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Toxic post-referendum politics stopped MPs supporting the PM’s Brexit deal

MPs would’ve happily accepted the PM’s Brexit deal in 2016, but politics has become so toxic and unreasonable since then that almost no outcome can achieve consensus, says George Dunn, chief executive of the TFA.

It is an over-used phrase, but we live in unprecedented times. The old order of things has certainly been overtaken by a new dynamic.

 

For a Government to face the biggest ever defeat in the House of Commons and yet survive a vote of confidence without even the loss of its leader is testament to that fact.

 

Can the Prime Minister and her Government limp on until the next planned General Election in 2022? It’s fair to say all bets are off.

 

However, the immediate challenge is what to do next about what is the central plank of the Government’s agenda – delivering Brexit.

 

Before we look ahead, a short post-mortem over recent events. Firstly, what was so very wrong about the deal struck by the Prime Minister with the EU?

 

Early

 

Thinking back to those early days after the vote to leave the European Union in June 2016, those gathering around tables to discuss the way ahead would have been more than happy to have taken the 585-page deal which has just been rejected by MPs with a thumping majority against.

 

The problem has been that we have allowed politics to become so toxic, vitriolic, unreasonable and extreme in the intervening period. We have allowed Brexit to divide us rather than unite us.

 

I should say, however, that in respect of the farming industry I have never known a time when it has been as united as it is currently. Much of this is due to the sound leadership of Minette Batters at the NFU who has used her convening power to pull the farming industry together for such a time as this.

 

Problems

 

And what of the backstop? The really curious point is in December 2017 we knew, and more than that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) knew, there would be problems ahead and yet no one was prepared to do anything about it.

 

In the joint statement issued by the European Union and the United Kingdom on the ongoing negotiations issued at that time, it was made clear the Irish border would be resolved either in some form of overall free trade agreement between the UK and the EU or in a temporary solution for the island of Ireland involving regulatory alignment with the EU.

 

At the insistence of the DUP, additional words were added to the agreement to the effect that whatever happened it would not impact on the economic or political position of Northern Ireland in the context of the United Kingdom.

 

Explosive

 

No answers were forthcoming from either the Government or the DUP about how this would work in practice and the DUP has chosen now, the most explosive moment, to exploit that weakness.

 

If the backstop is such a problem, and I am not suggesting it is not, why did work not start on that 12 months ago? Surely a triumph of posture over statesmanship.

 

The Government, and many on both sides of the Brexit debate, have also thrown mud at the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow for seemingly causing issues for the Government and the Brexit process.

 

Statesmanlike

 

However, to my mind, he has demonstrated the most statesmanlike approach in the current circumstances. He is not an agent for the Government, he is a servant of Parliament and seems to have given MPs the ability they have sought to test, probe, amend and challenge the plans of the Government.

 

That is Parliament’s job whether or not you agree with the course of action being pursued. It’s a bit like free speech. I may not like what you say, but I will defend the right to allow you to say it.

 

So where do we go next? With around 70 days remaining before our scheduled exit from the European Union and with only half of those days available to Parliament, it must be the case that at the very least we will need an extension of time in our Article 50 process.

 

Impasse

 

However, more time by itself will not resolve the impasse. We need some clear thinking about how we move forward.

 

If, as the Brexiters claim, the EU is on the verge of offering a free trade agreement, then we need to see the text of that quickly.

 

Otherwise, I return to my old chestnut of looking at how we could use our continuing membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) just to see us through our planned transitional period until the end of 2020.

Freeing

 

It will leave us in the single market and able to trade with the EU, but allow us to be outside of the customs union with control of our own laws, freeing us to do trade deals with other parts of the globe.

 

As planned, we could leave completely at the end of 2020 to be free to plough our own furrow for ever more.


George can be found tweeting at @georgewdunn


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