They say a week can be a long time in politics, and certainly the last few weeks have been even more rollercoaster-like than the new normal of British politics since the 2015 general election when I was first elected.
As the Brexit process continues to inch its way forwards, there have been endless discussions and battlegrounds as those for whom Brexit was not their choice fought back against the Prime Minister’s clear red lines which she set in her 2017 Lancaster House speech and which she has robustly stuck to throughout negotiations to date. Brexiteers have had to compromise, but just about everyone in the Conservative Party, whether they voted leave or remain, agrees that the direct order issued by the British people to their government as a result of the referendum on 23rd June 2016 must be delivered.
So the Prime Minister set out very firmly her 4 red lines – that we should take back control of our borders, of our laws, our money and be free from European court jurisdiction. She set out immediately a generous spirited solution for British citizens living abroad and EU citizens living in the UK, and was clear that security relationships were too important to become a bargaining chip. Her whole tone and direction was one of wanting sincere cooperation and constructive and respectful engagement.
Now perhaps one of the reasons why I am a Brexiteer is that I have always found the attitude of the EU to be dominating and inconsiderate, and to show a lack of respect to nation states. The EU project has moved from a Common Market (when we joined up) towards a political union whose eventual goal is a single state of Europe. I don’t believe that such a project is actually possible to achieve with the cultural and economic variabilities amongst European countries. Standardisation for economic mutual advantage has proven to have merit within the fortress walls of the EU, but to the detriment of those outside wishing to trade, and indeed in ensuring inflated prices for EU citizens which cannot be reduced - so business inside the fortress does well, but the poorest, inside and out, suffer from inflated costs.
The trigger to start the UK’s departure from the EU was set when MPs voted – by a majority of 384! - to trigger Article 50, the start of the 2 year departure window. This meant we have two years to sort out the logistics and new arrangements of the future relationship we wish to have with the EU after we have left. This was always going to be a huge exercise, because the whole of Government has got to get into a new gear, new systems into place, business logistics designed and sorted out.
In my opinion, there has been a lack of focus on some of these areas of preparation from some quarters, and this has, quite understandably, made the business community nervous as to whether all the right systems would be in place in time for the 29 March 2019 deadline.
So I was very pleased to hear the Prime Minister confirm in her Chequers communique last Friday that she understands that being prepared for any outcome is vital. She stated very clearly that preparedness must be stepped up immediately so that would safely take the WTO route if necessary. Being genuinely prepared for a WTO outcome is the sign of a leader planning ahead. Having an insurance policy to fall back on, just in case a fuller deal is not ready, is absolutely imperative.
The Prime Minister’s Chequers discussions also set out her White Paper proposals, which have now been published. A white paper is the start of the process of legislation, and this is the opening salvo for the deal which the PM hopes to strike with the EU to cement our trading and other policy areas relationship going forwards post-Brexit. I have some concerns as to whether this first offer to the EU can actually achieve what the British electorate voted for, and that it seems to give up on red lines which the PM set so clearly and continues to reiterate. But the reality is that the EU also has its own red lines, or pillars, which are the beating heart of the European Union. These are four indivisible principles of free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. They have always been clear that if we plan to stop free movement, then single market access of any sort would be impossible, for instance.
I believe that the present white paper is only the start of the process of coming to a final deal which can respect the UK’s red lines and the EU’s four pillars, and find a new mutually beneficial direction whilst the UK looks out once again to a global trading perspective. Whatever the final deal looks like, there must be reciprocity and a fair and positive relationship framework for the new post-Brexit world we will be trading in. And if no deal can be achieved which works for everyone before we leave, then the PM will have made certain that the UK is prepared to leave in March 2019 on WTO terms. No doubt if that were to be the outcome, the discussions for a free trade deal with the EU post-Brexit would continue. It is worth remembering that a trade deal is note necessary for trade to take place. Trading is between a willing buyer and seller – and international rules underwrite that.
I want the United Kingdom to have a long-term positive relationship with our EU neighbours far into the future – and as I always say to everyone, we are only leaving the political union of the EU, not the continent of Europe!