We are living through a period of unprecedented turbulence. The nation is divided, the political class seems paralysed, the future of the Prime Minister is uncertain and the ability of the Government to deliver on the result of the referendum is clouded in confusion.
What, people ask, is to be done? Clearly there is no single magic answer, but there does seem to me to be one step that the Government could take which might minimise some of the dangers.
Both the UK and the EU are making preparations for the situation which would arise next March if the UK leaves the European Union in accordance with legislation passed by a large majority in the House of Commons – but without a concluded Withdrawal Agreement.
Yet there is no sign, as far as I’m aware, that these preparations are being coordinated. It should be perfectly possible for this contingency planning to be carried out by both sides working together to minimise the dangers of friction at the border if this situation comes to pass.
And there’s every reason to put in place a series of ad hoc, strictly time-limited arrangements to ensure that what is sometimes misleadingly called a cliff-edge Brexit can be avoided. It is, after all, in everyone’s interest that the lorries keep rolling, the planes keep flying and the food is still on the shelves of our shops.
People and especially business yearn for certainty and measures of this kind could go some way towards providing it. I would therefore urge the Government to approach the EU with a view to working towards agreement on arrangements of this kind. There is no reason why this could not be done now. The Government could continue with its efforts to put the Withdrawal Agreement before Parliament. If it passes, these arrangements will be unnecessary; if it fails, a useful backstop – if that word can be used in a slightly different context – will be in place.
At the same time, the Government could, and should, begin the negotiations for a free trade Canadaplus style agreement along the lines proposed by Donald Tusk earlier this year. These negotiations should have begun two years ago and they are long overdue.
As I have said, the ad hoc arrangements I have proposed should be time limited. They would therefore be different in principle from the Withdrawal Agreement which the Government has negotiated and which I cannot support precisely for that reason.
I also believe, however, that the Prime Minister has earned the right
– if only because of the extraordinary resilience and determination she has shown in recent weeks – to argue her case in the House of Commons and to put her deal before Parliament. And she should do so undistracted by any motion of no-confidence in her leadership. Conservative MPs should think long and hard before precipitating such a vote, particularly at this time.
I believe the Prime Minister would be strengthening her position if she took an initiative along the lines I have proposed and I urge her to do so.
Every effort should be made to avoid unnecessary friction in the coming months and I believe that an initiative of this kind could make a significant contribution towards achieving that objective.