“The best laid schemes o' mice an' men, Gang aft a-gley.” The words of Robert Burns sum up my feelings as I look ahead to the local elections on 2 May, when thousands of councillors are up for election across England.
My team and I have been focused on these elections since last summer. Together with the Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, I have been working incredibly hard with a fantastic group of local people to set out a positive vision of the difference the Conservatives can make in an area like Teesside.
The local Labour Party combines all the worst aspects of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – two of their candidates have already had to step down after sharing antisemitic material on Facebook – with the complacency that comes with having ruled the roost for generations. Their values are ever more at odds with traditional blue-collar Labour voters, who believe in hard work, nationhood, personal responsibility and respect for our institutions. Only the Conservatives now defend those values, and there should be every chance of a big swing to the Conservatives next month.
That is why it was so frustrating to see the Prime Minister surrender our trump cards this week by inviting Mr Corbyn to try to patch up a deal on Brexit. It is crystal clear Labour have no interest in delivering Brexit properly: their stated desire for a customs union would make it impossible for the UK to have an independent trade policy, while their ambition for single market access would entail accepting continued free movement of people. There is nothing to discuss with them that will deliver what 17.4 million of us voted for, or that is consistent with the Conservative manifesto commitments of 2017.
More seriously still, by agreeing to these talks, Mrs May has legitimised the Leader of the Opposition in a way that has never been seen before. I have spoken to Labour MPs this week who are in despair that she has made a Corbyn government more credible. As my friend Nigel Adams pointed out in his excellent resignation letter as a minister, this Government has two key objectives: to deliver Brexit and to prevent the catastrophe of a hard Left Labour Government. Seeking to deliver a weakened Brexit on the back of Labour votes, against the wishes of a clear majority of the Conservative Party, runs directly contrary to both.
The long term consequences have the potential to be even more profound, and more toxic, than this. If Parliament delivers a hollow “Brexit in name only”, or does not deliver Brexit at all, MPs will strike at the heart of the promise implicit between the governing and the governed – that your vote matters and we will respect your wishes. Such an outcome would damage all our political parties deeply, and pave the way for the rise of extremist forces who are all too eager for us to fail to deliver what the British people voted for.
The great irony is my voters are resolute that there is nothing to fear about a no deal Brexit. They know that a series of mini deals are mitigating the logistical challenges, and they reflect a growing determination that we should not allow hysteria to prevent the fifth largest economy in the world from shaping our own destiny. However, thanks to the actions of Sir Oliver Letwin and Yvette Cooper, such an outcome can only come to pass if the EU finally despairs of us and declines any further extension to Article 50 at Wednesday’s crunch summit.
Such an outcome cannot be dismissed entirely, but I fear it is more likely that we will now face a long extension. I do not think any form of sustainable agreement will be reached between the Prime Minister and Labour capable of surviving not just a one-off vote, but weeks of attendant legislation. As such, the final step prior to the EU summit will be “indicative votes” on a way forward – but after the shambles of the two preceding episodes, nor do I think it probable that these will provide any form of resolution either. Given the risk of Brexit not happening at all, I will vote for the Prime Minister’s deal, but I am not optimistic the numbers will work.
The unhappy result of this would be that Brexit is deferred for a lengthy period. The Prime Minister will depart and a new leader will need to be chosen – someone with the vision, determination and charisma to set out a compelling Conservative agenda and deliver Brexit.
In the meantime, the elections on 2 May pose a huge challenge for our Party’s candidates. We all know the difference good Conservative local government delivers: lower council tax, better services and more ambition for our communities. But our would-be councillors’ chances are being hurt badly by decisions that are not their fault. The fact it was ever so in mid-term elections comes as cold comfort. The fact that this has been so avoidable leaves me feeling cold anger.