‘Pro-EU Tories flirting with rebellion need to put their votes where their mouths are’, Times Red Box, 6 September 2017.

How much more of this can we be expected to take? With each and every passing day, we seem to read more and more about the looming threat posed to the government’s supposedly precarious commons majority on Brexit by rebellious pro-European Tory MPs.

But, so far anyway, we’ve seen precious little sign that they’re really going to put their votes where their mouths are.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of Anna Soubry. And the same goes for Nicky Morgan and Dominic Grieve. They’re my kind of Tories, after all. I just hope they realise that there are only so many times they can allow themselves to be paraded as potential supporters of opposition amendments designed to soften or even scupper Brexit before they actually have to deliver rather than simply flatter to deceive.

I know, I know. I’m jumping the gun, right? The Repeal Bill has barely begun its journey through parliament so they haven’t yet had a chance to prove to doubting Thomases like me that they’re not all talk and no action. It’s also true, especially after the Syria vote and under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, that government defeats on arguably existential matters no longer imply no confidence, meaning that it’s less easy to convince rebels that doing the dirty (or the decent thing, depending on how you look at it) could trigger a general election.

But reading between the lines, and comparing today’s Tory pro-Europeans with, say, the Eurosceptic whipless wonders who made John Major’s life such a misery back in the nineties, you’ve got to wonder whether, when it comes to the crunch, they’ll actually have the courage of their convictions.

For one thing, they – like the Scots Tories who some think could also cause Mrs May problems on Europe – aren’t zealous obsessives on the outer fringes of either reality or the Conservative Party. They’re worried about Brexit precisely because they’re pragmatic, centrist politicians who don’t want their own government to take liberties with parliament or the devolved legislatures in order to promote a course of action that they fear will crash both the economy and its electoral fortunes.

For another, some of the potential rebels still harbour hopes that (though perhaps only in the dim, distant future and under a different prime minister) room might be found for them again (or in some cases for the first time) on the frontbench. Rebellion, as my Queen Mary colleague Phil Cowley and his various collaborators have shown, isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to the graveyard of ambition. But there’s a big difference between making a handy name for yourself by being an occasional pain in the proverbial and doing something frankly unforgivable when colleagues who share your reservations have agreed to swallow them and take one for the team.

At the moment anyway, it looks to me like the Tory pro-Europeans’ game-plan is to flirt with rebellion in order to wring concessions out of the government, either by persuading it to table its own amendments or, if that proves impossible, to make verbal assurances in debate to take their concerns into account later on. My question for them is whether they really think that flirting – and those verbal assurances – will ultimately be enough.

So far, we’ve seen a lot of huff and puff from Ms Soubry and her ilk.

But unless they take the opportunity, at least once – even if it’s only on the most innocuous of amendments – to actually blow the house down then their whips, and the rest of us, are going to realise they’re sheep in wolves clothing: big talkers whose baaa turns out to be so much worse than their bite.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/pro-eu-tories-flirting-with-rebellion-need-to-put-their-votes-where-their-mouths-are-cp7vhwlqz


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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