Stewart Jackson: Don’t pivot to the Customs Union, Prime Minister – it could destroy the Conservative Party

Breaking her promise in such a way would enrage many voters, divide her Party, and cost the nation dearly in lost Brexit opportunities.

Stewart Jackson was MP for Peterborough 2005-17 and Chief of Staff to David Davis 2017-18.

As expected, Jeremy Corbyn’s No Confidence motion tabled yesterday served to unify and focus the Conservative Party on the existential danger, not just to our party but to the whole country, of a red in tooth and claw Labour government. In that sense, it rather backfired.

Perversely, it has ramped up the pressure on Corbyn to enunciate a clearer position in response to the defeat of the Prime Minister’s unlamented Withdrawal Agreement, between the Europhile majority of his party pressing for extension or revocation of Article 50, a Norway model soft Brexit, or a second referendum, and the millions of Labour voters who supported Brexit. I cannot see that Corbyn will move much, because he still commands the trust and support of the Labour membership and influential figures like Len McCluskey and because he believes that the EU is a plutocratic capitalist cartel dedicated to neoliberalism and doing the bidding of rapacious multinationals – a view he’s held since about 1983.

Labour’s introspection has bought the Prime Minister some breathing space. Although as a result of John Bercow’s decision to disregard Commons precedent and rip up the rule book to allow the Remain ultras like Dominic Grieve to circumscribe the Government’s room for manoeuvre in last week’s business motion, she has only four more days to outline what her Plan B might be.

My own view is that her tenure is strictly time limited, but my instinct is that she probably has one more pivotal Commons vote left before the pressure from the 1922 Committee and the Cabinet for her to step aside and let another leader take over will become insurmountable.

She’s been lucky, too, this week with her Remain opponents. Remain true believers are as fractious and impatient as anyone else – witness the spat between Nick Boles and Grieve over which (wrecking) Bill to present in the Commons – Boles’s quirky EU Referendum (No2) Bill or Grieve’s second referendum Bill? It’s a microcosm of the fight between the Norway crowd and the ‘Peoples’ Vote’ (sic) supporters. Neither has or likely will have a majority in the House of Commons, and Boles’s effort seems to have blown up on the tarmac via a big raspberry from the Liaison Committee. Nevertheless, the aim of most of their advocates is to delay and then kill Brexit.

For all that, Theresa May would be wise to avoid jumping out of the frying pan of a calamitous Commons defeat into the fire of a full-blown Tory civil war. The lack of a clear policy position after Tuesday’s vote appears to have emboldened some of the Cabinet to disregard even further collective responsibility. They now argue – both in code (“reaching out to other parties”) and explicitly – for a deal with Labour, involving reneging on our explicit 2017 General Election manifesto commitment to leave the Customs Union. Indeed, to the contrary, some ministers are wholeheartedly embracing the idea of one. This was always the position of people like Greg Clark and Philip Hammond, but they now feel they have license to sell this unappetising prospect in plain sight.

‘Pivoting’ towards the Customs Union would be a very bad idea for a number of reasons. Labour have no coherent Brexit policy and the customs union demand is only the least worst part of an incredible smorgasbord of opportunistic waffle. The Opposition really isn’t interested in anything but precipitating division and open warfare in our party, and certainly not in developing a coherent and pluralistic policy which can pass the Commons. Secondly, a customs union as a discrete policy is a terrible idea, as consistently and eloquently argued by Greg Hands – primarily because it would undermine a key rationale by Leave voters for supporting Brexit, the aim of allowing the UK to strike new, lucrative global trade deals after our exit from the EU.

Most acutely, Conservative MPs should understand the peril of shredding a policy which the Prime Minister has publicly endorsed over 30 times, when faced with a Party membership and wider electorate warming to No Deal/WTO and still irked by the debacle of Chequers and the Withdrawal Agreement. A Party faithful willing to believe that we can still strike a Canada Plus style deal with the EU. And why wouldn’t they? This week David Davis, Dominic Raab, Arlene Foster and Peter Lilley launched A Better Deal, which offers a reasonable alternative strategy for the Prime Minister when she returns to Brussels in a few days’ time. Together with enhanced No Deal planning, it is at least as good as any other course of action, not least because it was the basis of the Prime Minister’s policy outlined at Lancaster House, Florence and Mansion House and at last year’s General Election.

Fully conceding on the Customs Union would be such an egregious capitulation that it would endanger our local government candidates in May, and were we foolish enough to extend Article 50 to necessitate by Treaty obligation participation in the EU Parliament elections (as Boles’s bill demands), it would invite a populist upsurge of unprecedented severity.

Conservative Associations are much less deferential, more activist, and frankly more Eurosceptic now, and they’d scarcely wear such a retreat from our solemn promises. MPs who supported it would struggle to justify their decision. Remember, recent polling shows that people’s attachment to getting Brexit comfortably outstrips their attachment to even the best and most diligent local MP, and to political parties generally.

Finally, it’s as well to consider Scotland as a terrifying morality tale. In 2010, Labour polled 42 per cent there and took 41 seats – most of them won very handily. Just five years later, motivated by bitter disappointment in the wake of a fractious and unpleasant referendum campaign and a feeling that “the Establishment” had cheated them of their dreams of self-government and independence, a significant bulk of their hitherto most loyal voters turned on their own party, leaving that party with just one seat and less than a quarter of the votes.

Couldn’t happen again? Don’t bet on it.

If May takes the path of least resistance by adopting the Customs Union post-Brexit to get any deal through the Commons, she risks not just a terrible party schism but electoral Armageddon.

GOVERNMENT WINS NO CONFIDENCE VOTE WITH A MAJORITY OF 19

Had the DUP voted with Labour, the opposition would have won by a single vote – a point that party is busy making.

Ayes 306, Noes 325.

DUP sources point out that had it voted with Labour, the opposition would have won by one vote.  Nigel Dodds makes the point just a little more tactfully above.

In a point of order following the result, Theresa May changed tack by asking Jeremy Corbyn, and other opposition leaders, to join the talks she announced yesterday evening.

In response, Corbyn also seemed to change tack.  Labour MPs complained during the debate that he hadn’t been invited to the talks.  But Corbyn appeared to suggest that the Prime Minister ruling out a No Deal Brexit was a pre-condition for him joining them.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Nobody is yet saying “Send for Corbyn”

But the Prime Minister had to proceed with caution in the No Confidence debate, in order to arouse no suspicion that she might seek moderate Labour votes.

Jeremy Corbyn is a better Leader of the Opposition than he was, but still does not sound like a Prime Minister in waiting. As he opened the No Confidence debate, he took the precaution of taking few interventions from other MPs.

But those interventions were still sufficient to demonstrate the utter nullity of his European policy. When Alistair Carmichael asked if Labour supports a second referendum, Corbyn could only say that “all options are on the table”.

He said the Prime Minister should keep all options on the table too, but proceeded to contradict himself by urging her to “rule out No Deal”.

Corbyn went on to allow an intervention from Anna Soubry (Con, Broxtowe). She pointed out that the Conservatives are six points ahead in the opinion polls, and wondered whether this could be because “he’s the most hopeless Leader of the Opposition we’ve ever had”.

Corbyn could have replied that her remark did not exactly constitute a declaration of confidence in the Prime Minister. He instead insisted, less ambitiously, that he looked forward to testing public opinion in a general election. But he admitted that many people think we have had quite enough elections and referendums in recent years to be going on with.

And he did not even sound very enthusiastic himself about the idea of an election. The longer he spoke, the less sense one had that he was convincing himself, let alone anyone else.

“Send for Corbyn” is not yet a message that leaps to people’s lips. In that sense, the whole occasion sounded rather bogus, an obligatory ritual rather than a genuine attempt to throw out the Government.

“Stick with May” is still a message the Tory benches are prepared to heed. But the Father of the House, Ken Clarke, had already told her at Prime Minister’s Questions, from his bench a few yards behind her: “She must now modify her red lines…and find a cross-party majority.”

Clarke nodded quietly when Angela Eagle and Yvette Cooper made the same point from the Labour benches.

This was difficult territory for the Prime Minister. She had to show she is prepared to listen to reasonable suggestions from across the House about Brexit, without making her own Eurosceptics fear she is about to outflank them by forming an alliance with Labour moderates.

Liam Byrne (Lab, Birmingham Hodge Hill) said she was imprisoned in “a cage of red lions”, which sounded a dangerous place to be, but it turned out that he had said “a cage of red lines”, which sounded a bit less bad.

May naturally flung at him the famous note he left in 2010 for his successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, “I’m afraid there is no money left.”

Byrne said in his own defence, “I was naive to honour a Treasury tradition that went back to Churchill.” By now, the heat was clearly off May. But it was also clear that no one, including herself, yet knows how to devise a Brexit policy which can command a Commons majority.

 

WATCH: A General Election is “the worst thing we could do”, May argues, seeking the confidence of the House

“It would deepen division, when we need unity. It would bring chaos when we need certainty. And it would bring delay when we need to move forward.”

May’s statement about the Government’s plans now. What she said and what she meant.

The biggest defeat in modern times and the largest Tory rebellion won’t stop her trying to resurrect her deal.

“Mr Speaker, the House has spoken and the Government will listen.”

And I am not resigning – though another Prime Minister in my position would.  The deal on which I gambled has just been rejected by the Commons by the biggest margin in modern times.  Conservative MPs voted against it in the biggest rebellion in modern times.  Some 63 per cent of Tory backbenchers went into the lobbies to oppose it.

However, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act offers me some protection.  Furthermore, a leadership challenge now can’t be launched against me until December.  In any event, here is no agreement within my Party on a successor.  It would be irresponsible to foist a leadership election on it, with March 29 looming, and there is no obvious alternative Prime Minister.

“It is clear that the House does not support this deal.  But tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support.  Nothing about how – or even if – it intends to honour the decision the British people took in a referendum Parliament decided to hold.”

In other words, it will soon become clear that the Commons can’t settle on an alternative to my deal, after all.  The same MPs who rejected it this evening will be forced to swallow it – with, God willing, some real change on the backstop – when this becomes clear.  The deal is also a known quantity with the EU, which the alternatives aren’t.

Better mention the referendum, too.  Honouring its result is still the default position of most of the Parliamentary Party.  I must keep Sajid and Jeremy and Steve and Penny and Andrea and Chris onside.  Best to say nothing about an extension to Article 50, though.  With any luck, that can still be avoided.

“People, particularly EU citizens who have made their home here and UK citizens living in the EU, deserve clarity on these questions as soon as possible.  Those whose jobs rely on our trade with the EU need that clarity.  So with your permission Mr Speaker I would like to set out briefly how the Government intends to proceed.”

That’s a nod of the head to all those tiresome people who drone on about EU citizens – don’t they see that the priority is to get immigration down to the tens of thousands? – plus the CBI and the car manufacturers.  Anyway, I must keep David and Phil and Greg and Amber and David onside.”

“First, we need to confirm whether this Government still enjoys the confidence of the House.  I believe that it does, but given the scale and importance of tonight’s vote it is right that others have the chance to test that question if they wish to do so.  I can therefore confirm that if the Official Opposition table a confidence motion this evening in the form required by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the Government will make time to debate that motion tomorrow.  And if, as happened before Christmas, the Official Opposition decline to do so, we will – on this occasion – consider making time tomorrow to debate any motion in the form required from the other opposition parties, should they put one forward.”

That’s you pre-empted, Corbyn.  Mind you, once he’s lost his no confidence vote he’ll come under even more pressure to support a second referendum.  And whether he folds or not, he hasn’t got much alternative but soon to call for an extension to Article 50, in order to carry out his imaginary Labour Government’s imaginary “Labour renegotiation”.

That will be tricky for him, because calling for an extension will look like backsliding on Brexit.  We must nail him on that.  Hmm, hang on a minute.  I might need an extension too – to get my deal through, or else…and I must keep very quiet about this…to try to stave off No Deal chaos.  Best not to push him too hard.  Anyway, while there isn’t a majority in the Commons for revocation, there might be for extension.

“Second, if the House confirms its confidence in this Government I will then hold meetings with my colleagues, our Confidence & Supply partner the DUP and senior Parliamentarians from across the House to identify what would be required to secure the backing of the House.  The Government will approach these meetings in a constructive spirit, but given the urgent need to make progress, we must focus on ideas that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House.”

This is the trickiest bit of all.  I need Yvette and her gang to come round to my deal.  That suggests flirting with a Norway-type solution and Customs Union membership.  Which would please David and Phil and Greg and Amber and David.  But I also need Jacob and his lot.  That implies no Customs Union and a Canada-flavoured deal.  Which would please Sajid and Jeremy and Steve and Penny and Andrea and Chris.

Better to keep talking and listening and listening and talking until they all concede the obvious: that there’s no alternative to my deal – the only offer that’s “genuinely negotiable”.  I won’t win Yvette and Hillary and the rest round by next week, but the seeds will have been sown.  So I must be very nice to them…but not so nice as to upset Brandon and Graham and the ’22.”

Third, if these meetings yield such ideas, the Government will then explore them with the European Union.

Fat chance!

“Mr Speaker I want to end by offering two reassurances.”

“The first is to those who fear that the Government’s strategy is to run down the clock to 29th March.  That is not our strategy.”

Yes, it is. But –

“I have always believed that the best way forward is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal and have devoted much of the last two years negotiating such a deal.”

That’s the point: the deal, the deal, the deal. Nothing has changed.

“As you confirmed Mr Speaker, the amendment to the business motion tabled last week by my Right Honourable and Learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield is not legally binding, but the Government respects the will of the House.  We will therefore make a statement about the way forward and table an amendable motion by Monday.”

Let Dominic table his Second Referendum Bill.  Let Nick try to get the Commons to settle on Norway Plus.  And let the Speaker bend over backwards to help them, which he will do.  Let them have their indicative votes and new Bills – which I probably can’t stop now, anyway.  It’s one thing to table a Bill but quite another to get it through the House.

So let’s table a motion next week that dresses up my deal with a bit of new language, sit back – and enjoy the show.  Sure, I can see how the House might, just might, settle on some Norway option before the end of March.  But accepting it would risk splitting the Party in two.  And it wouldn’t sort immigration.  Which will force MPs back to my deal…

“The second reassurance is to the British people, who voted to leave the European Union in the referendum two and a half years ago.  I became Prime Minister immediately after that referendum.  I believe it is my duty to deliver on their instruction and I intend to do so.”

Better mention the referendum again. Kill off any speculation that I’m backing off the result.

“Mr Speaker every day that passes without this issue being resolved means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancour. The Government has heard what the House has said tonight, but I ask Members on all sides of the House to listen to the British people, who want this issue settled, and to work with the Government to do just that.”

Except, of course, it won’t be resolved.  When my deal passes, we’ll have the trade negotiation to sort.  The Political Declaration to flesh out.  Getting the deal and a Bill to enact the Withdrawal Agreement is only the start.  Years more of Brexit lie ahead!

And to get the best out of them, the country will need leadership. Knowledge of the process.  Experience.  A settled hand on the tiller.  When I promised the ’22 I’d quit before the next election I meant it, of course.  But perhaps some things can change, after all…

WATCH: The Prime Minister challenges Labour to call a no confidence vote

She suggests further negotiations with the EU, will bring plans to the Commons next week – and says she is committed to deliver on the referendum result.

May’s Deal suffers the biggest Government defeat in modern Commons history

The backbench rebellion was also the biggest against a Conservative Government in modern times.

It was defeated by 432 to 202 votes – a majority of 230. 118 Conservative MPs voted against the Government.  139 Labour MPs rebelled against the then Labour Government over Iraq, “which was larger than any rebellion of any party since the Corn Laws,” Philip Cowley wrote.

95 Tory MPs voted against John Major over the gun laws. So this evening saw the biggest Conservative revolt of modern times.  We listed a total of 111 who in our assessment with either vote against the deal, would probably vote against it or might vote against it.

21.15 Update: Our estimate is that some 63 per cent of Tory backbenchers voted against the Government.

WATCH: “This is an historic decision that will set the future of our country for generations”, May tells MPs

“Parliament gave the people the choice”, the Prime Minister reminds the House ahead of the vote on her proposed deal.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: For Cox to speak with such force suggested how desperate May’s predicament has become.

The Attorney General suggested it would be absurd to reject the Government’s motion merely because of the Northern Ireland backstop.

The inexhaustible riches of Geoffrey Cox’s advocacy poured over the Tory benches as he opened for the Government on the final day of the Brexit debate.

Here was a lost cause worthy of the Attorney General’s powers. He boomed, he declared, he pleaded, he went quiet for a moment, he turned again and again to face the Conservative benches, he jabbed his finger at his opponents on his own side, told them not to behave like children, lauded compromise as if he were Moses leading the chosen people through the wilderness towards a land flowing with milk and honey.

Beside him sat the Prime Minister. She looked white with exhaustion, mournful, almost hopeless. Yet during the hour he spoke, she revived like a wilting pot plant rescued at the last moment by a drink of water.

Cox opened by praising “the most passionate appeal to understand the role of compromise” voiced at midnight last night by the Member for Gedling – a Labour MP, Vernon Coaker, who according to Cox had been “heartfelt and eloquent”.

So the Government still hopes it can get its motion through with the help of Labour moderates. That at least was what Cox appeared to imply.

But as Rachel Reeves complained from the Labour benches near the end of this performance, for most of the time Cox turned to address his own party. Even the Speaker, John Bercow, asked the Attorney General to address the House rather than the Conservative Party: “This perambulation is very uncommon and irregular.”

“You upbraid me entirely justly,” Cox replied. But for the rest of the time, he did the upbraiding: “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground, you are legislators.”

And as legislators, they must understand it would be “the height of irresponsibility” to pull the rug from under anyone who needs legal certainty, and can only get it if Parliament accepts the procedure for leaving the European Union which the Government has negotiated.

The Attorney General offered the curious analogy of an air lock, which we must enter in order to adjust our bodies to the different pressure we shall find when we pass through the second door on the far side and begin life outside the European Union.

Hilary Benn suggested, from the Labour benches, that beyond that second door lies “a complete vacuum”. Cox insisted on the contrary that we would find a “bright new world”.

But he offered another analogy. Removing ourselves from the EU is “as if we were to separate from a living organism with all its arteries and veins”.

It is a dangerous and complicated operation, about which we must be wholly pragmatic: “Do we opt for order or do we choose chaos?”

We cannot hurl the one million British citizens living on the continent of Europe, and the three million Europeans living here, “into a legal void”.

If MPs vote down the motion, “the path to Brexit becomes shrouded in uncertainty…and because of the Northern Ireland backstop”.

Cox had done his best to make rejecting the motion merely because of the backstop seem absurd, dangerous and disproportionate. When he realised he was in danger of going on too long, he quickly and skilfully brought his remarks to a close.

He had at least managed to cheer up the Prime Minister. Indeed, with this bravura performance, he had cheered up many people who are heartily sick of the whole Brexit debate.

But for him to need to speak with such force suggested also how desperate the Government’s predicament has become.

Almost good enough isn’t good enough

Strangely but truly, the best way of helping the Prime Minister is to send her back to Brussels to win concessions on the backstop.

ConservativeHome’s first rule of Commons votes is that the Speaker will do everything he can to spite the Government.  He is therefore unlikely to smile on any eleventh-hour manuscript amendment designed to reduce the scale of Theresa May’s loss this evening.  None of the Conservative amendments that would aid the Government are expected to pass – Andrew Murrison’s, Hugo Swire’s, Edward Leigh’s.  Labour will whip against them and ERG-aligned MPs will vote against them.  They take the same view of these as they do of yesterday’s letter from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker to the Prime Minister: that they carry no legal weight of any significance.

The amendment that would most spare the Prime Minister’s blushes is Hillary Benn’s, which is both anti-her deal and anti-No Deal.  It is thought likely to be carried, thereby obviating her main motion – but by a smaller margin than she would otherwise lose by.  Some Tory MPs have therefore been discreetly lobbied by Whips to back this amendment that opposes her deal.  Since Benn’s anti-deal amendment is thus helpful to May (we hope you’re still with us), it follows that he may withdraw it: indeed, it is reported this morning that he has now done so.

When unclear about procedural malarkey, it’s usually best to turn to MPs’ motives.  It will do for our purposes today to look at the Conservatives only.  They fall roughly into five groups: loyalists, Remainers, Soft Brexiteers – and then two types of harder Brexiteers.  The loyalists will of course vote for the Prime Minister’s motion, assuming it is reached, as will those Conservative MPs convinced of the merits of her deal.  Remainers, such as Dominic Grieve, will largely vote against.  Soft Brexiteers, such as our columnist Nicky Morgan, will mostly vote for.  They will then cluster around Nick Boles’ Norway Plus scheme, or some variant of EEA membership.

The harder Brexiteers divide into two main tendencies.  First, there are those set against May’s deal at any price.  Let’s call them the diehards, adapting the use of the term by James Forsyth.  They actively hunger for No Deal and the WTO minimum.  The second are those who believe, as Jacob Rees-Mogg puts it in our Moggcast this morning, that “most of the poison is in the backstop”.  Again borrowing from Forsyth, let’s refer to them as the Ditchers.  Were the UK to have a unilateral escape clause from it, or were it to have a clear end-date, most of this band of MPs would drop their opposition to the deal and move to support it.  It just might then be able to pass.

It follows that it is therefore in the interest of this second group as well as the first to vote against the deal today – since, by doing so, they would send a message to Brussels that it will only clear Parliament if concessions are made on the backstop.  But not so fast.  Some of the Ditchers are brooding over the numbers.  They calculate that if the Prime Minister loses by a big margin tonight, the EU may give up on the deal together.  And that if she does so by a small one, it will offer no further concessions.  But if she loses by a margin somewhere in between the two, concessions of real value will be forthcoming.

They may be right.  As March 29 approaches, we are hearing rather less about how the deal represents “the last word” of the EU, that “rule-based organisation”, which “won’t budge”.  And more and more about how it may blink after all.  None the less, we hope that Ditcher MPs aren’t drawn into playing clever-clever games this evening, tailoring their votes according to what they believe May’s likely majority may be, and trying to game the result so that she loses by, say, 50 votes or so in order to squeeze those concessions out of the EU.  Such wheezes are not unknown among “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”.

The simple truth is that none are in a position to second-guess the mass of individual decisions that their colleagues may take.  And that, in such circumstances, the most straighforward course is nearly always the best.  Which is this case is: to judge the Prime Minister’s deal on its merits and demerits.  What are these?  In our view, Brexit is a film, not a photo.  In other words, where Britain is on March 29 is not necessarily where we will be in ten years’ time.  For example, it would be acceptable to stay in a customs union for a transition period.  Indeed, it is inevitable, since the systems are not yet ready to escape it.

What is not acceptable is for that film to be “Groundhog Day” – in short, for a backstop from which we have no guarantee of escape lock the whole UK in a customs union, with Northern Ireland none the less divided from Great Britain.  The proposed regulatory border in the Irish sea would separate the province further from the rest of the country.  That has implications not only for Northern Ireland but for Scotland, and thus for the unity of the UK.  The deal sets up an institutional tension between Eurosceptism and unionism, since Great Britain could move further, under its terms, from Single Market and Customs Union rules, but Northern Ireland could not.

For this reason, we hope that Conservative MPs vote against May’s deal this evening.  As we’ve said before, it almost works.  Theresa May won on borders and money in the negotiation, and minimised the ECJ’s scope on laws, which could reasonably be scored as a points win.  She gained the bespoke deal that her critics said would be impossible.  She has won almost no credit for this achievement, first, because she has no media allies or strong public backing, but faces formidable opposition from both second referendum Remainers and UKIP-type Leavers; second, because U-turns and broken pledges elsewhere have bust her credibility and third, of course, because of the backstop.

But almost good enough is not good enough.  Strangely but truly, Tory MPs can best help their leader by voting her deal down today, sending her back to Brussels, and gaining those backstop concessions.  This is far from being a guaranteed outcome but it is not at all an impossible one.  The EU doesn’t want a messy Brexit on its north-west frontier if it can be avoided, especially with the possibility of recession coming to the Eurozone.  Either way, the Commons should honour the referendum result.  May’s deal ultimately falls short of doing so – and guarantees losing the DUP, together with her majority.