Ken Clarke was applauded by some MPs today as he delivered a staunch defence of the European Union, mocked the optimism of the Brexiteers and confirmed he planned to vote against triggering Article 50.
In a classic Clarke speech, the former chancellor and justice secretary did not just reserve his criticism for Brexiteer Tory MPs. He mocked Theresa May’s idea of creating a “globalised future” for the UK outside the EU and attacked David Cameron for holding the referendum in the first place.
The ardently pro-EU veteran Conservative dismissed the accusation he was being “undemocratic” by voting against Article 50. “I made no commitment to accept a referendum,” he said. “No sensible country has referendums.”
MPs today began to debate the Bill that will allow the prime minister to take the UK out of the EU.
Clarke said while he wanted Brexit to succeed, he made fun of eurosceptics believed it would be easy.
“Apparently you follow the rabbit down the hole and you emerge in a wonderland, where suddenly countries around the world are queuing up with trading advantages and access to their markets,” he said to laughter.
“Nice men like President Trump, [Turkish] President Erdoğan, are just impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access.”
He added: “No doubt somewhere there is a Hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse.”
Conservative Brexit secretary David Davis today told MPs today the vote came down to whether MPs would “trust the people” or not. And Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said it would be wrong for his MPs to vote against the referendum result.
But Clarke also rejected the suggestion he was being disloyal to his party. “I am merely propounding the official policy of the Conservative party for 50 years until the 23 June, 2015,” he said. “I admire my colleagues who can suddenly become enthusiastic Brexiteers, having see a light on the road to Damascus. That light has been denied me.
“I apparently am now being told, despite having voted as I did in the referendum, somehow I am an ‘enemy of the people’, ignoring my instructions, to stick to the positions I was expressing, at least in my meetings, rather strongly. I have no intention of changing my opinion.”
Clarke said he doubted even “hot tonges” could have forced pro-Brexit Tories would have voted in favour of the EU had the referendum result gone the other way - so did not see why he should abandon his principles.
And he said even Enoch Powell, the former Tory MP infamous for his anti-immigration ‘rivers of blood’ speech, would be surprised to see how anti-immigrant and anti-EU the party had become.
I have no intention of changing my opinion Ken Clarke rejects demands to vote for Article 50
Other Conservatives MPs who campaigned for a remain vote are expected to vote in favour of starting the Brexit process - believing they can not reject the result of the referendum result. But Clarke told them to think again.
“Every MP should vote on an issue of this importance, according to their view of the best national interest,” he told them. Paraphrasing Edmund Burke, Clarke said MPs should tell their constituents: “If I no longer don’t give you the benefit of my judgement and simply follow your orders, I am not serving you, I am betraying you.”
To applause from SNP MPs, who will be voting against Article 50, Clarke added: “I personally shall be voting with my conscience, content in this vote. When we see what unfolds hereafter as we leave the EU, I hope the conscience of other MPs remain equally content.”
Jeremy Corbyn has been struggling to contain a revolt by some Labour MPs - the majority of whom voted against Brexit – over his decision to impose a three-line whip ordering them to vote for the Bill at second reading. Shadow ministers Jo Stevens and Tulip Siddiq quit in protest, and other frontbenchers - particularly those in constituencies which voted for remain - have said they will oppose the Bill, even if it costs them their jobs.
With Labour having said they will not seek to block the triggering of Article 50 - marking the start of the two-year Brexit process - the Bill is expected to clear its first parliamentary hurdle relatively easily.
It will then return to the Commons next week for the committee stage - when the real parliamentary battle is expected to take place as opposition parties attempt to push through a series of amendments.
The government has kept the Bill to just two tightly-drawn clauses in the an attempt to limit the scope for amendments. Ministers were forced to table legislation after the Supreme Court upheld an earlier ruling that the government must obtain the approval of Parliament before it could begin negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.