On Monday 24th October 2011, 81 Conservative MPs rebelled against the 3-line whip from the Government to back an EU referendum. Then Prime Minister David Cameron was reportedly shocked at the size of the rebellion. Many say it was a crucial part in ensuring he would eventually agree to hold an EU referendum. The man who put the motion forward, following a petition signed by over 100,000 people, was David Nuttall.
When Get Britain Out sat down with David Nuttall on a fine English summer’s morning this week, he was straightforward about the importance of the rebellion, saying: “I think it highlighted the fact that this issue of our membership wasn’t going to go away. The leaderships of the parties at that time were united against the idea of having a referendum, but it was clear to me that out in the country there was enormous appetite to have a debate about our place in the European Union. Lots of other people felt the same way I did, that actually there were problems with our membership and we would be better off outside the European Union. And, of course, as we now know, when it came to the referendum, it turned out there were millions of people who agreed with us.”
While 17.4 million backed Brexit on June 23rd last year, in the General Election almost a year later, 13.6 million voters backed the Conservatives to deliver it. Did the way the Conservatives campaigned on Brexit fail to rally Brexiteers? David felt the Conservatives should have been more optimistic about our future outside the EU, to shore up Brexiteers and help reassure Remainers. However, his key observation was the casual approach many in the electorate took towards Brexit.
“It seems to me from lots of conversations with members of the public, a lot of people had taken it for granted we would be leaving the EU, and that issue had been settled in the referendum” he said. “There was an option in the form of the Liberal Democrats, if people felt extremely keen to try and reverse that decision… I think the fact there was no huge breakthrough for the Liberal Democrats demonstrated that, for most people, it wasn’t a defining issue.”
David was also keen to say that the many Brexiteers among those 13.6 million who did vote Conservative should not be taken for granted. “I’m sure there were lots of people who voted Conservative in the hope we would carry through on what we promised, and there were a lot of people who voted only two years earlier on the basis that they were hoping we’d have the referendum. They found it much easier to support us last month because they knew they’d put their trust in us in 2015, and their trust had been rewarded. We had delivered on the referendum. So I think that brought with it a host of supporters who said ‘Yeah, I trusted them last time, they delivered on giving a referendum, and I think the Conservatives will deliver on Brexit.’” he said.
On the current position of the Conservatives, he continued: “The hand that has been dealt to the Conservative Party is that we are now only a minority government. However, with the help of the DUP there is no reason at all why the Brexit part of the Government’s agenda – which is of course a very large part indeed – should not proceed smoothly, and in accordance with what those people who backed the Conservative Party thought would happen when they voted for us on June 8th.”
As Brexiteers will know, delivering on the vote to Leave the EU has been a slow process so far. Grinding negotiations, hostile EU negotiators, and pressure from Europhiles at home, have dampened optimism about it being seen through. On all these points, David urged Brits to be sanguine.
The Brexit negotiations so far, in his words, “…are going much as I would have anticipated. Before I came into Parliament I was a lawyer involved in many negotiations over many years on all sorts of issues, and when you’re a negotiator you never disclose your hand to the opposition. It is a fatal weakness to say to your opposition right at the outset: ‘Well actually, we’ll accept A, B and C if you only offered it to us.” They will just say: ‘There you are then, we’ll offer you that.’ So in essence my view is – in one sentence – I think the negotiations are going as well as could be expected.”
“My take on it as far as I can see is that they are going much as I would have anticipated. Before I came into Parliament I was a lawyer involved in many negotiations over many years on all sorts of issues and when you’re a negotiator you never disclose your hand to the opposition. That is a fatal weakness, to say to your opposition right at the outset ‘well actually, we’ll accept A, B and C if you only offer it to us” they’ll just say “there you are then, we’ll offer you that… so in essence my view is, in one sentence, I think the negotiations are going as well as could be expected.”
As for the angry posturing of Eurocrats, he believes their frustration is understandable: “It [Brexit] creates a whole host of problems for them – it means they’ve got to be diverted from their main project, which is all about European unity and forming a European superstate. It’s clear to me that’s where the whole EU is going, which I’m sure is one of the reasons many people voted to leave the EU,” he said.
David also sees this posturing as a PR exercise for the EU. They need to play to their home audience in Brussels – many of whom share their anger about the UK delaying their plans: “You wouldn’t expect them to say: ‘You know what, whatever the UK asks for, we’ll give them’. Their home audience won’t want to hear them say anything that is particularly advantageous to the UK, when from their perspective the UK has caused them a whole heap of problems.”
Those MPs considering ignoring their own home audience to derail Brexit also received a strong message. David cautioned them: “If Parliament does not carry out the wishes of the British people then there will be a lot of voters who feel very, very, badly let down, and there will be a lot of politicians who will rue the day when the Brexit vote wasn’t followed through… It would be terrible for democracy if Brexit wasn’t properly delivered,” he said. “Staying in the Single Market – that’s ruled out as far as I’m concerned, and there mustn’t be any question of it,” David continued. “I think the success in the future of our being outside the EU will be much greater if it’s clear we have left the EU, and we aren’t half in, half out.”
What of a so-called ‘transitional deal’? “I’m not in favour of a transitional arrangement at all. My fear is that a transitional arrangement will be a train to nowhere, and it will never reach its destination.”
He also drew a line between a transitional arrangement and an implementation period, the latter meaning if there are things which cannot be put in place on day one, then they are phased to say – well this will happen by such and such a date.
David continued to say the implementation period has already begun: “Article 50 has been served. The UK is leaving. We are leaving the EU. We are in stage one, and what we are now doing is negotiating the final stages. We are already leaving, the clock is ticking, and we are now negotiating the final stages of the departure.”
Final thoughts rested on what grassroots Brexiteers could now do. David’s position is: “The Government is being threatened by the Remain remnant as it is, so Brexiteers need to support it while it negotiates on our behalf.” And… “I think my overriding message is that those of us who have waited a long time for this, must continue to be patient and continue to allow the process to take its course – even though every final detail may not be what we would individually want. The fact is, that when we finish this process, we’ll be in a great deal better position than we were before.”
Or succinctly: “Keep the faith!”