Simon Richards: Almost 15 years ago, I helped to set up Better Off Out. This deal isn’t perfect – but it delivers what we campaigned for.

28 Dec

Simon Richards was CEO of The Freedom Association until June 2020, and a co-founder of the Better Off Out campaign in 2006. He is now working on plans to help promote the record and reputation of Margaret Thatcher.

Three o’clock in the afternoon still has a resonance for the millions who follow football more than I do – not least on a Boxing Day Bank Holiday. For me, it is a sacred time on just two days of the year: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

So I was incandescent when, following a ridiculously lengthy delay even by his own standards, Boris Johnson’s press conference clashed with that immovable highlight of Christmas Eve, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

It could have been even worse: had he held it at the same time the following day, he might have found himself even lower down the Queen’s Christmas card list than Tony Blair. To add insult to injury, the Prime Minister apologised, not for clashing with the world’s best-loved carol service, but for ‘disturbing Cars Three’, an American computer-animated film which, it transpired, he had not actually interrupted at all.

A far more substantial objection to Johnson’s deal is that its timing allows Parliament just a single day to debate it. How convenient for the Government! So the truth is that, whatever you or I might think of it, this deal is, if you will pardon my French, a fait accompli – an accomplished fact; a done deal.

Call it what you will, nothing is going to stop it now. Even were there adequate time to discuss this massive document, Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, true to form, would provide no opposition at all. That, as usual, is left to those Conservative Party backbenchers who, from the fight over the Maastricht Treaty onwards, have served as an awkward squad, carrying out, without official recognition or pay, the work that the Labour Party has long neglected even to attempt to do.

Are important aspects of this deal unsatisfactory for the United Kingdom? Of course they are! There is no doubt that the UK made considerable concessions on fishing, but the key issue, of sovereignty over British waters, was upheld. Given the immense damage that the EU and its Common Fisheries Policy have done to the British fishing industry, it will be years before our fishermen are in a position to take full advantage of regaining control over our waters, so it was a sensible move by Lord Frost and the Government to give ground (or should that be water?) in that area.

After all, in any negotiation there have to be areas where concessions must be made. The important question is “will our fishing industry be in a better position than before?” and the answer to that can only be “yes” – granted that it would be difficult to worsen its current state.

If the Labour Party’s ‘thin deal’ criticisms of the deal are feeble, then the SNP’s attack on the fishing deal elevates political dishonesty to a new level even by its own standards. It has never stood up for Scotland’s fishing industry and its policy of independence, accompanied by an application to join the EU, could only be achieved by sacrificing that industry once again.

The truth is that the Prime Minister’s deal has shot Sturgeon’s fox, or, as one ought perhaps to say around Boxing Day, clubbed it to death. Nothing that Johnson came back with from Brussels was ever going to meet with the approval of Ian Blackford, Scotland’s very own Mr Potato Head himself. His cry of, ‘the potato-seed industry, the potato-seed industry, my kingdom for the potato-seed industry’ is hardly likely to match William Wallace as a call to battle.

There isn’t room here to go into all the arrangements covered in this vast set of agreements. Others such as Bill Cash, Martin Howe and Lee Rotherham are better able to do that than I am – and I trust their judgement. Not only can no deal be perfect, but we should not seek such perfection. For a deal of this nature to be successful – and to stick – it needs broadly to satisfy both sides. If it only satisfies one, it will be unacceptable to the other.

Bismarck was wise enough to realise that he had been wrong to agree to Prussia grabbing Alsace and Lorraine from France in the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871. It ensured that France was consumed by a desire for revenge, which led inexorably to two world wars. A deafening cacophony of claims from the EU side that it had got the better of the Brits was only to be expected, but, save for the inevitable French Government minister or two with an eye to bolstering Emmanuel Macron’s popularity, such claims have been conspicuous by their absence.

Similarly, on this side of the Channel, screams of betrayal from Brexiteers have been more like squeaks. Back in 2006, along with Mark Wallace of this parish and others, I helped set up the Better Off Out campaign, to promote the case that the UK would indeed be Better Off Out of the EU.

Had you asked me then whether I would have regarded the terms of this Christmas Eve Agreement as acceptable, I would have replied, in the style of the last British Prime Minister successfully to defend British interests in Europe, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ It was good to hear the Prime Minister cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech as an inspiration and a turning point. She set out an updated version of De Gaulle’s ‘Europe of Nations’. The EU would have been well advised to have taken heed of her advice, but chose to plough on regardless with its project of a United States of Europe.

Later, forcing through the Maastricht Treaty, John Major, who has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent days, took to the mantra that Britain was ‘at the heart of Europe’. Only somebody ignorant of both geography and history could have insisted on such an obvious falsehood.

The agreement that Johnson has obtained rights the wrongs inflicted by Major and a succession of Europhile Prime Ministers. It restores to the United Kingdom the freedom and independence that made it great, retaining its close and friendly links with its friends and neighbours on the continent whilst re-establishing its worldwide vision. I started by mentioning football.

To conclude, were this a football match it would have been 3-0 to the EU at half-time, with three own goals scored by Theresa May and her hapless team. David Frost has been Britain’s champion, achieving a great result for his country against all the odds, with a good deal of British pluck. Now it only remains for one injustice to be put to right: Boris, please give Nigel Farage the knighthood that he deserves.