Theresa May is as secure in her position as she has ever been, says John Baron. Holding firm on her current course there is no reason why she can’t lead the Conservatives to victory at the next election.
The Prime Minister has shone in recent weeks, yet again confounding her critics. Her calm response to the outrageous attack in Salisbury was well-judged, and the impressive global response also reflects well on both the FCO and the Foreign Secretary. Last week’s European Council continued this strong run, with real progress being made on Brexit. And yet there remains a small but vociferous group of Remainers who would rather see the glass-half-empty – perhaps a calm assessment of the evidence might encourage them to see a different picture. Record inward investment, record manufacturing output and record low unemployment for a generation all suggest these ‘doom-mongers’ would do well to reflect on the economic evidence.
Inevitably the agreement between the EU and the Government is a curate’s egg – good in parts. Both sides now have an undertaking that the transition period will run until the end of December 2020, less than the two years originally envisaged. This is good news – many Brexiteers are reluctant converts to the idea of a transition period, fearing that one delay of our departure from the EU could easily lead to another. There can be no lingering in the departure lounge.
Whilst this is still a concern, bringing forward the end of the transition period at least goes some way to allaying this. It also allows businesses and markets to have more of an idea of the timescales involved and, since regulations will remain the same until the end of the period, only one major change in regulations may be necessary. Thereafter it will be up to Parliamentarians to decide which changes to make, over time, to the current regulations – an important part of taking back control of our laws.
A strong positive is that the agreement will allow the British Government to make progress on our international trade deals. During the transition period, we will be able to negotiate, sign and ratify our own free trade deals, with them coming into force as the transition ends at the close of December 2020, as well as establishing membership of international bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. Our trade negotiators will have to hit the ground running, but there are many reasons to be optimistic – after all, Australian trade teams managed to agree free trade deals with China, South Korea and Japan each within 13 months. There is no reason Britain, as one of the world’s largest economies, should be any different, particularly as both sides will at least be starting from the same position.
The agreement inevitably is not unalloyed good news. Whilst greater clarity on citizens’ rights, both for EU citizens in the UK and British nationals in the EU, is welcome, it is nevertheless disappointing that ‘freedom of movement’ rules will continue during the transition period. One of the great advantages of Brexit is that we will gain the ability to design a fairer and controlled immigration system and it is frustrating that we will have to wait an additional 21 months before we can enact this. Indeed, one of the key reasons many of us voted to leave was so that we could put an end to a system which discriminated against the rest of the world, outside the EU.
Similarly, it would have been preferable to have made greater progress on the fishing industry – though criticism from the Scottish National Party must be tempered by their policy of Britain remaining in the EU and bound into the Common Fisheries Policy. The Government must also be robust in protecting our territorial waters against encroachment – where appropriate, the 200-mile limit must be maintained.
Turning to the aftermath of the Salisbury nerve agent attack, the Prime Minister and FCO deserve wide praise for the strong response at the summit, and beyond. If the Russians intended to test our allies’ resolve, they have surely been given a salutary lesson by the strong support for the British position – a strength which seems to have caught even the Government by surprise. The unprecedented number of expulsions of intelligence officers serving under diplomatic cover is evidence of widespread anger at Russian meddling in many countries’ internal affairs and sends an unequivocal message to Moscow.
Britain’s diplomatic coup over Russia slays yet another of ‘Project Fear’s dragons. We were assured that Brexit would weaken our security, leave us friendless and at the mercy of larger countries and that it would be a gift to Vladimir Putin. As many of us argued during the referendum campaign, there is no reason why leaving the EU should detract from our contribution to European security. One positive from the Salisbury attack may be that we snap out of our collective reverie and finally start taking traditional state-on-state threats seriously once again. Reversing falling European defence budgets would be a fine start.
With the good news coming out of the EU summit, the discordant note continues to be those who remain implacably opposed to leaving the EU. These people need to stop trying to re-fight the referendum campaign and wise up to the fact that we are leaving. Almost two years on from the referendum, we are still being told that voters were gulled into voting ‘leave’ out of ignorance, stupidity and a ‘Little Englander’ mentality – arguments as wrong as they are insulting.
Voters instead opted to choose greater democratic accountability through their national parliament, control over legislation and money, and to reject federalist desires for a ‘United States of Europe’. As for ‘Little Englanders’, it is striking that it is overwhelmingly Remainers who take issue with the passport contract going to a Franco-Dutch firm – Brexiteers are outward facing free-traders, confident in our place in the world and global in our ambitions.
Good weeks for Britain are also good weeks for the Prime Minister. Theresa May is as secure in her position as she has ever been, and has benefitted from the strong contrast with the Labour leader given his unconvincing positioning on Salisbury and his poor response to the internal issues in his own party. Assuming we do not take our eye off the ball on bread-and-butter issues such as the NHS and education, I continue to see no reason why she should not lead the Conservatives to victory at the next General Election.