Writing About Brexit: Tory MPs Vilify Their Own Withdrawal Agreement

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 17th September 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

Just as a squib to start with:

Chris Grayling has been quietly replaced on the Security Committee, chaired by formerly-Tory MP Julian Lewis, and has taken on a part-time job, 7 hours a week “advising” Hutchison Ports Europe, for which he is to be paid £100,000 a year. Given Grayling’s track record it is just as well it’s only 7 hours a week, or it could cost Hutchison Ports Europe a lot more than a hundred grand.

And Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, has chosen to inform the nation of a regional lockdown via the Peston show on ITV, not via the House of Commons or even the daily coronacvirus briefing. (And Chris Whitty says it needs to be a national full lockdown for at least two weeks, but that of course that wouldn’t suit Johnson’s donors.) Lindsay Hoyle scolded the government for that breach last time it’s happened: now it’s happened again.

But this is politics as usual: it’s deadly, during a global pandemic, but it’s normal Tory stuff.

Matthew Parris has said somewhere (sorry, most of what he writes is Murdoch-paywalled, so I don’t have a hope of finding it) that for a MP, the first time you defy a three-line Whip is a moment that makes all future rebellions more possible: but conversely, every time you obey a three-line Whip to vote for something you know is wrong, this makes rebellions less possible. (I am paraphrasing. I am sure Matthew Parris was funnier and more concise.)

Any MP in the government, from a Parliamentary Private Secretary to one of the High Offices of State, is expected always to vote with the government, or resign. Most MPs who resign from a lowly position in the government will be backbenchers for years – and backbenchers, as John Bercow noted, really don’t have much power.

A backbencher MP is in principle free to vote their conscience, but a three-line Whip is an instruction from their Parliamentary Party to vote as the party instructs or face the consequences: and the leader of a party with an 80-MP majority in the Commons and four years to go til the next general election, is free to apply consequences right up to withdrawing the Whip and making the MP sit as an independent, perhaps for years (as happened to Julian Lewis, when he became Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee which Boris Johnson planned for Chris Grayling) – which means the MP is cut off from parliamentary party resources and, if the withdrawal is permanent, is likely to lose the next general election.

Needless to say, the votes on the Internal Market Bill were a three-line Whip, and I knew once I heard Boris Johnson’s speech to the Cmmons presenting the bill on Monday that there was not a chance it wouldn’t pass the Second Reading, nor would any wrecking amendments stand a chance before the bill was passed on to the House of Lords.

I listened to a large part of the debate as the bill was examined by the committee of the full House. I also listened to Boris Johnson before the liaison committee, and to PMQs. (Angela Rayner was good, and apparently someone had told Boris Johnson that if he berated her the way he usually does Keir Starmer, he would look bad: he lied and shuffled and ranted on unrelated topics, but he didn’t attack her personally as he routinely did Starmer or Corbyn.)

The Liaison Committee questioned Boris Johnson about the Internal Market Bill and he shuffled and equivocated: and Johnson was asked by the committee and in PMQs about the collapse of the government’s Serco test-track-and-trace system in England, and Johnson lied. But over the Internal Market Bill, Johnson was shuffling, but there was a core of determination: he’s going to see it passed.

Boris Johnson knows that specific clauses in the Withdrawal Agreement amount to an intent to break the law. Jonathan Jones resigned on Monday, the Civil Service’s most senior lawyer, because if you are a lawyer who wants to retain your professional standing and your client admits they intend to break the law, the only thing you can do is resign as their lawyer. Jonathan Jones’ client is the UK government.

Suella Braverman, the Attorney General for England and Wales and Advocate General for Northern Ireland, is of the view that Boris Johnson is entitled to do what he wants with the Withdrawal Agreement. Robert Buckland, the Lord High Chancellor thinks it’ll be OK to threaten to break the law as an “insurance policy” – naturally, since they’re both loyal Boris Johnson appointees.

But yesterday, Richard Keen resigned.

Richard Keen is a Conservative Party lawyer. He was Dean of the Faculty of Advocates (the leader of the Scottish barristers) from 2007 to 2014. He was chair of the Scottish Conservative Party for 18 months, January 2014 to May 2015: he stepped down as Chair only when he was appointed Advocate General for Scotland (this is a Westminster post, he was appointed by David Cameron) – and a month later he was also awarded a life peerage and became Baron Keen of Elie. In 2016 David Cameron appointed him Lords Minister for the Ministry of Justice, and in 2017 Theresa May appointed him Minister for the Crown Dependencies. He has had a long, loyal career with the Conservative Party as a lawyer – he defended Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s director of communications, on the perjury charges. He appeared for the Government against Gina Miller, successfully advocating that there was no need for the devolved administrations to consent to Brexit. He’s been a lawyer for 40 years and a QC for 27 years and as far as anyone can tell a Conservative for his entire life.

And he resigned yesterday because he couldn’t reconcile himself to defend Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill to the House of Lords.

Roger Gale, the lonely backbench rebel, said bluntly that he was voting against the government because when the UK makes agreements it should stick to them: Richard Keen resigned because he understood he would otherwise have to advocate for a bill that breaks the law.

The 30 backbenchers who abstained, led by Bob Neill, have been consoled with Boris Johnson’s commitment that the Internal Market bill will be amended so that any lawbreaking action by the government based on the clauses Richard Keen resigned over, will have to be approved by the House of Commons.

This only kicks their crisis of conscience further down the road, of course, but they can hope that Boris Johnson will die, or Boris Johnson will resign, or perhaps the horse will learn to sing.

All of that, I find understandable. The issues of international law are not easy to understand: MPs who are not lawyers (and even those who are) are clinging to justifications and reasons and excuses for believing this will be okay – the EU will give the UK what they asked for, Ireland will somehow manage it so the Good Friday Agreement remains intact, Trump will win the November US election, everyone is negotiating in good faith and somehow disaster will be avoided.

The clause that was voted on yesterday, the one that overrides the devolutionary powers enacted to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to allow the Westminster government spending powers on devolved matters, that offends me as a Scot and leads me to support independence – but it doesn’t surprise me that Tories, who can’t win power in Scotland democratically, would try to take it by this means.

But listening to Tory MPs yesterday one after another getting up and saying that the idea of a border down the Irish Sea, a hard border with a check and tariffs on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and vice versa, was intolerable, that they could not agree to it, that Boris Johnson was quite right to stand up and defend “our precious union, this United Kingdom” –

Well, I found myself quite unexpectedly overwhelmed by a dreary disgust with them and shame for them.

Not because they were obediently voting in accordance with what Boris Johnson had ordered, despite the issues of international law and the constitutional settlement. They’re backbenchers: either they take part in a full-scale rebellion against Boris Johnson and find someone to replace him as Prime Minister in the middle of a national crisis, or they do as they’re told and vote according to orders: there is no inbetween for them, and anyone who thinks that their position they’d rebel, well: I like to think I would too, but rebellion is difficult: I accept that in the middle of a maelstrom, most people will hang on tight to a familiar bulwark, head down and eyes tight shut, and follow orders.

I was disgusted, because the political settlement they were vilifying, on the record in Hansard, was the political settlement they had voted for. They pledged Boris Johnson they would vote for his Brexit deal in order to stand as Conservative PPCs in December 2019: they voted for his Withdrawal Agreement to pass the Commons and they voted to enact his Withdrawal Agreement into law in January 2020.

They saw – we all did – Boris Johnson sign the international treaty that settled the Brexit agreement with the EU.

They heard the Unionist MPs of Northern ireland refuse to support this Withdrawal Agreement because the terms of it were a hard border for goods and customs down the Irish Sea – to allow Northern Ireland to remain, amphibian, part of the UK but within the EU customs area.

They voted for the Withdrawal Agreement. They consented for the UK to be bound by this treaty on these terms. They all did: in January 2020.

Now, nine months later, they stand up in the Commons and say they could not possibly ever consent for the UK to be divided in this way (that they voted for in January) and they condemn the EU for proposing it (which they did, but had dropped it when Theresa May said she couldn’t accept that) and they support Boris Johnson for opposing it (when he proposed it himself and made Tory candidates pledge to support it) and I am disgusted and ashamed.

I didn’t realise Tory MPs had the capacity to shame me. UK politics is tribal. Not my party, not my problem: I never voted Conservative in my life.

But yes, I’m ashamed. This isn’t a domestic matter: Dominic Raab went to the US and told Nancy Pelosi yesterday that of course the UK couldn’t agree to a hard border down the Irish Sea, and I hope Pelosi pointed out to him what the world knows: Raab already agreed to the Irish Sea customs border, and voted for it, not even nine months ago, and now to renege on it is disgraceful, and to lie about never having supported it is shameful.

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