It’s been announced that the Government is to publish a White Paper setting out its ambitions in the trade talks with the EU. At last! This is a crucial step forward but it is way too late. The Government should never have triggered Article 50 in March 2017 without publishing its plan first. And it needed to be a plan that commanded public support, which addressed the issues raised in the referendum – like the lack of social mobility, the poor opportunities for skills training and the failure to manage immigration competently – as well as setting out how we could maintain our crucial ties with our European neighbours.
The truth is that Brexit is falling apart. With less than a year to go we have no final withdrawal agreement with the EU; no solution to the Irish border problem; no agreement inside the Government, never mind with the EU, about our trading relationship after Brexit; no idea at all about what travel rights we will have in Europe after Brexit; and no guarantees over a mass of vital links with the EU covering everything from isotopes for cancer treatment to space technology to extradition. This is a mess – and one we should not be in.
It’s telling that even the Leavers have begun to realise the wheels are falling off. Arch-Brexiteer Dan Hannan has queried not only the Government’s approach, suggesting staying in the European Economic Area rather than leaving altogether might be better, and even asking if we should have another vote. The Sunday Telegraph suggested at the weekend that Leavers were beginning to wonder if this is all worth it – about time!
What is the best way out of this morass? For a start we need some leadership. It was good that the Prime Minister finally stood up to Jacob Rees-Mogg over the Irish border the other day but we need much, much more. There isn’t a majority in the House of Commons for the kind of hard Brexit that Rees-Mogg wants, so why are we even debating it? Ministers should accept that they can’t force through a “Hard” Brexit agreement and even the Soft Brexit options all look worse than simply staying in the EU
The Prime Minister needs to recognise too, that the time when the Conservative Party could be united around a single policy has long since passed. Number 10 needs to realise that the pro-European voices in the party – which include four million Conservative voters – aren’t going to go away and shut up. Trying to drown out our voices will only extend, not end, the civil war which has wracked Conservatism since the Leavers refused to accept the overwhelming vote to remain in the EU in 1975. Choices are going to have to be made and then Parliament will have to vote on them.
If Mrs May wants to try and unite the Party then the best way would be to let our MPs have a free vote or alternatively to let the people decide whether we should accept the deal with the EU or stay in. A free vote or a people’s vote could be the one chance May has to save her government, her job and our party.