Two years ago this country took the momentous decision to leave the European Union. We chose, as a country to take a leap into the great unknown, hopeful of a better tomorrow. As the saying goes, ‘to dare is to do’ and we have always been a daring country, not afraid to take bold decisions where others would run scared. Our decision to leave was our most daring act since the Second World War and I’m sure it will prove to turn out to be our finest hour. As a passionate Brexiteer, I’m certain that our best days lie ahead. First, though, to unlock the better opportunities that await we must strike the right deal with our neighbours and partners. This is why despite being a passionate Brexiteer, I fully support the Chequers agreement.
Since that referendum two years ago, British politics has been completely immersed and consumed by the Brexit process. What was supposed to provide a clear answer and solve the Europe question for a generation has only deteriorated into chaos and confusion. The fault lines that have since reopened over Europe, not just within the two dominant political parties, but throughout society has left a country with a political atmosphere of nastiness and division at its heart.
The question is what now? The question put to the country was binary. Simply, do we Remain or do we Leave? No question of the intricacies of what our future relationship should or would look like with the European Union. No immediate solution offered for how to ensure no hard border on the island of Ireland. No utterance of what sort of trading arrangement a UK outside of the EU would have. This was not like a general election where a programme for government could be implemented after the result, where a clear set of policies set out in a manifesto could be adhered to. A leave vote would essentially be a momentous leap into the unknown.
It was two faces that perfectly encapsulated the mood of the political class then, on the morning of the referendum result just as the same faces dominate British politics today, two years later. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the architects of Brexit. They stood, solemn, exhausted, even aghast as they came to terms with what had just happened. Neither of them expected to win and neither of them expected even to have to think about that million-dollar question. What now? Ultimately, as it turned out, that responsibility fell to Theresa May.
Looking back, I’m surprised anybody threw their hat into the ring for the leadership following David Cameron’s resignation. The next prime minister would have the daunting task of personally interpreting a referendum that involved a multitude of complex factors and then offer a withdrawal strategy that would reflect this interpretation. It would be impossible to please the Conservative Party, notorious for its divisions over Europe in the 90s which had resurfaced with much more intensity during the referendum and indeed the aftermath.
Theresa May took this challenge in her stride and orchestrated a broad set of principles with precise clarity and determined rapidity. Brexit meant Brexit and Brexit meant regaining control of our money, laws, trade policy and borders through leaving the single market and customs union. This was the prime minister’s personal interpretation of the referendum result and she expertly gauged the feeling in the country. Any deal that honoured these broad policy guidelines would reflect the reasons why millions turned out to express their wish to leave the European Union. Such policies were reiterated in major Brexit speeches at Lancaster House through to Florence. The overall aim of the government was clear and absolute. To honour the referendum result by taking back control. What remained unclear, however was the legal basis of withdrawal and what sort of deal would be struck.
It is clear that what we have witnessed over the past two years since the prime minister’s first major Brexit speech at Lancaster House is an evolution of Brexit. What started with an unknown, with political and economic uncertainty has evolved into a credible and coherent document for our future relationship with Europe. The Chequers agreement respects the wishes of the millions who voted leave, frustrated after years of political and economical neglect while at the same time places compromise and pragmatism at its heart.
The fallout from the Chequers agreement has been hysterical. This agreement is not some great diktat or some great Brexit betrayal like some Brexiteers would have you believe through their carefully orchestrated lamentations. This agreement reflects the feelings in the country. Yes, people voted to leave so we will leave on March 29, 2019. What’s more, the document respects what people voted for; we will leave the single market and customs union. However, the agreement also factors in the fact that the country was split 52/48. The country was divided and so surely it is right that we have a Brexit that reflects this division. A Brexit with flexibility and compromise at its heart.
Brexit cannot be a success if we have our cake and eat it, despite this being the expressed wish of many prominent Brexiteers. They forget that in a negotiation there is give and take. Some want us to turn our backs on Europe but to do so would surmount to an unprecedented and an egregious level of economic and political self-harm. The European Union is by far our largest trading partner and it is crucial we maintain a close trading relationship with the bloc after we leave. The Chequers agreement listens to business, large and small for the need to maintain such a close economic partnership and the logical solution to this is to maintain the high levels of standards across the EU. This, in effect, guarantees frictionless trade – no hard border in Northern Ireland while also protecting jobs in the UK.
This agreement isn’t perfect, and the government shouldn’t pretend it is. The prime minister should be frank and explanatory about the compromises she has taken in the national interest. The fact that the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Anna Soubry have serious grievances about this agreement surely points towards the fact that this deal perfectly replicates the split referendum result. It is us to each any every one of us now, as Conservatives, leave or remain to back the prime minister as she battles for the best possible deal for Britain. Get this wrong and we will be punished at the ballot box. In the end, it’s Chequers or Corbyn.