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Lies, Damned Lies, and Lies for Europe

Britain’s current political crisis over Theresa May’s attempt, endorsed by the cabinet at Chequers, to redefine the meaning of Brexit so that it requires the U.K. to remain inside the functional equivalents of the EU single market, the EU customs union, and the remit of the European Court of Justice is plainly a complicated exercise in deceit.

As such, it spawns other deceitful actions by ministers, parliamentarians, and officials. That’s the nature of lying; it can only stand upright if buttressed by subsidiary lies.

As is now well-known (and denied only half-heartedly by those involved), the Tory chief whip, Julian Smith, told members of the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers that there was no truth in the reports, fed by leaks from Downing Street, that May would present a completely new set of “Brexit” proposals at Chequers only two days beforehand. May herself gave the then secretary of state for exiting the European Union, David Davis, the same assurance at a personal meeting in Downing Street. And, of course, these new definitions of Brexit (to mean its opposite) had been formulated by a small cabal of ministers and civil servants in Downing Street behind the curtain of a “Potemkin Ministry,” the DexEU department, that was writing the official white paper on it as constitutionally instructed by the cabinet.

These lies are of a monstrous size and trust-destroying character, but they did no more than buy the prime minister and the chief whip three days of peace and quiet before the storm broke. And now that it has broken, further lies are being told to keep the show dry and on the road.

Here is a report from today’s Times. It reports what to parliamentarians on all sides is a monstrous breach of parliamentary conventions. And it is also a deep breach of the trust between the whips’ offices on both sides of the House that keeps parliament functioning in times of bitter partisanship and relative harmony:

Julian Smith openly admitted to a rival chief whip that he intended to break a parliamentary convention in a crucial Brexit vote.

Mr Smith, the Tory chief whip, is facing calls to resign after The Times revealed that he urged three of his MPs to abandon pairing arrangements before the vote on Tuesday night, which the government won by just six votes.

Pairing allows MPs on different sides to agree not to vote so that an absence for illness, travel problems or maternity leave does not count against a member.

In a private meeting after the vote on the customs union, Mr Smith told his opposite number that he deliberately sought to break a pair involving Brandon Lewis, the Tory chairman, by summoning him to vote in two divisions at about 6pm.

Mr Smith then apologised to the rival chief whip because he did not realise that Mr Lewis was paired with the Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson, who is on maternity leave.

Mr Smith claimed that if he had realised, he would have chosen a different pair to break. The acknowledgement that the chief whip was saying openly that he wanted to break pairs will cause outrage and anger as it undermines government claims that it was a mistake.

One member of an opposition whips’ office said: “The whole relationship between whips and between MPs is based on trust. Accidents do happen but the difference here is that it is deliberate.”

The Sun reported that up to five MPs were approached and that Mr Smith demanded to know why one of them ignored his instructions. This undermines briefings on behalf of the Tory chief whip that he had changed his mind after the initial instruction.

Tory MPs told The Times they did not receive any orders from Mr Smith rescinding the order to vote. The rival chief whip said that in his conversation with his Tory counterpart no mention was made by Mr Smith of later changing his mind.

Christine Jardine, a Lib Dem MP, said: “These allegations completely undermine the trust on which the pairing system depends. Cynical abuse to get the government through a difficult day is a surefire way to corrode that trust. This situation is so serious that Downing Street can keep the system or they can save their chief whip. They can’t do both.”

She demanded that Mr Smith “come to parliament and be held accountable”.

One prominent former Tory cabinet minister called on Mr Smith and Mr Lewis to resign. “Their behaviour is an affront to the very rules of conduct we have in our parliamentary democracy. They have both lied and have abused their positions in government to save their government jobs. They have brought into question the integrity of parliament and this government through such appalling conduct. They should resign,” they said.

Just how serious is this breach of trust? Here is an extract from the Guardian’s obituary of Walter Harrison, a legendary Labour chief whip, who kept Jim Callaghan’s minority Labour government in power for at least 18 months longer than the parliamentary arithmetic suggested was possible at a time of bitter partisan hostility:

It has only recently been revealed that in order to try to spare the dying Labour MP Sir Alfred Broughton from being brought into the Commons for the vote of confidence which precipitated the 1979 general election, Harrison approached his opposite number in the Conservative whips’ office, Bernard “Jack” Weatherill. He asked the Tory deputy chief whip to observe the convention under which a member of the other party would abstain to match the absence of a sick MP.

According to a new play, This House by James Graham, currently being staged at the National Theatre, Weatherill asserted that the convention was not applicable in such a critical vote and no Tory MP could possibly agree to abstain; he then offered to do so himself out of his own sense of honour. Harrison, motivated by a similar decency, recognised that such a gesture would certainly affect Weatherill’s future career and refused to accept the offer.

Broughton was not obliged to attend the vote and the government lost by one vote. Broughton died five days later and Weatherill was subsequently elected Speaker of the Commons, despite the opposition of the new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to his candidacy. Harrison always treasured a letter from a defeated but unresentful Callaghan assuring him that he had done the right thing in deciding not to bring Broughton to Westminster for the vote.

As it happens I saw a revival of Graham’s fine play, This House, last year. It’s worth seeing if you get the chance. Among its other virtues it captures the atmosphere of those times very well, at least as I remember them from my time as the Daily Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch-writer.

Lying is not new in politics. But the lying by the Tory leadership to prop up Britain’s continued membership of the EU goes well beyond any conventional level of deceit and manipulation, which is then usually obscured by Remainers in the media and Opposition parties. Indeed, such lying goes right back to the origins of Britain’s EU relationship in the Tory manifesto for the 1970 election which promised that a Heath government would open discussions with the EU “no more, no less.” It went on to join without an election.

Is this latest deceit a lie too far? We’ll see.


Original article here.