There is a cognitive dissonance at the heart of Theresa May’s Government. It fails to appreciate that its EU negotiating proposal agreed at Chequers pits it against the people; that lying about it to MPs’ faces (let alone others’) has consequences for trust; and that saying we get Corbyn unless the proposal gets our backing – despite it obviously being unacceptable to the EU and likely to worsen – puts it in peril of looking mad, bad, and lacking in self-awareness.
When a government breaks its promises, it is most often ejected. Flagrant breach of them in the context of the biggest democratic exercise in a country’s history, on the topic of political accountability itself, would be something only a suicidal government would entertain. There is time to avoid drift into such a disaster, and indeed to make a success of Brexit, but MPs must act now to save this Government from itself, by getting it to change its proposal and the set-up that decided on it.
Ministers are deluded if they think they can sneak this one through. The customs part of the proposal contravenes international trade rules in at least two ways and Liam Fox admitted yesterday it would immediately need to be adjudicated at the WTO. If the EU is not expected to laugh that aspect out of court, or if it is expected to give business certainty, then David Miliband’s not a banana.
As for the convoluted self-re-subjugation to the EU’s rules, this time with no say whatsoever, not just for the shape of bananas but to create a whole “level playing field”, it is no surprise that people (who are not stupid by the way, contrary to Remainer rumour) see that as the direct opposite of taking back control. It will also be many more rules than just for traded goods; services are often linked, and in any case the mantra that “the four freedoms are indivisible” is extremely unlikely to be abandoned by the EU.
As for independent arbitration of disputes about them, in the draft Withdrawal Agreement the EU is still insisting the Joint Committee in which it might allow the UK to express an opinion is subject to the European Court of Justice. Good luck negotiating something different if you want free circulation of goods into the EU.
“So what is the alternative?”, you ask. Well, the fallacy is to think that there must be totally free circulation in the first place. Systems might have to change, but that really does not mean impossibility or economic catastrophe. Businesses in my constituency with cross-border just-in-time supply chains have been implementing their contingencies, and while that does need attention and resource, there are few businesses for which it changes the fundamentals.
I am pro-business, and business can cope, especially if government really gets behind helping it move to new systems for export to the EU and improves business conditions more generally. The 88% of the UK economy which does not export to the EU would benefit hugely in the long term from being more flexible, and certainly the current proposal of being a voiceless rule-taker is, by contrast, inappropriate and dangerous for it.
We need to prepare contingencies for the WTO option for trade and beyond, including bilateral arrangements to keep key functions running, so I welcome the “No Deal” strand of planning expanded at Chequers, even if the name undersells it. But we must also keep on the table the option of a free trade agreement with the EU, with enhanced bilateral arrangements for “maximum facilitation” which is in no true sense a “hard Brexit”.
In this context, Ireland, while delicate and to be taken seriously, is not the insoluble issue that Michel Barnier and Leo Varadkar have made it to be, and I will continue to work up the “MaxFac” free trade agreement option with ministers where I can – attractive in its own terms and smoother than the WTO option in several key trade respects, including in respect of rules of origin. There is no sense at all in discarding it as a work stream prematurely now, especially as this option would enable full trade deals with the whole of the world.
This is the clear plan we need to persuade people inside and outside of Parliament that we are headed in the right direction to achieve a smooth Brexit and give business certainty; and I am engaging with the Government to give it every chance to get where it needs to be to keep the promises it has made.