Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight.
Like many people, I am conflicted about the proposed Brexit Withdrawal Deal so, rather than present a polished argument to you, I am instead going to outline why, on balance and with reservations, I am continuing to support Theresa May.
I voted for Brexit. So did my constituency. I want a proper Brexit.
This deal isn’t perfect. Negotiations have not been well handled. Too much emphasis was probably placed on damage limitation rather than seeing Brexit as a liberating opportunity. Other mistakes have been made. Our £39 billon contribution should be phased in with results. I despair of the Government’s ‘managerial’ approach just when we need decisive leadership and vision.
However, the deal is not awful. We will have a points-based immigration system. We will regain control of borders. The Government is confident that it can strike trade deals – in most areas – and 80 per cent of our economy is in services. We will (eventually) control our laws. Provided these claims are true, then this is near enough what the British people want, whilst respecting the 48 per cent who voted Remain.
It seems to me that the central issue is one of trust. The European Research Group and other Brexit groups fear the backstop, and the inability of the UK to withdraw unilaterally from it – if I understand correctly. The fear is that the EU will breach this trust by using the backstop to tie the UK’s hands permanently. It involves a temporary single customs territory, thus keeping the UK in a customs union until a permanent agreement. That agreement is assumed.
I don’t like the EU, but I believe that these fears are probably unfounded. If the EU abuses its veto powers in relation to the backstop, it will harm their long-term interests as much as ours. The whips here assure us that the EU does not want the UK staying in a backstop longer than necessary, since they believe it would give us an unfair competitive advantage. It is temporary.
Other attacks in the Commons this week on the deal were from Labour opportunists, or from those who wanted to overturn the result by calling for a so-called “people’s vote”. We had a “peoples’ vote:. The people voted in 2016. Who do these campaigners think voted in 2016? Badgers? Only members of the Lords?
In the Commons, the Prime Minister was damned by all sides, yet she was poised and balanced in her responses. Her voice didn’t rise, and she remained measured and patient. Most of the amateur dramatics from MPs from all sides failed to reach their target. Pantomime questions received pantomime reactions. However, Nigel Dodds’ intervention rang home, as did Mark Francois’. The session was at times painful.
There are three options now.
First, a new referendum, which makes a mockery of the original decision to hold a referendum. In the UK, the people are sovereign. We must respect this. I despair of those who think otherwise. Do we really want to become as other European political elites, only treating our people as sovereign when it suits us? What a betrayal of our values that would be.
Second, No Deal. I do not believe the foolish scare stories of Remainers now any more than before. I don’t believe No Deal will be a ‘catastrophe’, but I would prefer not to take the risk. I remember the 1990s.
Third, support this deal. If we can renegotiate part of it, great. But until and unless we have something better, I’d rather a Brexit bird in the hand, however impure it is for some Jesuitically-inclined colleagues, than a perfect Brexit forever somewhere over the rainbow. Henry VIII took Britain out of the European system. Elizabeth I completed the task. Neither Rome nor an independent Britain were built in a day.
Paul Waugh wrote yesterday that Conservative MPs – possibly even MPs from across Parliament – are now divided between pragmatist and idealists. I think that is right.
I am a pragmatist. I have no desire for ideological perfection. Ideological purity would mean rejecting his deal as a threat to the Union which I believe – yes, okay, hope – is more a theoretical danger then real. Ideological purity also means rejecting the deal because we do not want to leave. I reject both.
Finally, we need to remember, Government is here to govern.
We need to get back to our focus, governing for the people. With respect to my colleagues, I fear a few risk forgetting the world outside Westminster. People are fed up with Brexit and we are running out of time. We have 135 days before we leave. No deal risks months of delay and uncertainty. We will be blamed. Saying Labour are divided won’t wash. Maybe my ERG colleagues – whom I very much respect – are correct, and their in-boxes are full of thousands of outraged emails withdrawing support. There aren’t many such emails in my in-box. In my in-box are emails from people concerned about planning, health, tax and education. People want us to get on and govern and fix peoples’ everyday dramas.
We need to make the best of what we can get. Brexit will be difficult. It will change how we are perceived. There will be greater risk. Remainers will distrust us for years. From next spring on, although negotiations will continue, we need to relentlessly focus on delivering our domestic agenda and getting the free trade deal around the world. We need to be working our socks off for the British people. My priority is a Government that delivers for my constituency – the Isle of Wight – and our nation.
My fear is not a mediocre Brexit – it is a Britain governed by Jeremy Corbyn, leading to a worse Brexit or a reverse of Brexit. I do not want to risk a Labour Government during a period of such uncertainty. My priority is keeping Corbyn out of power, delivering a Brexit we can live with and showing by our actions that we remain the natural party of Government. Our overriding moral duty is to govern and govern well.
It maybe that my support is redundant anyway if the Commons is now set against the Prime Minister’s deal. But on balance, and with reservations, I continue to support the Government. I hope I am right to do so.