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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If you ask any cabbie who’s running the EU they are bound to mention Angela Merkel – at least for now. But if you asked anyone in the Foreign Office, it’s likely they would go through unheard of names like Antonio Tajani or Mário Centeno before they’d get to the German Chancellor. Even then, squeamish officials are likely to mention her as part of the wider group of EU leaders, without singling her out.
Germany’s formal position under the European treaties might be no different to other member states – in theory the European Commission makes proposals and the Council and EU Parliament make the decisions – but as the UK’s former ambassador to Germany, Sir Paul Lever, mentions in his recent book, it’s Germany’s view which is sought by the Commission before it acts, and other governments make sure they know what Berlin wants before they decide on a course of action.
The extent to which German decisions dominate is well-known by the left-wing firebrand and former Greek finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. Before Eurozone meetings he would receive support for his ideas in private discussions with his EU counterparts, who were keen and willing to sort out the crisis. However, once seated round the table, the very same Ministers would defer to one man: Germany’s Wolfgang Schäuble. Representatives of ostensibly sovereign nations would flip their position completely if it became clear that the Germans had made their minds up on a proposal.
In Britain, former Cabinet Minister Iain Duncan Smith watched in frustrated amazement as Angela Merkel sabotaged Britain’s attempts to control immigration during David Cameron’s failed renegotiation attempts before the referendum. Later, Duncan Smith described it as if they were “sitting in a room even though they weren’t there. There was a chair for them, a German chair. They had a veto over everything.”
All this matters because if the UK plans to sign up to a ‘Common rulebook’ with the EU it will be Germany calling the shots. Recently Dyson attracted criticism for deciding to build a new electric car plant in Singapore. According to the firm, the decision was made “based on supply chains, access to markets and the availability of expertise, which offset the cost factor”. UKIP founder Alan Sked pointed out it might have also had something to do with the regulatory framework Britain is planning to sign up to. Why would a company trying to join a new market want an EU common rulebook written by their competitors? Kept inside the EU’s regulatory framework, the German government, under pressure from Audi and Volkswagen, could conceivably out-regulate their plucky British challenger.
Sir James Dyson will be building his electric car in Singapore. Did he have any alternative? He wants to produce cars by 2020. Would he want to do so here under an EU common rule book? With German car companies making the rules? May is undermining our commercial future.
— Alan Sked (@profsked) October 24, 2018
As a recent paper by Roland Vaubel explained, if a qualified majority of member states within the EU which favour a high level of regulation gang up, they can impose higher regulations on the rest: “Thus, while regulatory collusion presupposes unanimity, the strategy of raising rivals’ costs merely requires a qualified majority.” Vaubel says the anti-regulation coalition includes Ireland, the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands but that various indices show that the UK has the least regulated labour market of all. If we stay tied to the EU, Britain is most at risk from damaging rule-changes.
We need to recognise that the ‘Common rulebook’ isn’t a neutral body of legal text. Like the EU itself, it is a mechanism which can – and will – be used to bend the rules to favour some nations over others. Few dare to admit this and credit is due to Sir Paul Lever who devastatingly exposes Berlin’s influence in his book Berlin Rules. Sir Bill Cash is another notable example who over the years has highlighted the hidden hand of Germany. But it’s time our negotiators recognised that the EU is not a federation of equals. Angela Merkel may be on the way out but Germany has consistently been the determiner of EU policy decisions and that won’t change after she is replaced. We must accept that if we decide to remain it will be Berlin, not Brussels, who will decide our fate.
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The news that Boeing has just opened a £40 million manufacturing facility in Sheffield to make parts for their latest 737 and 767 aircraft, which are assembled in the United States, serves to remind us that our world-class aerospace business is global and to torpedo the claims of Airbus – and some car manufacturers – that Brexit will threaten jobs in the UK because it will cause havoc to the just-in-time manufacturing process. Boeing’s plans call for the production of 52 aircraft a month with thousands of parts being shipped every month to Portland, Oregon, so timely delivery will be just as critical to Boeing as it is to Airbus.
So, the question arises: if Boeing can operate a slick production process using parts made in Britain, shipped six times the distance to their assembly line compared to shipping Airbus parts from Bristol or North Wales to Hamburg or Toulouse (and BAE ship 15% of every single F35 Joint Strike Fighter to the Lockheed Martin plant in Dallas), what is Airbus’s problem? The answer lies not in economics but in politics.
As is increasingly clear, despite protestations to the contrary, elements of the EU really do want to punish the UK for having had the insolence to Leave and to deter other countries from following our lead. France seems to be the most determined to press for punishment, partly to try to seize the City of London’s business and partly to promote President Macron as the new EU leader as Angela Merkel’s grip weakens.
Recently there were reports, subsequently denied, that President Macron intended to require UK visitors to France to obtain visas whilst those Brits with homes in France would immediately upon Brexit become illegal visitors. Apparently, the word ‘not’ was omitted in translation and the proposed new law designed to prevent such action. However, Dominic Raab subsequently spoke about the possibility of France ‘deliberately’ delaying lorries entering the port of Calais.
Earlier this year, the EU announced the creation of a fund to develop new defence equipment, a programme from which the UK, home to Europe’s largest defence contractor and with the largest defence budget in Europe, was to be excluded. Furthermore, the UK is to be ejected from key parts of the EU satellite navigation programme, Galileo, despite having contributed £1.2 billion and constituting, through Airbus subsidiary Surrey Satellites, a key portion of the technology. Any reasonable person would ask where was the commercial, let alone defence, interest in excluding such a major European player. Again, the answer lies not in economics but in politics: the UK has to be punished even if it means damaging the defence interests of the continent.
As we approach the sombre commemorations of the centenary of the 1918 armistice which ended The Great War, it is worth pausing to reflect on the role of some of those nations who, in the famous words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘we either rescued or defeated’. The British people have voted freely but decisively to Leave the EU, yet face punitive measures by some on the continent for whose liberation in two world wars this country and its Empire shed 1,300,000 lives. Whilst falling over themselves to secure favourable trade deals with the rest of the world, the EU’s leaders have adopted the reverse policy with their closest neighbour, refusing to discuss trade arrangements before sorting out an artificial problem of their creation by weaponising the Irish border, a clear solution to which has been proposed by the ERG and others.
In another example of the pathetic approach in Brussels, I understand that the EU’s aviation safety agency, EASA, is debarred from discussing with our CAA how we manage air travel post Brexit. Given the UK’s prominence in air transport, with Heathrow being the most important transatlantic gateway airport in Europe, why is EASA not engaged in constructive debate? Iceland, Norway and Switzerland are members of EASA even though they are not EU members, so why remove the UK? Again, the answer lies in politics, not economics. They want to cause inconvenience, if not chaos, to rub home to the others the cost of recovering national sovereignty.
All this illustrates the fundamental naivety exhibited by the UK at the outset of the negotiations, namely that if we conceded and acted in a friendly fashion the EU would respond in similar vein, leading many Leave voters to question the motives of those in charge. We never acknowledged the determination of the Commission to protect The Project (to create the United States of Europe) and we failed to recognise the strength of the cards in our hands.
So we threw away the security card, offering unconditional support to the 27, only to be rewarded by exclusion from EU defence programmes. The Prime Minister offered to pay a staggering £39 billion of our money in return for – nothing. Well, if she thinks British taxpayers will tolerate that, I fear she is mistaken. I can no longer withhold my vote in Parliament, but I can withhold my taxes unless I see a fair trade deal is secured.
Imagine if there was a march demanding a re-run of a General Election. It would be inconceivable and absurd – yet those marching through the streets of London yesterday had the sole intention of overturning the largest democratic exercise in British political history.
The People’s Vote campaign is a piece of spin as essentially it is a call for a second referendum in all but name. The question is unknown. I can’t see three options on the ballot paper as Remain, Leave with the potential deal and Leave with no deal would split the Leave vote. Any true ‘People’s Vote’ with the intent of ratifying the negotiated settlement would be accepting the deal or Leaving with no deal.
As it stands, the UK’s political landscape is toxic and it is ludicrous to suggest and attempt to justify that a second referendum would miraculously heal this scarring division in the country. It will take policy in the communities rather than a plebiscite to solve this.
Re-running the 2016 vote would produce a greater disconnect between the politicians in Westminster and the people. Representatives in Parliament and the Prime Minister are trying to act in the national interest, as seen with the PM trying to fudge some sort of compromise with the EU, potentially now with the dilemma of a customs union or a no-deal Brexit. This was despite the Prime Minister ruling out customs union membership in her Lancaster House and Mansion House speeches as the fifth-largest economy would not be able to act globally by signing new trade deals with the United States, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and so on.
It feels as if I’m being patronised by a privileged elite when the likes of Andrew Adonis, Alastair Campbell, Nick Clegg and Tim Farron suggest the motives behind voting for Brexit were misinformed. But, they weren’t! Former Prime Minister David Cameron and the then Chancellor, George Osborne, constantly said that Britain would be quitting the Single Market if the people voted to Leave. Not to mention the fact that leading Leave campaigners, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, reiterated this. Any calamitous fudge deal will not be acceptable to the 17.4 million who expected to take back control of their borders, laws, trade policy and money.
The EU has essentially made the bed for those campaigning for a People’s Vote. The EU is particularly sceptical of public opinion in its member states. In July 2015, the Greek population voted to reject draconian measures imposed by the European Commission (and Angela Merkel) in a highly dictatorial fashion. Yet pressure from the Commission forced Prime Minister Tsipras to accept the bailout package. In 2009, the people in Ireland were made to vote again after rejecting the Lisbon Treaty in the first referendum and in 2005, the French and Dutch rejected the Constitutional Treaty. The Constitutional Treaty was essentially rebranded as the Lisbon Treaty and implemented through the backdoor.
If the turnout for our 2016 referendum had been a measly 30 per cent, then the other side would have an argument as a low turnout questions legitimacy. But the turnout was 72.2 per cent – the highest turnout in a UK-wide electoral event since the 1992 election!
Speaking of 1992, John Major has been pretty vocal about Brexit and the Leave campaign in recent days: the same individual who weaselled out of a referendum to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Major never called a referendum out of self-interest because he knew the British electorate would reject the Maastricht Treaty and his political career would have been over.
Then of course came Tony Blair (and his sidekick Alastair “People’s Vote” Campbell) who relied on Tory votes when it came to a parliamentary vote on going to war in Iraq. Blair, in particular, was driven by his special relationship with George W. Bush as somewhere between 750,000 and 2 million people marched in opposition to that decision to go to war. If there had been a referendum on the war in Iraq, then it is perfectly reasonable to assert that the UK electorate would have voted against the invasion. Referendums are only popular when they suit one’s political advantage.
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Will Theresa May's plan for a 'Stormont veto' over the Irish border backstop help win support for her Brexit deal?Analysis: The PM is desperate to convince the DUP to back her deal, but may be making promises that cannot be kept, says John Rentoul
- Britain might be facing challenging questions, but its political system is working just as it should