Brexit will be a success story – but for now, our leaders have lost the plot

The UK will absolutely be better off, with or without a trade deal, provided the government adopts the right policies and embraces economic freedom 

This week’s debacle in Brussels leads to some very serious questions about the conduct of our exit from the EU.

The article 50 negotiations have been conducted from the very beginning on the wrong premise: the belief that success or failure was determined by whether or not the UK was able to agree a trade arrangement with the EU. By setting that measure, the UK government immediately gave the best hand to the EU, as this outcome was in their gift, not ours.

In fact, the trade deal is worth only a certain amount. The true measure of Brexit success is first and foremost whether we take control of our laws, our borders and our money, and then whether we are economically better off outside the EU than we would otherwise have been by staying in the EU.

On this latter point, there is absolutely no doubt that we can be better off, with or without a trade deal, provided the government adopts the right policies and takes full advantage of the economic freedoms that Brexit affords us.

Unfortunately the leadership had neither the economic nous nor the backbone to face down the naysayers and narrow self-interest of the multinationals in order to pursue the national interest.

We did see, however, in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, a level of determination to leave the EU, and were promised that we would not pay too much, and that the writ of the European court of justice (ECJ) would no longer run in the UK. There was also an apparent commitment to the integrity of the UK – witness the facing down of Nicola Sturgeon.

Unbelievably, we have witnessed, over recent weeks and months, starting with the Florence speech, an apparent breach of all of these commitments.

We are now prepared to pay the EU at least £55bn for our so-called “obligations”, an enormous sum. And no doubt, as the clock ticks and we are over a barrel, the EU will ask for more in any trade negotiation. This alone would pay for 14 years of all of the industrial tariffs the EU could apply to the UK!

We have seen our leadership try to sell down the river its own citizens in Northern Ireland, to effectively cede to another power a part of the sovereign UK in a move historically without precedent. To have done this either foolishly, without proper consultation, or knavishly, by stealth, is unconscionable and appears to be a duplicitous act that raises questions about the competence and/or integrity of our leadership.

To complete the triple, there are strong rumours that our leadership is prepared to acquiesce to EU demands that EU nationals (and their offspring) be given a superior class of citizenship, having the ability to call upon a foreign court, the European court of justice. This is something no sovereign state would countenance. Presumably this would have no reciprocity for UK nationals on the continent to have the protection of the UK supreme court above that of the ECJ. You couldn’t make it up!

Our leaders have decided to put the narrow self-interest of multinationals, as espoused by the likes of the Confederation of British Industry, ahead of its citizens, in their headlong rush to pay any price for a trade arrangement of inflated value. Our leaders have lost the plot. Thank goodness there was no landslide majority at the last election giving them the ability to run amok.

Fortunately it is not yet too late and the fickle finger of fate has played into our hands, but our leaders must grasp the nettle, or alternatively the Conservative party must grasp the leadership challenge before it is, indeed, too late.

The EU has overplayed its hand. It has seen the money that it so desperately needs and given us nothing. As such, there is no contract and the money can as easily disappear from the table. We hold the cards.

There remains just enough time to say we are going to commit to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules in March 2019 and start preparing to use this to boost the economy. Declaring now for WTO would give business absolute certainty about the future. Declaring now what future economic measures we will take and what opportunities we will seize will give business confidence. It will also win the next election. Under these circumstances it is not in the interests of the parliamentary majority, Conservative remainers and the DUP included, to support a vote of no confidence. It may also then be in the interests of the EU to stop behaving like a bully.

This is a moment in time, a massive opportunity for real leadership. The Conservative party needs to think very carefully about what it does next.

 John Longworth is co-chairman of Leave Means Leave, an entrepreneur and a member of the advisory board of Economists for Free Trade. He was formerly director general of the British Chambers of Commerce before resigning in March 2016

December 7th, 2017: Guardian