The Prime Minister’s plan to drive her EU withdrawal deal through the Commons after Easter by bribing Jeremy Corbyn with an EU customs union will probably go down with voters like a lead balloon. It will also hasten her own exit. Even before Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, warned MPs that a customs union would give the EU power over the UK to clobber our economy, the scheme was unlikely to win over voters.
In fact, on each attempt to keep the country under the EU by the back door of the economy, voters were already ahead of the curve. They declared against Chequers by two to one, and followed that with a thumbs down to the Withdrawal Agreement and its backstop customs union for the whole UK. These compromises, seen by the Government as the only way forward, have no appeal to the voters, whether they are Remainers or Leavers. Amongst Leavers, on both the left and the right, the antipathy to them goes far, far further back. It is a battle, not as the media claims in a ‘Tory’ war over Europe, but a chapter in an older struggle about the authority on which this country is ruled: that of the governing faction and its interest groups, or the people?
The customs union is the latest episode in the story of the people’s determination to have a say in the laws under which they are governed, and thereby protect themselves and their country from arbitrary or bad rule. They showed this determination at the hustings, and at popular meetings, or through marches, movements, flysheets and ballads, even before many of them had the right to vote. Whatever the subject of the hour, great battles to enforce that principle – over tax, or for radical change to end the Corn Laws, to extend the franchise, home rule for Ireland, the 1910 budget, the House of Lords veto – and the accommodation of the popular will have brought long-term stability and security to the country. This has allowed orderly – often dramatic – change to happen, economic growth, prosperity and for people to have a real stake in how they are governed. In fact, in this country’s political system the struggles over how it is governed are in reality about who governs and about where sovereignty lies.
The battle over leaving the EU has been another such battle. Having waited the best part of three years and seen the date for Brexit come and go, Leave voters trust neither the Prime Minister to Leave, nor the Labour Opposition to force her hand. Indeed as Mrs May and Mr Corbyn schemed to stay in an EU customs union, Labour’s vote in the recent Newport West by-election dropped by almost 13 per cent, the Tories’ by 6 per cent and turnout halved, while UKIP, despite internal collapse, was up by 6 per cent.
In another Newport by-election, almost a century earlier, voters rebelled more dramatically against the stitch-up between the two main parties, Liberal and Conservative, in a coalition government under Lloyd George. Rejecting the government candidate, they elected an independent Conservative. The next day Conservative MPs withdrew their support from the Government, which duly collapsed. It fell to a different Conservative leadership to restore and reshape political life, to respect the reality of the popular will and to accommodate Labour, in place of the Liberals, as as a principal political force.
These changes restored the freedom and stability to inter-war Britain, brought peaceful, stable and free government here by contrast with the often violent, unstable or authoritarian regimes of left and right on a troubled inter-war continent. Baldwin trained two decades of new MPs to the humility that should guide their parliamentary life to remember ‘the people who put you here’ for it was they ‘who will remove you’. Baldwin also reflected the tradition of the founder of the modern Tory party, Sir Robert Peel, who had accepted the will of people flocking to the meeting halls and rooms, across Victorian England to demand the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws. And he anticipated Churchill who, leading the war to resist German aggression and restore the freedom of conquered nations, described himself as the mouthpiece of the people, ‘the lion’s roar’.
These leaders understood the nature of a tradition, shared in common by people across the parties, about Britain’s constitution and its democracy. That tradition prompted voters across the political divide to decide in 2016 to restore to this country its own way of ordering life, by freeing itself from the EU. Across the country, north, middle and south, YouGov has discovered that 46 per cent of people want to leave the EU without a deal if none is agreed, compared to 44 per cent for Remain, the lead being up to ten per cent in some regions – with only Scotland and London having a Remain majority. A local poll for Nottinghamshire Live found 48 per cent wanted a no-deal Brexit and 28 per cent wanted to Remain – only 2 per cent were for a customs union, and 4 per cent for Mrs May’s deal. People do not want another layer of Europe, its tariffs or laws slapped on with a customs union via Mrs May’s backstop or through a Corbyn-inspired deal.
As both parties pay the price for flouting the democratic decision, a new Conservative leader must be installed now to change course so the UK genuinely leaves the EU on or before 31st October, with a revised deal from which the backstop is removed or ends by 31st December 2020, or on WTO terms. During the intervening six months the Government should work at full speed to make all ready so that a WTO exit at the end of October will be smooth and, in the current phrase, ‘orderly’ – while at the same the EU can practise its best endeavours to come up with the solution at which the German Chancellor-in-waiting has publicly hinted. For the UK exit should be treated as a matter of sovereignty under international law, not supplicancy to the EU. MPs, given the outrage amongst the majority of their voters, are unlikely to resist in sufficient numbers: the DUP will support and enough Labour MPs will recognise the game is up. But in the end it would be matter of political judgment whether to go to the country for a fresh mandate.
It would not most likely come to an election. For the EU, more brazenly than ever, has laid down the law about when, how and whether indeed the UK’s democratic decision can be executed. In throwing Britain’s democracy (and the world’s fifth largest economy) to the mercy of Messrs Macron, Juncker, Tusk and Mrs Merkel, the Prime Minister has reached the end of her rope. Such humiliating supplication bears testimony to the corrupting nature of the EU. It makes it all the more urgent that we leave and leave quickly.
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