Bill Carmichael: Solution in sight to Brexit conundrum

Theresa May at the Nato summit.
Theresa May at the Nato summit.
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OBSERVING from afar – and this week I have been on a walking holiday in a remote spot in the far north – it is not easy to make full sense of the dramatic events of this last week.

First we had the dramatic Cabinet meeting at Chequers where senior Ministers were warned if they quit in protest at Theresa May’s Brexit plans they would lose their ministerial cars immediately and would have to take a cab to the nearest station.

Then – after being safely chauffeured back to London – we witnessed the resignations of Brexit Secretary David Davis, followed very quickly by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. I 
make that eight senior Ministers who have quit from the Cabinet in short 
order, which goes to show the volatile nature of our national politics at the moment.

And just when you think things will calm down a bit, we now have the visit of US President Donald Trump accompanied by infantile, self-indulgent protests by thousands of shrieking, virtue-signalling activists.

Funny, but I don’t remember them protesting against the state visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or President Vladimir Putin of Russia, or any of a long list of blood-soaked dictators all of whom have far worse human rights records than the United States.

Proof, if any were needed, that confected outrage is always very selective in its targets. I suggest that we can safely ignore the petulant foot-stomping of these stinking hypocrites.

But back to Theresa May and the White Paper she presented to the Cabinet at that fateful Chequers gathering, which seems to have divided an already polarised nation still further.

On the one hand you have a palpable feeling of outrage, felt strongest among the Conservative Party grassroots, that the Prime Minister’s version of a soft Brexit is a betrayal of the votes of 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU in the biggest exercise in democracy this country has ever witnessed.

On the other you have those, including some Brexit supporters, who see Mrs May as the ultimate pragmatist who is trying to cobble together a workable deal that won’t alarm business interests and which has a chance of being approved both by the Westminster Parliament and in capitals around the EU.

I must admit that I am torn between these two poles largely because there seems to be a wide disagreement in how exactly the planned “common rulebook” and “continued harmonisation” would work in practice.

Will it, for example, hamper our ability to strike deals around the world with economies that – unlike the EU – are growing rapidly? This is one of the key benefits of Brexit.

Crucially, will it return our money, our laws, our borders and our trade to full democratic control? That is what the Prime Minister has promised and without clarity on this issue she won’t command the confidence of the country.

Key to all this, I suggest, is Mrs May’s meetings with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Mrs Merkel has backed Mrs May’s plans, but has she gone further? Has she pledged to use Germany’s considerable clout in the EU to curb the bullying intransigence of the Brussels negotiators and open the way to a compromise acceptable to both sides?

I hope so because if that happens a reasonable solution is in sight. The real fear is that the EU side, led by the obstinate Michel Barnier, will use Mrs May’s domestic difficulties as an excuse to turn the thumbscrews still further.

As David Davis, who knows Barnier well, put it in his letter of resignation, our negotiating approach will “just lead to further demands for concessions”. If that happens we would be best advised to walk away from the negotiations and accept that a “no deal” is inevitable.

Away from the political obsessives and the Westminster bubble, I suspect that ordinary people are thoroughly sick of the whole Brexit saga and just want it to be over. They voted to leave and they just want out, and they are becoming more impatient with a government that has dithered for months.

I just hope, for her sake as well as the country’s, that Mrs May can drag us across the Brexit finish line. Once we are free of the bureaucratic and legal tentacles of the unelected, unaccountable European superstate, we can begin to forge our future as a properly independent sovereign nation once