Greg Hands is the MP for Chelsea and Fulham.
One point just about everyone in the Conservative Party agrees on is we need to deliver Brexit as soon as possible if we are not going to face some sort of existential crisis at the ballot box.
All effective political action, in my experience, rests on three qualities: keeping your overall objective resolutely in sight, but be being willing to listen and to compromise when it comes to implementation.
It was that philosophy which underpinned the Brady Amendment, the only positive Brexit amendment to pass during the recent Parliamentary debates on Brexit. It recommends approving the Withdrawal Agreement, as long as the Backstop could be “replaced with Alternative Arrangements”.
Prosperity UK’s Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC), which I co-chair with Nicky Morgan, was launched in April to build on the Brady Amendment by developing credible and practical Alternative Arrangements to the Irish backstop. The AAC is neutral on Brexit outcomes and politically independent. We draw our legitimacy from a Parliamentary Commission, including over 40 MPs and peers, and a Technical Panel chaired by Shanker Singham and including a former head of UK Border Force, a leading Dutch customs expert, Sweden’s former Director of Customs and Fujitsu’s Industry Lead for Customs and Borders.
This week the AAC launched its interim report at an all-day consultative conference in Westminster. It’s taken a lot of work to get this far, but one thing we don’t have is time because, frankly, the Government should have started doing this work months ago. In that regard, I am delighted that, as the DEXEU Secretary of State, Stephen Barclay, told the conference, the Government has now commenced its own work in this area and set up three advisory panels.
Our ambition has been to produce credible and detailed Alternative Arrangements, and a protocol on how to implement them, and publish them as a resource for all sides in the Brexit negotiations. It’s up to the next UK Prime Minister, and his interlocutors in Brussels, Belfast, Dublin and other European capitals to work out how best to use them. We recommend that Alternative Arrangements can be fully implemented within two to three years, or sooner in many cases.
We have not recommended any single solution. Instead we have suggested a tiered trusted trader programme for large and medium-sized companies; special economic zones for cross-border communities, such Derry/Londonderry-Donegal and Newry/Dundalk; exemptions for the very smallest companies; and that Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) checks should be carried out by mobile units away from the border using the existing EU Customs Code or a potential common area for SPS measures.
We will spend the next few weeks sharing our ideas with key stakeholders in Belfast, Dublin, Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Paris – indeed, I am due to visit Holland and Germany as I write. We are also encouraging people to share their comments and ideas by filling in the consultation form. We will listen carefully to what people have to say before publishing a final report, including the Protocol, in July.
The first and most important precondition we set for the report is that any workable arrangements must protect the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement. An important aspect of the AAC’s work has been the opportunity to spend time in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Let’ s be honest, listening and respecting Irish opinion on the ground has not actually ever been a strong point of Westminster politics and we have been determined to behave and to act differently.
We’ve tried to spend spent as much time as we can talking to people, organisations and businesses in Northern Ireland and Ireland. In total, we met over 50 organisations on three separate visits. These have included Diageo (the owner of Guinness); the Irish Cattle and Sheep Association; the Irish International Freight Association; the Irish SME Association; Manufacturing NI; Londonderry Chamber of Commerce; the NI Retail Consortium; the list goes on…
The second precondition is that any solutions should rely on existing technology and processes – which, incidentally, are advancing all the time – and not any high-tech “unicorns”.
And the third precondition is that Alternative Arrangements must be compatible with any of the potential Brexit outcomes, including but not limited to the current draft Withdrawal Agreement. This means Britain would be ultimately able to adopt its own independent trade and regulatory policy.
We believe our Commission has met these conditions.
So what are we going to do, once we have finished consulting on our findings? We are going to finalise the report and publish alongside it next month a Draft Alternative Arrangements Protocol. This could either be inserted into the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure the Backstop is superseded or used on a standalone basis in any other Brexit outcome.
Politically, we hope that by genuinely listening, engaging and doing the technical work we can help break the Brexit logjam and give both sides something to negotiate around. Having demonstrated that Alternative Arrangements are possible, in a reasonably short time-frame, we can further say to both the EU and to the Irish Government that a negotiated Brexit is within reach, as long as they can make progress on the Backstop issue.
That is an incredibly important prize and it is no exaggeration to say that upon it the future of both Brexit and the Conservative Party depend. I hope all colleagues in the party can wish us good luck.