This article was originally published in the Independent on the 3rd July 2018.
Throughout the last week of Brexit news, it has become worryingly clear that the prime minister and her cabinet have only one priority in mind: their own personal interests.Theresa May decides how to proceed on the basis of what causes the least offence to the European Research Group of hard-right Tory MPs, whom she fears will precipitate a Tory leadership election and rob her of her premiership – the nation’s best interests come a poor second to staying Tory leader.
Just this morning, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the ERG, has threatened to bring down May if she does not cede to their demands, stating that she must “deliver what she has said she would” and not see Brexit as “mere damage limitation”. All of her cabinet, meanwhile, are jockeying for position for her job in the event she falls – that is dictating how they act.
The most shameless example of this is the health secretary Jeremy Hunt. In the week after the 2016 EU referendum he argued for a “Norway plus” model – the softest possible of Brexits – and a referendum on the terms of the exit deal with the EU. Yet a fortnight ago, he went on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show arguing for the hard Brexit now being pursued by ministers, while castigating businesses like Airbus and BMW for pointing out that ministers’ handling of Brexit was putting jobs at risk.
Why did he do this? Because it goes down very well with Brexit-loving Tory activists whose support he figures he will need to take over from Theresa May in the next Tory leadership contest most expect to occur next year. Home secretary Sajid Javid, environment secretary Michael Gove and others are all at it. So while parliament grapples with the biggest issue facing our country since the Second World War, the stench of naked self-interest wafts from the cabinet table all the way down the road to the Commons chamber and nearby television studios.
This cabinet of self-interest meets at the PM’s country retreat, Chequers, on Friday for a summit to hammer out a common position. We are told this morning she is to table a new customs proposal and there is an attempt to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, which even Brexit-supporting Tory and DUP MPs think unachievable without at least staying in the customs union.
Before the House of Commons rises for its summer recess in three-and-a-half weeks, the government has said MPs will vote on the remaining stages of the Trade and Customs Bills, two of the eight flagship pieces of legislation that will give effect to our departure from the EU.
These two crucial bills will determine the mandate parliament gives the government to negotiate our future trading relationship with the EU if Brexit occurs and, it follows, will determine the extent of the damage done by Brexit. These bills will dictate the form of Brexit the UK follows – which was never on the ballot paper in 2016 – and present MPs with a stark choice when they vote on the Brexit deal at the end of this process in the autumn.
In truth, there is no such thing as a “jobs first” Brexit which Labour shadow ministers talk about because the government’s economic impact assessments illustrate that, short of EU membership, every option is worse for the UK economy. This happens to be the consensus view of UK businesses and economists. So what we are talking about is damage limitation.
A soft Brexit is the least worst option, with EEA membership estimated to lead to 2 per cent lower growth over 15 years. But both the Conservative and Labour front benches oppose it, though many of their backbenchers – myself included – support it.
A poll of Unite (the country’s biggest trade union) over the weekend showed its members (I am one of those too) overwhelmingly support staying in the single market, just like so many in the wider labour movement. This compares with a free trade agreement – which both of the main parties’ front benches are arguing for – which would be inferior for the economy and it is estimated would lead to 5 per cent lower growth. A no-deal or hard Brexit that extremists in the Tory party argue for would lead to 8 per cent lower growth.
In this hung parliament, every vote is finely balanced and no one can predict with any certainty which way it will go. If Theresa May loses any of the big votes on these bills, she cannot credibly continue with the government’s negotiating position because self-evidently there will be no majority for it in the UK parliament.
The Conservative MP Anna Soubry, myself and other backbenchers across the parties have put down a “business and jobs” amendment to both bills to provide for the UK to continue in the customs union. We describe these amendments as such because the UK being part of the customs union, post-Brexit, is strongly supported by the CBI, which represents businesses, the TUC, which represents those who work within them, and many others.
Those campaigning for Brexit like to peddle the myth that the EU wants to punish and bully the UK for daring to leave. This has no credibility when all our EU partners ask for is clarity on the UK’s position because it is impossible to negotiate with our ministers because they can’t agree on a position. At the EU summit at the end of last week, this was the clear message: tell us what you want so we can move forward with this process. The cabinet cannot agree with itself, never mind the EU.
The withdrawal agreement – in other words, the Brexit deal – will cover the terms of our departure, arrangements for the transition period to follow the scheduled exit day of 29 March 2019, and the “framework” of our future trading relationship with the EU. The final, detailed terms of our trading relationship, which would kick in at the end of the transition period, will be finalised in a further treaty with the EU which will be agreed after exit day. So the worry is that all we will get are vague details of what is to come in the Brexit deal – more fudge, basically.
This would suit the PM because it reduces the risk of offending the hard right of the Tory party who hold her hostage, while keeping her party together; on the Labour side, shadow ministers could continue to talk about extending the Article 50 negotiating period to secure the imaginary “jobs first” Brexit. When we get to the autumn, the EU is clear they will not allow any further time for negotiation as they want this matter settled by the time the European Election campaigns starting in January 2019. We also know that no Conservative MP will vote for an early general election to settle the Brexit issue, after the disaster that befell that party having done so last year.
So this means MPs will be faced with a stark choice: voting for the PM’s job-destroying, hard Brexit deal; or voting to refer whether and how Brexit happens to the British public in a people’s vote on the Brexit deal. There will be no third way or hiding place from this most important of decisions facing our nation.