Suspending One’s Disbelief: MEP Richard Ashworth and the Tribulations of Voting According to Conscience

The team of the CCCU Centre for European Studies – Director Prof Amelia Hadfield, Graduate Coordinator Noora Virtannen and Undergraduate Coordinate Christian Turner – analyse and comment on the suspension of Conservative MEP Richard Ashworth from party whip.

On Tuesday 3rd October 2017, a resolution was put forward by Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative on Brexit, that the negotiations surrounding Britain’s departure from the European Union were not yet advanced enough to justify moving onto Phase Two of the discussions: namely negotiating the future relationship between the two parties.

The non-bidding motion was comfortably passed by 557 votes to 92, with 27 abstentions. Of the 557 MEPs to vote for the motion, 26 were from the United Kingdom. Within this group of 26 UK MEPs, 18 were Labour, 3 Green, 1 Liberal Democrat, 1 Sinn Fein, 1 Plaid Cymru and finally, 2 from the Conservatives who sit within the ECR (European Conservative and Reforms Group). Four of these MPs represent the South East of England, including Labour’s newly selected John Howarth, who replaced Anneliese Dodds over the summer, and  Richard Ashworth, who has served in the ECR since 2009, and briefly led the Conservatives in the European Parliament itself between 2012-13.

Conservative MEP Richard Ashwort | image via http://www.richardashworth.org

On Sunday 8th October, it emerged that Ashworth (who represents 9 counties as part of the South East) and his party colleague, Julie Girling (South West), had the Tory party whip withdrawn after the vote. The removal of the party whip means that for the duration of their suspension, Ashworth and Girling will not be considered members of the Conservative Party, and therefore technically sit as independents. In addition, they will lose access to the party machinery, related to media, staff and funding, and in extreme cases, can be a cause to be deselected for future elections. Dan Dalton, the Conservative Party Chief Whip in the European Parliament, wrote to the pair that the reasons for the suspension were as follows:

“The Brexit negotiations are the most important negotiations our country faces and reaching a new partnership with the European Union is in the interests of both the UK and the EU.  The resolution by the European parliament sought to delay progress in the negotiations between the UK and the EU by holding back talks on the future relationship. Given the seriousness of this issue I am suspending the Conservative whip from you until further notice.” (The Guardian, October 2017)

Mr Ashworth responded by insisting that this was ‘not a vote against Brexit (nor) a vote to derail or obstruct negotiations’. He added that the negotiations ‘need to urgently move on to trade… however, it is my view that we have not yet made sufficient progress on phase one’.

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May limps to power

Connor Dobbs, BA Politics graduate and prospective MSc student at Canterbury Christ Church University, recounts the vote count in Canterbury and examines the consequences of the electoral result for Theresa May and the Conservative party.

Looking back at an astounding electoral night, it is still hard to believe the events which unfolded. The Conservatives, after what can only be describe as a disastrous election campaign, struggled to just 318 seats, with 42% of the vote share. On the 18th April, the snap election was called with the Conservatives sitting on huge poll leads, some predicting majorities north of 100 seats for May. As we all know however, since 2015 (or maybe even before?), polls cannot always be trusted. This was proven at 10pm on 8th June when the exit poll predicted a hung parliament.

Being present at the local count in Westgate Hall, it was clear to see the shock at the exit poll. With so much expectation being on a huge Conservative majority, gasps were heard from Conservatives around the hall, with cheers from opposing party supporters. The feeling really set in that the campaign was bust, and we were about to see some big name MP’s lose their seats.

As results were being called throughout the night, huge names throughout British politics were falling. Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond both fell with Conservatives gaining ground in Scotland. Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg lost his seat in Sheffield Hallam and Sir Julian Brazier, a long time Conservative MP, lost his seat of Canterbury to Labour, with Amber Rudd and Tim Farron both going to a recount, however just making it.

Labour will understandably be buoyed by the results overnight. Although having a smaller share of the vote, the Labour party picked up 29 seats in comparison to 2015, with the Conservatives losing 12 overall. This increase in popularity for a Corbyn government saw the Labour party eat into conservative heartlands up and down the country, as well as fighting back in Scotland, when it was originally predicted that they would be wiped out completely.

With the election now some days behind us, the reaction from the Conservative camp has been made clear. May, still attempting to stand strong, ceremoniously axed her two Chiefs of Staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hall. At the end of the day someone was going to have to take the blame, and it was never going to be May herself.

It is however understandable why she would be unwilling to concede that fault lay with herself. The Crosby-run campaign and image that was being portrayed of Theresa May left the public with some sort of Ice Queen appearance, one which she seemed increasingly uncomfortable with as the campaign ran on.

What happens next?

It’s now down to the nitty gritty side of politics how the Conservatives will  form a government. Their preferred (and seemingly only) line to go down is to rely, in some capacity, on the DUP.

The potential link with the DUP, a party from Northern Ireland with an incredibly sketchy record on same sex marriage and abortion, has left a number of Tory MP’s expressing their disdain for the deal. Leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, Ruth Davidson has spoken to Mrs May regarding assurances on LGBT rights, which May subsequently provided.

As we move further away from the election, a confidence and supply arrangement between the parties seems the more likely; however, it still leaves a number of people worrying whether this is still giving the DUP too much access to key government policy. Tory MP Sarah Wollaston has been quick to defend the deal, while stating that it must not influence social policy. Wollaston has been quoted saying “I will always support the right for women to choose & access safe termination of pregnancy and will oppose any change to the legislation. I will never agree to any dilution of LGBT rights. If any of that is a condition of the confidence and supply it simply won’t work”. Outspoken MPs such as Sarah Wollaston are likely to make the PM wary in regards to the conditions. Considering her slim lead over Labour, the last thing May needs is a backbench revolt.

Although a Conservative minority government is seeming more likely now, the Labour party are still yet to concede. The Queen’s speech, which is due to take place next week, is key – more key than ever. We should expect to see an attempt by Labour, SNP and the Lib Dems as well as other parties to block the Queen’s speech in parliament, which would open up a route for Corbyn to become PM. If this was to become a reality, and it must be made clear that there is a reasonable chance it will, it would surely see the removal of Mrs May as Tory leader and a complete redesign of the party as a whole.

All that is clear for now, however, is that Theresa May is pushing on as normal, with the next week in Westminster looking like an interesting one, and one that is key to the future of Mrs May and the Conservative party.