In the early, sunlit days of New Labour, the left-wing comedian John O’Farrell had a skit on how the Tories, after a generation of dominating British politics, found their party and its principles rejected by the electoral mainstream. ‘Now the Conservatives are like a lunatic fringe party,’ he said. ‘Soon we can expect to see them outside Woolworths next to the Socialist Workers on a Saturday afternoon shouting “Daily Telegraph! Get your Daily Telegraph! Britain out of Europe!”‘
A generation on, the Tories are in power, Woolworths is gone, the Socialist Workers are running the Labour Party, and Britain is indeed coming out of Europe.
This serves as a useful reminder that, far from a conservative country, the UK is dynamic and holds the possibility of major political change for those willing to fight for it. Fifteen years ago — fifteen months ago — few thought we would be here and yet here we are.
This is why Britain needs a Parliament up to the job of overseeing Brexit. No one can honestly say that we have such a legislature today. Theresa May maintains there will be no early election and, barring a flurry of by-elections, she can hold out until 2020. The Tories have a majority. Although there are voices of dissent — Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry — other MPs not hidebound against Brexit but with concerns about Number 10’s bullish approach cannot afford to be too rebellious. The Tories have a small majority.
The Labour Party has given up on Britain; it has no interest in functioning as an alternative ministry. The only government it opposes is the last Labour one and its leader is destined to increase the Tory majority many times over. The Scots Nats have the talent to step in as the main opposition party but not the inclination. There is no obvious political gain for them. It’s to their advantage that the Tories have a majority, to seem all-powerful in Westminster.
And yet there must be a credible opposition. The Government must submit to the will of Parliament, not merely to the most ideological of its backbenchers. The Brexit process ought to be scrutinised meaningfully and the Government challenged, cajoled, and from time to time forced to change course.
This cannot happen as long as the Government has a majority. But it could happen the Government were to lose its majority. There’s only one way left for this to happen: A group of Conservative MPs could resign the whip and take the Government into minority status. Twenty-five should do it — enough to deprive the government of an overall majority, ensure the House can’t be held to ransom by the Ulster parties, and entitle the breakaway bloc to a decent chunk of Short money.
The new grouping, let’s call it Better Brexit, would sit on the opposition benches and its sole political and policy objective would be holding the government to account. Securing an EU exit that can make the UK a wealthy, compassionate, internationalist country. It would not be an attempt to scupper Brexit. Those of us who voted Remain must respect the will of the majority, however much our impending departure from Europe tears at us.
That is why a parliamentary group dedicated to achieving the best possible deal for Britain should be encouraged by Leavers as much as Remainers. A bad deal embraced by a government with nothing to fear from Parliament would brand Brexit a failure from the get-go. In the months and years ahead, much temptation will be thrown at Downing Street to choose the easy path, the headline-friendliest solution. The Prime Minister must have a counter-focus: the knowledge that she and her ministers are servants, not masters, of Parliament and that MPs would have to be consulted and convinced for any deal to be deemed legitimate.
This need not even mean giving Parliament a vote on whatever agreement is ultimately reached. The Better Brexit group could use its parliamentary clout to deny the government a majority on other aspects of its legislative agenda, trading support for greater influence over Brexit decisions, and providing Number 10 with cover when it needs to make unpopular compromises with Brussels.
The breakaway Tories would become personae non gratae in party circles, scorned by even Conservative moderates in the same way that Labour’s soft left hated Thatcher, loathed Militant but reserved their keenest contempt for the SDP. They would be attacked by those who misunderstood what they were trying to achieve, accused of conspiring to frustrate the will of the people. It would certainly end their careers in Conservative politics but their sacrifice would be for the good of the country. It would be an act of patriotism.
There is a difference between respecting democracy and submitting to populist spasms. Yes, we are leaving but we must leave on terms that will make our country stronger, freer, safer, fairer, more united and more prosperous. A deal that doesn’t achieve those aims — or, worse, no deal at all — would hurt our Brexit and our country. The government insists on calling all the shots on Brexit. Parliament must reassert its sovereignty – and take back control.