I was visiting refugee camps in Kenya when the Cabinet meeting was called to discuss the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement. So I quietly read a copy of the Agreement thousands of miles away from the febrile atmosphere in Parliament, dipping in and out of the media coverage when I had WiFi. This meant I was able to concentrate on the detail; the facts rather than the gossip and speculation. This is way more complicated than the empty hackneyed phrases vassal state and cliff-edge tripped out by the people chasing a perfect Brexit that doesn’t exist and those who want to wake up and pretend the referendum never happened.
I campaigned and voted to leave. I take my responsibility very seriously to ensure that the UK sees this through and leaves but in the most orderly way possible. I had already come to the conclusion that I would vote for this imperfect deal, one that is at the very cusp of what I could support, but the vote in Parliament at the beginning of the five days of debate has cemented in my mind the fact that if this deal does not go through then Brexit itself is at severe risk. It is clear that the division runs through the country and in the constituency. That means I’ll lose the support of plenty of people whatever I do next week. My sole thought process is for the good of the country – not my career, not my party or the Prime Minister – although a Jeremy Corbyn-led government will also have a hugely negative impact on the country as a whole. This deal is going to be tough if not impossible to get through Parliament but the likely alternatives are so much worse, mainly because of Parliamentary arithmetic. As US President, Lyndon Baines Johnson said, the first rule of politics is to be able to count. The arithmetic if this deal doesn’t go through leads to an end point that in no way respects the referendum result.
I’ll try to go through my reasons in turn, though this may quickly become dated if the pace of events continues at the same speed until the vote on Tuesday.
There are a key list of factors as to why I and 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU in June 2016, some of which mattered to people more than others. Just about all to my mind get sorted within the deal on the table
- Leaving the political institutions of the EU – We won’t have the EU Commission, the EU Parliament, the European Central Bank looking over us in the future. We will leave the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. The European Court of Justice will not have an effect on people in the UK apart from having a say on citizens rights for the next 8 years and interpretation of EU law in disputes. Politicians in Westminster will be the ones that will remain accountable for UK laws.
- No more huge membership fees – These end when we leave on 29th March 2019. Neither will we be under threat of having to contribute to bailouts within the Eurozone – something which we should not have been having to do anyway but still ended up paying.
- The end of Freedom of Movement of People – This ends with the implementation period so we will be able to move towards a fairer, better controlled immigration system.
- The ability to strike our own independent trade deals – We will be able to negotiate trade deals but crucially we will not be able to implement them until we leave the implementation period and eliminate the Irish backstop
So to my mind the deal satisfies the vast majority of tests to respect the referendum result. But there are clearly drawbacks.
- The Irish Backstop – In order to satisfy the argument that has arisen about the EU being able to protect the integrity of its Customs Union, it is insisting on an insurance policy to make sure that if a future trading agreement cannot be thrashed out with the UK, goods can’t be imported without checks from the UK. Some people are saying that we should not have a backstop at all. The political reality is that after a year of both sides whipping up the Backstop, there is no way that suddenly Michel Barnier is going to say, yes the UK is right, let’s forget all the stuff we have been talking about for the last year. The Irish Taioseach, Leo Varadkar has no majority in the Irish Dail. If the backstop is removed, his government will almost certainly fall so his domestic agenda dictates that he takes a hard line on this. All of this despite the EU, the Irish and the UK saying that they do not want to erect a hard border between Ireland and the UK.
- Bringing an end to the Irish Backstop – The only way to get rid of this insurance policy is through a Joint Committee made up of equal numbers of representatives from the UK and the EU who will decide when circumstances are such that it is no longer required. This will be likely through a new Free Trade Agreement which uses a combination of technology and other methods to satisfy both sides that rigorous border checks are not needed. The UK cannot unilaterally decide to leave (neither can the EU) as it would no longer be an effective insurance policy. They cannot put an expiry date on the backstop because again, this would not work as an insurance policy so it has to work on trust and negotiation. It’s clear why the UK would want to get out of the Backstop as soon as possible but less known is why the EU find it unpalatable and will want to negotiate in good faith to move on and scrap it. The Backstop means that Northern Ireland gets full access to the EU market but unlike its Southern neighbour, it doesn’t have to pay a membership fee for the privilege nor allow the Freedom of Movement. This breaks one of the four key pillars that until now have been sacrosanct for the EU (Freedom of Movement of goods, services, capital and labour). The EU do not believe that the backstop would stand up to scrutiny in a court after a couple of years, as it would have been set up under Article 50 which only deals with withdrawal terms, thus only temporary measures, not permanent solutions. Therefore the backstop cannot be open-ended. Actually it may be illegal in itself even on day one should it be tested in court. UPDATE: A couple of interesting articles that go into this in more detail are from Stephen Booth of Open Europe and Bruno Waterfield a Brussels-based journalist writing for the Times. The Attorney General’s legal advice states that the Protocol does not contain a mechanism to ensure that the backstop doesn’t keep the UK in the Customs Territory indefinitely but this is advice on a narrow point. It is clear to everyone that the Protocol itself does not cover this point so as to protect the comprehensive cover for both parties. It does not cover the aspect of the issue regarding how to deal with permanent conditions imposed via a clause meant only to cover temporary transitional arrangements.
- Common rulebook on goods – The Political Declaration suggests that our future relationship with the EU will have many of the hallmarks of Chequers which would tie us down to adhere to the EU rules on goods and agrifoods crossing UK/EU borders. This will undoubtedly limit some of the trade deals that we can do but the rules and regulations within this area are quite mature. The rulebook has not changed in a meaningful way for the last thirty years and many major multinational companies have indicated that they will be unlikely to diverge anyway. Most companies will see no negative effect and some may be left with the status quo.
- Agreeing to the £39bn divorce bill up front – This will have an impact on our negotiating position as our money is a significant hand for us to play. However it’s not quite as strong as might be thought on first sight. Part of this is made up of the amount that we will be paying during the transition period. Based on current membership fees, that’s an estimated £16bn or 40%. Much of the rest is made up of what the UK agrees are its financial obligations which we will almost certainly pay anyway so as not to be seen as an unreliable partner. Failure to do so will clearly have a big effect on our ongoing relationship with our biggest trading market and other countries looking in.
So what are the other options rather than this imperfect deal?
- Leave on WTO terms (No Deal) – This is the default position according to Article 50 if we cannot reach agreement with the EU about our future relationship. I am comfortable with this as a Plan B as long as we have properly prepared. Some people have wanted to do this from day one but that doesn’t stand up intellectually. Why would we be in a mad rush to arrange Free Trade Agreements around the world but not even try to do one with our nearest and biggest trading bloc. It is a different matter if we have tried and fail to reach an agreement. I believe that should the Government fail to pass the Withdrawal Agreement next Tuesday, we need to go back to Brussels on Wednesday and not only escalate the contingency planning for leaving with no deal but start talks with the EU on bilateral agreements in plenty of time, on such matters such as the Open Skies agreement to keep our planes flying in and out of EU airspace and suchlike. I have no truck with the millenium bug style doomsday talk but we do need to get on with this if it is to remain a viable option.Leaving without a deal, if planned correctly, will be fine in the medium to long term and may bring a more equitable approach to negotiations with the EU likely to come back to the table to address the competitive advantage that we could gain in trade with other countries.However it will cause short term turbulence however well we plan. I remember the year that we left the ERM was also the year I bought my house which lost one-third of its value within 12 months. I’m still in the same house so it has had no effect on me whatsoever but others were devastated in the resulting turmoil suffering increased debt and repossession. It’s all very well for people to say it will be okay in the end but I have to vote on what is best for the country across the board and will ensure my thought process keeps people’s jobs and families very much in my mind. Therefore I have it as an option but nowhere near my default position. It would seem that this possibility has been diminished anyway as a result of votes in Parliament just this week.On Tuesday an amendment that was moved by Dominic Grieve and passed by Parliament, thus defeating the Government, made a No Deal scenario far less of a possibility in my view. If the deal on the table is voted down next Tuesday, any successive vote on that or another deal can be amended. Basically this means that a largely Remain supporting Parliament can start to take the initiative on Brexit including pushing hard for No deal not to be on the agenda. It’s not straightforward by any means but there is a thumping majority in Parliament to move against a No Deal scenario.
- EEA/EFTA (Norway) – Nick Boles MP has pushed the idea of the UK moving into the existing economic model called the European Economic Area which is a looser arrangement than that of the 28 member states. However in recent days he seems to have changed his proposal from being a temporary measure whilst negotiating our own bespoke trading arrangement to one that we will be in for the long term. This is a much softer Brexit than the current deal, taking rules from the EU for the long term; paying a membership fee and still having to keep Freedom of Movement of People.
- Canada +++ – This is a much looser free trade agreement which is my preference in theory where we don’t have equivalence in standards and qualifications which need to be checked. Instead there is mutual recognition, a level of trust between two mature economies that each have similar standards, perhaps through different methods. However at this particular point in time, I do not believe that we are in a position to step into such an arrangement. This deal does not exclude moving our negotiating position for the future relationship to such an ambitious approach. I said that this was my preference in theory but this is real life. I have to be pragmatic. The EU are nowhere near this as an option. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk claimed he would offer us Canada +++. What he omitted to say was that this would only be for Great Britain, not Northern Ireland which would then need to be carved out and treated separately whilst this arrangement was in place. What he was claiming was Canada+++ was very different from the expectations of many here in the UK.
- A Second Referendum – I led a Petitions Committee debate on this last Monday which you can watch here. We had a clear decision taken on a simple and clear question. The referendum had a high turnout and 17.4m voting to leave was the highest number of people voting for anything in a UK plebiscite in our country’s history. It’s just not acceptable to keep revisiting the same point – one reason why many voted to leave the EU in the first place after they pushed Ireland twice to vote again on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties and Denmark once on Maastricht because they didn’t get the result they wanted. The vast majority of those wanting to hold a second referendum are not seeking clarity, they are seeking to reverse the result as borne out by the LibDems twitter hashtag #ExitfromBrexit. It’s incredibly disingenuous for them to claim otherwise. Campaigners are the same people who claimed the original referendum was divisive, yet here they are wanting to do it all again as if it was suddenly a healing exercise. The government stated during the referendum that they would respect the result of the referendum, 499 MPs voted to invoke Article 50 and 80% of the electorate that voted in 2017 voted for parties whose manifesto commitments included respecting the result and leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. We have moved on a long way since the view that the referendum was only advisory. Failing to respect the will of the people would be disastrous. Too many people have spent time trying to unpick the original result and point fingers elsewhere rather than understanding why people felt so strongly about wanting to leave.There are obvious problems with the process of arranging a second referendum. There is no realistic prospect of getting the legislation through Parliament to then put the arrangements in place to have a referendum before the 29th March. If Article 50 was to be extended to allow for this, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act would also need amending as it states that the Treaty of Rome would have no place in UK law after 29th March. There is no agreement on what the question might be. One school of thought is that it could be a two answer question without Remain on the ballot paper as the fact that we are leaving was determined back in 2016. This has a certain logic but doesn’t suit the campaigners who just don’t want to leave at all. Another is to have three answers to choose from – Government Deal, No Deal or Remain. Now imagine what might happen should Remain win with 40% of the vote. 60% of the votes will have gone to the two leave options but the clear majority of people will have been trumped by a minority. The constitutional bear traps are huge. Before we even get there, the ill-will that so many people will feel that their voice has been ignored the first time around will be palpable as articulated by the Archbishop of York this week who expressed concern that it could lead to civil unrest.
- No Brexit – Until this week, I had thought that the only way that this could be achieved would be to extend Article 50 to a point in the future far enough ahead to make it all but staying. However this week, an Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice gave his opinion that Article 50 could be unilaterally pulled by the UK, thus cancelling Brexit entirely. It is only an opinion but the ECJ tends to follow this in its judgement. Therefore, in the unlikely but possible scenario of another quick General Election and perhaps a change of government, withdrawing our Article 50 notice is a possibility, thus leading to Brexit being cancelled entirely, another domesday scenario in terms of our democracy.
As you will have noticed, I don’t find any of the above particularly palatable with only the No Deal scenario being vaguely acceptable which leaves us back to the deal on the table, realistically the only game in town. I would rather there be no backstop. I would rather we could find another way to have a more liberal approach to goods so as to have more extensive trade deals with other countries. The former is just not realistic at this point of the negotiations. The latter is still possible as we haven’t even started our trading arrangement talks yet beyond the broad points included in the Political Declaration. That is because we accepted the EU’s sequencing of talks a full two years ago. So we have had to get our divorce arrangements in place first and have to wait until we are out and considered a third country until we can start our trade talks.
The bad news for those who are bored of Brexit is that we are only halfway through. However it means that it will be the result of the second half that determines whether this compromise deal becomes a good deal. Therefore we need to change our approach. I have been incredibly frustrated and disappointed by the paucity of ambition in Parliament when it comes to asserting the opportunities that lay ahead for the UK. Instead, the divided nature of the House and the fact that the government have been open to questioning and debate at length in the Chamber, means that the argument has been pulled in all sorts of directions. The Liberal Democrats and SNP just want to stay in the EU at all costs. The Labour party want a General Election rather than worrying about the pros and cons of any Brexit deal. Much of the debate has been based on fear of an independent future rather than the prospects of an agile buccaneering approach to trade that allows us to continue our work with our neighbours whilst renewing our relationships with Commonwealth countries; building up trade with the growth economies in Asia and rediscovering free trade with the US and South America. We have so much going for us here in the UK. I’ve never gone down the line of other countries needing us more than we need them. Yes trade should be a competition but sustainable trade is done best in partnership.
Therefore I want the next stage to be negotiated in a different way. Instead of carrying on the talks with a small team centred around the Prime Minister, I believe the PM should clearly oversee and lead the process but the Brexit Secretary should have the task of negotiating all of the co-operation matters such as security, research, data protection and the Secretary of State for International Trade should be putting the extensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU in place. We have an excellent, highly-experienced trade negotiator sitting in the wings. Crawford Falconer, working for Dr Liam Fox is dealing with all of the FTAs around the world apart from the biggest- that with the EU. Having these three leading members of the government bringing together the best such as Crawford, will instill a bit more trust in the process and uses our talent much better. The Political Declaration doesn’t specify the Chequer’s option. I was concerned to read in the original Political Declaration that talks would build on the backstop as I want to see the backstop gone in time, not just rehashed but I note that the wording has changed in its second, more extensive iteration to read build on and improve. This needs to include technological solutions to avoid the need for extra checks and a border so we can concentrate on the wider matters, not just one small but important part of the country.
The deal in front of us is Brexit. It’s not all immediate but frankly it was never going to be. It’s so much more than ‘Brexit in Name Only’ (BRINO). But there is a risk in accepting this deal. We will have signed off the payment of our final payment; a backstop which requires joint agreement to end and some areas of trade where we will be limited in liberalising through FTAs but I believe this is a risk worth taking. It is certainly a lower risk than not supporting the deal and seeing a second referendum or worse still, the revocation of Article 50 leading to no Brexit at all. This can be a solid foundation as long as we keep our resolve and push on with ambition, determination and a rediscovered sense of national unity. So I ask people (especially my colleagues in Parliament) to set aside their egos, preconceptions, any sense of mistrust and come together, frankly even if it’s whilst holding your nose, to support the deal and get to the stage when we can actually leave the European Union. Then we can move on, securing our future relationship with the European Union; to start healing the divisions that we have seen across the country; restoring the bandwidth both in government and in the media to return to debating crucial domestic matters and start bearing the fruits of this hard-earned independence.