Why would I, as someone who campaigned so hard against joining the euro and opposed a whole string of European Union (EU) treaties, vote for the deal that British Prime Minister Theresa May is now presenting to the country? I have to recognise that many people I like and respect are dead against it, and that would no doubt include many of my former constituents in Yorkshire.
Like them, I can hardly regard it as the perfect deal, and can think of changes I would have loved to make to it, particularly with regard to the so-called backstop and the risk of getting stuck in it.
And I don’t think the whole process has been beautifully handled. I argued after the uncertain outcome of last year’s election that expectations of what could be negotiated needed lowering then, and the Cabinet should have faced up to the need for awkward compromises. If that had happened, perhaps people would not feel so disappointed and outraged now. So why then, if I were still a member of parliament, would I nevertheless be preparing to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement signed in Brussels last Sunday, all 585 interminable pages of it? It boils down to eight reasons, and here they are.
First, an important part of the case for leaving the EU was avoiding getting caught up in “ever-closer union”, with a European army and a steadily more centralised union, with more and more of our laws decided outside this country. There is now absolutely no doubt, provided we leave with this deal or anything like it, that however much the EU manages to integrate and amalgamate in the future, we are not expected to be part of that. That’s a massive change.
Second, the other crucial argument for Brexit was that we should once again control our own borders. It is impossible to capture in a sentence why the majority voted Leave, but fair to say that they wanted trade with Europe, but with us deciding ourselves who comes to live here. The most important and vital fact about the deal in front of us is it delivers that.
Everyone can argue about backstops and customs agreements until they’re exhausted, but from the end of 2020, the United Kingdom will be able to set its own rules for the skills we want to bring in, the visa arrangements for temporary workers, the time by which they have to leave, and every other aspect of our immigration laws. Whether we were for or against Brexit, that is an advantage of it, given the vast scale of potential migration into Europe in the future, and it’s a huge development.
Third, critics of the deal have many legitimate points to make about how much we will still be following EU rules on manufactured products because of the compromises made over the Irish border. But do they realise that exports of goods only account for 15 per cent of our gross domestic product, with half of that going to the EU? Could those critics just possibly, I politely suggest, be living in an earlier century? In the 1850s we were the workshop of the world. Now we are a massive service economy, selling ideas, financial products, software, movies, consultancy and education. Customs arrangements and manufacturing rules don’t bind any of these things.
Fourth, the fear that we will nevertheless become trapped in a never-ending backstop is understandable. Yet, I don’t think the EU will want that anyway. It would mean we would have pretty open trade with them while ending free movement of people, and that might well become attractive to other countries over the years. So they have their own incentive to move on to a future free trade agreement to supplant the backstop.
Fifth, speaking frankly, I think the behaviour of the other parties is utterly dishonest. Labour is going to oppose the deal on the basis of a complete fiction: That they could negotiate all the advantages of EU membership while still leaving. The Liberal Democrats have stopped being democrats, and want to ignore the referendum result. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) never acts in the interests of the UK as a whole. I just could not bear to go through the voting lobby with this totally appalling bunch. Sometimes, the only way to know how to vote in parliament is to see who you would be voting with, and go the other way.
Sixth, Brexit ought to be delivered. I voted Remain in 2016, but have always said that the result should be faithfully implemented. If the deal goes down to defeat, I’m not at all sure that it will be. I can see Brexit being delayed, or diluted, or never happening at all. I don’t think the EU would be able to negotiate a different deal, even in the unlikely event that they wanted one. This is the best bet.
Seventh, I want May to remain Prime Minister and see Brexit through. There are a lot of outstanding and talented people on the way up in the Conservative Party, which is one of the few bright spots in the darkened sky of British politics. But they’re not yet ready for the very top. And having been the leader when I was 36, I know.
Eighth, I still travel abroad a lot of my time, and I am very conscious of how the rest of the world views this country. Contrary to what many might think, most people overseas have taken the idea of Brexit in their stride, and it has not fundamentally changed what they think of Britain. But becoming a complete shambles is another matter.
I don’t know what will follow a decisive rejection of the deal. It could be a constitutional shambles, a second referendum shambles, a no-deal exit shambles or a Corbyn government shambles. I just know that it will be an abysmal shambles whatever would happen next. People who say that the deal is the worst of all worlds haven’t understood how bad things might get.
There are times when MPs should be like detectives or lawyers, burrowing into the smallest details of a text. But there are others where they have to look at the big picture, weigh the overall consequences of their vote, understand there are good arguments on each side, but recognise that compromises have to be made. This is one of the latter.
I’m not there any more in the Commons, but these are the reasons I would vote, all things considered, with May.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018