There's no question about it: the UK must remain in the European Union, whatever Boris says

Plus: Strangers among the Conservatives; make hay while the party is in disarray and a delicious detail missing from the National Theatre's 'This House'

Chris Bryant
Friday 10 May 2013 19:10
Mayor of London Boris Johnson addresses the Global Investment Conference in London on May 9, 2013.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson addresses the Global Investment Conference in London on May 9, 2013.

So Boris thinks that it would not be “cataclysmic” for Britain to leave the EU. Well, bully for him. As ever, he can speak or think only in hyperbole, but in this case the deliberate exaggeration masks the fact that leaving would certainly mean a long, slow, lingering economic and political death.

Why? Leaving aside the revenge other EU countries would wreak, it would be sheer madness to leave the world’s largest trading bloc, especially when it is on the verge of doing a free-trade agreement with the US.

Look at it from the outside for a moment. Imagine you were an investor from China (or, for that matter, from a Commonwealth country like India) wondering where to build a new manufacturing plant in Europe. Would you really choose a country outside the EU?

Boris imagines that, somehow or other, the rest of Europe would let us loosen our association and have all the benefits of a trading bloc without any of the responsibilities of EU membership. Now, I have never believed that the market is a perfectly neutral agent, or that economics are a hermetically sealed part of life. A common market needs common rules, which require political agreement. But to be subject to the rules of that market while being unable to determine them, as applies to oil-rich Norway, would be the worst of all possible worlds.

Outside the EU we would be a tired old spinster of a country, still parading our pageantry, still sporting our ancient finery, trying to hold on to the vestiges of imperial influence, shouting at our long-lost cousins, but subsiding into barren loneliness and irrelevance. That’s why I will never vote to leave the EU.

Strangers among the Conservatives

Amid all the week’s other news (I have a very active non-interest in football but even I spotted that a chap in Manchester had upstaged Her Majesty), I doubt many of you bothered to look in the chamber of the Commons. Certainly not many MPs did. The debate on Wednesday ran out of speakers, not least because just one 2010-intake Tory MP spoke.

The second day was even worse. There were just 14 Tory MPs in the chamber to listen to the Home Secretary talk us through the “centrepiece” of the Queen’s Speech. It’s true, the whole thing was pretty thin gruel, and key elements disintegrated even before Her Majesty managed to get back up the Mall. But there is a bigger point. The Government’s constant recesses and adjournments have rendered Parliament a complete irrelevance of late, the irony being that this may be working to Labour’s advantage.

Parliament sits so rarely that the Parliamentary Conservative Party members have had very little opportunity to get to know one another. The change in hours means that here is just one night a week – Monday – when MPs dine together. The change in expenses rules means that many Tories have no London home and return to their Home County seats the moment the Commons rises. The long recesses mean they are all scattered to the corners of the land (or the earth) and with very few votes and three-line whips ministers are rarely around in the Commons. So there’s very little sense of Conservative esprit de corps. No wonder they are splintering.

Make hay while the party is in disarray

I’d gently point out to them that on every occasion that the Conservatives have split over protectionism, they have rolled out the red carpet for their opponents. First Disraeli led the “ultras” against Peel over repeal of the Corn Laws, and ushered in the Whigs. Then Joseph Chamberlain campaigned for tariff reform and helped the Liberals win a landslide in 1905, and then Baldwin flirted with protectionism in 1923, lost the election and Labour formed its first government.

Plots and whips

On Wednesday evening, the Opposition Whips Office plus a few hangers-on went to the National Theatre to watch This House, the brilliant rendition of the travails of the 1974-79 parliament, told through the eyes of the two whips’ offices. After the performance I bumped into Gerald Kaufman and told him that the only problem was that I already knew how it ended. I knew the plot. Gerald replied, “Dear Chris, I was in the plot.” When I related this to Ann Taylor, who features heavily in the play and is now a peer, she said, “I was Gerald’s whip at the time. Half the time he’d lost the plot!”

There’s one thing the play leaves out. On the night of the key no-confidence motion against Jim Callaghan in 1979, the parliamentary catering staff were on strike. So fearful were the Tory whips that their colleagues would saunter off to their clubs that they provided hampers from Fortnum & Mason.

I’ll never forget Lionel ...

It was sad to hear of Bryan Forbes’s death this week. In addition to his great films, not least Whistle Down the Wind and The Stepford Wives, Bryan was a great president of the National Youth Theatre when I was involved in it.

Mind you Bryan’s memory could slip. On one occasion he was launching the NYT’s summer season at a press conference. Seated on the front row was Lionel Bart, the composer of successful musicals including Oliver!, Maggie May and the show the NYT was going to perform for the first time in several decades, Blitz!. “It is a great delight,” started Bryan, “indeed an honour, for the National Youth Theatre to be collaborating this year with one of the truly great stars of the British musical theatre. A man who has given so much joy and entertainment to thousands, who has made a lasting imprint on the musical memories of this country, a man renowned for his generosity and his outstanding talent. I give you Lionel ... Blair.” Now, the hoofer Lionel Blair is doubtless a lovely man, but he certainly isn’t Lionel Bart, whose crumpled face betrayed the fact that he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

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