In the Commons, reassurance laced with uncertainty
At a reception in the House of Commons this week, a Conservative MP and longstanding friend of Gibraltar reflected on the upheaval sweeping through British politics in the wake of the Brexit vote.
He was one of a group of MPs who had met the Chief Minister earlier in the day to hear Gibraltar’s concerns for the future firsthand and to see how they could help map out a plan of action in the weeks and months ahead.
It was a difficult discussion because there is only one certainty in the post-referendum fallout, and that is that nothing is certain. There is no clear plan of action in London, and both the Tory party and Labour are in turmoil.
“The reality is the Brexiteers didn’t think they were going to win,” the Tory MP told me. He was for Remain, but he would know, being close to Boris Johnson and well plugged in to the upper ranks of his party. “That’s why they don’t have a game plan.”
So where does that leave Gibraltar? That was the topic on everyone’s lips in the opulent State Rooms in Speaker’s House in the House of Commons.
The well-attended event was a leaving do for Gibraltar’s representative in London, Albert Poggio, who over many years has built a network of valuable contacts in the Commons and the House of Lords that will serve Gibraltar well in the difficult months that lie ahead.
Speaker’s House is next to the Thames underneath Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster and offers clear views of the streets outside Parliament.
In the State Rooms, under the portraits of Speakers past and fuelled by canapés and wine, the conversation flowed. There were few hard facts, but no end of questions, opinions and analysis. Outside, glimpsed through Gothic windows, people carrying placards and banners reading ‘We Love Europe’ and ‘Leaders, Not Liars’ headed back from Trafalgar Square, where thousands had gathered to protest at being dragged out of Europe.
Mr Picardo and his delegation - which included deputy Chief Minister Dr Joseph Garcia and Attorney General Michael Llamas - worked the room, just as they had worked the corridors of Westminster in the hours prior to the reception.
Over the course of two days they spoke with key players in the Tory party, ensuring the various camps in the forthcoming leadership contest were aware of Gibraltar’s fears and ideas. They reached out to old friends in the Labour party, much for the same reason, and new ones in Scotland and Northern Ireland, hoping to establish new relationships and alliances.
They also met with stalwart Gibraltar supporters in the British Government, not least Europe Minister David Lidington. In the weeks ahead, they will have contact with leaders of other Overseas Territories and Crown dependencies, and with officials in Brussels.
As they sounded out views and opinions, the response was one of quiet reassurance and optimism, despite the political chaos unleashed by the Brexit vote.
MPs in the Remain camp apologised for being unable to deliver the result that they - and Gibraltar - had hoped for. The Leavers, meanwhile, were apologetic that they had dropped us in it.
The Bexiteers insisted that it would all work out for the best. Perhaps it was the uncertainty of the past few days, where everything has been turned on its head, or maybe it was the wine, but some of them sounded like they were trying to convince themselves as well as the visiting journalist.
There was one constant, though, and it was welcome. Across the political spectrum and on either side of the referendum debate, the message to Gibraltar was the same. “Now, more than ever, there is solid, cross-party support for Gibraltar in parliament,” another Conservative MP told me, summing it up.
That may well be true, but keeping Gibraltar on the radar in the weeks ahead will be difficult because MPs in the Commons have their own constituents to please and their own issues to address.
That much was evident on Monday when David Cameron addressed Parliament. There was one small reference to Gibraltar in the Prime Minister’s speech. That was it. Mr Cameron delivered a statement and took questions for over two hours from over 100 MPs. There was a lot of repetition in what was being asked, but not a single question about Gibraltar. The same was true in the House of Lords.
Gibraltar’s friends in the House of Commons are now working to change that. Tory MP Jack Lopresti, the chairman of the Gibraltar group in parliament, has secured a debate on Gibraltar in Westminster Hall for next month. Another MP in the group, Robert Neill, has written to the Prime Minister setting out Gibraltar’s concerns.
Top of the list of those concerns is Gibraltar’s wish to have a seat at the table as Britain prepares to negotiate its exit from the EU. On Monday, Mr Cameron said the Rock would be consulted as part of those discussions, but Gibraltar - like Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales - wants to be fully involved.
Gibraltar will have to work hard to ensure its voice is properly heard and taken into account in the coming weeks and months. In truth though, given the political maelstrom in Westminster, Gibraltar’s efforts in the immediate wake of last week’s referendum have already gained some traction. Faisal Islam, the political editor at Sky News, acknowledged this on Tuesday, listing Mr Picardo alongside Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, London mayor Sadiq Khan and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt as being on his “list of politicians with Brexit plans”.
Gibraltar must tread confidently but carefully in the weeks ahead. We are a resilient, creative and entrepreneurial community and we will weather these challenges and find opportunity in adversity. But there must be no mistake as to what is at stake.
“The joint sovereignty challenge in 2002 was simple compared to this,” one senior official said this week.
“It was black and white. This is far more complex.”