“The public have voted and it’s seriously disrespectful and politically utterly counterproductive to say ‘sorry guys’ you’ve got it wrong, we’re going to try again.”
So said Vince Cable in September 2016, three months after 17.1m voters opted to the leave the European Union, the biggest expression of democracy in British history.
Now, of course, the Liberal Democrat leader wants a second referendum. “We’ve moved on,” he said last week. “The situation has changed.” Really? The “situation”, as far as I can see, remains the same.
Parliament voted overwhelmingly to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The Government sent an “information leaflet” to 27m UK households, deeply skewed towards Remain, but with a solemn promise: “This is your decision – the Government will implement what you decide”.
After the June 2016 referendum, Parliament voted to trigger Article 50. In June 2017, 82pc of voters then backed either the Tories or Labour in the general election, with both pledging to “implement the referendum result”, leaving the EU’s single market and customs union. The Scottish National Party and Cable’s Lib Dems, on platforms opposing Brexit, both saw their vote share plunge.
The UK economy has held up well, despite endless doom-mongering from the overwhelmingly anti-Brexit media class. British firms raised by far the most venture capital in the EU last year – over 70pc more than France or Germany. The UK has just been voted the world’s best place to do business by Forbes magazine. The catastrophist Remainers are woefully out of touch.
Yet, while a clear majority of British voters chose to leave the EU, almost four fifths of MPs backed Remain. Emboldened by Theresa May’s bungling, they’re now using fearmongering and Parliamentary chicanery to stop the UK leaving a supranational body which has become sclerotic, anti-democratic, instinctively protectionist and corrupt.
After last week’s shuddering defeat, the Prime Minister must tomorrow inform MPs of her intentions, ahead of another vote at the end of this month. When she loses that, an overwhelmingly pro-Remain Parliament will then seek to take control – possibly reversing Brexit altogether.
Having voted for legislation letting Britain leave the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, many MPs now want to “rule out no deal”. If Jeremy Corbyn thinks Britain can keep negotiating with the EU having guaranteed it can’t “walk away”, he needs bargaining lessons from his trade-union brethren.
Trading with the EU under WTO rules – as we do with the US, China and much of the rest of the world – is entirely acceptable. One by one, the scare stories are crumbling. Dover is ready for no deal. Planes will fly. Controversial new infrastructure on the Irish border is avoidable. Just-in-time UK-EU supply chains will continue, just as they do over the US-Canada border.
The demonisation of WTO rules isn’t just economically illiterate. It’s a deliberate ploy to tie the UK’s hands, generating an exit deal so unattractive that Britain ends up staying. Yet many MPs, sensing May can be toppled, are determined to remove this option.
Some want a Norway-style compromise, involving de facto single-market membership and, as such, ongoing freedom of movement. Staying in the customs union is probably more likely – having become popular with anti-Brexit MPs, few of whom understand what a customs union does.
Inside the customs union, Britain charges tariffs, at rates set by Brussels, on various exports from outside the EU. This protects large EU-based corporations from global competition but means shoppers pay more for a range of goods, particularly food, clothing and shoes, items featuring heavily in the spending of poorer households. Some 80pc of these tariff revenues – billions of pounds each year – then go to Brussels.
The customs union stops Britain striking trade deals with non-EU countries – that is, more than four fifths of the world economy. This is madness, given our deep historic and legal links with a variety of nations. With the global centre of economic gravity shifting inexorably east, it’s vital Britain engages more with the world’s most populous markets.
Over the 60 years since the EU was founded, Brussels has failed to agree and ratify free-trade agreements with the US, China and many other major economies. Only around half the 50-odd EU trade deals often referred to are operational – and, between them, they cover just 10pc of the global economy, being mostly with tiny countries.
Nations acting alone – such as Switzerland, Singapore and South Korea – have secured trade deals covering a much bigger global footprint. In 2013, Switzerland struck a deal with China after 18 months of talks – Britain can do the same. Far from being “at the back of the queue”, we’re well placed to make historic deals with America, Indonesia and a host of others – but only outside the customs union.
When the UK joined the EEC in the early Seventies, the bloc accounted for over a third of global GDP. Once we’ve left, it will be just 15pc – despite the EU now comprising far more member states. It makes no sense for a diverse, competitive economy like Britain to be in a construct harming our consumers and discriminating against 85pc of the world economy, while leaving us unable to cut bespoke trade deals with the fastest-growing markets.
The “clean Brexit” I’ve advocated since before the referendum – outside the single market and customs union – now looks impossible. So we should adopt Lord (David) Owen’s scheme of leaving in March as planned, while staying temporarily in the European Economic Area. EEA membership isn’t ideal but would smooth the transition and, crucially, we can leave unilaterally at any time – provided we give 12 months’ notice. That puts our destiny back in our own hands, as opposed to May’s withdrawal agreement, our escape from which depends on the EU.
The worst possible outcome is Cable’s disastrously divisive second referendum. The fact it would probably generate the same result is less important than the principle – “you voted the wrong way last time, against the establishment, so try again”. A second Brexit referendum so soon, whatever the outcome, would also open the door to a second vote on Scottish independence, imperilling the UK itself. Is that what Cable and Co really want?
Click here to read the piece in full.