Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Are we watching a monumental act of treachery?


IT IS likely that Dominic Cummings’s playbook is running to plan. There is a media frenzy and indignation on both sides of the Brexit divide with respect to the behaviour of the protagonists in this very English civil war. While each argues about who is most unconstitutional (my view naturally being that Remainers have behaved appallingly by setting Parliament against the people), the new Olly Robbins, now called David Frost, is busily negotiating in Brussels to re-hash Theresa May’s supposedly ‘dead parrot’ agreement. Meanwhile the furore is keeping attention away from what appears to be a monumental act of treachery.

I say ‘appears to be’ because that is the word on the Tory grapevine. Nobody else will write this at present, not even true Leavers, either because they are afraid of being blamed if it all goes horribly wrong, or because they are afraid of losing out on their honours if all goes to plan: the power of patronage within the British establishment is something to behold.

Frost and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (interestingly with some erroneous help from Andrew Neil’s researchers) seem to have persuaded PM Johnson that a GATT 24 approach is a non-starter, quite wrongly, but then Boris never was one for the fine print! When Johnson was appointed PM, I encouraged him to visit the WTO in Geneva first rather than trekking to Brussels, Berlin or Paris, for two reasons. One was symbolic, to send a powerful message to the EU. The second was to receive information in person on GATT 24 and how the WTO could assist, as indeed I did last January when I spent a day with their most senior people on this very topic. Clearly Mr Johnson’s new Sir Humphrey and Remain-leaning Ministers want to keep him away from Geneva.

In fairness GATT 24 does require two to tango and therefore it depends on the EU being a willing partner. The government may have calculated, given the short time available, that starting with what we already have is the best way of reaching a conclusion or, at least, showing willing. But therein lies a fallacy: the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and Political Declaration (PD) would require such radical change as to be unrecognisable. GATT 24 provides a blank sheet. Which is the easier starting point? I think the latter.

For genuine, committed Leavers, people who recognise what liberty looks like and will settle for nothing less, this is all very frustrating. The proroguing of Parliament may have been justified and constitutional, but for what purpose? Certainly it will be a wasted action if it leads to BRINO and the worst deal in the history of our island nation, the sort of treaty thrust upon nations defeated in war.

We should recall that many in the current Cabinet referred to the WA and PD as a treaty that would place the UK in ‘vassalage’, a veritable ‘colony’ of the EU. These voices included Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. It wasn’t the backstop that led to this conclusion, but the WA and PD. The backstop made it impossible ever to leave the EU, while the substantive treaty makes it merely unlikely that we would ever be able to leave. However the WA and PD, variously, give control or force upon us a commitment to a direction of travel in respect of EU defence structures, EU finance structures, control over our spending and competitiveness via state aid rules, ultimate jurisdiction of the ECJ in many areas, continued adherence to the single market (SM) and customs union (CU) particularly during a transition period of at least two years when we will have no say in how this plays out. It is BRINO writ large. It is not Brexit.

Once again, many right-thinking Conservative MPs are keeping quiet because they want to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt and want to preserve the party. We should not forget that only two of the current Cabinet voted against the WA and PD third time around; the rest voted for it even with the backstop included!

This state of affairs has all the hallmarks of a charade. Believe me, I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

To add to the angst of true Brexiteers, the Remainer camp are desperately trying everything they can to frustrate any move by the government towards Brexit. We now have the spectacle of the Leader of the Opposition volunteering to lead street protests against a government ostensibly trying to deliver what two-thirds of UK constituencies and three-quarters of England and Wakes constituencies voted for in a referendum granted to the people by Parliament.

This is the same Jeremy Corbyn who, in March 2016, was the first person to congratulate me on my speech supporting leaving the EU which led to my resigning as head of the British Chambers of Commerce, the same Jeremy Corbyn who has consistently campaigned against the power of the EU and who fought the last election on a manifesto committed to respecting the will of the people as expressed in the referendum. In other words, yet another politician lacking in principles and agog at the prospect of power.

What makes this even more tragic is that Labour have continuously campaigned using the slogan ‘For the many, not the few’ and yet insist on maintaining membership of the CU. This in turn means the maintenance of the common external tariff charged by the EU on food and consumer goods. This tax is extremely regressive, affecting the poorest the most and protecting fat cat, monopolistic multinationals and continental land-owners. What a joke: socialists supporting a policy affecting the whole population which is so patently for the few and not the many, just as Corbyn used to say about the EU, before he became in thrall to power. Many communist and fascist regimes and dictators throughout history have claimed that the end justifies the means. They still are today, but really, sadly, it’s all about power.

What is to be done? In this divided polity, persuasion seems to have lost its potency. The only thing Parliamentarians seem to recognise is their own impending demise. The only thing likely to persuade Conservative and Labour MPs to deliver the mandate they gave to the people is the potential that they will be wiped out at the next election if they do not. It is in this context that the Brexit Party has a crucial role to play.

Should the referendum not be respected, I detect that the Brexit Party has the resolve to eliminate swathes of the current government and the Labour Party at a future election, however long they have to wait to do this. Of course, many MPs will be calculating, or at least hoping, that Brexit fatigue has set in and that the electorate will be simply relieved it is all over, whatever the outcome, and especially if the outcome can be dressed up as Brexit. With ample electoral bribery from the government, a positive attitude from the PM and a repackaged deal said to be Brexit, enough voters will be won over. Job done.

They may be right, but as they say in Yorkshire, ‘You can put as much lipstick as you like on a pig, but it is still a pig’. It is equally possible that enough voters will recognise what has happened and will care enough to be furious. Enough to eliminate Labour MPs in the north and to remove large numbers of Conservatives across the country. The Brexit Party may not win many of these Parliamentary seats but they may win enough votes to unseat the incumbent, and the Brexit Party are, I think, sufficiently committed to do this whatever the consequences.

Before the government proceed to deliver a BRINO, before Labour decide to wreck, I would urge them to think on this: it may be that many of them will no longer be in Parliament in the future and this is likely to be the last political decision they take.

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John Longworth
John Longworth
John Longworth is Chairman of the Independent Business Network of family businesses, a former Conservative MEP and was previously Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce.

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