Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Has Boris the integrity, determination and will to deliver a clean Brexit?


THERE is no certainty as to where we will end up on Brexit. There is no clarity as yet over the true intentions of the new government in respect of Brexit. It is Groundhog Day, in many ways mimicking exactly where we should have been immediately after the referendum in terms of the make-up of the administration. Three wasted years.

It was not until the Florence speech that it became clear to me that the then PM (the worst of my lifetime) was an inveterate Remainer determined to keep us tied as closely to the EU as possible and seeing the whole Brexit exercise as damage limitation. Essentially a betrayal of the referendum. Until that point I had been prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The same must now apply to the Johnson premiership.

The Cabinet is packed with people who voted for Theresa May’s disastrous Withdrawal Treaty and Political Declaration. In the words of two such people who voted for it, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, it would have left the UK a ‘vassal state of the EU’, forever trapped in the orbit of an EU supra-national, socialist Eurocracy. Yet they voted for it.

Having twice voted down the treaty, Johnson flip-flopped when he spied the levers of power as the PM promised to step down if the deal went through. I suspect Jacob voted for it because he feared Brexit would be lost, but then the treaty would have consigned Brexit to the dustbin, so perhaps it was to save the Tory Party, fearing the emergence of the new Brexit Party. I am not sure.

Certainly had the Brexit Party not emerged May would likely still be Prime Minister and extending the deadline once again in order to get her disastrous and quisling treaty through Parliament.

The Brexit Party have also been the greatest inadvertent friends of Boris Johnson. The constant threat of electoral annihilation has concentrated the minds of the Conservative Party like nothing else. All the campaigning effort of Leave means Leave could not strike at the heart of what our politicians hold most dear, their power and their jobs.

There have been no ‘pure’ Brexiteers from the ERG appointed to attend the Cabinet. None who held out against the Treaty. Perhaps this is for the best, as it gives them the freedom to speak out. I hope they do. Nonetheless it prompts the question about the likely direction of travel.

The appointment of Dominic Cummings suggests that there is a plan. No doubt the plan will be the same plan as if Gove had become leader and PM. If it is a Cummings plan, it will be a plan from which there must be no deviation except in extremis and at the margins. The future will already be set. It will likely prioritise power and party. There will be an assumption that the focus on power and party is synonymous with the well-being of the nation. No doubt the delivery of Brexit may incidentally come up, as a vehicle.

Let me be clear, if the new administration delivers a clean Brexit on 31 October, I will be the first to laud their achievement, to hold them up in the annals of history as great individuals.

The delivery of a clean Brexit does not however require a genius, it requires integrity, determination and will. These are in short supply in politics, where the genius of Machiavellian low cunning seems to be held in high esteem. It was very clear to me and some other Brexiteers, even before the referendum result was declared in 2016, what should have been the strategic negotiating position of the government of the day. They should have simply indicated to the EU that the UK would leave in March 2019 on WTO terms. That they would seek side deals on administrative matters such as visa rights, customs arrangements, aviation etc. However, the possibility of a free trade arrangement (FTA) would be offered should the EU wish to seek one. That is what should have happened. There were three full years in which to prepare and to negotiate. Instead, this was squandered and the UK’s credibility undermined. The opportunity was given for Remainers to dissemble and eat away at the resolve to leave. This has in turn fed division in the country and created uncertainty when there might otherwise have been absolute certainty.

Even with the passage of time, what the UK government should now do is exactly this. There should be no reopening of negotiations on the discredited Withdrawal Treaty and Political Declaration. They should be shredded and consigned to the dustbin. We should declare that we are leaving on WTO terms in October and mean it. The new PM should send out a very clear message by going to Geneva to see the WTO before even considering seeing Merkel, Macron or dallying with Brussels. He should also offer the EU the possibility of an FTA if they so wish and of a ‘standstill’ arrangement under Article 24 of the GATT while an FTA is negotiated, whereby customs arrangements continue as is. This should not have attached to it, however, any restrictions on the UK varying tariffs for the rest of the world or making trade deals elsewhere, or indeed any other economic straitjacket measures which the EU will strive for.

If Parliament tries to frustrate this process, the PM should avoid any legislation in the House which could be a vehicle for wrecking amendments; he should introduce the commencement order for leaving and sit it out. In the extremis of a vote of no confidence or shenanigans he should engineer a general election period whereby Parliament is automatically suspended until after 31 October.

That is what should happen. There is a danger that what will happen is that the faint-hearted will attempt to bribe the electorate with sweeties and sweet talk while attempting merely to remove the Backstop from a revamped and repackaged Withdrawal Treaty, a very bad BRINO hailed as a triumph. The primary objectives of this would be to see off Labour and to marginalise the Brexit Party – power and Party first.

Such a deal would see the UK tied very closely to the EU, sharing defence command and capability, sharing fisheries, acquiescing to restriction on our tax freedoms and committing to further contributions and handing over more than £39billion. It would also require a two-year transition during which nothing changes except that we have no say and are at the mercy of the EU.

The flaw in this, politically, is that it will be called out. I for one have re-booted ‘Leave means Leave’ as a cross-party Labour, Conservative, Brexit Party, DUP lobby group. It also assumes that the electorate are stupid, which they are not. They may be exhausted with Brexit and some will just want it over, but there is a deep cynicism and determination amongst many, especially in the regions and Wales. The regions also recognise when they are being bribed. Better rail services is important but not enough. The regions do not want ‘welfare’, they want ‘wealth’ and that will require a policy suite which will difficult for the Conservatives in the Home Counties to swallow. Whatever happened to Osborne’s rebalancing the economy towards exports and the regions? To the march of the makers? Hollow words with no policy substance.

The jury is out. Johnson has less than a hundred days to go down in history as the man who saved the nation to be great again, or the man who consigns Britain for ever to servitude at the altar of the Euro State, a once-great nation merely a footnote in history.

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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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