The word “unprecedented” has defined my time in parliament since being elected in 2017. It is unprecedented for MPs to receive death threats from constituents. Governments usually pass laws thanks to a working majority and, if they can’t, it is unprecedented for the official opposition to refuse to call a vote of confidence and trigger an election. It is unprecedented for prorogation, a constitutional oddity, to be litigated in the highest court in the land.
Now another unprecedented event is being mooted: the first December election since 1923. Concerned at briefings that the Conservatives may be asked to stand on a no-deal Brexit platform in the party’s manifesto, a group of One Nation MPs, including myself, visited Downing Street this week to find out if a new Brexit policy had been invented.
At the meeting, prime minister Boris Johnson and his team were very open to our ideas for the forthcoming manifesto — actively listening, highly engaged and taking notes. This is a stark contrast to the 2017 manifesto process, where cabinet ministers first read the document on the train journey to the launch event. Speaking to Mr Johnson, I was struck by how desperate he is to move on to the domestic agenda, with bold plans to increase investment in the National Health Service, schools, police, roads, green technologies and more. All this, of course, can only be tackled once Brexit (or this first phase at least) is completed.
The stakes are high. If we have not “done” a Brexit deal before the next election, the British public will once again feel let badly down by the major political parties. We will have overpromised and underdelivered. An uncertain fate would await a prime minister who, instead of bringing the situation to a head as promised, had been forced to delay decision day once again.
The Conservative party has taken the sensible decision to accept the result of the referendum and leave the EU. We will be a Leave party at the next election, but there is pressure from some quarters to double down: to adopt a policy to leave without any deal at all. There may be simplicity in such a clear message — the EU wouldn’t give us a decent deal, so we are going to leave straight away and Brexit will be over.
But those advocating this are profoundly misguided. No deal can only be an absolute last resort, not a desirable outcome for any Conservative. It will be quickly apparent that no deal does not exist as a destination, it is only the beginning of an even more painful set of discussions. If we leave on basic World Trade Organization trading terms (which, incidentally, don’t cover all aspects of our trading relationship with the EU) and abruptly sever 45-year-old ties with our biggest trading partner, we will still need to agree a future relationship. There will always eventually have to be a deal.
During the chaotic no-deal period, the EU would be able to leverage making things harder (or easier) at certain ports, or airports, or with rights for UK farmers to export various agrifoods, and use that leverage in the negotiations. We will have no, or little, say. Instead of starting from a position of co-operation we will begin those negotiations with a weakening economy and an unhappy counterparty.
Any EU mandate for a new trade deal would no longer be decided by a simple majority but would require agreement from each of the remaining 27, including countries who would have suffered economic damage from a no-deal Brexit.
Some claim that we have no choice; if we don’t stand on a no-deal manifesto the Conservative party will be wiped out by the Brexit party.
Yet these are claims largely trumpeted by the Brexit party. Yes, people want Brexit dealt with. But they don’t want to lose their livelihoods in the process. Nigel Farage can stand on a no-deal platform because he is completely unaccountable and does not have to run the country, support business investment or help build the next generation of skilled entrepreneurs and employees.
But the Conservative party has a duty not just to get through an election. We have a duty to stabilise our economy and avoid the shock of a Marxist experiment in the form of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government being layered on top of our decision to leave the EU.
The prime minister assured the One Nation group of Conservative MPs this week that he understood the UK must continue to work in good faith to secure a deal. The news from the meeting with Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is most encouraging. I know the prime minister is serious and I hope for the sake of my party and my country that he is successful.
The writer is Conservative MP for Chichester