David Blunkett: Too little, too late, but Brexit blueprint is a start at last

WHO could have made any of this up? Two Cabinet resignations, the second anniversary yesterday of Theresa May's premiership, Donald Trump's visit and a World Cup semi-final!

Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned from the Cabinet this week.
Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned from the Cabinet this week.

In the political arena, the last week has been critical to our future as a nation. The gathering at Chequers a week last Friday was well- choreographed, and an initial success – until the first resignation on Sunday evening.

In my column four weeks ago, I had reflected on what was happening to David Davis, the then Brexit Secretary. He was unusually silent and had almost disappeared.

But I could not have known then that three weeks later he would leave the Cabinet. Announcing his resignation at the end of the Chequers meeting would have had far more impact and would have been more credible.

The Chequers Brexit summit culminated with the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson.

And, of course, there is Boris Johnson’s resignation. Ably summed up by the historian and former Daily Telegraph editor, Max Hastings who, writing about Boris this week, said: “He is a man of remarkable gifts flawed by an absence of conscience, principle or scruple.” His departure from the Foreign Office has to be an unalloyed gain for the reputation, standing and self-respect of the United Kingdom.

The truth which has to be faced by the Conservative Party as the nation looks on is that the ardent “nothing will really do” Brexiteers do not have an alternative policy for negotiation. It’s clear now that what some of them want is simply “no deal”.

My first reaction to the three-page pronouncement that emerged from the full-day session was that surely 
the nation could have produced this within weeks, following the referendum result.

It is a starting point, but one which is two years down the line. After all, while the circumstances are very different, the first White Paper following the election of the Labour government in 1997 was produced
in 63 days. Clearly, substantive detail takes longer to finalise when opinions are divided and the outcomes so critical.

We have, as well, the debates on both the Customs and Trade Bills which will come first to the Commons later this month as Parliament prepares for the summer recess. Perhaps the plan is to get the hot air and skirmishing out of the way and then return to it in September, but the time for clarifying and then negotiating with the EU is running out.

The strength of the Chequers outcome and the subsequent White Paper is also its weakness. The built-in paradox is hard to overcome. The closer we get to an alignment, which is good for business and our economy, the more the EU fear that it is they who have given too much away.

Dealing with goods but not with services may have been a sensible incremental step some time ago but now it begs so many questions, not least in relation to the European Union’s deep-seated commitment to the single market.

When Margaret Thatcher signed up to the Single European Act back in the 1980s, it was precisely on the basis of a belief that free trade in services, and not just in goods, would be massively beneficial to the UK.

What I felt when I first read the statement that emerged a week
last Friday was that I’d been here before.

The re-emerging plan is that we 
opt out a little more and we pay 
a little less, although that is hard to see even after the £40bn sign-off payment. We will still need to pay in for some of the things that are so critical to 
the wellbeing of those intrinsically engaged in joint working – from research in medicine through to security and combating organised crime.

Yet, and somewhat surprisingly, I find myself holding back from criticism of the sparseness of real detail, and the snail-like progression that has been demonstrated over the 750 days since the Brexit vote.

I am reluctant, because we are where we are and, for all of us, the interests of the UK and its people has to come before the continuing, destructive and incredibly selfish internal squabbling which has characterised the last two years.

I won’t over-egg this. I wrote about it in part last month, but now is the opportunity for all of us to come forward with ideas on how to build on, and therefore to extend, the tentative solutions now on the table.

Of course, this is not entirely – in fact it isn’t – in our hands. It rests with Michel Barnier, with the European Commission’s negotiators and with myriad different interests reflected not just in the 27 governments across the EU but often within their devolved constitutional arrangements.

The road has been rocky so far, but over the next three very short months we need to have made the most enormous progress.

We need to satisfy those who have a substantial hand in the timetable and for whom, hard right, belligerent rhetoric and assumptions about the ‘rationale’ of those who voted for Brexit mean absolutely nothing.

In other words, my feeling is if you have a better way, then say so. “Brexit means Brexit” is now as meaningless as the phrase denotes.

David Blunkett held three senior Cabinet posts in Tony Blair’s government. The former Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough MP is 
now a Labour peer.