FOR years, Brexiteers in the Conservative Party have thought that by sticking together they could influence the direction of travel out of the EU and punch above their weight.
Since the Lancaster House speech they have been lied to about our destination. While the Prime Minister proclaimed the UK would be out of the Single Market and Customs Union, they were told that if they compromised we would ultimately take back control of our laws and leave the EU. Despite huge anger from ordinary Brexit voters, the mild-mannered MPs agreed to a transition period of two years in which we would be rule-takers without a seat at the table.
Though many others screamed betrayal, they thought they were keeping their eyes on the prize and told themselves that their leader really would deliver Brexit as she said she would.
Some of them joined the Government, where they soon found a different picture emerging. Disillusioned, they spoke of tricks and subterfuge. Speeches were changed to delete the reference to Donald Tusk’s offer of a comprehensive trade deal. Shadow plans were drawn up behind the scenes which went against stated Government policy. Many of them quit rather than, in the words of Steve Baker, going through the business of being persuaded to capitulate.
But they stayed loyal, even when their Prime Minister was not. They believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that she could be brought round. In the end they realised that they had to remove her. Brexiteers took great pains to say that it was not personal, that this was a last resort. They reluctantly handed in their no-confidence letters but their attempt failed: blocked by the Europhiles who could see Theresa May was their only chance of staying within the EU’s control.
In this end stage, as MPs try to hijack Parliamentary business, the nuclear option for ERG members would be to vote against the Government. They could signal to Labour that a no-confidence motion would pass because they had persuaded the DUP and had a number of Conservative MPs ready to support it. Any ERG members who join in must be brave: voting against their own Government in a confidence motion would lose them the whip. But there are seven Conservative Brexiteers who had more than 60 per cent Leave vote in their constituencies and have majorities over 15,000. (They are Mark Francois, Gordon Henderson, Julian Lewis, Ian Liddell-Grainger, Julia Lopez, Priti Patel and John Whittingdale, all of whom have voted against the Withdrawal Agreement at least once.) Their sacrifice would be rewarded by the electorate. In the following two weeks the Government would have the chance to regain the confidence of the House of Commons, but in that time any major action by the Government, such as deciding to extend or even revoke Article 50, would be constitutionally highly dubious if the Prime Minister had lost the confidence of the House and the PM would almost certainly be advised not to take such a course.
We may still leave without a deal on April 12 under this Prime Minister, but the option of voting against the Government in a confidence motion should never be taken off the table. There is loyalty to the party and there is loyalty to the country. If Theresa May were about to sign up to an Article 50 extension and betray Brexit, how could patriotic MPs refuse to bring her down?