- MEPs Richard Ashworth and Julie Girling were kicked out the Conservative Party for refusing to back Theresa May’s handling of Brexit.
- The pair told BI the prime minister is making a “horrendous” mess of negotiations.
- They call on their former colleagues to stand up against May’s hard Brexit plans.
BRUSSELS, Belgium – Last year British MEPs Julie Girling and Richard Ashworth were booted out of the Conservative Party after they voted against Brexit negotiations moving onto the next stage.
They were two of 557 MEPs who in October said that the UK and EU had not achieved “sufficient progress” for talks to progress.
Theresa May deemed the pair to have acted “totally irresponsibly” by refusing to back her deal and quickly stripped them of the Conservative whip, although both still remain members of the party.
Since then both MEPs quit the European Conservatives and Reformists bloc (ECR) in the European Parliament, to join Jean-Claude Juncker’s pro-EU grouping, the European People’s Party (EPP).
“The ECR group have taken a stance which is basically to support the British government at any cost. I’m not sure that’s what we should be doing here,” Girling told Business Insider.
The ECR group have taken a stance which is basically to support the British government at any cost. I’m not sure that’s what we should be doing here.
Girling and Ashworth are among the few to still fly the flag for Conservative Europhiles on the other side of the channel, and neither minced their words about May’s handling of Brexit when we spoke to them in Brussels last week.
“Horrendous, horrendous, horrendous,” Ashworth replied when we asked him to assess the Cabinet’s understanding of the European Union and issues to be resolved in negotiations.
“I don’t think the government really understand that their vision for global Britain – which means red lines on single market and customs union – is a complete contradiction against what they call frictionless, borderless trade with European markets. I don’t think they understand that,” the MEP for South East England said.
“There are so many logical inconsistencies,” Girling told BI.
“Last week, Chris Grayling said there won’t be a border at Dover. How can that be? Even if he doesn’t want one, the EU will be required to have one under WTO arrangements. The EU is obliged to maintain borders for customs reasons.
“It’s either a lack of understanding, or it’s a deliberate fudging because they don’t have a political answer,” she added.
“One’s a crime and one’s a sin. They’re guilty of one or both,” Ashworth said.
“These people are deluding themselves thinking that they can just wish it away”
Girling and Ashworth’s divorce from the ECR earlier this year was not a particularly amicable one.
“We regret their decision but are not surprised,” a spokesperson for the eurosceptic group said. “They failed to accept the result of the British referendum on EU membership and as a result distanced themselves from their delegation.”
The tone of the statement came as a surprise to Girling. “It was a strange remark to make. It wasn’t an ECR remark. It was a British Conservative remark, I suspect. Most members were very sad to see Richard and I go.”
Ashworth revealed that dialogue between himself and Westminster Conservatives has been non-existent for a while.
“Historically, we used to [speak.] I don’t think since the referendum I’ve ever seen a British minister here,” he said.
“Why?” we asked.
“You’ll have to ask them that,” he replied. “It’s been six months [since their whips were removed.] At no point since has anybody talked to me about it or explained what Julie and I have done wrong.”
The pair now sit in the European Parliament as independent MEPs, and are using their newfound freedom to take the fight to May’s Brexit plan, and the damage they believe it will inflict on their constituencies.
One of the areas Ashworth represents is Dover, where there is growing concern that Britain’s proposed exit from the single market and customs union will unleash chaos on the port as a result of increased border checks.
The 10,000 trucks that pass through Dover each day could be stuck in queues up to 15 miles long, Ashworth told BI, which would grind roads around the region to a halt.
“If you have a customs check – this can be spot-checking, not necessarily on every vehicle – this two minutes becomes four minutes, and this becomes 26 kilometres of lorries,” he said.
“Chris Grayling last Question Time said there will be no border at Dover. He doesn’t understand. A border has two sides. We will be a third country, and we better get used to that idea. Country of origin regulations; differing VAT rates; production standards. All of these things and more are points of difference.
“These people are deluding themselves if they think they can just wish it away.”
As the MEP for South West of England, one of the regions Girling represents is the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, which she said feels increasingly ignored in Westminster debate about Britain’s exit from the EU.
Girling explained that Gibraltar’s economy relies on “13,000 people coming from Spain across the border every day,” who work in sectors like tourism and hospitality. There is worry that ending the free movement of people by virtue of leaving the single market will significantly reduce the flow of EU citizens travelling to Gibraltar to work. “Its economy relies on those people,” Girling said.
Rees-Mogg probably wonders why he’s in a party with me. We have very different views.
The futures of Gibraltar and Dover were just two of numerous issues Girling and Ashworth raised with BI when we visited their offices during last week’s European Council summit.
“The UK’s style is to approach each hurdle and do the minimum amount to flop over,” Ashworth said.
We asked Girling whether Prime Minister May should have given herself more time to consider these issues before triggering Article 50.
“To be honest, if we left it another six months, would we have been more prepared?” she said.
“There are painful discussions that have had to be had in the UK. This isn’t any easier without a parliamentary majority. I’m not sure an extra six months would have helped these things be resolved.
“Would they have had a clear plan that was supported by the House of Commons? I don’t think so.”
“How’s it [the Conservative Party] going to survive?”
In February, Anna Soubry – the most well-known face among Conservative Europhiles in London – said Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg were “not Tories” and should be “slung out” by Prime Minister May.
The MP for Broxtowe warned that the party risked losing “swathes of voters” if it delivered the hard Brexit demanded by “35 hard ideological Brexiteers,” who reside mainly on the Tory backbenches.
Girling and Ashworth remain members of the British Conservative Party despite having their parliamentary whips removed – but do they still feel welcome?
“They are a small number of ideologically-driven people who care for nothing other than achieving this aim of leaving Europe,” Ashworth said.
“They’re not bothered about industry. They’re not bothered about a border in Ireland. All of that is disposable. We are going to find that Britain is this buccaneering, free trading nation.
“It’s a dream.”
Girling sighed and took a long pause.
“Rees-Mogg probably wonders why he’s in a party with me. We have very different views,” she said.
“We’ve always managed to come out with some kind of middle ground, but Europe has tipped some people over the edge. Him in one direction, and me in the other.
“They are obsessed with Europe. They have been for a long time,” she added.
“I don’t know what the Conservative Party is going to do when it doesn’t have Europe to complain about. How’s it going to survive? It will have to look internally and find another reason for failure.”
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