To stand any chance of successfully securing a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement, our next Prime Minister must be fully prepared to exit the EU on WTO terms, says John Baron.
The last month has seen two sets of sobering election results for both main parties, as voters clearly articulated their frustration with the Government that we have not yet left the EU but without endorsing the offering from the Opposition and indeed punishing them for their lack of clarity. Both Jeremy Corbyn and the new Conservative leader should think carefully as to their next steps.
As a Conservative, I am naturally disappointed that my local council in Basildon has reverted to No Overall Control, given the good progress made. However, on a wider level, it is important to thank all candidates for standing in the local elections. Democracy only works when people put themselves forward to represent and serve their communities, and all who did so deserve appreciation.
The second set of results, for the European Parliament, were notable for the extraordinary performance of the Brexit Party, which convincingly topped the polls from a standing start. I am sorry that so many Conservative MEPs lost their seats, but it does not come as a surprise. On the doorstep there was more understandable frustration with the Government and Theresa May that we did not leave the EU on 29th March as promised in our 2017 General Election manifesto, and as the Prime Minister promised over 100 times in the House of Commons.
The Liberal Democrats received a strong showing in the European elections, capitalising on Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ on Brexit and hoovering up remain votes with their flippant, if ear-catching, slogan. The polarisation evident in the support for the two parties with a clear and unambiguous stances on Brexit – namely leave and remain – suggests that, contrary to sentiment in fashionable circles, there is not much appetite in the country for compromise.
If I were a supporter of a second referendum, I would be having severe doubts as to the wisdom of pushing on with a ‘people’s vote’ to overturn the people’s vote of 2016. The European Parliamentary elections give a flavour of the rancour that would result from waging a second referendum campaign, and also how Nigel Farage’s seemingly well-disciplined and slick operation would relentlessly push for a second vote to leave. I remain of the view that a second referendum would result in an increased vote to depart the EU and inflict even more damage upon our democratic system.
The other major development this month was the Prime Minister’s announcement that the Withdrawal Agreement, in the form of the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill, would return in early June. Quite apart from the fact that the Withdrawal Agreement still contains the potentially indefinite – and therefore unacceptable – Northern Irish backstop, the Prime Minister raised the prospect of a second referendum.
This announcement appeared to take a lot of the Cabinet, let alone backbenchers, by surprise, and history will probably judge it to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the May premiership. On a personal level I have no doubts that she gave the job her all. She is a dedicated public servant and I wish her well for the future. In the end her resignation was the right course of action.
The Conservative Party and the country faces an ever-widening field of candidates to be the next leader and Prime Minister. In my view, whoever takes up the reins must renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement with the new EU leadership, with a view to at the very least resolving the backstop impasse.
In order to make this renegotiation credible, the next Prime Minister must be fully committed to an exit on WTO terms, and should ramp up all necessary preparatory work – this should not be too difficult, as Theresa May confirmed to me earlier this year that all preparations had been completed for a WTO exit on 29th March. If nothing else, preparing for a WTO Brexit makes a renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement much more likely. If this gambit fails, then we leave the EU with a clean break – and begin once again to forge our own way in the world.