The nation is yearning for leadership. It is our duty as MPs to provide it
Few of us savour making a decision whose personal and national consequences are so profound. But, with the nation yearning for leadership, decide we must, writes Conservative MP Simon Hart
Last weekend I got home feeling drained by Brexit, not from being part of the process, but simply watching the saga unfold at close quarters. We’ve all been to events or films like that, where the roller-coaster action just never stops, the climax is unknown and it’s a toss-up whether we should be cheering or crying by the end of it. And yet we are nowhere near the end, but we could be at the beginning of the end.
First was the sudden emergence of a so-called deal, courtesy of RTE. I was wandering through Central Lobby when the balloon went up and the media went into a collective spasm, matched only by that of colleagues racing to find a camera into which they could register their disgust. Not that anyone had even seen the deal by then, but this is the 24 hour and online news environment where such niceties take second place. To be honest it was a pretty unedifying, hyena-like experience as people I generally like and trust demonstrated just a tad too much glee in their ambitions to depose the Prime Minister. There were statements, impromptu press conferences and threats of letters to the ’22. This was, as Captain Edmund Blackadder once said, “it”.
That was over a week ago. The PM is still the PM, the government has passed the Finance Bill (despite the DUP baring its teeth in protest) and the full content (all 500+ pages of it) has been digested, at least by some. Even if the unflappable Sir Graham Brady receives the requisite number of letters of no confidence, the spark has gone out of that particular effort suggesting that efforts to reach 158 (the votes needed for a successful attempt on No 10) could be a big ask.
It’s a strange one too. Why now? What can be changed before the meaningful vote or even our departure date, less than 100 working days from now? Is this really a bid to alter policy, or just to express frustration? My doubts lie in the fact that whoever is leader, the challenges, and crucially the majority remain unchanged.
Needless to say, opinions are divided. In the Brexit Delivery Group (BDG) we remain committed to a negotiated outcome in preference to another referendum, election or if even possible a no-deal exit.
Does that make us pro the agreement or even the PM? Not necessarily. But it does align us with mainstream voters and businesses as recent polling confirms. This often silent but significant middle ground wants a conclusion on decent terms and on time yet accepts that to achieve that concessions may need to be made – as with any deal. And there is also increasing evidence that the PM’s own standing is gathering some grudging respect out there – a stoical performance in the face of extraordinary pressures always appeals to the fair-minded nature of UK voters, whereas public backstabbing has the opposite effect.
What also of the charge that the deal fails to deliver on either the manifesto or referendum, or that it ties us to a failed model over which we will have less influence than now, for a higher price?
That scenario, frequently expressed with passion and honesty, overlooks the realities of Parliament and the practicalities of extracting ourselves elegantly from 43 years of political, economic, social and cultural union. As one Brexit colleague put it to me, the ‘winner’ is the one who gets 650 divided by two, plus one. Nothing else matters. So, the siren calls of those whose ideological attachment to Brexit, or remain, are of no value if it cannot be delivered.
Equally risky is the theory that by blocking off all other options we default to a no deal Brexit in a way that no one can prevent. Many believe the opposite to be the case. No deal has clearly been considered and dismissed by the government; it does not carry a Parliamentary majority and is at the moment contrary to public opinion too. The idea that the House will facilitate an outcome that all these elements believe to be damaging is unthinkable. Watch this space.
Therefore, the government has a matter of days to make a case for this deal, or a variation of it, in the face of committed opposition from across the House. Speculation is rife as to whether this will be a case of fear (reject this and we lose Brexit and trigger an agonising descent into an early election at which we will be punished) or to magic up some additional policy changes which give colleagues permission to alter their publicly stated position. Who would be a Chief Whip?
Three times in recent history the Conservative party has consigned itself to opposition thanks to its unparalleled ability to beat itself up over Europe. Such public abuse of ourselves plays badly with voters whose electoral choices, thank goodness, are still based on competence and values rather than the minutiae of trading arrangements. Sounding righteous about manifesto pledges also fools no one except, it seems, some of our own colleagues. We regularly have to review, dilute and even junk our commitments because the parliamentary maths, public opinion or economic reality force us to.
Alastair Campbell once said of a crisis that it’s important to remember that it will eventually be replaced by another one, but that if you are in the eye of the storm it’s hard to believe that. In two weeks’ time, we will have a chance to behave like the politicians that the nation yearns for – honest, direct and resilient. We must take a decision that few savour because the personal and national consequences are so profound. But decide we must.
For many of the hundred or so colleagues who share the BDG ambitions, banking what we have now is still a better option than risking it all on the altar of perfection. Next March will not be the end of Brexit or our relationship with the EU, but it just might be if we aren’t careful.
Simon Hart is Conservative MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and chair of the Brexit Delivery Group
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