Time and again, the Prime Minister told us that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, and yet the House of Commons has now told her three times that the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement is a bad deal. It will go on doing so. Unionist MPs from the DUP and Conservatives – myself included – will vote it down as many times as she brings that document unchanged to Parliament.
The reason is simple. It does not deliver Brexit. It threatens the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom in breach of the Belfast Agreement’s Principle of Consent and the requirement to consult the NI Assembly. Without giving the UK a unilateral right of exit, laws will be imposed on us without a say by 27 other countries. It means being subject to substantial fines for non-compliance. To cap it all, it means paying £39bn for the privilege.
MPs have been completely clear that they will not accept this. The EU have been similarly clear that they will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. In such circumstances, the Government’s only chance of securing a good deal – the kind of zero-tariff Free Trade Agreement that Donald Tusk first offered in March 2018 – might have been to walk away, having been thoroughly prepared for no deal, to bring compression to the negotiations.
Instead, the Government opted for an apparently infinite loop. The Prime Minister goes to Brussels. The Agreement does not change. It is presented to MPs with no new arguments, no new ideas and no new plan. It fails. That this ludicrous situation has been allowed to take root through a combination of obstinacy, unimaginativeness and incompetence is an embarrassment.
More than that, it is insulting. It is insulting not merely to the 17.4 million Leave voters, but to every single voter who expects our democratic institutions to be trustworthy and expects their taxes to be spent responsibly. Things were bad enough when the UK proposed to give away £39bn – £60m per Parliamentary constituency – in the Withdrawal Agreement. But we now know that the Government is prepared to fritter away vast sums of money on policies it never even intends to implement.
From its willingness to accept extensions to Article 50 beyond even the Prime Minister’s own, self-imposed deadline of 30th June, we can see the Government was never going to countenance no deal.
This week, it was reported that no-deal planning has been wound up. The Brexit Minister, James Cleverly, sought to clarify that only the “imminent” planning had stopped with “ongoing” preparations continuing. But even that is a needless weakening of the British position. As in any negotiation, we must be absolutely prepared to walk away at any time.
The Government has spent £4.2 bn on no-deal planning. That is the equivalent of 91 thousand police officers or nurses, 93 thousand teachers, or 78 thousand doctors. The preparations are “well advanced” as former Minister Chris-Heaton Harris has confirmed. Aeroplanes will fly and land. Medical supplies will arrive. Livestock movements will continue. What was the point of spending all that money, if there was never any intention to use them?
It gets worse. In grasping an extension, the Government commits the UK to spending around £1bn each month in membership fees. Worst of all, it commits the UK to squandering £100m on wholly unwanted European elections, only for newly-elected British MEPs to immediately stand down in October. This expensive Government vanity project must stop. So, too, must the fear-mongering.
Sensible measures, adopted in the best interests of both the UK and the EU, can mitigate any no-deal disruption and ensure that our relationships with our neighbours remain amicable and prosperous. These include alternative arrangements for a seamless Northern Ireland border.
No deal would not be an end state. It would trigger discussions of a wide-ranging, zero-tariff Free Trade Agreement – for the whole of the UK rather than just Great Britain. In such circumstances, 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.
Rather than tack further towards Labour’s nonsensical position of permanent non-voting Customs Union membership, the Tusk Free Trade offer after leaving should now be the Government’s aim. To get there, it should be accelerating, rather than scaling back no-deal preparations. The Prime Minister has already missed two Brexit deadlines, on 29 March and 12 April. To avoid the humiliation of missing another, she must cancel the European elections, prepare fully for no-deal, and take us out of the EU on 1st June.
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