Nick Boles is MP for Grantham and Stamford.
Unlike the papers, I have no idea what the Prime Minister is going to say in her speech about Brexit later today. But it’s very welcome that she has decided to put some flesh on the bones of her strategy as businesses small and large need to know where they stand. In my experience as skills minister and planning minister responsible for reforms with significant impact on business planning, businesses can cope with almost any eventuality with sufficient warning but they do need time to get ready. That’s why it is also welcome that David Davis recognises that we may need to agree a transition between current arrangements as members of the EU and our long-term position outside it – not to delay Brexit but to give businesses in industries with long investment cycles enough certainty to make the capital commitments we want them to make.
Because of my illness I am also a bit cut off from the latest evolution in thinking among fellow MPs on the liberal wing of the Conservative Party. But as someone who has devoted over 15 years to the task of broadening the party’s electoral appeal by reaching out to people who are moderate in instinct and liberal in attitude, I do feel strongly that there is a wrong way and a right way for Conservatives who share this outlook to respond to the prospect of Brexit and the triggering of Article 50. This is what I would be saying to my colleagues in the cafes, canteens and tearoom of the House of Commons, if I were able to join them this evening.
As liberal Conservatives, we would all like the UK to be a strong defender of liberal values in politics, economics and international relations. We would all like the UK to cooperate closely with our European friends on a wide range of matters ranging from climate change through scientific research to counter-terrorism. We all want young Europeans to have plentiful opportunities to study and work in Britain and young Brits to enjoy the same welcome in the EU.
Some have argued that the referendum did no more than mandate an exit from full membership of the European Union and does not require exit from the Single Market or the customs union or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. As a technical matter of law, this is clearly right. But as a matter of political strategy, I believe that it would be a huge error for liberal Conservatives to go down this road.
We need to be utterly unsentimental in our assessment of our political strengths and weaknesses when set against the strengths and weaknesses of those who would like to see a new relationship with our European partners that is less liberal, less open and less engaged. We need to choose political ground that we can easily defend and from which we can credibly and persuasively attack the more extreme positions of the small but noisy Little Englander element in our party, and beyond.
If we try to fight for continued membership of the Single Market – and the obligations that entails – we will be picking ground that is impossible to defend for two reasons. Partly because the leaders of both the Remain and the Leave campaigns argued consistently that a vote to leave the EU would take us out of the Single Market. But mainly because the motives of Leave voters, while not on the ballot paper and having no legal force, are well understood and politically inescapable. They voted to take back control of our laws and our immigration policy and membership of the Single Market would make that impossible.
If we choose to contest this ground, we will lose the argument inside the Conservative Party. And by doing so we will remove ourselves from the real battleground of the next few years which will be the debate about the shape of the new arrangements that should replace our membership of both the EU and its Single Market.
If, however, we concede that Brexit must also mean exit from the Single Market, we will move immediately onto much better terrain. We will no longer be seen to be trying to ignore the voters’ wishes and neuter the referendum decision but to be listening to them, and doing our best to make Brexit a success for Britain. We will no longer be in cahoots with political opponents like Miliband, Clegg and Sturgeon who are all longing to find a way to overturn the referendum result but carving out a distinctive liberal Conservative position which sees the UK becoming the leading champion of a global order based on liberal values. We will win new allies among the many liberal Leavers who share our vision of Britain as a great trading nation, open to doing business and exchanging ideas around the world. Together, we will then be able to take on the Europhobic ultras and argue credibly for deep co-operation on defence and security, or for freedom of movement for maths and physics graduates or for a small continued contribution to EU coffers or for any other pragmatic position we believe is in the national interest.
If there are to be votes on legislation authorising the trigger of Article 50 and on Opposition amendments to it, I hope that my liberal Conservative colleagues will recognise that as a group we have an opportunity to play a pivotal role in the debate about our new partnership with the EU and that, by doing this, we could have a decisive influence over the future of the UK and its commitment to liberal values, at a time when these values have few friends around the world. To win the right to play that role and exercise that influence, however, we must recognise that the battle to stay in the Single Market was lost on 23rd June along with our membership of the EU. Let’s give the Prime Minister the full support she deserves in executing the strategy she is setting out today – and harbour our firepower for the crucial debates of the next two years, for these are debates that I am confident liberal Conservatives can win.