For the time being, I am breathing a sigh of relief. Until Tuesday night it seemed that, without any scrutiny, the prime minister might succeed in pushing through his allegedly “great new deal” to take the UK out of the EU. While I cannot bring myself to thank either of the men who wrecked the PM’s plan – Oliver Letwin and John Bercow – Brexiteers should be grateful that there is now time to rethink.
I am the first to acknowledge the difficult circumstances under which Boris Johnson is working. He leads a minority government and a divided party. His every move is bitterly confronted by opposition MPs in the Commons. These realities partly explain why he has called a general election on 12 December. The Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid’s admission that the UK will no longer leave the EU as planned on 31 October is another factor.
Yet the agreement he reached in Brussels last Thursday is not the answer. Under its terms, Britain is being asked to sign up to a new EU treaty, binding in international law, at huge expense, in return for a new set of negotiations.
I know it is tempting to acquiesce to Johnson’s plan. Forty months after we voted to quit the EU, his “let’s get Brexit done” mantra has a certain ring to it. I also understand the fear some MPs have about the prospect of a second referendum being inflicted on the country and the prospect of losing Brexit completely.
What has astonished me most is how few MPs who planned to vote for the “deal” last Saturday understood its content. The removal of the Northern Ireland backstop and the freeing of Britain from a future customs union were seen as a victory in itself. But even Johnson did not seem to know the detail. He displayed a total lack of comprehension that Northern Irish businesses selling into the rest of the UK will need to complete customs declaration forms. Perhaps the three-year misery under which the country laboured during Theresa May’s premiership has led to people wanting to believe the best.
Thankfully, there is now time to consider the implications of the treaty and the future commitments, as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier sees them, in the political declaration.
In contrast to Johnson’s “let’s get Brexit done” slogan, Barnier, who has just been appointed to oversee future Brexit negotiations, says the free trade negotiations will last for three years or longer. He is right, of course. Any sense that this could be sorted out by December 2020 is contradicted by Article 184 of the treaty that Boris is so keen to ratify. It commits the UK to work up until the end of the transition period in 2022 to achieve a deal in line with the political declaration. That is six-and-a-half years after we voted to leave the EU.
The detail is horrifying. To complete a trade deal, the terms being applied to the UK have never been used by the EU for any part of the world before. Barnier is demanding full regulatory alignment in employment law, environmental legislation and taxation. Britain will not be free to legislate on anything from financial services to fisheries. Our ability to strike other free trade deals around the world will also be hampered. By the end of this process, the total bill for which Britain will be liable will have soared from an estimated £39bn to £65bn. We will be subject to all new EU laws but we will have no voice, no vote and no veto.
The withdrawal agreement is like a piece of cheese which, when first removed from the fridge is appetising, but which soon begins to honk.
If it does become UK law, I think it will mark the death of Brexit. As one humiliation after another is heaped upon us by the EU, the calls for a second referendum will gain huge public support. And in a straight choice between Johnson’s deal and Remain, there would be only one winner.
For these reasons, we are fortunate that the ERG and others now have time to reconsider. At some point, a general election will be upon us. Johnson can press the reset button, discard his “deal”, and promise to leave the EU with a clean Brexit. Some in his party may not like this, but the country would love it. Johnson would lead a Brexit alliance in that general election and win. One thing is certain: the Conservatives can’t deliver Brexit on their own.