On Monday night, Nick Boles dramatically resigned the Conservative whip on the floor of the House of Commons. The former minister’s “Common Market 2.0” plan had just been rejected by MPs. “I accept I’ve failed,” he declared. “I’ve failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise”.
There is a convention in British politics that, when someone resigns, as long as there’s no scandal, other politicians roundly praise them. Indeed, Boles was applauded as he trudged from the Commons chamber – albeit largely by members from parties other than the one he just left.
Boles is a thoughtful MP, with some smart policy ideas – particularly on housing. His determination to return to public life after serious illness is widely admired. I also respect that someone of his ability and privileged background has put himself out there, enduring the rough and tumble of front-line politics.
Yet in his short speech on Monday night, he was badly mistaken. The Conservative backbenchers who voted down his plan, and with whom he’s so angry, have compromised enormously – and it’s wrong to say otherwise.
Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, the result of horribly bungled negotiations and countless strategic errors, is a long way from the decisive, meaningful break from the EU backed by 17.4 million voters. Overseen by pro-Remain advisers, and a Prime Minister who views Brexit as a damage-limitation exercise, May’s deal badly dilutes UK sovereignty, makes future EU negotiations tougher and costs £39 billion we don’t owe.
Mindful that much of the political and media establishment wants to stop Brexit, and the public is sick of limbo, countless Tory MPs – and, increasingly, the party across the country – held their collective nose and backed May’s deal anyway. That’s a huge compromise.
Common Market 2.0 would have made a mockery of the June 2016 referendum result. Under Boles’s plan, the UK stays in the European Economic Area, like Norway. All British companies would still observe expensive and unnecessary EU rules – even those that don’t export to the EU. And, unlike now, we’d have no say in shaping those rules. “Freedom of movement” would stay, along with large annual contributions to Brussels. How is that “taking back control of our laws, borders and money”?
Boles’s plan also includes a “customs arrangement” mirroring the EU’s Customs Union. It retains the Common External Tariff – with UK shoppers paying over the odds on a range of essential products imported from outside the EU and four-fifths of the tariff revenues collected going to Brussels. Common Market 2.0 was rejected not because Boles’s party colleagues failed to compromise, but because it simply isn’t Brexit.
The reality is that, had the EU not cooked-up the deeply cynical hoax which is the Irish backstop, the UK would have left the EU last Friday, not only with a withdrawal deal but, given the time wasted on a non-existent problem, possibly a UK-EU free trade agreement too. Additional infrastructure on the Irish land border simply isn’t needed, even if the UK leaves the single market and customs union – as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is now being forced to admit.
Yet, Brussels, helped by Dublin, set out to thwart the UK’s referendum result, sticking to their ultra-legalistic approach to the Irish border, eschewing common sense in the face of endless expert testimony. They refuse to compromise.
Labour, too, has played Brexit for party political gain at every turn, maintaining their own destructive ambiguity, looking always to wreck the entire process to provoke a government collapse. As the Prime Minister pleads for their help – at the risk of making Brexit even softer yet – Corbyn and his acolytes could get Brexit over the line, ending business uncertainty and unlocking a wall of pent-up, job-creating investment. Yet they refuse to compromise.
Countless Tory Brexiteers – the likes of Rees-Mogg, Johnson and Duncan Smith – who object to May’s deal have compromised, backing it anyway. Yet still, given Labour’s disgraceful game-playing, it may not be enough. And, with anti-Brexit MPs tabling a full-on blocking bill today, we could lose the historic 2016 referendum result altogether.
Now, if the agreement returns without being unacceptably softened, it may fall to a rump of Eurosceptics to decide if they too can stomach a deal they know should have been so much better. Dubbed “extreme” and “hard-line”, they’re the ones trying to implement the referendum result, as promised in the Tory manifesto. But they’ll only get Brexit now if they take the risk that, after leaving, the backstop trap can be sprung.
Boles, to his credit, previously voted for May’s Withdrawal Agreement. But then, as everyone knew, it had no chance of being passed. Will he back it again, if the Speaker allows the Prime Minister a final attempt to get it through the Commons? Will Boles himself compromise and, as he has long claimed, “respect the referendum result”?
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