What Brexiteers told me behind May’s back was worrying

  • One of them recently told me that, for all their threats to remove her, “we’ll keep her in place for now” because “she’s our puppet, we’re pulling the strings”.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

There has been intense speculation over the past 48 hours of a special EU summit of leaders being convened towards the end of this month to agree the terms of Brexit. The latest reports suggest this will take place on Thursday 22 November.

My contacts at the EU institutions managing things on the other side of the negotiating table tell me that the excited, frantic reports over the weekend that a deal is imminent are overdone. Nevertheless, it is looking more likely that this special summit will take place than they thought a week ago.

It is important to be clear on what we mean by a “deal”, a term that is used with wild abandon these days and increasingly bears little relation to what we will end up with if Brexit happens.

“Mr Speaker, let us be clear what the prime minister promised in her Lancaster House speech last year. She promised ‘to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has concluded’ – not during the transition period or by the end of it. Will she confirm that she will be breaking that promise, that we will not have the detail of a legally binding trade agreement in place before we leave?” That is what I put to the PM in the House of Commons immediately after she returned from the last EU Council summit of leaders last month.

“I think there is a misunderstanding about the process that I thought I had explained in response to my honourable friend Mr Rees-Mogg,” May replied. “We cannot finalise and sign the legal text of our future relationship and trade partnership with the EU until we have left the EU, but we can know what that future relationship will be, and that is exactly what we are negotiating and will be part of the final deal.” Note that she did not deny the promise she had made last year at Lancaster House, and she conceded that future partnership won’t now be agreed at the point of departure but after.

So there had been no “misunderstanding” on either my part or that of Rees-Mogg and the PM knows it. I had pointed out to her that there would not be a proper “deal” including a legally binding text on all of the detail on the future trading relationship at the point we are scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 as she had previously promised.

It is not often that two MPs from opposite sides of the Brexit argument, like myself and Jacob Rees-Mogg, agree on something. In this instance, Rees-Mogg and I were simply referencing back to past commitments given by the PM, which she has now gone back on. The truth is that we are heading to the exit door blindfolded with no idea of what lies on the other side of it.

The way in which the European Research Group (ERG) – a right-wing, pro-Brexit support group for MPs which Rees-Mogg chairs – talk about their PM is unedifying and derogatory. One of them recently told me that, for all their threats to remove her, “we’ll keep her in place for now” because “she’s our puppet, we’re pulling the strings”. An up-and-coming minister confirmed this to me, complaining that the ERG “genuinely don’t mind making people poorer because for them it’s all about ideology” and conceding that “they are calling all the shots”.

For two years, Theresa May and her ministers have been trying to secure frictionless trade and immigration controls – which the members of the ERG went around the country in Boris Johnson’s big red bus promising would be delivered – despite being told over and over again by the EU that that’s impossible. This is why the can will be kicked down the road until after the UK leaves, with many of the big issues still to be agreed.

A common refrain from many members of the public is to “just get on with it” whatever the consequences, yet the arguments about Brexit will never end because so much time and effort will be taken up trying to sort Brexit out for decades to come. That means we won’t be able to focus on tackling the big challenges of our time like our unfair economy, the dysfunctional housing market, and climate change.

May’s team has handled these negotiations with gross incompetence but, even if they were the most competent of governments, Brexit would have been impossible to deliver in the terms it was sold to us by Leave campaigners. Whether you were Leave or Remain, no one voted for prices in the shops to already be rising, or for nurses and doctors from the EU to be leaving the NHS. Two years ago, Britain was at the top of the G7 economies for economic growth; now we are bottom – and inward investment is falling. Nobody voted to be poorer.

To add insult to injury – and as I have already said to the PM – she is proposing that we pay a divorce bill of more than £40bn without getting that trade deal in return. Nobody voted for that either.

The upshot of this is that whatever parliament is presented with to approve by way of a “meaningful vote” following a special November EU summit, it will not be a “deal” in the proper sense but a political declaration of intent with regard to a future trading relationship with the EU to be determined.

In that declaration, May has pledged, “there must be precise guarantees of frictionless trade” – but she has ruled out staying in the customs union, meaning that sectors such as carmakers face delays, interruption of supply chains and extra costs. And, by refusing to remain in the single market, she has sold out our service sectors that make up 80 per cent of the economy and contribute billions of pounds to pay for public services.

No wonder more than 70 business leaders – including the CEO of Waterstones, the founder of and the ex-chairman of Rolls-Royce – came out yesterday calling for a final say on the terms of our withdrawal from the EU. Whatever happens this month at a summit, it’s clear that everyone in Britain deserves to exercise their democratic right.