A house di­vided

From join­ing the EEC in the 1970s to Maas­tricht in the 1990s, the EU de­bate has al­ways had the po­ten­tial to wreck party unity. But to­mor­row’s vote – the first of many – on the great re­peal bill will ex­pose fault lines that run from top to bot­tom in both p

The Observer - - FRONT PAGE -

Al­most 46 years ago, on 21 Oc­to­ber 1971 the Con­ser­va­tive for­eign sec­re­tary, Sir Alec Dou­glas-Home, rose in the House of Com­mons to open what had be­come known in the coun­try as “the great de­bate”. The mat­ter MPs were about to dis­cuss was, Dou­glas-Home told them, “mo­men­tous”. The mo­tion to be voted upon stated that “this house ap­proves Her Majesty’s gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion of prin­ci­ple to join the Euro­pean Com­mu­ni­ties on the ba­sis of ar­range­ments which have been ne­go­ti­ated”.

The coun­try was deeply di­vided over whether the UK should throw in its lot with the Euro­peans, and the Labour party in par­tic­u­lar was pro­foundly split. Af­ter more than 300 hours of de­bate, Tory prime min­is­ter Ed­ward Heath was helped across the line by pro-EEC Labour MPs, in­clud­ing a young David Owen, and the 1972 Euro­pean com­mu­ni­ties bill passed into law.

When the UK of­fi­cially joined – on 1 January 1973 – the Guardian raised doubts about the new union, not­ing that Bri­tish peo­ple tended to blame oth­ers wher­ever they could. “One temp­ta­tion should be avoided – to seek, month af­ter month, to prove that mem­ber­ship of the com­mu­nity has cre­ated all Bri­tain’s ills,” it said. “Above all, we should avoid cre­at­ing a new, semi-per­ma­nent rift in Bri­tish so­ci­ety, be­tween pro- and anti-Euro­peans.”

It was a vain hope. To­mor­row night, Tory and Labour MPs, their par­ties riven by dis­agree­ments over Europe, will vote for the first time in an­other “great de­bate” – this time on the Euro­pean Union (with­drawal) bill, which will strike from the statute book the leg­is­la­tion that was passed in 1972.

If join­ing was di­vi­sive, the process of leav­ing af­ter four and a half decades looks like be­ing even more an­grily con­tested. The cur­rent “Brexit par­lia­ment” will de­bate lit­tle else, so com­plex and con­tentious are the is­sues to be dealt with.

One se­nior Labour source at the heart of cross-party at­tempts to amend the with­drawal bill said the leg­is­la­tion would be “eaten alive” in both the Com­mons and Lords over the next few months by those who op­pose a hard Brexit. The vast ma­jor­ity of MPs agree that the de­ci­sion to leave the EU is pretty much ir­re­versible. But on how we leave and when, the dis­agree­ments run so deep, and are so nu­mer­ous, that the pas­sage of the bill to­wards the statute book will be a deeply trou­bled one, if in­deed it com­pletes the jour­ney at all.

With Theresa May lack­ing a Com­mons ma­jor­ity, and de­pen­dent on the 10 Demo­cratic Union­ists to stay in Down­ing Street, each vote is po­ten­tially per­ilous. To­mor­row will in all like­li­hood be the least prob­lem­atic day for May, as rebels rarely break cover at a bill’s sec­ond read­ing. They keep their pow­der dry and light the fuses later. Labour will, how­ever, make things as awk­ward as it can from the start, whip­ping its MPs to vote against a sec­ond read­ing, along with the other op­po­si­tion par­ties, be­cause it says the bill grants min­is­ters ex­ces­sive lev­els of ex­ec­u­tive au­thor­ity that would al­low them to by­pass MPs – the so called Henry VIII pow­ers – and is deeply flawed in many other re­spects.

Plenty of Tories are just as un­happy and have said so, but most will bide their time be­fore de­fy­ing the whips. Any Con­ser­va­tives who do rebel to­mor­row (the Europhile Ken­neth Clarke may ab­stain) will be more than can­celled out by hard-Brexit Labour rebels like Kate Hoey, who will defy their own leader and vote for the bill to pro­ceed.

The real trou­ble will start this au­tumn when the bill comes back to par­lia­ment af­ter the party con­fer­ence sea­son, for de­tailed scru­tiny. Al­ready, cross-party al­liances are form­ing be­tween Tory MPs who op­pose a hard Brexit and those of like mind from Labour, the Lib­eral Democrats, the SNP and the Greens.

Plenty of pro-EU Tories want to keep open the op­tion of stay­ing in the sin­gle mar­ket, as does Labour, and want a bind­ing vote on any even­tual deal, as does Labour.

One Tory vet­eran of the Maas­tricht de­bates of the early 1990s said the Brexit par­lia­ment would see

‘The pub­lic are not id­iots. They know that both par­ties are fun­da­men­tally di­vided on many of these is­sues’ Ken­neth Clarke MP

the Con­ser­va­tives split even more pro­foundly than they were then. “Maas­tricht dam­aged us ter­ri­bly,” said the MP. “But I think the fol­low­ing months will be far, far worse.”

Se­cret meet­ings to plot tac­tics have al­ready been held be­tween Tory and Labour MPs on both sides of the ar­gu­ment and be­tween Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Lib Dem leader Vince Ca­ble, and the SNP. On the Tory side, party dis­ci­pline is fast dis­in­te­grat­ing, as was clear on Thurs­day when 40 Con­ser­va­tive MPs wrote a let­ter call­ing for the hard­est of hard Brex­its in de­fi­ance of of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment pol­icy. On the same day, in the Com­mons cham­ber, Tory MPs in­clud­ing Clarke openly praised a speech by Starmer as “bril­liant”, while for­mer Tory at­tor­ney gen­eral Do­minic Grieve de­scribed the bill be­fore them – brought for­ward by his own party – as an “as­ton­ish­ing mon­stros­ity”.

Labour and pro-EU Tory MPs are al­ready work­ing on how to table amend­ments on the sin­gle mar­ket and other is­sues through se­lect com­mit­tees or other back­bench groups so that they can be pre­sented as hav­ing all-party back­ing and at­tract max­i­mum lev­els of cross-party sup­port.

The in­tra-party splits and re­bel­lions are al­ready out in the open. The large anti-hard-Brexit ma­jor­ity in the House of Lords could also give fair wind to such amend­ments. To­day, writ­ing in these pages, the Labour peer Lord Ado­nis says he be­lieves that by early next year the Lords will vote for an amend­ment call­ing for a ref­er­en­dum on the fi­nal deal. “It is vi­tal this is not con­ceived as a re­run of last year’s poll, but rather a ref­er­en­dum on May’s deal. And it is es­sen­tial that, come the ref­er­en­dum, there is a cred­i­ble and op­ti­mistic al­ter­na­tive to ac­cept­ing with­drawal.”

Labour, he thinks, will even­tu­ally back such a move. The SNP’s Brexit spokesman Stephen Gethins, writ­ing on the­guardian.com, says there is emerg­ing “com­mon ground” in the Com­mons be­tween the par­ties on ev­ery­thing from the rights of EU cit­i­zens to pre­serv­ing the UK’s place in the sin­gle mar­ket. The soft-Brexit Tory Europhile Anna Soubry has no qualms in say­ing she will hap­pily back any changes to the bill if she be­lieves they would have the ef­fect of keep­ing the UK in the sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union. In a speech in the Com­mons on Friday Clarke, now fa­ther of the house, ad­mit­ted that the main par­ties were hugely split on Brexit, as they had been for decades. He ap­pealed for unity and a com­mon sense ap­proach.

“The pub­lic are not id­iots,” he said, “they know that both par­ties are com­pletely and fun­da­men­tally di­vided on many of these is­sues, with ex­treme po­si­tions on both sides rep­re­sented in the cab­i­net and shadow cab­i­net, let alone the back benches.

“Let us there­fore re­solve this mat­ter. Let us make sure this bill does not make it im­pos­si­ble to stay in the sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union and let us have a grown-up de­bate on the whole prac­ti­cal prob­lem we face, and pro­duce a much bet­ter act of par­lia­ment than the bill rep­re­sents at the moment.”

Clarke, who was a ju­nior whip in the Heath gov­ern­ment that passed the 1972 act, is clearly still hop­ing that MPs could come to­gether on Europe in the na­tional in­ter­est as the UK leaves the EU. But more than any other MP in the Com­mons to­day, he will know how dif­fi­cult it will be to achieve that kind of unity in a di­vided house.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.