As bungling Boris Johnson offers his solution to the Irish border problem, the former transport secretary sets off across the nation touring Leave areas.
I live on the Camden-Westminster border, impassable earlier this week because of heavy snow. Patrols were sent out to restore trade and free movement, on the foreign secretary’s personal instructions.
Boris Johnson generously waived border checks for the weather emergency, an innovation in ‘frictionless trade’ being studied with care in Ireland as a model for ‘full regulatory alignment’.
It speaks volumes that, asked by the BBC what ‘full regulatory alignment’ might mean, Johnson invoked the borders between his adopted Islington and neighbouring Camden and Westminster.
Welcome to Oyster, solution to border crossings in Brexit Britain!
I’m spending two days a week for the foreseeable future ensconced in the heart of Westminster debating the monstrous EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Eighteen hours in the gilded chamber of the House of Lords this week alone, trying to salvage something from Euratom, Erasmus and the European Arrest Warrant, all due to expire on March 29, 2019.
Next week we get to the Good Friday Agreement, which the Brexiteers now want to ditch because it makes hard Brexit impossible. Led by Peter Hain and other former Northern Ireland Secretaries, we hope to insert a requirement that the Withdrawal Treaty must be fully compatible with the Agreement. What a commentary on Brexit that this should be necessary.
However, it is what happens beyond London which will largely determine whether we Brexit or stay in the European Union next March.
Realising this, Johnson and I both intend to spend a lot of the next 13 months out of London.
RAF jets and ambassadorial champagne beckon for Johnson and Liam Fox in their bizarre quest for trade deals to replace the EU customs union and single market.
The flights get ever longer in search of the small number of major trading nations not already members of the EU or in trade agreements with it.
For me, it’s the Year of the Train, criss-crossing England’s city and county borderlands on a ‘listening and learning’ tour – a prelude to the referendum looking increasingly likely next year on May’s Brexit treaty.
I’m visiting the hundred constituencies with the highest ‘leave’ votes in the 2016 referendum. All by train, as I did when Transport Secretary a decade ago.
My last tour persuaded me that HS2 was imperative to overcome the north-south divide and link London, the Midlands and the North with fast, high-capacity trains. Construction starts this year and Birmingham to London is open in just eight years time.
The 100 ‘most leave’ areas are largely in the Midlands, the North, Wales and coastal England, so my Twitter feed will be a feast of semaphore signals and remote stations which even Michael Portillo didn’t reach.
I am starting this week on Brunel’s Great Western to Port Talbot and Swansea, meeting community groups and supporting plans for a tidal barrage in Swansea Bay as the kind of next generation technology project essential to reviving Britain’s struggling regions. I also called for the electrification of the Great Western right through to Swansea – which I announced in 2009 but since been cut back to Cardiff by Failing Grayling.
At the weekend it’s north to Anglesey and Llandudno to talk regeneration, transport and jobs – and a ‘North Wales for Europe’ dinner. Rallying the pro-European forces is a big part of the tour.
A trial run last week took to me to Great Yarmouth, half an hour from Norwich on a one-carriage diesel car train, for the launch of ‘Norfolk for Europe’. Fifty ardent campaigners were crammed into a primary school classroom on a wet Friday evening. We left fired up about a New Deal for Yarmouth – universal broadband, lots more apprenticeships, radically improved health services – to be done instead of Brexit.
There was even an emissary from across the Suffolk border, planning a similar campaign there.
It’s the ‘Face The Future Tour’ – after the title of Labour’s great 1945 manifesto which championed social reform and internationalism and didn’t set the one against the other. And it’s coming to a station near you sometime soon – if they let me across the borders.