Once a week, usually on a Wednesday at 5pm, the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs meets in Committee Room 14 at the House of Commons. After discussing the upcoming business of the House we usually have a cabinet minister to talk us through topical legislation and take friendly fire. At the end of each term and occasionally at times of tragedy or triumph the PM is the main act.
When I was first elected as an MP at the same time as Theresa May back in 1997 I was told by a seasoned backbencher never to rush in with questions in front of colleagues at the 22. The reason being that traditionally the first three questions were from a colleague who is mad, a Europe obsessive or Michael Fabricant. These three classifications are of course at times interchangeable.
Thus it was that I have been taking a considered and I hope measured response to those quick on the draw constituents emailing me with their responses to the Chequers pow-wow before I had even had the chance to read the PM’s statement sent out to Conservative MPs at 21.06 on Friday night. Many followed throughout the early hours – rarely a good time for balanced political discourse unless of course you want to pay £3 to sign up as an associate of the Labour Party in order ‘to vote for Jeremy Corbyn to consign Labour to the wilderness for a generation’ as I notoriously did in 2015.
I campaigned for Leave. I did so as a pragmatic patriot not as an inveterate whirly-eyed Brexiteer. I did so after spending many months with the Fresh Start Group of Conservative MPs working on detailed ways that the EU could be reformed for the good not just of the UK but for the sustainability and survivability of the EU itself. We travelled to many EU capitals discussing numerous scenarios for reform which met with much nodding of heads from MPs, MEPs, ministers and ex-ministers across most of the 27 nations. There was a realistic deal to be done.
Cue David Cameron despatching himself to Brussels for days of orchestrated late night pantomime in March 2016. With the clear and present danger of a looming referendum that could see one of the EU’s largest players set a precedent and dare to walk away from the EU there was all to play for. The trouble was that David Cameron went into ‘negotiations’ with a sign on his forehead saying ‘where do I sign?’ and with a fatally arrogant belief that the British people would never dare to ignore his advice and vote for out.
The deal was fudged, no meaningful reform was achieved, the people of Britain dared to react with an indignant raspberry and voted Leave and the unwitting ‘Godfather of Brexit’ buggered off to the comfort blanket of his shepherd’s hut leaving Theresa May and the Conservative Party to pick up the pieces. That was never going to be easy. You could bet your bottom dollar the EU commissariat was never going to make it easy, and for an institution for whom the eleventh hour deal after late night wrangling is the norm, it was never going to be quick.
Fast forward 2 years and I have never been more convinced that my vote to Leave was the right vote. This despite the weekly ear-bashings from the Remain Head bangers who have invaded the ‘naughty corner’ of the Conservative benches in the Commons chamber where I have perched for the last 21 years and who fool nobody by disguising calls for a second referendum as ‘the people’s vote.’
The EU has been consistently inconsistent true to form and shows no urgency in reaching a settlement. Just last week we had Guy Verhofstadt in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee brazenly telling us that there was no reason why Scotland could not stay in the single market in defiance of the rest of the UK. Unsurprisingly he threw his toys out of the pram when asked whether similar terms applied to Catalonia who actually had voted to be independent of Spain. Tellingly the following week we heard from the highly respected Sir Rob Wainwright, former head of Europol, who stated categorically that there are no operational obstacles to the UK achieving just as close and effective cooperation with other Europol members as we do now – it is entirely a matter of political will.
The problem is that the prevarication and vacillation of a PM void of authority combined with the tactics of disingenuous Remainers and an incompetently opportunistic opposition has only emboldened the EU to adopt a ‘computer says no mantra’ and play the usual war of attrition. Being able to claim with some justification that EU – UK negotiations are being stalled in favour of UK – UK negotiations within the Cabinet clearly doesn’t help.
But we are where we are. We need not have been here, but we are. The unseemly rush to out cliché the next indignant Brexiteer that ‘Brexit now means Brino’ before we have even had the chance to scrutinise the details of what emerged from the Chequers lock-in helps no one. I know not yet what the reaction of my fellow Conservative MPs will be, let alone Parliament and of course the EU itself. It is however a serious attempt to push the negotiations forward and crucially to chart a way to bring back together divided families, parties and indeed the whole country for whom Brexit has so far been a deeply bruising experience. Talk of winners and losers, sell-outs and victories only mitigates against this.
I voted Leave because I think the EU is yesterday’s institution: protectionist, out of touch, bureaucratic, interventionist, increasingly uncompetitive and shrinking in influence and economic clout as the rest of the world leaves us behind. Free movement of people was never designed to cater for mass movement of people arbitraging flourishing economies or more generous welfare systems and is not sustainable.
Taking away the ability to negotiate free trade agreements with the world’s largest and fastest growing economies makes no sense whilst punishing developing countries with prohibitive tariffs against their staple agricultural products that we pay generous aid to their farmers to produce makes no economic or moral sense. One in 12 people on this planet is an Indian under the age of 28. India’s economy has technically already overtaken the UK’s and will continue to grow faster yet the EU spent 9 years trying and failing to negotiate a trade deal. We can and must succeed where the EU failed and after Brexit we can.
So I will judge the final deal on the basis of ultimately achieving the following:
No longer being a member state with no obligation to pay in automatically each year other than where we specifically chose to buy-in to arrangements and can cancel at our discretion
No free movement of people and being able to choose exactly who we let in and who can contribute to the UK most, with no lesser rights for British citizens working and living in the EU.
The ability to negotiate free trade deals with the 6.9 billion people of the rest of the world who live in ‘isolation’ from the EU.
The UK Supreme Court being the court of last resort in the UK subject to legislation passed by the UK Parliament subject to the mandate of the British people. That does not mean that we cannot choose to nominate the European Court as an arbiter body where international deals require such a body, but crucially with our agreement.
The ability to continue close cooperation on crime and security matters.
On the face of the short communique about the Chequers’ deal these principles appear largely safeguarded but the devil will be in the detail, and the detail will be key to gauging the EU response. Crucially the agreement also steps up the contingency preparations for an ultimate ‘no deal’ scenario, the only tool in the box that the EU ultimately acknowledges. It was the tool that David Cameron chose to remove and which an unholy alliance of Remainers and Lords in denial try to disarm, but it is still there and ultimately may still have to be used.
So forgive me if I do not appear trigger happy to shoot down these new proposals. I want to see the details, I want to see a considered response from my constituents, other parliamentarians and then the EU. Only then can we really know which way to shoot or keep the pistol in its holster.