The political risks of extending Article 50

The last seven days have been a momentous week in British politics. Big battles have been fought, political reputations tested and a frenzy I have never before experienced in my political career played out. In the end, the government motion to agree the Withdrawal Agreement was roundly defeated and Jeremy Corbyn’s no confidence motion against the Government entered – and more importantly exited – the Commons chamber as a lame duck, but seasoned with some very memorable and well executed speeches from some politicians on both sides of the House, particularly that given by Michael Gove. Before the mist of last week’s battle clears, there continues to be intense speculation and debate about what happens next.

A dangerous option has been floated. “Article 50 must now be extended to give sufficient time to find a solution to the Brexit impasse”, some say. Prima facie, some will feel this looks reasonable and measured given the scale of the polarisation over the issue and lack of an overall parliamentary majority; but is it any more than a covert and deadly mechanism to leave Brexit exposed and vulnerable to the forces who want to strangle and kill it dead?

Even amidst all the noise of the last few months, the EU still do not hold all the cards. The cards we hold are powerful ones: money, the threat of no deal and time. Under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, we have two years to agree a disengagement or No Deal/World Trade Organisation rules is the default option. And time is running out.

Time is either your ally or your enemy and in this scenario the advantage to extending Article 50 would be largely to those who want to subvert Brexit. This is why the opponents of Brexit are feeling the heat from the furnaces of 29th March 2019 as it draws closer and they are desperately looking for various mechanisms to extend the endgame. An Article 50 extension is one such measure.

There is one risk in particular of pursuing this avenue that I want to highlight, one very dear to me as someone who has been involved in it for many, many years – the risk to Conservatives in Local Government.

Large scale Local Government elections are looming in May. National politicians, large lobbying organisations and the media have been loud and vocal about Brexit, but the Conservative Party membership – and particularly our Councillors – have not had that kind of exposure. They too have deep concerns and often those concerns are the opposite of the Remain- and London-dominated media and the like.

Many of them – I will say most of them – want Brexit and want it settled, even if that means an exit on WTO terms. Also, on the Conservative side, there are tens of thousands of (not necessarily ‘paid-up’) activists who are on the whole pro-Brexit and want our Government to deliver.

The voters have been quietly watching us too. Unlike big and international business, they cannot just pick up the telephone to Philip Hammond and vent their concerns. They have no such influence or privilege. Their only weapon is the upcoming Local Government elections of 2nd May and they quickly follow 29th March, what is supposed to be D-Day for Brexit. So – crucially – those elections would be taking place in the immediate aftermath of the postponement now being floated out there by some politicians and commentators.

Any obviation from leaving the EU on 29th March risks both the voters’ and our activists’ wrath. My experience as a District Councillor (12 years) and as a County Council Leader is that local election results are generally won or lost about four weeks before on national issues and the government of the day, no matter how wonderful and sophisticated the local Party/Council’s manifesto or record. National politics sets an important part of the outcome.

Local Government elections are already – and often unfairly – used as a punching bag for the electorate against the government of the day. How much more so this time with an issue of the magnitude of Brexit and the climate of distrust and outright hostility out there towards politicians for not keeping to the Referendum result and to our manifesto pledges?

The risk is not so much of Conservatives switching to Labour, but simply not bothering to turn out at all. A lady at a coffee morning in my constituency in Northampton said to me on Friday: “Looks like the politicians are making sure voting doesn’t count any more. I’m not going to bother again.”

My parliamentary colleague Nadine Dorries observes: “If we betray 17.4 million people who will view an extension of Article 50 as kicking Brexit into the long grass, how can we possibly expect them to come out and support us at the local elections?”

Brexit is huge and many at the summit of power and influence might regard the 2nd May elections – or even Local Government altogether – as far from top of their priorities. I would disagree and reflect that it would be damaging to the Conservative Party nationally for quite some time to have a disappointing set of local elections because of non-delivery of Brexit and risk creating a narrative of matters and support sliding away from us.

First published on the website https://brexitcentral.com/article-50-extended-voters-punish-tories-may-local-elections/