Ladies and gentlemen,
Stories of my imminent departure from government have been filling newspaper column inches for the past few days. I am here today to confirm to you that this is indeed true. I am resigning from Theresa May’s government. And of course my reasons are connected to Britain’s departure from the European Union.
But my reasons are not the ones that you expect, nor are they even the ones that the newspapers attribute to me.
My reasoning is that Brexit cannot actually be delivered by 30 March 2019, and the Government and the Conservative Party need a deep re-think about how to approach this endeavour.
Don’t get me wrong – my commitment to freeing the UK from the shackles of the EU is undimmed. My determination to respect the referendum result is unshakeable. Brexit can and will be delivered. But that will not be in the spring of next year.
Before the referendum was held, my old friend David Cameron decided to not make a plan for how Brexit would work, so confident he was that the vote would go his way. This lack of plan actually favoured us, the Leave side. It allowed us to present all the advantages of Brexit, and avoid all the downsides. In other words we could simultaneously be in favour of a Norway style solution and a Canada style solution. Experts rightly told us that was impossible, but as my colleague Michael Gove so notably said, who trusts them anyway?
The problem we then have faced in government is that, actually, experts do come in useful. They make sure that customs systems work, that trade continues to flow across borders. And when you start to look into the details of how to solve the issues thrown up by the border in Ireland, or the headaches of how to do customs checks at the Port of Dover, you realise that there is no way to solve those issues in the short term. It is even a long shot by the end of 2020, the transition period that the Prime Minister has agreed with the EU.
In retrospect we, the Government, were too hasty. We triggered Article 50 because we thought at the time that it was the right thing to do, to deliver the Brexit that had been promised to the British people. But the referendum only told us that Britain should leave the European Union, not how to do it, and on what terms, and what the trade offs would be in doing so. We still do not know the answers to those central questions.
And to those who say that No Deal is better than a Bad Deal: trust me, it is not. My department has analysed the No Deal scenario and we do not want to go there. We cannot, as a responsible political party and government, allow that to happen – the overnight negative impact on the wellbeing of our country is simply too great.
Don’t get me wrong: Britain can still leave the European Union, legally speaking, on 30 March 2019. But it would then be putting itself in a position of infinite transition. None of the major issues – how the border in Ireland will work, how trade relations with the rest of the EU will work, even how trade deals with the rest of the world will work – are going to be close to being solved by then.
And in the meantime Britain will lose its voice in the European Union institutions. That, from a democratic point of view, is the very opposite of taking back control. It is surrendering it.
And as for the finances – we promised that £350 million a week would return to the UK from the EU, but we now know – in the short term anyway – that Brexit is going to cost the UK a lot. The British people did not vote to make themselves poorer, not even in the short term. We urgently need to find ways to soften this financial blow.
So what should the government do?
Pause. Ask the rest of the European Union for an extension of the Article 50 period – and ask for an extension of at least 2 years. Article 50 allows for such an extension.
That is the only way we are going to save any sort of real Brexit from here. Anything else is going to be Brexit in Name Only.
During the first twelve months of the Article 50 extension we should not negotiate with Michel Barnier and his team, but we should consult. We should speak to businesses up and down the UK. We should speak to families, to students, to farmers. We should speak to those living either side of the border in Ireland.
We should analyse, we should plan, and we should research. We should set about producing the most innovative and seamless solutions to the customs and border issues that are possible.
I have no doubt in the determination and creativity of the British people. They voted for Brexit – we trusted them with that decision – but we have since left their needs behind. We urgently need to address that.
Until we do that, Brexit should not proceed.
It is simply too dangerous.
I have to think of the people of Haltemprice and Howden as well as the ideology of the Conservative Party.
And until we take a step back, and put Brexit on pause for the sake of making it a success, I will be voting against all Brexit related legislation in the House of Commons.