John Baron MP discusses why – as a Brexiteer who has attempted to steer a middle course between the ERG and the Government – he intends to vote against the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement if it is not amended.
After several years, speeches at Lancaster House, Mansion House and Florence, and the Chequers Agreement, the past fortnight has finally brought some clarity to the Brexit process. A long period of shadow-boxing comes to an end as we finally see, in stark terms, what Britain and the European Union are proposing. The ‘meaningful vote’ finally has a date – all eyes will turn to the Commons on 11th December.
The Whips’ Office no doubt retains a breezy optimism that, somehow, the Withdrawal Agreement will be accepted by Parliament. Yet even this optimism must surely be tempered by the fact that this is a friendless agreement, criticised on all sides – it took well over an hour for the first supportive question to the Prime Minister on Monday – and with a very small band of supporters outside those on the Government payroll; with the resignation of Jo Johnson, and talk of more to follow, perhaps not even there either.
The reasons for the agreement’s unpopularity are quite plain. Agreeing to a backstop which, should negotiations on a wider settlement fail at the end of the transition period, allows the EU to trap the UK inside a customs union is an obvious non-starter. The Government can attempt to advance arguments that this would never happen, and that even if it did it wouldn’t be in the EU’s interests, but these will not wash. It is fair enough and to be expected that the EU looks out for its members’ interests, and if it believes those interests are best served by keeping Britain down then that is what it will do – having quickly pocketed our £39 billion.
Being kept in a state of suspended animation inside a customs union which also introduced new barriers within the United Kingdom would deny Britain one of the greatest advantages of Brexit: the opportunity to sign free trade agreements with the faster-growing economies outside the EU. In his customary style, this is exactly the point made by President Trump when referring to his undoubted desire for a US-UK trade deal – something that has long eluded us given the EU’s terrible track record at negotiating free trade agreements with other countries.
Having lost a seat at the table after formally leaving the EU, remaining in a customs union would also render Britain, for the first time, a rule-taker rather than a rule-shaper. This is entirely unacceptable for one of the world’s largest economies. Turkey is the only major country in a customs union with the EU, and is indeed engaged in trying to loosen it for this very reason, having seemingly abandoned hopes of ever being admitted.
Faced with such a situation, the alternatives become more attractive. The Canada+ deal offered by the EU would be preferable, as would falling back on WTO rules through which we already easily and profitably trade with many countries outside the EU. On the latter, Brexiteers missed a trick in allowing the continuity remain campaign to incorrectly portray the WTO option as ‘crashing out of the EU’. Inward investment is about relative advantage – lower tax rates, greater labour market flexibility, our language and financial expertise, our universities and skilled workforce are the key determinants – not 3 – 5 per cent average tariffs. Witness the present record low unemployment and inward investment.
The issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could be solved by technological solutions – last week, two leading customs experts went into great detail about this in their evidence to the Northern Ireland Select Committee. It is good news that such solutions are at least mentioned in the political declaration, but the Government must give its full attention to such innovative measures to avoid the ‘hard border’ that no-one wants – this will be required in any scenario consistent with leaving the EU.
Attention has rightly focused on the backstop trap, but aspects of the transition period are equally as troubling. Article 129, paragraph 3, of the Withdrawal Agreement states that the UK ‘shall refrain, during the transition period, from any action or initiative which is likely to be prejudicial to the European Union’s interests, in particular in the framework of any international organisation, agency, conference or forum of which the UK is a party in its own right’. The implication of this seems to be that we could not set our own tax rates, regulate businesses such as Uber, or pursue an independent foreign policy at the UN Security Council. Yet the Agreement specifies no reciprocal obligation on the EU to refrain from prejudicing the UK’s interests. When I put this to the Prime Minister on Monday she undertook to write to me, and I will be very interested to read her response.
The wider public has seen through this agreement with the EU, and if Parliament does pass it there is a real chance that it could come to be seen as a betrayal of those who voted for Brexit by an out-of-touch political élite. In the same vein, a second referendum would be equally as damaging to public trust, and would no doubt return an even greater vote for ‘leave’ by an electorate which might legitimately ask why the politicians didn’t get the message the first time around. Such a development would only benefit UKIP and its fellow travellers, whose retreat into electoral irrelevance since the 2015 election has been most welcome.
For all of the above reasons, and as a Brexiteer who has attempted to steer a middle course between the ERG and the Government – and who at times has reached out to all sides in attempts to reach compromises – I will vote against this Withdrawal Agreement if it is not amended.
Even at this late stage, I still hold out that it may – the incorporation of a unilateral mechanism for the UK to escape the backstop trap would do much to assuage concerns. The EU may say that the agreement is its final offer, but we all know that the EU invariably makes changes to treaties and agreements at the eleventh hour and as deadlines loom large.
There is one other aspect upon which I will remain firm: the party leadership. I have never approved of plots to remove a party leader who has won a General Election, and am not about to change my mind now.
The 11th December is written in ink in my diary – curiously almost a year to the day since Dominic Grieve defeated the Government during the passage of the EU Withdrawal Act, though it is doubtful he intended Brexiteers to be the main beneficiaries of his amendment. 11th is, however, the anniversary of Edward VIII’s Abdication speech, a perhaps fitting moment for the political class to reflect on as we cast our votes.