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Margot James: Boris can only unite Tories if he changes 'do or die' Brexit approach

By Pete Madeley | Stourbridge | Politics | Published:

Boris Johnson will need to "lower the expectations" of Brexiteers if he wants to secure the UK's departure from the EU and unite the Conservative Party, a former Government minister has said.

Stourbridge MP Margot James

Margot James said that the new PM could be heading for "groundhog day" unless he is willing to compromise with MPs from the centre-right of the party, warning that he had no chance of healing Tory divisions with his "do or die" approach to Brexit.

The Stourbridge MP, who quit as Digital Minister last week in order to try and block a 'no deal' departure, said Mr Johnson will struggle to solve the Irish backstop issue which has "dogged" Brexit from day one.

In an interview with the Express & Star she also vowed to fight on as an MP, revealing she had received "huge support" from constituents and had the backing of the majority of her association.

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Ms James backed Theresa May's Brexit deal on all three times it went before the Commons, but she has come in for criticism from some quarters due to her opposition of a 'no deal' departure.

She said: "Boris can't possibly unite the party with his 'do or die' approach to Brexit, which means leaving with or without a deal on October 31.

"He can carry the majority of the party with him, but he can't unite the party. The only way he could unite the party would be to lower expectations of those who are happy to leave without a deal.

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"I wouldn't be wholly surprised if that's what he tried to do."

The backstop problem

Ms James said the Irish backstop issue was "still the main" problem in delivering Brexit.

"What the EU can't give is sufficient ground on the backstop to make the Brexit wing of the parliamentary party happy," she said.

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Boris Johnson moved into Number 10 on Wednesday

"They can't leave a potentially open border into the single market, and they can't desert a member state [Ireland] whose commitment to the Belfast agreement is such that there can never be an open border on the island of Ireland.

"That's what has dogged the reality from day one, and I don't think it will change."

Ms James said she would not support any pre-emptive action against Mr Johnson, saying his position "will become clearer" over the summer.

Theresa May clashed with Jeremy Corbyn for the final time as leader at PMQs

"If he is prepared to manage the expectations [of Brexiteers] and come to a compromise there is potential there... but that very much depends on those members of the party who held up the deal when it came before the House," she said.

She said that a 35-strong group of Tory MPs pushing for 'no deal' were holding the balance, and that with few Labour MPs likely to support any deal put forward by Mr Johnson, he could find himself in the same gridlocked position as Mrs May.

"We could be heading for groundhog day with a leader who is unable to get the UK out of the EU," she said.

'The party has changed'

Ms James said she was worried about the direction of the Conservative Party under Mr Johnson, although she rejected claims from former Prime Minister John Major that an "ultra-Brexit faction" was taking hold.

"I agree with John Major in a lot he says about this issue, but it is wrong to talk about a faction. Boris has set out his stall very clearly and his position is supported by a lot of members and a lot of people in the country. They are a significant portion of the membership.

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"Unfortunately one third of the party membership joined the Conservative Party since the referendum, and undoubtedly there are those in significant numbers who have heeded the call from the main LeaveEU backer Arron Banks to join the Conservative Party in order to elect a hard Brexit leader, so the nature of the party has changed over the last couple of years.

"However I don't think the party is under threat, which is why I am committed to working with the party alongside colleagues to make sure the outcome of Brexit is handled sensibly."

Constituency support

Ms James said she was not considering standing down as an MP, revealing she had had a positive meeting with her association chairman last week and engaged in "good debate" with members in two meetings this past month.

She also said she has received "a huge amount of support" in her constituency for her stance, which had meant "a great deal" to her.

"I think they understand my position," she said. "Not all of them are happy with it, but I believe I have the support of the majority. Time will tell.

Ms James resigned from the cabinet last week

"I've been surprised by the level of support, which I think reflects the fact that according to the vast majority of contact I have had over the last six to nine months about Brexit, there is clearly a majority for leaving, but not a majority for leaving without a deal.

"I really want to have this settled so we can get back to prioritising policy areas which are more important in many respects to so many people in the country. there's a lot to be done on social care, on crime and I would say also on schools resources.

"We don't want to be mired in Brexit conflict indefinitely. I really want to stand again to see all of that through."

Access to talent

Reflecting on her role as digital minister – a brief which also included the creative industries where she spent most of her career before entering politics – Ms James said: "It was a something I loved and a chance to really make an impact on important areas that represent the future of the country.

"Tech and the creative industries, although they were affected by Brexit, and were almost unanimously against Brexit, they knew that they would survive and flourish regardless of the outcome.

"The main issue for them is post-Brexit with immigration, because given the growth in those sectors, the work we are doing to upskill our own population just can't be done fast enough.

"They need access to talent from abroad. Boris Johnson knows that and must make sure that the control of immigration that we get after Brexit will reflect those needs."

She said she hopes to one day return to government, although she conceded it was unlikely under the current administration.

"Politics is so volatile at the moment that who knows, I might be back at some point and that would be great," she added.

Pete Madeley

By Pete Madeley
@P_Madeley_Star

Political Editor for the Express & Star. Responsible for local and national political stories, opinion, comment and analysis.

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