'I've received death threats over the Brexit vote ... it's not been very nice'
MP Dominic Grieve was accused of treachery this week after masterminding a shock defeat for Theresa May. He tells Susannah Butter why he felt forced to become an 'unlikely rebel leader' and how he wouldn't support going against the wishes of 17.4 million people
Dominic Grieve protests that he is "a most unlikely rebel leader". The former Attorney General and Conservative MP hasn't stopped working, or seen his wife, since Wednesday, when he and 10 other MPs defied a three-line whip to secure a vote for MPs on the final deal to leave the EU, in the Prime Minister's first defeat on Brexit.
Thanking his assistant for the mince pie she's brought him "to cheer me up", Grieve, aged 61, says he has had two death threats this week. "One by email and one was an answerphone message. It's not very nice, and worrying. There are people who are mad, bad or both, who are homicidal.
"What worries me is that when you have a political atmosphere that becomes fevered, with vitriol directed at certain figures, those mad people start to be disinhibited by the atmosphere, which can lead to criminal acts."
"Going against the Government troubles me", he adds, straightening his tie. "I've been in Parliament for 21 years and in that time I have only voted against the Government once - over HS2. But this is the riskiest thing that the Government has done in its entire history outside of going to war; it's as serious as that. Therefore, we should try to manage it successfully."
Grieve sees himself as a victim of circumstance. "I have lost sleep due to the issues posed by the Brexit problems. I am troubled about how this great risk to the country's wellbeing is going to be successfully managed. I get constituents who say, 'You're much too negative', but, I'm sorry, it should be something we are concerned about. Regretful as I am that I had to do it, I have no regrets at having done it at all."
His amendment states that the Government can only make provision for implementing the withdrawal agreement if it is subject to the prior enactment of a statute by Parliament approving the final terms.
"The Government could have avoided rebellion if it had done what I asked," the MP says.
Theresa May has noted Grieve's argument that setting a final date for Brexit is damaging - she is now expected to back away from plans to do this, in order to avoid a second Commons defeat next week.
There were reports of MPs left "agitated" by the whips at the vote. Vicky Ford, Tory MP for Chelmsford, was seen wavering between both voting lobbies before Philip Hammond guided her to the Government lobby.
"Some colleagues felt the whips acted in a bullying manner," says Grieve. "I hope it doesn't escalate - it's counter-productive. In the debate I felt there had been a closing down of reasonable discussion, and once you get to that point, where the temperature rises, it starts to feel like a trial of strength, which it shouldn't be. You close down sensible discussion."
Afterwards, Grieve found himself with people who had voted the other way. "We had a perfectly amicable conversation. Some people criticised me, but they are entitled to that. The colleagues with whom I had been working were down the corridor with a glass of wine waiting for me, which was fortuitous, so I then wandered along for a glass of wine with them. I've been surprised to see how resilient colleagues have been, particularly new recruits, who are generally more susceptible to pressure."
Colleagues have told him he's trending on Twitter. "I won't do social media, so I'm unable to see whether trending is good or bad."
Grieve campaigned for Remain. He felt "gloomy" about the referendum result and the splits it revealed between the political class and the electorate, "which we must take responsibility for". But while he sees it "as a historic mistake with no benefits in the short or medium term", he has "no intention of sabotage". "The only people who can stop Brexit are the public," he says.
He admires Gina Miller for challenging the Government's authority to implement Brexit without Parliament: "She is a courageous lady. I told anyone who asked me that she was going to win her case. What was regrettable is that she was subjected to far worse vilification than I've ever encountered. The Government was not robust enough in countering the vitriol thrown at her."
Grieve's office is packed with trinkets - a figurine of St Ivo ("a good man, patron saint of lawyers, a Breton", he pronounces it with a French accent) and a clock that belonged to a French doctor ancestor. He assures me: "I have plenty of British things as well." The shelves are full of books, including Call Me Dave, the biography of the former PM, and A A Milne's poetry book Now We Are Sixty.
He chuckles at the pastiche of the Daily Mail's front page on Thursday, which turned its headline about the rebels "Proud of yourselves?" into "Proud of our elves". "That was delightful, it made us all happier. The Daily Mail is the Grinch. Its vitriol doesn't help the national debate."It's not that Grieve is afraid of confrontation, rather that he wants debate and due process.
"The Government is having to take some of the most extensive powers ever obtained by government in peace time to carry the Brexit process through. We've got to be capable of having a reasonable dialogue on that to accommodate difference. It's not so much that a cultural change is needed, although it might be helpful, but people should pay attention to what we are discussing." That means the nitty gritty of Article 50. "We need to debate on how to leave the EU in a way that minimises risk and maximises opportunities."
Before Wednesday's vote he discussed his actions with his wife, the barrister Caroline Hutton. "She's a helpful sounding board. She applies her take, and it won't necessarily be identical to my own. I don't think she disagrees with me on this, though.
"Setting a date for Brexit, which we are voting about next Wednesday, is a big mistake. It unnecessarily fetters the Government's range of action at the end of the Brexit process. It's noteworthy that a few colleagues who supported the Brexit vote agree. This is not just a leave/remain split. The idea is counter-productive to Brexit."
There's already a date for Brexit provided in Article 50. "It's two years after we trigger the official notice period, or indeed it can be earlier. Article 50 does provide for that being extended. That's why I think it's silly to prevent that process being available if necessary by insisting we have to leave as a matter of law by March 29, 2019."
Would he prefer us not to leave? "Going against the votes of 17.4 million would be extraordinary and I wouldn't support it under any circumstances. My ideal scenario is that we wouldn't be where we are, but the best we can hope for is that the Government is able to arrive at a good deal with the EU."
Does he think the other prominent rebel of the moment, Jeremy Corbyn, could be the next Prime Minister? "I hope not. He is undoubtedly very Left-wing, if not Marxist, and a Corbyn-led Labour government would be catastrophic. He has a long history of rebellion and he's leading a party that's disunited. The risk to us is that we don't get re-elected because the challenges that Brexit poses are so dominant that other important issues like economic growth, that affect things like spending on the NHS, are ones we can't deliver on, so people go to another party, or worse lose faith in mainstream politics and go to extremes.
"In a sense, Jeremy Corbyn represents an extreme group within Labour that's become dominant. That's the real challenge, not an individual defeat for the Government at the committee stage."
Still, it will take more than a rebel MP from Islington to defeat the Tories. "The Conservative Party has been around for more than 200 years," Grieve says. "It's a rather resilient organism. Clearly, how we manage Brexit has put immense strain on the entire political system."
He's off for a panel discussion about human rights sponsored by the "horribly Left-wing" Doughty Street Chambers. Over Christmas he plans a break from Brexit with "clifftop walks at our house in Brittany, snoozes by the fire and a swim in the sea to celebrate New Year's Eve". He might even take his two grown-up sons to see the other rebel army, in the new Star Wars film, but that's as close to a coup as he plans to get. "I hope this is the last of me being an unlikely rebel," he smiles.