Like a true party loyalist, Richard Harrington has suggested that 66 of his fellow MPs should join another political party. In the world of party politics, that is the political equivalent of fratricide and indicates, proof positive, just how low Parliament and the Conservative Party have sunk.
Mr Harrington, an obscure junior minister about whom I must confess I know little and, until recently, had never heard of, appears to have appointed himself as the self-styled spokesperson of the “true” Conservative Party. His beef is that a number of his colleagues refused to vote for an affirmative motion, put down by No 10, which ruled out a no deal Brexit, the very thing that should give the PM and our negotiators leverage in Brussels.
It is hardly the fault of the dissenters that they were put in this position. It must have been crystal clear to No 10 what they were doing when they proposed the motion. In fact, I myself told Robbie Gibb as much personally, the day before the vote when I ran into him in a cafe and apologised for surprising him in his bolthole (he almost jumped out of his skin).
What is astonishing to someone not breathing every day the sulphurous air of the Westminster bubble, is that the 66 represent the mainstream and declared position of the Conservative Government.
It was the Conservative PM, David Cameron, who called a referendum to determine our future relationship with the EU. It was he who approved a ballot paper which did not mention a deal of any kind, which contained a binary choice: remain or leave, simple, just leave. It was he, on behalf of the Conservative Government who said on record that there were no further deals to be had, it was to remain on the basis of his deal or leave.
The current PM, for her part, made it clear on numerous occasions that no deal is better than a bad deal, that we do not wish to be part of the single market or the Customs Union. In fact, so confident was the Conservative Party of this position that they put it in their manifesto and all the MPs that are now in Parliament fought and won the election on that platform – were they lying?
Furthermore, the Conservative Party voted overwhelmingly to trigger the mechanism for leaving the EU, Article 50 and the legislation to repeal the European Communities Act and to set a date for leaving.
It seems to me that far from the dissenters being outside the pale, Mr Harrington should be joining “Tory” Blair (as he was known to many northern Labour people), in finding a suitable home.
Of course, the real interest in Mr Harrington’s comments lies in his call for his colleagues to join the newly constituted Brexit Party. As I understand it, this organisation is a one issue political entity (of course Brexit is all-encompassing and a very big single issue) designed to fight a European or other election under the circumstances that the democratic process is subverted. For example, if the government tries to delay the date of our departure from the EU, or under the circumstances that the PM strikes a deal with the EU which keeps us trapped in its orbit.
Leave means Leave, of which I am Chairman, is a cross-party and no party campaign group dedicated to a clean and swift exit from the EU. It places me in a unique position to observe our democracy in action. My observation of politicians, especially the career politicians we are burdened with nowadays, is that they are tribal, not least in the Conservative Party. I am not at all sure they will take Mr Harrington’s direction, tribe trumps principle. Nonetheless, Mr Harrington should be careful what he wishes for.
While career politicians may not be so principled, party donors, members and voters may take a very different approach and in very large numbers. This doesn’t only apply to the Conservatives, but also to the Labour Party, many of whose constituencies voted to leave the EU.
If Mr Harrington truly has his beady eye on the Brexit Party and is determined to deliver Brexit in name only, or no Brexit at all, my political advice to him is to be afraid, be very afraid.
John Longworth is an entrepreneur, chairman of Leave means Leave and is on the Advisory Board of a Economists for Free Trade and the IEA. He was formerly Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce
The Daily Telegraph; 15th February 2019