Brexit: Thoughts on where we are

The last few weeks in Westminster have been extremely challenging and ones which, rightly, hundreds of residents have been in touch about. Just before we break for the Christmas period, I wanted to set out in more detail where I see the issue right now and some of the reasons for the decisions I have made recently.

As many constituents are aware, I have had profound concerns about the direction of Government policy on Brexit since the Chequers proposals came out in July. At the election I made a commitment to leave the European Union, leave the single market and leave the customs union – and I remain committed to doing all of those. Just as importantly, the manifesto also said “We believe the UK must seize the unique opportunities it has to forge a new set of trade and investment relationships around the world, building a global, outward-looking Britain” (page 28). For me, and however you voted, I have always wanted to approach Brexit as an opportunity to forge a new path and to take advantage of future global growth – 95%+ of which will be outside the European Union in the coming decades. If we are to do that, the decisions we make now must put us in a position to take up some of those opportunities. And that was my issue with Chequers; it was proposing tying us in to an overly prescriptive trade and legal arrangement which would proscribe our long-term flexibility. I wrote an article in the Telegraph at the time outlining my concerns (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/18/first-time-years-brexit-has-given-people-hope-fails-wont-forgive/) and I have included a copy of it below.

In November, the Government concluded a deal with the European Union and presented it to the Houses of Parliament and the country. 585 pages of legal text were dropped on all of us with just a few days’ notice and, having studied it closely along with other colleagues, it soon became clear that we were repeating many of the mistakes from Chequers. Whilst there are elements of the deal which appear acceptable (including, for example, on immigration), there are a number of fundamental problems which mean I cannot support it. I strongly believe it will not allow the UK to take advantage of the opportunities we have in the coming decades and will not prepare us for the challenges we are likely to face in the future. The Prime Minister is effectively proposing a deal which will retain many of the frustrations that we have had with the EU for 40 years and give us few of the benefits we hoped for with Brexit. The country I want to see is one where we have the flexibility and ability to really thrive in the coming decades for our children and grandchildren.

So, what are my issues with the deal?

  • Trade: If we are to truly thrive in the coming years, we need the ability to strike meaningful trade deals with the rest of the world. It is the word “meaningful” that is key here. The Prime Minister is right that trade deals can technically be struck in the future if we accept her proposals. Yet, it is whether they will properly open up new markets and give us new opportunities which are the real questions. In my view, there is no meaningful possibility of an independent trade policy if we consent to this deal. For example, the deal means that if we wish to trade with New Zealand, Australia or any country outside of the European Union, we must trade on the rules set by the EU – even though the goods that we exchange will likely never go anywhere near Europe. It is not for the EU to set the standards and regulations on the terms of our trade with other countries forever – we are quite capable of doing that ourselves. These proposals are both fundamentally unnecessary and will mean that we outsource future decisions on standards and regulations to the EU; reducing our ability to strike agreements with others.
  • The Irish backstop: this is the issue that many people are currently focusing upon. The Prime Minister has described the Irish backstop as an insurance policy – something we shouldn’t have to use but there in case we can’t agree a future relationship with the EU after we leave. Yet, the backstop itself is a horrible insurance policy; guaranteeing, in the event we can’t agree a future relationship, that the UK will remain in a customs union and that a constituent part of the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland) will remain aligned to the rules of the EU single market – effectively separating Ulster from the rest of the UK from a policy perspective. It also is an insurance policy without a time-limit; if the future relationship never gets agreed, then we stay in the backstop forever – and we have no way of independently deciding to leave. I just cannot agree to this – the UK must have control over its own destiny. The Prime Minister tells us that we shouldn’t be too concerned about the backstop – that the intention is for it not to be used and no-one wants us to do so. Well, for me, that isn’t good enough; we can’t make policy on the basis that we cross our fingers and hope it won’t happen. Secondly, consent to the backstop takes away all of our leverage in the discussion about the future relationship; the EU know that they don’t need to agree to any of the things we as a country want because, in the event we don’t come to agreement, the UK will fall into the backstop anyway. Thirdly, and most frustratingly, many commentators have highlighted how the core issue which created the need for a backstop (the need to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland) can be solved via other means. We already have different VAT regimes between Northern Ireland and the Republic – and no need for a hard border. We can do the same with different customs regimes in the future. A combination of spot checks, assessments at source or destination, trusted trader and technology can all manage flow of goods across the border without infrastructure. The backstop is, quite simply, a terrible, sub-standard solution to a problem which doesn’t really exist.
  • The money: To top it all, we pay a huge sum to the EU and we are given nothing but an assurance we can talk about a future partnership with no firm confirmation of what that will look like. I absolutely recognise that we have obligations and I support paying them. However, the important thing we need to resolve with the European Union is how we are going to work with them in the future. Whilst this deal forces us to sign up to many things which we don’t like, the key part of the discussion about our future relationship is deferred to a future date. We are signing away our leverage and negotiating position for the promise of a future discussion rather than real, concrete outcomes which will benefit our country.

Over the course of the last year, I have supported the Government and the Prime Minister for many months recognising the difficulty and the problems that she has in trying to find a way forward on this. Yet, the UK is allowing the EU’s intransigence to force us to accept a sub-standard deal which will be damaging to us in the long-run. That can’t be right. We must aim higher than this. Along with six other colleagues, I outlined my concerns in more detail a few weeks ago in this article: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/11/30/brexit-moment-tremendous-opportunity-britain-deserves-better/ and then wrote an individual piece a few days after (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/12/04/brexit-economic-prize-taking-mps-reject-deal-go-independence/). I have reprinted them both below.

Some residents have been in touch over the last week to raise other points. Some tell me they just want to get Brexit done. Others that we simply must compromise. Still more tell me that the Prime Minister’s deal is probably the right one because she has worked so hard on it over recent months. I completely understand all of these sentiments but I wanted just to say a couple of things on each.

Firstly on those who want to get Brexit done: I completely agree – and I want to do the same. We have so much more that we need to move onto and so many domestic issues which need greater attention. Yet, I fear I may say something disappointing; it is becoming increasingly clear that Brexit won’t get “done” in the next few months. We are going to be grappling with it for a number of years – not because we want to but because we need to. Secondly, the one way, in my view, to store up pain is to agree the deal in its current form. We do have to start moving on from Brexit – but the deal won’t do that.

Secondly, on compromise: again, I agree. Of course, I want to compromise and I will happily do that. It cannot be any compromise, however; splitting the difference is not an end in itself. And having studied the 600 pages of this document, this is the wrong compromise and I genuinely believe that it is not in the interest of the United Kingdom to agree this deal. Nor do I think it is viable to allow the deal to go ahead and then work for changes in future – we are about to codify these proposals in an international treaty which are notoriously difficult to change. Worse than that, we are agreeing an international treaty which looks as though it will have no meaningful mechanism for exit. We are locked in forever – and material changes won’t be possible. In all good conscience, I simply can’t support the deal in its current form.

Finally, people have said how much they respect and admire the Prime Minister for all the work that she has done. I do too. I have always, and will continue to, have great admiration for the Prime Minister’s resilience and resolve. She has shown great strength in dealing with the last two years and picking up an incredibly difficult situation. My respect for her, on a personal level, remains undiminished – and I told her that a few days ago. It is my job, however, to separate the detail of the deal from the obvious hard work and commitment that has gone into getting to where we are. And the deal itself doesn’t work – and I cannot consent to it because someone, however laudably, has worked extremely hard on it. We have to get this deal right.

Obviously, events have moved quickly in recent days including a leadership contest and, belatedly (and after several weeks of insisting that nothing could be changed), the Prime Minister saying she will go back to Brussels to try to do something on the backstop. For me, it was a tragedy that it came to a contest last week – it shouldn’t have been necessary and many of us, including myself, had hoped it could be avoided. Yet, we had been telling the Government for months that the deal wouldn’t work and no-one had been listening. I fully understand that people may not agree with my decision around a confidence vote – but I took it on policy, not personal, grounds. If the policy doesn’t work, and the person ties themselves so closely to that policy that they won’t change it, then there becomes little alternative to get a change of strategy.

So, where are we as Christmas arrives? Arguably, not particularly further forward than we were a few weeks ago. I still think the Government was wrong to not allow a vote on the Brexit deal a few days ago. I still think the Brexit deal is extremely flawed. And I am unconvinced that the Government is having the right conversations to try to fix many of the issues within it.

Nonetheless, I realise that we are where we are. Following the last few days, the Prime Minister has committed to going back to Brussels to try to improve the deal. I welcome that and I think it is right to give the Prime Minister some space on this. I still have grave reservations about where we are going on Brexit, and cannot support it in its current form, but we must see what she returns with. If it doesn’t address at least the backstop and trade, however, I will still be unable to support it.

Throughout all of this extremely complicated and charged debate, I try to go back to a few core principles. We must leave the European Union. We must honour the result of the referendum. We must stay true to the commitments we gave on Europe at the election. And, most vitally, we must leave the EU in a way that allows us to take advantage of the opportunities we will have as a country in the future. If we honour those, we can be hugely successful in the future. If we don’t, we risk a catastrophic loss of trust in the democratic system as a way to change things. However you voted in 2016 and whatever you think now, the key issues are one of trust and opportunity. Get those right and we have a great future ahead of us. Get them wrong and we are going to store up problems in the coming decades.

I have no time for vitriol and games in politics and I have tried to avoid doing any of that since my election. Yet, I will say no to something if I think it is wrong. And this deal won’t work unless it has substantial change. And there are times, whatever criticism is levelled at you, when you have to do what you think is right. I felt we were heading in a direction which was going to be extremely problematic and I felt I had a duty to stand up, respectfully, and say that I couldn’t support a course of action which is wrong. I don’t regret it and, although I hope I don’t have to, I will do it again in January if the deal isn’t changed.

For the first time in years, Brexit has given people hope. If it fails they won’t forgive us, Daily Telegraph, 18 August 2018
“Harold Wilson once said a week was a long-time in politics. At the moment, weeks feel like eternities. Since early July, I appear to have morphed, against my will and without actually changing my views, from a moderate member of my party on Brexit, to a rebel. From a supporter of the Government’s approach to one who now has real concerns about its direction. All in a few short weeks.

If we are honest, for politicians, a week shouldn’t be that important at all. Nor should a month and even, to some extent, a year. The key conversation we should be having – one that has really been absent for too long – is what the next fifteen or twenty years looks like; what we actually should do now, beyond the platitudinous mush, to ensure our children have a better life than we have. And Brexit is the omnipresent, raging fog obscuring that vital discussion.

Deep down, all politicians know that there is something amiss in the body politic today. Populations are restless. People feel left out and ignored. The traditional levers to improve the world are malfunctioning; slower growth, foreign policy chaos and domestic budgetary stricture. The status quo appears brittle and worn. And yet there is no clarity about what to replace it with. The world is turning and, for many, it appears to be turning away from them.

Underneath that sense of foreboding are two existential issues. The first is technology. In my lifetime alone, I have seen the advent of the home computer, the internet and the mobile phone. What is now ubiquitous as I enter middle age was not even an idea in the first flush of my youth. Millions of jobs have been created by a medium which was invisible a generation ago and which, most likely, will have changed beyond recognition in another one.

Yet, even in normal times, politicians’ answer to technology is to either ignore it or grandstand on it. Take the tech giants, for example, and their questionable data practices. The elite have gone to town on them in recent months. Outrage is the order of the day. CEOs have been chastened. Companies run warm adverts saying “we’ve changed” without a proper public consideration of what, over the long-term, we all need to change to. Our focus on Brexit has meant we’ve missed the underlying, hard questions. Are they platforms or publishers? Are they monopolists or innovators? How do individual nation states regulate cross-border activity?

Brexit is, quite simply, the ultimate political distraction technique. The amount of time we spend in legislatures debating the philosophical, economic and social impacts of artificial intelligence, big data and the loss of privacy is inversely proportional to their coming impacts. I am a huge evangelist about technology and its ability to change lives. Yet, we have to ready citizens to take advantage of those opportunities through skills, flexibility and attitude. But why should we do that when we can trot along to yet another debate about the merits of the EEA? We must do better. And, frustratingly, with Chequers destabilising the European debate, our fixation on the short-term will remain as the long-term continues to cry out for proper attention.

The second existential issue of our time is trust. Out there beyond the M25, people feel ignored and patronised, particularly those who have borne the brunt of some of the changes of the last thirty years. Globalisation continues to re-shape our communities and, whatever we think of it, we need to find a way to show people they have security in their lives. The last thirty years have been hard for many and have undermined faith in the system at its core. And then a toxic cacophony of expenses scandals, dodgy dossiers, spin and the obscuring of hard choices has left people feeling that the system is not just untrustworthy but fundamentally rotten too.

Against that imposing backdrop, Brexit was an opportunity to restore that trust with a large section of society. “The Government will implement what you decide” said the booklet dropped through every household letterbox. The decision was close but clear: people voted to leave the European Union. The definition of that result was distilled last year, by both parties, into departure from the single market and the customs union. Eighty-five percent of people agreed.

In the months since Brexit, I have seen a tentative change on the doorstep of the people who I proudly represent. Distrust and disengagement was replaced by curiosity. People tentatively dared to hope that the political class were actually going to do something they requested. Perhaps the duck house could finally fade from a deeply suspicious collective memory.

And then along came Chequers. At a stroke, that emerging engagement with politics has been scrambled. The Government spin proclaims that we are taking back control. The reality is that we are ceding it, at least on trade, in perpetuity. The document is a clever, legalistic, splitting-the-difference tome; the product of a process driven by a civil service never fully reconciled to leaving and, ultimately, not wanting to grasp the nettle.

Whatever you think about the referendum, and whatever your own personal view on Chequers is, the key measure is one of trust. Does this proposal properly embody the decision of the British people in 2016? Can you sell it to the disengaged of Dronfield or the exasperated of Eckington? And, when this offer is inevitably salami-sliced away into irrelevance by the EU, what should we tell our electors then? That we gave it our best effort but came up short? That Brussels is right? That our masters know best?

We are privileged to live in a time when we see the world going through one of the biggest transformations ever. We should be optimistic about those changes. Yet, shadows stalk our landscape. Technology will only be tamed by a proper legislative focus on the long-term. Trust will only be restored by delivering what we promised. The political elite decided it was going to hang its credibility on the question of Brexit in 2014 and the people gave them their orders two years later. And now we need to deliver them.

I became an MP last year, for my home area, and the truth is that I ran for Parliament for a much wider set of reasons than Brexit. I am not madly obsessed by the intricate nuances of the acquis or think everything that comes out of Europe is bad. And I’m willing to compromise on money and timelines if necessary. Yet, my bottom line is this: I need to be able to go back to my constituents – the people who I grew up with and call my friends – and say we did what they asked us to do.

So, my message to the Government is this: you have a decision to make. Chequers is about to undermine the underlying mission I thought we were all trying to deliver – restoring the belief that the disengaged had in democracy to deliver. And, in doing so, it will create an anger out there, and an angst so great in Westminster, that there is no chance we can give existential issues like technology the focus they deserve. Drop Chequers and deliver what the people voted for. “

Brexit is a moment of tremendous opportunity and Britain deserves better than the PM’s deal, Daily Telegraph (with Julia Lopez MP, Suella Braverman MP, Simon Clarke MP, Ranil Jayawardena MP, Ross Thomson MP, Ben Bradley MP), 30 November 2018
“Brexit presents a profound and complex challenge for our country and our politics. Yet seeing parliament reduce it (at best) to a problem to be mitigated and (at worst) to an existential threat that needs to be blocked, has been frustrating and dispiriting in equal measure. That is precisely the wrong outlook to take at this time. For all the policy conundrums it presents, Brexit is a moment of tremendous creative opportunity and renewal for our United Kingdom – an opportunity we do not want to miss.

As younger Conservative MPs, we are ambitious for our constituencies and the country we serve. Anchored by our faith in Conservatism as a force for good, we believe in hard work, individual responsibility, empathy, the power of people and a hand up where it is needed. We want to build a nation that is at ease with itself, whose pride comes from our values and achievements as a dynamic, twenty-first century democracy that is underpinned by a rich history, not defined by faded glory. None of us entered politics to obsess about Brexit. But we also understand the once-in-a-generation chance it gives us to fulfil the hopes we have for our nation, to reshape politics and to rebuild faith in the system that is at such a dangerously low ebb.

The Prime Minister is absolutely right when she says that we all want to move on from divisive Brexiteer and Remainer labels and start focusing on the broader challenges facing our nation. However, we have come together in our belief that the Withdrawal Agreement will not help us do that. Instead, we fear we are poised to sign up to a deal that leaves us with many of the frustrations of 40 years of EU membership and few of the gains from the bold decision that the British people took at the ballot box.

Compromise is an important part of any negotiation. We empathise with the instinct towards caution and continuity. But we are concerned that the continuity presented by the Withdrawal Agreement is illusory and comes at the cost of meaningful change. Entreaties to “just get on with it” ring hollow given the challenges that will be stored up for our nation from being placed into a state of indefinite limbo. Parliamentarians have a difficult choice to make in the next two weeks. We must be careful not to block off the opportunities of tomorrow because we are scared of the decisions of today.

We are not challenging many of the sensible provisions and details in the Withdrawal Agreement that seek to give citizens certainty and confidence in their daily lives. We believe in close cooperation with our European partners, and see a valued and close relationship with them as vital to building a global future. But this deal will store up new animosities, and create fresh frustrations from the limits it places upon our country and our future.

First, it will constrain our flexibility in a world that demands faster responses to global challenges. We will not meaningfully be able to set our trade policies or our laws, nor build a society and country which responds better to the needs and aspirations of its citizens.

Second, it reduces our control. Most obviously, we run the risk of being trapped in the European Union’s regulatory system for years without the chance to influence it or the unilateral ability to leave. We risk treating one part of our United Kingdom differently from another, and leaving one part of our nation behind the rest. And, fundamentally, for millions of people at the referendum, Brexit was seen as an opportunity to take more control over our country’s future. If that doesn’t happen, we risk a catastrophic loss of trust by the communities we represent in the power of democracy to change things.

Finally, this deal does not give us closure. We will be caught in an interminable, reductive debate about Brexit if we give up all of our leverage before we have nailed down a future relationship that really works for our United Kingdom. If there is one thing that the most fervent Brexiteer and Remainer can agree on, it is the need to start a new chapter as quickly as possible. This deal prevents us from doing so.

Over a series of articles in the lead-up to the vote we will outline how our future prosperity requires us to reject this deal and demand more from us all as a political class. We will then write in more detail about why the deal does not work for our future ambitions on trade, security, the union, the economy, jobs, our communities and the environment.

Put simply, our national debate over Brexit must be about more than simply getting us over the line in March 2019. It must be about the country and continent we are trying to build for March 2029 and beyond. Our future is too important to give away now in haste and pay the price later.

We all want to get back to debating our vision for the UK beyond Brexit – but we can only do that if we make the right decision in the next fourteen days.”

Brexit is an economic prize for the taking if MPs reject this deal and go for independence. Daily Telegraph, 4 December 2018
“It was John Maynard Keynes who once said that economics is a “very dangerous science.” After the life-sapping economic debate on Brexit in recent months, perhaps we should add that it is also a very circular one too. Headlines scream calamity. Economic ruin is promised. GDP estimates have become an unverifiable currency, traded with abandon by those with rabid agendas to pursue.

The economic impact of Brexit should be one of the most important debates to have. Instead it has become one of the most artificial, polarising and facile. It shouldn’t be like this. Reasonable people on both sides can see that Brexit presents both economic opportunities and challenges – both immediately and then, more importantly, for the long-term and the next generation.

To take advantage of those opportunities, we could start by cutting through the current rancid (social) media fog. Economics is not a science. Estimates are not facts. Statistics need to be contextualised. Assumptions need to be understood. The last time economists tried to guess what would happen with Brexit, just before the vote, they weren’t hugely successful. Whilst we should absolutely take heed of what experts are saying, they are not Gods. This is no way to debate leaving the European Union.

Similarly, someone should remind those throwing the statistics around like confetti that economics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For those who suggest that leaving the EU will wipe huge swathes off our GDP, perhaps they could outline how much our GDP has already been held back by the centralised European regulation of the last twenty years? Or tell us, looking ahead, on what basis they are assuming the EU will approach the few decades to make their claims with such certainty? The idea that the status quo will sustain (one, which by the way, still delivers 35% youth unemployment in Greece) is for the birds. Another twenty years of prioritising the European political project above people’s lives is not a ticket to economic paradise.

And, in Britain, at the same time as preparing properly for the change that is coming in 2019 and 2020, we need to also focus on our vision for 2029 and 2030. If done properly, Brexit is a huge opportunity to pivot our approach, turbo-charge our economy and bring new wealth and prosperity to our communities. The ability to open up new markets around the world mustn’t be lost amongst the noise. The new possibilities emanating from closer collaboration with the global tigers could be transformative for our manufacturing communities. And, taking a new approach to regulation, could see significant productivity and economic gains if we pursue them.

First, we have the opportunity to break free of an economic model which, whilst successful, has constrained our growth and competitiveness. Estimates have put the cost of EU regulation at billions of pounds a year. Our country pays for the CFP and the CAP to inflate cost of living for its citizens. There is a huge opportunity to get to work on these structural issues and strip away forty years of policy which doesn’t work for the UK. That doesn’t mean some kind of unregulated dystopia as those who want to frustrate Brexit would have us believe. It simply means we regain control; control to change regulation over the long-term, to respond to innovation, to reform subsidies that don’t work and to have a reasonable debate in our country about where we are going. Even obtaining a fraction of the benefits quoted is a prize worth aiming for.

Second, the gains that come with being flexible and nimble could be huge. The vast majority of growth in the next twenty years is going to come from outside Europe. We should be desperate to get a share of that. Our independence will give us the opportunity to sign bilateral trade deals around the world quickly. Australia and the US signed one within a couple of years. By contrast, the EU is ten years into negotiations with India and nearly twenty with parts of South America. Every year where tariffs or barriers are lower between the United Kingdom and other countries is a year when more trade is generated and more jobs are created. We should be chomping at the bit to get going.

Third, we have the opportunity of making our money stretch further. We pay billions of pounds to the European Union every year. Taking back control of some of that money is a huge opportunity for our country. Better outcomes for public services. Upfront money for reform and improvement. A further reduction in the deficit. Perhaps even some tax cuts. Spreadsheet Phil, or whoever follows him, might never have had it so good.

So, enough with the Project Fear scare stories on economics. Most people know there are careful considerations needed in the short-term to steer the UK through the next couple of years. If the Government was focusing properly on Brexit, instead of this doomed deal, they would be looking at that. But let’s also look to the future; our future prosperity is in our hands not the European Union. Let’s take it.”