve no doubt that all MPs and Ministers believe that the Brexit path that they are treading is in this interest. Who goes into politics to act against it? And I’ve also no doubt that those who say they are putting Country before Party also sincerely believe that. Ultimately, I’ve no doubt that we all believe we should put country first, constituency second and party last (whatever the whips might say).

But given the very different Brexit scenarios and possible outcomes on offer, how can we all be right? Which option (or perhaps combination of options) can really be said to be in the national interest? Is this why it is easier to know what each of us is against in terms of Brexit than what each of us is in favour of? Is it easier to rule something out as being against the national interest, rather than to say confidently: ‘doing x is definitely in the national interest’?

After the first Meaningful Vote, and the inability of both main Party Leaders to seriously embrace proper cross-party talks, it became clear to me that everyone was going to have to compromise if we are to get a Withdrawal Agreement over the line. And that means we have to start to see that each of us might not have the only answer to what is in the national interest.

I’ve explained elsewhere why I agreed to be part of the ‘Malthouse Compromise’. And I’m now part of the Alternative Arrangements Working Group which spent over six hours with Steve Barclay last week, examining what the alternatives to the backstop might be, as demanded by the Brady amendment.

In the interests of finding that answer, let us then think what the national interest might demand. As Conservatives, we are surely in favour of a stable country with a well-functioning Government able to pass its Budget and its legislation. We want a system of representative democracy which retains the confidence of the electorate. We want to support businesses and entrepreneurs. We want a strong security and defence system. We want a strong economy, and a tax system which allows people to keep as much of the money they earn as possible subject to properly funding a welfare safety net and our public services. We support incremental change, not radical policy moves.

To me, all this would tend to suggest that the best outcome is that the Government remains in control of the Brexit process, and is able to deliver its biggest policy objective and necessary legislation with the support of a majority of its own MPs (and confidence and supply partners too) – thus fulfilling the majority verdict of the referendum and the last general election; implementing a policy which mitigates any economic damage caused by a big change in our trading relationships, and supporting businesses to carry on doing what they do,  and our security and defence forces to carry on doing what they do, too. This surely is what the national interest now demands of its MPs.

Alex Morton: If Brexit is impossible, what is the point of politics?

The idea that leaving the EU simply cannot be done has emerged since the referendum – if true, it would shatter our political system.

Alex Morton is Director of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

The current debate raging about Brexit has occasionally thrown up a view – expressed more by columnists than politicians – that Brexit is so difficult that, for practical purposes, it might as well be impossible. We simply are incapable of leaving.

This argument is distinct from the argument for or against the compromises of May’s deal, or even the argument put forward by Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin around EEA membership.

The Boles and Letwin view is that while a harder Brexit is possible, the economic and political disruption of a complete split is too great, particularly given Northern Ireland. They suggest instead a compromise version, which trades off retaining economic integration and some loss of control for exiting the political drive toward ‘ever closer union’.

This is in some sense an acknowledgement that Brexit must happen in some form, although it may be one that too few Conservative MPs and voters support to make viable. The ‘Brexit is impossible’ position is even more hardline and instead argues that Brexit in any form is just too big for politics to cope with. That the question should never have even been asked. That it was an impossible task you could not achieve and so it was dishonest even to debate it – and, of course, that David Cameron was utterly wrong to call the referendum.

Indeed, they argue that the whole premise of the referendum was a sham, because the little people who voted Leave, for whatever reason, did not understand that it is simply not possible for us to do so. That is why, if the EU will not give ground, the only real option is to cancel Brexit and put this whole sorry mess behind us. Not because there has been inadequate preparation for No Deal, but because Brexit is somehow impossible in a very fundamental sense.

If we cannot leave the EU now, we cannot remain a sovereign nation

But if we cannot leave the European Union now – when it consists of a trading bloc with a partially formed political super state above it – surely we can never, in the long run, retain any national sovereignty, and once inside the EU we will never be able to resist further erosion of sovereignty.

If we are too weak to be able to leave, and must go crawling back to the Commission, what trajectory does that put us on? Towards a slightly slower dismantling of the UK as a nation state in favour of a European federal super state? In which case, why not simply just dissolve Britain as a realistic entity and run us by email from the EU Commission?

It’s often said that the Brexit referendum showed that Britain was split down the middle. In fact, polls showed that the overwhelming majority of people wanted either to leave the EU or reduce its powers. For every true believer in integration on the Remain side, there were many more who were sceptical of the EU but worried about how we would or could actually get out. After the vote a staggering 75 per cent of people either wanted to leave the EU or reduce its powers, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey.

Now, some federalists see a chance, through the high-stakes game of poker we are in, to undo that decision. But the logic of having to abandon our attempt to Leave is that any attempt to reverse the one-way federal ratchet is doomed. Even when we were a member in good standing, the best we could do was to slow the flow of powers to Brussels rather than halt it, let alone reverse it. What leverage will we have as a defeated, humbled nation whose threats to Leave have been exposed, in the EU’s eyes, as hollow?

If Brexit is impossible, what is the point of politics?

There is a deeper point here. If Brexit is impossible, what hope is there for other difficult tasks in politics, such as reforming public services, controlling immigration, increasing living standards? Will it all be parked in the ‘too difficult’ box? Or will the lesson that our elites learn be that we should never trust the people to make their own decisions?

Those who incline to the ‘Brexit is impossible’ view are, after all, usually those who tend to idealise the rule of technocrats. They get particularly angry that voters think they are doing a much less effective job than they themselves think they are doing.

The Twittersphere, much of the academic and legal professions, the bureaucratic class – all think they will be able to manage governing quite well enough with no real involvement from the plebs. The last thing they want is an engaged population.

Of course, the paradox here is that the UK political system is bearing up better than many. The USA since 2000 has been in near-permanent gridlock, with only a few years of effective government here and there. Italy, Spain, France, Germany – almost all have undergone or are undergoing serious political (and often economic) dislocation.

In terms of the future, all of the focus recently has been on the effects of No Deal. While the mayor of Calais, the Irish, and the Dutch all claim No Deal will not lead to delays, relying on this is a high-risk strategy. If No Deal is seriously disruptive there would be serious consequences for the economy.

Yet if the UK cannot manage to deliver Brexit, then it may shatter the political system as we know it. It certainly may well shatter the Conservatives.

Before Christmas, YouGov ran a poll which found that if Brexit was cancelled, 63 per cent of Conservatives would feel angry, betrayed or disappointed, with betrayal by far the largest response at 42 per cent. That was over twice as many as would feel relieved, pleased or delighted (21 per cent for all three combined). The political establishment is unlikely to survive such a shock. Certainly the Conservative Party could not.

Brexit is not impossible. But if we abandon the idea, and declare it impossible for our political system to deliver, then we are effectively declaring to the voters that the political system itself is not fit for purpose.

Howard Flight: I believe the Conservative Party will hold together after Brexit

Fear of both a Corbyn government and an enraged grassroots seems to be keeping Tory MPs together in the crucial votes.

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The behaviour of the House of Commons, and in particular of Remainers and the Speaker, has damaged the reputation of Parliament and politicians generally – at least for the time being.

But I have the perhaps naive view that the overwhelming majority of citizens understand that it is the EU which has made it so difficult to negotiate a proper exit deal, and that at Westminster the trouble has been the parliamentary chicanery of Remainers trying to delay and even prevent our departure from the EU.

The Referendum vote in favour of withdrawal from the EU was decisive and the options clear and straight forward – in or out? In the ensuing general election, the Conservative Party pledged to give effect to the will of the people in the Referendum. I, therefore, believe it has been democratically wrong for more than half the Conservative MPs, as well as virtually all the Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs, to have done their utmost to frustrate Britain departing from the EU.

But I believe the Conservative Party will hold together; partly because the alternative would be a Corbyn Government and partly because Conservative MPs have ‘seen the light’ last week.

Last Tuesday the House of Commons gave the Prime Minister a positive mandate to return to Brussels to amend the deal. Leaders of the ERG and leading Remainers had got together, in their and the country’s interests, to agree a compromise approach to Brexit.

The Malthouse compromise reflected this, and gave the Prime Minister the mandate she needed to renegotiate her own withdrawal deal and the Irish Backstop contained in it. There was agreement across Leavers and Remainers to support Sir Graham Brady’s amendment to replace the Irish Backstop.

On seven different amendments on Tuesday there were similarly significant defeats for the attempts to override Commons Standing Orders and take control of the parliamentary agenda in order to delay Brexit. The only vote in which the Government failed to get its way was a non-binding assertion rejecting the notion of leaving the EU without a deal, tabled by Dame Caroline Spelman. But this passed by a majority of only eight.

It is also clear that grass roots Conservatives – members of their local Associations – voted for Brexit overwhelmingly in the referendum, and have not taken kindly where their local MPs have endeavoured to frustrate Brexit. Such MPs are beginning to realise they could risk being deselected. Also, as and when the Conservative Party chooses its next leader, the final vote is with Party Members, which virtually ensures that the successful candidate will be a Brexiteer.

We have been here before, over 40 years ago, but the other way around. Now Remainers should learn from the behaviour of those who then opposed Britain joining the Common Market. After a decisive pro-membership referendum result, the Leavers mostly shut up. Now the country is fed up with Brexit dragging on, not to mention the behaviour of the EU and of Parliamentarian Remainers, and wants a sensible deal.

If the EU does not accommodate time limitations on the Irish backstop, we will, de facto, move to trade on a WTO basis. This may prove to be the best result.

Out of Brexit Chaos part 2: Government of National Unity

In the preceding article, on the People’s Vote [link], I argued that the process should be given significantly more time. However, we also have a real problem: both of the big parties are too fractured either to govern or to face a General Election. The unedifying results create the opposite of the sense of stability […]

In the preceding article, on the People’s Vote [link], I argued that the process should be given significantly more time.

However, we also have a real problem: both of the big parties are too fractured either to govern or to face a General Election. The unedifying results create the opposite of the sense of stability needed for such the People’s Vote.

This is the time for a Government of National Unity bringing people together from across Parliament, not as a formal coalition between parties, but as an interim arrangement, which would need a more collaborative way of working. The obvious person to lead this is Kenneth Clark. This is partly because of his considerable depth and experience. Age means he is also likely to stand down at the next General Election, so it would be clear that the Government of National Unity is there to provide stability in an exceptional time without being subsequently returned to power. He is also sufficiently unpopular with the right wing of his party to mean that MPs from across the Commons could support him.

The clear message from forming a Government of National Unity is that we are in exceptional times. Something exceptional needs to happen to enable the People’s Vote to happen fairly. Frustration with politics will have produced a different way of doing politics.

How can a Government of National Unity form?

Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, an election happens if the Commons passes a motion that it has no confidence in the government and doesn’t then pass a motion that it does have confidence within a fortnight. With sufficient agreement among MPs in advance, it would be possible for Tory MPs to vote with the Opposition “no confidence” in Theresa May’s government, and then “confidence” in the Government of National Unity.

What would a Government of National Unity do?

It would have three tasks:

People’s Vote

To provide stability to enable the People’s Vote to take place in an orderly way (described in the first part of this article).

Enable government

Get on with the things that have been sidelined in the last two years because of Brexit, such as urgent changes to          Universal Credit. It would also be a good time to begin the overdue cross-party thinking on the future of the NHS. It would have to be doing things that have the broad consensus of parliament so that it would be listening, but this only really rules out things from the political extremes.

Enable political change

There are deep divisions in both the Conservatives and Labour. Both face the question of whether to split or to reunite. As the SDP found, it is very hard in our system to set up the infrastructure of a new party and get it to a point where it can run a General Election campaign. That provides a huge pressure against change because a party dividing would almost certainly precipitate a General Election — if the ruling party splits, it loses its majority, and if the main opposition splits, it tempts the Government to seek an immediate election. However, in the context of a Government of National Unity, there is space for both parties to make an active decision to reunite or divide.

This does mean that the Government of National Unity should remain in office for long enough after the People’s Vote to enable political parties to draw up manifestos in the light of its result and initial repercussions.

The Brexit process did begin as an attempt to settle an internal Tory party squabble. With adequate preparation, overseen by a Government of National Unity, the People’s Vote can become

* Mark Argent was the candidate in Hertford and Stortford in the 2017 General Election

Blair’s Brexit redemption moment! Amen! Alleluia! (Just don’t mention the I – – q W – r.)

A first-time voter in 2022 will have been born in 2004, a year after the start of the conflict, and have no memory of weapons of mass destruction…

“Michael Chessum, who leads the Another Europe Is Possible campaign for a public vote, tweeted: “Oh great. I hear Tony Blair has been put up on the Today programme again as the voice of People’s Vote. Why don’t we all just give up and go home?””

That’s perhaps the most glorious quote from Buzzfeed’s piece on the splits and rifts within the People’s Vote campaign.  The former Prime Minister was at it again yesterday, making his pitch from the Leave voter-friendly location of Davos.  (For it is those voters who must be persuaded to change their minds.)

But why is Blair so keen to pop up so often?  Devotion to the cause of remaining in the EU is doubtless part of the explanation.  But ConservativeHome is told that there is more.

A first-time voter in 2022 will have been born in 2004, a year after the start of the Iraq conflict.  He or she will have no memory of it: weapons of mass destruction, dodgy dossiers, Robin Cook, yellow cake uranium, Chilcot – and all the rest of it.

A source who has worked with the former Prime Minister claimed that Blair has seen polling which suggests that Brexit offers him the elusive prospect of redemption.  Since these voters-to-be know nothing much about Iraq, they clock him, if at all, simply as an ageing politician differing from others only in skin tone.

In short, then, Brexit offers Blair, at long last, a chance to change the subject – at least among younger voters who don’t really know him.  Never underestimate a former Prime Minister’s belief that, one day, he can return to the front-line of politics.

Interview: Francois insists that the ERG wants the backstop ditched altogether – not tweaked

“In my personal opinion, Olly Robbins should go to the Tower, in which case he should arrive by river.”

The Leave versus Remain battle is morphing into a struggle between the British people and the Establishment. So says Mark Francois, the pugnacious Eurosceptic who is Vice Chairman of the European Reform Group and MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.

In this interview, he expresses confidence that the people will get the Brexit they voted for, despite the best efforts of senior politicians and civil servants to thwart the process. Francois would like Ollie Robbins, the senior official conducting negotiations for Theresa May, to be conducted by river to the Tower of London.

Asked what concessions the ERG wants in order for its members to vote for May’s deal, Francois replied: “The Prime Minister would have to ask the European Union to ditch the entire backstop. Not tweak it, but ditch it.”

But Francois, who was wearing the tie of the Army Benevolent Fund, recognises that after Brexit, the two sides within the Conservative Party will have to come back together again: “And that’s partly why, after we had the No Confidence vote, I delivered a small case of fairly decent Margaux to the Whips’ Office, and put it on the Deputy Chief Whip’s desk with a little note that said ‘To the Office, with the compliments of Dad’s Army’.”

ConHome: “Why do you feel so strongly about Brexit?”

Francois: “When I was the Shadow Europe Minister, and I did the Lisbon Treaty for us [in 2008], William Hague was the Shadow Foreign Secretary…”

ConHome: “Up until then, what were your views?”

Francois: “I was quite sceptical about the EU and the direction it was taking. I made my maiden speech on 4th July 2001 against the Treaty of Nice.

William made that fantastic speech [on Lisbon] at Second Reading. I remember when he delivered it. Everybody was nearly crying [with laughter].  I think he got the Speccy Speech of the Year, quite rightly.

“We then came down to debating the hard detail of the treaty, all 300 pages, and that kind of was my job. And we spent 14 nights, it’s seared on my memory, debating the hard detail of the Lisbon Treaty.

“And it soon became apparent that we couldn’t change so much as a punctuation mark. Parliament had been completely neutered. And for me that was the epiphany.

“And after that whole process I thought, ‘We are no longer running our own country here. We have got to get out of this.’ Really, that was when, to mix metaphors, I crossed the Rubicon.”

ConHome: “How are you adjusting to fame?”

Francois: “I don’t think famous is the word. I’ve done more media in the last couple of months than in the rest of my 18 years put together.

“But if you had told me when I walked through Carriage Gates 18 years ago as a wide-eyed, fresh-faced newbie, delighted to have been elected as an MP, that I would one day be involved in a No Confidence motion against a Conservative Prime Minister, I would never have believed it.”

ConHome: “Will you always back the Prime Minister in a Vote of Confidence in the House, as everyone did the other day, regardless of what she does?”

Francois: “Well some people saw the intervention that I made on the Prime Minister, and Simon Hoare’s very funny quip. He is quick, Simon.

“And I said, you know, I’m a Conservative first and last, and I and my colleagues in the ERG were not going to do Jeremy Corbyn any favours.”

ConHome: “Even if she extended Article 50 or something like that?”

Francois: “Well we had said, all along, that if Labour tried a snap Vote of Confidence we would vote with the Prime Minister, and we kept our word.

“And I can’t see Corbyn doing this again in a hurry after getting the drubbing he got last time.”

ConHome: “Now what in fact is going to satisfy the ERG?”

Francois: “We have said consistently that because the Withdrawal Agreement is a draft international treaty, which if the House were to approve it and then ratify it in Parliament, would bind us forever in international law, the only thing that would satisfy us is amendments to the treaty text itself.

“The Prime Minister would have to ask the European Union to ditch the entire backstop. Not tweak it, but ditch it. And then in turn the EU would have to agree.

“Now even if they did that, there are other issues of concern, like the 39 billion for nothing, like the continuing role of the ECJ in some areas, like what’s called the Joint Committee, which is a very powerful committee that the Withdrawal Agreement establishes.

“But our principal ask is that the backstop must go and must be replaced by alternative language in favour of a comprehensive free trade agreement.”

ConHome: “You reckon that’s gettable if gone for in the right way?”

Francois: “Well what we’re asking for is a big ask. We recognise that…”

ConHome: “But is it an achievable ask in your judgment?”

Francois: “The EU saw the majority – the largest defeat of a government in history. So if they’re not prepared to bend, this Withdrawal Agreement is not going through the House of Commons.

“I think they now realise that. I’m told that result sent shock-waves through the Commission, because they’d been told by people like Olly Robbins it was only going to be 40 or 50.

“It was a bell that rang across Europe.”

ConHome: “But is there a danger of the ERG overplaying its hand?”

Francois: “Well The Times and The Daily Telegraph described the treaty as a surrender document, as it’s currently configured. The House of Commons has never surrendered in its history and it never will.”

ConHome: “So why do some Tory MPs think we should go along with this?”

Francois: “Well every colleague must look into their heart and decide what to do. But 118 Tories – even Diane Abbott knows that’s a big number – voted against it, because a lot of them have actually read it, and they know what’s in it.

ConHome: “How united is the ERG? Because there are presumably some who are more pugnacious – you give an impression of tremendous pugnacity – and there are some who are more conciliatory, and who think, well, the Tory Party’s got to be a broad church, we’ve got to stick together, half a loaf is better than no bread, and there’s a danger of losing Brexit if we hold out for a perfect deal.”

Francois: “Well the ERG is not a Stalinist organisation. And we’re not in the business of waterboarding our colleagues. But I think that result showed you that people feel very strongly on this.

“After all, this is the destiny of our country, and if you don’t feel strongly about that, what are you going to feel strongly about? All logic suggests that if they ask pretty much the same question they’ll get pretty much the same answer.

“And I’m sure that the Government realise that.”

ConHome: “The Remainers are making some sort of a fight-back against you. How do you deal with that?”

Francois: “Well my own impression is this thing is morphing from just Leave versus Remain to the People versus the Establishment.

“Because there are some Members of Parliament, there are certainly a number of senior civil servants, who have never accepted the result of the referendum, and maybe never will.

“And they have done whatever they can to undermine Brexit, and to try to stop it from happening.

“Now I don’t think the rest of the party will stand idly by and allow this to continue ad infinitum. And it’s not a secret that a number of MPs are in trouble with their constituency associations.

“And that’s nothing to do with me or the ERG. That’s their own troops basically beginning to hold them to account.

“And more fundamentally than that, I think the British people won’t put up with it. We saw the reaction on Question Time to Isabel Oakeshott’s comment.

“I think the British people, if they see MPs using parliamentary trickery to try and overturn the people’s decision in the referendum, I think there’ll be serious protests.

“We’re British, so I don’t think we’ll have people in yellow jackets trying to burn Oxford Street, although if you remember the poll tax riots in the 1980s they were quite violent.

“But I think you’ll get more British protests. You’ll get people inundating their MPs with letters and emails, you’ll get protests, I hope peaceful, outside people’s surgeries.

“You’ll basically get the British people saying ‘Up with this we will not put’. And I think in that climate it’ll be more and more difficult for ultra-Remain MPs to push forward this agenda, with Laura Kuennsberg explaining to the British people night after night what’s really going on.”

ConHome: “You said a number of MPs are in trouble with their constituency associations. What’s your own view about deselection?”

Francois: “Well for obvious reasons Members of Parliament as a breed don’t like to talk about deselection. The relationship between an MP and their association is a matter for those people.

“But every Tory was elected – I think with one or two exceptions, in fairness, Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry did qualify I think their election addresses…”

ConHome: “Grieve did point out that Tory MPs had absolutely no say in the manifesto.”

Francois: “The overwhelming bulk of Tory MPs were elected on a manifesto to honour Brexit. And if they then do exactly the opposite, I think they’ve got to explain to their local troops why they’re doing that.”

ConHome: “So you think you’re going to win?”

Francois: “At the end of the day…”

ConHome: “It could all go catastrophically wrong. The Establishment – the Establishment in your terms – could win.”

Francois: “Well the Establishment were going to win the referendum, weren’t they, and they didn’t.

“I trust at the end of the day the canny intuition of the British people. I don’t believe that at the end of the day, they will allow politicians to do them out of their decision to leave.

“And that is my sheet anchor.

“And we have civil servants like Ollie Robbins who are very pro-EU, who have never wanted us to leave, and have done everything in their power, including colluding with the European Union, to try and keep us in.

“That’s why they helped to negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement that effectively does that.

“Now at the end of all this, in my personal opinion, this is not necessarily the opinion of the ERG, Mr Robbins should go to the Tower, in which case he should arrive by river. Is that pugnacious enough for you?”

ConHome [pointing to a picture of an aeroplane over the fireplace in Francois’ office]: “Are those the Dambusters?”

Francois: “That’s a picture called Hopgood’s Courageous Run. He was the second Lancaster in and they were badly shot-up even when they began their attack run, but they pressed home the attack. Hopgood was Gibson’s best friend.

“The other thing I might mention is I was given the job by David Cameron when I was Shadow Europe Minister of leading us out of the EPP.

“We did it. That was two years of my life, and quite a bit of travel, finding new allies. The EPP tried very hard to stop us.

“But coming back to Lisbon, I think it was the way Lisbon was handled by the then Labour Government, and the fact that we didn’t have a referendum, which began to set the conditions…”

ConHome: “Almost everyone can see in retrospect that it would have been a much better issue, I mean from the point of view of the Remainers, to have a referendum on.”

Francois: “One of the reasons why we ended up in a situation where people voted to leave was because they had seen one treaty after another effectively imposed upon us without their consent.

“And Europe was something that was being done to us rather than done with us. And all those people who thought they were being frightfully clever getting away without a referendum, in the end they got their comeuppance, because within eight years of that being ratified, we voted to leave the EU.”

ConHome: “Jolly difficult job for Theresa May, keeping the Tory Party together. People like Matthew Parris want the party to split.”

Francois: “I don’t by any means always agree with Ken Clarke, and he called me a gilet jaune in the Chamber last week.”

ConHome: “He told you to go out and join the protesters.”

Francois: “Yes. But Ken has been utterly consistent for 40 years about his views on Europe.”

ConHome: “And would have become leader if he’d been prepared to temporise.”

Francois: “He utterly refused to compromise when he stood for the leadership, even though it might have been to his advantage to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, Bill Cash has been equally utterly consistent for just about as long.

“And yet these two men, for the best part of four decades, have managed to remain in the same political party. So if they can do it, the rest of us can do it.

“And at some point, when all of this is over, the party has to heal. And actually, I think the Whips’ Office are very conscious of that. I think a lot of us in the ERG are very conscious of that.

“And somehow, when we’ve resolved this issue, and when we’ve left and honoured the instruction the British people gave us, we then need to heal.

“And that’s partly why, after we had the No Confidence vote, I delivered a small case of fairly decent Margaux to the Whips’ Office, and put it on the Deputy Chief Whip’s desk with a little note that said ‘To the Office, with the compliments of Dad’s Army’.”

ConHome: “Has this been published?”

Francois: “I don’t think it has. I got some very nice texts back, and I’m told they’re saving it for some special occasion. Now what that will be I don’t know. That’s a decision for the Chief.

“But I just thought as a gesture, it’s trying to acknowledge that ultimately we’re all in the same party, and while we might have very strong and principled differences on this one issue, if you cut us all down the middle, you find that none of us wants a Marxist anti-Semite running the Government of this country.

“And Ken and Bill would both agree with that. So there is hope yet.”

Jonathan Clark: Representative democracy is retreating, direct democracy is advancing – and it’s MPs themselves who must “come to heel”

The object of the exercise is to absorb within a moderate, stable democratic practice a new element which, if unabsorbed, may have fatal effects. If the Swiss manage it, so can the British.

Jonathan Clark was a Fellow of Peterhouse; at Oxford, he was a Fellow of All Souls College; latterly he has been Visiting Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, and Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas. His latest book is a study of Thomas Paine.

The UK constitution is about to be hijacked. A coup will subvert the long-accepted constitution of the most successful democracy in the world. Parliamentary procedure will be distorted to block the decision of the electorate.

On the contrary, MPs will act properly to save the UK from a disastrous accident. Parliament is just doing what it is meant to do. Belatedly, it is reasserting itself against an over-mighty executive.

Which of these options is correct?

Historically, both of them are. The only thing we can say with certainty about the UK constitution is that it is always changing. Like human life itself, it never continueth in one stay. What is the constitution one day is not the constitution the next. Lawyers, who insist that there is just one right answer to constitutional problems (their own), are regularly overtaken by events. Such states as the USA and the EU, that appeal to founding documents depicted in their myths of origin as unchanging definitions of consensual wisdom, are deluding themselves even more than the UK does.

But MPs are equally upstaged by lawyers. The long term of UK parliamentary history has been a repeated story of members of the Lords and the Commons equally failing to see ‘it’ coming, and staging futile rearguard actions against developments whose very existence they deny. Catholic Emancipation, a logical consequence of Ireland’s population explosion; the repeal of the Corn Laws, a necessary response to the rise of manufacturing; female emancipation, a corollary of a falling birthrate; the list could go on and on. What, then, have today’s legislators failed to ‘get’?

One element has been material: the steady tilt of UK trade away from the EU and towards the world. A second has been the effects of mass immigration and of globalisation. A third has been the appreciable loss of sovereignty in the face of an expansionist multi-national organisation. Another has been technological, the rise of the internet and of the individual choice that it facilitates. The manifestation of all these has been accidental: the unplanned, unappreciated rise of the referendum as a constitutional practice. Once, representative democracy was the only democratic option for a large state. Now, direct democracy is far more feasible. It will become more feasible still.

Many MPs just fail to see it. Far from entering into a corrupt conspiracy to block a policy that conflicts with their self-interest, they express the high-minded constitutional orthodoxy of their youth. They insist that they owe their constituents their best judgement, not their blind obedience. This was, in its day, a theoretically noble and logistically inevitable practice. But all that has changed. A few MPs now implicitly and untheoretically accept the change, grasping at referenda as a way of solving their party-political fixes. Most do not.

Referenda would not solve party problems, since the tide is running the other way. The future lies less with representatives, more with direct voting, and, soon enough, with electronic voting. Many groups in society have found their roles increasingly taken over by electronic means, even expert and highly skilled groups; it may be that, over time, fewer and fewer elected politicians will be needed. How will representative democracy accommodate direct democracy? We hardly know. But it will have to do so.

MPs who demand a ‘second’ referendum on the EU should learn a little history: we have had two already, in 1975 and 2016. Before pinning their hopes of reversing the verdict of the second on a third, it would be wise for the UK to debate, and legislate, on just what referenda are, and what they can do.

The key questions are four in number. First, who can call a referendum? It would be pointless to leave this decision subject to prime ministerial fiat. Rather, they should be triggered (as debates in Parliament now are, in response to online petitions) when a certain number of signatures have been recorded.

Second, who sets the terms of the motion? This will be harder, and may demand the wisdom of an electoral commission. But how to reform the existing body to secure balance and prudence is a riddle indeed.

Third, how often can a referendum be called on the same issue? Parliament allows itself to change its mind week by week. The electorate can think again in general elections every five years. Should the decision of referenda stand unchallenged for a generation (for example, from 1975 to 2016) and, if so, exactly how many years should that be?

Fourth, and hardest, how will the result of a referendum be translated into statute? Little good will be done if a clear verdict is undone by Orwellian doublespeak, and if Parliament declares that it respects the verdict of a referendum only to do the opposite. That way revolution lies. The object of the exercise is, as with a mass electorate and women’s suffrage, to absorb within a moderate, stable democratic practice a new element which, if unabsorbed, may have fatal effects. If the Swiss manage it, so can the British.

There will be, and is, resistance. It is one of the ironies of history that, after a distinguished career of public service, the diplomat Lord Kerr will go down in history for just one fatal sentence: ‘we will huff and puff, but in the end we will have to come to heel’ at the command of the EU. But the world has changed from that of his youth. It is not the UK that will be the subject of irresistible pressure but Parliament itself. MPs will have to learn to ‘come to heel’ to the electorate, and in new and steadily changing ways.

What form, exactly, will these changes take? No-one can predict. But changes there will be, and it will not be the electorate that will be the defeated party if it considers that its clear verdict has been blocked.

James Frayne: The angry stereotype of Leave voters was false – but blocking Brexit risks making it true

Last week’s Question Time audience in Derby delivered a warning shot when they cheered the prospect of No Deal.

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

Last week’s Question Time shocked many Remain-voting commentators. The fact the Derby audience cheered suggestions Britain might leave the EU without a deal came as a complete surprise to them. The emotion and anger audible in that cheering has clearly made them think – and provoked a number of soul-searching columns. Many commentators previously convinced themselves both that the Leave electorate regrets their vote and that all the anger lies on the side of Remain activists and voters. Derby suggested that, at the very least, provincial English voters are capable of revolt. And let’s be honest, the sight of working class anger is frightening to middle class, Remain-voting commentators.

It’s easy to sneer at these commentators for being out of touch with provincial England. Of course, many of them are; but on this occasion, their shock needs to be placed in context. For the anger displayed in Derby genuinely is a recent phenomenon; it wasn’t visible even a few months ago because it wasn’t there. This anger is a 2019 development – but it might well become the defining feature of this year. Where do Leave voters currently stand?

Until the new year, what we had amongst Leave voters was an exasperation that Brexit was taking so long, with confusion as to why we couldn’t “just get on with it”. But anger was kept at bay for three reasons: firstly, and most importantly, because the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have kept assuring voters that Britain is leaving; secondly, because the Prime Minister was credited with “fighting for Britain” during the various difficult negotiations with the EU and leading Member States (the worse she was treated the better she did with these voters); and thirdly, because Remain activists seemed so upset that it suggested the Government must indeed be leading us out.

But the background context has changed. Since the start of January, the Leave-voting public has watched politicians apparently devise obscure and clever new tactics to thwart Brexit. The fact that many justify their actions in the name of preventing a No Deal Brexit, as opposed to Brexit generally, is lost on people. To Leave voters, the politicians they have come to detest over the last two decades are engaging in an act of betrayal. And it is this sense of betrayal that is fuelling the beginnings of the anger that we witnessed last week in Derby.

Most Leave voters backed Brexit because of practical concerns about immigration: about the difficulty of buying a house, securing timely access to healthcare, and finding work. Whether this was reasonable or not is beside the point; that’s what they felt. Forget what you read in the FT: most Leave voters were emphatically not part of a revolt against the political class, nor against the failures of capitalism. In this way, they weren’t like many Trump voters and they weren’t part of a populist uprising. But the actions of politicians over the last few weeks is changing them; there are signs that they are going to turn into the sort of voters that Remain-voting commentators originally but wrongly said they were: angry, disillusioned, and capable of self-consciously punishing the political class. In short, they’re now on the trajectory towards Trump voter status.

There is a clear risk that working class Leave voters are going to become, primarily, anti-politics voters (or non-voters) – that they’re going to basically shift to sticking two fingers up to all the parties. We have seen flashes of this over the last two decades: in the Hartlepool Mayoral Election; in the North East referendum; in the AV referendum; and so on. But, to date, it has largely been restrained; after all, working class and lower middle class voters flocked to the most establishment politician of recent times: David Cameron (who people still talk about with some respect).

What does this mean for the Conservative Party? To date, because of the actions of the Prime Minister and most senior party politicians, Leave voters are giving the party the benefit of the doubt; they will flock to the party at the next election if something like the campaigning status quo remains in place. But if these voters learn, actually, that most of its politicians are thwarting the only path available to actually leaving, then Conservative competitive advantage will disappear and these Leave voters will truly become anti-politics voters that finally reject all politicians of all parties. At that point they might lend their votes occasionally to the party but the process will be harder.

Clearly, danger lies in both directions: worried Remain voters may punish politicians, and their votes matter, too. But, as I’ve written before, Leave voters’ anger over the prospect of not leaving should always be feared more because their anger will be driven by a sense of betrayal – over politicians having actively taken steps to stop something happening that they previously said they would respect. Some have speculated that civil unrest or a growth in extremism would result; in truth, we don’t know that; but it seems reasonable to assume that a very large chunk of the electorate would be essentially unpredictable at the ballot box and that they could no longer be addressed in the same way.

No Deal can’t be “taken off the table”

The only way of ruling it out is to change the table itself: in other words, to abandon Brexit, or prepare to – as Remainers should admit.

“Is it not the case that four fifths of Members voted to trigger Article 50, and that in doing so, they consciously—or perhaps semi-consciously in some cases—accepted that no deal would be the default option if we did not leave with a deal? If hon. Members have now changed their mind, should they not be open about that and say that they now want a second referendum or to ditch Brexit altogether?”

ConservativeHome can’t improve on this lucid pointer, offered to the Commons yesterday by Nick Herbert, to why No Deal cannot be “taken off the table”.  Let’s follow the train of thought of those of those who deploy the phrase.  Were No Deal to be ruled out, it follows that the UK might remain in the EU, contrary to the referendum result, if no deal between the two negotiating parties can be agreed.

And it can only be ruled out by MPs voting to revoke the same Article – Article 50 – that they voted to deploy less than two years ago.  (It is sometimes claimed that the Government could unilaterally revoke the article, but this would be dubious legally and impracticable politically.)  Every single Conservative MP voted to move Article 50, bar Ken Clarke – yes, including Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and all the rest of them.  So every Tory MP who votes for revocation, should the opportunity arise, will have to explain to their voters and Associations why they have changed their minds – in defiance, too, of the election manifesto on which they presumably stood.

You may counter that Herbert was only half-right – since not all those who want to take No Deal “off the table” want No Brexit.  Some, rather, want a different kind of Brexit to the one proposed in Theresa May’s deal – such as Norway Plus or Common Market 2.0 or whatever its supporters are calling it this morning.  Our columnist Henry Newman, writing on ConservativeHome today, says that the plan could “leave us as essentially as a non-voting member of the EU”.  Be that as it may, Norway Plus would none the less represent a form of Brexit – de jure if not de facto.  And it would be achieved via extension, not revocation.

But, if you think about it, extension would not actually take No Deal “off the table”.  It would merely set a new deadline for Brexit – and, therefore, leave open the possibility that Britain could still leave the EU with No Deal when it ends.  You may argue that the practical effect of extension would be to pave the way for revocation – and you might well be right: the proponents of Norway Plus, in the event of extension, risk losing out to the supporters of a Second Referendum.  None the less, the possibility of No Deal would still be there.  It would remain “on the table”.  Or, to put it another way, the table, like the proverbial can, would simply be kicked down the road.

Herbert concluded by asking his colleagues to agree that if they “want an orderly Brexit and to prevent no deal, is not the only course open to them to agree a deal?”  This now appears to be the direction that a big chunk of the European Research Group, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, is willing to take if (and it’s a very big if) meaningful change can be agreed to the Northern Ireland backstop.

At any rate, No Deal cannot be “taken off the table”.  As it was put recently, No Deal is the table – in other words, it’s a form of Brexit.  If MPs want to stop No Deal, they must take away the table they asked for – Brexit – and put another one its place: No Brexit.  They’re entitled to make the attempt, though such a move would dynamite what’s left of Theresa May’s negotiating strategy,and spit in the face of the verdict of the British people.   But can they please come clean about it?