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Analysis

Ministers who don’t want to crash out must take a stand

by Hugo Dixon | 28.01.2019

A dozen ministers who want to stop “no deal” agreed last night to give the prime minister a two-week deadline to bring a deal back to MPs. But what if she refuses?

The ministers on the conference call included Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, Greg Clark, the business secretary and David Gauke, the justice secretary, according to The Telegraph. They are known as the “hair-shirt” club because they do not drink alcohol or eat in their meetings.

This group had previously been calling for Theresa May to give MPs a free vote on tomorrow’s key amendments which would make it harder for us to crash out of the EU without a deal – and suggesting that there could be large-scale resignations if they weren’t free to vote with their consciences.

When the prime minister refused their request, they switched to setting a two-week deadline for the next so-called “meaningful vote”. May needs MPs to vote in favour of a deal – either the one they rejected two weeks ago or perhaps some tweaked version – before she can ratify it.

If she agrees to the deadline, the hair-shirt club will have shown it has influence. In two weeks, if MPs still won’t approve a deal, Parliament can then take further measures to take “no deal” off the table because the meaningful vote will be amendable.

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But May could decide to call their bluff and refuse to be bound by this two-week deadline. She might think they’ve blinked once and will blink again. At that point, the hair-shirt club will need an answer – or look impotent.

The best bet could be to return to their Plan A – to ask for a free vote on tomorrow’s amendments – but with a twist. They could take their stance on just one of the key amendments, the one proposed by Caroline Spelman, a senior Tory backbencher. This calls for MPs to reject the idea of leaving the EU without a deal (see amendment (i))

The amendment is a clean shot against “no deal”. It doesn’t wrest the parliamentary timetable from the government or seek to delay Brexit, unlike Yvette Cooper’s more famous proposal. It therefore doesn’t involve any constitutional innovations.

If the prime minister won’t agree to their two-week deadline, the hair-shirt club could demand a free vote on Spelman’s amendment. And if she refuses that too, they could abstain.

The ball would then be in May’s court. In normal times, she would fire ministers who don’t do what she told them. But would she have the guts?

The hair-shirt club should call her bluff. If she blinks, they will have shown their power. If she sacks them, their consciences will be clean. They will know they have tried everything from inside government to stop us crashing out of the EU and will be free to campaign against it with vigour from the back benches.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

7 Responses to “Ministers who don’t want to crash out must take a stand”

  • May is obstinate to the point of idiocy. No amount of common sense seems to percolate into her thick skull. Does she not realise that, far from being adulated for her stance over Brexit, the verdict of history will be opprobrium for ever more ? Brexit needs to be postponed by at least 9 months if a new referendum is to happen – but I think it is now far too late and there’s not enough support in the house. This is understandable, the public have screwed up once, there’s no guarantee they won’t screw up again. And on that basis, I have my doubts that the EU would agree to an extension just for a “People’s Vote”. I think it is now down to our MP’s to prove whether they deserve to sit in the Houses of Parliament or not. It isn’t just Brexit on trial, it’s British politics as well.

  • John- I feel your pain. If I was Scottish I would have voted for independence back at the first time of asking and I would be even hungrier now. I am feel ashamed to be English and truly resent being ruled by a load of public school Tories. Their arrogance and hubris are breath-taking.
    May could lose both Brady’s amendment and Yvette Cooper’ amendment could also go against her. Let’s hope so. Brady’s amendment is so vague, it is an insult. I don’t think the ERG will support it.

  • Unfortunately I am neither a Scot nor a German, nor have I an Irish passport. Bad luck, because things do not look good for the English, with people droning on about respecting the referendum result again, and drowning out any more intelligent discussion like the sheep starting up with “Four legs good, two legs bad” in Orwell’s Animal Farm. How can people respect a referendum won by lies and cheating? Nobody asks that simple question, too busy singing the song.

    They need to be taught a new song “Respect the right to Vote” – still time for turning things around, if we sing loud enough.

  • John,
    Like you I can’t understand why any MP of integrity doesn’t ask the question “How can people respect a referendum won by lies and cheating?”
    (with the possible exception of Boris who told them). The only answer that really makes any sense is that they got the result that they were hoping for, and now they have it they are desperate not to let go of it, irrespective of lies and cheating. Others seem to reason that their £80,000 + salaries are more important than the 500,000 jobs + that could be lost by businesses relocating, or the supply of 78% medicines that are imported from the EU or many other negative consequences that we are staring at.

  • Listening to that wind bag Ian Blackford going on & on & on & on in the house of commons I like John Morrison now look forward to the imminent departure of Scotland from the UK.

  • It is time for those in Parliament who know what’s going on to lay bare the Brexiteers’ motives ie small state, offshore tax haven, low regulation, no environmental controls, basic public service provision etc. The Labour MPs who voted with the Gov. ought to be ashamed of themselves. Take a lesson from Wes Streeting, an honourable man.