The heightened rhetoric of the past few days, from talk of collaborators, saboteurs and government of national unity, prompt me to set out what I believe are today’s risks, from one who voted to Remain in the EU, but has accepted the result and voted accordingly in Parliament to leave with a deal ever since.
Let me deal with the balance of risks as I see them, saying clearly that this is my opinion, and that there are others contrary to mine. But I’m telling you what I think and why.
Firstly, no deal is economically damaging to the U.K. The publication in the Sunday Times of the Government’s own document on potential effects, ‘Operation Yellowhammer’, suggests a rational awareness of what could happen. Businesses do not know on what terms their goods will be traded. Tariffs will be imposed on some goods, where none exist now. Agriculture and food will be hardest hit. There will be delays at ports of entry, with impacts on perishable supplies and medicines. There will be short and medium-term damage to growth and prosperity. And the U.K. will lose money, which will impact on jobs and investment.
If none of the above were true, the Government would have no need to prepare for no deal, and would not be setting up compensation funds to cope, nor working out new freight pathways for medical supplies.
So it will hurt, and the only dispute appears to be as to how much and for how long. Why take the risk?
Secondly, there’s the risk to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The U.K. and the Republic will be in different customs and market zones when we leave the EU. Different regulations and tariffs apply and we are a ‘third country ‘ to the EU. This is our doing, as we have voted to leave and chosen to leave the single market and customs union. There are consequences.
Many in Northern Ireland and the Republic fear the risk of a ‘hard border’ with an intensity barely understood by some in England, whose ignorance of our common history seems to me astonishing and deeply hurtful to those across the Irish Sea.
Some there really do fear a return to violence and terror. The economics are one thing and can be got over. But the sense of loss – and indeed betrayal – can only be gained by an awareness of history and from talking to those over there. After centuries of bloodshed – and deep bitterness – the Good Friday Agreement enabled things to move on, for the Queen to visit Croke Park, the site in Dublin of a civilian massacre by British troops in 1920, and for Ireland to be our best friends in the EU. And for prosperity, peace and jobs to come to both, within the EU.
Then we voted to Leave – as we are entitled to – with significant adverse consequences for Ireland. But leave without a deal and the safeguards that matter so much? Once again, it seems now, as so often in our history, we display an arrogant disregard for the needs of others. It will be remembered. Why take the risk?
Thirdly, there is a risk to the Union, the United Kingdom which has been the most successful partnership for centuries. Scotland, which did not vote for Brexit, has a nationalist government seemingly bolstered both by the Conservative party’s choice of leader, and by the risks perceived through a no-deal Brexit.
A further referendum for them may follow. And Northern Ireland, which also did not vote for Brexit, might increasingly feel its interests are better served within the Republic and the EU.
I don’t know whether either of these will come to pass, and am at a loss at polls which suggest Conservative voters just don’t care about the break up of the U.K., but why take the risk?
Fourthly, there is the political, diplomatic and security relationship with the EU itself. We are leaving it and must cope with some loss of institutional influence. But leaving in antagonistic circumstances will not assist the creation of the new partnerships needed as we face issues without borders, from climate change to migration. Nor will it help when it comes to potential confrontations with much larger powers in trade and diplomatic strength such as China, Russia and the US. Why take the risk?
And fifthly, we have the contrivance of constitutional contortions to try to avoid no deal, from legitimately but awkwardly using the Commons’ order paper to ensure votes on the terms of our leaving; to creating an emergency government of national unity, led either by the most unpopular Leader of the Opposition in my experience, or some other figure, with arguable legitimacy but undoubted extreme polarisation as a consequence. Why take the risk of this?
Why take these extraordinary risks with our country? The risks would be worth it and necessary if there was no alternative; if this truly was a war-time situation, instead of one we have created ourselves, imagined fondly but falsely by many who have no experience of war, but for whom the drip, drip of poison about the EU over the years has done its job in exaggerating threats to our independence and sovereignty. Then of course the U.K. would rightly do whatever was necessary to survive, including just walking away from the EU.
But I do not believe that is where we are. We had a Withdrawal Agreement which many MPs – like PM Boris Johnson – voted for. It allows for a transitional period to cope with many of the risks outlined above, not least mutual security for our citizens rights abroad, and our trade, jobs and economy. It also sets up the negotiations for our future relationship with the EU, which will be handled for the U.K. by a Brexit-voting PM and Cabinet, plainly united in its objectives to create an acceptable partnership to them – the 17.4m who voted Brexit – but also those who did not do so, and want to see a future of a strong, effective partnership between us.
I do not believe that arguing for some Agreement, as I am doing and will continue to do, based inevitably upon what has already been agreed (though with some added Johnsonian tweak) makes me a saboteur or traitor. I do not think those who think like this should be purged from the Conservative party. And I do not really believe the only thing preventing the EU negotiating further is that parliamentarians are doing their job on behalf of the British people by holding the Government to account. Efforts to belittle serious arguments by using the language of collaboration and set up blame in anticipation of failure to achieve a deal is regrettable. So is continuing to claim falsely that those who oppose no deal oppose Brexit itself; convenient but untrue, as my votes for the Withdrawal Agreement demonstrate.
We can do better than this as a country. Keep the rhetoric in these heated times under control. Think of the next generation who should be picking up the opportunities of a new relationship, not wading through the debris. Look for compromise between all of us who want some form of agreement to leave, so we can move on.
We cannot ‘bring everyone together’. The EU is a binary issue – either in or out. So the best we can do in my view is leave as well as possible and move on. It is not everyone’s choice.
But I will not be dictated to, or called a traitor, by those who advocated leaving and either created this situation by not voting in Parliament as I did to leave, or do not demonstrate as much determination to find an agreement to safeguard against the risks I set out above as they are doing to make clear we would be ready to leave with no deal if all else fails.
Why take the risk? Get on with it. Get a deal.
Alistair Burt is a Conservative MP. This article originally appeared on his website
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