The abstainers are not all Remainers

Meme by the author

“I may be wrong,” tweeted Tory MP Michael Fabricant the morning after a late night before, “and please correct me if I am – but aren’t all the Conservative MPs (and former MPs) now campaigning against the government’s pragmatic UK Internal Market Bill all ones who campaigned vigorously against Brexit? #plusçachange #correlationcoefficient #yawn”

He was wrong, and was duly corrected. 44 per cent of the abstainers are leavers. Of course, not all are genuine abstainers. Some, like Theresa May, who was abroad, were merely absent. Others may have found their way onto the list by accident. Stuart Andrew is a whip, who also acts as a proxy for Mark François, while James Heappey is a junior minister. It’s highly unlikely those two are genuine abstainers. Nevertheless, there are some star Brexiters who are.

Take Geoffrey Cox, former Attorney General and Brexiter par excellence. In 2018, he was found in contempt of parliament when he refused to reveal the legal advice he had given to Cabinet on the latest iteration of then prime minister Theresa May’s deal. That was a first for British parliamentary history. When he finally did reveal that advice, it scuppered May’s deal. Here was a man of principle, who refused to politic himself out of a tight spot, and told the truth —eventually. Tory MP Steve Baker dubbed the legal formula Mr Cox tried to draft to satisfy Brexiter opponents to the deal as “Cox’s codpiece”. Of course, he couldn’t survive in Boris Johnson’s cabinet for long, and in February this year he was replaced by the woefully inexperienced, but ideologically-driven Suella Braverman.

Still, Mr Cox’s devotion to the Brexit cause has remained undimmed — a clue to the fact that the Internal Market Bill isn’t really about Brexit at all. The first two sentences of his Times article on the Bill, “Honour Rests On Keeping Our Word”, were so heavy-hitting, it was easy to imagine the occupant of Number 10 having a spasm and dropping his toast into his breakfast tea as he read them.

“When the Queen’s Minister gives his word, on her behalf, it should be axiomatic that he will keep it, even if the consequences are unpalatable. By doing so he pledges the faith, honour and credit of this nation and it diminishes the standing and reputation of Britain in the world if it should be seen to be otherwise.”

Oof. What a thumping reminder that Boris Johnson has such a notorious non-relationship with the truth, that he even misled the Queen. The article had the effect of stiffening the resolve of wavering Tory MPs to send a message to the prime minister: this time he has gone too far. Mr Cox’s excoriating prose brought at least one convert to the abstainer camp, and a surprising one at that: Jack Lopresti, otherwise known as Mr Andrea Jenkyns. His wife is Joint-Vice-Chair of the mis-named European Research Group (ERG), a secretive Eurosceptic party-within-a-party not known to produce much research, despite being funded by the taxpayer. Imagine their conversation at the Brexity breakfast table the morning after he abstained…

Mr Lopresti was not one of the speakers in the debate on the Internal Market Bill – 101 MPs had put their names down to speak, but couldn’t all be accommodated, despite strict time-limits applied to some of the later speeches. However, Ms Jenkyns had been permitted to intervene twice and to make a speech of her own, given her status in the ERG. Her second intervention was on Ed Miliband, and gave rise to one of the best exchanges of the evening:

Andrea Jenkyns:

Does the Labour party keep its word to the British voters?

Edward Miliband

Actually, yes we do, and I will tell the Hon. Lady why. We respect the fact that the Conservative party, under this Prime Minister, won the election. He got his mandate to deliver his Brexit deal: the thing that he said was—I am sure she recalls this because it was probably on her leaflets—“oven ready”. It is not me who is coming along and saying it is half-baked; it is him.

The look on her face as she had a dose of chaos with Ed Miliband. It was almost possible to feel sorry for her. Almost, but not quite. For her side of the debate is up to its nasty culture war tricks, accusing anybody who opposes the Bill of “siding with the EU”, when the EU isn’t really a side at all. This is another of those depressing Brexit debates where we Brits negotiate with ourselves. MPs opposing the Bill are standing up for traditional British values, which risk being trounced by a nationalist-populism with no moral compass.

Joint-Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee, Sir Charles Walker, was also amongst the ardent Brexiters who abstained. Consisting of all back-bench Tory MPs, the 1922 Committee allows backbenchers to discuss issues without front-bench interference. It also plays a vital role in the rise and fall of Tory leaders. Disgruntled MPs may submit a letter to the Chair calling for a Vote of No Confidence (VoNC) in the leader. If 15 per cent of all Tory MPs do so (55 in the current parliament), a VoNC is triggered.

Sir Charles’s speech was particularly interesting, because he was the only Tory MP to join the dots between what the government is doing in this Bill and what it has done in other Bills. The problematic aspect of the Internal Market Bill is that it sanctions the transfer of yet another chunk of powers from parliament to the executive.

This would be the third such transfer after the Coronavirus Act and the Trade Bill. The Coronavirus Act relaxed normal processes, like procurement, and scrutiny of any government activity that can reasonably be brought into the ambit of fighting the pandemic. Meanwhile Tory MPs have voted away their right of approval of the government’s negotiating mandate, or of any subsequent deal, in the passage of the Trade Bill. What makes this Bill worse is that the transfer is permanent, and beyond challenge by either parliament or the courts.

“I am extremely concerned that we are placing severe restrictions on people’s liberties without any recourse to Parliament,” Sir Charles thundered. He claimed it was ‘un-conservative’ and called on the government to have more respect for members of parliament. “I will not be voting for the Bill’s Second Reading, because if you keep whacking a dog, you shouldn’t be surprised when it bites you back.” 

What of Boris Johnson’s freshly minted army of newbie Brexiter MPs? Surely there could be no opposition from that quarter? They all swore an oath of loyalty to their leader, pledged to pass his ‘oven-ready’ deal, and even to back the carnage of no-deal with the EU, should it ever come to it. Many of the speeches from this cohort were deranged. A common theme was accusing the EU of behaving in bad faith, despite a report from the Northern Ireland Select Committee stating, “These talks began in March and continued throughout the summer in a spirit of good faith and mutual respect for the delicate arrangements in Northern Ireland.” Gosh. It was almost as if the newbies were regurgitating identical Cummings-onian crib notes instead of researching actual evidence.

[Editor’s note: Brandon Lewis has confirmed, 16 September, that the EU is acting in good faith]

It’s not surprising then that only one newbie abstained. Dr Ben Spencer gave a thoughtful, measured speech, and revealed himself to be an MP with star quality. “The critical question is not whether Parliament ‘can’ do this, but whether it ‘should’ ”, he said. He didn’t rule out lawbreaking completely, but reminded government that it should only ever be done after careful consideration, once all other remedies had been exhausted, in extremis.

“We trade and benefit from our international reputation. The United Kingdom has an old and proud democracy. My constituency, Runnymede and Weybridge, is the birth place of the Magna Carta and the rule of law. As we go out into the world as global Britain, seeking to make new trade deals, we will depend on our reputation more than ever. That means respecting the rule of law. If we damage our reputation, we will hamstring global Britain and our ability to seize the opportunities that Brexit presents.”

It is to be hoped that MPs will re-read the debate in Hansard and reflect upon Mr Spencer’s words. We can all help by writing to our MPs and pointing them out. Apparently, MPs are getting hardly any post on this issue of national importance, whereas they were inundated after the Dominic Cummings Durham flit. We can’t have that now, can we?

Voted Against:

Sir Roger GaleNorth ThanetRemain
Andrew PercyBrigg & GooleLeave


Stuart AndrewPudseyLeave
Crispin BluntReigateLeave
Karen BradleyStaffordshire MoorlandsRemain
Graham BradyAltrincham and Sale WestLeave
Rehman ChishtiGillingham and RainhamLeave
Sir Christopher ChopeChristchurchLeave
Geoffrey CoxTorridge and West DevonLeave
Jackie Doyle-PriceThurrockRemain
Tobias EllwoodBournemouth EastRemain
Liam FoxNorth SomersetLeave
George FreemanMid NorfolkRemain
Richard GrahamGloucesterRemain
Stephen HammondWimbledonRemain
Oliver HealdNorth East HertfordshireRemain
James HeappeyWellsRemain
Damian HindsEast HampshireRemain
Simon HoareNorth DorsetRemain
Sajid JavidBromsgroveRemain
Edward LeighGainsboroughLeave
Jack LoprestiFilton and Bradley StokeLeave
Tim LoughtonEast Worthing and ShorehamLeave
Theresa MayMaidenheadRemain
Bob NeillBromley and ChislehurstRemain
Owen PatersonNorth ShropshireLeave
Julian SmithSkipton and RiponRemain
Dr Ben SpencerRunnymede & WeybridgeLeave
John StevensonCarlisleRemain
Gary StreeterSouth West DevonRemain
Sir Charles WalkerBroxbourneLeave
Jeremy WrightKenilworth and SouthamRemain