Deal-breakers: how no-deal Tories threaten May's Brexit plan
FT political correspondent Laura Hughes talks to Conservative party members in Chatham and Rochester in southeast England about why they support a 'no-deal' Brexit and are so critical of Prime Minister Theresa May's plan for leaving the European Union. This plan is being put to the vote by MPs on Tuesday
Written by Laura Hughes. Produced and filmed by Josh de la Mare.
In London, Eurosceptic MPs seem as resolute as ever to vote against the prime minister's compromise Brexit deal on Tuesday. But outside the Westminster bubble, the prime minister is facing another kind of headache, a YouGov poll recently found that over half of grassroots Tory members back a no-deal Brexit over the prime minister's deal. Crushing news for the PM who had hoped local activists would persuade their MPs to back her Brexit deal over the Christmas holidays.
Instead, pro-Leave members are only hardening their stance on Brexit and their condemnation of the negotiations. In Rochester and Strood, voters were clear what they wanted when it came to the EU referendum in 2016, 64 per cent percent of voters backed Leave while local businesses are keen for a deal to be passed. In Rochester, there are plenty of local Tory party members who still believe a no-deal Brexit is the best option.
Well, firstly I'm not in favour of no-deal. It's much better to have a deal. But any deal that has been constructed that has any sort of backstop arrangement which binds us in ad infinitum until the other 27 countries agree to let us go is not the Brexit that I voted for. I don't know anybody who is a Brexiteer that likes this deal and would support this deal.
So do you support MPs who are taking the unusual move of being disloyal and voting down their prime minister?
I don't think that's disloyalty. I think they're being loyal to the great majority of British people that voted to leave.
Local Tory members who agreed to speak to us were largely Eurosceptic men. Few who supported the PM were willing to talk. But we found one local member who wants to see Conservative MPs get behind Mrs May's deal. Philip Ruby, the chairman of Rochester West Conservative Association, says MPs have a democratic duty to represent the interests of all their constituents, not just older Eurosceptic party members.
Parts of this constituency voted to leave, parts didn't. And there's an awful lot of Labour people who didn't vote for her. But they need representing. And they, and when you're a member of parliament, you represent all of them. And you go there and we expect you to exercise your own judgement. Now it's the turn of moderate One Nation Tory MPs to say: this is the best deal we've got.
MPs in the local area are split over how they will vote on Theresa May's deal. Kelly Tolhurst, who's been the MP for Rochester and Strood since 2015 when she won the seat back from Ukip, is a government minister who will vote for the deal under the principle of collective responsibility. Her neighbouring MP Tracey Crouch has vowed to vote it down, a move which has gone down well with local members we spoke to.
Andrew Mackness lives in the dockyards of Chatham and is the former chairman of the local Rochester and Strood Conservative Association. He worked on Ms Tolhurst's campaign and today is calling on her to rebel against her own government.
She clearly now is on the payroll and very loyal to the prime minister and the government. But I don't think that reflects at all what the people of Rochester and Strood want.
So you support MPs who are seemingly being disloyal and saying that they're going to vote against the deal?
I do. I think this is one that, it should be a free vote. It was a free vote, the referendum for the nation. This should not be party political. It's too an important deal. I think the Labour party is in a complete mess around what it should do around Brexit. But equally I think the Conservative party is in not much better picture.
What specifically is it for you that's wrong with the PMs deal?
Brexit was about taking back control of our borders. It was equally about being given the opportunity to commercially trade internationally without boundaries but leaving without a big slap on our backside and a payment that we have to make to get out of this club. And really what's on the table, there are far too many compromises.
Andrew is not alone in his scepticism. Rupert Turpin, who's involved with his local association here in Rochester, says he's so unhappy with the PMs deal he'd rather stay in the EU than have it passed in the Commons. We met outside the area's historic Rochester Castle.
I just think it's such a bad deal that we are literally going to be taking rule-taker from Europe without a seat at the table. It will just make a mockery of our thousand years of democracy. We're the world's oldest democracy. I've not met anyone that says it's a good deal.
Yeah. And you are at the stage that you'd almost rather stay in the EU than go along with the PMs deal?
I would rather do that. Because then we could leave at a later stage. I think we would be coming out at some stage anyway. Because there's a lot of tensions within Europe with the Euro and various other things. So it will come to a point at a later stage. But I don't want to see us as a vassal state in the EU.
As the vote approaches, MPs have a decision to make. Should they listen to their local members or make up their own minds?