Why I, after voting Remain, am now cautiously optimistic about Brexit

Why I, after voting Remain, am now cautiously optimistic about Brexit

Being able to impose tight controls on the level of immigration from other European countries was always, for me, the most appealing aspect of the idea of leaving the European Union.

The impact of high levels of immigration on people whose life chances are already constrained by poor skills and low wages has worried me since before I was elected as MP for Grantham and Stamford and in 2010 I devoted a whole chapter of my book Which Way’s Up? to the issue. So I believe the Prime Minister is right to say that such controls must be part of any relationship that replaces our membership.

In the end I backed the campaign to remain in the EU because I worried about the economic impact of leaving the Single Market even more. I feared my constituents would end up paying a high price in lost jobs and falling incomes as a result of declining foreign investment and trade. But the immediate economic shock that the Remain campaign predicted has not materialised. Consumer confidence remains strong and recent data suggest that both the manufacturing and services sectors are buoyant. It is far too early to be certain about the long term impact of leaving the EU but the early signs are positive, and provide a basis for cautious optimism.

It is that attitude of cautious optimism that leads me to a different conclusion than those who have recently launched Open Britain. I share many of their goals. Like them I want Britain to remain “open-minded, open for business, open to trade and investment, open to talent and hard work, open to Europe and to the world”. But I fear that the approach they are recommending would leave us hopelessly hamstrung, dangling between two stools, and still unable to control immigration.

Despite some cross-party window dressing, Open Britain is run by leading figures from the liberal left. Their entire world view rests on the belief that the European Union was a noble endeavour, with high ideals, which made Britain a more civilised country than it would otherwise have been. They mourn the decision to leave and, not surprisingly, want to hang on to as many of the membership arrangements as possible even after we have technically resigned from the club.

I disagree. I believe that Britain has embodied the values of openness for far longer, and far more consistently than any other European nation. Indeed, we can even claim to be one of their inventors. The reason we decided to take part in the supranational structures of the EU – the customs union, the Single Market and the European Court of Justice – was because we saw it as a way to get other European countries, less instinctively enthusiastic about trade and foreign investment than Britain, to embrace an equivalent level of openness. That was certainly what motivated Margaret Thatcher to sign the Single European Act.

Ultimately the constraints that membership imposed, not least the requirement to accept unlimited immigration, proved too irksome for the British people and they voted to leave. That does not mean we are turning our back on our tradition of openness. It just means we need to create a new set of policies, institutions and partnerships, with our European neighbours and with the rest of the world, to underpin the UK’s unshakeable commitment to free trade and free enterprise.

Clinging onto the structures of the club we have just left – whether the Single Market or the European customs union – while having no say over their future development, would ensure that we end up in the worst of both worlds, neither in nor out, with no power to influence what the European Union does, and no freedom to do something different. And, disastrously, it would stop us from giving the British people what they keep on telling us they want which is immigration control.

On 23rd June, I thought, on balance, that we should stay in the European Union. The British people decided otherwise. And now we must leave, without recriminations or regret, and challenge ourselves to develop a 21st Century model of openness and dynamism that will be a lesson to the world.