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Personal Statement

Volume 645: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting me this opportunity, first to pay tribute to the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have done an outstanding job over the last two years. I am very proud that we have rallied the world against Russia’s barbaric use of chemical weapons, with an unprecedented 28 countries joining together to expel 153 spies in protest at what happened in Salisbury. We have rejuvenated the Commonwealth with a superb summit that saw Zimbabwe back on the path to membership and Angola now wanting to join. As I leave, we are leading global campaigns against the illegal wildlife trade in favour of 12 years of quality education for every girl, and we have the Union flag going up in nine new missions in the Pacific, the Caribbean and Africa, with more to come. We have overtaken France to boast the biggest diplomatic network of any European country.

None of this would have been possible without the support of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Everyone who has worked with her will recognise her courage and resilience, and it was my privilege to collaborate with her in promoting global Britain, a vision for this country that she set out with great clarity at Lancaster House on 17 January last year: a country eager, as she said, not just to do a bold, ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, out of the customs union and out of the single market, but to do new free trade deals around the world. I thought that was the right vision then; I think so today.

But in the 18 months that have followed, it is as though a fog of self-doubt has descended. Even though our friends and partners liked the Lancaster House vision—it was what they were expecting from an ambitious partner, what they understood—and even though the commentators and the markets liked it—the pound soared, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have observed—we never actually turned that vision into a negotiating position in Brussels. We never made it into a negotiating offer. Instead, we dithered. We burned through our negotiating capital. We agreed to hand over a £40 billion exit fee with no discussion of our future economic relationship, we accepted the jurisdiction of the European Court over key aspects of the withdrawal agreement and, worst of all, we allowed the question of the Northern Irish border, which had hitherto been assumed on all sides to be readily soluble, to become so politically charged as to dominate the debate—[Interruption.]

Order. The statement by the right hon. Gentleman must be heard, and by long-standing convention, it is heard with courtesy and without heckling.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

No one on either side of this House or anywhere wants a hard border. We could not construct one if we tried. However, there certainly can be different rules north and south of the border to reflect the fact that there are two different jurisdictions. In fact, there already are. There can be checks away from the border and technical solutions, as the Prime Minister rightly described at Mansion House, and, in fact, there already are. However, when I and other colleagues—I single out my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis)—proposed further technical solutions to make customs and regulatory checks remotely, those proposals were never even properly examined, as if such solutions had become intellectually undesirable in the context of the argument. After the December joint report, whose backstop arrangement we were all told was entirely provisional and never to be invoked, it somehow became taboo even to discuss technical fixes.

After 18 months of stealthy retreat, we have come from the bright certainties of Lancaster House to the Chequers agreement. We can compare them side by side. Lancaster House said that laws will once again be made in Westminster. Chequers says that there will be “ongoing harmonisation” with the common EU rulebook. Lancaster House said that it would be wrong to comply with EU rules and regulations

“without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are.”

Chequers now makes us rules takers. Lancaster House said that we do not want

“anything that leaves us half-in, half-out… We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.”

Chequers says that we will remain in lockstep on goods and agri-foods and much more besides, with disputes ultimately adjudicated by the European Court of Justice.

Far from making laws in Westminster, there are large sectors in which Ministers will have no power to initiate, innovate or even deviate. After decades in which UK Ministers have gone to Brussels and expostulated against costly EU regulation, we are now claiming that we must accept every jot and tittle for our economic health—with no say of our own and no way of protecting our businesses and entrepreneurs from rules that may be not in their interests. My right hon. Friend Chancellor was asked to identify the biggest single opportunity from Brexit. After some thought, he said “regulatory innovation.” Well, there may be some regulatory innovation post Brexit but, alas, it will not be coming from the UK, and certainly not in those areas. We are volunteering for economic vassalage, not just in goods and agri-foods, but we will be forced to match EU arrangements on the environment, social affairs and much else besides. Of course, we all want high standards, but I say to my hon. Friends that it is hard to see how the Conservative Government of the 1980s could have done their vital supply-side reforms with those freedoms taken away.

The result of accepting the EU’s rulebook, and of our proposal for a fantastical Heath Robinson customs arrangement, is that we have much less scope to do free trade deals, which the Chequers paper actually acknowledges and which we should all acknowledge. If we pretend otherwise, we continue to make the fatal mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the public, saying one thing to the EU about what we are really doing and saying another thing to the electorate. Given that in important ways this is BINO or Brino or “Brexit in name only”, I am of course unable to support it, as I said in the Cabinet session at Chequers, and I am happy to be able to speak out against it now.

It is not too late to save Brexit. We have time in the negotiations. We have changed tack once, and we can change again. The problem is not that we failed to make the case for a free trade agreement of the kind spelt out at Lancaster House—we have not even tried. We must try now, because we will not get another chance to get this right. It is absolute nonsense to imagine, as I fear some of my colleagues do, that we can somehow afford to make a botched treaty now, and then break and reset the bone later on. We have seen even in these talks how the supposedly provisional becomes eternal.

We have the time, I believe the PM has the support of Parliament—remember the enthusiasm for Lancaster House and for Mansion House—and it was clear last night that there is no majority for going back to the customs union. With good will and common sense, we can address concerns about the Northern Irish border and all other borders. We have fully two and a half years to make the technical preparations, along with the preparations for a World Trade Organisation outcome, which we should now accelerate. We should not and need not be stampeded by anyone, but let us explicitly aim once again for the glorious vision of Lancaster House: a strong, independent, self-governing Britain that is genuinely open to the world, not the miserable permanent limbo of Chequers and not the democratic disaster of “ongoing harmonisation” with no way out and no say for the UK.

We need to take one decision now before all others, and that is to believe in this country and in what it can do, because the UK’s admirers—there are millions if not billions of them across the world—are fully expecting us to do what we said, to take back control, to be able to set new standards for technologies in which we excel, to behave not as rules takers but as great independent actors on the world stage, and to do proper free trade deals for the benefit and prosperity of the British people. That was the vision of Brexit that we fought for, that was the vision that the Prime Minister rightly described last year and that is the prize that is still attainable. There is time, and if the Prime Minister can fix that vision before us once again, I believe that she can deliver a great Brexit for Britain with a positive, self-confident approach that will unite this party, unite this House and unite the country as well.