What Theresa May needs to say on Friday

What Theresa May needs to say on Friday

On Friday, Theresa May will make possibly the most important speech of her premiership. Although there have been other important speeches, the reason I say this is the most important is because it is in this speech that she will attempt to bring together all the threads of internal discussion and set out the agreed future for this great country of ours.

As she does so, there are a number of things that I believe she will need to cover in order to lead the British people to our new and shared future outside the EU.

The baseline for the speech is also the key element of the referendum campaign: that as we leave, we will take back our borders, our laws and our money. Of course the Prime Minister has said this on a number of occasions, so it isn’t new. However, this time it is simply the precursor to the detail of how we will deliver it.

I have noticed since the Chequers ‘away day’ last week that there is a greater sense of unity in the Cabinet, with a much higher level of commitment to the plan and no more equivocation. In other words, it is no longer the Prime Minister or the odd ‘Brexiteer Cabinet Minister’ who intones that we will be leaving the EU Single Market and its Customs Union; it is now the whole Cabinet and more junior ministers.

So as the Prime Minister starts the speech, she can be content that the Cabinet and, to a greater extent, her party are behind her. This should enable her to make this speech in an optimistic tone.

But first I believe the Prime Minister needs to deal with this draft Withdrawal Agreement text from the EU. In doing so I would encourage her to make it clear that the only threat to the peace process in Northern Ireland comes from those who try to use the Belfast Agreement as part of the negotiations on the Northern Irish border. To accuse or even suggest that we as a Conservative Government want to wreck it is appalling. Yet how often have I heard some whose motive is to stop us leaving throw this out as though by making the allegation and repeating it makes it true; it does not.

I served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and remember too many of my friends and colleagues who died at the hands of the IRA; furthermore my party lost MPs and members who were killed by the IRA. That is why we are so committed to a peace process – one it is worth reminding some that a Conservative Government started. Also, let’s not forget that the influence of the EU on the peace process was minimal. Some might recall that despite the fact that the UK and the Republic of Ireland were both members of the EU, still the Republic refused to extradite terrorists.  

And yet we get all this ridiculous nonsense about a ‘hard’ border after Brexit. There is no need in any circumstance for this to happen. After all, just a few months ago, both HMRC and DEFRA concluded, in evidence to the Exiting the EU Select Committee, that the UK would not need border posts “under any circumstances”.

Furthermore, bear in mind that the Irish police and the PSNI already control trade in really crucial things like arms and drugs – as well as alcohol, despite differences in excise duties – without border posts. It follows logically that it must be simpler to control movement in goods where UK/EU standards diverge in future than it is for illegal drugs and arms. This is because such controls can be carried out away from the border by, for example, Trading Standards officers.

On top of all of this, a recent European Parliament study confirmed that existing technical procedures couldmake borders almost friction free” and obviate the need for controls at the border. It went on to question the prevailing attitude in the Brexit discussions:

“Instead of looking at Brexit as primarily as a task of minimizing the damage to trade and the movement of people, it could be seen as an opportunity to re-design the border concept and to operationally test a new model on the NI-Ireland border that also conceptually – with modifications – could be used also on the other borders to between EU and UK and potentially as a best practice for other EU external borders.”

The Prime Minister would be justified in pointing out that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK and it is not up to the EU to dictate terms on this.

However, the main part of the speech will, I hope, be cast in an optimistic tone, setting out the great opportunities that exist for this country after we leave. We will get our money back to be spent on the UK’s needs; we will be able to set new trade deals around the world and at last the British Parliament will be accountable to the British people.

I also hope that the Prime Minister makes it clear that when we leave the EU we will not be part of any customs union and that we will take the decisions about our regulations that suit the UK. In other words, we will where necessary have regulatory independence, including in Northern Ireland. Alongside that, we should reject the EU’s idea that in any future trade arrangement, the ECJ is the final arbiter in disputes. We must insist that an independent arbitration body is set up for this process.

When it comes to migration control, I have always felt that this is best achieved through controlling access to work with work permits. I do recognise that the full implementation of this will be delayed until we complete the implementation process, notwithstanding that we should retain the right to refuse residency to anyone who arrives in the UK and whom we deem undesirable, even during the implementation period.

Also, in recent days there have been concerns about whether we will end the implementation period within two years. I hope the Prime Minister will make it clear that this will come to an end within the two years. In this – for once – we are aided by the EU, who have made it clear they want it to end by December 2020. What’s more, it should be made clear that it will be a clean break, with no loose ends.

Although the Prime Minister has said in the past that she wants to have agreed a free trade agreement before we leave on 29th March 2019, I think it is worth re-iterating it – otherwise some might think that we will negotiate this during implementation, which would be wrong. After all, if the EU doesn’t want to agree a trade agreement, we will need to point out that there is unlikely to be a financial settlement. After all, as the EU has said, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Yet there is more that goes beyond the mechanics of our future outside the EU. Perhaps most of all this speech should be optimistic about the choice we have made. The Prime Minister should confound the doom-mongers and speak of the great belief she has in her country and its ability to be successful, no matter what.

This country has given the world the free market, the English language, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. This country started the Industrial Revolution and is at the forefront of so many of the world’s technologies, not least the internet. We are the fifth largest economy in the world, with a global reach; a natural free-trading nation with a unique set of friends in the wider world through the Commonwealth. We have faced challenges many times before and overcome them, despite those who said we would fail, for it is in the DNA of this nation to rise and rise again.

It is time to reject the prophets of doom and re-embrace our natural place in the world and this speech is the opportunity for the Prime Minister to do just that.