Daily Telegraph: Brexit must not leave us with our wings clipped

This is an article I never wanted to write, having been loyal to my Party and its leadership for my entire 13 years in the House of Commons.

However, in order to remain true to the manifesto promises on which I was elected as a Conservative and Unionist MP last year as well as my commitment to the integrity of our United Kingdom, I am unable to support the Cabinet’s EU Withdrawal Agreement.

One of the things we are trying to achieve as we leave the EU is to maintain the current position where there are no controls or infrastructure on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The best way of achieving this is for the UK and EU to reach a Free Trade Agreement. However, the EU has insisted, and the Government has conceded, that if we haven’t agreed such a trade deal by the end of the transition period in December 2020, we would either have to extend the transition period (with the EU’s permission, at a cost of around £10bn per year) or a ‘backstop’ is triggered.

The EU proposed a backstop covering customs, VAT, energy, agriculture, goods and other sectors that treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister said that the EU’s proposal would “undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, and no UK Prime Minster could ever agree to it.”

However, regrettably, the Withdrawal Agreement that is currently in front of us does exactly this.

Personally, I don’t think any UK Prime Minister should agree to such an arrangement, and I am not prepared to do so.

This not only compromises the integrity of our country, but also breaches a promise in the Conservative manifesto, that the Conservative Party would “ensure that as we leave the EU no new barriers to living and doing business within our own union are created.”

The backstop, as well as treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK, would also trap the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU. 

Once the backstop has been triggered, it is not possible for the UK to leave this customs union without the permission of the European Union. This leaves the UK in a worse position than we are now, as we can trigger Article 50 unilaterally in order to leave the EU.

This significantly weakens our negotiating position for our future relationship. The EU will have little incentive to agree such a relationship since in its absence, we would remain in a customs union and unable to sign any trade deals with faster growing markets around the world.

Staying in a customs union is also a direct breach of the promise made by the Conservative Party at last year’s general election, namely that “as we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union”.

I understand why the EU is not able to sign a future relationship deal before we leave, but I had hoped, based on assurances from the Prime Minister that, by this point, the political declaration about our future relationship with the EU would have been quite detailed and have effectively agreed the main points.

That would have then just left the details to be worked on by officials, under the direction of the Prime Minister. This is important for two reasons. First, we are going to be agreeing to pay the EU about £39bn in a legally binding Treaty in advance of finalising our future relationship. I, for one, expect quite a bit of detail to have been agreed before I am prepared to part with that much hard earned taxpayers’ money.

Second, reaching agreement on the key points would have enabled the UK to spend more of our time focusing on the other important issues facing our country which have been rather crowded out of the political debate by Brexit.

Regrettably, because we haven’t settled the key decisions about the future relationship, Brexit is going to continue to dominate the political debate for the foreseeable future.

The decision that the House of Commons is being asked to take on the 11 December is vital for the future prosperity and security of our United Kingdom. The conclusion I have reached is that the Cabinet’s proposals are not acceptable because they threaten the integrity of our country, keep us trapped indefinitely in a customs union and leave us in a weak negotiating position for our future relationship.

Brexit should be an opportunity for our country to spread its wings, not have them clipped. That is why, regretfully, I am unable to vote for the Cabinet’s proposals.