I remember playing the mad slave, Lucky, in our school production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but I just can’t remember how it all ended (nor even whether or not it did.) I feel a bit like slave Lucky in the current production of Waiting for Brexit. But I am just beginning to think that we may be nearing the denouement.
A gang of Ministers had threatened their resignations this week, and a trio of junior ministers (one of them very local to here) had penned an article in the Daily Mail disagreeing with Government policy on the matter, in an astonishing breach of Ministerial collective responsibility. In any normal times, that would without doubt have resulted in their immediate sacking.
In these volatile times, that ministerial disobedience, even defiance, resulted in the PM finally agreeing to their demands. Mrs May was forced to announce that she would allow Parliamentary votes on 12/13/14 March respectively: on her Deal, on taking No Deal off the table, and on the (?Indefinite) extension of Article 50. That would be truly Waiting for Brexit….
So what’s next? Well, I can only hope that Mrs May is able to persuade the European Union to make sufficient changes to the current draft deal to allow people like me to support her and her deal on Tuesday 12th March. We need at very least some kind of binding agreement that the Irish Backstop will not under any circumstances lead to our permanent membership of any kind of Customs Union, and giving us the unilateral right to walk away from it. If the PM and Attorney General can come up with some such concession from the EU, then the consecutive votes which she has announced will strongly tempt me towards voting for her Deal on 12th March.
I will not be happy doing so, and know that I will be disappointing my Brexit supporters, and probably not really satisfying Remain supporters either. But just think about it: if on 12th March the Commons were to vote against her Deal as amended, then on 13th they will certainly find a majority in favour of stopping No Deal, and on 14th they will extend the Waiting for Brexit Game into the dim distant future. So I am beginning to move towards thinking that if we can extract some binding concession from the EU, then holding my nose and crossing my fingers, I will vote to support her Deal, warts and all. It’s a Bad Deal, but is very probably better than No Brexit at all.
Slave Lucky and his Masters, Vladimir and Estragon just cannot go on like this. We cannot extend the division and rancour which has surrounded the Brexit debate in recent months. Most businesses and private citizens alike wanted to see an end to these proceedings and to know what the outcome is. Supporting the PM on 12th March - albeit reluctantly -may well be the only way of finding an end to Waiting for Brexit.
This week’s decision by Honda to relocate their manufacturing from Swindon back to Japan in 2022, with a potential loss of 3500 jobs directly, plus others from the supply chain, is of course deeply regrettable. Many people in North Wiltshire will be very concerned about it, and I will gladly do whatever I can to help with their particular circumstances. I attended the first meeting in Swindon yesterday of the Taskforce set up to deal with the repercussions of the decision. Amongst other things, I reminded the meeting of Dyson’s £200 million investment in electric car Research and Development just 20 miles up the M-4 at Hullavington. Maybe our area could become a national hub for electric car R and D, perhaps even manufacturing. That would be one good way or using what will by then be an empty, but high-quality car plant. Might even be of interest to Sir James?
It is also worth remembering that unemployment in North Wiltshire (and across England) is at an historic low. 800 people are currently registering in this area, which has been the same for several years. Most of those people are transitting between jobs. There is a great deal of expansion and opportunity across the area, and I am hopeful that after the initial shock has passed, the Honda employees will come to realise the opportunities in the area which will now open up for them.
The automotive industry is going through troublous times globally- Nissan’s announcement about its diesel 4x 4, Jaguar Landrover’s difficulties, even Dyson’s decision to move their corporate HQ (albeit only two highly paid top executives, one of whom already works in Singapore) may even be a part of it all. Its about a Global downturn in demand, environmental concerns over diesel emissions, competition from electric cars and much improved public transport in many places.
Brexit, and uncertainty caused by it, cannot have helped. But it is in no sense to blame. 85% of the cars manufactured in Swindon are destined for the US market; a large part of the balance is domestic. Those who have their own political reasons for doing so, will try to blame Brexit, but that really is both misleading and forlorn. There is no evidence at all of any kind of economic downturn as a result of, or in anticipation of Brexit; and it is ruthless and relentless scaremongering to suggest otherwise. These people are playing with workers’ personal concerns for their families, and it is quite wrong.
The split in the Labour Party is perhaps more directly attributable to Brexit, as well as to a general disaffection with their Leadership. I hear that up to 100 Labour MPs are being threatened with deselection by their Momentum-swelled local Labour Associations. One colleague was telling me that his Association has gone from 200 members, each of whom he knew personally for many years to a staggering 8,000 members, none of whom he knows at all. The obvious presumption is that these are communist infiltrators seeking to take over the Labour Party. By any stretch that must be a deeply damaging prospect for democracy in general as well as for Labour.
So I salute the bravery of the magnificent seven, and of those who will follow their lead. They may well be sacrificing their own careers and livelihoods in favour of their beliefs and background. That takes courage politically, and they should be congratulated and supported in their decision.
All human beings - and even animals - need borders, limits and constraints. They may be physical, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle.’ They may be moral or habitual - we prefer not to spit or swear on a public bus. There’s no law against it. It’s just that it goes against our natural decent inclinations. They are nearly always imaginary - our animals, even our free-range pigs, very rarely stray over the border which is our front gate. They know their limitations and stick by them.
Attempts to build huge physical borders to keep people in - or out - very rarely work. Hadrian discovered that to his cost. The Mongol hordes swarmed over the Great Wall of China. Few people would hail the Berlin Wall as being a huge success; we all detest the needless wall in Israel and even more strongly that surrounding the ghetto in Warsaw. Mr Trump’s $5 billion wall with Mexico is an absurd piece of political narcissism. And the fence around Hungary will not stop the vast flow of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Walls of this kind rarely work.
If you want to keep people in a place - or out of it - you have to create the conditions which will make them not want to cross it. The reunification of Germany, the withdrawal of the Romans, and today, a longed-for increased peace and prosperity throughout the Middle East is the only thing which will stop the vast tide of humanity seeking a better life in Europe.
So it is with the Northern Irish border. No-one with half a brain, on either side of the Brexit argument, believes that a ‘hard’ border with the Republic is either desirable or possible. The Brits deployed 26,000 soldiers on the border during the Troubles. Yet it remained entirely porous. I remember watching smuggler ‘Slab Murphy’ moving large quantities of petrol across the border within a few hundred yards of the Army ‘sangar’ which housed our surveillance equipment. There will not be a ‘hard’ border. But there must be - and already is - a border. There are different tax regimes and VAT north and south of it.
96% of the world’s trade is never inspected by customs men, who are largely interested in drugs, tobacco, and alcohol, as well as people and bush meat, in which there is a large and wholly illegal trade. Those inspections are very largely intelligence-led, and do not involve ‘hard’ borders at all.
So if the Southern Irish are concerned about better or cheaper goods being imported into their country, then they must be ready to face the competition, and realise that it comes about largely because of uncompetitive EU rules and regulations. There are a variety of ways of electronically and procedurally monitoring goods that cross the border. Goods (or people) which cross illegally (in either direction) will remain smuggled goods, unsaleable except on the black market. Illegal immigrants remain just that - illegal - and therefore unable to claim benefits, work legally, go to hospital or educate their children.
The whole question of the Irish border is a chimera - a problem thought up by the EU as a means of stopping Brexit. So I wish the PM well as she sets off to Brussels to persuade them that we need borders, just not ’hard’ ones.
There is one thing on which people on all sides of the great Brexit debate can agree – we wish that it was all over. We’ve had enough of the interminable and internal Brexit squabbling. (Do we really mind what Olly Robbins said in a bar in Brussels?) The Chamber of the House of Commons barely fills when the PM makes yet another of her Brexit Statements. People have started to talk of ’the B word’ at dinner parties for fear of being guilty of some catastrophic social gaffe if they even dare mention Brexit. ‘Let's just get on with it, get it over’, is most observer’s ardent hope
Westminster and Whitehall are in gridlock. Aside from emergency legislation- largely Statutory Instruments- required before Brexit Day, there really is very little domestic Parliamentary Business. Last Wednesday the House rose at about 4 PM- the earliest ever in my 22 years here. Civil servants are being drafted into the Brexit department, hindering everyday government business. And there is virtually no talk in the corridors and tea rooms of anything else.
Businesses are of course being badly affected too- not by Brexit, but by uncertainty about what it will all look like. Some people are stockpiling, others making all kinds of contingency plans, most of which we hope will turn out to have been quite unnecessary.
A kind of Brexit Statis seems to have engulfed the whole nation. Or Brexit ennui, perhaps.
That’s one reason why I will not support any extension to Article 50. One backbench amendment to the Meaningful Vote which will now be on 27 February, would defer the whole thing for two years. Two years. Can you imagine? A couple of weeks or so to tidy up the necessary legislation may be acceptable, but no more than that. Apart from anything else we must have the whole thing done and dusted well before the elections for the European Parliament on 23 May. That’s also why I will not support any move which tries in some obscure way to outlaw leaving with no deal. If we don’t agree a deal, then we will leave with no deal. Pretty straightforward, I would say. And in my view a great deal less scary than some of the ‘Remainer’ scaremongers would have you believe.
European negotiations always run right up to the wire – a deal is pulled out of the bag at the 59th Minute of the 23rd hour, as it were. I am sure that that is what will happen this time too. But there are still a couple of months to go before we see the light of day on 29 March. When I chair Committees in the House, or sometimes the main chamber itself, discussions start precisely on the hour. For a minute or two beforehand the whole House goes quiet in anticipation. It’s like the eerie silence which fell across the First World War Battlefields for an hour or so before the main assaults.
That’s where we are with Brexit right now- an anticipation-filled silence before the great storm.
“I would it were bed-time, Hal, and all’s well.” (Falstaff to the King, Henry IV, Part One.)
Odd things, dreams. I woke up on Monday morning absolutely determined to back Graham Brady’s amendment to the debate on Tuesday. He called for the PM to return to Europe and demand a fundamental change to the Backstop arrangements, which was pretty much my own view. So I told the European Research Group via their WhatsApp, that that was what I was planning, and the whole world fell in on my head. I had phone calls from the very great, counter briefings, words of warning. I was one of only 15 people supporting the amendment; it was selling out; it could not get through; the DUP would not like it; we have an alternative plan etc.
But I ploughed ahead, seconded the Brady amendment, spoke at the ERG meeting in support of it (to a less than enthusiastic audience), did a bit of media and canvassed my friends and colleagues. Slowly but surely people came to realise that the deal – bad as many parts of it are – could just be tolerated if we could get rid of the backstop and that the Brady amendment just might be the way to do that. And at all events, opposing a motion which seemed at least on the face of it to be calling for exactly what we wanted would have been viewed as a little odd. During Tuesday more and more colleagues came round to that view, and of course we won the amendment in the end by 16 votes.
So now the PM has to go back to the EU and reopen the negotiations seeking a legally binding alternation to the backstop provisions. We gave her a means of doing so with the so-called Malthouse compromise, and we have done a lot of work on electronic alternatives to a hard Irish border. So we have the solutions for her, but she must now persuade the EU to accept them.
If they do not do so, then we will all know who to blame. The Conservative Party - and Parliament - came together to propose a solution to recent gridlock; we know what we want; we want a deal without the most obnoxious part to it. The EU must now step up to the mark. If they do not do so (and we will have another ‘meaningful vote’ on whatever they agree to later this month) - then they cannot be surprised if, come 29th March, we leave without any kind of agreement at all (which, of course, no-one wants.) The ball is now firmly in their court. I hope that they will enter into the spirit of the game.
So I am proud that - thanks apparently to inspiration in a dream - I helped persuade the ultra-sceptical 80 or so members of ERG to swallow their reservations (at least for now) and support the Brady amendment. As a result, we have a direction of travel which the whole Conservative Party and Government supports. With luck and a following wind, the EU will do what we want, and we will finally be able to leave the EU on 29th March with a clear agreement of the way forward.
I was but a small pawn in a big game, but on this occasion (rather immodestly) hope that I played a relatively decisive role in it. I am proud to have played some part in unlocking the Parliamentary gridlock, and therefore some little part in helping us towards leaving the EU.
I hope I am not being like Spike Milligan, whose Autobiography was immodestly entitled ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.’ ‘James Gray: How I helped Britain leave the EU.’ I hope it’s more as Shakespeare hath it, “A small thing, but mine own.”
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA