David Gauke: When your bell rings in December, you expect to be sung a carol – not asked how you’re going to vote

28 Oct 2019

We now begin the most exciting and dramatic week in the Brexit saga since the last exciting and dramatic week…which was last week. It will be followed by an exciting and dramatic week next week, too. But before turning to the future, it is worth looking back at developments in the last two weeks since my last column.

The big development is that the Prime Minister got a deal and he deserves credit for that. I remain convinced that at the time of the passing of the Benn Act there was no real determination to reach a deal and, even if there was, the Prime Minister did not have the political space with the European Research Group to make the concessions that he has now on Northern Ireland. If the current deal had been presented to Parliament and the alternative would have been a no deal on October 31, ERG members would have stayed loyal to the DUP and opposed it.

Some will argue that the EU would have caved on the Irish border, but there remains no evidence to support that view. The choice that has been available to the UK has always been continued customs alignment between the UK and the EU or some kind of customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Theresa May’s deal went for the former until alternative arrangements might emerge; Boris Johnson has chosen greater divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

As a Unionist, I prefer the former option but at least the Prime Minister has made a choice. Any option has downsides, but to govern is to choose and that is what he has done. In reaching a deal, he has turned his back on unicorns and we have something tangible to examine. That does constitute progress.

In terms of the deal, there are two big issues. The first is Northern Ireland and the Union. As I have already touched on, this is a worse deal than Theresa May’s deal from this perspective, and the DUP are understandably furious. In truth, the Government had adopted incompatible red lines, and something was going to have to give. It was probably the Prime Minister’s least worst option.

The second issue is the long term relationship between Great Britain and the EU. Those of us deeply concerned about a No Deal Brexit this year will take little comfort if the consequence of the Withdrawal Agreement is a No Deal Brexit for Great Britain at the end of 2020.

Completing a Free Trade Agreement with the EU by December 2020 was always highly ambitious when this deadline was negotiated by May’s government with a view to leaving in March 2019. But with the May deal, if an FTA had not been negotiated, the provisions of the backstop meant that regulatory and customs alignment with the EU would be maintained. This gave businesses a level of certainty and reassurance they needed to continue trading with the EU on current terms whilst a future relationship was being negotiated.

We have now lost many months of the implementation period and, with a new Commission being appointed, it is unlikely the EU will have a mandate for negotiations until next Easter. Getting a trade deal done in the time available looks fanciful. And the consequences of not getting an FTA finalised is now much more serious. If we do not extend the implementation period to the end of 2021 or, more realistically, 2022, the chances are we will be trading with the EU on WTO terms – with the introduction of tariffs and disruption to supply chains – by January 2021. This would be a very bad outcome for jobs and living standards.

In my view, the Government should seek an extension of the implementation period as soon as we have left the EU (it would have been better to have extended the implementation period in the Withdrawal Agreement, but that ship has sailed) and I welcome the confirmation from the Government that Parliament will have an opportunity to vote on seeking an extension of the implementation period and that the Government will abide by that decision.

This concession was sufficient for me to support the Government’s programme motion last week, albeit with little enthusiasm. Not only was the time for Parliamentary scrutiny very short, but I feared it was counter-productive in meeting the objective to ‘get Brexit done’ to attempt to get the Bill through the Commons in three days. It would have legitimised the Lords taking its time and delegitimised leaving the EU under the terms of this deal with even more Remain voters.

It is true that the Prime Minister had repeatedly promised to leave by October 31, but there was never going to be time to properly scrutinise a deal reached at the October 17 EU Council and leave in that timescale. And if we leave at some point is November of December, who – in future – will really care what the date was?

The sensible course of action would have been to put forward a programme motion which allowed the Commons to take two or three weeks to scrutinise properly the Bill. The motion would have got through (I do not think Labour want to be seen as filibustering it) and Parliament could then have done its job in scrutinising legislation. The likelihood is we would have left the EU within weeks.

A more aggressive, high risk timetable resulted in an unnecessary defeat, followed by the even more high risk move to seek a general election. I say high risk, because the result of a December poll should not be treated as a foregone conclusion.

The Labour Party might be seen as there for the taking given the obvious inadequacies of Jeremy Corbyn, but Labour voters have proven themselves to be remarkably resistant to voting Conservative in the past. The Liberal Democrats and SNP will be a threat to a number of our current seats, and the Brexit Party might see a resurgence if we go to the polls still as members of the EU.

The other big unknown is how the public will react to a snap election. At the best of times, voters distrust governments calling elections if the move is seen as being motivated by party interest. This would not be the best of times. When someone opens the front door to a stranger in December, they expect to be sung a carol, not asked how they are going to vote. A government that is seen as provoking a season of ill-will is unlikely to be viewed affectionately by the general public who have had more than enough of politics in 2019.

In any event, the argument many of us have made against a second referendum on EU membership was that it would be divisive but not decisive. Exactly the same argument could be made about a December general election if we have not left the EU. It might easily become a second referendum by proxy but with a result less legitimate because it would be distorted by our electoral system and a lack of clarity as to the question the electorate is trying to answer.

I will listen to the arguments in Parliament about why we should dissolve Parliament a week after the Government won on both the Queens Speech and Second Reading of the WAB, but the heavy-handed approach to the programme motion and the now abandoned threat to ‘go on strike’ has not been a good look. The Prime Minister’s successes at the European Council and in winning the Second Reading vote seems a long time ago.