As humiliations go, accepting this Brexit deal would be complete and unendurable

As humiliations go, accepting this Brexit deal would be complete and unendurable

After the end, the beginning. The long months of talks in Brussels have brought forth a draft withdrawal agreement to leave the European Union – all 585 pages of it. Amid the drama, the essential themes are clear. There will be a backstop agreement to the deal without an end date and with no ability for the UK to extricate ourselves without the consent of a third party. And there will be a grave threat to the Union.

Northern Ireland will find itself in a different regulatory regime to the rest of our country – to use the analogy that is being deployed about the “backstop within a backstop”, it will be in the deep end of the swimming pool while the rest of us are only paddling up to our knees. This represents gold dust for the Scottish Nationalists, who will seize on a different arrangement for one part of the country to demand a separate arrangement for Scotland.

We will be asked to sign up to all this, and hand over £39 thousand million, in exchange for a flimsy 7-page “political declaration” about the hoped-for trade relationship that would lie beyond this, should we ever be able to escape. That political declaration will be drafted to mean all things to all men, but will lead inexorably to the ultra-high alignment agreed at Chequers in July rather than the Canada-style free trade deal we should be aiming for. There will be so-called “non-regression clauses” to ensure the UK cannot out-compete the EU. This would scupper our hopes of being a global trading titan and bind us into EU manufacturing rules in perpetuity. As humiliations go, this would be complete and unendurable. The Prime Minister will have unerringly delivered a deal that delivers none of the benefits of leaving the EU and none of the benefits of remaining.

85 years ago, Churchill warned: 

“All down the centuries, one peculiarity of the English people has cost them dear. We have always thrown away after a victory the greater part of the advantages we have gained in the struggle. The worst difficulties from which we suffer do not come from without. They come from within… from the mood of unwarrantable self-abasement into which we have been cast by a powerful section of our own intellectuals. They come from the acceptance of defeatist doctrines by a large proportion of our politicians… Nothing can save England if she will not save herself. If we lose faith in ourselves, in our capacity to guide and govern, if we lose our will to live, then indeed our story is told.” 

Such will be the legacy of Brexit if this deal goes through. The brave decision of the British people to leave the European Union, taken in the largest democratic vote in our history, will have been reduced in two years to a shameful and squalid surrender. This must be resisted at all costs, and I have little doubt that the House of Commons will indeed defeat the deal should matters go that far.

The burning question will then arise: what next?

A deal may still be salvageable, based around the broad and generous offer made by European Council President Donald Tusk in March. This would be an advanced free trade agreement, encompassing services and covering all sectors with zero tariffs and no quantitative limitations. Alongside this the UK would offer deep security cooperation and mutual recognition of practical issues from aviation regulations to driving licences. The EU’s offer, of course, was made to Great Britain and not the whole of the UK. The EU was not prepared to extend its offer to Northern Ireland – hence so much of the tortuous negotiation that has ensued.

But there is a way to deliver such an agreement, in the form of a free-standing treaty on trade facilitation between the UK and Ireland to be negotiated in parallel to the wider negotiations, as it surely could be. Such a treaty would deliver an invisible border that would satisfy WTO rules and could be referenced in the wider UK-EU free trade agreement. There would be no hard border and no need for a backstop beyond this.

This seems to me to represent a deal that could secure sufficient votes to satisfy Brussels and pass the House of Commons. In tandem with this, an immense national effort must be set in motion so that the UK Government and businesses prepare themselves day and night between now and 29th March next year for a no-deal scenario. Every moment that passes without such an effort is a moment wasted, and weakens our hand in securing the good Brexit deal that our country expects and deserves.