There is an enduring romanticism about the Charge of the Light Brigade. The brave but mistaken dash against all the odds, which is how the Chequers proposals now appear.
The lines of Tennyson’s poem “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volleyed and thundered” come to mind, for this is the state of Chequers. Eurosceptics to the Right, the Labour Party to the Left and the European Union in front have all stormed at it with shot and shell. It is a plan that neither delivers Brexit nor satisfies those who do not want us to leave, and the opposition to it seems to be growing.
The Labour Party conference made it clear that the Opposition will not bail out the Government. This is not like the Nineties debate on Maastricht, when the Labour Party backed the broad proposal. Now the Opposition is doing its traditional job of opposing and offers no succour to the Prime Minister.
In the Conservative Party, although the three ministers who resigned are all committed Leavers, Chequers has also failed to win support from pro-Europeans such as Justine Greening, while the ramblings from the Cabinet indicate that the middle of the party, in the highest office, is unsympathetic. Even the Foreign Secretary seems to be sending coded messages that he would not be distraught if the plans were changed.
This all combines to make pursuing Chequers look pointless. The European Union has been so clear that the plan fails to meet its requirements that it is hard to see that it could change tack without a new chief negotiator. The member states have not so far cracked under pressure from the efforts of our diplomatic service and have continued to support Michel Barnier, and as the Government has, until now, given way every time it has been asked to, it is hard to see why they would change approach now.
The domestic opposition is even more important because, although our system provides for a powerful executive, ultimately laws need the support of the House of Commons, which Chequers cannot get. Indeed, if put forward it could be heavily defeated with no direct consequence for the Government.
Unlike in the days before the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, the Government could lose heavily on its Chequers proposals without triggering a general election. It cannot under the current law be a confidence motion, which makes it much easier for MPs to vote against a three-line whip, safe in the knowledge that they can support the Government in a confidence vote at a later stage.
This is part of the reason why more MPs are making it clear that they will vote to stop this non-Brexit plan. Mark Francois and Sir Mike Penning are examples of loyal MPs who find Chequers too much to swallow. It is no longer a small band of people, as it was in the past, but even if it were, with the majority as it is the Government could still not win. To revert to Tennyson, “someone has blundered”.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. It is in the SuperCanada plan, drawn up by the Institute of Economic Affairs and endorsed by Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister did not say this is worse than no deal. Theresa May’s position, which I have checked, is that the EU’s proposal for a free trade agreement with a border down the Irish Sea is worse than no deal.
In this she is clearly right. No Conservative could possibly support a plan that divided our country. It is not a bargaining chip, nor is it driven by the current partnership with the Democratic Unionists. It is a fundamental view of what our nation is, and the United Kingdom is indivisible.
There is only one real obstacle to SuperCanada and that is the refusal of some people who backed Remain to recognise that, as we leave, some things must change. That, after all, is what people voted for.
The border cannot be unchanged, we may get our passports stamped in France and there will be different border issues. Currently, imports and exports with the EU lead to complex Value Added Tax issues. Once we have left, it will not be VAT but some other return which will be required. This is not reverting to the Dark Ages but it will not be the same. It will not stop just-in-time deliveries from manufacturers nor necessitate a hard border in Ireland.
The country and the Conservative Party could unite around this position and the conference is the time to do it. How marvellous it would be if this year’s leader’s speech were not a triumph of perseverance but a vision to show how we can leave in a way that would achieve wide support, deliver on the vote of 2016 and ensure our future prosperity.
Then we would be able to say of the Prime Minister “when can her glory fade” for she will have come through the wild charge of Chequers and gone on to something better.
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