In the face of a rigidly ideological, hard-left Labour Party, it is the duty of all Conservatives to embrace pragmatic political thinking in order to maximise real-world policy benefits. When it comes to Brexit, I believe that means backing the Prime Minister’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons vote this week. Put simply, there is no viable alternative; voting down May’s deal could throw the entire Brexit project wildly off course.
No Deal is not a plausible option. I do not make that statement as a Remainer who professes through gritted teeth to have accepted the referendum result as ‘the will of the British people’ but will lurch towards any opportunity to keep the UK as closely aligned to the EU as possible. Rather, I have long touted the benefits of an independent trade policy, unilateral immigration controls and true parliamentary sovereignty. Had I been of age in June 2016, I would have voted to leave the EU. I truly believe that the best way to grasp the opportunities presented by Brexit is by implementing the terms of Theresa May’s Agreement.
It seems to me that the key arguments presented by proponents of No Deal tend to wither under scrutiny. Whilst the notion of a ‘clean break’ might sound attractive in theory, when it comes to politics — “the art of the possible” — clean breaks are almost never desirable. If we were to leave the EU without a deal next March, British business would suffer immensely in the short term because of chaos at the ports and the instantaneous evaporation of any and all frictionless trade, thereby infringing on our ability to do trade deals elsewhere. Perhaps most devastatingly, a destructive hard border of one form or another would wreak havoc in Ireland. As much as one might resent the legacy of Tony Blair, tearing up the Good Friday Agreement would be like putting a hard border behind the nose to spite the face, to misquote Saint Ebba.
The most common rebuttal to this argument is that temporary measures could be put in place to ease the transition. Economist Ruth Lea, for instance, insists that deals would be done to avert chaos in the short term. Similarly, Dominic Raab talks enthusiastically of a so-called ‘managed No Deal’. The rhetoric of No Deal is loud and proud until it comes to inconvenient realities, when it seems that its feasibility suddenly comes to rest on the implementation of deals, which rather defeats the point. One is inclined to suggest that these deals could be agreed in advance and combined into some form of Withdrawal Agreement that could be put to a vote in the Commons.
The idea of a managed No Deal is a contradiction in terms. No Deal is, by its very definition, unmanaged, and that is precisely why it cannot work. It goes against every fibre of my political being to side with the Europhiles against the Brexiteers on this, but it seems that Corbyn’s ideological politics has had such a momentous effect on the climate of our discourse that even hardline Conservatives have become so idealistic that, having spent their entire careers campaigning for Brexit, they now find themselves denouncing it as it sits in front of them.
The consequences of No Deal, if it were to happen (which appears increasingly unlikely), will rest on the heads of those who voted down the proposed Agreement. Of course, some preliminary mitigating measures have been taken on both the British and European sides but, as the Government’s incessant PR machine has been saying repeatedly for the past eighteen months, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
If it turns out that, in the end, nothing is agreed (i.e. No Deal comes to the fore) the Conservative Party risks consigning itself to electoral oblivion for the foreseeable future. Barely three years ago, the UK’s third biggest party signed its own death warrant via an innocuous policy on tuition fees. If the Tory Party suddenly decides that it disagrees with itself on Brexit and causes us to crash out of Europe as a result, the consequences would be unimaginably grave, in the long term as well as the short.
If No Deal is out of the picture, what are the alternatives? Super Canada? Norway plus? Iceland minus? Lapland squared? The bandying about of totally unattainable hypothetical alternative deals is counter-productive and farcical. The Prime Minister’s Agreement is the only one that achieves all the required outcomes from Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. It is a remarkable exercise in pragmatism.
Renegotiation of the Agreement is clearly a fantasy best left to those on the Opposition benches. Even so, there is no other course of action that solves the Irish border problem. As the Prime Minister has pointed out time and time again, every conceivable withdrawal agreement must have a backstop element. I was fascinated by a remark from a Remain-voting Tory MP recently that Brexiteers’ apparent shock and horror when the draft Agreement was published last month seemed almost entirely artificial. For anyone who had been following Brexit, there were no major unexpected concessions at all.
The backstop solution is ingeniously designed for the mutual benefit of us and the EU (though mainly us) so that we essentially have access to the Customs Union that is free from both cost and Single Market immigration, an arrangement undoubtedly much coveted by many of our neighbours. It is not in Brussels’ interest to ‘trap’ us in the backstop for that reason, as well as the fact that their bad faith would be visible to the whole world and their trading reputation would be irreparably damaged.
The other major achievement of the backstop is that it negates the ludicrous ‘backstop to the backstop’ scenario. If a backstop needs a backstop, it is not a backstop. Calls for the insertion of a unilateral withdrawal clause are fatuous; I struggle to believe that all the Brexiteers who lament the lack of such a clause fail to understand that its presence would defeat the very point of the backstop. A safety net is of no significance if it can be yanked away at any moment. There is no feasible backstop-less withdrawal agreement, real or hypothetical. The inevitable conclusion is that many of the Prime Minister’s critics had already made up their minds to resolutely oppose her deal and latched onto the backstop as a means of doing that, despite it being cataclysmically unwise (assuming one actually wants Brexit to happen).
Somebody commented to me recently that the language surrounding the Withdrawal Agreement is highly misleading; it is just that, an agreement, not a ‘deal’ as it is so often called. Given the uproar it has provoked, one would be forgiven for thinking that it pertained to Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU, rather than merely the terms of our departure. The doomsday predictions of an impending government collapse which seem to re-emerge with a renewed vigour almost hourly make the Agreement seem much more consequential than it truly is. Canada+++ is a very good post-Brexit option. The Political Declaration is evidently mere bluster; the true negotiations for the future relationship have not yet got underway in earnest. They have nothing to do with the Withdrawal Agreement.
History will look back on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement as an impressive political feat: she has emerged against all odds bearing an Agreement that is not only workable but ticks all the necessary boxes. That there has been a stark lack of sincere support for it from outside her government staggers me. The Financial Times clenched its jaw and reluctantly endorsed the Agreement, though at great pains throughout to stress that it still believes Brexit is “an act of national self-harm”. On the other side of the debate, Tim Montgomerie takes the line: “I know it’s rubbish, but it’s the best we’ve got” in his justification for backing the deal. The defence offered by both sides is hardly a ringing endorsement.
Providing a comprehensive analysis of the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement in a space such as this is an impossibility, but I believe I have covered the key points. I hereby wish to buck this depressing trend by humbly offering my whole-hearted, enthusiastic support for the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement. It is a commendable achievement in every sense.