John Baron is MP for Basildon and Billericay.
There is a cadre of Conservative backbenchers which has remained quietly loyal to the PM regarding the EU negotiations – believing her to be honourable in her intent to respect the wishes of the electorate following the referendum. But Number 10 must now show leadership and bring the EU Withdrawal Bill to a vote. There comes a moment in politics when a Government must look beyond the machinations of the ‘Westminster bubble’ and do the right thing – history suggests those who do are usually rewarded.
Twenty-two months since the referendum, there is still a lack of clarity as to the Government’s intentions for our future trading relationship with the European Union. This vacuum provides a blank canvas onto which all manner of scenarios and arrangements can be painted, and there is no shortage of suggestions from across the Party and Remain/Leave divides – peers rush in where angels fear to tread. ‘Betrayal’ is a strong word, but there is a growing sense of it in the country.
The Prime Minister’s Lancaster House, Mansion House, and Florence speeches last year set out the Government’s intentions to take us out of both the Single Market and the Customs Union. This is undoubtedly the right approach, returning control over our money, trade, laws and immigration back to Westminster. Anything less than this clean break from the European Union will not be following through on the instruction of the British people to leave the EU. Any form of halfway house would be the worst of all worlds.
This is why an increasing number of Conservative backbenchers are concerned by the Prime Minister’s apparent attachment to the idea of a Customs Partnership. A system requiring the UK to collect tariffs on the EU’s behalf, monitor the final destination of goods entering our country, and give refunds for those not leaving the UK would certainly require an expensive and complex bureaucracy. Even if workable, it might actively put off firms from importing into the UK, and therefore dent our ability to strike free trade deals with countries outside the EU.
The other model, ‘maximum facilitation’, would seem to be much more attractive, minimising customs controls in favour of ‘trusted trader’ schemes and innovative uses of technology – whilst also allowing Britain a free rein to strike international trade deals. This approach has not been attempted elsewhere at this scale, but that alone is not a valid argument against setting it up. Given the importance of the ongoing relationship between the EU and UK, it is no good for the former to glibly maintain that the onus is entirely on London to find a solution.
Whatever the details, there is a danger that Number 10 is over-complicating the issue in general. Whilst trade deals tend to be preferable, they are not essential to trade – witness the number of Chinese goods in our shops. We essentially trade with the rest of the world on World Trade Organisation terms, courtesy of EU policy. Tariffs of mostly three to five per cent have already been funded by sterling’s long-overdue depreciation following Brexit. Such an approach, together with reducing Corporation Tax courtesy of some of the annual £10+ billion savings from leaving the EU, is perfectly feasible.
More businessmen and fewer lawyers now need to be heard in Parliament. Formally casting aside the unsatisfactory ‘customs partnership’ option should be the Prime Minister’s first priority, providing much-needed clarity as to what the Government intends to achieve for EU officials, international observers and (indeed) our own negotiators.
The results of the local elections also provide a political imperative for this course of action. According to Sir John Curtice, the Conservative vote increased by 13 points in those areas where more than 60 per cent of people voted to leave the EU. Some Labour MPs are cognisant of this fact, especially if they represent constituencies which voted Leave. Many voters recognise that a controlled and fair immigration policy would help to increase wages – something Lord Rose, head of the Remain campaign, accidentally confessed to the Treasury Committee prior to the referendum, even though big business may not like it.
However, it is the Conservative Party which is the Party of Brexit, so if we are to remain competitive it is essential that we deliver a Brexit which works and which is in accordance with their wishes to decisively leave the EU. Remainers are entitled to point out that the exact details of our future relationship with the EU were not on the referendum ballot paper, but they should equally reflect on the fact that over 17 million people did not vote to keep the status quo by another name.
Thus far in the Brexit process, a relatively small number of Brexiteers have enjoyed a high profile in the media and elsewhere. However, there are a rather larger number of us on the backbenches who have quietly been staunch supporters of the Government and Prime Minister, and have not got involved with the letter-writing and counter-briefing which has characterised the post-referendum period.
The time has come for the Prime Minister to show bold leadership, both in Cabinet and in Parliament – and she might reflect on the fact that, as the local elections have shown, a successful Brexit could pay rich dividends at future elections.