Euan McColm: At last, a refreshing blast of candour over Brexit

Let’s hope the Tory business minister has started something by saying the unsayable regarding his treacherous colleagues, writes Euan McColm

Richard Harrington said members of the European Research Group were 'not Conservatives'. Picture:  John Stillwell/PA
Richard Harrington said members of the European Research Group were 'not Conservatives'. Picture: John Stillwell/PA

At last, a refreshing blast of candour over Brexit.

After more than two years of Prime Minister Theresa May’s rather degrading attempt to keep the rabid Eurosceptic right-wingers of the Conservative Party happy, a member of her team decided to speak his mind.

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And, boy, did business minister Richard Harrington let rip.

Interviewed by Kevin Schofield for The House magazine, Harrington diverted from the standard – and entirely unconvincing – line that the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union might be achieved in such a way as to bring together the Tories (and, indeed, the country) in a new era of unity.

Members of the European Research Group – the Eurosceptic cabal headed up by the deeply reactionary Jacob Rees-Mogg – were “not Conservatives” said Harrington.

Recalling an ERG gathering last month, where Rees-Mogg and his cronies sipped champagne after May’s Brexit deal was defeated by 230 votes, Harrington added that he considered this as gathering evidence of their “treachery” and – fully getting into his stride – suggested that these monomaniacal anti-EU MPs might be better off joining former Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.

Harrington’s remarks caused quite the kerfuffle at Westminster where, despite the best efforts of the ERG to make the Prime Minister’s life as miserable as possible – including a failed attempt to remove her as PM though a confidence vote – May has striven to remain diplomatic.

Harrington, who voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, did not stop at the ERG. He also had – less ferocious, it must be said – criticism of the PM. May’s continued refusal to rule out a no-deal Brexit was disappointing, he said.

What’s more, the Malthouse Compromise – an agreement drawn up between Tory MPs backing both Remain and Leave which suggests the use of technology to maintain an open border in Ireland – was, said Harrington, “fanciful nonsense”.

We are used, by now, to backbenchers in the Commons speaking their minds about Brexit. Whether it’s Rees-Mogg opining about the need for the most Brexity Brexit possible, or his colleague, Anna Soubry, making the case that any kind of Brexit will be a disaster for the UK, those who don’t feel the restrictions of office have been enthusiastic in sharing their views.

But when a government minister speaks up, using the sort of language employed by Harrington, that’s a whole new ball game. And I’d like to hear more of it.

The Prime Minister convinces nobody when, through a rictus grin, she speaks of the possibility of post-Brexit harmony. Doesn’t she, in fact, look weak and unsure as she tries to herd the feral cats of her party’s rightmost wing?

So Harrington’s furious intervention brings us some clarity about the problems the ERG and their fellow pro-Brexit MPs (members of the Labour Party front-bench, for example) have created with their blanket refusal to consider any kind of compromise.

This sort of outspokenness is to be encouraged.

Perhaps moderate Labour frontbenchers – by which I mean shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer – might feel emboldened to be similarly frank about the treachery of those in his own party who, despite claiming to stand up for the poorest in society, are – even now – preparing to help the Prime Minister deliver a Brexit that stands to cause deep and lasting damage to the UK economy. And while he’s about it, maybe he could speak more clearly about the appalling failure of the Labour leadership to do anything approaching useful about the abhorrent anti-Semitism that now disfigures his party.

Let Richard Harrington be your guide, Keir. Go on. Speak your mind.

The SNP could also do with some straight-talking from those in authority. A group of MPs including Joanna Cherry and Angus MacNeil are currently engaged in a campaign to force the First Minister’s hand on the issue of a second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon’s preference is to take things more slowly. Only last week she said she would like to see how Brexit plays out before calling for the powers to hold indyref2.

This makes perfect sense. Voters are divided as never before and the idea that, amidst this political turbulence, a new Yes campaign might cut through and bring about a majority in favour of the break-up of the UK is utterly fanciful.

Perhaps a wise authority figure – deputy First Minister John Swinney, say – might have a public word. Those who rebel against the leadership position are doing the nationalists’ cause absolutely no favours at all.

Political leaders find it difficult to speak truth to their parties. Splits over policy and strategy require those in charge to do what they can to keep everyone happy. This diplomacy is, by and large, a good thing. If differences of opinion can be contained and smoothed over, a party can convincingly present itself as a broad church.

But sometimes those differences of opinion are of such a magnitude that no amount of desperate spin can hide the splits. To varying degrees, the Tories, Labour and the SNP are now split over how they should tackle big constitutional questions. The stable governance of the country is not helped by circumstances where small cabals of extremists are indulged by their leaders.

Harrington expressed an exasperation that will be familiar to many of us. He has watched as a small group of right-wingers have held the government and – by extension – the country to ransom. And now he has decided that enough is enough. May has allowed this bizarre situation to develop because of her unwillingness to stand up to these critics, to these zealots who would throw her under a bus given half a chance.

Constitutional change can never – no matter what its most enthusiastic proponents would have us believe – be an entirely painless process. By its very nature it is divisive and creates uncertainty. But, here we are, facing these big questions about both the UK’s place in the world and Scotland’s place in the UK.

If we are to find our way through these minefields, we will not be helped by giving credence to the arguments of extremists for whom compromise and pragmatism are dirty words.