“Mr Speaker, I want to thank you for granting me this opportunity first to pay tribute to the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have done an outstanding job over the last two years. I am very proud that we have rallied the world against Russia’s barbaric use of chemical weapons, with an unprecedented 28 countries joining together to expel 153 spies in protest at what happened in Salisbury. We have rejuvenated the Commonwealth with a superb summit that saw Zimbabwe back on the path to membership – and Angola now wanting to join. As I leave, we are leading global campaigns against illegal wildlife trade and in favour of 12 years of quality education for every girl. We have the flag going up in nine new missions in the Pacific and the Caribbean and Africa and more to come. And we have overtaken France to boast the biggest diplomatic network of any European country.
None of this would have been possible without the support of my Rt Hon Friend the Prime Minister. Everyone who has worked with her will recognise her courage and resilience. It was my privilege to collaborate with her in promoting Global Britain, a vision for this country she set out with great clarity at Lancaster House on January 17th last year a country eager, as she said, not just to do a bold, ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, out of the customs union and out of the single market, but also to do new free trade deals around the world.
I thought it was the right vision then. I think so today.
But in the 18 months that have followed, it is as though a fog of self-doubt has descended. Even though our EU friends and partners liked the Lancaster House vision – it was what they were expecting from an ambitious partner, and what they understood – even though the commentators liked it, and the markets liked it (the pound soared), we never actually went to Brussels and turned it into a negotiating offer.
Instead we dithered. We burned through negotiating capital. We agreed to hand over a £40billion exit fee, with no discussion of our future economic relationship. We accepted the jurisdiction of the European Court over key aspects of the withdrawal agreement. And, worst of all, we allowed the question of the Northern Irish border, which had hitherto been assumed on all sides to be readily soluble, to become so politically charged as to dominate the debate.
No one wants a hard border. You couldn’t construct one if you tried. But there certainly can be different rules north and south of the border to reflect the fact that there are two different jurisdictions. In fact there already are.
There can be checks away from the border, and technical solutions, as the PM described at Mansion House. In fact there already are.
But when I and other colleagues proposed further technical solutions to make customs and regulatory checks remotely, they were never even properly examined, as if such solutions had become intellectually undesirable in the context of the argument. And somehow, after the December joint report, whose backstop arrangement we were all told was entirely provisional, never to be invoked, it became taboo even to discuss technical fixes.
So, Mr Speaker, after 18 months of stealthy retreat, we have come from the bright certainties of Lancaster House to the Chequers agreement.
Put them side by side.
Lancaster House said laws will be once again “made in Westminster”. Chequers says there will be “ongoing harmonisation” with a common EU rulebook.
Lancaster House said it would be wrong to “comply with EU rules and regulations without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are”. Chequers now makes us rule takers.
Lancaster House said we don’t want anything that leaves us “half-in, half-out” and that “we do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave”. Chequers says that we will remain in lockstep on goods and agrifoods and much more besides,with disputes ultimately adjudicated by the European Court of Justice.
Far from making laws in Westminster, there are large sectors in which ministers will have no power to initiate, innovate or even deviate. After decades in which UK ministers have gone to Brussels and expostulated against costly EU regulation, we are now claiming that we must accept every jot and tittle of it for our own economic health – and with no say of our own, and no way of protecting our businesses and entrepreneurs from rules that may be not in their interests.
My Rt Hon Friend the Chancellor was asked to identify the biggest single opportunity from Brexit. After some thought, he said “regulatory innovation”. Well, there may be regulatory innovation post-Brexit, but it won’t be coming from the UK, or not in these areas anyway. We are volunteering for economic vassalage, not just in goods and agrifoods, but we will be forced to match EU arrangements on the environment and social affairs and much else besides. Of course we all want high standards, but it is hard to see how the Conservative Government of the 1980s could have done its vital supply side reforms with these freedoms taken away.
Indeed, the result of accepting the EU’s rule books, and of our proposal of a fantastical Heath Robinson customs arrangement, is that we have much less scope to do free trade deals – as the Chequers paper actually acknowledges, and which we should all acknowledge. Otherwise we continue to make the fatal mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the public, saying one thing to the EU about what we are really doing, and pretending another to the electorate. Given that in important ways this is BINO or Brino or Brexit in name only, I am of course unable to support it, as I said in Cabinet at Chequers, and am happy to be able now to speak out against it.
Mr Speaker, it is not too late to save Brexit. We have time in these negotiations. We have changed tack once and we can change again.
The problem is not that we failed to make the case for a Free Trade Agreement of the kind spelt out at Lancaster House. We haven’t even tried. We must try now, because we will not have another chance to get this right. It is absolute nonsense to imagine – as I fear some of my colleagues do – that we can somehow afford to make a botched Treaty now, and then break and reset the bone later on. We have seen even in these talks how the supposedly provisional becomes eternal.
We have the time, and I believe the Prime Minister has the support of Parliament – remember the enthusiasm for Lancaster House – and it was clear last night that there is no majority for going back to the customs union. With goodwill and common sense we can address concerns about the Northern Ireland border and all other borders. We have fully two and a half years to make the technical preparations – along with the preparations for a WTO outcome, which we should now accelerate. We do not need to be stampeded by anyone. Let’s explicitly aim once again for the glorious vision of Lancaster House, a strong independent self-governing Britain that is genuinely open to the world, not the miserable permanent limbo of Chequers, the democratic disaster of “ongoing harmonisation” with no way out and no say for the UK.
We need to take one decision now before all others – and that is to believe in this country and what it can do. The UK’s admirers across the world are fully expecting us to take back control, to be able to set new standards for technologies in which we excel, to behave not as rule-takers but as great independent actors on the world stage, to do free trade deals for the benefit and prosperity of the British people.
That was the vision of Brexit we fought for; that was the vision the Prime Minister rightly described last year. That is the prize. And if the Prime Minister can fix that vision once again before us then I believe she can deliver a great Brexit for Britain, with a positive and self-confident approach that will unite this party, unite this House, and unite the country as well.”