The Prime Minister has been right to rule out creating a new border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. But no less absurd than this appalling notion is the idea that the whole UK should, in effect, remain in the Single Market and Customs Union indefinitely to “solve” the alleged border problem.
4.9 per cent of Northern Ireland’s sales are with the Republic of Ireland, representing under 0.2 per cent of UK GDP. We must not forego our ability to reduce tariffs and strike trade deals just to facilitate that tiny fraction. Were this to form the “backstop” agreement, it would remove all incentive for the EU to negotiate further. Once agreed even temporarily, the EU would have no reason ever to change it.
It is now obvious that the Chequers Agreement is dead. On a recent visit to Washington, it was made clear to me that it would severely impede the UK’s ability to strike new trading arrangements. It has been rejected repeatedly by the EU. It fails to honour the result of the referendum and fails to deliver the Conservative manifesto pledges.
That failure would do serious, lasting damage to our democratic institutions. In 2015, the Conservatives promised that, if elected, we would hold a decisive in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The Party was returned to Government with more votes and seats in the Commons. 17.4 million people then voted to leave the EU – more than have ever voted for any issue or party in British history.
In her speech at Lancaster House, Mrs May gave the detail on what leaving meant:
“We do not seek membership of the Single Market…Full Customs Union membership prevents us from negotiating our own comprehensive trade deals…We will…bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”
At the 2017 General Election, the Conservatives repeated this pledge and won more votes than any Party for 25 years. Labour gave the same message so that 85% of the votes cast in the election were for Parties which defined Brexit as leaving the Single Market, the Customs Union and the remit of the ECJ.
A significant number of Conservative MPs – myself included – have confirmed that they will vote against Chequers because it reneges on those promises. The Prime Minister would be most unwise to force her Chequers proposal through Parliament relying on Labour support.
Labour’s position on Single Market and Customs Union membership has vacillated wildly. Now, having failed to decide their terms of a so-called “People’s Vote” – we had one in 2016 – their latest ruse is to agitate for an early General Election.
Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, an election can only be called if the Government loses a formal confidence motion, or two-thirds of MPs vote “That there shall be an early parliamentary general election”.
Were Labour to table a confidence motion, Mrs May would win it. All Conservative and DUP MPs would support her.
That only leaves the route of tabling a motion for an early election. To succeed, Labour would need the votes of 434 MPs. It is safe to assume that all Opposition Parties would vote in favour of an election, but they make up only 324 MPs. Labour would thus need the support of at least 100 Conservative MPs and all 10 DUP MPs.
Such support will not be forthcoming. There will never be 100 Conservatives willing to support Jeremy Corbyn. The DUP could never countenance an opportunistic political stunt which could potentially hand power to a man who actively supported the IRA.
Fortunately, the Prime Minister has a simple option which can unite her Party in Parliament and the country. In March, Donald Tusk offered an “ambitious and advanced” Canada-style Trade Agreement covering all sectors with “zero-tariffs on goods”. Last week, he confirmed that this offer still stands.
The Prime Minister has not pursued this because, she says, it would not maintain the “seamless” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This ignores the fact that the existing border – for tax, currency, excise and security – is managed seamlessly with existing technical and administrative procedures.
Even Michel Barnier is “convinced that it is possible to carry out the kind of checks we need without creating a physical frontier”. His unacceptable proposals would see extensive controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. But if he believes the integrity of the Single Market can be guaranteed with checks set back from the Great Britain/Northern Ireland border, the same principle can surely apply to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Trade across the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border is characterised by repetitive crossings of goods, often on the same routes in the same trucks, with little third-country traffic. This is well suited to technical solutions and simplified customs procedures already available in EU law, including trusted trader-type status. Additional declarations can be incorporated into the existing system for VAT returns. Licensed customs brokers can be engaged to support businesses with their obligations. There is no absolutely need for new physical infrastructure at the border and no reason to hold up a Free Trade Agreement.
Time for the negotiations is running out. The Prime Minister must urgently reassess her view of existing technical and administrative border measures to deliver the comprehensive Free Trade Agreement still on the table. This, surely, represents the best place from which to restart the negotiations and stands the best chance of finding widespread support in Parliament and the country.
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