One thing has been clear from Downing Street over the last week. What the Prime Minister has said we would do for over two years, we have not. What she said we would not do has come to pass. I have never known such a level of public anger and such a gulf between people and Parliament.
We were told that “Brexit means Brexit.” But according to the Withdrawal Agreement – from which there is no unilateral right of exit – Brexit means breaking up the UK, having potentially prejudicial laws imposed upon us by 27 other countries, being subject to substantial fines for non-compliance and paying £39 billion for the privilege.
We were told we would leave the EU on the 29 March. We were told that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” It was with this mantra ringing in their ears that MPs voted to trigger Article 50 and passed the Withdrawal Act.
But despite most of the Cabinet, most Conservative MPs, most of the party, and much of the public now supporting “no deal”, the Prime Minister’s pathological aversion to decision-making has ensured that we will never leave without one.
She would rather have the support of unreconstructed Marxists and those who seek the destruction of the United Kingdom than she would the backing of her own Party. She would rather devise the lunacy of non-voting membership of the customs union with Labour MPs who “might vote to revoke” Article 50 than deliver on her own Party’s unambiguous manifesto commitments.
The tragedy of the corner into which the Prime Minister has boxed herself is that the UK is ready for “no deal”. In reality, we are talking about having no Withdrawal Agreement but a series of pragmatic mini-deals. The former Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris – who resigned in exasperation – confirmed this over the weekend. Aeroplanes will continue to fly and land. Medical supplies will arrive. Cross-Channel trade will continue. Even Michel Barnier and the Taoiseach have belatedly conceded that “there will be no hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Nor is “no deal” an end state. In such a scenario, both sides will have to consider 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.
Another extension would have the opposite effect. It would cost over £1 billion per month. It would undermine the integrity of our democratic institutions, and it would prove disastrous for the Conservative Party.
The whole sorry saga rumbling on into the local elections and, worse, the European elections would see the Conservatives probably in breach of their promises and would confirm the widespread suspicion that this has been a stitch-up all along. It would be a gift to a new, populist party appealing to disaffected Leave voters.
That this could come about at Labour’s behest would mean that the Prime Minister, at a stroke, had destroyed one of the fundamental pillars of the party’s arguments over the last few years.
Conservatives have, justifiably, argued that Jeremy Corbyn is a Marxist, terrorist sympathiser whose economic incompetence would cripple the country and who leads a party rife with anti-Semitism. Yet he is still, apparently, someone to whom the Prime Minister can turn at a deeply significant moment in the nation’s history. What are Conservative candidates supposed to say on the doorstep in answer to that? Given the fury that this latest move has provoked among loyal party members and donors, how can we hope to win the next General Election?
This is a binary moment. As the law stands, the UK leaves the EU on 12 April at 11pm. Deliver that, and the Government will have honoured the promises it has been making since the referendum, putting the Conservatives on course for success in both local and General Elections. Fail, by proactively deciding not to leave, and it will have been complicit in ignoring the largest democratic vote in British history.
In 2015, Parliament gave the decision on the UK’s membership of the EU to the people. In 2016, they gave their answer. In 2017, parties which attracted 85 per cent of the vote stood on a platform promising to deliver that. People trusted them.
They are furious and will not forgive us if we betray that trust. It is now or never. An honest Prime Minister and Cabinet would be taking the UK out of the EU this Friday. If they cannot, they must make way for other Conservatives who will.
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