A former ambassador to the European Community says there is an urgent need for a change in policyby David Hannay / February 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
What can be learned from the government’s 45 vote defeat in the Commons last night on a motion so anodyne and so ambiguous as to defy analysis?
Well, first, that Theresa May’s Brexit strategy of stubborn procrastination has been holed, possibly beneath the water line. Secondly that, if loyalty ever was the secret weapon of the Conservative Party, it is that no longer; the excuse given by members of its oddly named European Research Group for abstaining is laughingly unconvincing. Thirdly, that the odds against any warmed up waffle on the Irish backstop from Brussels being sufficient to secure a majority for May’s deal have lengthened sharply. And fourthly that the policy of reaching out to the Labour Party is paying no dividends and, with the rejection of remaining in a customs union with the EU, likely never will, however evident the Labour Party’s own divisions over Brexit may be.
The government’s activities since the massive defeat in the Commons last month of the deal May agreed with the EU27 in November look humiliating and unlikely to bear fruit—more displacement activity than genuine negotiations, of which there has so far been none. A dash to Brussels to attempt to dismantle or replace the Irish backstop which was a key part of the deal the prime minister had entered into in good faith, calling it at the time the best deal that was available. To no avail. Another dash, to Belfast, to seek to assure an electorate which had voted clearly for Remain in 2016 that, whatever happened, including leaving without a deal, there would be no re-instatement of controls on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. To no avail. And, third sortie, to Dublin, to try to persuade the Irish government to put its own survival at risk in order to secure May’s. To no avail.
Meanwhile the damage to the UK’s own economy from the reckless insistence on brandishing no deal as a serious possibility has continued to mount. Inward investment has stalled, with a new project by Nissan in Sunderland the most prominent victim. Growth forecasts are being revised sharply down. Billions of pounds of government spending are being squandered in a futile attempt to lend credibility to the threat of crashing out without a deal, spreading plenty of alarm and despondency at home without the slightest sign of shifting the position of the EU27, it’s proclaimed objective.
And the great prize of an independent trade policy remains a shimmering mirage with no substance. Liam Fox is clearly in trouble even rolling over the UK’s existing access to the markets of the EU’s free trade partners by 29th March, let alone having a prospect of negotiating improved access to them. The EU’s free trade agreement with Japan, the fourth largest economy in the world, has just entered into force—will we benefit from that, or from the existing free trade agreement with South Korea or the customs union with Turkey?
In any case none of these markets would come near to compensating the loss of frictionless trade access to the EU27 which take 44 per cent of our goods exports and many of our exports of services. And the government, replying to the debate in the Lords on 13th February, has made it clear that it does not share the view of the ERG that WTO rules would allow us to maintain zero tariffs with the EU while avoiding the dismantling of all protection for our manufacturers against other trading partners. Which indeed they would not.
Everything therefore points towards the urgent need for a change in policy by the end of February at the latest if we are to avoid a disastrous outcome a month later. The first thing that surely needs to be done is to is to banish the prospect of leaving without a deal as a policy option; and to take all necessary steps to ensure it does not happen. The second is to recognise the simple reality that there is not enough parliamentary time between now and 29th March to enact the measures needed to ratify the prime minister’s deal, even in the unlikely event of that squeaking through; and to start talks with the EU27 about the postponement of the Article 50 cut-off date. That postponement alone will not secure a good outcome but it could at least open up the prospect of a less damaging one, either through the scrapping of some of May’s infamous red lines or through going back to the electorate to ask them whether, now that a lot more is known about what Brexit actually means than was known or knowable in 2016, they wish to continue on that course.
It is argued that another public vote would be divisive. Of course it would be; that is what binary choices are. But would it be more divisive than several more years of internecine warfare in the governing party over the terms of our new relationship with the EU? And is it not more likely to bring closure to an issue which is distracting our whole body politic from many other pressing priority areas—health, social care, housing and the shaping of external policies in a world of shifting power relationships and rapid technological change? Of course it would, particularly if the outcome of any referendum was made legally binding. And after the near death experiences from Brexit over the last three years for both main parties would either of them be likely to re-open the matter once so decided?