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I thought that Mrs May’s deal was a bad deal for the economy and I am sure that this is a worse deal for the economy. That comes as no surprise, because the Prime Minister’s letter of
“Decades of free and frictionless trade … forged by thousands of firms big and small, must not be abandoned”.
I of course accept that intellectually honest right-wing libertarians have always agreed that there is a trade-off. It is a question of autarkic sovereignty versus economic well-being, and they prefer autarkic sovereignty. I strongly disagree with the way they put the issues, because it is not their jobs at stake, but I can respect their argument. What really shocks me is how narrowly English is their little-Englander concern for sovereignty, and how far Mr Johnson has moved on this—or been moved on this—in the past fortnight. It is fascinating to compare the proposals that he sent to Brussels with those he came back with. One recalls the lady who went for a ride on a tiger. Or perhaps the lesson is that it is dangerous to have an unchaperoned walk in a Wirral garden.
Mr Johnson told the DUP conference that he would never agree to a customs frontier in the Irish Sea. Mrs May said that no Prime Minister ever could or would. Mr Johnson just has. He wants us to sign up today to an internationally run frontier between two constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Internationally run? Yes, because the Commission will never leave it to us to decide which goods might be at risk of moving across the inner Irish border.
Caught by his own “do or die” deadline, the Prime Minister has been forced to drop all talk of alternative arrangements. Instead, Northern Ireland will stay in the EU single market for goods, stay in the EU customs union, apply EU laws, regulations and VAT rules and respect ECJ jurisdiction—all with no semblance of democratic control. Northern Ireland will not be asked to consent to any of that for at least five years. The whole concept of cross-community consent, central to the Good Friday agreement, has gone. For Northern Ireland, the trade-off is the other way round: prosperity, which comes from the all-Ireland economy, accounts for more than sovereignty.
I have to ask the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who served with great distinction in Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet, whether he honestly thinks that the Iron Lady would have put up with that impairment of UK sovereignty, because I do not. Why does an intellectually honest Spartan—if there is one—swallow it? Presumably because his concept of sovereignty is English-specific. Mr Johnson should beware: the Scots are watching. A little-Englander approach breeds comparable chauvinism elsewhere. Scotland, like Northern Ireland, voted to remain, but Scotland, unlike Northern Ireland, will bear the full economic costs of Mr Johnson’s deal—costs that he and his Cotswold friends will hardly feel. These imbalances breed justifiable resentments. In the Scottish referendum in 2004, I campaigned for the union. Next time, the decision for me will be more difficult and the outcome will definitely be more uncertain. The best way to maintain the union of the United Kingdom is to stay in the European Union.
Given its costs, economic and political, it is no wonder that Mr Johnson is scared to put his deal to the people, but I honestly believe that we should. In 2016, no one voted to be poorer, and no one told us then about a frontier in the Irish Sea. Indeed, I recall Mrs Villiers, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, assuring the people of Northern Ireland that there was no question of any change in frontier and border arrangements.
Now that people can see the price of Brexit, is it not reasonable to ask them: do you want to go ahead and pay it? For my part, I am with the crowds outside in the square. I hope that Parliament will today reject a deal worse than any previously mooted, reject a suicidal no-deal and use the Benn Act’s extension period to ask for the people’s choice—this time determinant, not advisory. I see no other route to closure.