Sir Graham Brady is MP for Altrincham and Sale West and Chairman of the 1922 Committee.
In the Commons today, MPs will debate and vote on a bewildering variety of Brexit-related amendments. There is an eccentric idea that an elected parliament should pass the tricky business of leaving the EU to an unelected ‘Citizens’ Assembly’; a proposal to change fundamental planks of the constitution for one day, apparently with the intention that no precedent would be set, and no future insurgent would use it to make government impossible; there is the proposition that if something hasn’t been agreed within the statutory two-year period, the way to get people really to knuckle down is to keep extending their deadline. There’s also the crazy idea that the Government’s negotiating hand would be strengthened by guaranteeing to the other side that we will agree whatever the price.
Some of these amendments look more innocuous than others but they are all in their different ways attempts to subvert the referendum decision. In normal times, this manoeuvring could be swept aside by the Government, but with no overall majority and significant uncertainty about whether normal rules of procedure can be relied upon, there are real grounds for concern that centuries of respect for democracy and the rule of law may be tipped into the bin.
There is also a variety of amendments seeking to tackle the so-called ‘Irish backstop’. Some of these try to fix an end date for something that everyone says should only ever be allowed to be temporary, others suggest a mechanism for leaving the backstop unilaterally. My amendment is more fundamental: it seeks to remove the backstop entirely and replace it with ‘alternative arrangements’.
In my view, all of these amendments have merit – they don’t tackle all of the unwelcome elements of the Withdrawal Agreement, but they are honest attempts to remedy its worst flaw: the danger that a supposedly temporary provision that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, and keeps all of us locked in the Customs Union and unable to have an independent trade policy, might become a permanent trap rather than a short term arrangement.
This is the Morton’s Fork that confronts us: we can hold out for a perfect departure from the EU and see those triumph who would treat the voters with contempt; or we can pull together to get rid of the lunacy of the backstop and ensure that we leave the EU at the end of March, albeit by means of an agreement that would have been nobody’s first choice. We can be angry and frustrated that it has come to this – but we will feel a hell of a lot worse if we let a hard-won Brexit slip through our fingers just before the wire.
So why do I think my amendment can work? Well, first of all, the massive vote against the Withdrawal Agreement a fortnight ago was somewhat deceptive. If the 118 Conservative MPs who voted against it had voted in favour, it would have scraped a majority. The backstop wasn’t the only reason why we didn’t like the agreement, but it is far and away the most important one. For the ten DUP members, the backstop was even more critical – meaning that the backstop isn’t just an impediment to Brexit, it also endangers the confidence and supply arrangement that ensures a government majority most of the time.
If we sweep away the Northern Irish protocol, we just might have a proposition that can unite most Conservatives, bring the DUP back on-side, and provide a home for members of other parties who are uneasy about disregarding the biggest democratic vote in British history and reneging on the manifesto commitments that bind them to support Brexit.
If you are with me this far, you might still ask: “but if you delete the backstop, what are these alternative arrangements that you propose?” This is a question that I will very deliberately refuse to answer. The term ‘alternative arrangements’ has been used by people on both sides of the negotiations, including Michel Barnier. Plausible options have been suggested that include ‘Max Fac’ with greater use of technology, a bi-lateral agreement between the UK and the Republic, or a provision for the backstop to end automatically should negotiations for a future relationship break down. With a Common Travel Area for over 90 years and an expectation on both sides that tariff- and quota-free trade should continue, none of this should be beyond the wit of man.
So let’s be prepared to compromise and accept the Withdrawal Agreement, shorn of its worst fault. Let’s send the Prime Minister back to Brussels no longer undermined by the insidious nonsense that has taken root, that ‘there isn’t a majority for any option’, but armed instead with the tangible proof that there really is a majority for a compromise that gets us out in two months’ time, into a transition period and able at last to start negotiating a future relationship – the thing that really matters to both sides.
Throughout the seemingly interminable Brexit negotiations, and in spite of the appalling indiscipline of the cabinet, the public has shown remarkable tolerance. Most people can see that even an imperfect Conservative Party is a lot better than risking a hard left Corbyn government, but we really shouldn’t test the patience of voters too far. They expect us to deliver a proper Brexit but they also want us to rediscover some unity and cohesion: a visible commitment to serving the national interest. This is our opportunity to show that we understand.