Nick Boles is a former Planning Minister and Education Minister, and is MP for Grantham and Stamford.
There are only 28 weeks left before we leave the European Union (EU). In all of my conversations with MPs since I published my plan for a Better Brexit, this fact has been uppermost in everyone’s mind. As my colleagues contemplate the prospect of a parliamentary vote on whatever deal the Prime Minister agrees with the EU, they recognise that there is very little time left.
The Government knows this too and are using it to try and persuade MPs who have serious reservations about the Chequers Agreement or the Irish backstop to hold their noses and vote for the Withdrawal Agreement when the time comes. The steady drumbeat of announcements about the consequences of crashing out of the EU without a deal is designed to frighten MPs about the consequences of voting down the Prime Minister’s plan. They are right to be worried. We are woefully unprepared for “no deal” and the voters will never forgive us for inflicting major disruption on the country, and serious harm to British businesses, if we allow it to happen. After all, we have had over two years to prepare for this day and there really is no excuse for not being ready for it.
So the questions that every Conservative MP needs to ask themselves are these. If the Prime Minister’s plan does not get through the Commons, what then? If MPs also can’t stomach a “No Deal” Brexit, what’s the alternative? Have you got a fallback plan? Can it get through the Commons?
In looking for a Plan B, we do not have the luxury of holding out for perfection. Now is not the time to be designing a brand new bespoke relationship. We need a plan that works, that is legally doable, and that fulfils a few basic conditions. Does it take us out of the EU on time at the end of March next year? Does it give British businesses the confidence to invest and grow? Does it put us in a strong position to negotiate an advantageous deal with our European friends?
Like most Conservatives, I believe that, in the long term, Britain should be pursuing a Canada-style free trade agreement rather than the half-in half-out pushmi-pullyu envisioned by the Chequers Agreement. David Davis has done us all a heroic service in preparing for such an agreement and I have complete confidence that, in time, such a deal can be done. But nobody, not even the most optimistic Brexiteer, believes that we can finalise and implement such an agreement in a matter of months. One way or another, we need an interim phase, a halfway house, a secure platform from which to negotiate without the pressure of an artificial deadline, or a gun against our heads.
The Prime Minister proposes a 21-month Implementation Period, in which we effectively become a non-voting member of the EU – paying all the same charges, abiding by all the rules, but without a say in any of it. In her interim, we will still be subject to the European Court of Justice, still be bound by freedom of movement, still be subject to the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. “Run by Europe, but not in Europe”, one might say.
The halfway house that I propose involves a much bigger immediate step out of the EU. By asserting our right to stay in the European Economic Area, applying to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) as an associate member and negotiating an interim customs union like Jersey’s, we can retain all of the benefits of single market and customs union membership while escaping the clutches of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and the European Court of Justice (replacing the latter with the much less intrusive EFTA Court.) It would even give us some wiggle room on freedom of movement.
Some have questioned whether my plan for an interim relationship like Norway’s would be acceptable to the EU or to the other EFTA states (Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.) But Michel Barnier has consistently made clear that the Norway relationship is one of the models that the EU would be happy to offer. We would of course require the EU’s consent for our transition into the EFTA pillar of the EEA, but we have already said that we are willing in principle to pay up to €39 billion for a reasonable agreement with the EU ,so I feel confident that we can find a way to make it worth their while. Norway’s Prime Minister has said that they would welcome an application from the UK, and recent conversations have confirmed that this is still the government’s position. It has always been understood that membership of the EEA and EFTA can be used as a transitional step for countries on their way in to the EU. We would simply be proposing to travel in the opposite direction. We should approach Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein with sensitivity, humility and respect. But there is every reason to be confident that we can reach a mutually advantageous agreement with these ancient allies, neighbours and friends.
Leavers’ biggest concern about leaving the EU via the EEA is that we might never leave, that the EU wouldn’t have any incentive to offer us a decent free trade deal, and that Parliament would lose interest in Brexit and want to move on. This betrays a surprising lack of confidence on their part. If the Prime Minister’s plan fails to win a majority in Parliament, her government will be on the ropes. In exchange for supporting an application to join EFTA and stay in the EEA, Leaver MPs could quite reasonably demand a short piece of legislation committing the government to leave the EEA in three years’ time. They could also insist that the government embarks on a major investment programme to ensure that by 2022 our ports, and our border systems, are ready to leave the EEA without a free trade agreement and move to trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms.
There’s a hard truth in politics. Ambition, passion and belief aren’t enough. If you want to get anywhere, you’ve got to have a plan. I’ve got one. It works, and will get us where we want to go. What’s yours?