I have an apology. I got something wrong – well, partially wrong. I argued on this site on March 14th, after the second defeat of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, that the UK was bound to leave the EU on March 29th 2019 and that “At worst, we might see a short extension to prepare for ‘no deal’”.
I based my belief on what seemed a reasonable assumption that no Conservative Party leader would be as stubborn, unimaginative and self-destructive as Theresa May. I could not believe that any Conservative Prime Minister would go back on a solemn promise repeated over 100 times to leave and deliver on the referendum result. I could not conceive that a Conservative Prime Minister would seek to lead the party into certain defeat in a European election held after we were supposed to have left. Now, don’t get me wrong, being stubborn and unimaginative can achieve great things – but in this case the failure of the Prime Minister to ensure we left the European Union on March 29th has led the Conservative Party into an existential crisis.
However, what I did get right back in March was that the better part of the European Research Group and the DUP would not fold and that the Withdrawal Agreement was indeed dead. It is now stone cold. We are in a second and last ‘short’ extension until October 31st 2019 in which we should indeed prepare for No Deal.
The future direction of the UK’s EU exit policy is now subject to the Conservative leadership contest. In this context the publication yesterday of a key policy paper – A Clean Managed Brexit – by the influential Deputy Chairman of the ERG, Steve Baker, is particularly interesting.
The paper calls for a “Clean Managed Brexit” on October 31st 2019 and was supported by 14 senior pro-Brexit MPs spread across a number of the rival Tory leadership campaign teams. It therefore has both logic and political support behind it.
So what does it propose?
The key proposal that any aspiring Conservative leader should adopt is to make it the “unshakable policy of the Government to leave the EU by October 31st 2019”. This date is fortunately already set in EU and UK law. Given the deleterious effect the delays past March 29th have had on the Conservative Party, it is inconceivable that any serious Conservative leader could propose further delay. With the Brexit Party eating into the healthiest of Conservative majorities, MPs have got the message – there can be no delay.
That leads onto the method of departure and destination.
With only three months remaining for an incoming Prime Minister to prepare the country for departure, the paper accepts that the Government should now exit the EU without the negotiated draft Withdrawal Agreement. This makes sense for a number of reasons:
- The Withdrawal Agreement cannot get through Parliament in anything like its current form (the backstop is only one of a number of problems) and the EU has stated repeatedly that it cannot be re-opened. Given the European Commission will not have a negotiating team, and the obstructionist, nationalist policies of the Republic of Ireland, it is reasonable to take them at their word.
- The Withdrawal Agreement was designed to take the UK into the Chequers deal. That deal is dead and the implementation period designed to take us there is nearly half gone. The reasoning and philosophy underpinning the Withdrawal Agreement (rule-taking and customs union) has expired.
- Any redraft of the Withdrawal Agreement to make it acceptable would change it so profoundly that it would be easier to start from scratch. For good measure, Baker includes a number of changes required in an Annex. These range from removing the backstop to the role of the ECJ – and it is clear the EU could spend three months discussing each and every one of them. Time is at a premium.
Instead of straying into the political minefield of reopening the Withdrawal Agreement and attempting to remove the UK-busting backstop, the paper proposes offering the EU a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. The offer would include a new wide-ranging, zero-tariff, zero-quota free trade agreement of the kind offered by Donald Tusk in March last year. Baker proposes the UK takes the initiative and lays down its own text.
As a part of this and building on previous work, there should be indefinite alternative arrangements for the border around Northern Ireland: a WTO-compliant border, using currently-available administrative and technical procedures – but without any need for new technology. No new infrastructure or checks at the border will be required. Added to this, the UK should offer co-operation on defence and security, without prejudice to the primacy of NATO and unilaterally grant rights to the EU citizens in the UK.
While the aim is for free trade, the paper proposes planning for departure on WTO terms on October 31st 2019.
This leads to the future. The paper sets out how the UK should promote an ambitious free trade agenda: trade deals with the USA, accession to the Pacific rim TPPC to give access to Japan and Australia and a rollover of existing EU trade deals made on the UK’s behalf – while all the time using the UK’s new regulatory autonomy to promote a competitive pro-prosperity environment.
It is a pity the current Prime Minister wasted three years negotiating a plan to leave the EU that was never going to gain the support of her DUP Confidence and Supply partners, her party or Parliament. We have wasted three years and can waste no more. If trust in the UK’s political system is to be maintained, it is imperative that we now leave without further delay. To this end, Steve Baker’s paper sets out a practical and achievable route to leave and save the Conservative Party from potential extinction.
Is there an alternative?
When I predicted we would leave on March 29th, I based my prediction on a belief the Prime Minister would not actively set out to obstruct our departure. The next Prime Minister must therefore be committed to leave. If they are ,there is nothing Parliament or the EU can do to stop them.
Requesting further delays to re-negotiate the unnegotiable Withdrawal Agreement or seeking a longer transition to implement the harmful, fantastical Chequers end state is again a recipe for delay and obfuscation. We need a new Conservative leader sure and uncompromising in their desire to leave on October 31st – with a Clean Managed Brexit. We wait to see who will take up the challenge.
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There are now two truths for the Tories. Firstly, whatever else the European elections said, the one thing which is undeniable is that the Tory vote collapsed because we failed to leave the EU when we said we would. We’ve now said we’ll leave by Halloween – so we must, properly.
If that All Hallow’s Day truth scares you, then the second truth might send you send you all pangangaluluwa: that the more Tory leadership contenders insist that we cannot leave with No Deal, the more likely it becomes. What other conclusion can you come to if you accept the first truth?
I’m no Nigel Farage fan, but his threat to stand against Tories if we don’t deliver by 31st October must be taken seriously. Very seriously. If an army of Brexit Party candidates stands against Conservatives, then where will our votes come from? Blinkered Tories may not have noticed, but most of the Brexit Party’s candidates were Tories – Annunziata Rees-Mogg, David Bull, Richard Tice, John Longworth, Lance Forman, Ben Habib, Ann Widdecombe – do I need to go on?
Those same Tories may not realise that Conservative voters deserted the party overwhelmingly to vote “Brexit”. Some say that, in a general election, our voters will come back. Don’t bet on it, unless we’ve done what we’ve said we’ll do.
Of course, we could just leave under a repackaged Withdrawal Agreement, and it will all be OK, say some. This comes from those who say it was Theresa May who was the problem, not just her Withdrawal Agreement. Leaving properly will require more than that, if we are to get our voters back.
Voters aren’t stupid – they know that there will be compromises in order to leave, but Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement compromised in all the wrong areas, and remained firm in all the other ones. The fact that Steerpike’s article highlighting the massive problems with the Withdrawal Agreement remains as popular an article today as it was when it was published six months ago, shows the reach of its education, and demonstrates that voters will not be fooled with a duff deal.
So what is a leadership contender to do if they know that we have to leave before the night of the witches consumes the Conservative Party?
The sensible, pragmatic thing to do is to tell the EU that the best outcome for both the UK and the EU27 is for a new deal to be reached, along the lines of the one President Tusk is said to have offered in March last year. Of course, the details of that would take longer to negotiate so a one-line agreement under Article 24 of WTO would allow us to continue to trade with Europe on zero tariffs while we negotiate that free trade arrangement.
And here’s the Catch 22: Article 24 requires an agreement, a deal, between the UK and the EU. As long as Tory candidates insist that we cannot leave under No Deal, then the likelihood of the EU agreeing to even that will be minimised, instead preferring to think that, somehow, a coalition of Remain MPs will push us towards a referendum, no Brexit, or who knows.
The more people like Rory Stewart say he won’t work with other Tories; the more people like Jeremy Hunt say No Deal is a disaster; the more people like Lord Hague say we shouldn’t make promises about leaving the EU, the more likely that scenario is, given the first truth.
What is Hunt saying? That he will join a no confidence vote to deselect an incoming Prime Minister if that new leader pushes us towards No Deal? Surely not, but that is how some will interpret it.
Let’s end on a reassurance. Business is fine with No Deal. I can say that as a businessman. We know that there is actually no such thing as No Deal, and that there are already plenty of deals that will kick in if that eventuality comes to pass. And what do businessmen do in their day to day activity? They deal with and prosper with uncertainty. Some fail, but that’s only the ones who don’t prepare.
One further point: don’t let the CBI tell you that No Deal will be catastrophic for business. The reason for them saying this would take up another article, but take no lessons from the two people who head up the CBI – two active campaigners for Remain. If the CBI got their way, now that really would be scary.
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“Today we came here to partake in a political fight with our British Brexiteer friends”.
With these words, François Asselineau, the leader and founder of the UPR (Republican Popular Union), the French pro-Frexit party, kicked off the rally held in Central London on 29th March 2019, which gathered together nearly seven hundred French people supporting the 52% of British people who voted Leave, on the day Brexit was supposed to happen. You can watch it in its entirety here.
This rally, which was probably the biggest political event organised by a foreign political party in the UK since the end of WWII, had been organsied for months in the hope that Frexiteers could celebrate the official exit date of the UK from the EU in London. Several British political personalities from across the political spectrum, academics and business people accepted our invitation to speak and join us in our common fight to restore freedom and sovereignty to both our countries. Among them were Brendan Chilton (Head of Labour Leave), David Heathcoat-Amory (ex-Minister of State for Europe), Lord Hamilton of Epsom (ex-Minister of State for the Armed Forces), Kate Hoey MP (Labour), Jim Reynolds (Campaign for an Independent Britain), Sir Gerald Howarth (Leave Means Leave and ex-Minister for International Security Strategy), Dr Lee Rotherham (ex-Vote Leave), Professor Gwythian Prins (Emeritus Professor, LSE) and Lucy Harris (Founder of Leavers of Britain, and now a candidate for the Brexit Party).
Despite the obvious disappointment of not celebrating what should have been an historic milestone, the atmosphere was surprisingly warm and the British guests were impressed by the enthusiastic crowd who assembled in London to support the Leave camp. While most were from France, others came from across Europe and some even from Canada, China and the United States.
As emphasised by David Heathcoat-Amory, the decision of 17.4 million Britons was not an “isolated eccentricity” but instead part of a Europe-wide movement to re-establish democracy and self-government. Unfortunately, the EU does not like referendums that go the wrong way. And this is the reason why such an outcome was to be expected, according to Brendan Chilton. In reality, this attempt to reject the result of a popular vote against the EU was not the first: in 1994, the Norwegian people were called to vote for the European Union, having rejected it once in 1972. It was the same for the Danish people who were asked to vote for a second time after they initially rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. In 2001 the Irish people said “No” by referendum to the Treaty of Nice and then “No” in 2008 to the Treaty of Lisbon. On both occasions they were forced to correct their “errors”. We should also mention the votes by referendum against the EU Constitution in 2005 in France and the Netherlands where both results were finally ignored. The history of the EU is characterised by a disdain for democracy.
“The EU is not un-democratic: it is anti-democratic. So the only solution is not to reform: it is to leave the EU”, said David Heathcoat-Amory, reminding us of the impossibility of changing the EU (that would mean abrogating Article 48 of the Treaty of the EU which requires that decisions must be taken unanimously between the 28 member states of the EU). If you want democracy, one must have the “independent self-governing nation state” and this is exactly what the EU is trying to dismantle – “not by violence, not by force but by bureaucracy, by rules, by regulation, by transferring the law making powers from the people to Brussels,” he continued. It is also worth noting that no other group of countries in the world has ever tried to replicate the EU’s model – adopting a single currency, a supreme court, a single defence policy and a law-making body for an entire continent. Instead, many alternative types of collaboration are used throughout the world: treaties, trade agreements and pacts entered into by free and sovereign countries.
But – beyond the anti-democratic aspects – what appears to be the most shocking thing is the obvious disregard, even contempt, from the EU elites for the people they govern. “When President Macron came to the UK in January 2018 he said that if a referendum was held in France, France would vote to leave the EU and of course that means he will not call in a referendum,” noted Lord Hamilton. As stated in Article 2 of the French Constitution, the nation state is “the government of the people, by the people, for the people” – our leaders seem to have forgotten this. Similarly, Brendan Chilton related the following anecdote when a few years back Tony Blair had stood in the same room as Prime Minister and said: “Only extremists would want to leave the EU”. But the choicest example certainly came from Donald Tusk when in February 2019 he promised a “special place in hell” for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan”.
Such statements from EU leaders are not unusual and reflect their impunity. As Dr Lee Rotherham reminded us, no-one is accountable in the EU institutions: “Who is responsible when a bad law is made? And how do we get to change it?” For these reasons, the UK decided to take back control.
The UK leaving the bloc in a good condition is probably what the EU elite fears the most. “If we give the Brits a good deal, other countries will follow suit,” confessed M. Barnier to Tom Enders (CEO of Airbus Group) as reported by Sir Gerald Howarth, who then added:
“They are seeking to punish the UK simply to prevent other countries like France, like Italy, like the Netherlands following our example and grasping the opportunity to free themselves from this 1950’s sclerotic defunct organisation”.
France will benefit from the lessons learned on the UK side if it wants to avoid a “Treaty of Versailles” (Brendan Chilton) in reference to a Withdrawal Agreement that demands 39 thousand million pounds from British taxpayers in return for a promised vassal state status.
We are together fighting the same battle for democratic Western values that are rooted in the bedrock of our civilisation. The UPR Gaullist party – with its 37,000 activists in May 2019 – will be leading the way in France, thanks to the support of their British allies. As stated by Lord Tebbit:
“Brexit is the ultimate expression of the kind of national sovereignty that General de Gaulle understood. It is the very expression of democracy that he fought to preserve. But it is not something that we aspire to jealously guard for ourselves. We want to share our new liberty with our old friends. Join us in our escape from The Bastille of Brussels. We shall eat cake together in freedom”.
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If the most recent polling is to be believed, Thursday’s unintended and unwanted European Parliament elections will have been a disaster for the Conservative Party. We may well fail to have a single MEP returned. The Labour vote, too, will have been drastically reduced, as voters abandon the two main parties, principally in favour of one that has existed only for a few weeks.
The reason is obvious. Despite being told it time and again, the UK did not leave the European Union on 29th March. As soon as the Prime Minister opted to extend Article 50 and so necessitate the UK’s participation in these elections, the sense of betrayal – which had been long brewing – overflowed. When Mrs May compounded that sense by opening the door to a second referendum on Tuesday, it erupted. One by one, the 17.4 million people who voted to Leave the European Union had seen each and every promise which had been made to them since the referendum broken.
In 2015, the Conservatives promised that, if elected, we would hold a decisive referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The party was returned to government with more votes and MPs. When the then Foreign Secretary – a certain Philip Hammond – introduced the legislation to the Commons to bring that promise about, he exhorted MPs:
“…to give the British people the final say on our EU membership in an In/Out referendum… The decision about our membership should be taken by the British people, not by Whitehall bureaucrats, certainly not by Brussels Eurocrats; not even by Government Ministers or parliamentarians.”
The Government then spent £9.3 million of taxpayers’ money during the referendum campaign telling every household that: “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.” After the referendum, in which more people voted to Leave than have ever voted for anything in British history, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto pledged that the UK would leave the Single Market, the Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the European Court. Page 36 said that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
In her fateful “Charing Cross speech” this week, the Prime Minister’s “ten-point” offer starkly laid out the extent to which those promises have been reneged upon. The legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement remains unchanged, as she confirmed to me in the House of Commons this week. That means the Backstop remains, fundamentally altering the constitutional status of Northern Ireland by keeping it permanently locked to EU rules, overseen by the European Court of Justice.
The Prime Minister said that, should the Backstop be triggered, a disparity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be resolved by having Great Britain follow EU rules as well – simply multiplying the number of people sharing in the misery. In any case, we would remain aligned to EU rules for goods, severely hampering our ability to forge an independent trade policy. It was an interpretation of Taking Back Control warped beyond all recognition.
Mrs May’s decision that she was not now the person to find a new way forward was, of course, the correct one.
But her departure, and with it that of her Withdrawal Agreement, will not be enough on their own. The radical shifts in voting intention – even in long-held party allegiances – in recent weeks demonstrate that there is an accelerating appetite for genuine political change and realignment. If the Conservatives want to survive, we have to change course, deliver a genuine Brexit as we promised and demonstrate that when we make such totemic promises to the electorate, we will keep our word. We will simply not be listened to on any other issue until the UK leaves the EU and we fully take back control.
Immediate action is required on the part of the incoming Prime Minister. Of chief importance will be returning to Brussels to tell them that the current Withdrawal Agreement is dead and then seeking a wide-ranging, zero-tariff, zero-quota Free Trade Agreement, of the kind offered by Donald Tusk in March last year.
That offer initially foundered on the question of the Northern Ireland border. But the work of the European Research Group, built upon by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group alongside senior European customs professionals, has provided robust solutions to guarantee continued seamless trade based upon existing techniques and administrative processes. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has expressed confidence that arrangements can be implemented to avoid new border checks. Even Michel Barnier has now confirmed that in any scenario the Belfast Agreement will continue to apply and “there will be no hard border” using our alternative arrangements.
There is, therefore, every reason that the UK and the EU ought to be able to come to a mutually-beneficial trading relationship. If, however, the EU refuses, then the next Prime Minister must be prepared to leave without a deal. The extraordinary success of the Brexit Party is testament to the public enthusiasm for this approach. Indeed, a recent ComRes survey found that two thirds of those expressing an opinion agreed that “if Parliament rejects the Withdrawal Agreement, then Parliament has to accept no deal as a consequence”.
There is nothing to fear from this “Plan B” outcome. First of all, the arrangements for the Northern Ireland border were devised without prejudice to the nature of the trading relationship. They are available and can be effective in any event.
Secondly, “no deal” is a misnomer. What we are really talking about is a WTO deal – leaving the EU without a formal Withdrawal Agreement but instead with a series of pragmatic mini-deals.
The WTO approach has often been criticised on the basis that very few countries trade on “purely” WTO rules. It is true that many micro-agreements exist between countries without a formal trade agreement, but it is important to keep these in perspective.
The EU does not, for example, have a trade agreement with the USA, but 147 side-deals are in place. Of these, most are multilateral agreements such as the Air Transport Agreement (to which the UK is also a party) and only 31 of the bilateral agreements have any relevance to trade.
The EU also has 97 micro-agreements in place with Russia, on which it is currently applying economic sanctions. It is surely ridiculous to suppose that the EU would be unwilling to replace many micro-agreements with the UK.
Indeed, as the former Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed, unilateral and bilateral preparations for “no deal” are “well advanced”. The European Commission similarly confirmed in March that its preparations for “no deal” have been completed.
Air travel will continue. The EU confirmed in November that it would continue to allow UK airlines to fly over, land in and return from EU airports even if there is no Withdrawal Agreement, provided the UK reciprocates. Baroness Sugg, the then Transport Minister, confirmed this reciprocity in March when she told the House of Lords that: “Measures put forward by the UK and the EU will ensure that flights can continue in any scenario; deal or no deal.”
Medical supplies will arrive. The President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Russell Viner, confirmed in a message to 19,000 doctors:
“I have been considerably reassured by governments’ preparations relating to medicines supplies…Governments, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the NHS have been working hard behind the scenes… and we believe that our medicine supplies are very largely secured.”
Cross-Channel trade will continue. The continuing Remain campaign has made particularly alarmist claims of a country completely cut off from the rest of the world, but they are nonsense. The Chairman of the Port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, has robustly refuted suggestions of disruptions to freight. Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region, dismissed the scaremongering completely: “Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”
Sensible measures can be straightforwardly implemented in the best interests of both the UK and the EU, mitigating any potential disruption.
Most significantly of all, it is important to remember than “no deal” need not be an end state. Indeed, even without a Withdrawal Agreement, both sides can agree to a transition period maintaining our current zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangements while a new trade deal is negotiated. Under Article XXIV of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, this can be achieved by the UK and EU both agreeing to a Free Trade Agreement and notifying the WTO of a sufficiently detailed plan and schedule for it. As David Campbell-Bannerman has pointed out, such an “interim agreement” need be little more than an agreement to continue talks.
The incoming leader has, therefore, a clear remit on how to proceed. One thing is absolutely certain. There can be no further extensions to Article 50. Failure to meet the 29th March deadline has been near catastrophic for the Conservatives. Any further delay would surely prove fatal.
Any new leader must say, completely unequivocally, that we leave on 31st October at the latest, whether or not we have a new deal. We must seek to negotiate a wide-ranging trade agreement, but we must be prepared, if necessary in the interim, to go to WTO terms. We must also correct a significant mis-step by giving absolute clarity that EU citizens resident in the UK will continue to have the right to live and work here in any event.
The new Prime Minister and the new Cabinet will face a difficult task, but one which can be expressed very simply. If it wants to have any hope of bringing back the members and voters it is currently haemorrhaging, and if it wants to have any credible claim to believe in democracy, it must make good on the promises which the outgoing Government has broken. It must repair the trust which the mistakes of its predecessor have so profoundly eroded.
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When the Scottish Independence referendum happened on 18th September 2014, I had spent nearly fifty years supporting the cause of Scottish Independence. I put heart and soul into the campaign and my garden has hardly recovered since. But our people voted to preserve the British Union. Disappointed, I knew what the rules were. No independence for now at least. My intense efforts in 2014 were wholly based on my perception that if Yes were to win by, for example, 52% to 48%, then the result would be respected. Tragically, that now sounds naive.
Two years later, another great referendum was called. A close friend of mine in the SNP asked me if I would campaign with him for Leave. After some thought, I agreed. In a short campaign, Vote Leave worked miracles in Scotland, with little organisation, no supportive press, no supportive parties, few known leaders and very little money. Remain was in fact saved by the bell. Against all expectations, more than one million Scots voted Leave. Leave actually did better in my home county of Aberdeenshire than had Yes two years before.
Shortly after the referendum, Lord Ashcroft’s polls showed that in Scotland, some 36% of Yes supporters had voted Leave. SNP supporters were more likely to vote to Leave than Conservatives! But the SNP is now seen as one of the most pro-Remain parties in Britain. Only one single SNP parliamentarian, Alex Neil, has admitted to voting Leave. The fifteen per cent of Scots who voted Yes/Leave are political orphans. No party and not a single newspaper or website espouse our cause.
So how should Yes/Leave supporters assess the upcoming EU election? The fundamental approach must be that we commit to upholding democracy. This is our most precious inheritance for which our fathers and mothers fought. In 2015/16 the UK Government went to “we the people” and told us that we would be given the high privilege of deciding whether the UK should Leave the EU or Remain. Our decision would be implemented – “no ifs, no buts”.
There is no point in the SNP arguing that Scotland voted to Remain. What Scottish people did on 23rd June 2016 was to decide that they wished the UK to Remain in the EU. But this was a British question and a British decision. A UK general election followed in 2017 when an enormous majority of the British people – and a handy majority of the Scottish people – voted for parties (Conservative, Labour and DUP) who stood on a platform of respecting the Brexit vote. Parliament decided to trigger our Article 50 notification by a huge majority. What must happen is clear. In the words of Donald Tusk our “stuuuuuupid referendum” must be respected.
While Labour and Tory parties have betrayed the electors of this country and their own manifestos, the SNP have simply gone crazy. After all, the purpose of the SNP, like them or loathe them, is to achieve Scottish Independence through a referendum of the Scottish people. Nicola Sturgeon has now thrown herself behind a so-called “People’s Vote” and the SNP have even supported revoking Article 50 in Westminster indicative votes.
What do these people think will happen when Indyref2 is won by 52% to 48%? Won’t our Unionist enemies simply argue that the poor thick people of Dundee just got it wrong, listened to populist lies and were taken in by slogans on a bus? Will Dominic Grieve not be calling a for a “confirmatory vote”? You cannot have one rule for the goose and another for the gander. The SNP have created an awful precedent. They have become the Great EU Unionist Party.
The vitally important thing is that we deliver the strongest possible message to our elites in Edinburgh, London and Brussels that we will uphold democracy. There is and will be democracy against the EU treaties! That means voting for the one credible party which unambiguously supports Leave. I have already marked the box of the Brexit Party with the cross of St. Andrew. Here’s hoping for at least 20% for the Brexit Party in Scotland and a couple of MEPs.
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At Prime Minister’s Questions on 20th March, the Prime Minister stood at the Despatch Box and repeatedly told the Commons the maximum extension to Article 50 that she could countenance. Answering MPs from across the House, she said:
“I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30th June… I could not consider a delay further beyond 30th June… There will be no delay in delivering Brexit beyond 30th June.”
Yet when, in the small hours on Wednesday morning, the EU offered an extension to 31st October – fully four months after her self-imposed cut-off and seven months after we should have left – she accepted. Another promise, made to Parliament and the country, was broken. We should have left at 11pm on 29th March. Even as the Prime Minister arrived in Brussels, the law of the land was that we would leave at 11pm this evening, Friday 12th April. All she had to do to deliver that was nothing.
So for all that the Prime Minister may speciously argue that she has been somehow forced to extend, there is no doubt that she has sought delays of her own volition. Remember that the formal letter requesting an extension was sent before Parliament had approved the change in domestic law.
Just as common law courts once applied the maxim Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, this latest broken promise could have been predicted from the previous occasions when what the Prime Minister has said and what she has done have not matched. Throughout her tenure, Mrs May had said that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. The Withdrawal Agreement is evidently a bad deal; the House of Commons has thrice told her so. Logically, she should then have pursued the “no deal” option, but did not. Evidently, she has bought into the ludicrous, apocalyptic predictions of Project Fear, convinced now that any deal would be better than “no deal”.
But the “no deal” which the prophets of doom continue to predict is a complete misnomer. In reality, when we say “no deal” we mean a WTO deal – leaving the EU without the Withdrawal Agreement but with a series of pragmatic, mutually-beneficial mini-deals in its stead.
The former Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris – who resigned in exasperation – confirmed that such preparations are “well advanced” and told the Prime Minister that:
“I truly believe our country would have swiftly overcome any immediate issues of leaving without a deal and gone on to thrive.”
He is right. One by one, the absurd falsehoods peddled about “no deal” have been and are being debunked.
Air travel will continue. The EU confirmed in November that it would continue to allow UK airlines to fly over, land in and return from EU airports even if there is no Withdrawal Agreement, provided the UK reciprocates. Of course, it will. As Transport Minister Baroness Sugg confirmed in March:
“Measures put forward by the UK and the EU will ensure that flights can continue in any scenario; deal or no deal.”
Medical supplies will arrive. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has worked hard to neutralise this issue and, as the President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Russell Viner, said in his message to 19,000 doctors:
“I have been considerably reassured by governments’ preparations relating to medicines supplies…Governments, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the NHS have been working hard behind the scenes… and we believe that our medicine supplies are very largely secured.”
Cross-Channel trade will continue. The Chairman of the Port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, has robustly refuted the alarmist claims of disruptions to freight. Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region has dismissed the scare stories with admirable clarity:
“Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”
The UK has been given approval to continue exporting animals and products of animal origin to the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Live animals, including horses, will still be able to travel across borders. Will Lambe, Executive Director of the British Horseracing Authority, was right when he said that:
“This decision on listing from the European Union is extremely welcome and reflects the UK’s high health standards in respect of its animals, and of course the thoroughbred population within this. It provides important clarity for the racing and breeding sector ahead of a potential no-deal departure from the EU.”
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 our ERG proposals which were once smugly dismissed as “magical thinking”, but Michel 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.
This approach would not be “crashing out”, as the fearmongers claim. Sensible measures, adopted in the best interests of both the UK and the EU, can mitigate any disruption and ensure that our relationships with our neighbours remain amicable and prosperous.
Nor is “no deal” an end state. With arrangements worked out for the Northern Ireland border, we can quickly return to the offer which Donald Tusk made in March last year of a wide-ranging, zero-tariff Free Trade Agreement – for the whole of the UK rather than just Great Britain.
In such a scenario, both sides can invoke 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.
All of this beckons if we leave with “no deal”. The decision from the European Council on Wednesday states that the UK must now, if still a member, hold European Parliament elections on 22nd May. If it “fails to live up to this obligation”, we will leave on 1st June.
This is an important opportunity which the Government must grasp. It is win-win. At a time when the Government is daily faced with the difficult task of balancing discipline on public expenditure with pressing demands for improving schools, roads and hospitals, it would be an act of the most outrageous folly to squander £100 million on unwanted elections when newly-elected British MEPs will immediately stand down in October, never mind the £39 billion which the Withdrawal Agreement would give away.
Yet by avoiding these utterly pointless elections, we can leave in an orderly way on 1st June and use the money on our own priorities. Do that, and the Government will honour the referendum result, its manifesto commitments, and repay the trust of the British people.
Do not, and its betrayal will be complete. If reports last night are correct that the Government has wound up its “no deal” planning at this crucial juncture, that would be stupidity verging on sabotage. The Government will have failed to deliver the single most important policy in a generation, and broken every promise it has made.
Just yesterday the formal group of eurosceptic Conservative MPs – the European Research Group – were described as “far right” on television by the Head of Comms of the Centre for Policy Studies. Emma Barr, who until recently worked as a Press Officer for CCHQ , has since claimed she meant the right of the Conservative Party, but this is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider the attacks on a group who are representing the mainstream Leave vote.
Barr also said that the ERG hadn’t compromised “at all”, which is just untrue. The irritating whine over the last few years from the talking heads has been that the Prime Minister has been “captured” by the ERG who have forced her to be too hard line. The truth is, the ERG have bent over backwards for a Prime Minister who has happily banked everything they conceded until she finally, this week, ditched half her party in favour of the Leader of the Opposition.
Just ask yourself this: would we still be in the EU nearly three years after the referendum if the Prime Minister was in the thrall of Jacob Rees-Mogg? Or would we be planning for the European Parliament elections if Steve Baker had Theresa May’s ear? For all her fighting talk at the last election, her grand exit strategy appears to have been a box-ticking exercise cooked up by civil servants. To ‘leave’, Theresa May used the EU’s own exit mechanism of Article 50 – hardly the tub-thumping idea of just repealing the European Communities Act suggested by some eurosceptics. She hadn’t even prepared the country for No Deal before she triggered Article 50, as Vote Leave had suggested should happen in their literature.
Far from ideological zealotry, the ERG’s compromises were too fast and too frequent for many Brexiteers. They accepted another 18 months of a transition period and even ECJ jurisdiction over the transition. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis accepted Downing Street’s sequencing of talks to begin with the ‘divorce’ first and then ‘trade’ second, despite personally disagreeing with it. The ERG even swallowed an exit bill of £39 billion, despite not believing that it was legally enforceable or that we even owed the money. Coastal MPs like Ross Thomson were apoplectic at the fact that under the transition the UK would remain in the Common Fisheries Policy after 29th March, after Downing Street dropped more of their red lines.
So who has really been captured? The only conceivable way in which Theresa May’s policy is connected to her Brexit-supporting MPs is that she needs their votes to get it through. But even then there has been no compromise from her side. Three times she has forced the same deal on the Commons with all the diplomatic guile of a battering ram.
When she, for one brief moment, appeared to be offering a compromise, almost the entire swathe of eurosceptics came so far they almost accepted her entire deal. The ‘Brady Amendment’, the one thing the Commons has actually approved, accepted the Withdrawal Agreement if the backstop was replaced with ‘alternative arrangements’. But this was a false dawn. Despite whipping MPs in favour of it, no attempt has been made by No. 10 to follow through. In her latest begging letter to Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister assured our bemused jailers that changing any of the unsigned Withdrawal Agreement was out of the question.
The idea that we’re in this mess because the Prime Minister has listened to Leave MPs is clearly false. Surrounded by the likes of Olly Robbins, Downing Street neither understands nor cares about the damage they have done to democracy, the constitution or the trust they have with the electorate. And when the history of this period is written, the ERG – the real mainstream of Leavers – will be viewed as flexible beyond belief in the face of a Government that treated them with nothing but suspicion and disdain.
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Below is the full text of the letter Theresa May has sent today to European Council President Donald Tusk, requesting a further delay to Brexit until 30th June, with the option to leave earlier if her Withdrawal Agreement is ratified
In the European Council Decision of 22 March, taken in agreement with the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Kingdom agreed that if the House of Commons had approved the Withdrawal Agreement by 29 March 2019, the period provided for by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union would be extended until 22 May 2019 to provide for ratification.
The House of Commons declined to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and take up that option. Therefore unless we agree a further extension at the European Council you have convened for 10 April, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union without a deal at 2300 BST on 12 April 2019.
The Government’s policy has always been and remains to leave the European Union in an orderly way, and without undue delay. The House of Commons has not thus far approved the deal that would enable this, nor — despite considerable efforts by both Members of Parliament and by the Government — has it yet found a majority in favor of any other proposal.
The House has, however, continued to express its opposition to leaving the European Union without a deal. The Government agrees that leaving with a deal is the best outcome.
This impasse cannot be allowed to continue. In the UK it is creating uncertainty and doing damage to faith in politics, while the European Union has a legitimate desire to move on to decisions about its own future. That is why the Government has decided to take further action to seek a consensus across the House of Commons on the right way forward.
I therefore met the Leader of the Opposition earlier this week to discuss whether we might be able to agree a proposal that can be put before the House of Commons which allows the United Kingdom to leave the European Union with a deal.
We agreed follow-up discussions that are now taking place. I have also extended an open invitation to Members of Parliament more broadly to work with me to achieve a consensus that respects the result of the 2016 referendum.
I am clear that all of these discussions need to be based on acceptance of the Withdrawal Agreement without reopening it, as the United Kingdom agreed with the European Council at our last meeting, and should focus on the framework for the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. If a consensus is going to be found, compromise will be needed on all sides, in the national interest.
If the talks do not lead to a single unified approach soon, the Government would instead look to establish a consensus on a small number of clear options on the future relationship that could be put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue. The Government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House, if the Opposition will commit to doing the same.
These steps demonstrate that the Government is determined to bring this process to a resolution quickly. The Government acknowledges, however, that after approval to the Withdrawal Agreement is achieved, the process of enacting those commitments in domestic law and therefore ratifying the Agreement in the United Kingdom will take time. Therefore having reluctantly sought an extension to the Article 50 period last month, the Government must now do so again.
It remains the Government’s view that, despite this request to extend the Article 50 period, it is in the interests of neither the United Kingdom as a departing Member State, nor the European Union as a whole, that the United Kingdom holds elections to the European Parliament.
However, the United Kingdom accepts the European Council’s view that if the United Kingdom were still a Member State of the European Union on 23 May 2019, it would be under a legal obligation to hold the elections. The Government is therefore undertaking the lawful and responsible preparations for this contingency, including by making the Order that sets the date of the poll.
The process I have laid out in paragraphs 4 and 5 is designed to bring the House Of Commons to rapid approval Of the Withdrawal Agreement and a shared vision for the future relationship, and to allow the Government to introduce the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and so ratify the Agreement.
An important part of that process will be the Government agreeing with the Opposition a program for the Bill. The Government’s objective is to ensure that this program means the Bill can complete its passage such that the Agreement can be brought into force and the United Kingdom withdraw from the European Union in time to cancel the European Parliament elections.
I am writing therefore to inform the European Council that the United Kingdom is seeking a further extension to the period provided under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, including as applied by Article 106a of the Euratom Treaty.
The United Kingdom proposes that this period should end on 30 June 2019. If the parties are able to ratify before this date, the Government proposes that the period should be terminated early. The Government will want to agree a timetable for ratification that allows the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union before 23 May 2019 and therefore cancel the European Parliament elections, but will continue to make responsible preparations to hold the elections should this not prove possible.
It is frustrating that we have not yet brought this process to a successful and orderly conclusion. The United Kingdom Government remains strongly committed to doing so, and will continue to act as a constructive and responsible Member State of the European Union in accordance with the duty of sincere cooperation throughout this unique period. I would be grateful for the opportunity to update our colleagues on the position at our meeting on Wednesday.
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Apart from showing increased support for Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement which made it more popular than any other option that Parliament had so far voted on, the vote last Friday changed very little: it did not resolve the Brexit dilemma of a majority Remain Parliament reluctant to legislate to leave the EU as instructed by the electorate; it just kicked the can down the road. So far, Parliament has avoided the stark choice that it ultimately has to face: respect the referendum result and enact Brexit or revoke Article 50 in direct defiance of the result of the EU referendum.
Everyone who campaigned for Leave, regardless of their political background, expected a clean unadulterated Brexit once the people voted to Leave. However, the make-up of the Cabinet, the Government and Parliament does not make that possible. The Withdrawal Agreement remains the only practical way of leaving the EU. This is beginning to gain support from many MPs who are worried that any other course of action would risk Brexit itself. Such support came too late to have a decisive impact on the vote on 29th March and in most cases was too apologetic to provide the necessary backbone to push the deal through.
But we can now expect a final showdown as the deal is bound to come back in one form or another for a vote before 10th April when the Prime Minister is due to go to the special meeting of the European Council called by Donald Tusk to discuss Brexit, just a couple of days before the new departure date of 12th April.
And we must remember that while Brexit is a one-off event, post-Brexit is a process; it is the start. Theresa May’s deal may not be the ideal start, but it is a start that allows us to move on in a direction of our choosing.
Labour’s excitement at the sight of a Tory Government in meltdown is understandable. The prospects of a general election have suddenly been revived. Labour cannot be blamed for pushing for a general election, after all, it is what an Opposition is there for. But a general election before we leave the EU is the last thing it needs; Labour, having voted against the only deal on offer, would be labelled as the party that blocked Brexit and rightly so. No matter how popular its domestic policies are, that label would stick; Labour’s natural supporters would desert the party in droves.
Labour must do better if it is to avoid being branded anti-Brexit and untrustworthy. In its 2017 manifesto, Labour promised “to respect the result of the referendum” and stated that “the freedom of movement would end once we leave the EU”. What would puzzle Labour supporters is how the party can square its infatuation with ‘a customs union’ with its promises to revive British industry through state aid, ending freedom of movement, public ownership and public control of the railways, water and other major utilities, and negotiating our own bespoke trade deals – not to mention the promise to follow procurement policy that will benefit British firms.
It’s one thing to throw out the deal in the full knowledge that you’ll have another chance to vote on it; it’s quite another to do so in the knowledge that it will lead to a prolonged delay, participation in an election to an institution we voted to have nothing to do with and a real danger of no Brexit.
Nothing less than Labour’s credibility – and specially that of Jeremy Corbyn – is on the line. The Labour leadership must ensure, in whatever way, that Brexit is not halted either through a long delay or, for that matter, an outright revocation of Article 50.
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“It’s time now to cut them some slack, to cut the British government some slack, when it comes to their request for an extension and when it comes to their request that the Strasbourg Agreement be ratified formally by the European Council over the next two days.”
When Leo Varadkar took it upon himself to make the above announcement yesterday, I was met with the familiar feeling of déjà vu. I was immediately reminded of the Taoiseach’s antagonism over the Northern Irish border in January. Not much has changed in his attitude since then, only this time he undercut Mrs. May’s integrity by announcing she would be addressing the British public last night.
This meddling, coupled with the antagonistic “cut them some slack”, is counter-intuitive for any progress on an acceptable Withdrawal Agreement and it is a disservice to many Irish people too.
Sadly, it has now become regular practice for Mr Varadkar to use media engagements to slight Theresa May and her Government’s approach to Brexit. It’s hard to determine what is the purpose of these slights. Personally, I feel he is opportunistically capitalising on public dissatisfaction with Theresa May to boost his own image.
A bit like Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Varadkar is quick with a quip but slow on any real solutions. All he managed to achieve yesterday was to enrage both sides of the Brexit debate. With his underhand remarks and his big reveal that Mrs. May would be addressing the people, he was insulting the British people.
But why should this matter to the Irish public? Well, our relationship with the UK is unique, a troubled history exists but this doesn’t define our future? For the sake of the Irish in Britain and the British in Ireland it’s time our Taoiseach shows some respect to all involved in this Anglo-Irish relationship.
If anything, Varadkar’s behaviour yesterday will serve only one purpose, to kick our neighbours while they are down. Rather than coming across as suave and debonair, he is in fact damaging the future of Irish citizens, his citizens. Currently it is estimated that roughly 400,000 Irish-born citizens call Britain their home. Furthermore, almost 10% of British citizens can claim some sort of Irish heritage.
Coupled with strong trade relations – Britain accounts for 24% of food, fuel and other merchandise brought into the state according to the Irish Central Statistics Office – this should be ample evidence for co-operation. Alas not in the eyes of Leo Varadkar. As former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald said in 1983, Britain is “our nearest neighbour and our natural friend”.
Finally, it is interesting to note how the beleaguered Mrs. May alluded to social issues, education and knife crime as she spoke to the public last night. She acknowledged their frustration and though her croaky considerations may be too little too late, at least she acknowledged her citizens.
The Taoiseach seems to have forgotten who has elected him, or is this ignorance by choice? Perhaps he has spent too long with Donald Tusk and is of the opinion that he too cannot be replaced by the public. However, the homelessness epidemic and the housing crisis in Ireland are nearing cataclysmic levels. So I would say to my Taoiseach, remember your citizens here and abroad and do your duty for them.
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