Steve Baker is a member of the Treasury Select Committee, and is MP for Wycombe.
The local election results are well-known to every reader here. Their interpretation and their meaning for our future actions is contested. But with such heavy losses for us, moderate losses for Labour at this stage of the political cycle and gains for independents, we should agree there is no market for political parties which fail to honour fundamental policies.
For that is what our Government has done. In treating Brexit as a damage-limitation exercise, diluting the referendum result and negotiating as if on the same side of the table as the EU, we have wrecked our reputation. The task ahead is not merely to save our Party, but to save the country from political chaos through the rise of a party whose only coherent policy is single-issue protest, but which found itself at the top of polls so soon after launching.
This is the scale of our failure and our challenge: we must become again a national party of government, one which looks serious about the long-term future of a major world power, the region and the world.
Our immediate choices are few: Revoke and Remain, pass the present deal or find another way out of the European Union.
In 2016, during the run-up to the EU referendum debate, Philip Hammond opened a general debate in the Commons on European affairs. He said:
‘The propositions on the ballot paper are clear, and I want to be equally clear today. Leave means leave, and a vote to leave will trigger a notice under article 50. To do otherwise in the event of a vote to leave would represent a complete disregard of the will of the people. No individual, no matter how charismatic or prominent, has the right or the power to redefine unilaterally the meaning of the question on the ballot paper.”
And in this, he was right. The idea the Conservative Party can abandon our exit from the EU and survive – after inviting the decision and pledging to carry it through – is for the birds. If we revoke, our Party will die, and it will deserve to. Let those Conservatives who take another view make their case.
Our party line on the local election result is simple “This gives a clear message to the two main parties that the public is frustrated, and want to see us get on and deliver Brexit.” Unspoken in that message is the exhausted trope that we must therefore get this rotten, Brexit-in-name-only deal “over the line”. It won’t work. It is too late to vote for this failed deal.
There are two main reasons. First, the deal is rotten and the interested public know it. Second, it would destroy the Government and our Party.
The first “meaningful vote” was a devastating, historic defeat for a reason: this Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration stinks. It converts a clear instruction to take back control into a further surrender of our capacity for self-government, forever. It includes a customs union in all but name, as many of us have been explaining and as Government negotiators have apparently told Labour – flat contrary to our 2017 manifesto and to all reason.
Politicians and parties just cannot expect to get away with this. And we haven’t. The local election results shout, “A plague on all your houses!”, and rightly when we have tried to pull the wool over the eyes of a nation.
The ascendant Brexit Party knows the deal is rotten too. I understand Nigel Farage has said they will not stand against those of us who have always opposed this BRINO deal, to which I reply, “so what?”: for if we reach that point, all is lost. But what we learn is that the Brexit Party will call out this deal as a betrayal of the referendum result.
I am not surprised. Many of the leading Brexit Party figures were Conservatives. And I was in close touch with them. They were among the loudest voices demanding Eurosceptic Conservatives reject this deal at every stage. I am not expecting them to change their view now that they are soaring with the public.
If it is passed, the Brexit Party will savage this deal and savage us. Passing this deal would destroy us at the next election. And the next election would happen imminently. How does anyone suppose that it would or could not? In such circumstances I would not be surprised if we were outpolled by the Brexit Party. I would be surprised to see even a majority of my current parliamentary colleagues back on the green benches after such an election.
Still more immediately, this deal may yet destroy the Government and in doing so precipitate that general election. How can we possibly expect our confidence and supply partners, the DUP, to give confidence to a Government which has passed, and is legislating for, a deal which they cannot support, because of the damage it does to the Union? I cannot speak for them, but I cannot see how it would be otherwise: a Conservative minority government would be at the mercy of Corbyn’s Labour party.
Now what do Labour want? Power. Of course. And persistence with this rotten deal has now made the route to it simple. Agree a customs union for inclusion in the political declaration, thus dividing Conservatives, and vote through this Withdrawal Agreement, with its union-splitting backstop and so on, separating this Conservative Government from its majority.
For the Government to proceed in this way is to offer an open goal to the hard Left. To do a deal with Labour over the heads of both our confidence and supply partners and Conservative MPs – who have scrutinised the deal minutely and said loudly and explicitly what we have found – would be an act of unconscionable folly and of stupendous lack of foresight.
Even to contemplate it is to declare surrender to Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. And there are Labour MPs who cannot tolerate that. What madness is this that a Conservative Prime Minister would rather negotiate with such a Labour leadership than deliver on democracy?
The only tenable way forward is to deliver a Brexit worth having. Working with others after the historic defeat of the deal in January, I published an alternative written ministerial statement setting out how to do it.
Circumstances have evolved since. Not least that a Malthouse Compromise has been negotiated within our Party and delivered a majority with the DUP for the Brady amendment requiring alternative arrangements on the Irish border which underpins the necessary changes to the Withdrawal Agreement. In Plan A Plus, we know how to deliver a trade and regulatory policy for a prosperous post-Brexit UK.
We also have an alternative defence and security treaty, thanks to Briefings for Brexit. Lord Guthrie (former Chief of the Defence Staff), Sir Richard Dearlove (former Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service) and Professor Gwythian Prins have prepared a treaty which may be found here. We have a draft free trade agreement and a draft protocol on the Irish border. Prosperity UK will be fully working up Irish border arrangements, as the Government would have done long since if it were serious about a Brexit worth having.
Much more besides has been worked out, written down and published. There are those of us who have worked together who know why we must leave, what we must do and how to do it. The outstanding element is this question, “What if we don’t?”
To answer that, Conservative MPs must face the results of the European elections. Only then might we come to our senses and stand together behind the promises we have made, courageously committing to exit without a Withdrawal Agreement through Malthouse B plan, while tabling treaties to deliver an exit of the kind the EU offered us last March for the whole UK.
It is that or political oblivion. And deservedly so.