Esther McVey is a former Work and Pensions Secretary, and is MP for Tatton.
Resigning from Cabinet is often described as one of the most difficult decisions that a politician can make, but for me it was entirely logical.
From the outset, it was clear that the Withdrawal Agreement failed to honour the outcome of the EU referendum, secure our long-term economic independence and take full advantage of the UK leaving the constraints of the EU. How could I remain in the Cabinet knowing that?
I could not, hand on heart, sign up to a deal that sells the UK short. So keeping my job paled into insignificance compared to the enormity of the effects that this bad deal will have on the future prosperity of our country. Its effects will last far longer than any of our careers; it will shape the UK’s future for generations to come.
Concerns about the agreement around the Cabinet table were palpable, and the legal advice from Geoffrey Cox was damning. This was the one chance that the Cabinet had to avert the UK accepting a bad deal. But when I tried to focus these concerns by calling for a vote to see if this deal did indeed have the agreement of Cabinet, opposition crumbled – and my colleagues fell silent.
In politics, trust is paramount. Once it is lost you cannot get it back. Leaving the EU on the terms set out in the Withdrawal Agreement would see us lose public trust on the biggest issue of our age. And we were risking that trust on an agreement which had zero chance of passing a vote in the Commons.
Even now, I find it hard to believe that my colleagues could not see that this deal was doomed from the outset. Since I left the Cabinet, I have watched with disbelief as events have unfolded – like everyone else. The attempts to sell this fundamentally bad deal through a full Ministerial tour and PR campaign actually saw opposition harden. The Government was left with no option this week but to pull the meaningful vote to avoid a defeat of historic proportions.
In her statement on the delay to the vote, the Prime Minister spoke of the need to provide ‘reassurances’ on the backstop for the Northern Irish Border. This was a major misreading of the concerns which I and many others have over the backstop and of the deal which will see us hand over £39 billion with zero guarantees over a future trade agreement.
The Prime Minister has now won a confidence vote of Parliamentary colleagues, but it is clear there are significant concerns over what remains a bad deal for the UK. However, rather than using this moment to reassess the Government’s approach to the terms of our exit, the Prime Minister continues to talk about seeking further reassurances. Mere reassurances fall far short of addressing what is wrong with this deal. We need fundamental changes, including to the legally binding agreement.
The Prime Minister must now do what she should have done when it was clear that the deal she presented to Cabinet did not honour the outcome of the referendum, failed to secure our long term economic independence and risked missing the huge opportunities of leaving the constraints of the European Union.
She must use the clear domestic concerns about the agreement to push for two fundamental changes
- That the backstop is ultimately unacceptable and must be removed and,
- That the £39 billion must be linked to a future trade agreement.
The clock is ticking, so we simply do not have the time to pretend that, with a little bit of tinkering, this fundamentally bad deal can be made acceptable to the British people. The more time we waste on an agreement which cannot meet the wishes of both sides, the more likely it is that we will default to an abrupt departure at the end of March.
t is better to focus our time, resources and energy on preparing a planned Brexit now and to come up with a clear plan for what will follow. To continue with a charade that tweaking here and there and tacking on assurances will somehow make this flawed agreement better risks the Government failing properly to prepare for what comes next.
With little over three months remaining, we must pursue these two conditions with the EU and, if they are rejected, then we must accept that it has not been possible to secure a deal which satisfies the interests of both the UK and the EU. In the event of this outcome, we must focus all our resources on securing an orderly exit from the EU.
Moving to a planned Brexit should follow these recommendations to ensure that it is as orderly as possible in the time that we have available:
- Identify the pragmatic and tactical agreements based upon mutual interest which we can make with the EU and bi-laterally with individual member states to minimise disruption to both parties upon the UK’s exit from the European Union.
- Put in place the contingency measures that we can begin to implement now, giving clarity to people and businesses. Immediately review all no deal planning conducted to date and scale up planning in key areas before 29 March to allow the UK to mitigate known areas of impact.
- Negotiate a ‘no deal implementation period’, like the one in place for a deal situation, and pay the EU our membership fee during that time (circa £10 billion a per year net).
- Identify investments in new systems, such as those in operation at the border which need to be implemented, scaled up or brought forward to support an orderly Brexit.
- Begin immediate discussions with the Republic of Ireland on the operation of an open border post-Brexit, since both the UK and the Republic have committed to no hard border even in the event of no deal.
- Start an immediate study of the policy changes needed to ensure the long-term competitiveness of the UK, including the reduction of burdensome regulations on business and, where required, divergence from the EU, while maintaining alignment in areas of national interest.
- Issue immediate reassurance to all EU nationals residing in the UK to remove any doubts over their future and rights once the UK has left the EU.
Moving to a planned Brexit will allow us to reallocate the £39 billion to implement contingency measures, introduce new systems to ensure long term success and provide a cushion to those areas of the economy which need more time to adjust to the change.
It will also allow us to move beyond the discussion over the flawed backstop arrangement and look for practical solutions for the Northern Irish Border. The EU has cynically used the backstop to leverage a deal which will allow them to keep the UK tied into their rules indefinitely. Shifting the focus to a planned Brexit would give a clear focus on the practical arrangements that authorities on both sides of the border need to take to keep the border open.
The current Withdrawal Agreement does not fulfil our vote to leave the EU, is not in our economic interests and, ultimately, its inherent flaws mean that it increases the chances of the UK defaulting into an abrupt no deal Brexit.
It is increasingly clear that an alternative approach is required. Some have suggested that Norway, ‘Norway for now’, Norway Plus or EFTA/EEA membership could present that alternative, yet this would keep us even more closely tied to the EU and would genuinely ensure that we remain in the EU in all but name. This is not delivering on the referendum and would destroy the public’s faith in democracy.
Without agreement from the EU that it is willing to remove the backstop and accept that the £39 billion payment must be linked to a future trade agreement, a planned and orderly Brexit as outlined above is the only option which prioritises our economic interests, is achievable within the time frame left and which actually delivers on the public vote to leave.