The Daily Telegraph
Boris Johnson and Bob Seely: Page 18 Editorial Comment
With determination and common cause, Parliament can finally slay Brexit’s biggest obstacle
Ihave now heard much of the parliamentary debate on the Withdrawal Agreement – and it has hit me that the gloomier commentary is wrong. Yes it is true that Parliament is divided. Yes, there are competing visions for the future; and there are quite a few MPS who would like to reverse the result of the referendum. But it is just not true that there is no single viewpoint that would carry the majority of the House.
I have listened to MPS on all sides, Labour and Tory, Leavers and Remainers, speaking passionately for their constituents and for their democracy – and there is one position that brings together a large majority of the House. It is an agenda that actually unites MPS and the people they serve; and it is as follows.
On all sides of the House, we want a deal. On all sides of the House we want a close trading relationship with the European Union, and intense cooperation with our continental friends across a huge range of policy areas. Every MP pays tribute to the hard work of the Prime Minister, in getting agreement on the status of EU citizens in the UK, and vice versa, and on all the other sensible things in the agreement. Everyone wants to get on with it, and address the growing impatience of the electorate.
But as speaker after speaker stood up to make clear, we certainly want a deal – but we don’t want the appalling constraints of the Irish backstop. With their instinctive feeling for the realities of power, MPS can see how the backstop works as a trap – forcing us to choose between the effective break-up of the Union with Northern Ireland and the wholesale subjection of the UK to Brussels.
Everyone can see that if we agree to this backstop, we are allowing the fifth biggest economy on earth to take its laws from other countries, and to have no say in making those laws. Everyone can see that if we accept the terms of the backstop, we can kiss goodbye to those free trade deals and almost all the other potential economic benefits of Brexit. On all sides of the House, the backstop has been denounced as a disaster – by far the biggest (though admittedly not the only) flaw in the Withdrawal Agreement.
So when tomorrow night many MPS vote – as I devoutly hope they will – to protect our democracy and our union by throwing out this deal, a huge proportion will justifiably cite the backstop as the reason for their decision. Which means that if and when the deal is voted down, it should be clear to the Government what needs to be done; and some options should be immediately ruled out.
Some people will say that it is now time for the long-touted “Norway option”, by which Britain would fall back on its dormant membership of the European Economic Area. There are several reasons why this is a blind alley. The Norway option would mean that the UK had to accept EU legislation not just for goods but for services as well – perhaps acceptable to the Norwegians, whose economy is based heavily on goods, timber and hydrocarbons, but disastrously restrictive and humiliating for the UK with its giant financial and other service industries.
It would also mean that we had to accept free movement of people (not exactly what was promised in the referendum); and, above all, the Norway option would also – according to its proponents – entail the backstop, with all the defects mentioned.
Most MPS can now see this, which is why there are growing numbers who are calling for a “People’s Vote” – a second referendum which they hope would overturn the verdict of June 2016, and simply take us back in. Leaving aside the likely outcome of such a second poll (and I see no reason why Leave should not win again), it would be infamous and pathetic of MPS to go back to the people before the political class had even succeeded in delivering on the first referendum result. It would so shake trust in politicians that the Government would suffer massively, and deservedly, in the next general election.
So I believe we should ignore those options, just as we should ignore Labour’s peculiar suggestion that the UK join a UK-EU customs union “with voting rights” (it’s called the EU, and people voted to leave it), and instead we should adopt enthusiastically the approach that is supported, by implication, by most MPS on all sides of the House – do this deal, more or less, but with the backstop excised.
We need to go back to Brussels and do what they have been expecting all along – and that is finally show some steel and determination. We want to bin the backstop; we need to address the by no means insoluble questions raised by the Irish border during the negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement to the end of 2020, which has always been the logical place for those discussions to take place; we need to withhold at least half the £39 billion until the FTA is done; and we need massively to step up our preparations for leaving without an agreement – not that we expect that we will have to do so, but because we know that the best way to ensure a great deal is to prepare for no deal.
If we take this approach, then MPS will actually be siding with their constituents, and not frustrating them.
This is the approach that offers the hope and excitement of taking back control of our economic government: cutting the cost of food and clothing; championing UK innovators with regulation that is tailor-made for UK business. This is the way the political class can show that they are willing to listen and learn, rather than blatantly and high-handedly trying to get round the instruction of the people. As Romano Prodi, the former president of the EU Commission, has said, the EU is bound to take note of the parliamentary vote, and bound to renegotiate.
We are told that the EU does not even like the backstop. Well, if the EU doesn’t like it, and the UK Government doesn’t like it, and the British people don’t like it, why on earth is it there? Let us get rid of it and move on.