What next for the pro-European cause in the Conservative Party, asks a Tory peer who has fought an often lonely battle against Brexit
The ‘C word’ seems to have been banished from the blue party’s lexicon. As the hoardings at press conferences declare, it is now ‘Theresa May’s team’. She and the members of that team exhort the electorate to vote for her, not her party, although her name will only appear on the ballot papers for Maidenhead. The manifesto, when it emerges, will be hers, drafted by her trusted henchmen, a programme for the May presidency.
This is somewhat disconcerting for someone who felt comfortable being labelled as a ‘Conservative’, albeit of the ‘One Nation’ variety. I was also happy to think of myself as a ‘citizen of the world’ but I now know that, in May’s book, that makes me ‘a citizen of nowhere’, someone who ‘doesn’t even understand the concept of citizenship’.
Worse still, I remain a Remainer, a position which May cannot countenance. Yet, according to You Gov, 39% of Conservatives voted to remain in Europe on that fateful day last June and a majority of Conservative MPs were firm believers in the need for Britain to remain in the EU. They haven’t all changed their minds because, by a narrow margin, a majority of voters felt differently.
Despite that, being a Conservative Remainer in Parliament felt increasingly lonely, as legislation to trigger Article 50 made its way through the Commons and the Lords. I was the sole Tory in the Lords to vote in favour of a referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal. I don’t like referenda but do believe that, since it was a referendum that set us on this route, it is only right that the public should be offered the chance to vote when they can see where it is actually leading.
A handful of other Tory peers were prepared to follow their consciences rather than the Whips and support the amendment calling on Parliament to be given a ‘meaningful’ vote on the terms before Britain exits the EU, but the Government still won by 331 votes to 286.
On those numbers, there is no reason why May should use the unruliness of the House of Lords as an explanation for calling the snap General Election she had previously insisted she would not hold. ‘The country is coming together but Westminster is not,’ she pronounced in Downing Street. ‘Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.’
Well, yes, there may be a few light skirmishes ahead but isn’t that what one might expect in a parliamentary democracy? On the recent evidence, May would still end up getting her way without needing a fresh electoral mandate.
Her statement implies a belief that, if she returns as PM with an increased majority, then any opposition to her plans should be silenced. That cannot, and should not, be the case and she must know that. The Opposition in the Commons may be even further weakened after the election but it still has a right to oppose what it believes to be wrong. And the Lords has a duty to scrutinise legislation and, if it finds it wanting, to send it back to the Commons and ask that the Government should think again. If that delays progress on legislation, that is, nevertheless, perfectly legitimate.
Calling an election because the opinion polls are heavily in your favour and may not be by 2020 is perfectly understandable behaviour for a prime minister. It was delusional to believe that something as flimsy as the ‘Fixed Term Parliament Act’ could ever block the atavistic instincts of an ambitious politician.
What is more surprising is May’s assertion that ‘the country is coming together’. A You Gov opinion poll for The Times just days before her announcement showed 45% of respondents thought that the decision to leave the EU was the wrong one and only 43% endorsed it, with 12% being unclear.
What does that make ‘the will of the people’ now? Certainly it is not united in a wish to go crashing out of the EU on any terms. The intemperate exchanges that have characterised the kick-off of negotiations make an exit without any deal look a distinct possibility. The wonder deal which would provide ‘the exact same benefits’ that Britain currently gains from the EU without any of the downside, as foreshadowed by David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, has already been consigned to the category of ‘aim’ rather than ‘promise’.
The UK is not united in wanting to reduce immigration to ‘tens of thousands’, another ‘aim’, but which has proved as much wishful thinking as talk of a painless exit from the EU. Nor is it a country at one over the prospect of a new border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, an inevitability if that much vaunted ‘control of our borders’ is ever to be achieved.
Even allowing for a cap on energy bills, the country is destined to become increasingly economically divided, as inflation bites and banks and bankers leave, taking their potential contributions to HM Treasury with them.
Amongst those who now think leaving was the wrong decision, there may be some who shrug their shoulders and mutter that we should just get on with it as quickly as possible. Many more, however, are likely to feel that a decision which is revocable should not be determinedly followed through, no matter what the cost. They are the ones that Gina Miller, the feisty campaigner for a parliamentary vote on Article 50, is now trying to persuade to vote tactically in the General Election. If she succeeds, Parliament may feel a little more accommodating of those who remain committed to the Remain cause. The Conservative Party, though, has largely cast aside doubts and fallen into line behind its leader. Let us hope that the people of Rushcliffe stick to their sound judgment and return Ken Clarke to Parliament with a majority even greater than the near 14,000 that he had at the last election. Ken is my sort of Tory and there should be room for people like him in a centre right group known as The Conservative and Unionist Party.
Baroness (Patience) Wheatcroft is a Conservative peer, elevated to the House of Lords in 2010. She is also the former editor of The Sunday Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal Europe