Once a week, the most important piece of paper to come across the MP’s desk is “The Whip.” It’s a detailed list of the forthcoming business in the House at least for a week ahead, sometimes two.
“THE BUSINESS FOR THE WEEK COMMENCING 23RD OCTOBER 2017 WILL BE:
MONDAY 23RD OCTOBER
Deadline for tabling: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Church Commissioners & House of Commons Commission and Public Accounts Commission and Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission
The House meets at 2:30pm for Defence Questions
Second Reading of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill (Whip in Charge: Andrew Stephenson)
THERE WILL BE A 3-LINE WHIP AT 9PM FOR 10PM.
Under each piece of business there appears either one line, occasionally two, and for important business three. Hence the “three-line whip.” It means that we have to be there, and to support the Government, no excuses accepted.
We got the oddest ever instruction from the Whips last week with regard to an (anyhow unenforceable) Labour motion calling for the universally-liked Universal Credits system nonetheless to be delayed in its implementation. The note from the Chief Whip read “Three-line Whip: Please abstain.” It’s the only time I have heard of a three-line whip to abstain.
Current Parliamentary arithmetic means that every vote is on a knife-edge. Had we voted on this Labour motion, the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have been called back from Washington DC, the Prime Minister from Brussels, and doubtless other Ministers all over the place for the purely symbolic action of disagreeing with the Labour Party, and a handful of Tory rebels.
The bulk of the business of government is conducted in Whitehall rather than Westminster, and is subject to scrutiny by Parliament, but not to a vote. Separation of powers between Government and Parliament is a central principle of our constitution. So Parliamentary votes are often given a great deal too much importance. It is asking questions, and holding the Government to account in a variety of ways and means that really counts, rather than votes. The whipping system ensures that the Government secures whatever votes they want by virtue of their election to govern; opposition motions routinely are dismissed by the voting power of the governing party. Clever questions, pointed debates, crafty machinations in Commons and Lords truly give the Government a headache, which no three-line whip can alleviate.
And that, after all, is exactly what Parliament is there to do – to scrutinise the government rather than necessarily support it.
Patriotic Nationalism is a worthy and oft-quoted emotion, and justification for a variety of political actions, sometimes even violent ones.
There is, of course, a real attraction, in ‘freedom fighters’ independence movements’, ‘self-determination.’ A swirl of bagpipes, haggis and whisky drinking is – to some - more than enough to hide the catastrophe for Scotland were she to leave the UK (overturning the decision in 1603 when the Scots King took over England’s throne, and 1707, when the Scottish Parliament decided it was too small to survive on its own, and joined the English one.) There are some who argue for freedom for Kernow (Cornwall in case you are not quite up to speed with these things), Brittany, Wales. The Tamils fought a bitter war in an attempt to divide Sri Lanka, the IRA wanted to reunite Ireland. The Centenary of the Balfour Declaration whence came the State of Israel is welcomed by most, but not necessarily by some elements of the Palestinian and Arab factions. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.
There is some similarity amongst the current troubles in Catalonia, the forthcoming independence referendum in Kurdish Iraq, and in the SNP muddle North of the Border. Each of them have got as far as believing themselves to be ‘different’ from the mainland, to rely on historical or cultural ties to argue the case for independence, rather than economic, or diplomatic or political ones. Of course we sympathise with those seeking cultural unity in their areas, and any sensible central government allows the level of devolution which should satisfy that cultural craving. But that devolution must not be allowed to trump hard-headed economic realism about the true wellbeing of all of the people.
The Brexit argument is wholly different. We are not saying that we are culturally or historically one. We are not - as the very name ‘United Kingdom’ makes plain. We are not seeking to break away from some nation to whom we subscribed many centuries ago, nor are we ignoring the hard political and economic realities. It is my longstanding view that 65 million people living on an island such as this makes a very logical unit of government, which a diversified population of 750 million spread over a Continent does not. We are a proud nation state, with a much loved and internationally recognised Head of State, and a long history of brave independence from our Continental near neighbours.
The people of Catalonia, and Iraqi Kurdistan – and even of Scotland - may have a nationalistic, cultural war-cry which stirs the blood of (at least some of) their peoples. But they must not allow sentiment to trump good government. Historic Nation States - like Spain, Iraq and The United Kingdom are the right units of government, and ones which people can truly love.
Patriotism means that we love our countries. Nationalism means that we dislike everyone else’s.
The Party Conferences - all of them - just ain’t what they used to be. The days of blue rinses at the Tories jostling for a glimpse of the PM, of motions ‘congratulating the Government, yet urging them to go even further’, and of a pleasant few days at the Seaside, have been replaced by PR-driven Ministerial appearances, thousands of journalists and lobbyists jostling for a glimpse of Boris and Jacob, and wholly ignoring the motions for discussion. I used to go to them religiously, stay in some pleasant seaside B and B off-season, and entertain the members of the North Wiltshire Conservative Association to a fish and chip supper. But with my members, I more or less stopped attending 5 or 10 years ago as they became more and more professional, urban (and hence expensive), and just generally less and less fun.
The almost messianic welcome for Mr Corbyn at the Labour Party Conference was very reminiscent of so many hero-worshipping fads from the world of pop music, or populist politics of the worst kind. That won’t last any longer than last year’s general hatred of him, which must be a relief for all of us. And that grim-faced no-hope septuagenarian, Sir Vince Cable’s bold claim that he too could be PM, was a cheery reminded of David Steel’s exhortation to his conference “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government,” all those years ago.
All three Party Conferences have been overshadowed by the appalling gun outrage in Las Vegas, (when will they ever end?) and by the absurd mishandling of the Catalonian Independence Referendum. Sending in the shock troops with mild overtones of the Spanish Civil War must rank as one of the stupidest actions of any government ever. A condescending dismissal of the referendum as “unbinding and unofficial, and therefore an absurd waste of money” would have ensured a low turn-out, and a general lack of interest. The storm troopers have almost forced an outraged pro-independence vote. 110,000 passengers being repatriated by the Government in the aftermath of the collapse of Monarch Airlines (the biggest civilian airlift since the Second World War) is actually probably of more interest than most of the deliberations in Manchester.
My own view is that Party Conferences have more than outlived their usefulness, and I would much rather that Parliament sat through them. There is too much happening in the world of a grave and alarming nature for us to waste time navel-gazing in front of the TV cameras. Our job is to govern and to do the best for the people of Britain- all of the people. Perhaps the least said about the Tory Party Conference the better it will be.
A most moving SSAFA Service of Remembrance at Salisbury Cathedral last Friday reminded us of the 260,000 British soldiers killed at the Battle of Passchendaele, many of them from the Wiltshire Regiment and the Wiltshire Yeomanry exactly 100 years ago. (A similar number of Germans were also killed in the battle.) There was a curious poignancy about the lone piper playing the old Scottish lament, Flo’ers o’ the Forest (which laments the defeat of the Scots by the English at Flodden Field in 1513) as he disappeared down the central aisle. It reminded me that I was there when the coffin of the late Sir Edward Heath was borne up the same aisle with full military honours in 2005. (He took part in the Normandy landings, and thereafter commanded my own regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company.)
The results of Wiltshire Police's investigation into the ludicrous allegations against him were announced last week. 118 people responded to their disgraceful call for ‘victims’ at the gates of Sir Edward’s house. 111 of them have been dismissed out of hand. The seven remaining allegations which would have been sufficiently credible, apparently, to warrant Sir Edward’s questioning ‘under caution’ if he were still alive, are a pretty mixed lot. The most serious allegation - of a male rape in 1961 - was investigated by the Met Police 2 years ago and dismissed. How odd that Chief Constable Veale did not mention that. There is not a shred of evidence that Sir Edward was a paedophile, and I have written to the Prime Minister to ask her to initiate a judge-led inquiry into the remaining allegations. Genuine allegations of abuse must be treated very seriously and fully investigated. But they are diminished by bogus cases such as Ted Heath’s. Chief Constable Veale may have saved his skin for now over the £1.5 million, 20 officers’ investigation into Sir Edward. But there are a great many more questions to ask about his handling of Operation Conifer, most particularly about the way he seems to have allowed a presumption of guilt to hang over the head of this distinguished elder statesman. I thought that a presumption of innocence unless proved otherwise was one of the most basic of our rights? However, I do support him for now because of his office - he is after all the Chief Constable.
Equally, I have never been one of Theresa May’s cheerleaders. But I thought that she handled the catastrophic Conference speech with dignity and courage. What’s more, she is Prime Minister and deserves our support and respect just for that reason if none other. Our country is at a most difficult cross-roads in our history, and one thing we do not need is the chaos of a leadership battle. That could have grave consequences for the Brexit negotiations (which may well be what a few from the remain camp are in fact seeking. Who is Grant Shapps anyhow?)
Stable law-abiding society depends on such things as respect for our institutions – the Armed Forces, Government, Prime Minister; the rule of law and presumption of innocence. Of course there will be changes from time to time, but especially at times of national turbulence we need certainty and stability amongst those institutions.
I return to Parliament determined to support Theresa May, and to seek justice for the late Sir Edward Heath.
The mark of a good business deal is that it leaves both parties a little unhappy. If my post-bag after Theresa May’s Brexit speech in Florence is anything to go by, that makes it hugely successful. There are those who would like to have told the EU to get stuffed a year ago, who view the Implementation period as a sell-out. They do not want to pay a penny of any kind now or in the future no matter what our legal obligations may be. And there are those who hoped that the speech would have marked the beginning of the end of Brexit and they too are disappointed that our three main ‘redlines’ – over the European Court of Justice, Immigration and the Single Market/Customs Union - have held firm.
The speech has enabled the negotiations to resume, and offered a mildly conciliatory note to the Messrs Juncker and Barnier, while keeping all bar the most rabid of Brexiteers on side. There are of course details to be clarified.
First, I am quite content that there should be an Implementation period- to ensure our relatively seamless departure. But I am uneasy that it might last ‘about two years’. It must be two years to the day. And surely we cannot be subject to any new rules and regulations which the EU create during that period, when, after all, we will no longer be members and therefore unable to influence decisions. We must be subject to the EU rule book as it is in March 2019 and not thereafter. And surely we must be allowed to deregulate and sign our own trade deals during that period?
Second, I do not mind paying our dues during that period, but am uneasy about Mrs May’s commitment that we should ‘honour our obligations’. What are they? And what do we get in return for that commitment?
Third, I am happy with the notion that we ‘Register’ immigrants during the Implementation period (which we are perfectly entitled to do anyhow under existing EU immigration rules.) And a mutually convenient arrangement for residents in the EU and Britain thereafter seems fair. But that mutual agreement must be subject to British Law and British Courts, and the ECJ must have no say in it (even if British judges continue to ‘take note’ of its views).
So it strikes me as being a reasonable offer both from the point of view of we Brexiteers, and also those who are seeking a ‘softer’ Brexit than some of us would like. It is quite a business-like compromise. Of course we have no idea whether or not- or to what extent the EU will accept what she has proposed. This must not be an ‘opening offer’ which then slips under negotiation. We should know more within the next week or two how the EU reacts. But if they do not do so, then we should in my view still ready ourselves for departure with’ no deal’ (which remains in my view much better than a ‘bad deal’.)
Overall it’s a good step forward, and I broadly welcome the Florence terms, but I will be scrutinising events from here like a hawk.
© 2017 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA