The next Leader of the Conservative Party has an almost Herculean task in seeking to reunify a party which has been riven for many years by disputes over Europe and, most fundamentally since 2016, by whether or not to approve Theresa May’s so-called Withdrawal Agreement.
Looking at the six remaining leadership contenders, three of them voted to Remain in 2016 (Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart) and three of them voted to Leave (Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove). I believe it is imperative that the final decision on who should become our Prime Minister, should go to our 130,000 or so members in the country. This is absolutely vital as, firstly, we had a coronation last time – and look what happened to that. Secondly, the new Prime Minister has to be able to stand in front of the 1922 Committee and tell my parliamentary colleagues that, whoever they voted for, as the new leader they now have a mandate from our party members and our MPs must give them at least a fighting chance to lead.
I cannot presume to say how 130,000 plus people are going to vote but, given that Theresa May voted Remain in 2016, I would be extremely surprised, to put it mildly, if our party members actually voted to choose anybody who voted Remain again in the final. After three years of effectively going around in circles, I think it overwhelmingly likely that our members will pick a Brexiteer by instinct. But which Brexiteer should it be?
The key questions in deciding who to select will be: how determined are they to leave the European Union by Halloween and what is their plan for doing so? If I have followed things correctly, only Boris Johnson and Dom Raab have said they are absolutely determined to leave on 31st October, whatever the circumstances.
The other candidates have tended to equivocate on this point and Rory Stewart has been the most hard over saying that he thinks to leave on 31st October, with No Deal if necessary, is unachievable. Michael Gove has certainly not given any promise to leave on 31st October.
The next critical difference is, what is the attitude of the candidates towards the Withdrawal Agreement – which has been voted down three times by the House of Commons and which the European Union have been absolutely adamant that they will not re-open. Other than Boris, all five of the other candidates have said, one way or another, that they would seek to revive the Withdrawal Agreement.
The only candidate to state that the Withdrawal Agreement is dead, is Boris Johnson (as for instance he did when he told the BBC’s Vicky Young on Politics Live on 15th January 2019: “I do think this deal is dead”).
It is a common misnomer that we need a Withdrawal Agreement in order to withdraw from the EU. We don’t. Parliament has already provided all the legislative authority for us to leave the European Union, when it passed an Act of Parliament to permit the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50, and when it subsequently passed the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, which is the piece of legislation under which we leave.
The legal default position under both EU law and UK law is that we now leave the European Union on the night of 31st October 2019. The only further legal requirement is that a Minister of the Crown physically signs the so-called “Commencement Order” to finalise the process. In short, no further legislation or even a Statutory Instrument is required in order for us to leave on Halloween. This is something the Remainers know but do not wish to advertise for very obvious reasons. When Michael Gove said in this week’s Channel Four News debate that “Parliament would have to vote to approve No Deal”, he was factually incorrect.
Given the history of all of this, I believe that any attempt to revive the Withdrawal Agreement is futile. It would, in effect be like a dog returning to its own vomit. Firstly, the EU have been absolutely emphatic that after all the time it took to negotiate what is in effect a 585-page draft Treaty, they have no intention whatsoever of reopening it. In this I believe they are telling the truth and this is not merely a negotiating tactic – they absolutely mean it. I therefore believe that any leadership candidate who thinks that they can somehow persuade the EU to do this, especially before 31st October, is completely kidding themselves.
Secondly, even if it were possible to persuade the EU to reopen the Agreement, and delete the backstop (or even put a time limit on it) that would then require the whole Agreement to be ratified in an Act of Parliament, the so-called Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill – or WAIB for short.
I have not seen the draft Bill but others have and I am told that it is almost half an inch thick. As we would require this to ratify the Treaty this would likely lead to between four and six weeks of absolute parliamentary trench warfare with crunch votes night after night and frequent attempts by Remainers to table wrecking amendments. In reply, no doubt my colleague, Sir Bill Cash would table a number of amendments of his own, which would likely enter the Guinness Book of Records! Even if we could generate sufficient parliamentary time to do this, I suspect the whole process would be an absolute nightmare and one which is hardly likely to reunite the party; in fact, by setting Tory against Tory once again, it would have precisely the opposite effect.
A much better approach was put forward recently by my friend and Deputy Chairman of the European Research Group, Steve Baker, in his very well-argued paper, A Clean Managed Brexit. In essence, this too agrees that the Withdrawal Agreement is dead and indeed that we should be perfectly plain about this to the Commission and the European Council. We should tell them instead that because it will never pass the House of Commons, we have decided to junk it completely and transition straight to the Future Relationship and indeed that achieving a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) is now our desired end state – rather than leaving with No Deal.
Nevertheless, in order to maintain confidence in the democratic process in the UK, we must adhere to the deadline of 31st October at all costs, even if this means leaving with No Deal and trading temporarily on WTO terms – but with the clearly declared end state of an FTA rather than No Deal itself. Ironically, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, offered us such an option in March of last year but the Prime Minister (surrounded by her fanatically pro-EU Civil Servants) rejected the option out of hand.
Of the six candidates on the ballot today, the only one who accepts the reality that the Withdrawal Agreement is dead and that we need to transition to the Future Relationship, is Boris Johnson. Moreover, Boris has been utterly emphatic that such is the degree of public frustration, three years on from the referendum, that leaving the European Union on 31st October is now an existential necessity for the Conservative Party. Moreover, he has been prepared to withhold part of the £39 billion until the FTA is agreed – or perhaps even contest the final sum itself.
In summary, given that Theresa May was a Remainer, and that she promised 108 times we would leave the European Union on 29th March – but didn’t – it seems extremely unlikely that our members in the country will pick a final winner who voted Remain in 2016. Of the six candidates, five wish to revive the ill-fated Withdrawal Agreement, via one method or another, even though this seems to be flying in the face of providence, given that the EU are so emphatic that they will not reopen it. The only candidate who has had the courage – and frankly leadership – to acknowledge that the Withdrawal Agreement is dead, and to propose instead transitioning straight to the Future Relationship and arguing for a comprehensive Free Trade deal, that would allow us to trade to our mutual advantage with our European partners, with low or no tariffs, into the foreseeable future, is Boris Johnson.
In short, no deal is still better than a bad deal – but a trade deal is better than both of them – and we should leave the European Union on 31st October with that objective very firmly in our sights.
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