Lord Bridges of Headley was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union until June 2017, when he resigned.
Do you think that Parliament should honour the result of the referendum and withdraw from the European Union? This is the simple question at the heart of the debate over the Government’s deal.
If your answer is “no”, then don’t bother reading any further. Obviously you can’t support any deal – you want the UK to remain in the EU. If you’re a Leaver, I suspect your answer is a resounding, deafening “yes”. I agree – as a Remainer, and a Conservative whose party was elected on manifesto that clearly stated “the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union”. (Labour MPs were elected on a manifesto that stated “Labour accepts the referendum result”.)
This then begs the next question: “is it in our national interest to agree to the deal on offer?” To answer that you need to examine both the deal itself, and then the consequences of Parliament rejecting it.
There is much to dislike about the deal – especially the vice of the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement, and the vagueness of much of the Political Declaration. But this outcome should not have come as any surprise to anyone. It is the result of multiple failures. Failure to be honest about the need for compromise. Failure to answer clearly the question “what matters more – our sovereignty or access to EU markets?”, and then to create a clear consensus in the Cabinet before triggering Article 50. Failure to prepare effectively for no deal. Failure to reject the concept of the Irish backstop. Failure to win a majority in the last general election, making it much more difficult to secure Parliamentary backing for an agreement, or for no deal.
The product of all this is a deal which, once signed, will enshrine the backstop in law, give the EU the “divorce” cheque, and thereby strip us of much of our negotiating leverage in the next phase of the negotiations. And yes, that could mean us falling into the customs union backstop, from which we could only escape with the EU’s permission.
That said, consider what the deal would deliver. The core, fundamental point is we will leave, period. We will enter a transition agreement. We will be out of the EU’s political union. Today’s payments to the EU will stop. More than that, amidst the verbiage the political declaration, the silhouette of the final deal is becoming clear. It amounts to something that the EU has long resisted: splitting up the four freedoms. We would have complete control over immigration. The UK would – it seems – remain close to the EU on the regulation of goods, but would have more control over our services, which amount to 80 per cent of the economy. The supremacy (but not the entire role) of the ECJ would be over. We would be out of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.
The scale of criticism directed at this approach reflects an obvious point: like most compromises, people on both sides of the debate dislike it. But if we want to leave with an agreement, compromise between Leave and Remainers, and with the EU, was always going to be inevitable. And this compromise appears to deliver on the priority for Leavers and Conservatives: immigration. YouGov asked Leave voters to say whether trade policy or control over our borders were more important to them in assessing the Brexit negotiation: 55 per cent said immigration, 28 per cent trade. Among Conservative voters, 49 per cent said immigration, 34 per cent trade.
So yes, there is devil in the detail of this agreement. But it is a devil we know. The same cannot be said for what happens if this deal is voted down. The only outcome we can then be certain about is uncertainty.
Option one – asserted by many Leavers – is the UK leaves without a deal. Put aside whether the UK is ready for this outcome (which is highly dubious): the key point is the majority in the Commons appear to oppose a no deal Brexit. True, the Commons cannot pass a motion that binds the Government’s hands. But on an issue of this scale, the Government cannot ignore a motion as if it were graffiti. It will need to act.
And so we get to option two: the Government tries to renegotiate the deal with the EU. Some claim the Government could modify the backstop, or get it dropped entirely. Dream on. The EU have always seen the backstop as a solution that cannot be ended by one party – that would defeat its purpose. They are unlikely to scrap it even if we were to say now “let’s join the EEA”: that’s our future relationship, which is for the next phase of the negotiation. (And that’s before one considers whether the Conservative Party would accept not taking back control of immigration.)
Enter option three: we extend the Article 50 negotiating period and delay Brexit. Parliament and all the EU member states would have to agree to this. Would they? How long would the extension period last? And unless the deal were to be radically revised (unlikely, as I’ve said), why would the result not also be rejected by Parliament?
The signals from Brussels suggest that the EU would only extend Article 50 if there were to be a material change in the political situation here. And so that brings us to option four: we have a general election. This still seems unlikely, given the only thing on which there is a Parliamentary majority is a wish to avoid one.
So that leaves option five: a second referendum, now apparently seen as “inevitable” by Labour if there is no general election. And this is what should really concentrate the mind. For if you agree with the very first point – that we must honour the referendum and leave the EU – then do you want to risk this?
If the answer to that question is “yes”, and you want a second referendum, is there a majority in Parliamentary to extend Article 50 (as we would need to time to get the legislation through Parliament)? Is there a majority in Parliament to vote for another referendum? What would the questions be? Would voters be asked to support this deal – even though we are not clear on the final destination? And imagine the public voted again to leave: given Parliament does not support leaving without a deal but does not agree on this deal, what is to say we won’t land up back precisely where we are now?
This deal is not perfect. Compromises rarely are – and this Government has exacerbated the situation by its handling of the negotiations. But the time for debating preferences and options is over. Now we have to make a decision and choose. The devil you know or the devil you don’t. Compromise or chaos. If you want to be sure that Brexit happens, however much you might dislike this deal, there is only one course of action – vote for it.