Boris: Getting Brexit ‘off rocks’ worth £50bn
Cabinet united as Foreign Secretary withdraws objection to payout ahead of trade deal deadline
BORIS JOHNSON said a £50 billion Brexit bill was worth paying if it got “the ship off the rocks” as senior Leave campaigners backed Theresa May’s decision to offer Brussels more money to get trade talks started.
The Foreign Secretary had previously said the EU could “go whistle” if it expected a large payment, but Mrs May appears to have united the Cabinet with just a fortnight to go until EU leaders decide whether talks on a trade deal can begin.
Mr Johnson was joined by other prominent Leave campaigners including Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, who said it was right that Britain honoured its legal obligations.
But some Tory backbenchers accused the Government of “betraying” voters who would struggle to understand how £50billion could be found to pacify the EU when money for the NHS and social care is so tight.
The Daily Telegraph – which broke the news on Tuesday that Britain and the EU had agreed a divorce bill of between £40bn and £49bn – has learnt that the UK will continue to contribute to projects including a motorway be- tween Hungary and Romania and free Interrail tickets for 18-year-olds.
Theresa May, visiting British soldiers in Iraq yesterday, refused to be drawn on the amount, insisting that the sides are “still in negotiations” and “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
But Mr Johnson withdrew his opposition to a bill running into tens of billions. He said: “What we want to see is progress towards the second phase of the negotiations... It’s a fantastic opportunity now to get going. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time – 18 months or so.
“Now is the moment to get the ship off the rocks and move it forwards.”
Mr Duncan Smith said that even a di- vorce bill of more than £40 billion would be “a good bargain” because Britain would save “staggering amounts of money” on contributions to EU budgets over the long-term.
Mrs May will meet Jean-claude Juncker, European Commission president, on Monday hoping to convince him that “sufficient progress” has been made on money, citizens’ rights and the Irish border for trade talks to begin. A final decision will be made by EU leaders in mid-december.
The Prime Minister faced a backlash from some Tory backbenchers, however. Peter Bone MP said the Government was “betraying the trust of the British people” in agreeing to pay such a large sum, while Jacob Rees-mogg said there was “growing concern that Her Majesty’s Government seems in these negotiations to be dancing to the tune of the European Commission”.
A payment of more than £40billion would suggest that as well as agreeing to pay into EU pension pots, legal insurance, EU borrowing and the 20142020 agreed EU budget, Britain will pay towards EU promotional projects.
They include £10.5million to renovate the former Paris home of Jean Monnet, one of the EU’S intellectual forefathers, and a pilot project to provide free Interrail tickets to all Europeans on their 18th birthday, which could cost £1.5billion.
There are two strategies that a country can adopt during moments of national emergency. The boldest is for Left and Right to come together in a unity government, putting aside their differences to fight for a common purpose. This reduces the space for democratic dissent, and risks enshrining groupthink, but it can be a vital way forward in extreme circumstances.
It allows the government to speak on behalf of the vast majority, rather than merely one party, which is especially useful in times of war. Herbert Henry Asquith forged a coalition with Labour and the Conservatives between May 1915 and December 1916, which continued following his replacement by David Lloyd George. It was triumphantly re-elected after the war and the UK retained a government of national unity until 1922, allowing it to navigate Ireland’s independence. Our most famous government of national unity was Winston Churchill’s all-party coalition from 1940 until 1945: it would have been impossible to defeat the Nazis without it.
We have also had unity governments, albeit less successfully, in times of intense economic crisis. Starting in 1931, there was a succession of National Governments, led by Ramsay Macdonald, Stanley Baldwin and then Neville Chamberlain. Coalitions frayed over time but the basic idea – that the challenge was too great, the ideological divisions within rather than between parties too intractable – continued to guide how administrations were put together. We ended up with a cut-down version in 2010 in the shape of the Tory-lib Dem coalition, tasked with slashing the deficit at a time when there were real doubts about the UK’S solvency.
For better or worse, our politicians have embraced the other, more traditional approach since the Brexit vote: they have kept fighting among themselves, while swathes of the establishment want to cancel the great democratic uprising of 2016. Only the Remainers are working in cross-party fashion, with close contact between Blairites, Remainer Tories and Lib Dems.
Theresa May’s strategy, as well as Jeremy Corbyn’s, has been to pretend to normalise the extraordinary: Brexit is merely one policy among many, subject to the usual Westminster games, rather than an all-consuming issue that requires intense cross-party cooperation.
The result has been to present an amateurish, uncertain picture to the world, with damaging short-term consequences. The Cabinet is a warring coalition involving the whole spectrum of Brexiteers and Remainers: it has no agreed view of what the ideal end-state should look like, as the negotiators in Brussels understand too well. When one adds the fact that we don’t have a strong, charismatic Prime Minister capable of leading the nation or selling her way forward to the country, it is hardly surprising that it has taken so long for the Government to achieve so little, culminating in a financial offer that could have been made nine months ago.
But while we remain hopelessly divided, little attention has been devoted to the fact that the EU is in an even greater mess. We don’t know what we want, but neither do they, and that is our greatest opportunity.
Forget Left-right cleavages: European politics has taken on a matrix-like structure. Some governments want much more European integration and a superstate; others want less or the same as now. Some believe that Brexit will help achieve their vision (regardless of whether that is more or less EU); others that it will hinder it.
The question, to the integrationists, is whether the EU can ever fulfil its imperial, continental potential if we leave, or whether it can possibly fulfil it if we don’t. Our departure would represent a crippling blow, the loss of a central economic, financial, military and cultural power; yet the referendum suggests that Charles de Gaulle was right and that we were never going to fit into the EU, seeking to delay and block its gradual mutation from economic market to full-on technocratic Euro-state. To Eurosceptics in the EU, Brexit is either good news (a great precedent) or a disaster (the loss of a principal ally).
Most EU governments believe that keeping the best possible relations with the UK when we leave makes sense; others seem up for a fight, however suicidal. Opposition parties often disagree, and governments themselves are riven with splits.
Part of the difficulty is that similar tactics can signify opposite end-goals. Threatening the UK with a trade war may be seen as a ploy to frighten us into staying put, or as a means to enrage us into the cleanest of Brexits. Emotions are running high: we often confuse spite and anger from Europeans who feel jilted with a calculated attempt at “punishing” us.
Take France: what does Emmanuel Macron really think of Brexit? My own suspicion, informed in part from his autobiography, is that he would like us to leave. Some Eastern European countries don’t want us to go. Others, such as the Dutch and Danes, will be willing to work with us if we do. The German view, if there is one these days, is unclear. Ireland is pursuing a high-stakes game of brinkmanship but clearly would prefer us not to leave. As the second phase of the talks looms, the Foreign Office should focus on determining which European leaders believe that a liberal Brexit would be in their own countries’ interests, and try to work with them to facilitate the smoothest possible departure.
Anything could happen, especially if the talks break down: Brexit is an event of such magnitude that our political parties are unlikely to survive it unscathed. If, heaven forbid, a second referendum were held, and we were to vote, once again, to Leave, as I hope and expect, it would be hard to see how Britain would be able to avoid a government of national unity and the complete reconfiguration of our parties. In the meantime, the EU is making the most of our disunity, so we must do the same with their own irreconcilable positions.
The next phase of the negotiations will be very different, so now is the time to divide and conquer, or at least to seek to build a new national coalition that supports a genuine, open Brexit.