Talk about a wasted opportunity. By insisting on sticking to her wildly unpopular Chequers plan, Mrs May has made the wrong decision yet again. It’s been reported today that in adopting this position, she has the backing of her cabinet. She has apparently told ministers to “hold their nerve” and reassured them that everything will be OK. This is total nonsense. Mrs May should have worked out long ago that the best thing for the country – and herself – would be to crack on with negotiating a free trade deal. Frankly, it is deeply worrying that she cannot see this.
Mrs May shouldn’t just take my word for it. Polling conducted by the Huffington Post which was also published on Tuesday confirms that twice as many voters would prefer a Canada-style free trade deal over and above her Chequers proposal. An equal number would be happy to go straight to World Trade Organisation terms. Only a tiny minority would rather support Mrs May by keeping the UK aligned with EU rules. This comes as no surprise to me. Indeed, that such a large number of people are drawn to the free trade option is steeped in logic.
Over the 20 years that I have been actively involved in EU politics, one thing has been made clear to me consistently: if Britain were ever to quit the EU, a free trade alternative would be offered to us. I was first told this while debating with EU Commissioner Neil Kinnock on the Radio 4 Today programme back in 2001. I told Kinnock we should leave the EU. He replied that if we did so, a free trade deal would have to be negotiated.
Valery Giscard d’Estaing said the same thing when the ill-fated Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was signed in 2004. When asked by British journalists how the UK could ever comply with such an agreement, Giscard said with typical insouciance that if our country wished to be “demoted” (his word) to the status of merely having a trade deal with the EU, so be it.
Given the fact that these high priests of the EU project always knew that a free trade deal would be the inevitable consequence of our quitting the bloc, Mrs May’s insistence in gripping so tightly on to the Chequers proposal appears even more bizarre. In fact ironically, having been instructed by the people to get Britain out of the EU, Mrs May has been trying to opt us back in to parts of the EU ever since her Florence speech a year ago.
At the same time, the Labour Party seems to be on the cusp of committing the most spectacular betrayal of Britain – including millions of its own Brexit-backing voters – by moving in favour of a second referendum. MPs like Sir Keir Starmer, who told his party conference in Liverpool today that “nobody is ruling out Remain as an option”, have no regard for democracy and don’t seem to care if the Old Labour vote is alienated. Though polls vary, only about 20% of the country favours the Remain option. Labour is deluding itself if it thinks a second referendum is a vote-winner, as the many Labour voters who have called my LBC show recently have told me repeatedly. More fool them.
What this means is that Mrs May now has a unique chance to pull off a political hat trick – if she sees sense and dumps Chequers. By doing so she could secure a positive free trade deal for Britain; she could unite the country; and she could see off the anti-democratic Labour Party, thereby cementing her leadership.
Theresa May has a choice to make. She can either cling to the Chequers proposal that to her represents a life jacket – but which is actually dragging her government down – or she can take the decisive action this situation merits and go for a clean break deal.
All that stands between the UK and this positive outcome is a few die-hard Tory Remainers. The question is, is Theresa May still one of them – or is she brave enough to do the right thing?