Tonight in the House of Commons I will vote for the Prime Minister’s deal. I will do so with a heavy heart. Why? Because I believe our country is now facing such a moment of crisis that to do otherwise would be irresponsible.
We are running out of time. We have less than 10 weeks to the March 29th deadline. There is an angry mob outside Parliament, and they speak for a deepening angriness in the nation. We desperately need an orderly withdrawal.
It was Parliament’s decision to let the people decide our future with the European Union. And, in June 2016, they gave us their answer. For that reason, I remain deeply opposed to a second referendum. The people have spoken and it is our job to implement their instruction.
However, that instruction was not clear. People voted to leave by a narrow margin. In my constituency, 58% wished to leave. Nationally, the result was 52% to 48%. That is not an overwhelming, thumping majority.
The majority of my constituents who voted to leave said to me: “George, I voted to join a common market; I did not want to be in a political union.” Meanwhile the 48% who voted Remain do want to do exactly that. The truth is there isnt any majority for a hardline Brexit based on pulling out of all European institutions or cutting ourselves off from the single market. That is not our mandate. It never was. And when the Prime Minister tried to secure a mandate for exactly that she lost 30 MPs and her majority.
So as I wrote on the Monday after the election, before resigning from the Government and my role as Chair of the No10 Policy Board, we ought to be pursuing a sensible exit arrangement in the spirit of cross-party co-operation. I was appalled to hear recently that the shadow Brexit Secretary has apparently received no contact from Ministers about the possible basis of an agreement. Unless we reach out across the House, listen to the electorate and signal that we will put party before country, we are unlikely to find a solution.
It is a Remoaner cliché to say the Leave vote was about everything other than the EU itself. That is clearly not true. Many people cast their vote based on long-held objections to the anti-democratic impulses of Brussels and the creation of a political super-structure which we never voted for. I have always shared many of those concerns which is why I was a champion of EU reform through the Fresh Start Group.
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It is also true that many cast their vote for Leave for a wider range of reasons. From the many conversations I’ve had in my constituency, I know that lots of people saw it as a chance to express a deep roar of anger at a politics and economics that doesn’t seem to be working for them.
We can’t ignore the real and legitimate concerns about uncontrolled immigration, economic insecurity and redundancy which fuelled so much of the Brexit vote. We should have no truck with the narrow nationalism and nasty xenophobia of the UKIP hardcore. But my constituents want us to put in place a fairer immigration system which respects the need for a clearer and fairer social contract between the State, citizens and migrants.
To have any hope of moving forward, we need to fully understand this roar of anger. Indeed, this is something I have been warning about for over fifteen years. On arriving in Parliament eight years ago, I sent David Cameron a memo in 2011 titled ‘Unaccountable Elites: The new dividing line in British politics’ in which I argued that unless we took radical action to tackle the groundswell of anger in communities that had been left behind, we faced a terrible reckoning. Sadly, I never received a reply. Five years later, the Referendum was lost and Cameron stood on the steps of Number 10 resigning, wiped out by that very same roar.
To tackle the grievances driving Brexit, the Conservatives urgently need to look beyond short-term partisan bickering and embrace a longer-term commitment to profound renewal. That’s why I stepped down from my role as Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board in 2017 and launched my work on a bold renewal agenda, reshaping the work of the Conservative Policy Forum and launching the Capital Ideas Foundation, the forthcoming 2020 Conservatives Group book on a vision for BritainBeyond Brexit, and launching the first two Big Tent Ideas Festivals in 2017 and 2018.
We must all ensure that Brexit is a transformative moment. Not just a transformation of our relationship with the EU but also of our reforming commitment to tackle domestic policy grievances like the crises in housing, social care and local government finance — and the collapse of trust in politics — that fuelled the 2016 rebellion.
Unless we make Brexit a transformational moment of national renewal the grievances, and the rebellion, will deepen. With new populists on the hard left and hard right on the rise, all of us who fear extremist politics and want a bold reforming centre ground need to recognise the risks.
Brexit is the biggest moment of change to the politics of this country since 1945. Given the level of division and anger it has more in common with Irish Home Rule or the Corn Laws. Back in 1945 William Beveridge and others began shaping a new post war order to heal the wounds of the war, in keeping with the spirit of the times.
Today we need to capture the common ground of the Brexit vote and move beyond the stale short term partisan divisions of left and right which sees Brexit as a political football. We need to address the underlying grievances in the spirit of a bold New Generation politics. That’s why I set up the Big Tent Ideas festival. The Big Tent isn’t about leading a revival of the right or the left, Leavers or Remainers, but to create a space for the genuinely fresh thinking we need. We believe there must be more than an arid choice between the hard left of Jeremy Corbyn and the hard right of Nigel Farage.
The Big Tent insists on challenging lazy partisan thinking and insisting on a better bolder post-Brexit politics of genuine renewal. Praising new models of innovation but prizing our heritage too. Championing the free market but never complacent of its failures. Optimistic about the future but never naive. And proud of our past but not imprisoned by it.
Yes, the challenge we face looks overwhelming. But that is true only if we try to solve big questions with small answers. The endless diet of day-to-day announcements from Whitehall is not speaking to the public yearning for a bigger vision beyond Brexit.
The world’s mightiest economies don’t think like tiny islands. And when small islands like Hong Kong, Ireland or Elizabethan Britain think big, they can go global. To do that we must embrace a bold policy programme: building an innovation economy, increasing our soft power in emerging markets, championing public-sector enterprise, supporting post-welfarist models of social justice, and developing a new contract of post-Brexit citizenship.
So how do we get there? How can we navigate through this turbulence and embrace that bold Renewal we need?
None of that will be possible without a Brexit settlement. Despite our differences, everyone is agreed on one thing: the Prime Minister’s deal is not perfect. Indeed, I have many reservations. But the prospect of no deal would be so calamitous for my constituents that I can no longer let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I hoped that the Prime Minister would come back from Europe before Christmas with a concession on the backstop and thankfully, she has already indicated that there has been some progress, and there have been several strong assurances secured from the EU.
But now it is time to listen to the views of the country. Lord Wolfson, an ardent Brexiteer, is warning as the chief executive of Next that the cost of food and clothes—basics that my constituents rely on—would go up dramatically with a no-deal Brexit.
The Royal Society is warning that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for our science industry.
The National Farmers’ Union is warning that British agriculture would be severely hit without a deal, with a likely trade embargo affecting our £3 billion food export industry. Our UK sheep and lamb sector relies for 90% of its exports on the EU. Without a deal the EU imposes 40% tariffs. That’s what a “WTO” Brexit means for UK farmers. Yes I’m excited about the potential of UK agritech to help us develop new export markets, but that won’t happen overnight. After forty years of embedding our trade inside the EU it will take us time to reorientate ourselves to the emerging markets in Asia and Africa. We need time to transition in an orderly way which gives business the stability it needs. Our aerospace, pharmaceutical, automotive and other key growth industries are begging us not to leave without a deal.
This isn’t ‘Project Fear’; this is serious ‘Project Business’ for the people we serve.
If the Prime Minister’s deal does not pass next week, however, it seems to me that we need a plan B. For nearly a year I’ve been supporting the work on an EFTA model as the best alternative.
EFTA would give us access to the single market, but we would be out of the customs union. We would have freedom to do trade deals and to take back control of farming and fishing. It does require free movement, but that it is the free movement of workers, not citizens. It would also require a bold package of welfare eligibility reforms, along with much-needed skills and training reforms.
So I will, with a heavy heart, vote for the Prime Minister’s deal today, because we are now in the dying stages of this process and leaving without a deal is unconscionable.
If – perhaps when – it is voted down, we all have a duty to find an alternative solution. I urge colleagues to look at EFTA and work with me and many others across the House on supporting this solution. If the Prime Minister’s deal doesn’t get through, then EFTA could do so. Either would be better than no deal.
We must also remember one other thing. Thanks to the vote of confidence in December, the Prime Minister has room for manoeuvre. She is no longer in the grip of the European Research Group’s “true Tory Brexit” strategy. Having been saved by One Nation Tories from the leadership attack by the ERG, the PM can finally pursue Brexit in the national rather than party interest as she should have done all along.
Back in December I was hoping to be able to speak out in Parliament and vote against this deal to strengthen the PM’s hand in Brussels in getting concessions on the backstop and terms of Withdrawal and our £39bn “divorce settlement”.
But a month later we are now running out of time to deliver Brexit by March 29 and the risk is now no deal or no Brexit. Or pressure for a General Election or a second referendum. All would be a mistake.
We need to move on. Brexit is a process. Not a moment. Politics didn’t end on June 23rd. It continues. And the world and our constituents are watching.
To govern is to choose. Sometimes we have to choose between negatives. To me the choice we face now is not a good one. So many mistakes have been made in the last three years since the Referendum was launched.
We can’t undo those mistakes. All we can do is to start to put it right going forward. So tonight it’s essential that we get it right.
That means avoiding the worst options. I would like to take no deal and a second referendum off the table to focus minds and to have a free vote so that individual MPs can vote purely on the basis of their conscience and constituency rather than Party.
With pro-Brexit Labour MPs whipped against it, the LibDems, DUP, SNP and hardline Conservative Brexiteers voting against it, it’s inevitable that tonight the PM will lose the vote.
Then we will need a Plan B.
Ultimately I believe the best outcome would be for a cross-party Brexit vote that reassured the public MPs can put country before Party. To me the EFTA model – with the two key reforms to welfare eligibility and a bold skills package for UK citizens threatened by economic redundancy – would be the best outcome. In EFTA we would de facto establish the “two tier Europe” with the UK leading the outer tier which I’ve always thought the most sensible resolution of our longstanding angst about the EU project.
In her search for a cross-party Brexit withdrawal agreement the PM can now afford to lose votes — as she will have to — without fearing for her job. It’s likely to take many votes if we’re to find a Brexit deal that can get through. Finding a Brexit that commands a parliamentary majority will be a messy process. After the loss of our majority last year, the mandate is, inconveniently, now in parliament, not the party.
Only by testing the options can we find out if there’s a Brexit solution that can command support from a majority of MPs. Labour MPs are unlikely to vote with a Conservative PM unless he or she is fatally wounded. This is the brutal reality of parliamentary politics.
Can we do it? Yes we can. By voting through this deal today – or a cross-party EFTA Brexit Plan B next week – we can oversee a moderate Brexit in the national interest, respecting the majority of the 48 per cent and the 52 per cent, and recasting Brexit as a moment of bold domestic policy renewal — on housing, modern public services, tax, infrastructure and the other issues voters care about most. We can harness this as a change moment to renew Conservatism – and the United Kingdom – for a new generation.
For Conservatives to vote against the EU Withdrawal deal tonight is to heighten the risk of no deal or no Brexit, or a second Referendum or a General Election, deepen the crisis of trust in Parliament and democracy, and increase the chances of a hard left Corbyn Government. No true Conservative should treat those risks lightly. That’s why I’m voting for the EU Withdrawal Agreement tonight.
George Freeman MP is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum