The Conservatives have removed the whip from two of their MEPs, their former Leader in the European Parliament Richard Ashworth (pictured above) and Julie Girling, for voting in favour of a non-binding European Parliament resolution which noted that “sufficient progress has not yet been made” in the Brexit talks to move to the second phase, but also called for concrete proposals “to speed up work”.
The resolution merely states the obvious. It was not a matter of much controversy in the European Parliament (which adopted it by 557 votes to 92). Most British MEPs voted in favour. Of the 20 Conservative MEPs, only 2 actually voted against it (most of them avoided the vote).
It should be recalled that the UK government itself agreed to phasing the Brexit talks so as to first settle the legal issues that unavoidably arise from leaving the EU and then to move on to discuss the future relationship. It is vital that these first issues are settled quickly to have time to work on the future relationship, in which far more is at stake for Britain’s economy and prosperity. The government’s prevarication on the first set of issues – due to its inability to agree internally – is the source of the problem.
In its desperation to justify taking action against the two MEPs, the Tory whip’s letter also claims that the resolution “proposed that one part of the UK, Northern Ireland, could remain in the single market and customs union, while the rest of the UK departs”. In fact, the resolution simply pointed out that the only way to avoid physical customs infrastructure on the Irish-Northern Ireland border would be if the UK as a whole, or just Northern Ireland, remained in the customs union. It did not advocate a particular solution.
Disciplinary action was conspicuously absent in past years when Europhobe Tory MEPs regularly undermined their own government. So why now, on a non-binding resolution?
The answer lies in Theresa May trying to show she is tough, but, as she is too weak to discipline any of her cabinet, or even MPs, she has contrived a fight with two MEPs who she perceives as being less able to challenge her directly.