Andrew's blog

21 October 2018

STILL BANGING ON ABOUT EUROPE! 

I’m flying to Belfast to chair an evidence session of my select committee in the currently empty Stormont parliament building. So, a few minutes in flight safe mode to tap out some thoughts on the unfolding drama that is Brexit.

First off, can I express my despair at the MP ‘colleague’ who is attacking Prime Minister May in lurid terms, of course anonymously. Shameful, disreputable, dishonourable. Whatever you think of Brexit, Mrs May is so clearly doing her best and deserves better than that.

I do not think there is any appetite outside the M25 beltway for spinning out Brexit. Obviously the EU would like to because it would mean more money and the possibility the U.K. may run out of puff and recant. Unlike the Prodigan Son though I doubt there would be any dispensations for the wounded penitent. More like harsh terms, perhaps very harsh. Those wanting another referendum need to temper their enthusiasm with that and the white fury of the majority who believe the matter was settled in June 2016. If its U.K. influence they’re worried about, they might consider whether a humbled, brought to heel U.K. would be more effective than an assertive, independent partner that Brussels would like to persuade to be alongside most of the time. I think I know the answer.

The government is right to be preparing for departure on WTO terms. It also needs to be explaining to the public what it would mean, which means addressing head on the wilder prognostications of the  Remain rearguard. I want to see the Chancellor announce in the budget next week draft plans for turbo charging the economy on the day we leave the EU in the event of so-called ‘no deal’. This will mean for starters immediately suspending payments to the EU which, in the event of no deal, will have acted in bad faith and in an unneighbourly fashion contrary to Article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty. It will mean cutting VAT and corporation tax. The latter will act as a magnet to companies and announce that the U.K. is open for business. Import tariffs, except on food we produce here, will be removed. He should take the opportunity to affirm that the Northern Ireland land border on the U.K. side will have no more infrastructure on it than exists today and we will challenge the EU and Ireland to behave similarly, managing the tariff consequences. If we are driven to this by the obduracy of the EU and the passive-aggressive stance being taken by France in particular, 2019 will be tough but ultimately we will prevail. 

I do feel for the people of the Irish Republic and it’s businesses who are, to be honest, hardly being helped by the attitude to achieving a smooth and amicable Brexit chosen by the current political leadership. Now Ireland didn’t ask for Brexit and, other than some potential benefit from a thriving neighbouring economy, will get all the downside with none of the uptick. It’s transformative low corporation taxes are likely to be canned by an EU lacking U.K. pro-business counsel (it’s already planning this) but, even if they’re not, a no deal outcome is likely to see a freed up U.K. cut its own business taxes in order to tempt companies from Ireland and the continent to offset the effects of Brussels’ punishment beating. 

It’s a tough old world, I’m afraid, and when the going gets tough you remember your friends  - and those who have not been as helpful as they could have been.

 

12 October 2018

MORE EUROPE

On Wednesday the PM kindly gave me a one to one meeting to discuss Brexit. It is good to know that she’s willing to listen to an obscure backbencher with views on the issue of the day that may not necessarily overlap completely with her own. I admire her strength and fortitude in trying to navigate a way through Brexit. She deserves huge credit and has my full support in delivering the aims and aspirations laid out clearly in her well received Lancaster House speech.

My chief worry at the moment from my vantage as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee is that the land border in Ireland is being used, rather cynically, by the European Commission and it’s unreconciled Remain followers here to subvert one of the most viable Brexit options. It’s the one that Donald Tusk, no less, has been pushing all along and it involves a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, so-called Canada+++. The problem is Tusk offered it for GB, not U.K., meaning NI would remain in the EU customs closed shop, single market and European Court of Justice jurisdiction. It would, in other words, be separated from its biggest market by far, GB, and effectively annexed to the EU.

Surprise, surprise, up with that the DUP won’t put, and neither will Mrs May. Like me a committed unionist, she will be mindful not only of the consequences for NI’s status within the U.K. but the boost any sort of new border down the middle of the Irish Sea would give the SNP in its crusade to build a frontier separating Scotland from the rest of the country.

But it turns out the NI land border isn’t quite the problem that many, including me as it happens, initially feared. Indeed, customs experts - that is to say people who really understand borders and live them as opposed to politicians and hacks who pontificate about them - are increasingly calling out the Barnier orthodoxy around the creation of a hard border with attendant apocalyptical security consequentials. They’re doing us a great service a bit like Hans Christian Anderson’s character who pointed out the Emperor has no clothes. The supreme irony is that one of these experts was commissioned by the European Parliament to opine on frictionless, near-invisible, high tech borders. How disobliging of him to deliver a report that makes it abundantly clear that the NI border could continue looking and feeling very much as it does today in the event of a Tusk style EU-UK  free trade deal. No border guards, no flags, no watchtowers, no humourless officials stamping passports, no barriers or revenue men. Rather dull, in fact, just like now, exactly as we like it. 

For those looking for a relatively simple blueprint, can I recommend Lord David Owen’s account published in his blog with which I largely agree. By the next election I want to be able to look my voters in the eye and say that we have done what we were told to do - decorously remove the U.K. (all of it) from the EU and its constituent parts - the customs union, single market and ECJ. If we can’t get a Tusk-style deep and comprehensive free trade deal by then we would deserve to be kicked out.

 

17 September 2018

TAKING A SPIN TO NUMBER TEN

I arrived at Downing Street on Wednesday with some broadly Eurosceptic MP colleagues for a meeting over supper with Number Ten staffers. Outside the police checks was a gauntlet of TV cameras wanting to capture this moment of apparent crisis that they wanted to spin as evidence of a move against the PM. 

If, like me, you’re a Harry Potter fan you’ll be familiar with the hack Rita Skeeter from the Daily Prophet. She spins faster than a whirling dervish. Westminster doesn’t just look like Hogwarts, it often feels like it too. Too many of those who record and interpret the utterances of politicians seem to be using the appalling Rita as their role model. Anyway, we didn’t discuss coups or leadership bids for one reason - there aren’t any. At the risk of being disappointingly dull, I reckon it would be a culpable act of collective insanity to attempt to topple Theresa May at such a crucial time. She’s got my full support. Good luck Rita in spinning that.

I take a long term view of our departure from the EU. If something very close to the Chequers plan gets us over the line and removes us from the political union of the EU on 29 March in accordance with any reasonable interpretation of the referendum, unfettering the larger part of our economy, I’ll be content. If we do depart on those terms, I want sufficient flex to be able to update the agreement in due course, mandated by commitments contained in future election manifestos.

The Kremlin continues to pump out child-like, ever changing, bare faced lies regarding its Novichok attack in Salisbury and Amesbury. That’s it’s stock in trade. In fact it’s quite effective as, however fanciful, it does spread seeds of doubt. Of course, there will always be the credulous, but Russian state propaganda like this more insidiously assists a spectrum of anarchists, persons who have made their life’s work the pulling down of Britain and what they imagine to be the ‘establishment’ and an overlapping assortment of political extremists, ‘useful idiots’ if you will. 

So, this week the Kremlin asks us to believe that the two GRU hoods being fingered for murder and attempted murder in Wiltshire are just a couple of nice guys, tourists with a passion for ecclesiastical architecture. That’s cleared that one up then. 

Oil industry boss turned high priest Justin Welby has turned again, this time to politics. Not a good or sensible move, in my humble opinion.

Recent exposure has me wondering what the CofE is these days or, to be brutally honest, what it’s for, but it is certainly no longer the Tory party at prayer, if it ever was. Actually, there’s no way I would wish it to be, but if the Chief Exec of the established church together with those who owe him canonical obedience continue to blather on about earthly matters in such a thoughtless way, their path to irrelevance will end up being even shorter than this month’s revelations about CofE adherence suggest.

It’s true I’m no bleeding heart liberal and I don’t do virtue signalling but I hope I work as conscientiously to better the condition of those I was elected to serve as any in the House, regardless of party. Otherwise, what’s the point of being in politics? Whilst the clergy must remind us all of our individual responsibility to care for others, a duty that is by no means entirely discharged by provisions we make collectively though the welfare state, I worry about the appropriateness of the Primate aligning himself with a particular political tradition and by implication castigating from a metaphorical pulpit those whose roadmap for remediating suffering differs from his own.

Little wonder that so many, including those of us whose faith remains undiminished, no longer feel at home, or even particularly welcome, in the Anglican churches we grew up with. What a pity that for so many England’s parish churches have become no more than charming venues for weddings and a convenient place to solemnise our eventual departure to the gates of St Peter.

 

September 2018

SUMMERTIME BLUES 

Normally in August politicians and journalists pipe down. Not this year. Rancour over Brexit and rows over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party have given the gloriously sunny summer of 2018 an unfamiliar, harsh, unwelcome edge.

Disappointingly, it is looking increasingly unlikely that Brussels is minded to accept the Chequers deal. I say disappointing because I thought, as it stood, it was a fair proposition - not my ideal, but pragmatic and potentially beneficial to both sides. I wrote to the PM to assure her of my support.

Despite some recent rhetorical softening, the European Commission is taking an absolutist line on Chequers. It appears to be scared stiff that any flexibility will erode its constituent parts, advantage the U.K. and make other nation states more likely to demand ‘me too.’ That would, they fret, bring the whole grand project tumbling down. A project, let us remember, that has yielded by far the greatest benefit to its biggest economy, Germany.

National leaders - with the exception of President Macron who seems to be ploughing his own furrow - are taking a more nuanced view since their attachment to Brussels is less existential, less ideological. That’s where hope of a sensible Brexit outcome lies. We know that Brussels is completely impervious to public pressure. That’s the whole point. That’s the problem. National governments aren’t. So as we close with 29 March 2019, the point of departure, businesses across Europe are going to be pointing out to their elected representatives the people consequences of no deal beyond WTO rules.

The government is right to say publically that defence and security are sacrosanct. I hope a very different conversation is being had privately. Especially since the EU is now claiming the U.K. can’t be partners in the Galileo satellite project because we’d some how become a security risk. Well, laugh out loud at that! But if it is serious about the Brits being a security risk, that would extend surely to the rest of our military, security and intelligence assets. The same ones that provide cover Europe enjoys but refuses to pay for.

Help me out here Mr Barnier because I don’t see a way of persuading my constituents they should continue to prop up the security of EU states whilst Brussels is intent on being unhelpful on precisely the economic matters that make such largesse possible. To say that defence, security and economic prosperity are somehow separable is obviously bonkers.

Lots of talk about a second referendum but it’s just hot air. The fact is we’ve had our referendum and the disappointed can’t have a second go. Article 50’s been triggered. We’ve run out of time. Europe won’t stop the clock and even if we recanted and asked to return to the fold it would be as penitents. There would be no prodigal’s welcome. Harsh terms could be expected.

When Cortez landed on the beach in the New World the first thing he did was burn his boats to the waterline thus encouraging his men to look forward, not back. That’s where we are right now with the EU, looking to maximise opportunities whilst mindful of the risks.

Am I alone, by the way, in being mildly irritated by the term ‘Peoples Referendum’ to suggest a right-on, radical edge to the campaign for a re-run? The ‘people’ in this case are not the poor, dispossessed and downtrodden conjured by the the term but, disproportionately, the liberal metropolitan elite and big business interests who are doing quite nicely from the way things are.

On the other big political news story of the summer, anti Semitism in the Labour Party, I genuinely admit to being bewildered. The Labour MPs I know and respect are so much bigger than this. I really hope the party of Opposition sorts this out, quickly, as it is the most appalling stain on politics generally.

 

August 2018

BORIS AND THE BURKA 

Messages continue to arrive from constituents about Boris, mostly supportive. I would say that nobody should be holding forth on this matter unless they’ve actually read the article in full. It was, as I would expect from the liberal, metropolitan Boris I know, arguing against banning the burka whilst saying, in terms that I would not have used, that he disliked it.

Not just because of opinion in my very female household, I too find myself disliking the idea that women in Britain today should feel obliged to cover themselves up save for a narrow eye slit under a set of rules and norms dictated by men without even, it seems, any real theological underpinning. I very much regret the wearers’ consequent isolation from wider society. Indeed, any politician should be worried by it, and question it. However, unlike a string of Western European governments, I would not ban the burka. That’s because fear of trespassing on personal freedom outweighs, in this case and on balance, concerns about subjugation of women and wider societal ills that may be caused by the garment. So the burka stays.

Of course, Theresa May’s detractors have tried to turn this into a story about a conspiracy to halt any leadership ambitions Boris might be harbouring. I’d be very surprised if any such witch hunt was underway. The truth is, as usual, likely to be much more prosaic - the party’s complaints procedure has be triggered and the Party Chairman under the rules has to act. 

That said, I and many of my colleague would react badly to anything in the treatment metered out to Boris that looked disproportionate or heavy handed. I am confident that it will not be.