Stewart Jackson: Don’t pivot to the Customs Union, Prime Minister – it could destroy the Conservative Party

Breaking her promise in such a way would enrage many voters, divide her Party, and cost the nation dearly in lost Brexit opportunities.

Stewart Jackson was MP for Peterborough 2005-17 and Chief of Staff to David Davis 2017-18.

As expected, Jeremy Corbyn’s No Confidence motion tabled yesterday served to unify and focus the Conservative Party on the existential danger, not just to our party but to the whole country, of a red in tooth and claw Labour government. In that sense, it rather backfired.

Perversely, it has ramped up the pressure on Corbyn to enunciate a clearer position in response to the defeat of the Prime Minister’s unlamented Withdrawal Agreement, between the Europhile majority of his party pressing for extension or revocation of Article 50, a Norway model soft Brexit, or a second referendum, and the millions of Labour voters who supported Brexit. I cannot see that Corbyn will move much, because he still commands the trust and support of the Labour membership and influential figures like Len McCluskey and because he believes that the EU is a plutocratic capitalist cartel dedicated to neoliberalism and doing the bidding of rapacious multinationals – a view he’s held since about 1983.

Labour’s introspection has bought the Prime Minister some breathing space. Although as a result of John Bercow’s decision to disregard Commons precedent and rip up the rule book to allow the Remain ultras like Dominic Grieve to circumscribe the Government’s room for manoeuvre in last week’s business motion, she has only four more days to outline what her Plan B might be.

My own view is that her tenure is strictly time limited, but my instinct is that she probably has one more pivotal Commons vote left before the pressure from the 1922 Committee and the Cabinet for her to step aside and let another leader take over will become insurmountable.

She’s been lucky, too, this week with her Remain opponents. Remain true believers are as fractious and impatient as anyone else – witness the spat between Nick Boles and Grieve over which (wrecking) Bill to present in the Commons – Boles’s quirky EU Referendum (No2) Bill or Grieve’s second referendum Bill? It’s a microcosm of the fight between the Norway crowd and the ‘Peoples’ Vote’ (sic) supporters. Neither has or likely will have a majority in the House of Commons, and Boles’s effort seems to have blown up on the tarmac via a big raspberry from the Liaison Committee. Nevertheless, the aim of most of their advocates is to delay and then kill Brexit.

For all that, Theresa May would be wise to avoid jumping out of the frying pan of a calamitous Commons defeat into the fire of a full-blown Tory civil war. The lack of a clear policy position after Tuesday’s vote appears to have emboldened some of the Cabinet to disregard even further collective responsibility. They now argue – both in code (“reaching out to other parties”) and explicitly – for a deal with Labour, involving reneging on our explicit 2017 General Election manifesto commitment to leave the Customs Union. Indeed, to the contrary, some ministers are wholeheartedly embracing the idea of one. This was always the position of people like Greg Clark and Philip Hammond, but they now feel they have license to sell this unappetising prospect in plain sight.

‘Pivoting’ towards the Customs Union would be a very bad idea for a number of reasons. Labour have no coherent Brexit policy and the customs union demand is only the least worst part of an incredible smorgasbord of opportunistic waffle. The Opposition really isn’t interested in anything but precipitating division and open warfare in our party, and certainly not in developing a coherent and pluralistic policy which can pass the Commons. Secondly, a customs union as a discrete policy is a terrible idea, as consistently and eloquently argued by Greg Hands – primarily because it would undermine a key rationale by Leave voters for supporting Brexit, the aim of allowing the UK to strike new, lucrative global trade deals after our exit from the EU.

Most acutely, Conservative MPs should understand the peril of shredding a policy which the Prime Minister has publicly endorsed over 30 times, when faced with a Party membership and wider electorate warming to No Deal/WTO and still irked by the debacle of Chequers and the Withdrawal Agreement. A Party faithful willing to believe that we can still strike a Canada Plus style deal with the EU. And why wouldn’t they? This week David Davis, Dominic Raab, Arlene Foster and Peter Lilley launched A Better Deal, which offers a reasonable alternative strategy for the Prime Minister when she returns to Brussels in a few days’ time. Together with enhanced No Deal planning, it is at least as good as any other course of action, not least because it was the basis of the Prime Minister’s policy outlined at Lancaster House, Florence and Mansion House and at last year’s General Election.

Fully conceding on the Customs Union would be such an egregious capitulation that it would endanger our local government candidates in May, and were we foolish enough to extend Article 50 to necessitate by Treaty obligation participation in the EU Parliament elections (as Boles’s bill demands), it would invite a populist upsurge of unprecedented severity.

Conservative Associations are much less deferential, more activist, and frankly more Eurosceptic now, and they’d scarcely wear such a retreat from our solemn promises. MPs who supported it would struggle to justify their decision. Remember, recent polling shows that people’s attachment to getting Brexit comfortably outstrips their attachment to even the best and most diligent local MP, and to political parties generally.

Finally, it’s as well to consider Scotland as a terrifying morality tale. In 2010, Labour polled 42 per cent there and took 41 seats – most of them won very handily. Just five years later, motivated by bitter disappointment in the wake of a fractious and unpleasant referendum campaign and a feeling that “the Establishment” had cheated them of their dreams of self-government and independence, a significant bulk of their hitherto most loyal voters turned on their own party, leaving that party with just one seat and less than a quarter of the votes.

Couldn’t happen again? Don’t bet on it.

If May takes the path of least resistance by adopting the Customs Union post-Brexit to get any deal through the Commons, she risks not just a terrible party schism but electoral Armageddon.

This rotting Cabinet

The conventional wisdom is: weak Prime Minister, strong Cabinet. But what we see is: weak Prime Minister, weak Cabinet.

If Theresa May loses the Commons vote on her deal next week, she will make a statement to the House about her response plans.  Note the way that last sentence is written.

It doesn’t say: “the Government’s plans” or “the Cabinet’s plans” (which are, in effect, the same).  This is because the latter collectively – and as far as can be discerned its members individually – don’t know what these might be.  She could announce her resignation.  She could throw the Government’s weight behind No Deal.  Or No Brexit.  Or an extension to Article 50, rather than revocation – perhaps with a second referendum in mind, perhaps not.  Or the Norway or Canada-type deals that she has rejected.  Or some other variant that no-one has anticipated.  Or say that her deal has clearly failed, and that she is now the servant of the Commons, paving her way for indicative votes.

Or, most likely of all, play for time, say that she will re-open her conversations with Brussels to seek real movement on the Northern Ireland backstop.  The logic of her present position is to do exactly that: the closer to March 29 she gets, the more pressure will come to bear on the EU to make concessions, real or token, and on MPs to back her deal, for fear of the No Deal or No Brexit to which different groups of them are opposed.  This is the logic of her game of chicken.

Some of those other options are more likely than others, and some can be ruled out altogether. Openly throwing her weight behind No Deal would risk a small number of Remain-orientated Conservative MPs voting with Jeremy Corbyn in the a confidence vote.  Backing No Brexit would divide the Conservative Party to the point where it might split altogether.  This takes us back to where we started – the role of the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister will not go to the Commons with plans without discussing them with the Cabinet first: that would clearly be a risk too far.  But it is striking that, less than a week out from the “meaningful vote”, its members have no idea what these might be.  It is possible that May doesn’t know herself.  But if she does, she is not the sort of person to take her colleagues into her confidence, especially under current circumstances.  One Cabinet Minister wearily told ConservativeHome late last year that “the problem with Theresa is that doesn’t trust anyone”.  Until the last general election, her inner circle consisted of three people: Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill – and Philip May.  Only one of them survives.

The conventional wisdom is: big majority, strong Prime Minister, weak Cabinet; small majority, weak Prime Minister, strong Cabinet.  In some senses, it holds true.  Consider an example from this morning.  On the one hand, Greg Clark is preparing his department for No Deal.  On the other, he today urges Parliament to “move quickly and act responsibly to establish what will, and will not, command support. Parliament can establish that it wants a no-deal Brexit to be ruled out”.  In short, he is urging MPs to seek to block No Deal if May’s deal falls – thereby urging them to oppose an outcome which he is tasked to prepare for.  This is not the Government position.

In one sense, Clark should resign.  In another, one can’t really blame him for not doing so.  After all, Cabinet disciple has broken down altogether, with its members openly briefly journalists about what they plan to say in its meetings, and reporting back about what happens afterwards.  Why should the Business Secretary quit while others stay?  One senior member of the lobby told ConservativeHome yesterday that this is the leakiest Cabinet in his experience – not, he added, that any journalists should complain about it.  “It’s a political Mogadishu out there,” he said, presumably thinking back to Black Hawk Down, “with Cabinet members firing off their machine guns from the back of trucks”.

None the less, there is reason to argue that what we are actually seeing is: small majority, weak Prime Minister, weak Cabinet.  The ultimate weapon of an unhappy Cabinet member is the threat of resignation.  But May has survived the loss of four Cabinet members in scarcely more than six months: David Davis, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey.  The last discovered the hard way that the Prime Minister controls the agenda and minutes of Cabinet meetings, and that there are no votes.

Those Leavers who didn’t resign over the deal have been forced to swallow the logic of their decision.  The Michael Gove who joked in Cabinet this week about anti-deal Conservative MPs was recently such a person himself – turning down the Brexit Secretary post rather than propound the Prime Minister’s position.  At Cabinet level, passive acceptance of a view must ultimately morph into active propagandising for it.

Short of resignation, there is always the more politicianly option of working with Cabinet colleagues to shift the Prime Minister’s position.  But this takes us to the heart of the matter.  There is no Cabinet consensus about what to do if the deal goes down.  Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and the surviving referendum Leavers lean towards No Deal in extremis.  Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Clark and others are setting themselves against No Deal completely.  Furthermore, May, though scarred by last month’s confidence ballot, survived it.  She cannot be formally challenged as Party leader until the end of this year.  In a way, then, she now draws power from her Cabinet’s divisions and indecision.  In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen.

The European Union complains that the Government doesn’t know where it wants to end up.  Closely aligned to the EU or more distant?  Norway or Canada?  It is absolutely right.

Cabinet members are united on one point, however.  All now hope that May’s deal passes Parliament, if not next week, then later.  And, collectively, they will carry on hoping – as authority drains away from them to Dominic Grieve, Steve Baker, and the Opposition, among whose numbers we of naturally include the Speaker.  This Cabinet is firewood.

Tim Bale: Johnson and Rees-Mogg are still in with a shout in the race to succeed May

New polling also reveals that neither is so far ahead as to be unstoppable, however.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, and co-runs the ESRC Party Members Project (PMP), which aims to study party membership in the six largest British parties.

In order to stay in office, the Prime Minister had to promise her party that she would be gone before the next election.  But there’s little agreement among Conservative members – and even less agreement among Conservative voters – as to who should replace her.

The ESRC-funded Party Members Project, run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, surveyed 1215 Conservative Party members between 17th and 22nd December, and a total of 1675 voters between 18-19 December, including 473 individuals who were intending to vote Conservative. The fieldwork was conducted by YouGov.

Respondents were asked the following question: Theresa May has said she will stand down as Conservative Party leader before the next scheduled general election in 2022.  Who would you most like to see replace her as Conservative Leader?  Neither group was presented with a pre-determined list of candidates but was instead asked to write in a name, and they were of course free to say that they didn’t know or weren’t sure, et cetera.

The table below gives the results, leaving out all those names that received only a handful or so of mentions – a group of people which included some relatively high-profile figures who are sometimes mentioned as potential candidates: Esther McVey is one example, since her name was suggested by only four Tory members (out of the 1162 who answered the leadership question) and no Tory voters. The table also contains a column allowing comparison with the results published by ConservativeHome on 31 December 2018, although their survey, unlike ours, gives respondents a list of names to choose from.

Tory Voters

(per cent)

Tory Members

(per cent)

ConHome

(per cent)

Boris Johnson 15 20 27
Jacob Rees-Mogg 7 15 4
Don’t Know 38 12 N/A
David Davis 4 8 7
Sajid Javid 2 8 13
Dominic Raab 3 7 12
Jeremy Hunt 2 6 9
Amber Rudd 4 5 5
Michael Gove 2 4 3
Penny Mordaunt 0 1 4

 

The results of the survey provide an insight into why Theresa May survived the confidence vote she was subjected to by some of her MPs just before Christmas. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess as to who might replace her – and that very uncertainty is bound to have worked to the PM’s advantage.

Clearly, Johnson and Rees-Mogg, both of them Brexiteers with high name-recognition, currently have the edge over other potential candidates to succeed May. Indeed, all the other candidates are beaten by ‘Don’t know’, even among Tory members. That said, when it comes to Tory voters, the same is true even of Johnson and Rees-Mogg.

Importantly, neither Johnson nor Rees-Mogg is so far ahead of the rest of the field as to be impossible to catch.  In any case, both are likely to find it hard to make it through the parliamentary round of voting that, according to the party’s rules, narrows the field to two candidates before grassroots members are given the final say.

Also striking is the dominance of men over women: at the moment it looks unlikely that the Conservatives will replace their second female leader with a third. Amber Rudd is almost certainly too much of a Remainer for a membership dominated not just by Brexiteers but by hard Brexiteers. Meanwhile Penny Mordaunt (mentioned by just 14 out of 1162 Tory members and by no Tory voters) clearly still has an awful lot to do.

The same looks to be true, however, of the three or four men likely to throw their hats into the ring – Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, and Jeremy Hunt, whose recent trip to Singapore has been widely interpreted as part of his ongoing leadership bid. And Michael Gove is not so far behind as to make a second crack at the top job a complete fool’s errand, in spite of the mess he made of the last leadership contest.

Perhaps the bookies are right in marking Gove at 10/1. This isn’t far off the 9/1 you’d get if you put your money on Hunt and the 8/1 you’d get on Raab, but still some way off the 6/1 offered for Johnson and, interestingly, Javid – who, like Hunt, many claim has been very much ‘on manoeuvres’ recently.

Testing our survey against the latest polling of Party members. New evidence on Next Tory Leader.

Johnson has topped an ESCR poll, as he did our last survey. Its findings are even better for Brexiteers than ours.

Today’s Observer contains a brief summary of more polling of Conservative Party members for the ESCR Party Members Project.  It is squeezed into a larger story on Labour and Brexit, and the paper’s account doesn’t come with a table and full details.  None the less, it provides another opportunity to test Conservative Home’s monthly survey against a properly weighted opinion poll.  Mark Wallace looked at other recent evidence from the Project late last week.

Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and David Davis are “top of the party’s grassroots list” as preferred candidates to replace Theresa May, the Observer reports.  It says that Johnson “topped the poll” with 20 per cent, that Rees-Mogg “trailed in second on 15 per cent” and that  Davis “scored 8 per cent”. We read separately that Sajid Javid also scored per 8 cent in the poll, so Dominic Raab, with 7 per cent, was therefore fifth.

So discounting the don’t knows, the ESCR Project’s top five are –

  • Johnson – 20 per cent.
  • Rees-Mogg – 15 per cent.
  • Davis – 8 per cent.
  • Javid – 8 per cent.
  • Raab – 7 per cent.

And the top five candidates in our last Next Tory Leader survey were –

  • Johnson – 27 per cent.
  • Javid – 13 per cent.
  • Raab – 12 per cent.
  • Jeremy Hunt – 9 per cent.
  • Davis – 7 per cent.

It appears that ESCR put nine names to their Party member respondents: Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Davis, Javid, Raab, Jeremy Hunt (6 per cent in its poll), Amber Rudd (5 per cent in its poll, 5 per cent in our last survey), Michael Gove (4 per cent and 3 per cent respectively) and Penny Mordaunt (one per cent and 4 per cent respectively).  We currently offer no fewer than 19 names, all of whom have been spoken of as potential leadership candidates.

Four of the ESCR’s top five – Johnson, Davis, Javid and Raab – overlap with our top five.  Hunt was in our top five, but not in the ESCR’s (which had him sixth on 6 per cent).  Jacob-Rees Mogg is in the ESCR’s top five; he wasn’t in ours (he was seventh with 4 per cent).  It is sometimes claimed that the ConHome panel is more Eurosceptic than Party membership as a whole.  That may be correct – but as matters stand this ESCR result actually finds the reverse, though it is of course only a single piece of evidence.

The ESCR Project is run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University.  Its last blog on its latest polling of Party members says that it surveyed 1215 Conservative Party members.  YouGov conducted the polling between December 17 and December 22.

The first department to need boosting post-March. The Treasury? Business? Transport? No: Northern Ireland.

The challenge to “our precious union” will be as much constitutional as economic – Deal, No Brexit…or No Deal especially.

Liz Truss wants to merge three smaller departments into a bigger one in the wake of the spending review.  Business, Culture and Transport would be folded into a new Ministry of Infrastructure.  B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S lives!

More prosaically, there is a danger, in weighing up the idea – the Chief Secretary believes bold measures are needed to raise productivity – of confusing three different though linked aims.

The first is saving taxpayers’ money through more efficient administration.  Amalgamating departments can help to achieve this end.  But it is always possible to find savings within the present set-up.  For example, Jeremy Hunt cut staff costs in one of those departments, Culture, by the best part of half, during his term as Secretary of State under the Coalition.

The second is restructuring departments to deliver political priorities.  Again, this shouldn’t be Mission Impossible.  However, it can go wrong.  The classic example is Harold Wilson’s Department of Economic Affairs, a “department of long-term go” created to balance the Treasury, the “department of short-term stop”.  Led by George Brown, it fought the Treasury.  The Treasury fought back, under Jim Callaghan.  Short-term stop is still with us and long-term go left very quickly.

The third is signalling priorities through ministerial appointments.  Consider the department at the head of the Chief Secretary’s list, Business.  Gordon Brown galvanised it by sending in a big hitter, Peter Mandelson.  David Cameron responded by appointing another as his shadow – Ken Clarke.

In that particular case, structural changes were made.  (Mandelson’s new department gained responsibility for universities.)  But these aren’t always desirable or even necessary.  By way of illustration, we offer a post-March 29 example.

If Theresa May’s deal eventually passes the Commons, Great Britain and Northern Ireland will have different regulatory regimes, assuming the backstop eventually kicks on.  Some argue that the two parts of the UK will potentially have different customs arrangements too.  This aspect of the deal has knock-on implications for Scotland, and therefore the Union, as a whole.

In the event of No Deal, it is possible that support for Irish unity and/or Scottish independence will grow faster than would otherwise be the case.  There is no way of knowing.  But Unionists should be alive to the possibility.  Relations with Ireland would certainly be tested in these circumstances, with an obvious read-across for Northern Ireland.  Whatever happens, we have paid for neglecting them.

In short, the latter will need a senior Tory player as Secretary of State when the next Cabinet reshuffle comes.  That person will need to know the Irish political scene, be on civil terms with the DUP and have a feel for how the island ticks.

Our suggestion is David Lidington.  He won’t be top of the DUP’s Christmas card list, but the party knows him well from his time as David Cameron’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, and vice-versa.  As a former Europe Minister he is familiar with the Irish side of the political equation: indeed, he has already been operating, in effect, as Theresa May’s emissary to Dublin.

Meanwhile, it follows that his replacement in the Cabinet Office would be tasked, as Lidington now is, with establishing how the whole UK can best work post-March 29.  In the event of No Deal, the challenge will be obvious – testing the UK Governance Group, presently charged with constitutional matters, to its limits.  In the event of No Brexit, it will be more subtle, but still present.

Our reflex is to send for Michael Gove when new thinking and action are required.  Perhaps we yield to it too readily.  And in any event, he can’t be everywhere.  Who else fits the bill?  Required: energy, brains, eloquence, seriousness and a passionate attachment to the Union.  These qualities are not in long supply.

The bold solution would be to send for a rising politician who has all five.

Rory Stewart is a Scot representing an English borders seat who is across the independence issue, having campaigned against it fervently in 2015.  He would not, repeat not, be Scottish or Welsh Secretary – any more than Lidington is now.  But a feel for what happens north of the border in particular would come in very useful.

These changes could be made without any structural change at all.  Or else DexEU could be folded into a new Department of Constitutional Affairs, with Stewart in charge, Chloe Smith staying on as the junior Minister, and perhaps a Scottish MP coming in too.

In which case, Steve Barclay could run the Cabinet Office.  Or Oliver Letwin return to do so.  Or Dominic Raab, if you prefer.  What’s that, you ask? B.I.S.C.U.I.T.S?  Well, it’s a long story.  Our theme today is shorter: mind “our precious Union”, post-March 29.

Our survey. Next Tory leader. Johnson is top again. Javid second, Raab third. Hunt is now fourth.

There are three contenders in double figures, one well ahead of the other two – and a very long tail of names in single figures,

It’s much the same story in our final Next Tory Leader survey of 2018.  Boris Johnson is top with more than double the score of the man who stays second – Sajid Javid.  The Home Secretary continues narrowly to fend off Dominic Raab, who stays third.

Last month, Johnson was on 24 per cent.  He moves up a bit to 27 per cent.  Javid puts on a point to come in at 13 per cent.  Raab does likewise and is now on 12 per cent.

David Davis drops from ten per cent to seven per cent.  Jeremy Hunt is up from seven per cent to nine per cent, and displaces Davis in fourth place.

But the snapshot picture is that there are three contenders in double figures, one well ahead of the other two – and a very long tail of names in single figures, to which we must add Esther McVey, new in the table this month.

Footnote: Theresa May can’t now be challenged via a confidence ballot for the best part of a year, so as a courtesy we’ve suspended a question we’ve asked since July last year – namely, if she should resign as Party leader and when.

However, it would be foolhardy to assume that she will necessarily be in place in twelve months’ time or earlier.  So the Next Tory Leader question stays pertinent.

ConservativeHome Awards: Rees-Mogg wins Brexiteer of the Year

Half of all respondents nominated the ERG Chairman, with another quarter voting for Dominic Raab.

Continuing our short series on the results of our ConservativeHome awards – as voted on by our very own Members’ Panel – today we unveil the winner of the coveted ‘Brexiteer of the Year’.

This goes to the pro-Leave politician deemed by our readers to have been most effective in service to the cause over the past twelve months. The candidates were:

Boris Johnson: The former Foreign Secretary resigned over Chequers and champions ‘no deal’

David Davis: The one-time Brexit Secretary also resigned over Chequers

Dominic Raab: Davis’ successor led a walkout of several Cabinet Brexiteers over the Withdrawal Agreement

Jacob Rees-Mogg: The Chairman of the European Research Group has led backbench Brexiteer resistance to soft Brexit

The winner, and by a very comfortable margin, is Jacob Rees-Mogg. Just a shade under half of all respondents deemed him the most effective pro-Leave politician of 2018. Perhaps not a great surprise, as the MP for North East Somerset is a grassroots favourite.

Of the rest, another quarter backed Raab, who tried to make the Prime Minister’s vision work before walking out over last-minute alterations to the Withdrawal Agreement, with Johnson and Davis bringing up the rear.

Here are the results in full:

ConservativeHome Awards: Johnson wins Resignation of the Year

Brexiteers take the podium spots, but Tracey Crouch wins an honourable mention for her stand on fixed-odds betting terminals.

As mentioned yesterday, our final survey of the year invited our panel’s views on who should win the various ConHome awards for 2018.

Today it’s time to see who won ‘Resignation of the Year’. Theresa May’s Government has a made a habit of shedding ministers, so our readers were offered a specially-enlarged panel to choose from this year, with no fewer than 12 candidates.

Unsurprisingly, Brexiteers led the pack. Boris Johnson scooped the gold for his stand over Chequers, with fellow travellers David Davis and Dominic Raab taking the other two podium spots.

None of the Remainers scored terribly highly, although once again a Johnson led the field, with Jo Johnson seeing off the likes of Guto Bebb and Dr Philip Lee.

However the real honourable mention must go to Tracey Crouch, who took a very respectable fourth place for her decision to quit the Government over delays to regulations on fixed-odds betting terminals.

Here are the results in full:

Nick de Bois: What my government experience taught me about No Deal – and why planning must be stepped up

I well remember the representations from Treasury and BEIS to focus on the risks and play down the opportunities.

Nick de Bois was Chief of Staff to the former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab. Before that he was MP for Enfield North 2010-2015. He is author of Confessions of a Recovering MP.

As we fast approach March 29 2019 and our exit from the European Union, the clamour for not doing so without a deal in place grows to a deafening crescendo. From calls for second referendums from both within the government and outside to poorly considered alternatives of Norway, EEA, EFTA (and a combination of all three), plus of course the emergency extension of Article 50 – all, it seems, because leaving on the 29th March without a deal is too frightening to consider.

It’s not.

As Roberto Azevedo, the head of the World Trade Organisation, has said, a no-deal Brexit would not “be the end of the world” but added it would not be “a walk in the park either”.

He is right. Although some paint the defaulting to WTO rules as a walk in the park, that ignores the complex set of bi-lateral arrangements that help smooth trade on WTO rules which, on their own, do not break down sufficient barriers to trade either in goods or services to the degree we are used to with the EU.

But those underlying measures are being put in place where possible And of course countries that have been trading with us under EU FTA’s are already seeking to replicate those arrangements with the U.K – with Japan being the most obvious example.

Enough, however, is not being made of the opportunities that would open up under WTO rules and leaving the Common Commercial Policy and the Customs Union of the EU. Bluntly, the U.K would be free to introduce substantive countervailing measures to help drive a new era of trade and growth outside membership of the EU.

First, we could introduce temporary import tariff duty cuts; the immediate recovery of full legislative and regulatory control, a swifter end to our EU financial contributions, the introduction of new free trade deals and wide-ranging fiscal measures to stimulate growth and investment.

These ideas, and others, were put to the cabinet last September as part of a No Deal Cabinet Planning session. We hear little about this because Ministers, with the exception of Dominic Raab, didn’t want to talk about them. It is regrettable that government still resists the calls to make the case for the opportunities that can be grasped from leaving the EU without a deal. I well remember the representations from Treasury and BEIS to focus on the risks and play down the opportunities.

I won’t pretend that seeking a deal is not the preferred option, and that reducing friction and barriers to trade has more chance of success with a U.K./EU deal than without, but refusing to countenance No Deal and presenting to the public a one-sided assessment of the risk and not the opportunities from No Deal has been a flawed negotiating strategy,  and has allowed a climate of irrational fear to fester making “any deal better than no deal” the new Government policy.

Countervailing opportunities aside, we are allowing a narrative to emerge that the government is ill-prepared for mitigating the risk of No Deal. During my stint as Chief of Staff to Raab, I was enthused by the considerable No Deal planning work undertaken by the Department for Exiting the European Union under instruction from ministers.

Much of that entered the public domain in August when we launched 106 technical notices advising business, consumers and NGOs on what preparations were underway or steps that business would need to take to plan for leaving the EU without a deal.

Ensuring continuity of supply and services has been the cornerstone of preparedness for No Deal, which is why the U.K has stated, for example, that it will recognise EU product and safety standards and recognise professional qualifications – so that we can continue to benefit from EU imports, logistics, skills and services from our neighbours. It remains to be seen if these moves will be reciprocated.

At the time I left the department, the EU refused to let UK officials engage widely with member states or the Commission to mutually agree sensible steps to ensure minimum disruption in the event of No Deal.  The work has been done on our side: it would be a wholly malicious move by the EU not to reciprocate now as No Deal looms.

Nevertheless, whilst  the planning for No Deal continues on this side of the channel, it remains at risk of not being ready in time for our exit from the EU simply because Number 10 has been too cautious to embrace the plans by putting the full weight of government resources behind them to ensure successful implementation. That should change now – and yesterday’s announcement that the cabinet should “ramp up “ preparations is frankly not enough.

If the Government fails to get its proposed Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament then, as the law stands, the U.K. will come out of the EU in March – most probably without an agreement on the terms of our divorce and what our future relationship will look like. The excitable talk of Parliament or even some members of the Cabinet stopping us leaving without a Ddeal is simply a distraction from focusing on being prepared for departure without a deal.

The right course of action now is for the Government make implementing No Deal plans the official policy, and immediately shift the full resource of government behind that policy. Indeed, the cabinet has already been told that it have passed the recommended date for doing that. Any further delay is at best irresponsible, at worst bordering on reckless.

It doesn’t matter how loud the chorus of calls become for a second referendum, Norway Plus or claims that parliament won’t allow No Deal to happen.  The reality is that in law we are set for leaving on the 29th March at 11pm. Parliament voted for it and now the Government should get ready for it. They have the tools in place; all they need is conviction.

Shailesh Vara: This Better Deal would solve the backstop problem

Our plan is supported by remainers like me, by leavers such as David Davis and Dominic Raab and, crucially, by the DUP.

Shailesh Vara is a former Northern Ireland Minister, and is MP for North West Cambridgeshire.

I voted to remain in the EUU referendum, but I believe the largest ever public mandate should be respected. Parliament should deliver what the people wanted and that is to leave the European Union. In so doing, it is important that we get the very best deal possible.

The current Withdrawal Agreement is clearly unsatisfactory, and that is why I resigned from my ministerial post in the Northern Ireland Office. The bedrock of dissent has been about the backstop.

It strikes at our nation’s soul and imperils our Union by treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. If we signed up to it, we would be trapped under the thumb of the EU as its satellite, obeying its laws without a say, unless the EU and its members gave permission for us to leave.

The backstop would place the UK in a “single customs territory”, causing two fundamental problems for our post-Brexit trading relationships. 

First, it would stop us from being able to strike trade deals with non-EU countries, as it would bar us from controlling our tariffs and regulations. Without control in these areas, we would be useless to any prospective trading partner.

Second, with regard to the UK-EU trading relationship, the backstop would create a climate which lends itself to continued EU belligerence. The EU would have no incentive to make concessions in future trade negotiations. 

Once member states have the ability to wield the threat of plunging us into the backstop – and keeping us there indefinitely – we will have no alternative but to make concessions we don’t want to. The Spanish could use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip and the French could demand continued access by EU boats to UK fishing waters.  We can’t possibly let the backstop hold our future trade talks hostage in this way.

So we need a new approach – A Better Deal – and that what’s been published by a team of legal and customs experts. It is supported by remainers like me, by leavers such as David Davis and Dominic Raab and crucially, the DUP. It doesn’t throw out the Prime Minister’s plan. Indeed, it retains the vast majority of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, whilst identifying and removing the poison pills that have prevented it from finding cross-party support.

A Better Deal provides the Government with an alternative vision to present to Brussels.  It is likely to command support in Parliament, closely resembles the offer made by the EU itself last March and honours the referendum result.

Our proposal would restore – rather than destroy – the UK’s leverage for future trade talks with the EU. It safeguards the integrity of the United Kingdom, since it doesn’t treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK, and it would allow us to be a credible trade partner for third countries after 29th March 2019.

A Better Deal bins the divisive and ill-thought-through Northern Ireland Protocol and replaces it with an extendable backstop. The new backstop would allow us to control our own tariff schedules and regulations – so it’s not an inherently negative situation for the UK to be in. 

In fact, some may even argue that under our proposal the backstop becomes a “front stop” – and for that reason, no EU country could use it to cajole us into having to agree to a set of appalling terms from Brussels which would let British consumers and businesses down.

The new backstop would provide for tariff-free trade in goods; it would bring about regulatory cooperation between us and the EU as well as regulatory recognition based on “deemed equivalence” – making use of the unique fact that our regulations will be identical on day one of Brexit.

This new and reformed backstop include an agreement to deploy advanced customs and trade facilitation measures, including any specific measures necessary for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border, in addition to normal, free trade agreement-style level playing field provisions on labour, the environment, competition and state aid – unlike the hugely one-sided commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement.  And importantly, it will include a commitment by all parties not to place infrastructure on the border – nobody wants to see that.

Brussels wants to do a deal with us. They offered us a free trade deal back in March, and I suspect that the EU negotiators have been surprised at our inability to grab what is on offer. 

We have a chance to put our future prosperity in our hands as we become a great, self-governing, free trading nation once again. The proposals in A Better Deal will, I believe, meet with the approval of many of my colleagues in Parliament as well as the public. It stays loyal to the Belfast Agreement, avoids a hard border and allows us to leave the arrangement, should we wish to do so. The UK is crying out for a better deal.  Let’s make sure we deliver it.