Nick Boles is MP for Grantham and Stamford. Robert Syms is MP for Poole.
For weeks now, the newspapers have been full of revelations about splits in the Cabinet, with some threatening resignation if the Prime Minister doesn’t deliver a clean break with the Customs Union and others predicting economic ruin if she doesn’t keep us in the Single Market. The media describe a party riven by divisions between gung-ho Leavers and gloom-laden Remainers.
But, as is often the case in politics, the noise and fury disguises another story which may turn out to be much more important. That is the gulf between the relatively small number of MPs, fewer than 50, who are zealots, ideologically driven by one or other vision of our future relationship with the European Union. And the rest of us in the parliamentary party, five times as many, who are sceptical of claims that one version of Brexit will bring triumph and the other disaster, who believe that Jeremy Corbyn poses a far greater threat to Britain’s security and prosperity than anything that could emerge from these negotiations, who trust the Prime Minister to specify what Britain should seek from our future relationship and who will back her in a confrontation with hotheads of either variety inside or outside her Cabinet.
The authors of this article voted differently in the referendum, but both of us arrived at our decisions pragmatically, based on our judgment at the time about the relative pros and cons of EU membership. We can both imagine having arrived at the opposite conclusion. But neither of us regrets the choice we made.
We are part of the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs who want the Prime Minister to get on with the job of delivering a Brexit that respects the referendum result and works in practice. We would both like Britain to be able to negotiate its own trade deals, but we don’t delude ourselves that this will be quick or easy and certainly don’t want to jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland or the success of Britain’s car manufacturers or aerospace companies. The British people were far more enthusiastic about Europe when it basically involved being in the Common Market, so we would welcome a return to something like a common market in industrial goods, even if that means signing up to EU rules (and rulings) in the relevant areas and paying something for the privilege – just so long as it’s a lot less than what we pay now.
Services account for 80 per cent of our economy and Britain is very well placed to lead the world in new industries like artificial intelligence, bioscience and fintech. In the mainstream service industries where British firms dominate as well as in these industries of the future we must be free to set our own rules, even if that means forfeiting some of the access that the Single Market currently provides.
A strong desire for immigration to be controlled was one of the key factors that motivated those who voted to leave the EU, but recent polling has confirmed that most people support immigration if it involves people with skills coming here to work hard, pay taxes and make a positive contribution to British society. So a deal that gives us the power to restrict the immigration of low-skilled people who are looking for work but maintains access for students and higher-skilled Europeans with specific job offers sounds reasonable – especially if it unlocks a more pragmatic approach from the EU towards future cooperation in other areas like the Galileo satellite navigation system or cross-border security arrangements.
Anyone who thinks we are going to get everything we ask for in this negotiation is heading for disappointment. Any member of the Cabinet who throws their toys out of the pram when they don’t get their way at Chequers on Friday will receive a cold shoulder in the tearoom. We need to give the Prime Minister the latitude to be flexible and trade progress in one area off against compromises in another. Next March will not be the end of the story although we will formally leave the European Union. Nor will December 2020, when the formal transition will come to a close. The EU will evolve; so will Britain. There will always be new challenges to overcome, new threats to counter and new opportunities to exploit. Let’s not get obsessed by the desire for absolute perfection at the journey’s start; let’s give Theresa May the backing to get a deal done so we can start to explore the possibilities the future brings.