As published in The Telegraph:
On Friday I flew to Berlin to speak about Brexit to a number of politicians and ministers in the German government. The aircraft was an hour late, air traffic control disrupted by fog, in what seemed like an apt metaphor for the Brexit negotiations, running late in a fog of confusion and indecision.
I have said many times that negotiations with the EU would only really make substantive progress at the eleventh hour. I think it’s fair to say now we are at the eleventh hour and fifty-nine minutes.
The German politicians that I met all stuck closely to the government script, as is the German way. However it was clear that some of them were very uncomfortable with the state of the negotiations, the economic implications for Germany and the prospective political impact on Europe.
They want to make progress. On Thursday in a press conference in Dublin, Angela Merkel said: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Her comments came on top of a recent poll which suggested 100,000 German jobs could be affected by a no-deal Brexit. The BDI Federation of German Industry has warned Germany would lose at least 0.5% of its GDP in such an event and at a time when the German economy is struggling in any case.
And while I was in Berlin the BBC published the comments of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the leader of Germany’s CDU party, who is very close to Angela Merkel and widely tipped to be the next German chancellor. She said: “If the UK now came to us and said: ‘let’s spend five days negotiating non-stop on how to avoid the backstop’, I can’t imagine anyone in Europe saying ‘No’. If the UK had new watertight proposals for the border, I don’t think anyone in the EU would say ‘We don’t want to talk about it.’”
It is in everybody’s interests to sort this out.
The Prime Minister’s offer of talks with Jeremy Corbyn is doomed to go nowhere. She is not going to find common cause in the national interest with a crypto Marxist who senses a time of grave weakness for the Conservative Party. Rather than pursuing this foolish endeavour it would be far better to focus on the art of the possible.
The Prime Minister has said she wants to find common cause with the House of Commons. So let us look rationally at the will of the House. This week’s constitutional putsch – and I can’t think of another fitting description – was rushed through by a single vote in a matter of hours by the same people who tell us a two-year long Article 50 period was never enough time to reflect on the issues. So, we can disregard these people who are unreconciled Remainers desperate to thwart Brexit.
The only thing that has truly gained the will of the House and indeed the will of the British people was the compromise known as the Brady Amendment. This tolerated some of the flaws within the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, such as handing over £39 billion with nothing guaranteed in return, and subjection in some areas to the European Court of Justice. It focused instead on getting the Prime Minister’s deal over the line in return for dropping or time limiting the Northern Ireland backstop, which threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom, potentially kept us indefinitely in the customs union, and crippled our negotiating position.
The Brady proposal was based on expert analysis such as “A Better Deal and a Better Future” penned by trade experts, and the Malthouse Compromise which united Brexiteers and Remainers on a plan for reaching agreement with the EU and a way forward to a future trade deal. This constructive approach sought to preserve an invisible border in Northern Ireland using tried and tested methods and technologies, offered a way forward to reach agreement. After hours of challenge and cross-questioning the Whitehall Civil Servants and advisers could not fault it. So why on earth is the Government and civil service not using all their resources and energy to use this to get the Prime Minister’s deal across the line?
Nobody understands the Good Friday Agreement better than David Trimble. He has repeatedly said this approach provides a viable way forward if both sides use their best efforts to ensure an invisible border and to preserve all existing measures of cross-border cooperation agreed under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement.
Encouragingly this week, we hear noises from Jean Claude Juncker, Leo Varadkar and others that they will do whatever is necessary to avert a hard border whatever the circumstances in which the UK leaves. If they believe this is possible under the circumstances of “No Deal” it is clearly possible in the event of a deal.
So, the prize is still within grasp if there is the political will which Angela Merkel alluded to. We simply have to resolve the backstop issue. It is unacceptable that Northern Ireland will be torn out of the UK in this way. We simply have to have alternative arrangements.
Which is why the comments of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer are so important. It is very likely that she reflects the real opinion of Angela Merkel. If the Prime Minister took her at her word, and sent Steve Barclay and the British negotiating team back to Brussels, perhaps backed up by David Trimble, with clear instructions to present the alternative arrangements for Northern Ireland, then we have a decent chance of getting a response that will get her over the line in the House of Commons.
We need to change the direction of travel. The present road will simply tear our party apart. It has alienated my colleagues, our Party members and our voters.
It is time to face the facts. The Chequers Plan has failed and now the Withdrawal Agreement is discredited. Project fear over leaving without a deal has not worked and it has alienated the British people. Overtures to the most left-wing leader the Labour party has ever had are not going to work.
So she should reunite our Party and promote the one deal that will retain the integrity of our country and deliver Brexit in a timely fashion. The British people voted to leave the European Union in good faith. Any breach of trust with them will damage our party for a generation. Focus on the one Parliament approved alternative. It’s not too late.