Tebbit: "Bercow is no Tory"

A one-time party chairman's tacit Ukip endorsement.

Some of my best friends are Speakers, insisted Norman Tebbit today, before declaring open season on John Bercow and his attempts to keep the UK Independence Party's Nigel Farage at bay.

I paraphrase. Here's what Tebbit actually told BBC1's Politics Show:

I remain a friend of John's and I have been for 20-odd years . . . He did cast himself in my mould, indeed. But he has been reworked in recent years. I don't think he would really be able to describe himself as a Conservative any more, even if he were not the Speaker.

And so to the forthcoming election battle for the Buckingham seat that will see Farage defy convention and take on a sitting speaker. Tebbit, not for the first time putting himself at odds with David Cameron, told the programme:

There is not a Conservative candidate, so they have to look around. And they will make a choice.

I don't think it's any business of the Conservative Party to instruct even its activists and members in who they should vote for in that sense, or indeed campaign for.

As my colleague George Eaton has noted, Bercow is defending the largest Tory majority in the country, so is more than likely to see off Farage, with or without the implied endorsement of a one-time Conservative Party chairman and current star of the blogosphere.

Nor will it do Cameron any harm, in the country at large, to be seen to be in opposition to an "old-school" Tory.

And yet Tebbit's apparent preference for Ukip's man over the modernising Bercow does speak to large sections of the Conservative Party. And not just the grass roots.

For starters -- as our political correspondent James Macintyre reported earlier this year -- there's a small right-wing parliamentary cabal actively plotting to oust Bercow. Moreover, wannabe Conservative MPs remain dogmatically Eurosceptic.

Take this finding from the recent New Statesman/ComRes poll of 101 prospective parliamentary candidates:

Seventy-two per cent agree that as a matter of priority, Britain needs a fundamental renegotiation of its relationship with the European Union.

Despite David Cameron's post-"cast-iron guarantee" words about the Lisbon Treaty, it is fanciful to believe that the Tory leadership shares the view that renegotiation is a "matter of priority".

The grass roots have just scored a notable victory -- Conservative Central HQ has acceded to their wishes and approved strong immigration messages for campaigning in marginal seats.

As the opinion polls narrow, will the calls from Tebbit and co prove equally irresistible?

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.