Two of the 11 Conservative MPs who voted against the government in Wednesday evening’s Brexit vote, thus bringing about a possibly very significant defeat for Theresa May, represent London constituencies: Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) and Bob Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst). Their decisions to break rank will not have been taken lightly, and consequences have ensued. Both have been tried and declared traitorous by the kangaroo court of the Daily Mail and Hammond has been sacked as vice chairman of the Conservatives for London.
This has occurred at a time when Hammond and others in his party have been trying to work out how to revive Tory fortunes in London, which voted 60% to Remain in the EU. Perhaps he was bound to be removed from his vice chairman post, but from the outside it looks like just another small indication that Conservatives nationally are not in touch with the mood of the nation’s capital.
Hammond set out in November why he, Neill and other colleagues tabled their now famous amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. And yesterday, Neill explained to his constituents why he had voted the way he did. Here’s an excerpt:
This amendment boils down to one fundamental principle: the sovereignty of Parliament. We live in a parliamentary democracy, which means it is Parliament that must ultimately approve or reject the final deal. It is my job, as your MP, to scrutinise, and where necessary, amend, government legislation. Given the importance of this Bill, we must examine it with particular care. That is what I am doing, no more, no less. Those who suggest it is somehow “undemocratic”, or even “traitorous”, to amend the legislation, even while supporting its general direction, frankly do not understand how a parliamentary democracy works.
As I have already made very clear, I respect the result of the referendum. That is why I voted to trigger Article 50 at both the second and third reading of the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Act earlier this year, and supported the EU (Withdrawal) Bill at its second reading in September. It is why I have also supported the government in every other vote on this Bill to date. The Article 50 process already sets our withdrawal date as 29 March 2019.
However, an MP is a representative, not a delegate, and I am elected to Parliament to act in the best interests of all of my constituents, not to blindly push through bad or faulty legislation. Bromley and Chislehurst voted 25,213 for remain and 25,041 for leave. That can fairly be described as a virtual dead heat, but a “vote for Brexit” it demonstrably is not.
Neill is former member of the London Assembly (whose Conservative group he led), who a year ago called for the resignation of transport secretary Chris Grayling over his attitude to putting Transport for London in control of more suburban rail services. He is also a strong supporter of Crossrail 2 and co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for London.
Neill has been described to me by a shrewd observer of London politics as “one of the most consensual politicians I know”. That quality, together with a view of democratic principles and the virtues of devolved powers, suggests he may have an understanding of how his party can recover in the capital that is not shared by most of his fellow Tory politicians – including quite a few in London.