How to measure the size of the Conservative rebellion this evening

Courtesy of Philip Cowley, here are some markers for this evening’s votes, when they come.

Courtesy of Philip Cowley, here are some markers:

– – –

139:       The largest rebellion of modern British politics, over Iraq in 2003.  It was larger than any rebellion of any party since the Corn Laws.

95:         The largest Conservative rebellion of modern British politics. Occurred in 1997, over post-Dunblane gun control under John Major.

91:         The largest rebellion faced by David Cameron, over Lords reform in 2012.

81:         The largest rebellion over European policy by members of any party since 1945 – another Cameron rebellion, this time from 2011.

72:         The largest revolt faced by Margaret Thatcher. Over Sunday trading in 1986.

Liz Barker’s tribute to Paddy Ashdown

In a House of Lords debate on the Western Balkans this week, Baroness Liz Barker paid tribute to Paddy Ashdown: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for this debate, which, sadly, is timely and appropriate. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to tell your Lordships’ House about an event that […]

In a House of Lords debate on the Western Balkans this week, Baroness Liz Barker paid tribute to Paddy Ashdown:

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for this debate, which, sadly, is timely and appropriate. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to tell your Lordships’ House about an event that took place in Sarajevo on 27 December. Joseph Ingram wrote a report of it and he said this. Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina held a spontaneous commemorative service in the “iconic, reconstructed city hall”. The hall was,

“filled to capacity, and despite being nationally televised, had people lined up outside trying to be part of it. The ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’, a group that represents survivors of the most horrific massacre of innocent civilians on European soil since World War Two, had announced that they too intend to honour the work of this extraordinary human being”.

The event was dedicated to one man. He was born in India. He grew up as a lad in Northern Ireland. He left school, joined the marines and became a captain, a diplomat and spy. Then he gave up everything and, after a period on the dole, went on to become a youth worker and eventually the gallant MP for Yeovil. In this House, we knew him as Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, but he was always Paddy.

He had a wide range of interests. He had forgotten more languages than most of us have ever learned. He could quote the poetry of John Donne at will. He was an informed and passionate supporter of activists for democracy in Hong Kong, when nobody else took any notice, and he packed more achievements into a lifetime than most of us could imagine, but he was always first to admit that the source of his great strength was Jane. In public she was a quiet figure, but to those of us who know her she is a charming, funny and formidable woman.

I will give you one vignette which sums up both of them. Like all good leaders, Paddy used to invite people in to advise him, talk to him and argue with him. In 1992 I was one of the small group. Early one morning, he posed us the question: should I go to Bosnia? We went round the room and we all said no. We gave him all sorts of reasons why it was a really bad idea, and I left the meeting certain of only one thing. He was going to go. We all saw the TV pictures recently, but what we did not know until we read his autobiography was that he had come under fire, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, told us. But he went because he saw a group of people being treated unjustly, and he thought that he could and should do something.

Some months later, I was talking quietly to Jane at our party conference and I said to her, “It must be awful for you and the kids when he goes off on trips like that”. She said, “It is, but what is much worse is having to put up with him when they stop him going. Then he is just unbearable”. She went on to say that whenever Paddy went to the Balkans he carried thousands of letters backwards and forwards to people starved of news and desperate to know about their relatives. He never wrote about that.

From Somerset to Bosnia, from the people in the highest echelons of the UN to small groups of local Liberal Democrats, we were very privileged to walk alongside him, a remarkable man with a vision of a world in which freedom, justice and fairness exist for all in their diversity. It will be a great privilege to carry on his work.

I am pleased to say that one of the great things I got to do was to talk to Paddy a lot about the Balkans. I have been on visits recently to Kosovo and Serbia and have been to other parts of the Balkans in a private capacity. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kosovo. I would always come back and talk to Paddy about what I had seen, and he would give me a whole other level of understanding. It was not just his appreciation of the politics of the region but his absolute understanding of people—from the most hardened of embittered fighters to women and young people—that gave him a completely unique perspective, which he took back and forth and around the world to different policymakers. So it is with his help that I speak today.

Our guide to how the Government can deliver its Brexit deal in Parliament. Or No Deal. And whether MPs can block the latter.

Short of backing Labour in a no-confidence vote, rebels can only make such a departure more chaotic and hope the Prime Minister buckles.

Yesterday evening’s Government defeat on the Finance Bill highlights a question especially pertinent now that Parliament has returned post-Christmas – namely, can MPs and Peers block Brexit.  And if so, how?

Remainers and Soft Brexiteers from both the major parties, as well as the Liberal Democrats and other smaller ones, have now made the first move in a procedural campaign against the Executive in hope of preventing a ‘no deal’ departure from the European Union.

Due to its nature as a ‘war of the rulebook’, it can be difficult for those unlearned in the mysteries of Erskine May to work out exactly what’s going on – a fact exploited by Downing Street, which is attempting simultaneously to persuade Brexiteer MPs that the alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement is No Brexit, and Remainers that the alternative is No Deal.

ConservativeHome has therefore attempted to puzzle out the procedural realities facing the Prime Minister and her opponents, both in the event that she wins the Meaningful Vote or loses it, to try and work out whether the Commons really can block a no-deal departure.

Winning the Meaningful Vote

On the face of it, this is the simplest path to an ‘orderly Brexit’. But even assuming that Theresa May can cobble together enough votes to pass the Meaningful Vote – which looks a long shot at the time of writing – the Government would still have several hurdles to overcome.

This is because it would need to pass a Withdrawal Agreement Bill to give legal effect to the deal. In strictly procedural terms, assuming that this was ‘walked in’ immediately after the Meaningful Vote, around mid-January, it might be possible to get it through the Commons by February recess. The Lords could then sit through recess in order to complete its passage in a timely manner.

Such a Bill would need to receive Royal Assent before exit day – ideally a couple of weeks before, in order to leave time for relevant statutory instruments (SIs) – but if it were progressing the Government would probably be able to secure a short extension of Article 50 in order to complete the process of bringing it into law.

But would its passage be orderly?  It really depends on the strength of whatever coalition the whips had managed to corral together to win the Meaningful Vote. Pushing for a deal with the backstop in its present form would immediately alienate the DUP, so the Government would have already lost its de facto majority in the Commons, even before Eurosceptic Tory rebels are factored in.

Therefore the Government would be dependent on a fairly substantial hypothetical bloc of opposition MPs, and would run the serious risk of having to accept some deeply unpalatable amendments in order to get the final bill over the line. Assuming that Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats (plus the DUP) all whipped against, it’s not impossible that the Government could win the Meaningful Vote only to lose the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

Result? The Government could try to legislate – again in collusion with opposition MPs – to somehow halt or delay Brexit, or we leave with the exit deal having no force in domestic law which, in this instance, would mean that it isn’t ratified and we leave without one.

Losing the Meaningful Vote

If the Government loses the Meaningful Vote (however many times it tables it) and then wants to proceed with Brexit, its only choice is some form of No Deal. As the UK’s exit from the European Union has already been legislated for in the EU Withdrawal Act, Brexit will occur by automatic process of law unless an alternative course is pro-actively and successfully pursued.

However, there are numerous pieces of legislation before Parliament which would make departure on such terms smoother and more orderly. As we saw yesterday evening, the Remainers’ strategy is to try to amend these bills in such a way as to rule out a no-deal outcome, or spook the Government into abandoning that course because it can’t pass the relevant legislation. These bills include:

  • Trade Bill.
  • Agriculture Bill.
  • Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill.
  • Fisheries Bill.
  • Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill.
  • Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill.
  • Several hundred SIs.

According to some sources, and contrary to some reports, the Government’s timetable for advancing this legislative agenda is in relatively good shape. Ministers have ‘triaged’ the list of bills and already got several key acts onto the statute book, including:

  • Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act.
  • Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act.
  • Nuclear Safeguards Act.
  • Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act.

They then did, a sift and have brought forward a second round of less-urgent legislation, which they hope to complete ahead of our departure in March.

Progress on statutory instruments (SIs) is also reportedly in hand, not least because in extremis there are mechanisms by which ministers can plead urgency to bypass the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Furthermore, although the number of SIs which still need passing appears high compared to last year, many more – sometimes several thousand – have been passed in previous years.

The key question, in light of the parliamentary opposition, is the extent to which the Government is exposed on these bills. There are two parts to it.

  • Question 1) To what extent can MPs and peers amend Bills necessary for Brexit?

Under parliamentary convention, the Speaker will only accept amendments which fall within the ‘scope’ of a given Bill. The broader the issue a piece of legislation addresses, the greater the opportunity for amendments. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Government has taken some pains to draft the no deal preparatory legislation as narrowly as possible.

This, combined with the poor politics of interfering in something like healthcare legislation, means that relatively little of the Government’s no-deal programme ought to be vulnerable to aggressive amendments.

This is one reason why the Remainers have broadened their campaign to other pieces of legislation, such as the Finance Bill, and that there is talk of doing things like docking ministers’ pay.

One hypothetical attracting particular excitement yesterday was the suggestion that the Commons could straight-up wrest control of the entire business from the Government by amending the standing orders and then passing a Private Members’ Bill (PMB) to force the Prime Minister to rescind Article 50 in the event that we reach the 29th of March without a deal.

However, a fearsome trinity of procedural sages – any reader interested in this topic really ought to follow Chris White, Nikki da Costa, and Christopher James on Twitter – seem quite convinced that it is impossible to seize control of the legislative agenda from the executive, and that, in any event, there aren’t any ways left in which to consider PMBs. And that even if neither of those things were true the backlog of pending PMBs is too great to be realistically bypassed. So we can probably afford to put this ‘game changer’ back in its box.

As for the actual no-deal legislation, the one possible point of vulnerability is the Trade Bill, which could return from the Lords freighted with amendments mandating that the Government seek a customs union, or another relevant outcome, which the Government would then have to try and dismantle in the Commons.

Another worry is that John Bercow casts aside any remaining vestige of respect for the traditional limitations of his role, not to mention the advice of the clerks, and starts to accept hostile amendments which would not in normal circumstances have been deemed in scope. Either circumstance leads us to…

  • Question 2) How important is it that these bills are in place by exit day?

If Remainers are able to thwart the Government’s programme, for example by forcing ministers to pull the Trade Bill lest they be forced to commit to Customs Union membership, the issue stops being a primarily legislative one and moves into the world of practicalities.

According to sources we have spoken to, there is very likely a good deal of ‘tolerance’ when it comes to getting a No Deal programme on the statute book. In the event that these bills haven’t received Royal Assent by exit day, their absence could often be ameliorated, at least in the short term, by work-arounds.

Once we had departed the European Union, moreover, any vexatious amendments would be rendered moot, so outstanding bills could probably be progressed relatively swiftly thereafter.

So can parliamentary guerrilla tactics block Brexit?

At the heart of the strategy being pursued by the Conservative Remainers and Soft Brexiteers, and allies in other parties, is yet another game of chicken. By depriving the Government of the legislation and authority needed for a smooth no-deal exit, they hope that the Prime Minister will lose her nerve and change course.

It’s important to emphasise that none of the tactics being discussed would actually force the Government to do that. If the Cabinet holds its nerve, no ‘Trump-style shutdown’ can prevent us leaving the EU on the 29th of March.

The only real way to force a change of course on Brexit is to replace the Government with another one prepared to rule out No Deal. The parliamentary arithmetic suggests that this is unlikely, not least because Jeremy Corbyn continues to keep Labour’s position vague and oppositional. Even were that to change, there are probably less than a handful of Conservative MPs prepared to countenance installing him in Downing Street, even for the sake of blocking ‘no deal’.

Absent that alternative, all the rebels can do is heap pressure on the Prime Minister and hope she buckles. There is no procedural trick that can force her hand.

LibLink: Olly Grender: The sooner the Renters’ Rights Bill becomes law, the sooner tenants get a fair deal

A bill going through its final parliamentary stages cuts letting agents’ fees for tenants. This is down to the hard work of Lib Dem Peers, mainly Olly Grender. She writes for Politics Home about what this will mean for people: When I first proposed this change in 2016 through a Private Member’s Bill, it was […]

A bill going through its final parliamentary stages cuts letting agents’ fees for tenants. This is down to the hard work of Lib Dem Peers, mainly Olly Grender. She writes for Politics Home about what this will mean for people:

When I first proposed this change in 2016 through a Private Member’s Bill, it was a flat “no” from the Conservative Government.  However, they could not keep ignoring the overwhelming evidence that people on low incomes or benefits who were renting privately were being ripped off with shocking admin fees.

The worst part is that families who are evicted or cannot afford a rent rise are pushed into homelessness by the astronomical up-front admin fees.  The option to move is not feasible, as even when they try to move to a cheaper home, agents were charging both landlord and tenant these up-front fees. With homelessness continuing to rise, and the leading cause being the end of a private rented sector tenancy, it is clear reform is needed – and fast. This is why this Bill is so vitally important. The double dip with both landlord and tenant being charged these extortionate fees will soon be a thing of the past and this change in the law cannot come soon enough.

Often the argument from the industry was that this was an unworkable model but there are many lettings agencies who have already banned admin fees and got ahead of the law.  Their success suggests that it is possible to scrap fees and run a sustainable letting agency.  After all, it is the landlords who are the customer, who can shop around and find the best deal, not the tenant who is desperate to find somewhere decent to live, near work and schools with a decent landlord.

There will be also be other fundamental changes brought in by this Bill.  Deposit for rent is now 5 weeks instead of 6 a significant difference of on average £150 – peanuts to your renting Russian Oligarch, but the difference between food on the plates or nothing for those on low incomes.

The final change Olly secured was greater transparency if a deposit is not returned.

You can read her whole article here. 

* Newshound: bringing you the best Lib Dem commentary published in print or online.

18 December 2018 – today’s press releases

Brexit is coming, the hedge fund’s growing fat, who will put a billion in Phil Hammond’s hat? If you haven’t got a billion, 3,000 troops will do, if you haven’t got 3,000 troops, then God bless you… But at least we’re giving some opposition to this wastrel administration… Lib Dem peers defeat Government to force […]

Brexit is coming, the hedge fund’s growing fat, who will put a billion in Phil Hammond’s hat? If you haven’t got a billion, 3,000 troops will do, if you haven’t got 3,000 troops, then God bless you…

But at least we’re giving some opposition to this wastrel administration…

  • Lib Dem peers defeat Government to force Prevent review (this one arrived late last night)
  • Cable: Decision to ramp up no-deal is psychological warfare
  • Dropping migration target an admission Brexit won’t control immigration
  • Lib Dems: Putting troops on standby is simply scaremongering
  • Lib Dems table no confidence motion in Government

We’ve also received a press release from Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats and, whilst I wouldn’t want to commit to publishing local press releases too, this one caught my eye…

  • Lib Dems launch Friends of Bangladesh at Victory Day event in Tower Hamlets

Lib Dem peers defeat Government to force Prevent review

Liberal Democrat peers have defeated the Government for a second time on its Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill.

Amendment 32, tabled by a cross-party group of peers including Liberal Democrat Andrew Stunell, requires the Government to carry out an independent review of its Prevent strategy and publish a report within 18 months.

The Amendment was passed on Monday evening by 214 votes to 196.

Following the vote, Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Home Affairs Brian Paddick said:

Liberal Democrats have been calling for an independent review of Prevent for years because many in the communities most affected believe Prevent unfairly singles them out.

We have always argued that a completely independent review could reassure everyone that Prevent is effective, and properly targeted on those who could potentially be a danger to society. It is essential that everyone has confidence in Prevent and that we all work together to keep us safe.

We’re pleased Labour have now accepted our arguments and together we have voted to insist such a review takes place.

The Liberal Democrats have also secured further concessions from the Government on new powers to stop, detain and question people at ports and the border.

Originally, the Bill would have granted these powers in connection with acts that “threaten the economic well-being of the United Kingdom”, but in response to arguments made by Liberal Democrat peer Brian Paddick, Ministers tabled amendments to limit these powers to cases involving national security.

This follows a previous defeat for the Government on Amendment 15, which sets out exemptions to the new offence of “entering or remaining in a designated area”.

Cable: Decision to ramp up no-deal is psychological warfare

Responding to the Cabinet decision to increase preparations for a no-deal, Leader of the Liberal Democrats Vince Cable said;

The decision to ramp up the no deal pressure is psychological warfare. The Conservative Government are attempting to scare MPs, businesses and the public with the threat of a no-deal.

Theresa May is irresponsibly trying to run down the clock so that the only option is to support her discredited deal.

It is time to stop playing political games with our future and take the issues at hand seriously. The only real way out of this deadlock is to hold a People’s Vote, with the option to remain in the EU.

Dropping migration target an admission Brexit won’t control immigration

Responding to reports the Government’s migration target has been left out of draft proposals for a new immigration system, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson Ed Davey said:

If the Conservatives really are dropping their manifesto commitment of a net migration target, that is good news.

It’s an admission that Brexit won’t control immigration as Mrs May promised – otherwise the target would surely be kept.

This was yet another deception of the people by the right-wing nationalist Brexiteers. The truth is that it’s the needs of our economy and the NHS that drive recruitment from overseas, not membership of the EU.

But dropping the target isn’t enough to repair our broken immigration system. The Liberal Democrats demand an end to the hostile environment and investment in an accountable Border Force to secure our borders and rebuild public confidence.

Lib Dems: Putting troops on standby is simply scaremongering

Responding to the reports that there are preparations for up to 3,500 soldiers to step in if Brexit causes disruption, Liberal Democrat Armed Forces Spokesperson Jamie Stone said:

The Tory Government wholeheartedly accept that a no-deal Brexit will create chaos and mayhem. This announcement is simply an attempt to scaremonger MPs, businesses, and the British public into supporting the Prime Minister’s deal.

The Government must stop playing games with our future and diverting public resources to solve an outcome they are able to prevent.

The Prime Minister’s deal does not have support in Parliament and this talk of no deal preparations to scare people is a tactic which has severe consequences. The only real way out of this deadlock is to hold a People’s Vote, with the option to remain in the EU.

Lib Dems table no confidence motion in Government

The Liberal Democrats, alongside the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green party, have tabled a motion of no confidence in the Conservative Government.

Commenting on this, Leader of the Liberal Democrats Vince Cable said:

The Government has challenged the Labour Party to table a real ‘no confidence’ motion. We have now done that for them.

Jeremy Corbyn need only add his name, and the debate and vote would happen before Christmas.

If he fails, it will be yet more evidence that his recalcitrance is really a rouse to avoid supporting a People’s Vote.

The British people now want the final say on Brexit – and millions of Labour supporters will be frustrated that it is Corbyn and his acolytes who are standing in the way.

Lib Dems launch Friends of Bangladesh at Victory Day event in Tower Hamlets

Liberal Democrat London Mayoral Candidate Siobhan Benita has hailed the launch of Liberal Democrat Friends of Bangladesh at an event to commemorate Bangladeshi Victory Day on Sunday 16th December in Tower Hamlets. The new organisation, launched at the event, will foster understanding and support between the Liberal Democrats and Britain’s Bangladeshi communities, many of whom live in the borough.

Guests at the event were introduced by Chair of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Bangladesh, Abdul Asad (also Vice Chair, Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats and a former councillor). As well as Siobhan Benita (Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London) they included Councillor Rabina Khan (Liberal Democrat Councillor for Shadwell) and Elaine Bagshaw (Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesperson for Poplar & Limehouse), plus Bengali academic and educationalist Dr Hasnat Hussain who gave a keynote speech reflecting on the Bangladesh British diaspora and the history of the liberation war.

Abdul Asad reminded attendees of the origins of Victory Day in the ending of the Bangladesh Liberation War and the 1971 Bangladeshi Genocide. As Tower Hamlets is home to one of the largest Bangladeshi communities in the world it was fitting that the area celebrated the birth of one of the youngest countries in the world. The loss of life of so many people created a great passion for democracy, a fundamental belief of the Liberal Democrats.

Siobhan Benita, Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, said:

We remember the many people who lost their lives in this brutal conflict, and the impact this has on communities and on a nation’s identity. It is important to build policies that nurture wellbeing, so we can lead free and prosperous lives. London is the greatest city in the world, because it is so diverse.

Councillor Rabina Khan said:

It is important to remember the systematic murder and abuses by Operation Searchlight, and the liberation war each year. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis lived together in harmony and this was ripped apart by the war. Now we are looking to a brighter future. The door was opened by those who lost their lives in the war, and we must remember them. Today is a very poignant moment for us as a Bangladeshi community to remember our past but also look to a greater, prosperous future.

Elaine Bagshaw, Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats Parliamentary Spokesperson said:

2018 has been amazing for the Liberal Democrats in Tower Hamlets, with Rabina and so many people joining to help ensure that the party truly represents the local community. I am very proud to have the opportunity to launch the Liberal Democrat Friends of Bangladesh. The Lib Dems are forward facing, we are open, we are tolerant, and we are very welcoming of diverse communities.

Tony Greaves writes…Home rule for the north

The North of England is the second English region after London and the south-east together, and has 15 million people—three times as many as Scotland and five times as many as Wales. It shares considerable cultural, economic and social cohesion and history, and many current problems. This is about the North as such because the […]

The North of England is the second English region after London and the south-east together, and has 15 million people—three times as many as Scotland and five times as many as Wales. It shares considerable cultural, economic and social cohesion and history, and many current problems. This is about the North as such because the North should stand together as a whole.

What we have is asymmetric devolution. Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales have increasingly become functioning units of a federal system, except there is no federal system for them to be the units of. This is not a system that is sustainable in the long run. We still have a highly centralized state, not least in England, with a number of peripheral anomalies. If I call Wales and Scotland peripheral anomalies, I do so with admiration that they have been able to break free from the grip of London to the extent that they have. Then we have gimmicks such as EVEL (English Votes for English Laws in the House of Commons).

Some people believe the answer is a federal system with an English Parliament, but the result of that would in due course be the complete detachment of Scotland and Wales. And it would do nothing to change the concentration of economic and political power within England. We have had a series of feeble initiatives such as the attempt by John Prescott to set up a North-east Assembly with no powers, which was rightly rejected. Labor set up government regional offices in which civil servants from different departments sat in the same buildings and talked to their bosses in London rather than to each other. There was the coalition’s regional growth fund and its local enterprise partnerships—nobody really noticed them.

The North is being fragmented into city regions but it is not devolution: it is almost entirely the reorganisation of local government. It is the concentration of power within local government, with all power going to the big cities, but what is that except the power for those involved to carry begging bowls on the train to Whitehall and Westminster and, if they are lucky, to go home with their railway fares? As power is concentrated in big cities through city regions and mayors, the people who suffer in the North of England are those in the areas on the edges, and the places in between. Particularly towns, which have lost so much of their civic culture, power and society in recent years.

However, we are getting a greater recognition of the North of England as a region in its own right, not fragmented into three or four different patches, but as one major region. We have the Northern Powerhouse. It was a slogan invented by George Osborne when he was Chancellor, but it has resulted in meetings, conferences, projects and all sorts of things. It has resulted in the relabelling as Northern Powerhouse projects things that would have been happening anyway (and still have to be funded from London). But it might have some value through the recognition it has encouraged of the North as one region.

Transport for the North is far more important. Here is a devolved transport body which has real powers. It still has to take its begging bowl to London for cash and projects but, nevertheless, it is a body with powers. And it covers the North. Network Rail and NHS England both have a director for the North; we have the Northern Housing Consortium; the IPPR has set up IPPR North, a dedicated think tank for the North of England; the Northern Powerhouse Partnership has meetings (and, no doubt, lots of pleasant dinners); and we are told there is Northern Powerhouse Rail, whatever that turns out to be.

I believe the future lies in devolution to the North of England, with a body which, in an inevitably asymmetric system—can stand alongside Wales and Scotland. The proposal for a UK or even an English convention is worthwhile, but what is needed first is a convention of people in the North. It is time for those of us in the North of England to get together across the whole of the North, and work out the options for what we would like. This should be discussed by the people of the North; we would then come to the national level and say, “This is what we want”. That is what Scotland did; it is what the North of England has to do. It requires a considerable change of attitude, not just by central Government but by people throughout the North

This is an edited version of a speech I made in the House of Lords during a debate on a proposal for a Constitutional Convention for the United Kingdom, with special emphasis on England.

Roger Roberts: Are we to be known as the Canutes of History?

Here is Roger Roberts’ speech to the House of Lords on the Brexit deal. His theme was what sort of life are we setting up for future generations? Leave and Brexit are about   my seven grandchildren, all your Lordships’ grandchildren and all the children in our country. Will it be better for them to have […]

Here is Roger Roberts’ speech to the House of Lords on the Brexit deal. His theme was what sort of life are we setting up for future generations?

Leave and Brexit are about   my seven grandchildren, all your Lordships’ grandchildren and all the children in our country. Will it be better for them to have fewer benefits than we have had, or should we think first of them when we vote on this deal?

Just after the Second World War, the community of Llangollen in north Wales established the international musical festival, which has brought people from many countries together. It still goes on; I spoke only this morning to its press office. This past year it brought applications from 3,919 competitors from 64 locations; it brought together people who had been at enmity ​with one another. As people who have been fighting each other, we suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we either stretch out to one another in friendship or say we want to carry on building a wall.

When the first eisteddfod was held, one choir hitchhiked from Hungary to reach Llangollen—I find it difficult to think of a choir hitchhiking. The following time, a German choir from Lübeck came over to Llangollen. Members of the choir were not sure what sort of reception they would get because we had been at war. They were going to sing to those who had been their enemies and they were very uncertain. But the compère at the eisteddfod on that day was Hywel Roberts, who greeted them by saying, “We are now going to hear from our German friends”. It has taken a long time to build this: to build relationships and get over the enmity of the past. But it has been done, in many different ways. Will we continue with these feelings of friendship? Will we continue building bridges and not walls?

A decade after the Llangollen eisteddfod started, we had the embryonic European movement. This also brought together countries which had been at enmity. When I was in Berlin at a conference some time ago, I said, “The last time one of my family was here he was in a bomber plane over the city, but now we are talking together”. One of the major competitions in Llangollen is the Pavarotti choral competition. So why are we taking a step back? What reason have we for becoming more distant from those who once were distant from us but with whom we are now comrades?

Union takes a long time; of course it does. In Wales we united in a way with England in 1534. We still have our problems; it is an evolving thing. We have our Assembly and certain powers. Our union will always evolve. It is not ready-made or a finished product, and neither is the European Union, or our place in the European Union, because we are in an evolving situation. Without Llangollen and without the European Union, the world would be far more threatening and far more unstable. Every move towards co-operation and understanding is in the right direction. The weakening of our ties with Europe is a backward move. We halt the free movement of people; we withdraw the status of our own people as citizens of Europe. What are we doing? Do we know what we are doing? Are we to be known as those who built walls and not bridges—the Canutes of history? Or are we people who will build this relationship and this understanding? Our children will benefit from what we do in this debate or they will look back on us and say, “Ah, things were different in my grandfather’s time”.

I appeal to all Members of the House—the details, of course, will be worked out over many years—to let us build a world fit for children to live in. We can either do it or be a barrier to it. It is our decision.

Robert Halfon: My constituents are against us shelling out £39 billion for nothing. Anyway, are we really obliged to pay?

If all this is correct, the EEA route seems to me a sensible way forward if Parliament can’t agree on a deal.

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.

In a question to the Prime Minister last week at PMQs, I asked:

“I do have respect for the Prime Minister, and I understand her position. However, over the past few years, we have had very difficult cutbacks to local services in constituencies such as mine – in Harlow – and across the country, and ​every time we make the case that it is a difficult economy and we do not have enough money. How do I explain to my constituents that we have £39 billion to get out from the Treasury sofa to give to the European Union when it is questionable whether we owe all that money? Does she not agree that this is not just about the European Union – it is a matter of social justice?

In our communities, the difficult economic situation has hit our local services, our neighbourhood groups, charities and policing – amongst other things. And yet, when push comes to shove, the Government seems willing to hand over £39 billion from scarce monetary resources.

This hefty financial settlement means that Brexit has no longer stolen only the limelight of Government business, pushing domestic policy issues down the pecking order, but is now robbing from the pay packets of hardworking taxpayers who want to see a better return on their investment at home.

And what’s worse, according to legal experts, the basis of this hand-out is questionable at law. The EU argues that we have a financial obligation to pay the £39 billion. But is this really the case? The House of Lords European Union Committee suggests otherwise. Lawyers for Britain’s analysis even goes as far as to conclude that we are owed £10 billion!

The wording of Article 50 is clear: upon leaving the EU, “the treaties shall cease to apply to the state in question”, be that by way of the Withdrawal Agreement or, in the event of a No Deal – either way, on the 29 March next year.

As legal professionals and scholars note in the Lords’ report, the hierarchical structure of EU legislation entails that once treaties cease to apply to the UK, so too do all EU legal obligations found in subordinate legislation, including the UK’s current and future financial obligations under the Own Resources Decision, the Multiannual Financial Framework and the annual budget. Lawyers for Britain scrutinise the EU’s approach: the EU is inevitably bargaining for the most expensive divorce bill it can get its hands on, and attempting to secure contributions for two years after withdrawal.

Furthermore, the Lords’ Committee report shows that any attempt to enforce payment by the European Union would be null and void. It would first depend on a member state bringing an action before the European Court of Justice – the European Union as an entity cannot do so. But significantly, the ECJ would no longer have jurisdiction to make binding legal judgments against the UK. A double-edged sword in that the Government’s White Paper has clarified that the Great Repeal Bill will remove any supremacy of EU law: indeed, it will cease to be a source of domestic law, removing any possibility of enforcing the UK’s financial obligations.

On top of all this, the Attorney General confirmed to me in the Commons on Monday, that if Britain extended its transition period, not only would we owe £39 billion, but potentially many more billions in the transition years.

But even if the Government is right, and even if we must pay £39 billion, is it fair to give them a whole load of money without asking for anything, in return – for example, an end date for the Backstop?

We need a Stop-Gap, not a Back-Stop.

What happens if the deal falls in the Commons? What is the alternative? If you read David Owen or  George Trefgarne, you will see that one proposed solution is to rejoin the European Economic Area. Having signed up to the EEA back in 1992, a letter to the European Free Trade Association is apparently all would take to reactivate our membership – a seemingly painless alternative to anything else on the table.

If this route is adopted, Trefgarne argues we would face no extra tariffs, and we would be in the Single Market – but outside the Customs Union. We would no longer be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but the EFTA court, of which three out of five of the judges would be British.

If all this is correct, the EEA route seems to me a sensible way forward if Parliament can’t agree on a deal. It would give us a temporary ‘stop-gap’ until we negotiate and prepare for a potential, full No Deal with the EU, but it wouldn’t cause significant problems in terms of business and the economy. Belonging to the EEA would also cost much less – an annual payment of between £1.5 to £3 billion.

The beauty of this stop-gap is its simplicity. Owen states that “We, like the three other non-EU members of the EEA, would not be starting out as part of the EU customs union, though we could pursue that. We could pursue our own EU-UK free trade association (FTA)….there is no necessity for us to join EFTA. We would not be fixing any time limit as to how long we stay in the EEA. Like the other three non-EU countries, we would continue to be bound, as are all parties to the EEA agreement, to give one year’s notice of leaving.”

In a recent, brilliant BBC Westminster Hour interview, Charles Walker said that next week’s vote is possibly one of the biggest votes that all MPs will make for many years. He is right. Whilst I really worry about the chaos that may ensue if the deal is voted down, the issue surely is: do you vote for the deal, with its flaws, because of worries about the aftermath (i.e. do you vote for nurse, for fear of something worse) or do you vote on the merits or demerits of the deal itself – value to the taxpayer, and whether the referendum result is being truly honoured?

Jonathan Clark: Is it time to sweep away our party system – and clear the decks for Leave v Remain?

The electorate are less and less convinced by such arguments about party identity and destiny. Far underground, the tectonic plates are moving.

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.

Nobody knows when the next Tokyo earthquake will happen. Nobody knows what, exactly, will cause it. All we know is that it is statistically overdue, that it is inevitable, and that it will cause major damage. How does the world economy prepare for this shock? It does nothing. Perhaps nothing can be done.

Similarly with the UK party system. Every 60 or 80 or a hundred years there is a fundamental crisis, a realignment, a radical recasting of the structure of parties in the face of new forces, new challenges, new problems.

The last time was when the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party in the years after the First World War. The previous occasion was when the Liberal Party split over the issue of free trade versus imperial preference. The time before that was when the Conservative Party split over Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corm Laws, that protectionist system designed to preserve the ascendancy of the landowners in the arable areas of England.

Now again we see a single unavoidable, fundamental, non-negotiable issue at the forefront of national life. Both the major parties are split on it, and in a state of rending, agonizing civil war. The Liberal Democrats are at one, but make little electoral capital out of their unanimity. These stresses seem unlikely to go away. Indeed, they are daily increasing.

Is it, then, time for a structural realignment of parties and party allegiances? Would the public interest be better served if there were just two major groups, a Leave Party and a Remain Party? Then the electorate would know what they were getting. They would no longer suspect that their representatives were saying one thing but about to do the opposite. Democratic participation would receive a massive boost. Consistent policies could be framed and carried through. We might even spell out when and how referenda could be held.

After all, it could hardly be said that the current parties do what it says on their tins. Whatever its origins, today’s Labour Party hardly dedicates itself to forwarding the interest of labourers, people who toil in productive employments to advance the interests of themselves and their families. It is no secret that the Labour movement is an alliance of trades unionists with public sector employees and welfare claimants. That alliance now dictates the ideological content of the party’s agenda more than the earlier attempt to boost the prosperity of labourers.

The Lib Dems fare no better. If Liberalism had a clear historic meaning, it revolved around free trade in the years when the merchants and manufacturers of the Manchesters and the Bradfords exported their products around the world. Now, Lib Dems instinctively side with the greatest international protectionist group, the EU. Once, Liberals campaigned for franchise extension and more frequent elections; today, they instinctively repudiate the result of the greatest ever popular vote in the UK; they endorse an EU in which the electorate cannot remove the executive from power, and representatives cannot initiate legislation.

The Conservatives are in little better shape. The National Trust, which conserves things, has five million members and rising; the Conservative Party, which conserves nothing, has a hundred thousand members and falling. Once, the Conservative Party conserved institutions, like the monarchy, the Lords, the Church of England, the armed forces, Oxford and Cambridge, the family. But all these are now embarrassing topics for many of its leaders, and the party is one of radical reform (even if it delivers much less of that than in the age of Margaret Thatcher).

The electorate may say: what, then, is the point of all of this? Why not sweep the career politicians away and begin again with a new set of faces, people with talent, ideas, principles, and candour? Why not have a spring cleaning of the Commons and the Lords in the manner of Macron? Electors could all list many honourable and able politicians who would deserve to survive such a cull; the problem is that the public increasingly thinks that that number is outweighed by others who would not.

What are the arguments against such a reconstruction? That the major parties are great stores of wisdom and experience. That their leaders are practical, prudent men and women who have taken moderate, feasible steps in policy. That public affairs are well administered. That the parties have big money behind them. That major change would cause uncertainty. Inertia.

The strongest argument in favour of the traditional parties’ divine right to continue in their present forms is that each of them embodies an essence, a set of ideas and ideals that is handed on from generation to generation and that inspire the living to complete the great work of their predecessors. Youthful politicians still sometimes write slim volumes attempting to outline that essence. As a matter of historical method, this task was always difficult; some people may now think it impossible.

The larger problem is that the electorate are less and less convinced by such arguments about party identity and destiny. Far underground, the tectonic plates are moving. There is a deep murmur rising from dark places. A suspicion is growing that public affairs are not well conducted, and that (in all the major parties) a Third Eleven is only shielding itself from insight and appraisal by the widespread use of non-disclosure agreements.

As a member of a political party, this intellectual hollowing out of parties distresses me. As a voter, what is happening in public policy formation and execution alarms me. Perhaps the show will be kept on the road after all; but, in that case, I would be reassured if it could be better shown what the rationale for the continuance of present party divisions is. But perhaps it will not.