Assessing the talent in the House of Commons (on both sides of the Brexit debate)

14:45 17 February 2017

The eyes have it: MPs who stood out, for various reasons, as the Article 50 Bill was debated in the House of Commons

The eyes have it: MPs who stood out, for various reasons, as the Article 50 Bill was debated in the House of Commons

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Romanticism always outshines stoicism, but the cavaliers left a terrible mess behind, says Michael White

In the car back from yet another funeral I asked a Tory friend who writes about politics to name the smart Brexit backbenchers I should be taking seriously in the challenging EU negotiations that stretch before us. Pundits are always looking out for the next-prime-minister-but-one, my pal is currently prematurely talent-spotting Speaker Bercow’s replacement too. But it’s also important to cherish the parliamentary Awkward Squad, those bloody-minded MPs who read the small print and have the guts to take a stand. The late Tam Dalyell didn’t retire until he’d trained up some replacements. Where are they when we need them?

My friend in the car was evasive. “Who do you currently rate?” he asked me. “I’ve always had time for Peter Lilley. He’s serious, but not weird or daft, and his speeches against the single currency still read pretty well,” I replied, though the last exchange we had was very tetchy because Peter had felt patronised at a think tank session by the FCO’s Lord John Kerr, author (so he says) of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Why are so many Brexits and Trumpistas irritable and defensive, I often ask myself. Didn’t they really want to win?

Alas, Lilley did not contribute to the two-day Commons second reading debate on the European Union (Notice of Withdrawal) Bill which ended with that historic 498 to 114 vote to trigger A50. It was probably the most important such division since MPs voted through the European Communities Act (1972) which took us into Europe, possibly the most momentous strategic choice Britain’s parliament has made since May 8 1940 when 100 Tory MPs defied Neville Chamberlain’s three line whip, brought about his downfall and (in due course) Hitler’s.

Nor did my friend in the car come up with any other names. My search for talent forced me to re-read the online Hansard and do the work myself; more urgently since the weekend papers carried a helpful account of something called the European Research Group (ERG). It boasted how Brexit-backing MPs on the Tory Right – more powerful than Labour, bigger than the Lib Dems and (even) more disciplined than the SNP, the article claimed – are shaping Theresa May’s Hard Brexit strategy and doing so with the help of the WhatsApp messaging system.

Armed with this back channel to keep everyone in touch and on message, ERG’s goal is a hard, clean Brexit, with few if any leaving payments to the Brussels kitty and “maximum flexibility to work with the rest of the world”. The group is credited with roughing up Sir Ivan Rogers, our ex-man in Brussels, for “gloomy pessimism” over Brexit prospects. Ditto those treason-tainted Supreme Court judges, the Bank of England’s Mark Carney and that gloomster, Phil Hammond, May’s key ally in No 11. Oh yes, the Office of Budget Responsibility and the Institute For Fiscal Studies, they’re all on the ERG’s target list too.

It all sounds pretty whizz and would have been even more impressive if the group had managed to keep their operation a better secret from Westminster’s notoriously secretive Human Weaknesses Research Group, otherwise known as the Whips’ Office. Backbench groups like the ERG come and go in politics, often enjoying a lingering half life for decades after they cease to cut any political mustard. You know the sort of people... “Senior backbencher, Sir Tufton Bufton, MP for Cheeseshire West since 1979 and chairman of the Save Britain’s Corn Laws Group, last night told BBC Radio Cheeseshire the group had never been stronger….”

So what does Hansard reveal of the ERG route map, what priorities, what tips did the group’s members have to offer the watching world during the Brexit debate? Much less than I expected. The real surprise was that the best speeches coming from all parties during 15 hours of debate – short by 1972 standards – came from Remainers. Contrary to standard tabloid assertion that they are all “Remoaning” bad losers, most seemed to be saying that the June 23 decision is irrevocable (Oliver Letwin’s word of choice) and that we must all pull together, look forward and make the best of whatever opportunities Brexit may create.

Ex-Remain’s caveat was that, just as the referendum gave May the authority – “orders from the British people” if you prefer – to leave the EU, the bill now going to the Lords gives her the authority to trigger A50 and negotiate that departure, but nothing more. Parliamentary scrutiny will be a necessary part of the process, as will a verdict on the deal which May’s negotiators manage to achieve (or don’t).

In fairness to the Brexit camp, enough of its speakers acknowledged that the re-assertion of parliamentary sovereignty – the bit which motivated some far more than curbing immigration or promoting free trade – could hardly demand less. In fairness too, several Brexit speakers were generous to Labour’s spokesman, Keir Starmer, for what they saw as an elegant exposition of Labour’s delicate position: anti-Brexit, but respectful of the majority view, not least because most constituencies in Labour’s heartlands had voted to leave. Elegant, but not sufficiently persuasive to bind up Labour’s three-way split.

Brexiters were even lavish (the more ambiguous word is “fulsome”) in their praise of Ken Clarke’s contrarian speech. No compromise from Ken, of course. He denounced an Alice in Wonderland scenario which would end in tears. Clarke’s constituency voted, like him, to remain. But plenty of other MPs were prepared to contradict the views of their voters. Labour’s Kate Hoey defied her Remain constituents in Lambeth, as did David Burrowes in Tory Enfield where voters backed Remain.

Northern Ireland’s DUP block voted against the province’s Remain majority – complaining about EU interference in Britain, but not about Britain’s override of the province’s cross-party majority and the widespread concern about threats to the sensitive border with the Irish Republic. The SNP were in the reverse position. No speech that I read – and some (no, not yours, Mr Salmond) were very good – mentioned the one in three Scots voters (many of them SNP supporters too) who wanted Brexit. The Nats made up half the cross-party No vote on the bill, but will get stuck into constructive criticism of the negotiations for a host of good reasons, plus some not so good ones.

Brexit is the key to independence, is their calculation and they may eventually be right if a string of random events fall their way, including world oil prices and Vladimir Putin’s behaviour, which now includes a propaganda radio station located in Edinburgh. So East Lothian’s George Kerevan, astonished that he had enjoyed 11 hours of solid debate so much, was thrilled to have spotted “the English nation reborn on June 23” in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s mannered antiquarian contribution, full of the great dates with which the referendum would come to be compared – Agincourt and Waterloo included.

Resurgent English nationalism suits the SNP calculations, not least if it forces the UK Treasury in Whitehall to be less generous to the Scots who need good reasons for not exercising their new fiscal freedoms. Edinburgh blaming London is a bit like London blaming Brussels (and vice versa), good sport until the bluff is called. But it was Edinburgh North and Leith’s SNP member, Deidre Brock, whose description of May’s judge-enforced short bill stuck with me: “Its brevity is childish and disrespectful, to this place, to the courts and to the people.” Events are still flowing May’s way, but that she has raised expectations of an easy, pain-free voyage to a richer, fairer Britain that may be hard to fulfil was a recurring theme.

Who engaged seriously with the issues? Certainly some SNP and other concerned nationalist members; Keir Starmer, Hilary Benn and assorted Labour MPs, reluctantly respecting their Midlands or Northern constituents’ verdict in some cases, happily voting No in Meg Hillier’s case, next door to migraine-stricken Diane Abbott in Hackney; Tim Farron (doing better than I would have predicted) and Nick Clegg promoting their second referendum campaign which has at least the merit of being distinctive and attractive to Labour Corbyn-phobes among the 48%. Stephen Kinnock, who sharply slapped down veteran right wing Brexiter, Sir Gerald Howarth, for mistaking the A50 talks with the much tougher A218 talks on transitional arrangements, he was good too; not under dad’s shadow any more.

And there was also a clutch of Tories, some of whom – like Labour colleagues – insisted that yes, immigration did play a big part in the verdict. Sacked attorney general, Dominic Grieve, is determined to make the best of what he fears will be a bad job. So is “Three Brains” Letwin and former science minister, George Freeman. George Osborne warned against making immigration controls the priority and an MP called Neil Carmichael (Stroud), whom I don’t think I’d recognise, made an excellent contribution. Don’t jump out of a plane before you’ve checked your parachute, he told colleagues. “But the (EU) plane’s on fire,” replied South Dorset’s Richard Drax. Carmichael warns of a likely “change of economic mood and international policy circumstances” which go way beyond Brexit. Can he mean President Trump? Some MPs fear so and that Britain needs reliable European friends more than ever. This is “the closing of a great and lengthy chapter,” Carmichael predicts.

Ploughing through the speeches I was looking for gravitas from any Brexiters who aren’t David Davis doing his pedestrian best with a highly restricted brief. I didn’t find them. What I kept finding instead was romanticism, attractive in its way, but romanticism about sovereignty and world trade, romanticism about restoring a confident and outward-looking Britain, liberal and humane, freed from constricting Brussels rule. One of Carmichael’s Wiltshire neighbours, Dr Andrew Murrison, 55, ex-Royal Navy and a doctor, likened Brexit to Hernan Cortes’ bloodthirsty invasion of Mexico in 1519 – when the Spaniard burnt his boats so there would be no going back to Spain. “Britain now stands on the brink of its Cortes moment,” the otherwise sober medic declared.

I find this sort of language extraordinary. He was not alone. John Redwood and Bill Cash have always been free market romantics. Redwood spoke of voters’ “great bravery” in defying elites and predicted that “this parliament is going to be made great by the people, it is going to be made great despite itself.” Edward Leigh, another Long March Brexiteer, denounced insularity or hostility to immigrants and spoke of the “immense globalism of Brexit… I expect there will be trials along the way, but what is the harm in trying to lead by example?”

In an often wicked world the answer must surely be: quite a lot. Donald Trump, May’s new best friend, is not a free trader, America has never quite practised all it preached on free trade. To say otherwise is to invoke memories of CND which promised to lead by example in banning the bomb while others did not; or Tony Blair assuring sceptics that Iraqis were eager to embrace free markets and pluralism. It is yet another form of moral imperialism, a vice we are supposed to have abandoned along with empire. Iain Duncan Smith talked his usual well-meant guff. Ex-cabinet colleague, Owen Paterson, has high hopes of promoting growth and more environmentally friendly fish and farm policies.

I had to look up Suella Fernandes, MP for Farnham since 2015, which is after my political death. She’s the clever child of East African Asians who fled local purges and saw their daughter, still only 36, flourish via Cambridge to the Bar. An ERG stalwart, she quoted Cobden on free trade and also praised those who voted to “defy the elites” – as if a No5 Chambers barrister is not one too. But a slightly exotic background often enhances a romantic sense of Britain – think Boris Johnson or Dan Hannan MEP, Britain’s most famous import from Peru since Paddington Bear.

Clever Dominic Raab, another ERG networker, didn’t say much of note. Michael Gove interrupted a few times but nothing more substantial. Though Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe since 2010 and the group’s driving force, certainly had a go. A Cornish-born software engineer, with the RAF, at BAE and at Lehman Brothers in the City during the bankers’ crash, Baker sees Brexit as allowing Britain to fight for free trade (Cobden again) and self-government, against crony capitalism and predatory commercial practices.

OK, if you say so Steve. I grew up down the road from you in St Austell and I’m opposed to cronyism, populism, authoritarianism and centralism too. Quite how leaving the EU and aligning Britain with “Only America First” Trumpismo is going to promote this agenda, let alone help poor Cornwall, is not clear to me. Your speech was no more helpful than the others.

I’d love to believe you and you’re probably right in parts. Wild optimism is more attractive than stoicism, that’s why everyone loves Shelley and Byron. But as the authors of the spoof history book, 1066 and All That, wrote decades ago about the Cavaliers you resemble, it’s more likely you’re “Wrong but Wromantic”. Either way, it looks like you plan to leave the hard work of actually getting us out of the mess you and your ERG techies helped create to the Remainers – “Right but Repulsive”, if you prefer.

Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian

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