At Prime Minister’s Questions on 20th March, the Prime Minister stood at the Despatch Box and repeatedly told the Commons the maximum extension to Article 50 that she could countenance. Answering MPs from across the House, she said:
“I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30th June… I could not consider a delay further beyond 30th June… There will be no delay in delivering Brexit beyond 30th June.”
Yet when, in the small hours on Wednesday morning, the EU offered an extension to 31st October – fully four months after her self-imposed cut-off and seven months after we should have left – she accepted. Another promise, made to Parliament and the country, was broken. We should have left at 11pm on 29th March. Even as the Prime Minister arrived in Brussels, the law of the land was that we would leave at 11pm this evening, Friday 12th April. All she had to do to deliver that was nothing.
So for all that the Prime Minister may speciously argue that she has been somehow forced to extend, there is no doubt that she has sought delays of her own volition. Remember that the formal letter requesting an extension was sent before Parliament had approved the change in domestic law.
Just as common law courts once applied the maxim Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, this latest broken promise could have been predicted from the previous occasions when what the Prime Minister has said and what she has done have not matched. Throughout her tenure, Mrs May had said that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The Withdrawal Agreement is evidently a bad deal; the House of Commons has thrice told her so. Logically, she should then have pursued the “no deal” option, but did not. Evidently, she has bought into the ludicrous, apocalyptic predictions of Project Fear, convinced now that any deal would be better than “no deal”.
But the “no deal” which the prophets of doom continue to predict is a complete misnomer. In reality, when we say “no deal” we mean a WTO deal – leaving the EU without the Withdrawal Agreement but with a series of pragmatic, mutually-beneficial mini-deals in its stead.
The former Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris – who resigned in exasperation – confirmed that such preparations are “well advanced” and told the Prime Minister that:
“I truly believe our country would have swiftly overcome any immediate issues of leaving without a deal and gone on to thrive.”
He is right. One by one, the absurd falsehoods peddled about “no deal” have been and are being debunked.
Air travel will continue. The EU confirmed in November that it would continue to allow UK airlines to fly over, land in and return from EU airports even if there is no Withdrawal Agreement, provided the UK reciprocates. Of course, it will. As Transport Minister Baroness Sugg confirmed in March:
“Measures put forward by the UK and the EU will ensure that flights can continue in any scenario; deal or no deal.”
Medical supplies will arrive. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has worked hard to neutralise this issue and, as the President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Russell Viner, said in his message to 19,000 doctors:
“I have been considerably reassured by governments’ preparations relating to medicines supplies…Governments, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the NHS have been working hard behind the scenes… and we believe that our medicine supplies are very largely secured.”
Cross-Channel trade will continue. The Chairman of the Port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, has robustly refuted the alarmist claims of disruptions to freight. Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region has dismissed the scare stories with admirable clarity:
“Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”
The UK has been given approval to continue exporting animals and products of animal origin to the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Live animals, including horses, will still be able to travel across borders. Will Lambe, Executive Director of the British Horseracing Authority, was right when he said that:
“This decision on listing from the European Union is extremely welcome and reflects the UK’s high health standards in respect of its animals, and of course the thoroughbred population within this. It provides important clarity for the racing and breeding sector ahead of a potential no-deal departure from the EU.”
Even the fears of a “hard” Northern Ireland border which have so dominated the debate are now subsiding. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has expressed confidence that arrangements can be implemented to avoid new border checks in the case of “no deal”. These arrangements are the same as our ERG proposals which were once smugly dismissed as “magical thinking”, but Michel Barnier has confirmed that in any scenario the Belfast Agreement will continue to apply and “there will be no hard border” using our alternative arrangements.
This approach would not be “crashing out”, as the fearmongers claim. Sensible measures, adopted in the best interests of both the UK and the EU, can mitigate any disruption and ensure that our relationships with our neighbours remain amicable and prosperous.
Nor is “no deal” an end state. With arrangements worked out for the Northern Ireland border, we can quickly return to the offer which Donald Tusk made in March last year of a wide-ranging, zero-tariff Free Trade Agreement – for the whole of the UK rather than just Great Britain.
In such a scenario, both sides can invoke Article XXIV of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. As long as the UK and EU agree to an FTA and notify the WTO of a sufficiently detailed plan and schedule for the FTA as soon as possible, we could maintain our current zero-tariff arrangements while the new deal was being negotiated.
Most importantly, this approach would provide the certainty which everyone craves. It would, finally, allow businesses to know where they stand and release much pent-up, pending investment.
All of this beckons if we leave with “no deal”. The decision from the European Council on Wednesday states that the UK must now, if still a member, hold European Parliament elections on 22nd May. If it “fails to live up to this obligation”, we will leave on 1st June.
This is an important opportunity which the Government must grasp. It is win-win. At a time when the Government is daily faced with the difficult task of balancing discipline on public expenditure with pressing demands for improving schools, roads and hospitals, it would be an act of the most outrageous folly to squander £100 million on unwanted elections when newly-elected British MEPs will immediately stand down in October, never mind the £39 billion which the Withdrawal Agreement would give away.
Yet by avoiding these utterly pointless elections, we can leave in an orderly way on 1st June and use the money on our own priorities. Do that, and the Government will honour the referendum result, its manifesto commitments, and repay the trust of the British people.
Do not, and its betrayal will be complete. If reports last night are correct that the Government has wound up its “no deal” planning at this crucial juncture, that would be stupidity verging on sabotage. The Government will have failed to deliver the single most important policy in a generation, and broken every promise it has made.
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