Mounter and Sons Sawmill, Willington, Co. Durham
A hard core of my colleagues in Parliament are Brexperts. Many spent decades campaigning against – or in some cases for – Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is the issue that in no small part tipped constituencies like mine ‘over the edge’ between 2015 and 2019.
Finally, the scales fell from local people’s eyes, and they saw what they’d had an inkling of for some time: that Labour no longer respected the view, or even the votes, of people in North West Durham. Inner-London Labour thought it knew better and the public, finally, gave it the boot across the Red Wall.
The first big piece of legislation that the 2019 intake of Conservative MPs voted for was the EU Withdrawal Agreement. This month marks a year on from the end of the so called ‘transition period’, when our ties to the European Union were severed de facto, as well as de jure. Some said would be the start of ‘Britannia Unchained’ and others predicted would be the greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez.
Within a few weeks of MPs voting through the Withdrawal Agreement, the global pandemic hit. What leaders in Britain and the EU had thought would be the biggest challenge of the decade – Brexit– suddenly became secondary. And the impact of leaving the EU, whatever side of the debate you were on, now feels small fry compared to the: lockdowns, colossal borrowing, and worldwide efforts that have gone into tackling Covid.
I’m tempted to put my neck on the line at this point, and say that we’re coming to the end of Covid. Like the rest of the country – and the world – let’s pray that is the case. And if it is, what lay behind Brexit will return centre-stage alongside the fall-out from the virus
While many will groan at the prospect of the return of Brexit as a political issue, I welcome it wholeheartedly. I long to see the eyes of Government and the country lifted from two years of crisis management to a discussion about where we now see ourselves, and how we deliver it. The country is sick to death of circular debates about the social etiquette of mask wearing and meeting via Zoom and Teams.
Like my Conservative colleagues from every intake, I am desperate for Parliament to be at the heart of the debate about international trade, securing our borders and Britain’s place in the world.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen flashes of the future. Such as: AUKUS – the new tripartite defence agreement with Australia and the United States. The UK’s application to join the Trans-Pacific-Partnership. Improved post-EU trade deals with Japan, Australia, and many other countries, alongside scores of roll-over deals.
There will be challenges. How to manage the place of Northern Ireland in the UK raises profound constitutional questions. With the Northern Ireland Assembly elections looming large, dealing with a Sinn Fein First Minister (if the polls are to be believed) in a few months will be challenging.
Mounter and Sons, a wood pallet manufacturer in my constituency, is facing increased costs and bureaucracy in dealing with the EU. The most substantial of these is heating all pallets leaving for the EU, which wasn’t required before Brexit. This is just one of examples from my own constituency of blocks to trade that both sides surely want to see removed in further negotiations to the benefit of all concerned. These are eminently achievable if the will is there.
In 2016, my constituents voted to leave the European Union. And in 2019, they voted again to finally make it happen. After two years of the focus of the Government being elsewhere – rightly – it’s time start reminding people again that they made the correct choice both times.
That means getting some focus back on getting Britain out into the world, and dealing with those very tricky issues Brexit throws up. After the last couple of years, that task of unchaining Britannia seems more manageable, and getting on with it will be welcomed more than ever by the whole country.