George Pascoe-Watson: The PM's Brexit critics need to see the bigger picture
Right now, the Brexiteer campaign isn’t the most attractive marketing approach either.
As the Irish are fond of saying, you wouldn’t start from here. But rejoice. There IS a way forward. Even now, the most senior and respected figures in the Conservative Party are convincing Brexiteers to support what’s on the table.
Today, Britain is on course for a no deal exit from the EU. That’s because the “backstop” either means splitting the United Kingdom or the UK remaining in the EU forever, or at least until a time of the Commission’s choosing.
Neither are acceptable to a British government. A no deal exit would be extremely painful. Nobody serious in government on the Brexit side pretends otherwise. But Britain would survive. And one thing is absolutely for sure. There would be a physical border between Ireland and the Province with customs checks. No question.
It follows that Ireland would suffer more than Britain under these circumstances. Irish exports to the EU travel through the north of the island to the UK which serves as a land bridge to the Continent. If Britain were to be disrupted, it would be far worse for Ireland. It is therefore totally illogical for Ireland, its EU partners and the Commission in Brussels to argue – to fight for – the very outcome they want to avoid.
Britain’s negotiating team, its Cabinet brains and its most senior ministers including Mrs May herself are well aware of this argument. They know, too, that the EU 27 and the Commission have all come to the same conclusion. And it is with some confidence that wise heads are urging hardcore Chequers Chuckers to see the bigger picture – to “keep their eyes on the prize”.
Because the Withdrawal Agreement – 90% written already in legal texts, I’m assured – and the framework for a future economic partnership, is the way to deliver Brexit. It ticks three crucial boxes: Britain leaves the EU; Britain can begin trade talks with the rest of the world; and whoever is Prime Minister can construct a new economic partnership with the EU.
Hotheads who want an absolute hard Brexit and WTO rules are missing the point. They are in danger of foisting on the UK unnecessary hardship on a point of principle – when the opportunity is there to craft new trading arrangements in a negotiation from a position of strength. As one very senior figure says: “There is an all to play for situation here if we leave under the Chequers agreement, whether you love it or loathe it. We mustn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Other wise heads are also urging colleagues to think about how Britain is positioning itself to potential new trade partners. If Brexiteers truly believe in putting the rocket boosters underneath the UK economy, then they’d better sharpen their act. Because their campaign right now isn’t the most attractive marketing approach.
For instance, they say: slagging off foreign judges is not a good look when you’re going hunting for new trade deals around the globe. Extending the transition period for Britain’s exit from the European Union means those foreign judges continuing to set our laws. For how long, we cannot know. Not even the Prime Minister can say. She says it’s only a few months. But it’s an offer on the table to try to get to a Withdrawal Treaty passable in the Commons.
The brave new world of Brexit Britain means our businesses will still have to abide by the rules set by foreign judges. Just not European ones. And this weekend they are communicating to their ideological colleagues that it’s time to rethink things. Tone down the attacks, and show the UK is a level-headed, fair-minded place of optimism, eyes fixed on the future, not the past. This is the refrain.
Of course, some arch Brexiteers see the offer as another conspiracy to keep Britain in the EU for good. So their anger has been re-ignited at the very point the PM might have hoped she was inching to a precarious settlement. But senior figures in and around Cabinet are vexed. They point to the looming leaving date and want colleagues to focus on the future, not the now.
“What matters to Britain is taking full advantage of leaving the EU and winning new trade deals around the world,” says one office holder. “Leaving the EU gives us opportunities that EU countries just don’t have. We need to po
But Remainers gather this weekend. This will be a test of the true desire for a second referendum. News this week of an Aberdeen farm being closed because of mad cow disease is perfectly-timed for those who want to stay in the EU.
Memories go back over a decade to when Britain was last struck by this plague.Then, Remainers point out, the European Commission stood by the UK and ensured the market remained open to Britain’s meat. This was despite stiff opposition from France who closed its borders to Britain with in a nano-second.
“We’d be absolutely on our own if this turned into a proper crisis post-Brexit,” one former Cabinet minister tells me.
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor at The Sun.
Picture by: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images.