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

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

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

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

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

That’s a whole lot of damage.

– – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

– – – – – – – – –

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

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

– – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

The Commons votes to extend Article 50. The Government no longer supports leaving the EU on March 29.

Some will say that this is the day on which Brexit died. On which the politicians failed the people – and deliberately defied the referendum result.

The Government’s extension motion passes by 412 – 202.

If it is backed up by legislation, the UK will no longer leave the EU on March 29 (assuming the EU plays ball).

Theresa May’s plan is now to get her deal through by means of a Meaningful Vote Three next week – and then seek a short extension until June 30.

That could happen.

However, it is arguably just as likely that a Brexit which is extended will turn out to be a Brexit that never happens.  Some will say that this is the day on which Brexit died.  On which the politicians failed the people – and deliberately defied the referendum result.

And they may be right.

Either way, those 202 MPs will mostly be Conservatives.  We gather that Steve Barclay, Liam Fox, Liz Truss and Gavin Williamson “plus half the whips office” opposed the Government’s motion.

Full division list of Conservatives who voted for and against extension coming.

The moment will come for Umunna to face the voters of Streatham in a by-election. But not yet.

He and others should resign their seats, and then face their voters if they wish, when they join a new political party – but not before.

Just as the Limehouse Declaration was a stepping stone to the SDP, so the Independent Group is one to a new political party (or so we must presume).  When this is formed and the seven defecting MPs join it, they should stand down from the Commons and contest by-elections, presuming they wish to return.  The same goes for any MPs who join the group over the next few days and weeks, including of course Conservative ones.

That will be then.  However, it doesn’t follow that Chuka Umunna and company should stand down now and prepare to fight by-elections.  Resigning the whip is not to be confused with changing party.  Furthermore, if one should be compelled to contest a by-election for losing the whip voluntarily, why not for losing it on compulsion?  If that logic applied, the party machines would have the power, in effect, to force by-elections whenever it pleased them.

It isn’t obvious to us that the whips should have had the power to bundle out, say, Charlie Elphicke – who was deprived of the whip without being told why, and has since had it restored to him.  The best judges of whether a by-election is in order is neither CCHQ or Labour’s head office, but constituents.  A proper recall system is needed to empower them to exercise that judgement.  But that is another story.  As we say, the moment will come when Umunna should face the voters of Streatham.  But not yet.

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.”

Drained of authority? Yes. Rudderless? Certainly. Humiliated? Absolutely. But May’s very weakness is becoming a strange strength.

She looks increasingly like the captive of pro-Remain cross-party MPs working together against the pro-Leave referendum mandate.

  • Good news for Julian Smith.  The essence of the Grieve amendment is that it opens up a path to No Brexit.  Very well, the Chief Whip may be tempted to think.  If pro-Leave MPs believe they have a choice between a Grieve-led No Brexit and Theresa May’s flawed deal, they will vote for the latter next Tuesday.  Conspiracy theorists yesterday evening were suggesting that this reasoning explains why loyalists such as Damian Green and Oliver Letwin voted against the Government and for the amendment.
  • But hang on. There’s bad news for Smith.  Steve Baker and the ERG leadership are having none of it.  Let Grieve table and pass as many motions as he likes, they were arguing yesterday: the Government cannot be mandated by motions.  The Prime Minister can and should tell the Remainers to bog off if necessary.  All she and her government need to do is to hang on until March 29, and Brexit will be duly delivered.  So the ERG and other Brexiteers will vote against the Government next week. Smith’s cunning plan won’t work.
  • And there is worse news for him, too.  Perhaps the Grieve amendment will have an effect at the margins on some Leavers.  But Remainers now have an incentive to vote against May next week: to prod the Commons towards No Brexit.  And the ERG and other Leavers have an incentive, too: to keep the pressure up on May for No Deal, if necessary.  So Smith’s clever plan is in danger not only of not working; it threatens to boomerang back to smack the Whips Office in the jaw.
  • But wait. Yes, there’s good news for the Chief Whip after all.  Even if they band together to vote down May’s deal next Tuesday, the aims of the Remainers and Leavers will be different.  In a nutshell, the drift of the Prime Minister’s Brexit policy, over two and a half years, has been from a Nick Timothy-crafted position with clear red lines…through Chequers and the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson…to the breaking of those lines over Northern Ireland, transition and the backstop.  The policy is softer than it was.
  • So it is now clearly in the interests of the Remainers to keep May in place.  The lesson that Grieve and company will draw from yesterday is: keep pushing.  Working with Labour and other opposition parties, they can use the pro-Remain sympathies of the Commons to their advantage.  A change of leader would probably mean a new Brexiteer Prime Minister, such as Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab or even David Davis, armed with a mandate to defy No Brexit and deliver No Deal. Why would they want that?
  • And it is not clear that Leavers on the Conservative benches have the numbers to depose her.  Jacob Rees-Mogg and Baker couldn’t find them last month.  It might be that, in the wake of a defeat for May next week, Brexiteers decide that enough is enough, and that elusive total of 48 letters is reached then – or even before.  None the less, it isn’t evident that they have enough support to topple May in a confidence ballot (though Mark Harper’s defection from the loyalist ranks may be a sign that her days are numbered).
  • The swing voters are, as ever, the J.Alfred Prufrocks of the backbenches.  According to our count, 181 Conservative MPs voted Remain in 2016, and 129 voted Leave.  Obviously, the Commons has changed a bit since then.  But the average Tory MP is a soft Remainer or moderate Leaver – perhaps with an eye to the Norway option being pushed by some of Grieve’s supporters yesterday.  (Indeed, his amendment can be seen as a pincer movement on the Prime Minister by a makeshift alliance of Remainers and Norwegians.)
  • What stirs more fear in those backbenchers – No Deal or No Brexit? Do they dread most the undoubted difficulties of No Deal, leading to a collapse of confidence in the Government, the loss of their seats, and a Corbyn-led Government – perhaps sooner rather than later?  Or do they fear No Brexit more – and the revenge of a turbulent electorate, cheated of the prize it voted for, which sends the Conservatives the way of the old Christian Democrats in Italy?  There is no away of knowing.
  • At any rate, May’s very weakness is now a strange strength.  Voted guilty of contempt of Parliament; beaten three times yesterday (the first time a government has been so for some 40 years); staring down the barrel of defeat next week, she now leads the weakest government in modern times.  But this very vulnerability is becoming a strange source of strength – or survival, at any rate.  She hangs on because her party can’t agree on a replacement.  Because while it doesn’t like her plan, it can’t settle on an alternative.
  • Could the Cabinet oust her next week?  Perhaps.  But, as recent events have shown, a Prime Minister can impose a plan on a Cabinet that it doesn’t much care for.  She controls its meetings, proceedings and minutes.  Each of her Ministers has their own ambitions and agendas: they do not find it easy to act in concert.  She has ridden out the resignations of two Brexit Secretaries, a Foreign Secretary and a Work and Pensions Ministers.  And called the bluff of the pizza gang of five Cabinet Leavers.
  • Might she resign if beaten next week?  Maybe.  But if she quits as Party leader, she will open the door to a Brexiteer as her replacement.  And it is not clear whether she could simply resign as Prime Minister.  That would put the Queen in a difficult position.  Would the latter then send for, say, David Lidington, or for Jeremy Corbyn and, in either case, on what basis?  Any such move would be resisted by the Palace.  In any event, Prime Ministers tend not to resign.  The last to go willingly was Harold Wilson, and he was ill.
  • So can May go on…and on…and on? Almost certainly not.  Leavers are losing patience with her.  Remainers are using her.  Any dash from cover risks her swift removal – whatever tactical alliances may form to prop her up temporarily.  A tilt to Norway, No Brexit or No Deal risks stirring up those parts of the Parliamentary Party opposed to all three.  The only glimmer of good news comes from her Party’s right – and the departure of Nigel Farage from a UKIP lurching wildly to the fringes (though she has lost the DUP).
  • Finally, ponder the shape of events.  Voters were narrowly for Leave in 2016.  The Commons is still for Remain: perhaps a sixth of it is for Brexit by conviction rather than calculation.  And the long and short of it is that the more time passes – and the deeper the Government’s crisis becomes – the less MPs pay even lip-service to the biggest event in our electoral history.  The tide in Parliament is for Remain.  It moves slowly – even glacially.  But it is carrying the Prime Minister with it.

Chris White: May faces a huge task – and she has made it harder for herself by neglecting the Whips’ Office

The next few days will require the application of every type of pressure, with finesse. Experienced whips would have known how to do that.

Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin, when the latter served as Chief Whip, as well as to Andrew Lansley and William Hague when each served as Leader of the House. He is now Managing Director of Newington Communications.

In just one week, the House of Commons will have its meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.  Depending on your point of view, the result of the vote will either lead to security for the UK’s economy, or we will be locked into a deal from which we can never leave.

This article is not about the merits of the deal, but the machinations behind the scenes ahead of the vote on Tuesday 11th December.

The Prime Minister has decided to go for a Brownian masochism strategy – a tour of the four nations, a TV debate, meeting business leaders in Number 10. Yet while her attempt to increase public support for the deal may yet succeed, it is not in the public domain where the vote will be won and lost.  Her electorate is not the 38 million people who can vote in a general election, but the 639 MPs eligible to vote on Tuesday evening*.

Paul Goodman wrote eloquently last week on the task the Government faces, and proposed ways that the Government could reach its winning margin of 318 votes (don’t forget to discount two tellers from each voting lobby).  The size of the task is vast.  Mark Wallace has estimated that 66 MPs oppose the deal, 26 probably oppose it, and another 7 describe the deal as difficult to support. That makes around 100 Tory MPs on the whips’ list on the debit column, including uber-loyalists ranging from Michael Fallon to Robert Syms, and that doesn’t even include those who haven’t publicly declared.  Whilst not all of these will end up voting against the Government, unless more than 50 Labour MPs can be swung to support the deal, it is doomed.

Number 10 and the whips’ office realise this.  They have set up a war-room in Downing Street to game-plan the different scenarios, and the chief whip summoned all former whips who are still MPs to a meeting in the Commons – when this happens, you know it’s serious.  But for all the talk of margins and votes, it is important to remember that each MP is an individual, not a number.

MPs are just like any cross section of society, and it’s just the same with the ‘rebels’ who are planning to vote against the Government.  Some can be persuaded to change their minds on policy grounds, others that to vote against the Government will let Jeremy Corbyn into power.  Many have ambitions for higher office, more still have local constituency concerns such as the need for a local bypass or improvements to a local hospital.  A few will be dazzled by promises not of advancement, but knighthoods or peerages.

Enoch Powell is believed to have said that whips are as necessary a part of Parliament as sewers are of civilisation.  More than at any other time the next two weeks will see Number 10, the whips’ office and the Chancellor engaged in the grubbiest, dirtiest chequebook politics possible behind the scenes to try and win this vote.  But to do so they need to understand the MPs themselves.

Aside from the two or three senior whips, every whip will have their own ‘flock’ of around 25 MPs. From the moment they are appointed to the Office, each whip’s job is to know intimately the issues affecting that MP.  They need to speak regularly to them, understand their ambitions and concerns, know them better than their own partners. That knowledge has to be earned and cannot be gained overnight.

To do all of this, Downing Street and the chief whip and his whips must have credibility, and the knowledge gained from years of experience.  The Prime Minister is hampered by the political reality that even should she deliver a deal through Parliament, the Conservative Parliamentary Party will likely remove her from office shortly afterwards, demanding a new leader not tainted by Brexit and a failed General Election.  Her political capital, and her patronage, is ebbing away, as evidenced by the hamfisted decision to go outside the political honours process to knight John Hayes, only for him to declare he was voting against the deal regardless.

The Chief Whip and his Office is also restricted in a different way.  I wrote earlier this year of the lack of trust between the Chief and his MPs caused by the pairing row. That will have an effect on the whipping operation, and so too will the extraordinary inexperience of the whips themselves.  None of the four senior whips – Julian Smith, Chris Pincher, Mark Spencer and Andrew Stephenson – were appointed to a post in the Office before July 2016.

Of the more junior whips, five were appointed in June 2017, five more in January this year, two more in July this year, and two earlier this month.  The entire experience of the whips office – 18 MPs –  amounts to a total of 21 years and 8 months**.  If that sounds a lot, remember Patrick McLoughlin was a whip continuously for 17 years by himself.

I must be clear that no criticism should be laid at the individual whips themselves – they have an incredibly hard job to do – and it is not their fault that the lack of planning and forethought from the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip has led to this position.  What is damning is that we have known for two years that this vote is coming, and no effort has been made to retain or bring back any experienced whips in the office for what is the most crucial vote the Government could face.  The decision to sack or move the likes of Anne Milton, David Evennett and Robert Syms looks incredibly short sighted.

It is hard to see how the Prime Minister can win.  She lost another Minister – Sam Gyimah – over the weekend, and she is making bizarre tactical decisions: touring the country instead of meeting her own MPs, and sending pro-deal leaflets to party members, provoking outrage from Tory MPs who see this as a misuse of party funds.

I fully expect the Prime Minister to lose the vote, and by a substantial margin of between 100 and 200 votes.  If so we must watch how Tory MPs split, not just what the final numbers are.  If the Prime Minister cannot win more than half her party, or perhaps more than half her 200 backbenchers, she will be under extraordinary pressure.

*650 MPs, discounting 7 Sinn Fein who do not take their seats, and the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers.

**Whips’ experience:

Anna Bailey and Sir Richard Aikens: Fact-checking the dubious Withdrawal Agreement arguments being put to MPs

As ever, the facts and the spin tell crucially different stories. Parliamentarians should focus on the former.

Dr Anna Bailey is a political scientist and editorial consultant for Briefings for Brexit. Sir Richard Aikens is a former member of the Court of Appeal, former Vice-President of the Consultative Council of European Judges, and a member of the Briefings for Brexit Advisory Committee.

Over the past few days, we have been made aware of some extremely dubious arguments being made to try and convince wavering Conservative MPs to vote in favour of the draft Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU (hereafter: ‘the deal’).

The decision to vote for or against the deal is the most important constitutional decision that parliament will make since it passed the European Communities Act in 1972. We therefore considered it imperative to subject these claims to rigorous legal fact-check and academic analysis.

We urge all MPs to acquaint themselves fully with the legal facts on both EU withdrawal and UK parliamentary elections before voting.

Argument made to Leave-supporting MPs: “If you vote down the deal we will stay in the EU because there is no majority for No Deal.”

Not true.

Or more accurately, the ‘we will stay in the EU’ part is untrue. It is true that there is not a majority of MPs in the Commons who favour a No Deal outcome. But the crucial point is that a No Deal outcome does not require the passing of legislation. It is the default legal position under Article 50. In the absence of a deal passed by both UK and EU parliaments, a No Deal exit on 29th March 2019 occurs automatically.

Argument made to Remain-voting MPs: “If you vote down the deal we will end up with No Deal.”

Possible. (NB: note how directly contradictory things are said to different MPs!)

As detailed above, a No Deal outcome is the default legal position unless a Withdrawal Agreement is approved by both the UK Parliament and the EU Parliament. Theoretically, the UK and EU could hold emergency renegotiations to try and meet the rebels’ concerns, but realistically time is tight, and the EU may well be unwilling to renegotiate. An off-the-peg option of temporary UK membership of the EEA during the transition period is possible as a simple emergency compromise. However, it is not clear if there would be a parliamentary majority for this either.

Finally, much depends on what one means by ‘No Deal’. A so-called ‘managed No Deal’ – i.e. no overall Withdrawal Agreement but several ad hoc side-deals concluded on critical issues such as air services – is more likely than no deals on anything whatsoever.

“If you vote down the deal there will be a general election.”

Not true.

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 prevents the Government from unilaterally calling a general election: parliaments must last for a statutory five-year term. The Act provides two – and only two – ways of triggering an early general election:

  1. The first is for the Government to be defeated on a motion of confidence. In that case, a general election results if the Government or an alternative administration – e.g. one headed by another Conservative prime minister, or Labour with the support of others – does not win a fresh confidence vote within 14 days.
  2. The second is for a ‘super-majority’ of the Commons (two-thirds of MPs) to vote in favour of an early election (as happened in 2017).

So the mere fact of the Government being defeated on the deal is insufficient to trigger a general election.

It is possible that the Prime Minister could react to defeat on the deal by submitting a confidence motion to the Commons. Labour, the Lib Dems, and the SNP would undoubtedly vote ‘no confidence’ in the Government. But those Conservative and DUP MPs who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement would most likely vote for the confidence motion, since a general election now is not in their interests.

The only way the Government could realistically be defeated on a confidence motion is if a handful of Tory ultra-Remainers voted ‘no confidence’ in a calculated bid that bringing down the Government could stop Brexit. This would be a huge personal risk for those MPs concerned, particularly those representing Leave-voting constituencies (such as Anna Soubry and Phillip Lee) who would be in especial danger of losing their seats.

The only other way a general election could result is if the Government created a super-majority for an election by whipping Conservative MPs to vote for it. This scenario is unthinkably bizarre at a time when the Conservatives are behind Labour in the polls, as there is a high likelihood the Government would fall from power.

“If you vote down the deal, the Government will lose the support of the DUP and therefore there will be a general election.”

Unlikely. (In fact, the Government is more likely to lose the support of the DUP if the deal passes the Commons.)

If, as expected, the DUP votes against the deal, this would constitute a breach its confidence and supply agreement. But this is not sufficient to trigger a general election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (see above). Given that No Deal is the default legal position if the deal does not pass, the DUP would likely continue to support the Government on all other key legislation in order to avoid a confidence vote and resultant general election.

If the deal is passed by the Commons, the DUP would most likely tear up its confidence and supply agreement entirely, and vote against all government legislation as an act of revenge, paralysing the business of government. This is the situation most likely to lead to a vote of no confidence in the Government, and subsequent general election.

“There is a pause mechanism in Article 50 – if you vote down the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill the Government will just pause the withdrawal process.”

Not true.

There is no pause mechanism in Article 50. The two-year Article 50 period can be extended, but only by the agreement of the UK and the unanimous agreement of the European Council (i.e. every government of the EU27). It is unlikely that EU27 would unanimously agree to extend Article 50, for reasons laid out by the House of Commons’ Exiting the European Union Committee.

There is a current legal challenge as to whether the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50. The European Court of Justice is due to hear this case on 27th November 2018. The European Commission’s position is that Article 50 cannot be unilaterally revoked by the UK. The Government has repeatedly said that it has no intention of revoking Article 50.

Given the precedent of the Supreme Court case R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017], the Government could neither extend nor revoke Article 50 without parliamentary approval. Revocation of Article 50 would require an Act of Parliament. Extension would at the very least require affirmative resolutions of both the Commons and Lords to alter the exit date in the 2018 Act, but it may arguably require a full act of parliament. Extension without a full act of parliament would be open to legal challenge.

In short, leaving the EU on 29th March 2019 (deal or no deal) is automatic.

Arise, Sir John!

A Brexiteer backbencher and former minister, who has not yet signalled how he intends to vote on the deal, has been knighted.

When writing up the smaller-than-anticipated reshuffle which followed Dominic Raab and Esther McVey’s departure from the Cabinet, we noted that the Prime Minister seemed to have opted against using the attendant patronage to try to shore up wavering backbenchers.

Doubtless it would be unfair to attribute her decision to award a knighthood to the Rt. Hon. Member for South Holland and the Deepings to such motivations. John Hayes is a Conservative MP of more than 20 years’ service, during which time he has held five ministerial briefs – most recently at Transport – in addition to numerous positions in the Shadow Cabinet. He has also earned respect on both sides of the House.

Nonetheless, the timing at least appears to stand in the long tradition of carrot and stick tactics employed by embattled governments when frought votes are in the offing. Hayes can probably expect his intentions to come under a degree of scrutiny in the coming weeks.

Additionally, Theresa May has appointed two new members of the Privy Council. Christopher Pincher is MP for Tamworth and Deputy Chief Whip, and Mark Tami is the Labour MP for Alyn and Deeside.