Boris Johnson should ignore “Kevin the teenager rants” from his adviser Dominic Cummings and consider delaying Brexit if extra time is needed to get a deal, former cabinet minister Sir David Lidington has urged.
Speaking to Radio 4’s The Week in Westminster, Lidington praised the prime minister for his compromise approach shown in talks with Irish premier Leo Varadkar, but warned that the Tory party would suffer serious damage if he pushed a no-deal exit.
The former de facto deputy prime minister said that if current talks with the EU needed ‘a bit longer’ then a short delay of a few weeks would be justified, even though that would breach the PM’s ‘do-or-die’ pledge to quit the EU by October 31.
But he hit out at a recent suggestion by a No.10 ‘source’, widely believed to be Cummings, that the Conservative party should fight the next general election on a no-deal manifesto.
In a lengthy message to the Spectator this week, the Downing Street source had also suggested that countries which backed an extension to the UK’s membership of the EU should face the withdrawal of British security cooperation.
Asked if Cummings had been a help or a hindrance to the PM, Lidington replied: “I always take the view that when advisors become a story it’s usually a bad thing for the politician who’s hired them.
“Some of this, frankly, I don’t take terribly seriously you get a sort of Kevin The Teenager-style rant that’s clearly presented to be reported.
“I can see there’s a motivation that’s about trying to shape the narrative for a general election. Actually, I think what the prime minister and members of the cabinet say at the dispatch box of the House of Commons is rather more important.”
Speaking on the programme, due to be broadcast on Saturday, the former minister added that there may not be enough time for a final agreement to be fully ratified by the UK and EU by October 31.
“If that can be achieved against expectations, great. I have to say I am sceptical. I’ve always felt that there would at least need to be a time where technical legal details had to be hammered out and that was going to take us beyond the end of October.
“The European Parliament has to meet to endorse any deal they have set dates for their meetings that might not be to the convenience of governments around Europe.
“I hope it works...but getting a deal will be such a benefit to both British industry and their supply chains, also to the integrity of the United Kingdom, of enabling the Northern Ireland peace process to continue, of helping strengthen unionism in Scotland rather than nationalism, that we should make every effort to get that deal, even if it takes a bit longer.”
Lidington suggested that he and other colleagues would refuse to feel bound by a no-deal manifesto.
“I think there are many Conservatives in parliament, there are many Conservative voters who would disagree very strongly with a manifesto that sought to offer only a no-deal option.
“[The prime minister] wants to win a majority in an election to implement conservative policies across a whole range of domestic issues, and he knows that crashing out of the EU without a deal or fighting an election on a very divisive manifesto, divisive within the party as well as outside, is not going to help in that ambition.
“As a minister on the front bench there was a collective responsibility that applied, but I think that the Conservative Party’s strength has been that it has been a broad church, it’s been a coalition of people across the centre and centre right of British politics. We need to remain a broad enough church to accommodate a diversity of views, not become some sort of doctrinaire sect.”
In a separate interview for the Radio 4 programme, a former senior civil service lawyer warned that recent Supreme Court and Scottish court rulings could spark new legislation to curb their power to get involved in political cases.
Sir Stephen Laws, former First Parliamentary Counsel, said “the courts have involved themselves in an unfortunate way in politics” and effectively replaced the Queen as the final referee on constitutional affairs.
Amid calls for Supreme Court judges to be political appointments as in the US, he said: “I think to some extent they have taken over the role of the Monarch as the as the ultimate umpire.
“And I think it’s inevitable that when that starts to happen, politicians will start to say well then we ought to have some influence, ‘we should have more influence over who judges are and who is appointed to be a judge’. I think that would be a very bad thing.
“I think it’d be a very bad thing because they would in some ways, vindicate or ratify the idea that judges should get involved in politics. I think political decisions, and political problems should have political solutions. I think the law is useful for deciding legal questions but it is probably unhelpful and divisive when it’s used to resolve political questions.
“And if we had politicians involving themselves in politics in judicial appointments that would have the consequence that judges would think, having been politically approved they are entitled to venture further into the political field.”
Sir Stephen suggested that a new law would be passed to restrict the role of the Supreme Court judges in constitutional and political affairs.
“There are ways back. I think they probably involve a reassertion by the world of politics in the form of an Act of Parliament, that reclaim some of the territory that the judges have trespassed into. I don’t think things will stay at the extreme end of judicial intervention, but it’s been a growing trend for judges to involve themselves in political questions.
“And in some ways this may be a good thing because it may be the trigger for the move back in the opposite direction.
“When constitutional actors overreached themselves, as for example the House of Lords did at the beginning of the 20th century in relation to budgetary matters, the result was legislation to curb the powers of the House of Lords. I think it’s likely that there will be some readjustment following recent events.”
The Week in Westminster is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11am, Saturday, October 11.