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BARNABY TOWNS: Amateur hour for hardliners

Barnaby Towns reminisces about Margaret Thatcher's leadership on Europe (Photo by P. Floyd/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Former Tory adviser Barnaby Towns on the ignorance, irresponsibility and ideology which menace the party – and the country.

Brexiteers and Remainers alike now know what a 585-page Withdrawal Agreement looks like. This detailed document deals with thorny issues such as: UK and EU citizens’ rights; the financial settlement of joint UK-EU assets and liabilities; and a legally-binding backstop to safeguard Ireland’s invisible border in the event of no deal, among other points.

The exit agreement also provides for a transition period in which the UK’s EU rights and responsibilities are preserved without any UK participation in the EU’s Council of Ministers, parliament or European Commission that shape those rules. This expires on December 31, 2020, with only one opportunity to extend it – for an unspecified time period – by July 1, 2020.

Contrary to much careless confusion, this exit pact is not a trade deal – that is covered in seven short, skimpy pages of agenda items for future discussion: the outline ‘political declaration’. Parliament must pass the Withdrawal Agreement to even begin lengthy and laborious negotiations for a future trade treaty. Far from EU ‘trickery’, this was always the case under Article 50, which the government chose to invoke. Remainers and Brexiteers need to understand that whatever the withdrawal deal’s quality, unless Article 50 is extended by the EU or withdrawn by the UK, failing to agree it means a no-deal exit.

Meanwhile, as the government begins to ascend a steep learning curve, boastful Brexiteers prove stubbornly slow learners. Before the referendum, when David Davis claimed that ‘within minutes of a vote for Brexit CEOs would be knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding access to the British market’ and Liam Fox asserted that a UK-EU trade deal would be ‘the easiest in history’, the EU’s nationalist opponents wildly misread geopolitical reality. But rather than wising up to Boris Johnson’s evidence-free bluster that ‘they need us more than we need them’, ignorance, ideology and irresponsibility continue to infuse their behaviour.

One of the most unedifying spectacles of the Brexit debate has been the amateurism of exit enthusiasts, despite the scale of their ambitions and years of Brexiteer commitment. One example is the confession of second-out-of-three Brexit secretaries, Davis protégé Dominic Raab, that he had not previously appreciated the importance of the Dover-Calais route, which processes nearly one-fifth of the UK’s goods trade – £122 billion in frictionless transactions annually.

This admission keeps company with Penny Mordaunt’s leaked difficulty distinguishing between the withdrawal agreement and the ‘political declaration’ contingent upon it, and Esther McVey’s reported request for a cabinet vote on the exit treaty, contrary to constitutional convention extending that prerogative to the prime minister alone.

No less unimpressive are backbenchers’ on-the-record comments, from Andrew Bridgen’s belief that British citizens are entitled to Irish passports, to Mark Francois’ complaint that ‘the draft agreement is 585 pages… is extremely complex and is written in legalese’, to Nadine Dorries, protesting that ‘this deal gives us no voice, no votes, no MEPs, no commissioner’. Who knew?

Now the party that secured major European treaties in 1972, 1986 and 1992 indulges expertise competing with under-sourced opinion and uninformed sentiment such as ‘at what point was it decided that Brexit means Remain?’ (Andrea Jenkyns) and ‘I hate this!’ (Andrea Leadsom, allegedly referencing ‘Chequers’ in cabinet).

Ideology drives ignorance. Why fuss about facts when the EU so clearly prevents a buccaneering nation from forging its bountiful destiny, whatever that might mean outside the EU’s half-billion-person multinational free trade area that is our largest and closest market? Tories once said, as Margaret Thatcher did during the first referendum: ‘We can play a role in developing Europe, or we can turn our backs on the Community. By turning our backs we would forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community. But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us.’ Now aspirant leaders, like Raab, claim we’re ‘bribed and blackmailed or bullied’ by the EU, which the government decided to leave.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna describes bailing Brexiteers as ‘having promised an impossible vision of Brexit in the referendum, they are leaving the field and blaming a prime minister for failing to square their circle of fantasy’, but those remaining arguably merely calculate leadership manoeuvres differently.

Amid inveterate infighting and self-serving party-political positioning, parliament has a duty to protect the prosperity and peace delivered by Britain’s relationship with Europe’s internal market and Ireland’s invisible border.

Sadly, an ideologically-driven, economically-disastrous no deal, and fantasies of renegotiating a just-completed treaty four months before the UK’s scheduled self-imposed exit date, menacingly threaten these fragile, worthwhile and formidable joint UK-EU achievements.

Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative party special adviser

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