NO ONE has argued or worked more constructively towards the best Brexit than Martin Howe QC, chairman of Lawyers for Britain.
Tragically, too many times the Government has failed to heed his warnings. The latest came yesterday in a column he wrote for the Telegraph, ‘We cannot afford to yield ground on the “level playing field” in Brexit trade talks’.
We can’t. But no one other than those with the shortest of memories can ignore Boris Johnson’s terrible record of tough talk followed by backing down; Angela Merkel, Macron and Barnier, understanding the psychology of our bottler of a Prime Minister better than the Brits do and laughing all the way to Brussels.
They do not need Martin Howe to tell them that extending the talks implicitly signals a British (represented by the bottler) fear of going into WTO terms with the EU.
The continuing and indefinite extension of the EU Brexit talks beyond every ‘final’ deadline is what has marked Britain’s negotiating position with the EU from the start.
Howe is too polite when he says: ‘This may show admirable patience.’ It does not. It betrays weakness. It more than sows ‘doubt about our resolve to stick to the fundamental principles which the Prime Minister has repeatedly said he wants to sustain’. It confirms this lack of resolve. It reveals the PM’s words as words only – thrown out to appease those who put their faith in him and cannot believe he can possibly let them down again. He can.
It’s not just Johnson. As Howe points out, this is the pattern of the negotiations: always dominated by the short term, ‘giving opponents of Brexit, including some within government, the chance to carry on with Project Fear’.
In a final appeal, Howe asks the Government to show leadership before our negotiators ‘lose sight of the real issues that will determine the UK’s democratic and economic freedom’.
He notes that once again we are being kept in the dark, just as we were in October last year when virtually overnight Boris Johnson came back to the UK waving a signed Withdrawal Agreement – almost identical, it transpired, to the one he had previously voted against. Brexit watchers will remember Merkel raising a clenched fist of triumph.
This time round we are no wiser – what exactly is now being discussed? Nobody, Howe remarks, outside a tiny group of people has any direct knowledge, because the draft legal texts are kept secret.
He writes: ‘The secrecy is not to keep things from the other side, it is to avoid scrutiny of what concessions there might be. Negotiations in the EU have always ended up making our laws behind closed doors, which are then dumped fait accompli on us without any right to object. It would be a bitter irony if getting Brexit done involves more of the same.’
He thinks that MPs and the public are too bruised by John Major’s ‘game, set and match’ at Maastricht and Cameron’s non-renegotiation to take deals with the EU on trust. ‘Those legal texts were very different from what governments claimed to have achieved.’
Quite so – nor should they after the last four years of being made fools of by the EU under the guise of ‘level playing field’ negotiations demanded to conceal a very unlevel playing field for us, as Howe sets out:
‘We already know that as a trade deal it is likely to be a poor bargain, and one we do not necessarily need. Its central feature is zero tariffs and no quotas on goods. Because of the EU’s huge trade surplus, it has the advantage. EU exporters would get more than double the value of tariff concessions as UK exporters get on their exports. It would do almost nothing for the UK’s services exporters, when we have a surplus in services. And rules on some highly technical issues like home country certification and cumulation of origin – where the EU has denied the UK what it offers in most of its other trade deals – would hamper the effective access of UK goods exporters into the EU market.’
The Conservative Party needs to wake up big time. This is a deal we certainly do not need. It is based on the wrong benchmark.
As Howe explains, instead of a deal being judged on its merits – whether it is good or not, and if it respects British sovereignty – it is being compared with what the EU first proposed. ‘The EU’s demands remain unreasonable and unlike anything it has negotiated with other trade partners. Most worrying are the hints and briefings in the media suggesting the Government is willing to make too many concessions on the ‘level playing field’ – way beyond what the Canadians, Japanese, Koreans or Singaporeans agreed with the EU.’
Howe’s warning is urgent. The country stands on a real cliff edge – not because we might leave the single market without a trade agreement but because we may ‘succumb to a deal requiring the UK to keep or follow EU laws in the years ahead, thus negating the very principle of Brexit – taking back control and giving British people the democratic power to make and change our laws’.
Martin Howe says the PM knows what he must do. That assumes Johnson is honourable or has one ounce of principle. I fear he is not and has not. My guess is that he has factored in this betrayal of Brexiteers’ trust, whether in the north or the south, and has got away with it too many times already to care. He has no Parliamentary opposition to face. The next election is not until 2024, when he will focus his energies on stealing the green progressive ‘liberal locusts’ from Labour and Lib Dems and leave the Janus-faced Labour Party struggling against Reform UK for the Red Wall.
If Johnson does not heed Howe’s warning at this, the 11th hour, there is one thing for certain: his next four years in Downing Street will come at the cost of his party. The Conservative Party will die, and deservedly so.