Bernard Jenkin: The general election being a re-run of the referendum would appal most people
Like most of Westminster, Bernard Jenkin was left stunned by the announcement of a snap election. He talks to Agnes Chambre about the ‘fiction’ of the Fixed Term Parliament Act and the risks of foreign interference in UK polls
At 10am on Tuesday morning, Bernard Jenkin received a text. ‘There’s a rumour going round that the PM is about to announce a general election,’ it read. Number 10 had just told the world Theresa May would be making a statement in just over an hour. Jenkin ran through the options of what it could be; a death in the Royal family? Military action? Direct rule in Northern Ireland? None of these seemed appropriate. “It had to be something personal or something to do with the Conservative party or a general election,” Jenkin reflects.
At 11:15am May stood on the steps of Downing Street in front of a podium without the government crest and told the country that it was her intention to go to the polls on 8 June.
Some 24 hours later, and just minutes before Jenkin sits down to talk to The House, MPs had voted 522-13 to set up the election before the 2020 date mandated by the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA). The vote raised questions about the purpose of the Act, and Jenkin, who opposed its introduction, does not hold back in his criticism.
“I think it's a terrible piece of legislation, it's turned out to be a fiction anyway,” he says. “It was an Act created in order to reinforce the incumbency of the coalition. It was to cement in office a particular group of people and protect them from another general election.
“It's easier to hold a prime minister to account if you know that she can call a general election at any time and I think that's a democratic system. Get rid of it.”
Exactly a week before the election was called, Jenkin's highly influential Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published a report on the vulnerability of Britain's electoral process to cyber-attacks during elections. ‘Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum’ did not rule out the possibility that there was foreign cyber interference in last June’s vote.
The committee, which Jenkin chairs, called on the government to ensure the same mistakes are not made again. Jenkin says it is important to keep Russia’s technical capabilities in perspective.
“The most impossible thing to hack is a polling station where people are going into a voting booth and voting. The only bit that was possibly knocked over in the referendum was a brand new central registration system which hadn't been properly tested or protected.
“I think we need to understand the psychological intent behind these kinds of attacks,” he says. “Russia delights in everybody talking about how they may be interfering in the election of Trump or the French election. Whether they are succeeding or not is of secondary importance to them. Everyone is advertising their power and influence.”
Although Jenkin is not concerned about the result of the general election being affected, he urges ministers to look at his committee’s recommendations before the country goes to the polls. The report called on the government to set up a new team to monitor, and contain, cyber-attacks on UK electoral processes.
Jenkin expects a full response to the report’s recommendations after the snap election, but says this problem should be addressed immediately. “We made a recommendation that the Cabinet Office should establish a cyber working group to monitor cyber interference in our electoral processes, in cooperation with GCHQ. It would probably be after the election that the government responds to this report, but they could implement this recommendation now and they should.”
The fact that the election came as such a shock to even the most senior of Conservatives – Jenkin described it as “out of the blue” – shows the extent to which the secret was kept. Since she became prime minister, May has repeatedly promised not to hold a snap poll.
But Jenkin backs the decision, saying it was “becoming clearer and clearer” that some Remain supporters – “particularly in the House of Lords” – were prepared to oppose the Brexit all the way. “They just would not accept that the referendum result was what the British people had signed up to,” he says.
“Well the British people now have a choice, they can elect a Conservative government with a clear mandate to conduct Brexit in a certain way or they can choose another government but this will decide it and this will settle it.”
The Lords were at least partly responsible for the early election U-turn; May mentioned that the “unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way” as she made her speech on Tuesday.
There has been speculation these comments could pave the way for a promise of reform in the Tory manifesto, but Jenkin denies this, claiming the prime minister was referring to the Salisbury convention; the understanding which dictates that the House of Lords can only reject laws if they were not in the governing party’s manifesto.
“I think the government would be well advised to leave the House of Lords alone. The fact is the House of Lords does its job.
“The House of Lords is pretty deferential to the House of Commons. While we had a referendum on leaving the European Union, there was quite a lot of legitimate debate about how we should leave the EU. What I expect to see in our manifesto is a very clear commitment to how we will leave the EU and that will settle what will be in the Great Repeal Bill, how the legislation will be framed.
“It will settle to some extent the relationship between the four parts of the UK, though that debate may well carry on in one way or another. And the Salisbury convention will mean that the Lords can interrogate and scrutinise it, but in the end they have to accept it and they can't delay it.”
But Jenkin, who was a leading Leave voice in the Brexit campaign, does not believe the next six weeks will be a rerun of the EU referendum.
“The country is getting bored with Brexit. I think a re-run of the referendum would appal most people. I think the Brexit horse has bolted from the stable and I think this is not going to decide whether or not we leave the EU. Even this Parliament, which was predominantly against Brexit, voted for Brexit after the referendum. I don't think any party in this country has got a future if they are going to try and turn the clock back on the referendum result.”
But what of those Conservative MPs, Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry chief among them, who backed Remain in the EU referendum and have been vocal since about their priorities for the country? Jenkin’s advice is to “accept reality” when they are out campaigning.
“We live in a democracy where as an elected MP you are expected to use your judgement. I would not expect any of my colleagues to sell out on their principles and there will be one or two who will be irreconcilable. But they are a very, very small number. I would urge them to stick to their principles but accept reality.”
As the conversation draws to a close Jenkin tells me he has “never been so optimistic about the future of this country”.
“We have taken another great leap forward in our history. Some people will regret it but most people in this country will accept things are changing and want to change with them in order to continue to prosper.”
Like every parliamentary candidate over the next six weeks, the Conservative MP will be pounding the pavement of his constituency to try and hold onto his seat. With a 15,000 majority, it shouldn’t be hard, but who knows what the political landscape could look like in 49 days’ time? Twenty-four hours before this interview, a general election looked impossible.
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