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
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.