Sometimes in politics you can face a dilemma so painful that the best thing can be to lay it out before your own constituency association, and ask for their advice. Last Friday I had the chance to do just that.
By way of background, the Uxbridge and South Ruislip Conservative Association could not be remotely described as hardline. We are a diverse, thoughtful, metropolitan bunch of One Nation Tories. There are probably as many Remainers as Leavers.
In consulting my association, I tried to frame the choice as neutrally as I could. There was a chance, I said, that the Government would ask parliament to vote for a third time on the Prime Minister’s EU Withdrawal Agreement. If such a vote took place, I had two options. I could either stick to my guns, or I could fold.
I could continue to oppose a deal that I believe is detrimental to the interests of this country, in the sense that we risk becoming a kind of economic colony of Brussels. Or else I could compromise, and vote it through, on the grounds that there was now a real risk that Brexit would not happen at all – and in the hope that the many defects in the deal could be fixed later.
I asked for a show of hands. I was struck by the near unanimity of the meeting. My constituents were strongly of the view that I should not compromise.
They assured me that they would support whatever decision I took – but they believed I should continue to vote against the deal.
Why were they so adamant? I am inclined to think it is because they are all keen students of politics, and they have understood what is at stake. They can see that if parliament agrees this deal, we do not, in fact, properly leave the EU on March 29. We simply become non-voting members. We will then spend the next few years – up to the end of 2021 if necessary – trying to settle all the questions that we have shirked.
If we go for this deal, we do not then take back control of our laws. We do not take back control of our trade policy. Even our immigration policy will be in flux.
Every single important issue is still up for negotiation; and whether by accident or design, the UK will enter the second phase of the talks – if this deal goes through – in a position of almost unbearable weakness.
We will have handed over huge sums of taxpayers’ money (far more than was necessary) for nothing in return.
We will be legally and politically at the mercy of Brussels, since we will be obliged to accept all EU legislation, during the so-called implementation period: the first time since the Norman Conquest that a foreign power has passed the laws of this country.
Worst of all, the Irish backstop arrangement gives the EU an indefinite means of blackmail, so that they will be able to keep us locked in the customs union and large parts of the single market, unless we are prepared to abandon Northern Ireland; and they will use this blackmail to get their way throughout the negotiations, notably over the free movement of people.
If we agree this deal – and unless we have a radical change in our approach to the negotiations – we face an even greater humiliation in the second phase.
We have not found a convincing unilateral way out of the backstop.
Unless we discover some willingness to resist, the diet of capitulation seems set to continue for at least two years.
Unless we have some change – and at present, in the immortal phrase, nothing has changed – it is hard to ask anyone who believes in Brexit to change their mind.
Those, I assume, are some of the reasons why my eminently moderate constituency association is so hostile to the deal, by about five or six to one.
Some of the most thoughtful members disagreed. They disliked the deal for all the reasons given. They just thought that things could easily get worse – and they, too, have a powerful point.
We have seen in the past few days that the Government is willing to torch its own negotiating capital. We have seen Cabinet ministers merrily flouting a three-line whip. We have learned from Olly Robbins of plans to bully MPs by “making them believe” in the threat of a 21 month extension.
We hear talk of a new backbench government led by Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles. We are told, in short, that the Government is willing to collaborate in the final sabotage of Brexit. These threats must, I am afraid, be taken seriously.
Is there a way forward? Perhaps. There is an EU summit this week. It is not too late to get real change to the backstop. It would be absurd to hold the vote before that has even been attempted.
More urgently, the Government could now reassure its understandably doubtful MPs by answering some basic questions about the next phase of the negotiations.
Has the UK decided to abandon the Chequers approach? Can the PM promise that we will not become unrepresented members of the customs union and large parts of the single market?
Are we really going to take back control of our tariffs, with full rights to vary them independently of Brussels? Are we really going to be able to do proper free-trade deals?
Are we going to have full rights to make our own laws, just like any other sovereign nation? Have we really jettisoned the ludicrous and unworkable dual tariff or hybrid scheme?
Are we going to make any changes whatsoever to a UK negotiating team which has so obviously failed this country at every level? After almost three years of humiliation, has the UK discovered some basic courage and belief in an open, independent, outward-looking and free-trading Brexit?
At present the answer to all those questions is a resounding “no”. We need some better answers and we need them this week.