Europhile Conservative MPs: the new Tory awkward squad?
Could it be pro-Remain Tory MPs, not eurosceptics, who become the thorn in the side of Theresa May?
The Tory awkward squad has traditionally been comprised of eurosceptic backbenchers. The MPs, viewed by some as rebels, were the scourge of David Cameron’s tenure in charge of the Conservative party.
A cabal of 50 or so MPs forced the then-prime minister’s hand in 2013 to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. It was a decision that secured his demise three years later.
Cameron wanted to move the Conservative party on from the EU rifts of the late 20th century, adamant his legacy would not be dominated by matters Europe. His failure to rein in the rebels and succumbing to their demands ensured he would fall well short in that endeavour.
Nourished by the decision to quit the EU, those John Major famously described as “bastards” have been well fed by Theresa May’s early rumblings on Brexit. The UK will have left the EU by 2019, and the prime minister’s early signals about the need to end free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice points towards a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.
Speaking this morning, May said the UK is not a “supplicant” to the European Union, a phrase deployed by eurosceptics including Michael Howard in recent weeks. Her patriotic calls for making a success of Brexit and ensuring Britain becomes a truly “independent sovereign nation” are more red meat to her colleagues. The rhetoric echoes notions of nationalistic pride – a key plank of Leave campaigners’ pitch to voters before 23 June. Leading Brexiteer Daniel Hannan tweeted after May's address on Sunday: “She has never stood higher in my regard.”
This is not for no reason. With a working majority of 12, May knows pushing her legislative agenda requires the awkward squad to be on board. As she stands by her plans to create new and expand existing grammar schools, parliamentary maths dictates she needs her backbenchers in line if she is to have any chance of passing her reforms through the Commons.
But there is a new team forming in Tory ranks rife with political clout. Rather than eurosceptics, they come in the form of staunch Remain campaigners. Among them include George Osborne, Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, all cast to the backbenches in May’s July reshuffle.
Free from the shackles of collective responsibility, each has been busy setting out their stall. Osborne has warned against relinquishing access to the single market in return for control over free movement, arguing the public did not vote for it in June’s referendum. Morgan, the former education secretary, has spoken out on several occasions against May’s plans over grammar schools. She has also been another vocal dissident against a hard Brexit, and called for greater clarity over the Government’s plans for an EU exit. In fact, Tory whips were watching over Morgan at a fringe event at the Tory party conference yesterday, which did not go unnoticed by the former cabinet minister.
“I’ve got the whips. I’ve got two whips in the room! Gentlemen, I know what it’s like... Very nice to have you here”, Morgan told delegates, defiantly.
Soubry, meanwhile, indicated she could vote against the repeal of legislation enacting EU laws. She branded Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, “almost delusional” for saying the UK’s trade with the EU would be “at least as free” after Brexit as it is now. The former business minister has unashamedly attacked Brexiteers for their “lies” over funding for the NHS.
Nick Herbert, another former minister and pro-Remain campaigner, this week attacked “Brexit fundamentalism” and warned against a “brutal severance” from the European Union.
Brexit has brought with it a recalibration in Conservative ranks. Once the outsiders looking to impose their will on the Government, the eurosceptics are now front and centre with some of their own, namely Liam Fox and David Davis, sitting at the Cabinet table. The Tory conference in Birmingham is brimming with delighted eurosceptics won over by a prime minister who has sent out carefully constructed signals. Their concerns over the Government’s approach to Brexit and ministers’ willingness to follow up on June’s vote well abated.
But May should take note of the new team in town on the Conservatives’ green benches. The majority of Tory MPs were in favour of Remain. While the eurosceptics will continue to pose a threat to May’s fragile parliamentary majority, she should not lose sight of an emerging Tory awkward squad.