Guto Bebb is MP for Aberconwy, and a former defence minister.
Two months have now passed since the Prime Minister published the Government’s Brexit deal. In that time, I’ve spoken to colleagues and constituents; to friends and family; and reached an unavoidable conclusion: this deal is not in our national interest.
Conservatives from John Redwood to John Major agree that this is a bad deal. Whilst much of this unhappiness has centred on the vexed question of the Irish border and the backstop, colleague after colleague has made it clear that this is a bad deal for Britain for reasons that go way beyond the backstop. Never mind the backstop, most of us think it’s a bad deal full stop. I anticipate that the comments within the letter sent by the President of the European Council and European Commission, released this morning, will change little.
Steve Baker, deputy chair of the ERG, wrote last year about his opposition to the deal, “In the end, it’s not really about the backstop.” This is, by far, the majority position. In the People’s Vote campaign’s analysis of the public statements made by the 100-odd of us Conservative MPs who are against the deal, just 13 of the colleagues who made negative comments about the deal wrote that their opposition was predicated solely on the nature of the backstop.
The rest listed several reasons why the deal is unacceptable. Seventy-two colleagues cited that the deal does not meet the promises made in the 2016 referendum – nor come close to doing so. The British people were told that Brexit would allow them to “take back control”, yet this deal, as my colleague Sam Gyimah made clear, involves the UK surrendering our voice, our veto and our vote – likely for a period of time far longer than any backstop or transition period.
Forty-one colleagues wrote about the uncertainty that this deal entails. It settles nothing. It merely ties up the terms of our departure, leaving the UK to pay a £50 billion divorce bill while postponing the difficult decisions until after we are out and have given away our money. Our future relationship with the EU is sketched out in a vague ‘Political Declaration’, a short document which guarantees nothing and will result in many more years of arguments and disagreements with the EU and throughout this country. Successive governments will travel back and forth to Brussels struggling to make sense of a deal that makes no sense for Britain. It is a deal that heralds a new era of ‘Brexternity’.
It is also no surprise that our analysis found that many members of our party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, cannot vote for this deal that threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom. Again, it is not just the backstop that puts strain on the Union, it is the large swathes of the deal. The consequences of the agreement reached on fisheries, and the safeguards for Northern Irish economy but lacking elsewhere, will turbocharge calls for Scottish independence. Whilst at the moment there are majorities against Irish unification and Scottish independence, a poll by Deltapoll earlier this year found that there is a majority for Scottish independence and Irish unification if Brexit goes ahead.
The numbers of colleagues implacably opposed to the Prime Minister’s deal, and the sheer variety of reasons why, make it impossible to see how it can ever be passed. The country needs another route forward.
Our options are limited and not pretty. We could leave with no deal, which many colleagues, myself included, consider a form of ‘national suicide’ and simply will not let happen.
A Norway+ relationship in reality amounts to EU membership minus any control or influence – something nobody wants nor voted for.
Then there’s an unappealing, messy, Frankenstein customs union relationship suggested by the Labour Party.
Or, as I think is likely, if Parliament cannot find a majority for any of these options, and is unable to make a decision, we could agree to let the people decide. Given how far the reality of the Brexit options are from what people were promised in 2016, this would not be a democratic scandal as some suggest. Given gridlock in Parliament, it is a pragmatic solution to a constitutional, national crisis.
It might be politically uncomfortable to tell the people that we politicians have failed, but the public are not stupid, they have seen forging a successful Brexit is far harder than anyone could have anticipated. They have seen the limits of what type of exit deal can actually be negotiated. They have seen that Parliament and politicians simply cannot agree a way forward, and know that we cannot just crash out. Many colleagues, backbenchers, ministers, and Cabinet ministers, are sympathetic to the idea of returning to the people. But there is a risk we end up in a second rate end state if they do not make themselves heard.
We have an impasse in Parliament, and will soon have a full blown national crisis, if members of Parliament, particularly on the Conservative side, do not provide the pragmatic, democratic solution of another referendum.