The hardline Eurosceptic also criticised current colleaguesby Alex Dean / May 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
To say that tensions are running high in the Conservative Party would be an understatement. It is perhaps more divided today than at any time in its history, with Leavers and Remainers accusing one another of out-and-out treachery.
When I met with Bernard Jenkin, MP for Harwich and North Essex and leading Eurosceptic, I expected him to have harsh words for Remainers. I wasn’t disappointed.
His fiercest criticism was reserved for George Osborne. The former Chancellor has used his editorship of the Evening Standard to fight the Remain cause and attack Theresa May.
Jenkin, who has fought for Brexit since becoming an MP in 1992, said: “I think it’s pretty despicable, but it says more about him and his bitterness.”
A well-respected MP calling out his former Chancellor in such strong terms is shocking. But why is Osborne’s behaviour such a problem?
“It makes life very difficult for the whole of the Conservative Party,” Jenkin said. It “undoubtedly contributed to the loss of Conservative seats in the London [local] elections” earlier this month.
This infighting will provoke ire in CCHQ. Jenkin added simply, “Well I hope he’s pleased with himself.”
This was in many ways a surprising attack. But in one sense the bigger surprise in our discussion was that Jenkin was willing to call out fellow Brexiteers. He was willing to criticise politicians on his own side.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has become a leading Eurosceptic voice in recent months. As Chair of the pro-Brexit European Research Group he has warned May to deliver a hard exit. But Jenkin said: “I think he’s got to be careful. He’s extremely courteous, he’s intellectually very strong… but he’s got to be careful in some of the language he uses.”
What about Boris Johnson? The Foreign Secretary has shown little regard for cabinet unity. He has frequently undermined the authority of the prime minister. I wondered whether Jenkin would go so far as to criticise a leading Brexiteer in the Cabinet.
When I asked whether Johnson has broken collective responsibility, he replied immediately “Yes!”
“The PM has some “very unhelpful colleagues… I think that’s made it very difficult for officials to know what to do when they get mixed signals from different secretaries of state, different ministers. I think that’s put the civil service in an extremely difficult position.” In the end, the prime minister will “have to crack the whip.”
It was fun going through different political figures. But I wanted to turn to policy. The key policy question at the moment is on post-Brexit customs: whether Britain should stay closely aligned with Europe and implement a “new customs partnership,” or severe the link and introduce a “maximum facilitation” arrangement. The cabinet is yet to decide.
Jenkin was clearly on one side. “The customs partnership would mean continuing to make a net contribution to the EU of about £2bn a year,” he said. “I don’t think that’s ending significant payments to the EU budget, which is one of the planks of the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech.”
The partnership model would involve Britain collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU. But “how appealing is that going to be” for future trading partners? “I mean just ask yourself. They’re not going to regard us as serious.”
We were running out of time. I asked Jenkin to sum up his thoughts.
“I think it’s very important that the government focuses on the liberating aspects of Brexit,” he said. This sounded like a veiled threat.
“It’s very focussed on mitigating the disadvantages. I think the tone would be helped and will change once we get through this negotiation and focus on what the opportunities are.”
And those opportunities, he said, “are huge. Politically, culturally, as well as economically.”
For Jenkin, it’s about time Remainers realised it. And none more so than the former Chancellor. Thanks to his interference, “I don’t think the London Conservative Party will be very welcoming of George Osborne ever again.”
And with that, he finished his cup of tea and was off.