One year on from Article 50: Where next for Brexit? Speeches from Anna Soubry MP, and Lord (Chris) Patten

The text of speeches from Anna Soubry MP and Lord Patten, made at this morning’s Open Britain event – “One year on from Article 50: Where next for Brexit?” - are attached.

Anna Soubry MP, leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, introducing Lord Patten, said:

It’s good to be back with Open Britain. We don’t always agree but we very much agree when it comes for the need to ensure that, if nothing else, we don’t have hard Brexit. It’s absolutely imperative that we continue to work across party.

Our relationship with the European Union has always been a cross-party matter and it embraces – within Open Britain – a variety of people from different political backgrounds and sometimes of different views. But absolutely at its heart is a determination to put the interests of our country first and foremost. And, if nothing else, that must underline everything that now occurs in this remaining year before completion of the Article 50 process when we leave the European Union.

So where are we one year on? I speak as always, frankly, and hopefully without favour and without fear. One of the biggest problems that we have is that simply in the House of Commons we have no credible Opposition. I know people like Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Heidi Alexander, Ben Bradshaw and others do an outstanding job on the back benches. Again, they speak with huge courage and nobody should underestimate that. But with no disrespect to Chuka and his colleagues they don’t have the same force as if it was coming from the Labour frontbenches. Now, I don’t want to turn this into a party pollical issue as we work across party and rightly so. But that lack of credible Opposition means that there isn’t the rigour that should be being applied to the entire Brexit process.

As we now move onto the trade talks, I’ll be very frank with you, yesterday in the House of Commons the questions that should have been asked with that rigour, that unpicking, those challenges were simply not put forward by the Labour frontbench. And that does cause us huge problems because we need to have that rigorous scrutiny of what the Government doing in relation to Brexit. So, it’s left to people like Chuka but it’s also left to me and some of my other Conservative colleagues. Really, simply and truthfully it shouldn’t be like that. However, and not withstanding that what I think has happened is that we are now finally having a debate, not just in Parliament but out there in the real world amongst the British public.

I take the view that must people are actually fed-up with hearing about Brexit. But, they are – because British people are eminently sensible and reasonable people – they are now listening to the arguments, that we should have made, the debate we should have had, in the run-up to the referendum.

And as it’s all been unravelled and unpicked and as Brexit reality dawns, I have no doubt that people are worried. They’re feeling queasy. And one of the things that adds to that unease and concern is that they don’t feel anybody is actually properly representing their views in Parliament. We do our best but it’s not the same as it should be. And it has to be set against the backdrop of the most astonishing campaign against anybody who has the temerity even to question Brexit.

I see Gina Miller is here. She’s a very good example. I hope she doesn’t see this as any form of insult but she’s a very ordinary human being, except she’s not. She’s an extraordinary human being because she has had to show the most exceptional courage in just challenging, daring to question, the Brexit process. And she is one of many who have faced a barrage that should shame our country because of the threat to the democratic process in our country.

But I’m going to be positive in concluding my remarks and say this: I think we have made much progress.

Amongst my Conservative colleagues on the backbenches, there are many now, as the debate that we should have had actually takes place, in quiet and often private conversations, an increasing number of my Conservative colleagues listening to businesses, they’re often listening to younger voters, and are taking the view that certainly we have to get a deal and we have to get a deal that effectively delivers the Single Market and the Customs Union. The Customs Union, arrangement, partnership – I don’t care what you call it, we all know what we need, because what matters is what it delivers – is gaining real support now amongst the Conservative backbenchers. And, as I say, it is for the reasons that I’ve outlined, including most importantly, the subject of Northern Ireland.

And as people understand the consequences of leaving the European Union and the danger of restoring a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, people see, because they – and it hasn’t got the reporting it should have had – the report of the Northern Ireland Select Committee – the three members of the DUP and Kate Hoey, Labour MP, fierce Brexiteer, that sat on it, that took evidence over the course of months, specifically about the border in Northern Ireland and came to the conclusion there is no system in the world, and no likelihood for many a long year of introducing any form of technology or method or means that can solve the problem of the hard border and effectively get rid of it – none.

So, we have to find a solution, and as you look at it, there is only one solution, that is a customs union arrangement, as I say, call it what you will. If you are doing that you’ve got to have regulatory alignment and the Government understands this.

What is regulatory alignment? Again, whatever you want to call it, it’s the Single Market. So, what’s holding us back? As people, good Conservative colleagues, many of them people who voted Leave, but leaver-lites as I describe them, what’s holding them back? From coming out and saying this?

One is still this barrage of abuse, orchestrated, co-ordinated, that exists which, as I say, is a fundamental attack on our democracy.

Secondly, there is this absolute nonsense – and it is a nonsense – we are not going Global Britain, that we don’t have lots of free trade agreements and that somehow, there’s a whole load of unicorn deals we can get once we leave the European union and we can’t do that unless we’re not in the Customs Union. So, the only reason we’re not going to stay in the Customs Union is because of this nonsense that we can do our free trade deals which will convey better benefits than what the existing arrangement we have in the Customs Union by virtue of membership of the European Union.

That’s an argument we still have to properly to make out in the real world and that’s something that Chuka and I won’t hesitate to do. And in reaction to joining EFTA, an eminently sensible idea, and then becoming part of the EEA: what is the only reason that holds us back on that? And it is this ‘problem’ – I don’t have a problem with it – of free movement.

Well, if we make the case as we should have done – for immigration, and the huge benefits it’s conveyed in our country for centuries, then, if we make that argument, we can deal with that problem but we should be under no illusions: these are the only two reasons that are holding back even more colleagues that we should stay, effectively, in the Single Market and the Customs Union.

So, we have made progress. And the reason we’ve made progress is because of the work that’s been achieved by so many who have been brave and courageous in standing up and making the argument, and that needs to continue. If we do that in the next twelve months I think we can move the Government – and it’s already moved to a position where, as I say, call it what you will but it will effectively be the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union, but there is much to be done.

I’d urge business, I’d urge everybody, to lobby your MP, go and see your constituency MP: make the case to them. Overwhelmingly, they are sensible, reasonable and decent people, and when you make a good argument - it’s in the interests of their constituents – they’ll get the point. And who knows what progress we will make, but I am optimistic, in that way.

Thank you very much for coming…


Lord Patten, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, delivering the keynote speech, said:

So where exactly are we heading on this baleful Brexit voyage of discovery?   

No one really knows. But we can more or less detect now the route of advance, or perhaps I should say of mainly sensible retreat.   

A majority of the Cabinet and the Conservative Parliamentary party has not entirely lost leave of its senses. It does not want an over-the-cliff, on-to-the-rocks Brexit. It will support the crab like manoeuvres of Britain’s Brussels negotiators towards the EU exit with as many opt-ins as we can pile on to the back of a lorry. Canada plus plus means red lines turning pink or disappearing entirely.   What we are never going to get is Canada’s obligations with Norway’s access. So why not settle now for Norway?  

As we trudge and fudge our way along this uphill route, the sunlight uplands still out of sight, the Brexiteers swallow hard and swallow as well one slice of dogma pie after another. For those who used to argue that no deal is better than a bad deal, the mantra has changed to any deal is better than no deal. No deal after all might leave us inside the EU. For most of them the national interest has long since been subsumed in ideology.

Again, and again, they get coshed by reality. The question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is a major example.   

A couple of days before the Referendum Mrs May noted that if Britain had a different regulatory environment from the EU, and if Britain rejected free movement, there would have to be a border.  The trouble is that once in No. 10, the Prime Minister announced that since we were leaving the EU, we also had to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.  That is plainly not true. (It would incidentally be nice to know if that question was decided by the Cabinet). Once that decision was announced, the border question inevitably took centre stage, and with the border came the continued integrity of the “Good Friday Agreement”. Ministers have said that the Agreement is the cornerstone of UK policy on Brexit. But the Government have still not produced any even half- baked solution to the border question, though they have promised again and again that they will do so.   There is no “virtual border” customs arrangement anywhere in the world.

They are big on promises but the blue sky thinking remains trapped somewhere in the distant atmosphere.

At the end of the discussions on a transition deal Mr. Davis, who seems less confident now that the discussions have turned out to be more difficult than the promised walk in the park, said that the Government’s aim was to achieve a partnership with the EU that is so close as not to require specific measures in relation to Northern Ireland.  

I can help him and suggest one which is as easy as falling off a log. We could simply stay in the Customs Union.

So why not? Because apparently, we want to run our own trade policy allegedly unbound by being part of the largest economic block in the world. Global Britain will emerge, it is said, from the corpse of European trade policy once we quit the Customs Union, with of course less access as the Prime Minister has admitted to our biggest market.   

Membership of the EU gives us today preferential market access to over 50 countries from Colombia to South Korea. In addition, bear the following in mind.

First, the argument that others do trade deals on their own is true. But they do fewer deals than the EU and the deals are less good than those made by 28 countries acting together. The EU has done well over 50 such deals, Canada 15, Australia 15, Switzerland 38 (the majority through EFTA). The EU deals are more comprehensive and extensive than those made by single countries. Recent EU deals have covered services, for example, with Canada, Singapore and Vietnam.

Small countries invariably suffer when they get into bed with elephants. For example, in Switzerland’s deal with China, the Swiss have to let in Chinese goods almost straight away but China gets 15 years to adjust.   Cars and services are not covered.  

One proposal is that we should simply cut and paste the existing EU deals and apply them to the UK.    But will everyone agree? It is unlikely. Even if, to take one example, South Korea and the UK were able to agree to replicate most of the terms of the EU-South Korea bargain, the “rules of origin” in the deal would probably result in tariffs on lots of manufactured goods from the UK (like cars) because many of the parts are made elsewhere in the EU which will be deemed a third country once we leave it.  

Similar problems will occur elsewhere. So, the “cut and paste” solution – a sort of retrospective taking back of control by signing up to what the EU previously negotiated – is far from straightforward. Moreover, why exactly has membership of the EU held back our trade performance in the fast-growing markets of the world? Membership of the EU has not exactly constrained Germany which exports two and half times as much to China as we do and more than us to India too.

We might also note that when push comes to shove the so called free trading Brexiteers turn out to be jingoistic protectionists. No wonder they love President Trump. And if we seek a world role why has Boris Johnson been culling Embassies and their staffs?  

The global Britain touted by some Brexiteers (as though we had not been global for centuries) is not only hypocritical, it is also political and economic nonsense. One problem is that the Ministers who talk about these fictitious trade deals have never negotiated one. The closest they have come to a trade deal is the check-out at Waitrose.

There is a simple answer to the Northern Ireland border question and to much else besides.

Let’s stay in the Customs Union. The message to the Conservative Cabinet should be simply: “You know it makes sense”. That is, I predict, more of less what will happen.