There have been many times over the last 30 years when I have found myself nodding in passionate agreement with Michael Heseltine, who is, among his other virtues, my fellow ex-member for Henley on Thames.
I have enjoyed his floating-haired trouncing of socialism on the Tory party conference platform. I generally approve of his lust for infrastructure and great public works. He is right to champion urban regeneration, and fiscal devolution. He was ahead of his time in calling for the creation of big city mayors. He knows that we must make capitalism popular again – as he once did when he helped to organise the sale of council houses. He combines a zest for free market enterprise with a strong One Nation belief in opportunity for all.
And though we disagree about EU membership, I found that on the central point of his speech to the anti-Brexit march on Saturday he was absolutely 100 per cent spot on.
It is wrong in every sense to blame MPs for blocking Brexit. It is both shameful, and inaccurate. MPs voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50, and therefore to leave the EU on March 29 – this coming Friday. It is a scandal that we are not in fact doing so.
The reason we are not leaving on Friday is not the fault of MPs. We are not leaving this Friday because the government has chickened out.
For almost three years every Tory MP has chirruped the mantra that no deal would be better than a bad deal. That assertion was repeated in the Tory manifesto. I believed that the government was sincere in making that claim, and I believed that the PM genuinely had the 29th of March inscribed in her heart. She repeated her commitment to coming out – deal or no deal – so often that I trustingly assumed that she meant it.
It surely followed, I thought, that if she could not persuade the House of Commons to support the withdrawal treaty on which the EU insisted – and the Commons has now voted it down with two colossal majorities – she would draw the logical conclusion. She would simply enact the mandate of both parliament and people. She would fulfil the manifesto promise. She would take us out. I assumed that the Treasury was serious in allocating billions to No Deal preparations, and that we would be ready – after three years – to cope with any disruption.
I also assumed that this disruption would be minimal or non-existent, because both sides would show common sense, and that there would be no immediate tariffs or quotas or barriers to trade, and that we would come out with an agreement to protract the existing arrangements until we could finalise a new Free Trade Deal. I assumed that we would leave not exactly with “no deal” – but not with this deal.
I imagined that the government would be sufficiently full of gumption to make a success of our departure, whatever happened, and that we would show the confidence commensurate with one of the greatest economies on earth. I am afraid I misread the government.
We have blinked. We have baulked. We have bottled it completely. We have now undergone the humiliation of allowing the EU to decide the date on which we may make our own departure. It is the EU that is now insisting that parliament must vote – for a third time! – on its Carthaginian terms, if we are to be permitted to leave on May 22. If we fail to vote the deal through, then the PM has until April 12 to present fresh plans. In charting a way out of the mess, we must first remember why this deal is so rotten.
By jeopardising the governance of Northern Ireland – and threatening the Union – it keeps us effectively in the customs union and the single market. Not only are we prevented from doing proper free trade deals, but we must endure the utter humiliation of watching the EU commission negotiate access to UK markets – with no UK say on the deals.
It is that democratic disaster that puts MPs off the deal; Labour or Tory, Remainer or Leaver. There is only one plausible argument why we should now vote it through – and that is that every other option is now worse.
The Chancellor has also been actively canvassing a second referendum. There is talk of an election, or revoking Article 50, or some kind of cabinet coup. We are told that under the “indicative votes” to be held, the government of the country could be somehow handed to a triumvirate of Nick Boles, Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin.
They are all estimable people, but their Norway/EEA/customs union proposal would be catastrophic. We would not take back control of immigration policy; we would be rules-takers; there would be no free trade deals; and – here is the kicker – we would still have the Irish backstop.
It is hard to understand why the government cannot simply reject these proposals as contrary to the manifesto of both main parties and the referendum result. To any strong and resolute government, these suggestions would be paper tigers, turnip ghosts.
On every side we are being frightened with false fire. It seems to be that there are two ways forward. If she really wants her deal to go through parliament, the PM could still set out convincing proofs of how the next phase of the negotiations – when all the key questions are to be settled – will be different from the first.
How will we be able to take back control of our laws? Will we really do free trade deals? And can we really go on with a negotiating team that has so resoundingly failed? If she cannot give that evidence of change – she should drop the deal, and go back to Brussels, and simply set out the terms that so many on both sides – remainers and leavers – now believe are sensible.
Extend the implementation period to the end of 2021 if necessary; use it to negotiate a free trade deal; pay the fee; but come out of the EU now – without the backstop. It is time for the PM to channel the spirit of Moses in Exodus, and say to Pharaoh in Brussels – LET MY PEOPLE GO.