Light at the end of the Brexit tunnel

by
08 February 2019

Time is short, but a way out of the deadlock could be found, argues Caroline Spelman

PA

Jack Dromey, a Labour MP, and Dame Caroline Spelman, a Conservative MP, arrive at the Cabinet Office for a meeting of the Alternative Arrangements Working Group, on Monday

Jack Dromey, a Labour MP, and Dame Caroline Spelman, a Conservative MP, arrive at the Cabinet Office for a meeting of the Alternative Arrangements Wor...

I AM sure that many — if not all — readers are thoroughly weary of discussing Brexit. For more than two years now, the “B-word” has dominated our national discourse. Leaving the European Union after an almost 45-year relationship was never going to be straightforward. In essence, our country is in the midst of a painful and complicated divorce. The terms of this break-up will be set in the Withdrawal Agreement.

The Withdrawal Agreement is a treaty between the UK and the EU which sets the terms for an orderly departure. Leaving without such an agreement risks significant damage and disruption to both the UK and EU. Throughout the Brexit debate, objective assessments of leaving the EU without a deal have been difficult to find. Any such assessments are often labelled as “Project Fear”.

Now, as the 29 March deadline rapidly approaches, business and trade organisations are increasingly coming out in public stating just how damaging leaving without a deal would be. JLR, Airbus, Pets at Home, KFC, and the National Farmers’ Union, to name but a few, have all expressed their concerns.

Almost anything that has to be moved (imports and exports) across the border between the EU and the UK would be affected: food, energy, medicines, data, and people. Ten thousand trucks a day pass through Dover alone; a delay of just two extra minutes each will lead to queues of more than 17 miles. “Just-in-time” delivery depends on parts’ becoming available sometimes just minutes before they are required: any hold-up at the border results in “not-in-time” delivery.

The threat of disruption means that companies are having to look at alternatives. So why not just stockpile more parts? Some firms have already been doing this. Warehouses in the Midlands are bursting with contingency supplies. Given the rising demand for storage space, costs are on the up. Moreover, as industry has pointed out, every pound held in stock is a pound that cannot be reinvested in the company: 70 per cent of manufacturers have already stopped investing in their businesses.

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AFTER yet another tumultuous period in Parliament, there is at last some sign of light at the end of the tunnel. The Prime Minister now has two options before her that may lead to a deal being agreed in Parliament. Since time is short, these two strategies must be pursued in parallel.

Mrs May must either secure the support of enough Conservative and Unionist MPs to form a majority, or she must bring a considerable number of MPs from other parties on side. She will probably achieve the former only by securing changes to the proposed “backstop” (which seeks to prevent a hard border across the island of Ireland), or the latter, by agreeing to further customs “arrangements” with the EU as part of any future relationship.

In voting for an amendment, which I co-sponsored with the Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington, Jack Dromey, MPs last week rejected leaving the European Union without a deal (News, 1 February). Although no-deal has therefore been ruled out by Parliament, a deal must now be agreed to guarantee this.

After this critical vote, the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, met the Prime Minister. Mr Corbyn wants to secure a permanent “customs union” as part of the future relationship with the EU. As it stands, the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration already contain provisions for “customs arrangements”. As talks continue, the main parties may not find themselves so far from one another.

 

THE next key vote in the parliamentary Brexit calendar is next Thursday (14 February) — St Valentine’s Day, for most people, but, for parliamentarians, another chance to try to secure enough support for the Withdrawal Agreement.

In the interim, talks will continue in Westminster. Mr Dromey and I have been asked to come to the table. We are determined to honour the result of the referendum and help to find a way forward, but any deal must work in the national interest and protect jobs.

As we speed towards 29 March, there is talk that Brexit will be delayed. I am not in favour of a delay, although a short extension period to conclude negotiations may now be unavoidable. Politicians of all parties must now come together to deliver Brexit in a way that works for the country.

As talks continue, I encourage readers to pray that parliamentarians will act wisely and selflessly in the weeks ahead. We must now move to a time of reconciliation to heal the societal divisions opened up by Brexit.

Dame Caroline Spelman MP is the Second Church Estates Commissioner. She writes in a personal capacity.

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