Rory Stewart is MP for Penrith and the Border, and Minister for Prisons.
A Brexit deal is not just a deal for this month, or this government – it is the foundation for the next 30 years of Britain’s relationship with the world. So it must be a stable and enduring Brexit. Reaching out to other parties on this issue was difficult and controversial. But it was right. It was necessary to deliver a Brexit deal, and avoid the problems of No Deal. But it was also necessary strategically to heal divisions, and provide investors and international partners with the certainty that the deal can be sustained through the changes of government and party over decades ahead.
The alternative – a No Deal Brexit next week – would not have been a destination, but a failure to reach a destination. There is no transition under No Deal. We would have crashed out with the Irish border issues, our payments to the EU, and citizens’ rights unresolved – and our entire web of relationships with the EU severed. Almost all our current agreements with the 70 nations with which the EU has free trade agreements (including Japan and Canada) would have ceased to operate and we would have been forced to revert to the basic ‘schedules’ of the World Trade Organisation – by definition the highest tariff rates possible for any goods in any country. We would have dropped into the margins of the world’s trading system.
Meanwhile, all the fundamental divisions in public and parliament would have remained after No Deal, undermining whatever we did next. Parliament and the public would still have disagreed about the compromises involved in every future arrangement. No Deal wouldn’t have told us whether to accept US wheat prices, or chicken. No Deal wouldn’t have helped us to decide whether to accept India’s demand for hundreds of thousands of visas for Indian citizens.
This is because No Deal would simply have been the result of an inability to agree on any particular deal. And our inability to agree now and in the foreseeable future would have led to a long and messy delay – in part because we would have been negotiating with giants like the US, from a weaker economic position than we are in now – with President Trump very aware that we needed the deal far more than he did.
Which brings us to ‘Project Fear’. Much has been made of the fact that economists cannot put a precise number on a No Deal Brexit – in part because so much would depend on market confidence. (If investors and consumers were confident that we knew what we were doing, and have a clear vision for exactly what deals would follow No Deal, they could make a difficult situation better; if not…).
But just because you can’t specify exactly what will happen when you drive into a tree, doesn’t mean that is safe to do so. We know enough to know that if had we defaulted to a No Deal Brexit, the car industry and farming would have been in serious trouble. Friction at the border would have compromised automobile just-in-time supply chains (some automobile parts cross the Channel multiple times in the course of making a car), and disrupted supplies of fresh food from Europe. Under No Deal proposals we would pay €95 a tonne to export wheat to Europe, and 46 per cent tariffs on the millions of sheep we export annually. The few economists who try to describe this airily as a ‘medium-term adjustment, through changes in currency and production’ are not thinking through what this would mean for a farm over the next 12 months.
We would have been forced to revert to slow and cumbersome systems of extradition and information exchange, hindering our ability to fight crime. And there would have been a dismal running media story of chaotic queues, anger at supermarkets, and a general sense of a government losing control. The economic consequences would have been felt in a squeeze on household incomes, and in a government forced to borrow more and struggling to pay more for public services. Perhaps worst, a hard border would have been forced on Ireland with no transition – challenging the principle of the Good Friday Agreement, creating inevitable problems for security, increasing demands for Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom. And for Scotland to leave as well.
Which is why anyone who believes in Brexit, and wants to make it a success, should be grateful that the Prime Minister did not give into pressure from people who felt No Deal was a neat answer. It was never the answer to anything. It was simply kicking the can down the road into economic fragility; without defining any future relationship; and ruining the one thing that investors and partners have prized in Britain for 300 years – our reputation for steadiness, prudence and competence.
We disagree passionately with Jeremy Corbyn on the economy, on security, and on international relations. And always will. He is profoundly wrong on those things. But we can find a common position on Brexit when we can on almost nothing else. More than half of Labour constituencies voted Leave. The majority of MPs on both sides of the House want to leave the European Union, end unnecessary EU interference in our regulations, and end free movement of people. Only a minority want to remain in the EU, or hold a second referendum. And getting a deal agreed not just on one but on both sides of the House will provide a more solid foundation than a one-party deal. It will allow businesses to believe that the settlement will last through any number of changes of party or government in the decades to come. This is crucial for investors.
Let’s please get it done now. And then having proved that there are some things we can do with other parties, get back to doing things which only Conservatives can do. We are the party to transform education, health, law and order, the economy and security. We are the party of government. Above all, let us go on to master Brexit in all its details – get a deal that works, for example, for our digital industries, media and financial services – and back those international relationships, with the right economic environment, the right education, and the military and diplomatic authority to reinforce and strengthen our position in the world.