Spartans who remade Britain

If the Spartans had voted for May’s deal, Brussels and Corbyn would have been in control

It was probably the most important Commons decision since the Second World War. On 29 March, 2019, 28 so-called “Spartan” Conservatives defied the Whip under unrelenting pressure and helped vote down Theresa May’s EU Withdrawal Agreement for the third time. They were reviled for their actions by most Brexiteer pundits and politicians, but for them, the issue was fundamental and the consequences monumental. How and why did it happen, and might it yet be undone?

The debate itself  saw high parliamentary drama to rank with the Norway debate in 1940. This, unlike the referendum, was a decision made in parliament by a handful of MPs in the most chaotic political conditions in living memory. On it hung not only the country’s future relationship with Europe, but the very survival of the Tory party. 

The 28 MPs were widely condemned for their actions, but triggered a series of events that led to the first significant Conservative majority in 30 years, with the supposedly impossible-to-reopen Withdrawal Agreement duly reopened along the way. No one but them saw this as being even slightly feasible.  Predictably the pundits did not foresee these events. Most markedly, pro-Brexit commentators on the right (Iain Martin, Tim Montgomerie, Fraser Nelson, Henry Newman, James Forsyth, the editorial writers of ConservativeHome and the Spectator) were all for accepting the Withdrawal Agreement by the time of the decisive vote. 

If the commentators of the avowedly Eurosceptic right were wrong, then the journalism of the left, Remain and the BBC was spectacularly faulty. When a Eurosceptic renaissance in the Conservative Party had to rely on the votes of the Labour Party and Remain Tory MPs to pull off one of the biggest political heists in modern times, you know somebody miscalculated. Do Dominic Grieve and Hilary Benn regret joining with Steve Baker and Mark Francois to help deliver Brexit and Boris’s majority? It would be impolite to ask. 

So what was it the Spartans saw last March that eluded the entire UK political class? And why has it come about that the greatest beneficiaries of the Tory Renaissance — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings — all supported May’s Withdrawal Agreement and its acceptance of a highly-aligned Customs Union?

The story begins in the aftermath of the referendum result in June 2016. While the wider pro-Brexit family celebrated and Vote Leave was dissolved, nervous conversations among the parliamentary group of the European Research Group chaired by Steve Baker began in earnest. The key question was: how could pro-Brexit MPs, who were a small minority within parliament, ensure that the UK left the EU — and left in more than name only?

For this the Conservative Party needed a leader committed to Brexit, no small task given decades of pro-EU leadership. Early attempts to initiate a Boris Johnson government committed to Brexit were kiboshed in an unhappy episode played out in the background of the official Vote Leave victory party. Desperate attempts to back Andrea Leadsom similarly floundered. The result was the unexpected premiership of Theresa May.

Theresa May speaks during the historic debate of 29 March, 2019

While with hindsight it seems odd that May initially gained approval from many senior Eurosceptic MPs, there was always a great wariness towards her. However, flush with the referendum mandate and a cabinet full of  very carefully chosen pro-Brexit ministers there was little to do but wait. There was also the strong strategic sense among senior ERG MPs not to be “premature betrayalists” — to not voice their fears about May too soon or too loudly, precisely because doing so might forestall the coalition they’d eventually have to build to resist what became known as BRINO (Brexit in name only).

Warning signs, however, immediately flashed. Why had David Davis, a man not known for his love of detail, been appointed to the Brexit Department? Why had he appointed the markedly pro-Remain James Chapman as his spad (special adviser)? Why had the insider’s insider but equally pro-Remain Denzil Davidson reappeared from the European Commission in May’s No 10? The presence of Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd at the top of the cabinet table was discussed. The prosaic James Brokenshire and David Lidington were discounted as Remainer threats — they were just her type of people. The warning signs were there but Eurosceptics gave May the benefit of the doubt, not least because, having anxiously gamed out what hollowing out Brexit — at that stage a surely paranoid fear — would take, the common assumption was, “No one would try to do that.” They would see how unlikely it was to succeed and how it would break the party in the process.

For a while there was a subterranean phony war. The ERG had regular talks with cabinet ministers, and Davis, Johnson and Liam Fox told their Eurosceptic audience what they expected, and wanted, to hear. Confidences were exchanged, operations were arranged, a common purpose was felt. May’s Lancaster House speech of January 2017 came and went. The wording “associate member of the Customs Union” rang large warning bells, but it was too early to panic. 

With the Three Brexiteers of Davis, Johnson and Fox flatsharing at Chevening, surely nobody could believe the government was hellbent for BRINO. So the ERG kept quiet, doing what they could to avoid the inevitable jibes that “you lot just can’t be happy you have won”. No pundit prediction was more repetitive in 2017 than that “the Brexit right” would inevitably cry betrayal. The smear was effective.

Eurosceptics also knew, having run the numbers, that for now the parliamentary arithmetic was in the Brexit Goldilocks zone. David Cameron’s 2015 majority was small enough that BRINO would be defeated by the ERG, but large enough that pro-Remain holdouts could not mount their own operations. What the ERG really feared most in the days after the Lancaster House speech was an election.

And this, despite her po-faced assurances that she wouldn’t,  is what Theresa May called in April 2017 to the secret horror of many senior pro-Brexit MPs. An election that pundits and hacks alike had down as producing a large Conservative majority would have been the death knell of Brexit. The actual result was not much better — a hung parliament, where Remain Conservative MPs were able to cooperate with Labour. For those in the ERG this changed everything, and the tentative ERG/DUP pro-Brexit voting coalition needed careful handling. They had feared they were saboteurs to be crushed by the seemingly inescapable May triumph, but an electoral result the chattering classes failed to see coming delivered their chance.

It was at this time the May/Robbins plan came into the open with Chequers. No longer was BRINO a hypothetical danger — it was out in black and white. The Chequers Plan was a masterpiece of subterfuge and diplomacy. A “common rulebook” and  “facilitated Customs arrangement” resting on a permanent Northern Irish Protocol, cleverly rebuilt the EU from the outside. The UK would henceforth follow EU rules it would have no say on and have its trade policy and access to the single market managed and traded away in Brussels. It was worse than EU membership and would have been a stepping-stone for the inevitable Rejoin referendum. 

It was this Chequers deal that precipitated the resignations of Boris Johnson and David Davis. Others, including Michael Gove, did not resign. This was the deal — unacceptable to Boris Johnson in July 2018 — that the 28 Spartans eventually voted against for the third time in March 2019, having lost Johnson, IDS and the Brexit press along the route.

What changed between July 2017 and March 2019? And why did the Spartans not falter as others fell away? One key thing to understand is that, left to their own devices, the hard core of the ERG became the ones making the political weather. The resignations of both Davis and Johnson had been mishandled and were, it transpired, politically ineffectual. The recession in both men’s standing was swift and deep.

The Spartans understood exactly what May’s deal meant. They had their own friends in the civil service and access to legal knowledge they trusted. They had unpicked the plan so carefully put in place behind David Davis’s back even as Number 10 and its advisers, Denzil Davidson, Olly Robbins and Gavin Barwell, were convinced that they could create a parliamentary coalition for BRINO, encompassing the Tory left and a tamely compliant Corbyn-led Labour Party. They were wrong.

If Number 10 thought they could make up the lost Conservative numbers with the Labour Opposition MPs — Chequers was almost designed around the Labour manifesto — they were wrong. They were wrong again with Labour backbenchers, who while much more sympathetic to Number 10’s now visible efforts to hollow out Brexit than their doctrinaire Brexiteer leader ever was, would only appear over the horizon if they knew the government would win. It turned out they understood the Conservative Party better than Number 10 did, much as the ERG’s back channels within the Labour Party were a better guide than the fantasies of the government whips. The ERG and Labour backbenchers had the measure of the parliamenrtary arithmetic much better than Julian Smith, the then chief whip, ever did.

Added to the government’s miscalculation was the belief that the objections to the Withdrawal Agreement were not disagreements on principle. After a failed Commons vote, Barwell offered up his prime minister’s resignation to buy votes. Senior ERG MPs and others were summoned again to Chequers, this time with May supporters such as Damian Green. There, Duncan Smith, Baker, Rees-Mogg and others were told that she would go, if only her deal finally got over the line.

Like much else that May’s No 10 attempted, this human sacrifice was bungled. Her head was offered to the wrong mob. While there were some within the ERG’s orbit who were tempted by the glittering prospect of a leadership contest, others shrugged. It was clear to them that May would never fight another election anyway. She was bound to resign at some point: it was merely a matter of timing. Had the ERG accepted the Chequers Withdrawal Agreement they would have irrevocably tied Britain to a Customs Union and obeying EU rules.

Some siren voices from inside May’s cabinet claimed in private to Brexiteer MPs that “of course” the UK could just “leave and change”, that we should “take the win” of leaving because even if May’s deal tied us into vassalage on paper, we could, and would, simply “break” the law later. The MPs who ended up being the Spartans were not exactly convinced. “Which prime minister would junk international treaties Britain had agreed to once they had been signed?” was the persistent question to which no satisfactory answer came, not even from Michael Gove.

For the burning core of the ERG it was an easy decision. If no withdrawal deal was agreed, the Spartans insisted it would not mean what the pundits and No 10 said — namely lead to No Brexit. Instead, they calculated, holding the line would lead to a new leader and a new direction. No Agreement it was.

The Spartans within the ERG realised by the time of the third “meaningful vote” (MV3) that if May and her advisers were not going to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, then the impasse could end in only two ways: their expulsion from the Conservative Party or May’s resignation. While their expulsion could not be ruled out, they were on safer ground predicting the prime minister’s resignation if she stuck to her deal. These predictions were not shared by everyone. At the last meeting of ERG parliamentarians before MV3, one ERG hereditary peer stood up to say he had been told by the political editor of a Brexit-supporting weekly magazine, “Whatever you do, you must support this deal! It’s the end of the government if they don’t do this!” “I’m only passing along what James says,” the affable peer added. “I’m not entirely sure he’s right, y’know.”

While the Tory whips kept the government together as No 10 flailed and failed after the 2017 election, in one regard chief whip Julian Smith fatally miscalculated. He and Mark Spencer, the whip then responsible for reaching out to the opposition (and now chief whip), sincerely believed that a cohort of Labour MPs stood ready to rebel against Corbyn and come over and support May’s deal, if only the meaningful vote numbers in the Commons could ever come close enough.

Number 10’s major misjudgment, based on this advice, was that they could reduce the number of Spartans to a fantasy level. They doubled down on the misjudgment by seeking to involve the Labour leadership in Chequers in April 2019. This was not seen as a threat by the Spartans. What was in it for Jeremy Corbyn to back May, BRINO or the Tories? Why should he hand the government a get-out-of-jail-free card, given that it was imprisoned solely because May had gone back on all her previous Brexit pledges and was needlessly pursuing BRINO? Nor were backbench Labour MPs keen to break their own whip and risk the potential fury of Momentum activists. Yet having denounced Corbyn as an indulger of terrorists, May was obliged to parley for what support he might deign to offer — which further galvanised the ERG. “If she’ll do that, what won’t she do?” was the drumbeat of their concerns to more agnostic Tory MPs, focused on the government’s standing in the polls.

Following this misjudgment was the belief that the threat of having to hold European elections in May 2019 would somehow diminish the power of the ERG. This was the strangest piece of punditry, as it was clear to the ERG’s hard core that the Tories would do badly, accelerating the departure of both May and her deal. Furthermore, by this stage May’s exit was the only glimmer of hope for Tory MPs in marginal seats. Yet this threat was made again and again to diminishing effect. It was even made by Brexiteers such as Johnson and Duncan Smith when they backed  May’s deal at MV3.

The next threat made to the Spartans — to the constant refrain of “you’re the fools throwing your Brexit away” — was that of the second referendum. The idea was that if the ERG did not accept the deal, the logic of a Remain parliament would mean a new referendum. This idea was again picked up by the wider commentariat, but it was a ludicrous and empty proposition. Many of the Spartans were veterans of the original referendum legislation and knew it would take six months to push a second referendum bill through parliament, if it could be done at all with no mandate.  

And even if there was a second referendum, it seemed safe to conclude that the Remainer obstructionism in parliament would have done little to deter Leave voters. Above all else, ERG MPs were utterly sceptical that other parliamentarians would relish the prospect of another referendum on any basis whatsoever. This, then, was just one more phantom threat the ERG was presented with, which the press obsessed about, but which a sufficient number of MPs never gave any credibility to.

When May’s deal was voted on for the third time in  MV3, it was defeated in the Commons by 344 votes to 277: a margin plainly beyond any hope of rescue by imaginary pro-May 

Labour legions. The ERG had split in the process: Boris, Davis, Duncan Smith and Raab had all supported May from the backbenches, but Spartans such as Baker, Francois and Suella Braverman held the line.

However, Number 10’s greatest misjudgment was yet to come: it misread the Conservative Party’s leadership election rules. All the hopes May’s leadership entertained of getting her deal through parliament rested on the belief that the failed 2018 vote of no confidence had given her a year’s breathing space as Tory leader. This was not so, and, uniquely, the ERG knew it.

The first ERG attempt to secure a new leadership ballot, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, failed to secure the necessary 48 letters of support. We now know Rees-Mogg was within an ace of triggering the ballot on 15 November 2018, but it wasn’t until almost a month later, 11 December, that enough Conservative MPs handed their letters in to start the process. The ballot was eventually held on 12 December 2018 and May won by 200 votes to 117. The initial rebuff fortified a belief in Number 10 that she was safe.

 Moreover, the great prize for Number 10 was that now May could not be challenged for another year. Which gave them 12 more months to dangle in front of Brexiteers the possibility that more would be worse (“agree to this deal, or this Remain parliament will give you one you like even less”). 

What the ERG Spartans knew — and No 10 did not — was that the 1922 executive which oversaw the leadership rules had far more leeway than was generally understood: rule 3 stated that the executive could change the leadership election rules if it wanted.

There was a good reason why the ERG knew this: the 1922 rules had been drafted by Lord Spicer, a former ERG chairman. For good measure, the only other living former 1922 chairman Lord (Archie) Hamilton was also an active ERG member, and together they decided to communicate with Number 10 in the only medium it understood — the front page of the Daily Telegraph. This operation — discovering the loophole, communicating to the 1922 executive that the loophole had been discovered, and placing it in the press — was entirely an ERG operation from start to finish. (I’ve written more about the battle between the ERG and Sir Graham Brady here).

Hamilton and Spicer’s Telegraph piece publicly opened up the possibility of a new leadership contest and triggered the end for May and her Brexit deal. The way was open for Boris. There was also some sour satisfaction that Sir Graham Brady had been shown to be, at the very least, fallible in his understanding and presentation of the rules. His earlier role, as ERG hardliners saw it, in bouncing the parliamentary party into facing a vote of no-confidence timetable which suited May had been neither forgotten nor forgiven. 

It was at this point that the greatest misjudgment of all was made in parliament — that of the Remain Tory MPs: Rory Stewart, Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve et al, the stupidest intelligent people you are ever likely to meet and the darlings of the BBC and liberal pundits. Having allied with Labour and the ERG on a number of pretexts, rebel Tory Remain MPs lost a deal that could have been designed for them: a deal overseen by Remainers in Downing Street to preserve vast chunks to the EU, a deal so bad that a referendum to rejoin would have left many ardent Leavers believing EU membership was better. Having lost their best chance to remain and preserve EU rulemaking they then went on to misjudge Boris Johnson and lose their seats.

So what now for the future? If the Spartans had voted for May’s deal, we know what we would have got: the EU’s Customs Union, alignment of rules and Brussels in effective control of the regulation of the UK economy. There is no conceivable circumstance that the UK would have escaped from the deal. At worst, the Tory party would have fallen apart and Jeremy Corbyn would have become prime minister. 

At best, May would have been succeeded by a Tory who would have — well, what? Unpicked the deal? How? When? With what majority? And most fundamentally of all, why would such a successor ever have attempted to unpick it once in ensconced in No 10, needing a majority sufficiently vast to get past incumbent Tory MPs like Greg Clark and Damian Green who would have voted to keep the BRINO status quo in place? 

But even now, can we be sure this will not happen in any event? Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab may have resigned from the cabinet over Chequers but they ended up voting for it when the pressure was really on. Michael Gove, whose current incarnation is as best friend of Boris, always backed May’s deal and said even after Johnson became PM that he would still do so. So is Brexit out of the woods?

The answer is maybe. While Boris probably doesn’t have plans to use his majority to ram through BRINO in the way May would have, there is little to stop him. The original 28 Spartans were operating in a hung parliament with the knowledge that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could be guaranteed to oppose a Conservative deal. What choice did good pro-Europeans have but to vote against her deal? What did anti-Tory partisans have to do other than let May and her supporters keep tearing the Tory party to pieces? 

Without the great gift of that Goldilocks majority, what odds that all the MV3 arguments which convinced Johnson, Gove and Raab before won’t convince them again? Boris only had one thing to fold on before he got to where he is now: his loud and lusty promises on Ulster. He duly did so. If he folds again — this time on high alignment — what’s to stop him? There certainly aren’t 50 Spartans in this parliament to hold him to account, which would be the bare minimum required. 

Which leads us to the biggest irony of all. The biggest beneficiaries of Brexit and the destruction of May’s Chequers deal are the men who voted for it: Johnson, Gove, Raab, Sajid Javid. They benefited from the logic and tenacity of the Spartans and their plan. Without the Spartans, the Conservative Party would remain deeply divided and unelectable, while Corbyn’s extremism and Farage’s simplistic message would be prospering. There was no genius in what Boris did in backing MV3, only the dumbest luck. He was saved from his own folly last time: there’s no one to do that next time.

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