I was very sad to see my old friend Christopher Booker writing his last column on Sunday. Writing with extraordinary prescience in 1996, he said: “We must not underestimate the immense scale of the task which will confront us as we embark on the process of disengagement from the EU. It will require two things above all: first, a real understanding of what needs to be done and how: and secondly, a titanic act of political will, requiring leadership of the highest order, to ensure that the whole operation is properly, effectively and thoroughly carried through.”
The Prime Minister would do well to reflect on Booker’s words. This Remain Parliament has once again failed to agree on the way ahead for Brexit. It is time for the Government to show leadership. The way ahead is now palpably clear. So, too, are the things which Mrs May must not do.
Firstly, she must not attempt to bring her deal back for “Meaningful Vote 4”. The Withdrawal Agreement has now been heavily defeated three times and there is absolutely no reason for MPs to change their minds without substantial changes to it. Indeed, as we saw from Richard Drax’s statement in the House on Monday, were the deal to be voted on again, there is every chance it would be thrown out even more decisively than before.
Secondly, she must not be spooked by the ever wilder claims about “no deal”. From the beginning, we have had hysterical warnings about everything from aeroplanes being unable to land to an apocalyptic Mars bar shortage. These wild claims did not work in the referendum campaign and they will not work now. One by one, they have been and are being debunked.
It is disgraceful that Sir Mark Sedwill has reheated these politically-motivated claims this morning, claiming among much else that “no deal” would see a 10% rise in food prices. It is always possible to cook up a fanciful worst-case scenario, but in refuting them we should always ask: “Why?” Why would the UK act to stop the 30% of our food which comes from the EU? Should EU producers bizarrely refuse to sell to the UK, why would we not act to increase the amount of food we source from elsewhere? Why would a rules-based organisation like the EU suddenly start behaving illegally, to the detriment of its people and in defiance of international agreements? As Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region, said dismissing fears of major disruption between Dover and Calais: “Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”
Even the fears of a “hard” Northern Ireland border which have so dominated the debate are now subsiding. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has expressed confidence that arrangements can be implemented to avoid new border checks in the case of “no deal”. These arrangements are the same as the ERG proposals which were once smugly dismissed as “magical thinking”, but Barnier has confirmed that in any scenario the Belfast Agreement will continue to apply and “there will be no hard border” using our alternative arrangements.
“No deal” is a caricature. In reality, we are talking about having no Withdrawal Agreement but a series of pragmatic mini-deals while trading on WTO rules. That is the only option now open to the Prime Minister. It is the only way she can honour the result of the referendum. It is the only way to avoid the ignominious and potentially disastrous spectacle of UK participation in the European elections. We must leave the EU on the 12th April.
The “no deal” approach would provide the certainty which all sides are craving. Both sides should urgently consider Article XXIV of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Then, so 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.
That is the positive direction which the Prime Minister must now follow. If she does, and faces down the small but vocal minority of Remainers in her Cabinet, she will have the backing of the Government and her Party. 14 Cabinet Ministers have now signalled their support for “no deal”, along with nearly 200 Conservative MPs. As ConservativeHome revealed yesterday, 75% of Party members now back “no deal”, with well over 80% opposed to a second referendum, customs union membership, or revoking Article 50. There is a clear route for the Prime Minister to unite her Party.
The efforts to secure the UK’s exit from the EU on the 12th April will, as Christopher Booker envisaged, need to be titanic. But the largest democratic vote in British history demands nothing less.
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