David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.
I have not missed a Conservative Party conference since 2003. This year is no exception. Notwithstanding recent events, I am in Manchester.
It will be, however, a rather different experience for me. For the last twelve years, I have attended Party Conference as a frontbencher with a host a frontbench duties. This year, I attend as a Conservative member and MP – but not as a Conservative MP.
More significantly, to an extent greater than ever before, I am conscious that my views on the biggest issue of the day are in the minority. Most Conservatives members are willing to leave the EU without a deal, quite a number actively want to do so.
Boris Johnson won the leadership election very comfortably. In his leadership election campaign, he said that the odds on leaving without a deal were a million to one, and that he wanted a deal. But he repeatedly said that he was determined to leave on 31 October “come what may”. His approach has been consistent with what I expected, if not what I hoped.
My last column discussed the strategic choice facing the Prime Minister. Continue to pursue Brexit at all costs (other than compromising on his red lines) and seek to leave without a deal on October 31st, or move towards seeking a deal that would have cross-party support, but face the charge of betrayal from Nigel Farage and the ERG.
We are not quite at the point of no return, but everything that has happened in the last two weeks suggests that the former strategy will be pursued.
Admittedly, it is reported that the Prime Minister will finally submit proposals to the EU as to how he will replace the Northern Irish backstop once the conference is over. Some think that this will signal a change of approach, a willingness to seek compromise, a focus on problem-solving, not tub-thumping.
I hope that is the case but I doubt it. Submitting proposals on October 3rd for an October 17th European Council feels like going through the motions. In reality, it gives about a week in which new ideas (and, presumably, these will be new ideas) can be examined, a common position agreed amongst the EU27 and negotiations to be completed.
Assuming (heroically) all that goes smoothly, the new deal will have to get through Parliament. Is there more of an appetite amongst Labour MPs to get a deal done than earlier in the year? Yes. Is there much goodwill from them towards the Prime Minister? No. If there was any before last Wednesday, it evaporated in the Westminster hothouse during the Prime Minister’s statement.
The overwhelming likelihood is that, by October 19th, the House of Commons will have neither voted to support a deal nor voted in favour of a No Deal Brexit. The EU Withdrawal (No 2) Act 2019 (or the Benn Act) is very clear as to what happens next. The Prime Minister must seek an extension to Article 50.
He does not like this state of affairs. He would prefer to leave without a deal. But what the Prime Minister would like to do is not the point. He has a statutory duty to seek an extension.
In the course of this week, Ministers will be repeatedly asked what will happen. Will the Government abide by the law? Yes, of course. Will the Government seek an extension? No.
The answers to these questions are mutually incompatible. The Government will seek to get away with this contradiction by hinting that there is a cunning plan, a secret flaw that only it knows about, something that only a strategic genius – who could turn his mind to legal matters as and when necessary – would be able to identify. Pin your hopes on that if you like, but my money would be on the UK being members of the EU on November 1st.
And then what happens? I know that there will be a huge amount of abuse and criticism directed at those of us who supported the Benn Act. We will take some consolation from the fact that goods are flowing in and out of the country as per usual, our agricultural and manufacturing industries are not facing crippling new tariffs and that the pound will not have tanked.
But what of the man who said – again and again – and who will continue to say this week – again and again – that we will leave on October 31st ‘come what may’? You might blame Parliament for the fact that the Prime Minister will have broken his promise, but Parliament didn’t force him to make that promise. It was a promise that depended upon factors beyond his control. It was a guarantee that he could not, in truth, guarantee.
Not for the first time in the Brexit process, a large part of the public will feel let down. And, I accept, that they will have been let down.
But the biggest failure that politicians have committed in this entire process has been the failure to be straight with the public as to the real choices we face – based on an understanding of the facts.
The most fundamental fact is that there is a trade-off between the ability to determine our own rules and access to foreign markets. This fact of life isn’t applicable just to the EU but to any advanced free trade agreement. If you take a purist position on sovereignty, we won’t get advanced trade deals, we will trade less and we will be poorer.
The tension between market access and sovereignty was never acknowledged by the Vote Leave campaign in the referendum and continues to be denied by too many Brexiteers now.
The British people were promised by Vote Leave that a deal with the EU would be reached – so that Brexit would be cost free – but also promised that we would ‘take back control’. In the years since the referendum, ‘take back control’ has been interpreted in an absolutist manner that means any attempt to find a way through – a compromise, a careful balancing of our interests, trying to get the best of both worlds – is seen as a betrayal of 17.4m people.
This didn’t have to happen. If all of the leaders of the Leave campaign had had the courage to set out the trade-offs, faced up to reality and argued for a position based on the real costs and benefits, we could have concluded this process much earlier by leaving with a deal.
At some point, I hope that the Prime Minister can show that leadership, persuade Leave voters – as only he can – that Brexit should be done in a responsible way and get a deal with the EU. Without that leadership, the Conservative Party will become the Party for a No Deal Brexit. It will not be a position that history will judge kindly.