16 November 2018

A way out of this Brexit mess


Now that it’s clear that the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister stands little or no chance of getting through Parliament, we urgently need a Plan B to end the chaos and restore some confidence in Government and Parliament.

The Prime Minister has tried to do the right thing in looking for a way to deliver the EU Referendum result whilst minimising the short term damage to the UK’s economy. But given the response of the ERG, DUP and Labour Party her plan now looks sunk. With the clock ticking towards the No Deal default – against the growing pressure for a People’s Vote on the Brexit options we now confront — is there a Plan B?

Yes. Since March I’ve been working with a number of MPs to support the “Norway Option” offered by the EU of our joining EFTA.

Who said this of the European Free Trade Association? ‘“I felt that…the merits were insufficiently appreciated. These [EFTA] countries now enjoy free trade with the European Union. They remain outside the customs union, the CAP, the CFP, the common foreign and security policy and the rest of the legal/bureaucratic tangle of EU institutions.”

Jeremy Corbyn? Tony Blair? Peter Mandelson? Wrong. It was none other than Margaret Thatcher herself in her book Statecraft.

For the Brexiteers, there is now the very real prospect of Brexit not happening at all. The tide is drifting the other way. With the current deal dead, and no other deal in sight, their dream of Brexit risks being lost forever. The only way for Brexit to become a reality is if we find a Plan B.

This is the greatest crisis our country has faced since Suez. Following the publication of the agreement and the critical response in the House this week, make no mistake: we are now in a full-blown political and constitutional crisis. There is every chance that our political system, and our United Kingdom with it, could break apart.

EFTA offers a way out of this nightmare that we could take.

Consider this. A Brexit deal that allowed us continued access to the Single Market, keeps us outside the Customs Union, the CAP and the CFP, allows us to do Trade Deals, puts us outside the ECJ and under an EFTA Court with British judges, outside the Common Foreign and Security Policy and leaves us free to join NAFTA and the TPP. Impossible you’d say?

No. It’s possible. It’s called EFTA. And it commands cross-party support. Not only was it supported as a model by Lady T, the EFTA option has also been endorsed by leading political leaders across all wings of all Parties, including William Hague, David Owen and Frank Field, Nicky Morgan and Daniel Hannan, Nick Boles and Stephen Kinnock.

Increasingly, it is gaining traction as the only way out of this current Brexit mess. It is pragmatic, deliverable and would help end the terrible Brexit Civil War and help us get on with setting out a powerful One Nation Programme for Britain.

No option will be perfect. But EFTA remains the best chance we have of a plan that delivers on the Brexit vote and doesn’t damage the economy.

The biggest criticism is that it would require continued free movement. But that isn’t strictly true. We must remember: in EFTA it’s free movement of workers not citizens, EFTA has inbuilt control mechanisms, the EU is itself preparing to implement immigration reforms anyway, and in my proposal we would introduce bold welfare reforms to end welfare tourism and tighten welfare eligibility so that immigrants are not eligible for all benefits — which we would make available only to UK citizens — until they have been in Britain for five years. We could still deliver on our promise that free movement of EU citizens will end in March next year and that we are taking back control.

My constituency, Mid Norfolk, voted for Brexit. I believe it is my mandate as the democratic representative of Mid Norfolk to try and ensure that the will of the people is delivered. I also believe it is my duty to represent the needs of all my constituents, not just Conservative or Leave voters, and to ensure that jobs are protected, businesses can still export their goods and services and our economy and society isn’t damaged by the chaos of a No Deal, or a Bad Deal which fails to provide a lasting settlement.

There is only one option that allows me to look my constituents squarely in the eye and say I have delivered for them. That is EFTA. If it’s good enough for a group as diverse as Daniel Hannan, Lady T, William Hague, David Owen and Stephen Kinnock — it must be worth exploring.

EFTA seems to me the only sensible way to deliver the EU Referendum result. Let’s rediscover our sanity as a party and take the sensible route to deliver Brexit while protecting our economy. If we do not, then the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn walking through the door of Number 10 becomes ever more likely.

We must end the Brexit civil war and focus all our efforts on setting out a bold programme of domestic reforms to address the real domestic policy grievances of the people and places left behind. Unless we make this a moment of profound and unifying One Nation renewal, then we risk not only a deepening political and constitutional crisis and a Corbyn Government, but the Conservative Party could face a potentially terminal crisis of trust and electability as a One Nation party capable of governing in the national interest for a new generation of today’s voters.

EFTA offers a lifeline for a Brexit Plan B that could allow us to relaunch an inspiring domestic programme. Let’s seize it.

George Freeman MP is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum, Founder of the Big Tent Ideas Festival and former Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board.