If it was Theresa May’s intention to flush out anti-brexit rebels on her own backbenches with her article in last week’s Telegraph, she has certainly succeeded. In announcing plans to fix legally the date of Brexit to March 29 2019, she made it clear that she would not tolerate wreckers on her own side using parliamentary process to undermine, or attempt to reverse, our departure from the European Union. Now a group of at least 15 Conservative MPS has emerged, defying her.
It was always clear that an opportunistic, flip-flopping Labour Party would, despite its promises and the clear wishes of many of its own supporters in the election campaign, put every obstacle in the path of Brexit. But at least Jeremy Corbyn can offer the feeble defence that he and his colleagues are in Opposition. Such shameless hypocrisy is to be expected.
What equivalent excuse can rebel Tory MPS offer – MPS who voted in favour of triggering Article 50, yet now suddenly find they have insurmountable scruples about accepting its inevitable consequences? These are parliamentarians who chose to invoke a process with a clear two-year timeframe. So Brexiteers in the country may find themselves asking, with entirely legitimate scepticism, why their representatives cannot bring themselves to follow through now.
Despite the unprecedented strains of Brexit, parliamentary process has held up well so far. But it is beginning to fray. Individual threads are splitting from the fabric. Rebels must know that, by opposing the legal fixing of Brexit’s date, they cannot stop Brexit itself. But they can weaken the Government, and thus the hand that Britain can play in negotiations with the EU. So what is their actual aim?
This is not about a witch-hunt. Kenneth Clarke, the Father of House, is one of the group and has long made his opposition to Brexit clear. His position is established, well-argued and principled. It is possible to disagree with his point of view, but it is hard to object. He made an excellent speech in the House yesterday, stating his position once again and reminding other members of its “consistency”. “Now I find I am the rebel,” he joked.
Only up to a point. For he consistent, and voted against invoking Article 50. His fellow “rebels” did not. So they must explain why they have suddenly changed their minds. Is it principle? Or is it antibrexit prejudice?