George Freeman MP is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum, Founder of the 2020 Conservatives, and MP for Mid-Norfolk.
The Conservative Party owns Brexit. We incubated it, promised it, triggered it, and now are responsible for it. It’s promises are our promises. It’s divisions are our divisions. It’s success or failure will be ours too.
Brexit has now become a political and constitutional crisis. It has divided families, communities, political parties, Parliament, and the nation.
The current fiasco is undermining our international investor reputation and triggering civil unrest. The binary nature of the referendum, and the appalling conduct of the campaign – on both sides – has unleashed an intolerant politics of polarisation, fundamentalism, and now betrayal.
As Conservative MPs and their Associations have gathered around the country this month, and MPs start campaigning on the doorsteps with local councillors facing in their elections on May 2 – the political equivalent of the first day of the Somme – the full severity of the Brexit political crisis for the Party is starting to sink in.
Not since the first week of the post-expenses election of 2010 has there been such anger on the doorsteps. Both the 52 per cent and 48 per cent feel betrayed. The majority of voters who just want politicians to run the country properly are in despair. The young – on whose lives Brexit will have most impact but who largely voted against it – feel betrayed.
Businesses hear leading Conservatives saying “*** business”, and treating business concerns about a no-deal exit with contempt. People in the professions, public services, or running their own businesses look on at the conduct of a political class seemingly accountable more to their own noisy mobs than public service in the national interest. Meanwhile public anger mounts.
This can’t go on. Public trust in the whole of our democratic system is now at an all time low. With Comrade Corbyn at the door the stakes could not be higher. So we have to sort Brexit out and find a solution. It’s our problem. The Conservative Party cannot blame anyone else.
With one week to go to the March 29 deadline, which the Prime Minister unwisely promised 100 times would be the date on which we leave the EU, it’s now clear that because of her ill-judged strategy of continually delaying the Meaningful Vote without seeking any serious compromises she is now cornered, unable to deliver the promise to leave in an orderly way by the deadline she herself set.
If her deal falls again this week – as seems likely – then we either leave without a deal on Friday, or can extend to April 12 to propose a Plan B.
Before we embark on a no-deal Brexit, which I believe would destroy our political credibility as the party of Government, business, and reliable economic and administrative competence, we need to explore every avenue to deliver a sensible Brexit which a majority of voters could support. We owe it not just to the voters but to our supporters, our councillors, and our duty to good government in the national interest
The sequence of crisis and chaos followed by Corbyn is not inevitable. If we can deliver Brexit, in a way most voters could live with, and accompany it with a bold policy programme of inspiring renewal to tackle the grievances the Leave campaign harnessed and spoke to, we could go on to win a big Brexit bounce and shape the next decade.
If we don’t get a Brexit deal through the House and delivered in the next few months, I fear our credibility will be completely shot. If we can’t bring all the European Research Group (ERG) hardliners on board we have to find a Plan B that gets around the backstop and can win over enough pro-Brexit Labour MPs in Northern constituencies to carry the House.
There is only one Brexit Plan B that stands a chance of achieving that: the Common Market 2.0 Plan which would see us dropping the backstop by joining EFTA instead – a Brexit option that Dan Hannan, Owen Paterson, and Nigel Farage used to champion, and which now George Eustice and many of us in the Parliamentary Party committed to Brexit now see as the best solution.
It isn’t perfect – no Brexit option is – but it would deliver a number of major advantages:
- Inside the Single Market
- Outside the Customs Union
- Free to do global trade deals
- Taking back control of farming and fisheries
- Not subject to the ECJ but the EFTA Court with British judges
- Only paying for what we want from the EU
- A proven legal entity
- Creates a two-tier Europe with the UK leading the outer tier
- Hugely eases the Irish border problem
- Deliverable: weare already in the EEA, and the EFTA nations have signalled they would be very open to the UK joining
EFTA best delivers the Brexit that a majority of my Leave voting constituents told me they wanted (“to be in the Common Market, not a political union”.)
The main objection raised at EFTA is that it would require free movement. But crucially EFTA would require free movement of “workers” not “EU citizens”, which is very different.
Nonetheless I believe that to be acceptable to the many Leave voters whose principal concern was immigration, we would need to complement EFTA with two major UK reforms:
- (a) a major set of UK Welfare restrictions for economic migrants we need, to stop “welfare tourism” which so many constituents rightly felt was deeply unfair, and
- (b) a major package of reforms and investment in skills and vocational training for our own citizens fearing economic redundancy
If as seems likely the Prime Minister’s deal goes down again this week we need a Plan B. We own this crisis. We’d better sort it out. Fast.
By securing a sensible Brexit withdrawal we can then go on to elect a new leader, free of the toxic legacy and impossible constraints of all the broken promises and red lines of the last three years, and set out a bold programme of policy reforms to tackle the real domestic grievances the Leave campaign brilliantly harnessed.
In our forthcoming 2020 Conservatives book “Britain Beyond Brexit: A New Conservative Vision for a New Generation” I and 40 Conservative MPs will set out the themes of a broad and bold reform programme. We are drawn mainly from the 2010-17 intakes and were both Leave and Remain voters in 2016, united now by a shared vision of Conservatism in the 21st Century, .
It’s a programme for how we can win the next election as the Party that honoured both the result of the referendum and the promise of bold renewal it embodied.
If MPs aren’t prepared to compromise on the mechanics of Brexit, we wont get renewal. We’ll get Corbyn. The next few days and weeks will decide which it is to be.