Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
Watching The Darkest Hour, I could not help thinking that Halifax and his appeasing Foreign Office colleagues would have been scheming Remainers, versus the Churchill camp struggling for a decent Brexit! The key point is, however, that this is not a ‘darkest hour’ for the UK. Our underlying negotiating position is strong, both in terms of the EU’s trade surplus with the UK of approaching £100 billion per annum, and our already-conceded willingness to pay a huge £40 billion for a decent free trade agreement.
At the outset of the Brexit negotiations my perception was that the EU would play around with bogus reasons why they could not offer an FTA, in order to maximise how much money they could get out of us for eventually agreeing some form of FTA. We now risk entering a ‘delay’ transition period, no doubt in order to get yet more money out of us. But there is in reality no cliff-edge. It is ultimately up to us as to what we are prepared to accept and not to accept, as the terms of such a transition period.
Personally, I would not agree to implement every new EU law with no vote upon these, and as we will have exited the EU, I would want to get on with concluding trade agreements with other countries. It would be perfectly possible to construct a stripped-down and simplified FTA which could be implemented quickly – if the EU is willing so to do – and, as proposed by Martin Howe QC, there is no need for the UK to stick to the existing tariff regime in all circumstances.
The EU’s stance that concluding an FTA between the UK and the EU will be immensely complicated is also a nonsense. Unlike other FTA negotiations, here the two negotiating entities begin from a position of zero tariffs on each other’s exports and complete regulatory alignment. From this starting point, what is the problem in concluding an FTA? Barnier is setting a scene designed to make life as difficult as possible for the UK, ultimately – I suggest again – in order to extract as much money from us as possible.
It may have been sensible tactics to have agreed so far to the EU’s terms, establishing that we are reasonable people; but the time has now come to stand firm. If we cannot get a sensible FTA deal from the EU and if the EU continues to insist on imposing an unnecessary ‘delay’ transition period, it is time to say “no” and to leave the EU without an FTA, to negotiate WTO deals with other countries while we begin a process of regulatory reforms.
As Howe has also pointed out previously, there is no legal obligation to pay the EU anything once we have left, and accordingly all payments to the EU should cease from March 2019. The probability must be that the EU would quickly come back to us with acceptable FTA proposals. Like The Darkest Hour this is now a time for conviction and courage, and not compromise and capitulation.
I have found it interesting to note the number of people, and particularly women, praising Theresa May for having to stand up to all the EU flak and downright rudeness. I am a ‘Thatcher Conservative’, and I perceive the Prime Minister as a ‘Macmillan Conservative’ but who is a decent and brave woman. I cannot help thinking that a government headed by her, but with Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson as the key ministers, would be a formidable tank to deal with Barnier and his EU bureaucrats.