For the year either side of the referendum, it was my duty as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee to assess the Government’s policy towards Brexit.
The failures began even before the referendum was held. When we investigated the Government’s readiness for Brexit in the weeks immediately after June 2016, we concluded that David Cameron’s decision to instruct the Government not to prepare for the possibility of a Leave vote was an act of gross negligence.
One of our witnesses was the first minister to have responsibility for Brexit, Sir Oliver Letwin. It was not an impressive session. He could identify many of the problems with leaving the EU, but of the opportunities there was no sense at all. His cerebral style, like a distracted academic who knows that his responsibility for these matters was only temporary, made him quite unsuited to the position. A commentator noted after this interview: “It is not so much that the UK Government does not have a plan for Brexit – it does not even know what is to go into a plan.”
Despite such inauspicious beginnings, there still seemed to be hope. It eventually became clear that the UK would be negotiating to a position laid out in Theresa May’s speech at Lancaster House where she was in an undisputed command of her agenda and the political landscape. By early 2017, the UK appeared to have recovered from its shock of the Leave result and was getting its negotiating ducks in a row. Clear objectives, clear roles for the new Brexit and Trade departments and a powerful wordsmith at the Foreign Office to present Britain’s new role in the world post-Brexit all contributed to a sense and reality of purpose.
Cue the 2017 General Election. The loss of Mrs May’s parliamentary majority was accompanied by a loss of confidence in herself, her closest political colleagues and, shorn of her closest aides, direction and authority progressively collapsed.
Instead of standing firm in the negotiations that followed, underpinned by a clear understanding and public preparation for her bottom line, leaving the EU without a deal, she was driven hither and thither by an EU Commission team that had impressive collective support from the 27 members of the European Council.
The disastrous result was the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement.
In the great movie of the battle of Waterloo when Napoleon is trying to manoeuvre Wellington’s troops out of position, Wellington countermands any movement by saying: “I do not care to run around like a wet hen”. Sadly, our Prime Minister has been driven all over the place, failing to understand the fundamental strength of the UK’s negotiating hand, however weak her parliamentary hand happens to be.
Her weak parliamentary hand can always be repaired by a fed-up electorate increasingly anxious to get this done – in other words, through an election. But once British advantages have been conceded in an international treaty they are beyond recall. Has it not occurred to any of the negotiators that saying “no” was not only an option, but arguably in the UK’s medium to long-term interests?
I wanted a deal that reflected both our strength and generosity of spirit. Instead we seem to have arrived at a document that could have been produced by Lord North’s staff and signed by General Percival in a railway carriage in a French wood. National humiliation, and the blow to our self-confidence whether now or when the implications of the terms of this inescapable Treaty – if we vote for it – will be a grim harbinger for the future of the politics of the UK. I am not going to be a party to this arrangement. I will remain true to my promises to my electorate and the long-term interests of the nation I serve.
Crispin Blunt MP