This week saw the Conservative Party revert to type as the ‘nasty party’. Forcing Naz Shah MP to vote in a wheelchair clutching a sick bowl on her lap echoed what the Tories did in 1950-51. Facing a Labour government down to a majority of only five, they forced Labour MPs to come to Westminster in ambulances and vote by being pushed on hospital trollies. The Tories smelled power, and won the election of 1951 with a comfortable majority. They are the ultimate power grabbers, and Wednesday night was feral party on form.
The key fact is that Dominic Grieve voted against his own amendment, and only he can know how his arm was twisted. However after he had been seen attending a meeting at which Open Britain members were present and put down his amendment he was, politically, a dead man walking. The Mail tracked him going into Europe House and attacked him on the front page. Betrayed by the gutter press, Grieve had no friends in high places. The disciplinary agents at Westminster are not known as ‘whippers in’ for nothing, and the Tories have always put the other parties in the shade for rigid discipline.
The Westminster bubble knows what is happening, but the voters have very little idea what is going on, any more than members of the old Communist Party knew how Stalin imposed his policies. The trigger fact going into the ‘meaningless’ vote on the Tory deal in the autumn is that their MPs have been forced back into line whatever their personal views. The Labour Party can do nothing about that and as Labour lacks the numbers to win a vote there is no point in attacking the front bench. Any defeat for Theresa May must mean a broad alliance including some Tory rebels. The question is how to produce that broad alliance when the Tory MPs may well have HQ briefing their constituency chairs on threats of what the constituency party may do to them.
The key to progress may lie in what happened two days earlier. On Monday, the Tory Party announced increased funding for the NHS. This will come from increased taxation, and Philip Hammond made it clear that otherwise there is no extra cash. This has only one meaning in the Brexit debate: there is no Brexit dividend. The Big Red Bus roamed in vain, and Boris Johnson is back in the limelight. He has been unusually silent since the announcement was made.
As the promise of £350m per week from EU payments was a key part of the surprise victory of Leave in the 2016 Referendum, the fact this does not exist has to come out of the shadows. Many soft Brexiteers will be put on the spot if Labour can make this a factor going into the autumn. A broad political coalition has to be formed to defeat May in the ‘meaningless vote’ and this should be at the core. A Labour offensive on the missing billions would pay dividends. The Remain campaign told the truth about the effects of quitting the EU and Leave told porkies.
On the NHS, the biggest thorn in Tory flesh, Theresa May’s government is trying to regain lost political ground. But they cannot claim there is a Brexit dividend if the UK leaves the EU. The Tories are ruthless political operators, but on NHS finance and Brexit they are bang to rights. This, more than trickery on the EU Withdrawal Bill, is the key weakness Labour should be attacking.
Trevor Fisher is a Labour member and a former member of the Labour Co-Ordinating Committee (LCC) executive, the Compass executive and the Rank and File Mobilising Committee (RFMC).
This article was amended on 22nd June to reflect that Dominic Grieve did not visit Open Britain in Millbank Tower, but attended a meeting in Europe House where Open Britain members were present.