The Tories are in a commanding position to address the many outstanding issues that have accumulated over the past few years. From boundary reforms to a bold offer to the Overseas Territories, former minister John Penrose has plenty of ideas for how his party can make the most of its newly acquired power. The MP talks to Sebastian Whale
A sizeable majority opens many doors. With malcontents in the Commons somewhat impotent after the heady days of a hung parliament, the Conservative government can expect to get its business through with considerable confidence. For John Penrose, channelling his inner George Osborne, this presents an opportunity to “fix the roof while the sun is shining”.
What does this mean in practice? Penrose, the MP for Weston-Super-Mare since 2005, wants to address some outstanding issues. They range from abolishing the Fixed-Term Parliament Act (FTPA) or amending the legislation so that more than 50% of MPs are required to support an election for one to take place, as opposed to two-thirds. Conversely, he argues changes to standing orders should require the backing of two-thirds of the Commons to ensure they receive cross-party consent. Weary from the actions of former speaker John Bercow, he also proposes a consent mechanism be introduced if a chair wishes to interpret standing orders in a new way.
“It is far, far better to do this now when there isn’t contention,” he tells me over coffee in Portcullis House. The Tories pledged to abolish the FTPA in their election manifesto.
Penrose, the Prime minister’s anti-corruption tsar, is also leading the charge on another Conservative bugbear. Over the festive period, he helped coordinate a letter to Boris Johnson, published in the Sunday Telegraph, calling for changes to parliamentary constituency boundaries to be made “as fast as possible”. Penrose and five fellow Tories, including Liam Fox, Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Sir Graham Brady, argue the current system, which sees discrepancies in the sizes of constituencies, is unfair.
Parliament approved the principle of reducing the number of MPs back in 2011, but successive governments have stalled over implementation. In September 2018, the Boundary Commission published final recommendations for a new electoral map that saw the number of MPs cut from 650 to 600 and constituencies made more equal in size, with voters ranging from 71,031 to 78,507 per seat.
Due to opposition from rival parties, the Tories have not been in a position to get the reforms over the line. But with 365 Conservative MPs on the green benches, the party has the political space to revisit the proposals. Downing St has signalled that it is prepared to follow through.
Rather than get hung up on whether MPs reduce in overall number, Penrose argues addressing constituency discrepancies is the number one priority. “The crucial thing, and this is important for democratic legitimacy, is the equalisation,” he says.
Penrose believes that the stakes are markedly high. “We are at a time where populists are making hay right the way through western democracies. Any hint of democratic illegitimacy is extremely dangerous. The problem that we face is that there are huge unjustifiable variations in the size of constituencies and, therefore, in the value of your vote versus mine depending on where you happen to live.”
According to analysis by Electoral Calculus, under the proposed changes the Tories would have secured a majority of 104 at the election. Could pursuing the reforms appear to the average voter like gerrymandering? “I would respectfully but strongly refute that argument. Gerrymandering is creating an unfairness. Gerrymandering is not eliminating an unfairness which is what this is. It’s about legitimacy,” replies Penrose.
Given the UK stuck by its first-past-the-post electoral system in the 2011 AV referendum, Penrose says work must be done to ensure it is “as legitimate as possible”. While stressing he has no personal preference, he warns MPs that they would need to consider the optics of voting to keep the number of MPs at 650 – and thus at greater cost to the taxpayer – following the “slap in the face” that was delivered to the political class at the election. As for those whose seat may disappear under the new electoral map, Penrose says the overall number of MPs makes little difference.
With the UK embarking on a new life outside of the European Union, Penrose, who voted Remain, wants to convey that Brexit does not equate to pulling up the drawbridge. As a gesture in this direction, the former Northern Ireland minister proposes offering Overseas Territories the opportunity to become fully-fledged members of the UK. “That means that they are no longer captives of a history which started off originally with the empire but instead they are an equal part of the rest of the United Kingdom,” he explains.
Penrose argues that the Overseas Territories, which include Gibraltar, Bermuda and Anguilla, should be given the chance to negotiate an equivalent devolution settlement to those arranged with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and have representation in parliament.
“They would send MPs to the Westminster parliament here, they would have their own devolved governments like the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament,” he says. “It would show that we are committed to being a global nation post-Brexit.”
Britain has 14 Overseas Territories which are fully autonomous while remaining under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the UK. Penrose says it would be up to the individual Overseas Territories as to how they secured consent for joining. “The important thing is there should be an open-handed, generous-hearted offer on the table for as many of them that want to pick it up,” he says.
He argues it would depend on the devolution settlement as to whether the Overseas Territories, such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands – renowned tax havens – are subject to the same tax regime as the rest of the UK. And he says that it would present opportunities for the Overseas Territories to export goods, such as lobsters from Tristan da Cunha, into the UK internal market with fewer restrictions. “It just makes the trading ties and links between our respective parts of the UK a great deal simpler, a great deal more friction-free,” he says.
The UK already has disputes over some Overseas Territories, including Gibraltar with Spain, the Falkland Islands with Argentina and the Chagos Islands with Mauritius. Penrose argues his idea could provide clarity. “If you haven’t regularised and created a stable settlement of the one I’m describing, there is always a risk that somewhere around the globe some sort of geopolitical, tectonic plate will shift.” He adds: “Until we have a stable settlement, there is always going to be a risk of something blowing up.”
Does Penrose envisage this proposal solving the vexed issue of Gibraltar as the UK prepares to look at the future relationship with the EU? “If Gibraltar wanted to do it and we made the offer, then that would be what would go ahead,” he replies. Though he is quick to dampen fears about war with Spain, he adds: “Gibraltar is one example, but there are other Overseas Territories where you will need to mount a carefully diplomatic push to make sure that the neighbours understood what we were doing, why we were doing it, why they shouldn’t feel threatened by it and see it as an opportunity. The crucial thing, of course, is local self-determination, local consent. It’s got to be their choice.”
Penrose is keen to stress that this would not be a return to Britain’s imperialist past. But after leaving a 28-member bloc, would it not look like empire re-building? “No, I don’t think it does,” he says. “People might make that argument but because we are offering and suggesting that these territories become equal parts of the United Kingdom, it’s hard to make an imperialist argument about this at all. It is clearly something that is talking about equal status.”
It remains to be seen whether this is a proposal currently being considered in No 10. A spokesperson for the UK Overseas Territories Association says: “We are unaware of any formal consultation with the elected Governments of the UK Overseas Territories on this issue.”
Penrose was at home in an “exhausted heap” when the exit poll landed on Thursday 12 December. After the initial joy ebbed away, thoughts turned to the task at hand. “When it came out, it was a combination of elation and relief, I’ve got to say. But also, quickly followed up by a pretty sobering realisation that, alright, we have now got to deliver,” he says.