Antoinette Sandbach is the Conservative MP for Eddisbury, a member of the BEIS Select Committee and a member of the Executive of the 1922 Committee
As a woman who had a legal career before entering into politics, I’ve always been guided by two principles – you need to recognise the realities of the situation you find yourself in, and if you don’t ask, you won’t get.
Currently in Parliament there are a number of colleagues and the DUP calling on the Government to simply keep on demanding for the backstop to be removed. After all, if you don’t ask you don’t get. However, this fundamentally misunderstands the reality of our negotiating position.
We stand at the precipice of a No Deal Brexit. Continuing our brinksmanship will not see concessions from the EU, it will simply see us tumble into the abyss. The EU has been clear throughout that it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement containing the backstop. If you look at it from their perspective, why would they? The backstop is their guarantee that the UK will act in good faith in the future. Every time some of my colleagues are promising to cause chaos to get our way – deliberately invoking the image of “perfidious Albion” – the EU is incentivised to cling tighter and tighter to the backstop.
It seems strange to me that those who love our country would invoke the idea of a duplicitous and disloyal Britain. The Britain I am proud of is one where our word is our bond and we always deliver our end of the bargain. I fear this image of Britain as a calm, predictable home of prosperity has taken a beating in the last few years, but nothing will destroy what is left of our reputation more quickly than those who aspire to lead us openly musing on reneging on this country’s commitments.
It would destroy any sense of goodwill left with the EU, but perhaps worse for their own ambitions, why would any other country strike a trade deal with the UK having witnessed our behaviour towards our closest allies and partners in the EU.
I often think we forget that the EU leaders can read British newspapers. We must not forget that our potential trade partners around the world can do so as well and will be increasingly concerned by what they read. This brinksmanship is not just threatening our proposed withdrawal agreement with the EU but also the future deals which those engaging in this behaviour are so determined to secure.
We must be frank and recognise that some of those who take this stance do so deliberately, to increase the chances of No Deal – though I maintain that this position is a rarity amongst Conservative MPs. To the minds of those few who want to go WTO, we will be out of the EU and free of any entanglements or restrictions. We will be free to strike a couple of ‘mini-deals’ with the EU to avoid the worst impacts of No Deal – perhaps ensuring that customs processes continue and that we can continue to trade unimpeded. We would then set out on a new buccaneering course without the interference of the EU, and we’d save £39 billion into the bargain.
This is the so-called ‘managed No Deal’ scenario where, having walked out on the deal and burned our bridges with the EU, they immediately agree to sit down to discuss with us how to avoid the worst consequences of our walking out on the deal. This strikes me as unlikely and even should it happen, we would be negotiating from a fundamentally weak position.
Unfortunately, the EU has been clear that any negotiation of a free trade agreement or discussions to mitigate the impact of No Deal would be contingent on the UK making commitments to pay what it owes – the £39 billion – to guarantee citizens’ rights and to sign up to the backstop as a guarantee for Ireland should negotiations fail. Only once these have been agreed can we enter into talks. Those that advocate No Deal brinksmanship would see us potentially suffer the chaos of a No Deal exit only then to be forced to the table to be faced with the same questions we are currently dealing with in Parliament, and having lost all good will from the EU.
Those talking tough now learned the wrong lesson from Margaret Thatcher. Every bold statement or robust position she took on the EU was backed up by months of patient diplomacy, compromise and patience. When she stood up to the EU it was because quiet diplomacy has not worked and she had taken a realistic assessment of her position based on the facts. I fear some of those who seek to emulate her today do so not for the benefit of our country but to signal their ‘soundness’ to colleagues and their Associations.
For Thatcher – a scientist – everything was based on the facts. Today we have allowed ourselves to become enveloped in a world of alternative, competing facts. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, the facts of our debate should be immutable. The facts as I see them are plain. No Deal is bad for Britain and worse than the deal on offer. No Deal weakens our negotiating position and will scare away any new partners – as well as alienating the EU. The only way out of the backstop is to supersede it; No Deal will not solve it.
Given these facts, we must recognise that this megaphone diplomacy of threats and brinksmanship made to please a domestic audience is doing us far more harm than good. We must recognise our vote to leave was a vote on our membership of the EU institutions and not a vote on the form of our future relationship. Our manifesto committed us to a deep and special partnership with the EU. Therefore, in order to deliver on the Brexit vote we must cut the brinksmanship, recognise the reality of our position and pass the deal through Parliament to get us out of the EU in a way that doesn’t trash our reputation as the best place in the world to trade and do business.