Peter Heaton-Jones MP
Working Hard for North Devon
News Update -
Date: 18th November 2018
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As you might expect this is a rather different newsletter, dealing with just one subject.
Britain’s exit from the European Union moved significantly closer this week with the publication of the draft withdrawal agreement.
With it came the drama of cabinet resignations and fevered talk of a vote of no confidence in Theresa May. I’ve tried to stand back from all the excitement and take the time to examine where we are, calmly and pragmatically. Having done so, here’s my view on the whole issue.
The draft withdrawal agreement, as it stands, is not perfect. But I believe it delivers most of what people want from Brexit. Under the deal:
The UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019. There’s then a transition or implementation period until the end of 2020, during which we negotiate our new trading relationship.
Unfettered immigration from the EU ends, so we can take back control of our borders.
We’re no longer under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, so we take back control of our laws too.
We leave the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, so we’re not bound by those restrictive rules.
The rights of UK citizens living in the EU, and EU citizens living and working here, are protected.
And, crucially, we stop paying our huge annual membership subscription to the EU, so we can use the ‘Brexit dividend’ to spend in the UK instead.
Overall, I think this agreement does enough to satisfy most of the nearly 60% of North Devon voters who supported Leave in the referendum. I’ve therefore reached the conclusion that I’m minded to support the deal when it comes to the House of Commons.
What if Parliament Votes it Down?
This is the only deal on the table, and both the Prime Minister and the EU have said there is no possibility of renegotiation. There’s no time, for one thing.
So, if Parliament doesn’t support this agreement, we risk the UK crashing out of the EU on 29 March without a deal. That would be potentially disastrous for our economy, for businesses, for farmers, for Ireland…overall, it’s just too much of a risk.
Also, if we don’t support this deal and try to re-open the negotiations, it adds to the current uncertainty. Most people I speak to just want us to get on with it.
Remember too, this withdrawal agreement is just that – a withdrawal agreement. It sets out the terms on which we will leave the European Union, but does not decide what our future relationship will be. That will be negotiated in the coming months and years, which gives the UK a real opportunity.
Those are all, in my view, further reasons to support this agreement. However, there are some quite proper concerns which many people are raising, and I want to address two of them directly.
1 - The Backstop
This is the ‘insurance policy’ which keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU if we haven’t completed a trade deal by the end of 2020. It’s designed to avoid the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, or between Ireland and Great Britain. This would potentially damage the Irish economy and mean the collapse of the peace agreement.
People are concerned about this aspect of the deal because it appears to tie the UK closer to the EU for longer than necessary. It’s also being criticised because it means the backstop continues until both parties – the UK and the EU – agree to end it. Critics say this means the EU could just refuse to release us, and we’d be tied into the customs union for as long as they like.
However, as with any insurance policy, it only works if both parties are bound by it and one of them can’t unilaterally walk away. And although the agreement gives no definite end date, this should be finalised at the EU summit in a week’s time.
So, it’s not ideal, but we must have a backstop and this is the only way it can work.
2 - The ‘Divorce Bill’
A lot of attention – and anger – has been directed at the perception that the withdrawal agreement means us paying a ‘divorce bill’ of around £39 billion. But that’s not accurate.
Let’s be clear; we would still have to pay this amount under all circumstances, deal or no deal. It’s an existing liability that arises as a result of our membership up to now. It’s money that we’re obliged to pay for a number of reasons, including to settle our liabilities in the existing EU budget period; to pay a proportion towards the next budget until we leave; and to contribute to the pensions of EU employees to reflect our period of membership.
So, this agreement does not in itself cause us to have to pay this vast sum. Remember also that we will no longer have to pay the annual membership fee when we leave the EU under this deal, which represents a significant saving.
A Second Referendum?
Some people are saying that this is such a controversial decision, and Parliament is so divided, that we should have a ‘People’s Vote’ to decide whether this deal goes ahead. I fundamentally disagree.
For a start, it would take more than five months to organise such a referendum, given all the legal constraints and practical arrangements. That takes us beyond 29 March, when we will be leaving the EU in any event. So it’s too late.
But my main objection is that the true motivation for a second referendum is that it seeks to reverse the result of the first. I believe this would be hugely damaging to trust and faith in democracy, and create yet more division and uncertainty.
The result of any further vote is unlikely to be conclusive. According to the recent Channel 4 poll – the biggest since the referendum – only 1% of leave voters have actually changed their minds since 2016.
I said before that first referendum that I would work to implement the result, whether remain or leave. I supported remain, but I lost the argument; indeed, nearly 60% of North Devon voters supported leave.
Then in the 2017 general election I, and the government, were re-elected on a manifesto pledge to deliver the result of the referendum. I intend to honour both those commitments.
The Prime Minister
I will not be submitting a letter of no confidence in Theresa May. Quite the opposite; I believe she deserves our admiration for the determination and resilience she has shown. Many people I speak to feel the same – even those who are not naturally Conservative supporters.
For the Conservative Party to have a leadership election now would be damaging for the government and seriously weaken our negotiating position. It would also be incredibly self-indulgent; I think most people want us to be getting on with the job of delivering for the country rather than turning in on ourselves.
So I’m not submitting a letter and, if there is a vote, I will be supporting the Prime Minister. This is not blind loyalty; I have no paid government job, so The Whips have no hold over me. I genuinely think Theresa May deserves our backing at this time, and she has mine.
I realise there will be people who will disagree with this position. I respect that. But I have to reach a conclusion, weighing up all the conflicting opinions, as to what I think is the best way forward. That’s what I’ve tried to set out here, along with my reasons for doing so.
I now want us to get on with Brexit, get it done, deliver what North Devon asked for, and move on. And the sooner the better.
Peter Heaton-Jones MP
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