Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Theresa May’s Government will be remembered for Brexit. The next few months are crucial, as they will determine the narrative around Brexit, and the likely final outcome.
The stakes could not be higher. The Conservative Party may not survive a botched Brexit. Of the 43 per cent in 2017 who voted Conservative a staggering 70 per cent were ‘enthusiastic about Brexit’, 22 per cent were ‘accepting of Brexit’ and just seven per cent were ‘resistant to Brexit’. It was the number one issue for voting Conservative in 2017. Those journalists and MPs who resist Brexit within the Conservative Party are a fringe element who are prepared to destroy the Party over the EU.
May needs to remind us we are leaving an emerging super-state
The detail of Brexit is fascinating, as Tim Shipman’s book All Out War sets out. But forget about the brilliance of Steve Baker or Dominic Cummings, the role of Bone, Banks, Hoey and Farage in getting out working class voters, or the mistakes of Remain. Ultimately, we left as the British people never wanted an emerging super-state committed to ‘ever closer union’.
We cannot allow this to just be about trade, but need to keep focusing on the wider EU project. Last summer, after we actually had a debate on Europe, a staggering 75 per cent of people in the British Social Attitudes Survey said they wanted to either leave the EU or, if they remained, reduce its powers. Since this latter option is never going to happen – and May should point out since Maastricht, which promised to enshrine subsidiarity and return power to states, power has continued to flow away from Member States – it is inevitable that we must leave.
May should therefore not underplay the difficulties of leaving. She should embrace them. Government should stop with the breezy optimism. Instead, every time people hear that it may be hard, they will understand it is hard because we are leaving a 40-year project to replace British Government with European Government. We should turn the sniping of the Remainers against them – if this is just a trade block how can it be so hard to leave?
Only six per cent of people wanted to keep moving toward a European super-state. This group are disproportionately represented in the corridors of power, the media and online. They may scream and rage, but every time they do, they will push swing voters toward us. Enraging them should, if anything be a goal. The more Remain is associated with a fanatical pro-Europeanism, the better.
Day after day, the Government should be making the case we are leaving a political project. DExEU should be pushing out stories on the erosion of national powers and showing the failure of the UK to reform the EU in recent decades – no matter if Foreign Office officials are embarrassed by showing that their reform agenda failed – if we are to maintain momentum.
This includes leaving ECJ Jurisdiction, because it is a tool of ever closer union
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) is critical in this argument. While the Member States nominate ECJ members, judges wanting to work in Brussels usually back an EU state (or end up doing so). In theory neutral, in practice the ECJ’s rulings steadily expand the EU’s powers over time – encapsulating the mission creep of the EU’s institutions perfectly.
Everything from housing and planning, energy, transport, security, asylum, employment law and data policies have been touched by ECJ rulings.
We also need a clean break and short transition if nation and party are to move on
More importantly, it has sadly become clear that for many Remainers, the goal is to minimise our decoupling with the EU because they want to effectively remain, or engineer a re-entry by dragging out the process as long as possible. I must confess I thought perhaps we could move to an EEA-style agreement as a compromise that would allow us to move forward – but it is now clear while some Remainers are genuine in putting this forward as a compromise, others would just try to use this as an excuse to keep us in the EU’s orbit.
This risks prolonging our party and our nation’s difficulties. We need to focus on other issues over the coming years – the economy, the NHS, housing. The longer the transition and the more limited the break, the more that Europe will continue to divide our party and distract from the UK’s other needs. We cannot become the party of a never-ending Brexit row. A cleaner break will allow the party and country to move onto other issues.
We should offer a Canadian Free Trade Agreement with some amendments
May should also recognise we will not obtain a bespoke deal with Europe very quickly. The best option is to simply request a broad duplicate of the Canada-EU free trade agreement (CETA), with greater flexibility on migrant numbers on our part (essential for Southern and Eastern Europe), mutual recognition of citizens, continued payments for a transitional period, and passporting rights. We should get officials working on what a UK version of the CETA deal would look like and where we (and probably they) may want it to differ.
If the EU wants a ‘bad deal’ it shows they are undemocratic
If Europe’s nations want to keep moving toward a single state that is their decision and we should respect it. The European nation states have all suffered for the EU ideal. The Germans have “lent” the ECB €840 billion – money poured to the South and highly unlikely to return. (This puts the £25 billion UK-German trade deficit in perspective). The Southern Europeans have seen nearly 50 per cent youth unemployment for nearly a decade.
The UK is not going to get special treatment. We should not aim for it and there is no time to put it in place. But if the EU will not give us a deal based on free trade similar to that already agreed with another country, preferential (thought not unlimited) immigration, and a fair exit payment, it shows that the EU is fundamentally about forcing countries into a super state through punishment.
To the British people it will be clear we are being punished deliberately – and we will have framed this as a political argument.
We need to press ahead with work on the ‘no deal’ option
We can then instruct officials to start working on what a CETA-based deal and a ‘no deal’ scenario mean. The customs union paper recently published was a step forward but rather thin. As Henry Newman wrote on this site, only one of the options was actually serious – frictionless trade. So we need to get on with planning what that looks like. Which ports need upgrading? What planning permissions do they need, if they need new buildings or space? How much will it cost?
Similarly, in the coming months we need to hear more about work in areas like DEFRA – how will farm payments be handled after 2019? This is not about what the UK will look like in the long run in a post-Brexit world – which the next Conservative leadership debate must settle – but the simple mechanics.
Despite this June’s election result, if May she prepares the ground for a successful Brexit she can still be remembered as a great Prime Minister. Her speech and the Government’s actions in the next few months will determine if this is the case.