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.)
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.
Normal hectic Parliamentary life continues despite Brexit, as the BBC would say:
14/1 - speak at an oversubscribed Henry Jackson Society event on my latest book - Full English Brexit.
15/1 - see constituent Sir Roger Scruton at event on Freedom of Religion and the Test Acts; with rather a heavy heart rebel with 117 Conservative colleagues against the PM’s flawed deal; endless media means that I miss Jacob’s drinks party after the vote.
16/1 - contritely support Government in no confidence motion which we win by 19 votes.
17/1 - launch an Environment Committee report on oceans. We must do more on plastics.
18/1 - speak at an event in Melksham on - you guessed it - Brexit.
19/1 - busy constituency day, then dinner with friends in Cricklade.
20/1 - it’s a Sunday, so I won’t go in to studios. As a result BBC and Sky send live TV trucks to interview me from home on Brexit.
21/1 - briefing dinner with a Royal Navy admiral, where I challenge him on the Russian threat in the Arctic.
22/1 - chair Westminster Hall debate on privatising water companies. Good old-fashioned socialism. Very refreshing. Lunch with No 2 in Chinese Embassy to discuss Arctic. Very engaging. Take a lot of overseas students from the Royal College of Defence Studies for informal tours of Commons and Lords, then speak at their reception in magnificent Speaker’s State Apartments. Finish off the evening with a very jolly Burns Supper in the House of Lords. Too much eating. Do a lot of media on Dyson.
23/1 - ask a PMQ trying to correct the impression that Dyson are moving to Singapore. It’s only 2 senior executives, with 4000 employees staying in Malmesbury, £200 million investment in electric cars research and development at Hullavington. Nothing at all to do with Brexit…
That’s alongside several thousand letters and emails on Brexit, and all of the normal speaking and listening duties in the chamber and in committee; and it’s alongside wall to wall constituency engagements on a Friday.
It’s a diverse and fascinating whirligig of interests and events, campaigns and persuasion. It must be one of the best jobs, and I hope I am doing a few of the right things – for North Wiltshire and the nation – as well.
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.”
So what’s next?
Well here are my own personal views of the various options being bruited about:
So for my money - and I shall be saying so very firmly to the PM - we should now seek an urgent and fundamental renegotiation with the EU, especially over the obnoxious Backstop proposals and if they will not play ball, then we must prepare ourselves for leaving without any kind of deal. It’s time for a better Deal or No Deal at all.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.