88 days to go and Brexit’s fighting fit

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88 days to go and Brexit’s fighting fit

As the New Year begins, and with only 88 days to go until Britain’s exit date, John Baron MP takes stock of the state of Brexit, explaining why there remains much to be positive.

Though unpopular, the Prime Minister’s decision to pull the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement late last year was the right one. There is little point in pressing ahead with a vote you are certain to lose. The Prime Minister continues to proceed in the spirit of my and other amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement motion in seeking a unilateral way out of the ‘backstop trap’, and we now await with interest the outcome of further negotiations with the EU prior to the matter being put to the House of Commons. But despite all the noise and smoke, there are reasons to be positive.

It is plain to see that, as the Article 50 deadline of 29th March 2019 gets ever closer, so the political temperature has been rising at Westminster. In a strong sense, there is a pride to be had in the way Brexit is being thrashed out on the floors of Parliament. History shows Parliament has often disagreed with the Executive, and asked it to think again. This is Parliamentary democracy in action. A quick glance across the English Channel, where a rise in the cost of fuel has sparked political violence on the streets of Paris, puts things into a favourable perspective.

It is for similar reasons that a second referendum is a fool’s errand, and even dangerous. In 2016 the electorate made it clear that it wanted to leave the European Union, even in the face of increasingly dire warnings from virtually every official outlet in the country. Mass unemployment, immediate economic recession – even World War Three was forewarned. 85 per cent of those who voted in the 2017 General Election did so knowing their chosen parties promised to leave both the Customs Union and Single Market.

Among ‘leave’ voters, the sense of betrayal and anger engendered by an unnecessary second referendum foisted upon them by a political élite who wanted them to make the ‘right’ decision would be enormous, and would be the very embodiment of the type of behaviour by the EU which compelled so many of them to opt for Brexit.

It is impossible to believe such an exercise could stand the slightest chance of uniting the country, as every indication shows it would have precisely the opposite effect. Only the extremes would benefit, and a whole cohort of the electorate could give up on voting altogether, convinced that their opinions count for nothing if the élites in charge refuse to accept them. In a democracy, a lack of participation is the path to ruin.

With the Prime Minister’s announcement that the ‘meaningful vote’ will now take place the week of 14th January, we once again enter a war of words until the vote falls. Hopefully, over these ensuing two weeks some positive movement on the ‘backstop trap’ will be forthcoming, along with a step change in ‘no deal’ preparations, so MPs can judge the Withdrawal Agreement afresh.

And there are reasons to be positive that the EU will acknowledge that the backstop as presently constituted is unacceptable to Britain. Being kept in a state of suspended animation inside a customs union which also unacceptably introduced new barriers within the UK would deny Britain one of the greatest advantages of Brexit, namely the opportunity to sign free trade agreements with the faster-growing economies outside the EU.

The political and media consensus that the Withdrawal Agreement represents the EU’s final and only offer is surprising, given the EU’s history of striking last-minute deals. British Prime Ministers over the years have never been slow in expressing their exasperation at the way EU deals are only made around 4.00am, so there is no reason why Brexit should be any different. Delaying the ‘meaningful vote’ could be seen as an astute move by the Prime Minister to give the EU time to agree a remedy for the ‘backstop trap’.

Meanwhile, the Government is finally making full-throated plans for a ‘no deal’ scenario. Many British firms have been aware of the need for ‘no deal’ planning for a considerable time. The increasingly dire warnings of continuity remainers mean that the British public are braced for turbulence, if it occurs – having been warned by the Remain campaign of Armageddon during 2016.

However, this is not widely true on the continent, where many governments have not remotely prepared their citizens for a ‘no deal’ outcome. A canny exception might be the Dutch Government, who have hired a large number of customs officers for their ports, more than happy to absorb extra traffic if the French Government chooses to snarl up the Dover-Calais route. Many companies and politicians on the front line are now realising that there is a big downside for them – the UK being the EU’s largest export market bar none.

One very welcome development is that a no confidence vote in Theresa May as Conservative Party leader is off the cards for at least another year. The ongoing psychodrama of whether the 48 mark had been breached has been a running distraction from the main business of Brexit, and it is good to be able to set this aside.

Finally, I hope the Prime Minister, and Parliamentarians in general, have enjoyed the Christmas period and have used it to calmly assess the situation. After the febrile nature of the last session, 2019 requires some clear thinking. Some may even come to realise that Brexit is an opportunity to be seized rather than a problem to be managed.

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    John Baron MP
    John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay, and a former Shadow Health Minister. He is also Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the British Council.
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