The Prime Minister’s letter to the EU has ensured that the threat of an immediate no-deal is removed and Parliament can now turn its attention to the substance of his deal.
There are understandable concerns about the impact of the withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland and on the future of the Union, which must be resolved. But one thing is clear: the impact on Northern Ireland will be significantly reduced if the rest of the UK is in a close relationship with the EU after we leave. At the 2017 general election the Conservative Party promised a smooth and orderly Brexit and a “deep and special partnership” with the EU; a relationship that would protect British jobs, businesses and prosperity. Now we need to ensure that Boris Johnson’s deal delivers on that promise.
That means ensuring future negotiations lead to an ambitious trade partnership guaranteeing access to the European market for British services as well as goods, . If that is the Government’s plan, and it can be effectively enshrined in the legislation, I will certainly support it. But here’s the catch: the Government cannot tell me that this deal leads to a deep and special trade partnership, while simultaneously telling other colleagues that it is a direct route to no-deal at the end of 2020.
On Saturday, the Prime Minister gave a commitment to include in the Bill the so-called Nandy-Snell amendments that the previous government accepted, giving Parliament control over the negotiating mandate for, and the final form of, the future relationship. The Prime Minister’s commitment is indeed welcome but it needs to deliver Nandy-Snell in substance, not just in name. With the UK-wide backstop gone, the default position, if agreement is not reached, will be WTO terms — effectively no-deal. And those of us who have campaigned against no-deal in 2019 are not going to watch it be sneaked in through the back door in 2020.
The problem is not just one of intent, it is also one of time. Trade experts have always been clear that negotiating a free trade deal will take years. The famous CETA — the trade deal between the EU and Canada — took seven years to negotiate. We can do better than that but we won’t get an ambitious trade deal completed in 14 months, which is now all that is left of the transition period. So we need an extension to that transition after we have left the European Union — and since the PM has said he would not seek an extension, Parliament must have control over that decision in July.
I hope the Government’s Bill will be given a second reading in the House of Commons today . But for it to deliver an acceptable outcome for ALL the people of the UK it will need big amendments in committee to ensure that it is the first step on the road to an ambitious future trade partnership, not a blind leap into the abyss of a no-deal future.
Philip Hammond is the MP for Runnymede and Weybridge and a former Chancellor of the Exchequer