BREXIT - THE LATEST
15 March 2019
Brexit - the tipping point?
After a week of Brexit votes where are we?
Well, the second vote on the government’s Withdrawal Agreement was lost but not by as much as before. We then had a series of votes that concluded that there should be no departure without a deal - i.e. no so-called hard Brexit. I opposed taking no deal off the table as it seemed to me that only the most credulous negotiator would voluntarily rule out the option of walking away.
On Thursday we voted on having a second, so-called people’s, vote, a second-go referendum which is supported by those who actually want to reverse the outcome of the first. It was convincingly rejected. Then we had a free vote on delaying Brexit to give the government more time. I would have been happy with a few weeks but the motion potentially delays our departure for a year or more and then we might not have Brexit at all. That would be a betrayal of the referendum. I voted against but the motion was passed.
The government will now ask the EU for a delay. I suspect it will grant one if it sees the likelihood of progress towards a deal.
The mood in the House is that we’re approaching endgame and that next week’s third, so-called meaningful, vote (MV3) might just make it over the line. The reason is that MPs are worried about either an abrupt no deal departure on 29 March which remains the default position, or shortly thereafter depending on what the EU says, or a long extension which may well mean Brexit is kicked into the long grass for good.
The Attorney General has clarified the legal position and I feel more comfortable that the U.K. will not be held in the so-called backstop and the customs union therein against its will. I do, however, accept that there remains some political risk.
Despite this, right now the Withdrawal Agreement looks to me like the best outcome realistically achievable. It would get us out of the EU more or less on time and allow negotiations to start on the future trading relationship without making assumptions about including a customs union in whatever eventually transpires. It genuinely gives most people most of what they want. Consequently, I will be supporting it next week.
28 February 2019
Opposition parties and unreconciled Remainers on my side have been gradually chipping away at the negotiating hand available to the PM in her talks with the EU. Hugely frustrating - some of them are my friends but you do wonder some times whose side these folk are on.
We now have effectively taken no deal off the table. Now, very few of us really want no deal but the threat of it has been the only thing concentrating the minds of our EU interlocutors. As a result of this week’s shenanigans I’m less optimistic that our wonderfully Rumpolesque Attorney General will be able to loosen the legal handcuffs that is the Northern Ireland backstop. That makes it is less likely the draft Withdrawal Agreement will get through the Commons. If it does by a whisker it means potentially the U.K. will remain in the Customs Union forever given the legal risk the AG has identified.
Some want us to remain in the Customs Union anyway, like the Labour Party. I put this to its spokesman Kier Starmer yesterday and asked, rhetorically, why he wasn’t then supporting the Agreement.
If the Agreement passes on 12 March we leave on 29th. If it doesn’t, there will be a vote next day on whether we want to leave with no deal. I suspect the no deal option will be rejected by our predominantly Remain parliament. There will then be a vote on extending Article 50 which will be amendable in terms of the length of the extension and of course it will depend on the EU agreeing. If agreed, legislation would be brought forward to revoke or amend the Article 50 trigger that MPs on both sides overwhelmingly backed 2 years ago. In my view, this is the route being sought by those who are still saying they want to honour the 2016 referendum but in fact are trying to reverse it, in other words to keep the U.K. in the EU.
Meanwhile the Leader of the Oppositions - whose acronym ‘LOTO’ is deliciously appropriate right now - has decided on a second referendum which, again, is code for reversing the outcome of the first. In my view that would mean most of this year taken up with ongoing bitterness and rancour and with an uncertain outcome. Business would be denied the clarity it seeks. It is the heartsink option.
My constituents are telling me to just get on with it. I’m doing my best to comply.
19 February 2019
No frogs and locusts
We knew this would happen – all sort of calamities being blamed on Brexit. Forget the fact that the predicted plague of frogs and locusts never materialised, that the number of jobs in the economy has been going up, not down, since June 2016 and that the UK is the biggest recipient of foreign direct investment. No, whenever a firm relocates or folds its down to Brexit, apparently.
Well, I would gently observe that company executives of outfits whose failure is related to their stewardship of course would look for something else to blame. Brexit’s very handy. I note that Honda made it clear that its highly regrettable departure from Swindon to Japan in 2021 isn’t Brexit related. But that has not stopped Remain insisting it is.
I genuinely take no pleasure in Labour’s rupture. It is a great political institution and its duty as official opposition is to be the alternative, the government in waiting. As a democrat I am bound to wish it a speedy recovery. Indeed, at the moment a small number of my own party are ramping up the rhetoric, confecting a case no doubt for their own departure. I predict their narrative will be that the Conservative party is being taken over by right wingers. I can’t see it sticking and one has to ask why, if they are so unhappy, they were content to stand on the party’s manifesto under the current Leader less than two years ago. The same goes for MPs who have quit Labour.
Either way, my view is that those who have or may quit the parties whose tickets they were elected on are in recall and by-election territory. The best test for their convictions is the white heat of the ballot box. Good luck with that.
14 February 2019
Today I went to see the PM with a dozen colleagues to discuss Brexit. Later she was on the phone to EU leaders on the same subject. Nobody can doubt her determination to deliver a Brexit deal that gives most people most of what they want. She has my full support.
Another day, another Brexit debate in parliament. I have resisted contributing in the last couple for two reasons. First, its like Groundhog Day - going over and over the same ground. Second, Speaker Bercow and his practice of ignoring those he has taken against. I do so hope his successor - may he or she come soon - is more like the great Betty Boothroyd.
I am utterly frustrated by the partisans who insist we should rule out a no deal Brexit. To be clear - I want a deal because I’m risk averse and appreciate the importance of the EU as our biggest trading partner. But only the most inept negotiator would publically announce that they would never leave on barebones WTO terms. The Opposition today were moaning that there has been no movement on the Withdrawal Agreement in Brussels. Just how much movement do they think there would be if the PM stood up and said that she was ruling out no deal? Precisely zero.
Somebody wrote to me expressing their dismay that a recent migrant from Poland was distressed by Brexit and her future in Britain. I get really cross with unreconciled Remainers who are cynically putting it about that EU citizens will no longer be welcome here. They really should not be setting hares running and upsetting people like that. This government was pressing the EU for months for reciprocal citizens’ rights whilst Brussels demurred. It was more interested in squeezing more money out of the UK. Finally, in the Withdrawal Agreement we have safeguards that people need to be confident in their future here. The PM herself has used every opportunity to reassure EU citizens living and working in the UK that we want them to stay. Absolutely.
In Trowbridge the Polish community long predates the UK’s membership of the EU. It’s an intrinsic part of what we are in our little corner of England. I would also point out our valued Moroccan community. I pride myself in knowing it really quite well. Its established place among us owes nothing at all to Britain’s membership or otherwise of the EU for the obvious reason that the Kingdom of Morocco is neither in the EU or, last time I looked, in Europe.
So, that’s it for another fortnight. The February recess next week is cancelled so we can get Brexit related statutory instruments through (boring but necessary procedural stuff) and ministers will be hard at it with their EU interlocutors. Then we’ll have another outing like today but hopefully reflecting newly minted legally binding limitations to the Irish backstop which is now the only impediment to the Withdrawal Agreement, albeit an existential one.
Enjoy what looks like, from my vantage point overlooking the sunny River Thames, the first stirrings of spring. Ever the optimist.
11 February 2019
Talks continue with European leaders about changes to the Irish backstop in the Brexit deal. It now seems the backstop may, in any event, turn out to be illegal. It seems that, as currently written, it challenges the Good Friday Agreement. My view is that the backstop might be a temporary expedient if it helps the EU to get the Withdrawal Agreement across the line but it has to be time limited. That’s because it’s actually about holding the U.K. into the customs union, potentially forever.
I do think people like Donald Tusk need to cool it. Inflammatory remarks are not helpful at this juncture and just put people’s backs up. In contrast, Mrs May’s patience and good manners are remarkable. Ireland’s Leo Varadkar too is coming under pressure from businesses in Ireland for his unneighbourly approach to the U.K. and apparent refusal to look at alternatives to the backstop in avoiding a hard border. Since the U.K. is now and will continue to be Ireland’s biggest trading partner, I wonder if that’s wise.
31 January 2019
From the Eurostar in snowy France
On the train to Brussels I’ve got a few minutes to jot down what I think will now happen. I’m in a bad mood as my 0647 departure from St Pancras was cancelled ?cause. Not great.
Two weeks ago I put down an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement that would have time limit the so-called Irish backstop. This you’ll remember was said to be designed to avoid a ‘hard’ border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. In fact, as most now accept, the border on which as it happens I was standing on Monday between Strabane and Lifford, could be kept like it is today using up to date customs and technology.
Why then is the EU being so intransigent? Well, the so-called Irish backstop is actually a Trojan Horse that gives the EU the option to bind the UK into its customs union, potentially indefinitely. Apart from the obvious political leverage this gives Brussels, it means that it can say to third countries and blocs its trying to do trade deals with that, in addition to access to its own 450 million consumers, any trade deal on tariffs and quotas means access to 65 million U.K. consumers for free. A valuable and enticing bonus! Unfortunately Ireland, or at least its PM Leo Varadkar and his party, has been suckered into this ruse, I fear at enduring cost to U.K./IR relations.
As a minimum, the backstop with its customs union clauses established a bankable position on which EU negotiators will expect to build the future relationship. It implies we will remain in the customs union. That’s a bit ripe since the EU has been insisting all along that it won’t do trade talks until we’ve ratified the Withdrawal Agreement.
To be fair to Jeremy Corbyn he has, belatedly, spotted this. Whilst his amendment this week insisted on a ‘permanent customs union’, a perfectly respectable position if not one I’d recommend, its clear from what he’s said subsequently that he sees this as one that the U.K. can withdraw from on serving notice, just like any other trade treaty commitment.
Which brings me back to my amendment which I suspect will return, at least in spirit, in the days ahead. What I expect to happen after the current Euro windiness has passed over is for a closer description of what is envisaged for the Irish border to be devised and for this to be inserted into the legally non-binding, if serious and weighty, political declaration.
But the central, and easiest, device to make progress that will get the support of Parliament as indicated this week is for there to be a time limit, or sunset, on the backstop after which the U.K. or the EU can withdraw on giving notice. In the meantime we will certainly have put in place customs arrangements relating to the border that will ensure it looks and feels as it does today.
If the EU says no to this we must draw our own conclusions about its willingness to act in good faith.
30 January 2019
Tuesday’s complex series of votes
After the comprehensive thumbs down given to the EU Withdrawal Agreement a fortnight ago, the government won by a decent margin on Tuesday. What this means is that Mrs May must now go back to the EU and say that the WA, if amended with limits on the backstop, is likely to pass and ultimately be ratified – before our departure date on 29 March. There won’t be dancing in the streets but the outcome should give most people most of what they want. It would also allow us to move on, reunify a society that has been badly bruised and start talking about important public policy things again.
The ball is now in the EU’s court. But it should be in no doubt that what’s needed at this stage is something judiciable, not a flimsy exchange of waffle in the form of letters or windy political declarations.
The votes yesterday rejected dragging the process out. More delay would just bring more rancour and uncertainty. Precisely what business says it doesn’t want. It rejected a string of indicative votes (haven’t we had enough debate - hours and hours of it?). It did support no ‘no deal’ but in a non-binding way. Note that even if you know you will never depart with no deal it would be plain stupid to take it off the negotiating table.
In two weeks the PM must come back to the House with an amended deal.
Naturally I tried to speak in Tuesday’s debate since I’ve been heavily involved in trying to get a sensible way forward on Brexit but, again, the Speaker did not call me. More on this in due course.
28 January 2019
This Sunday and Monday I’m in Londonderry and Strabane with my Select Committee. Both of course are hard up against the land border that’s front and centre of the Brexit debate.
On Tuesday we will be voting again on the Withdrawal Agreement. I discern a softening of opinion on both sides of the debate which is good.
My amendments deal with the main impediment to getting the agreement over the line, if selected by the Speaker, if passed by the Commons and if the E.U. shows a bit of flexibility. Lots of ‘ifs’ but fingers crossed!
We need to ensure most people get most of what they want. An amended WA would deliver that.
17 January 2019
Nobody seriously anticipated the scale of the government’s defeat on Tuesday. But, as with everything in the Palace of Varieties, its important to dig beneath the crude headline figures to work out what the actual sentiment is.
I spent much of the weekend phoning round colleagues to get a sense of what MPs wanted. I have a particular interest as I chair the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee and the so-called Irish backstop seemed to me to be the big sticking point. All the rest, including citizens rights, even the money appeared to be manageable, but not the backstop. So, on Monday I tabled an amendment that would have put a time limit on the backstop. Considerable momentum was building up behind it. Then Mr Speaker Bercow decided not to call it.
I then voted for a lesser amendment he did call that might have delivered some of the same effect but which stood little chance. I went on to support, without enthusiasm but neverthess, the unamended motion in the so-called meaningful vote.
Clearly I was on the losing side - a moderate, pragmatic Leave MP in a predominantly Remain parliament with a significant number of Leave MPs who are still convinced they can have the purist and most absolute of Brexits, even now. I respectfully suggest they will leave this process with nothing unless they change tack fast, things being what they are. I don’t want to be associated with anything that results in no Brexit at all.
To be clear, the whole thing is now on a knife-edge. A version of Mrs May’s deal may squeak through with a single digit majority (the vote of no confidence yesterday was a triumph for her) but to do so she must deal with the backstop along the lines of my amendment.
14 January 2019
THE BIG VOTE
Tuesday is crunch day. Finally, I will, without much enthusiasm but nevertheless, be voting for the Withdrawal Agreement. A tough decision. I voted to leave the EU but sincerely believe it’s the right thing to do given the circumstances that apply right now.
Here’s my big worry - after last week’s shenanigans the Speaker, hard-over Remainers and an Opposition sniffing political opportunity will succeed in reversing Brexit or achieve an outcome that would have the same effect. That would be an appalling indictment of the state of democracy in this country. I am clear that those forces would definitely make impossible departure on WTO terms. People who hanker after the creative destruction ‘no deal’ would bring need to understand that.
I will tonight be tabling an amendment to the motion on which we have our meaningful vote that would sun-set the Irish backstop which, as drafted, could hold the U.K. in a relationship against its will indefinitely. That is the main objection MPs have to the Agreement and my amendment will seek to deal with it. The date on which the backstop expires is less important but our EU interlocutors need to understand where the sticking point is for most MPs and accept the principle of the backstop falling away. Incidentally, the so-called backstop is not needed to prevent a hard border as it’s become increasingly apparent that there are now or will be by the end of the Implementation Period in December 2020 technical and procedural mechanisms for allowing the NI border to look and feel very much as it does today.
10 January 2019
The Speaker’s antics on Wednesday showed just what those of us who want to honour the outcome of the referendum are up against. There are too many up here who piously assert they’re only wanting to carrry out the public’s instructions but without ‘crashing out’ as they put it. What they’re actually up to is using every trick in the book to overturn the referendum and stay in the EU.
That needs to be clearly understood.
What also needs to be understood is that Brexit may, as I write, not happen at all since its purists are intent on making the excellent the enemy of the good. We are in uncharted waters with a Speaker who has shown that he will be as helpful as he possibly can be in greasing the way for Remainers to achieve their outcome. If they succeed, goodness knows what will then happen. They need to be careful what they wish for.
I have added my name to the Swire amendment to the motion that will be voted on next week that seeks to unite the sensibles on either side of this debate. This basically would limit the Irish backstop. It isn’t perfect but would take us further in ensuring we are not bound into an arrangement that is contrary to our interests and over which we have no control.
My big fear is that we will not leave the EU on 29 March through the various subterfuges that are being deployed by the Remain side and will continue to be unearthed, apparently with the help of Mr Speaker. Delaying Article 50 would add to the uncertainty businesses say they’re suffering from and just kick the can down the road. It is to be avoided.
I suspect the government will lose the vote next week. I hope not by too much because the PM will then be able to go back to the European Commission for their best and final offer, which intel suggests they have prepared already.
In short, I believe we will have a deal by the end of March. If not, exit on WTO terms won’t be great but it won’t mean a plague of frogs and locusts either.
20 December 2018
I have never been so grateful to reach the end of term.
Those who want a second referendum need to understand what that would mean. It would mean the better part of 2019 locked in bitter, rancorous dispute before a divisive further vote. That vote may give the second-goers what they want and overturn, just, the outcome of the 2016 ballot but equally it may not. Let’s just get on with Brexit, with all its risks and opportunities, and make the best of it. Who knows? Perhaps those now actively trying to overturn the referendum may, with gritted teeth, come to appreciate the better, more prosperous, independent Britain the 57% of local voters had in mind when they voted to leave in June 2016, a vision shared by the many who tell me they voted to remain but would now vote to leave.
I look forward to the Withdrawal Agreement, modified or caveated to make it crystal clear the UK won’t be tied into the backstop, being agreed and to the UK entering the transition phase in March. I also look forward to MPs being able then to refocus on all the normal things we focus on - healthcare, schools, infrastructure, defence and so on. That would be really good.
If I can end with a plea to nobody in particular. The ‘stupid woman’ debacle epitomises how nasty our political discourse has become. We can debate the causes, but very few engaged in public life at any level are actually stupid, venal or avaricious (there are exceptions to every rule). Perhaps those who purport to offer leadership in politics should cool it in 2019. Maybe then the public who understandably take their cue on what’s acceptable from rude, shouty, boorish political figures who cavort like pantomime dames through the media will too.
Have a very happy Christmas and can I wish everyone, whether you’re a leaver or remainer or somewhere inbetween, a peaceful and prosperous New Year.
18 December 2018
One referendum is bad enough, a second would be a calamity. I am strongly opposed to a second-go referendum. We had the people’s vote on 23 June 2016 and the government, facing down an Opposition scenting blood and its big chance and a minority of very shouty people at the extremes of Mrs May’s own party, is doing the best it can, the parliamentary arithmetic being what it is.
So what happens if those still not reconciled to having lost that vote get their way and we have another? What’s certain is more months of increasing rancour and bitterness. Businesses will not achieve that ‘certainty’ they tell us they want for the best part of another year. And the result? Well, remainers need to be careful what they wish for. It seems to me, anecdotally, that the leave vote is firming up. Nobody likes sour grapes. But, in the end, I suspect the result would be much the same as in 2016.
What if it’s narrowly the other way, that’s to say 52/48 Remain/Leave? Some starry eyed remainers no doubt think we’ll just all kiss and make up and that a benevolent EU will welcome us back like the Prodigal Son. I doubt it. The EU and our competitors in it will have us by the cojons. And they will, sooner of later, extract their price from a diminished, recalcitrant neighbour. At home, Leave will cry foul and demand best of three - a neverendum would ensue. The matter would never be settled.
Those seeking a second referendum in order to have a pop at reversing the first need to put aside the condescending curled upper lip and put themselves instead in the minds of those who wanted to leave. How would you feel? We have seen what happens when people believe they have been spurned, ignored and sidelined by elite metropolitan liberals in Paris recently. There has to be a compact between the administration and the administered. That relies on trust and not being led up the garden path.
There are no honeyed words or clever phraseology that will be capable of dressing up a second-go referendum as anything other than the elite giving the plebs - poor unenlightened souls - a chance to reach the ‘right’ decision. It would be a gross betrayal of a solemn undertaking in the biggest exercise in direct democracy ever held in this country. For the first time it would make me ashamed to be in British politics.
13 December 2018
In my view Mrs May’s position has been strengthened by Wednesday’s vote. Those MPs who ‘put their letters in’ prompting it were unwise and their timing was appalling. She won convincingly because the Withdrawal Agreement is getting close to the best of the various outcomes - none of which will satisfy everyone - that are reasonably achievable.
Mrs May said before the vote that she was trying to get political and legal changes that would satisfy those of us who remain concerned about what the Irish backstop could potentially do. The attitude of Dublin is crucial. Her focus must now be on helping the Irish government deal with its own political demons so that a time limit on this unnecessary backstop can be achieved and we can move on. If she can, I think she will have cracked it.
11 December 2018
Mrs May did the right thing in pulling Tuesday’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the EU Withdrawal Agreement since she would clearly have lost it. As I write she’s gone back to Brussels to seek a form of words that would clarify how the U.K. can get out of the Irish backstop.
I’ll wait and see what she comes back with but essentially I’ll support her deal if there’s a time limit to the backstop that the lawyers think will work. Without it Britain is potentially over a barrel as the Attorney General’s lawyerly opinion makes clear. The only way to get out of the backstop customs union would then be to persuade the EU it isnt in its interests for us to stay or by offering key members concessions - such as access to fish, as the French President has already made clear.
If no progress on this is made, we will need to see Plan B which I very much hope doesn’t involve delaying Brexit.
5 December 2018
BREXIT - ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET?
I’m grateful to people for writing to me about Brexit. Most messages have been fine but some haven’t, which is sad. I think the rancour this process has caused has taken many of us by surprise. I can’t remember the public being so shouty since Mr Blair’s activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, hugely divisive undertakings which continue to cast a long shadow. Mrs May is right to say that whatever now happens we are going to have to heal the wounds.
The Attorney General’s appearance in the Commons to explain the legal position of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement on Monday was well received. The bottom line is that under the agreement we will probably not be tied into the E.U. customs union long term but he can’t rule it out. That’s what lawyers do, advise on the basis of risks of particular outcomes and it’s then for the client to make a decision. Here that means government and, ultimately, Parliament. Anyway today the AG’s full legal advice to government on the agreement must be published. I suspect like most smoking guns it will disappoint those clamouring for it. But publication also means from now on lawyer-client confidentiality will not be guaranteed in respect of government. That will have consequences as the now opposition may well discover to their cost in the fullness of time.
Yesterday Mrs May made a really good, highly thoughtful speech in which she asked MPs to back the deal. I have yet to decide finally on how to vote next Tuesday and will be weighing up the risk of no Brexit and leaving on barebones WTO terms both of which are undesirable, in my view. My chief reservation at this stage is the absence of a time limit on the so-called Irish backstop. The unfettered backstop will mean legal risk of being a rule taker for a very long time, as the AG made clear. I’d like to see a time limit, perhaps 5 years, after which the backstop would fall away if it hasn’t been made redundant by other means. If Mrs May’s plan fails in the Commons on Tuesday, as seems likely, I believe she will have to go back to the E.U. and say that the only way she can get the deal over the line is if they amend the agreement to include a backstop time limit. It will not have been lost on her that if there is no such time limit the Scottish Nationalist will demand a similar arrangement for Scotland. Belgium and Spain with their own separatist problems may like to give that some thought.
27 November 2018
BREXIT DEAL UPDATE
Yesterday the PM did another two and a half hours at the dispatch box fielding quick fire questions from MPs - the third time in ten days.
The Guardian has listed MPs according to how they might vote when the Commons has its ‘meaningful vote’ on 11 December. I’m listed as ‘unconfirmed’ from which the Guardian has drawn the conclusion that I’ll support the government. Well, my instinct is to be supportive knowing how hard the PM has worked against the intransigence of Brussels. However, I still have an issue with the so-called Irish backstop. It’s actually not needed to avoid a hard land border. However, a combination of Irish domestic politics running up to election year and the desire, mainly by the French, to build in a lever in the deal to extract further trade concessions from the U.K. in the future - Macron’s jaw-dropping admission of this yesterday in connection to fisheries helped to shed light - means that potentially this country could become a client of the E.U., held into an adverse customs union against its will. I do t see how I could support that.
IF an addendum to the Withdrawal Agreement was inserted to remove the backstop or even put a time limit on it, even a long one, the Guardian could list me as likely to vote for the deal, without enthusiasm but nevertheless.
17 November 2018
I’m ploughing my way through the 585 page draft E.U. withdrawal agreement and associated papers. Its available online if you’ve got a spare few hours, or days.
Most of it is OK-ish. Good, for example, on rights for UK and EU citizens after Brexit. What I’m worried about is the mechanism for leaving the so-called Irish backstop which is meant to ensure there is no so-called hard Irish land border. In reality, the EU is using this as a means of ensuring we stay in the customs union, without a voice, after December 2019 if we haven’t negotiated a better arrangement. Of course with the so-called backstop as drafted in place the EU would have no incentive to agree a better (for us) deal. So, backstop it would be pretty much permanently. Great as far as Brussels is concerned but it would be vassalage for the UK with the inability to engage autonomously with the rest of the world. Under those circumstances the EU, that is to say a bloc of 27 competitor nations seeking all the time to take business off the UK, would have us precisely where they want us, economically and politically. It is bound to exploit its advantage.
However, the agreement talks of an Indpendent Arbitration Panel that would determine when the backstop isn’t needed anymore and whether the parties had been negotiating in good faith or not.
In my view, any independent arbitration process is bound to reflect the perfectly good customs procedures and technical arrangements that could be established to remove the need for a hard border. The Select Committee I chair has been hearing from customs experts about this. Thus, if the EU refused to free the UK from a demonstrably unnecessary backstop, let us say in two years, it would be deemed to be acting in bad faith. The mere existence of that threat would encourage the EU to engage in the future trading arrangements it says it wants.
What I will be looking for in the days ahead is legal clarification that my understanding is correct and for firming up of the wording in the agreement to that effect in the last stage of the negotiations.
If that is not possible, I maintain that we should pivot to so-called Norway For Now (NFN) whilst we negotiate a Canada +++ style deal of the sort offered by President Donald Tusk (ie Norway Then Canada or NTC). I have written a joint letter with Frank Field MP about this in the Daily Telegraph recently.
What then about Mrs May’s leadership? Firstly, I salute her doggedness, sense of patriotic duty and sheer perseverance which is an example to us all. Secondly, I do not think its wise to change the ship’s captain when you’re in the middle of a storm. I hope that under her leadership we will turn the draft into something the majority of MPs will be able to support when it comes to the meaningful vote next month. If not, I would want her to own the change to NFN/NTC. Either way, she has my support.
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
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.
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.
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.