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Nick Clegg: The ‘soft Brexit’ dream is now dead – and Theresa May has done nothing to stop its demise

February 11, 2018 3:54 PM
By Nick Clegg in i News

Nick CleggDead. Deceased. It is no more. Like Monty Python's dead parrot, as of this week "soft" Brexit has ceased to be. All that is now left is a wilfully self-harming "hard" Brexit, or no Brexit at all. That is the inescapable choice which will face MPs when they vote on the Brexit deal later this year.

It did not need to be like this.

If Theresa May was a more imaginative politician with a keener sense of history, she would have realised the instant she walked into Number 10 that she had one overwhelming duty: to unite a badly divided nation.

In her first speech as PM, she could have declared that, yes, she would lead the country out of the EU. That is what the country voted for, if by a wafer-thin majority. But, no, she wasn't going to do so at any cost.

She could have declared then - when she was at her strongest - that she would not throw the economic baby out with the EU bathwater and that she would seek a compromise in which the UK continued to participate in the core economic arrangements of the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union, even as the UK departed from its political institutions.

She could have said - without fear of contradiction - that people did not vote to make themselves poorer.

She could have sided with young voters, 70 per cent of whom voted to Remain and are fearful of a deep rupture with the EU. The young will inherit the consequences of Brexit, so we owe it to them to tread carefully. I will not be swayed by either extremes, she could have said. Arch Remainers and arch Brexiters have polarised our debate for too long. I stand for the vast majority of Britons who want to keep our country strong, united, and whole.

All this and more she could have said.

But, at the mercy of small-minded special advisors in Whitehall and her political puppet-masters in the right-wing press, she meekly repeated what they - and the rest of the unaccountable Brexit elite who now hold her hostage - wanted to hear: Brexit would mean Brexit of the hardest, most uncompromising and economically masochistic kind.

"Citizens of nowhere"

From that moment, all the rest was inevitable: the graceless words about "citizens of nowhere" dropped into her conference speech by the political geniuses in her entourage who then went on to trigger and lose a snap election; the rushed "red lines" forbidding any adherence to the EU's rule of law or any continued membership of Margaret Thatcher's greatest creation, the EU's Single Market; the inane repetition of "global Britain's" buccaneering free trading future (last week the Government's own leaked figures confirmed that the much vaunted new UK-US trade deal would add a paltry 0.2 per cent to our GDP); and then the final capitulation this week when Downing Street confirmed, in an ever more desperate attempt to keep the Brexit attack dogs at bay, that the UK would neither seek to be part of the customs union, or indeed a customs union, with the EU.

There is nothing remotely Conservative about this Government's protectionist and bureaucratically intrusive approach to Brexit All that remains for members of the Cabinet to argue about this week are the scraps, the tiny nuances left after the great stampeding retreat from common sense.

Government spokespeople refer to the need for new "customs arrangements" with the EU, as if those words somehow justify the pretence that there is still something significant to negotiate. In truth, no two countries can exchange a single widget in trade with each other unless there are "customs arrangements" in place. "Customs arrangements" cover everything from the Berlin Wall to automatic number plate recognition.

It is a term which is so elastic as to be meaningless. Except for one thing: every new "customs arrangement" between the UK and the EU will introduce extra cost, hassle, red tape, bureaucracy and delay in the millions of borderless transactions which presently make our trade with the world's largest single market as "frictionless" as any invented in history.

Vicious circle

So what on earth are ministers thinking when they say they want to pull us out of the Single Market and Customs Union and yet, in the same breath, wax lyrical about the virtues of "frictionless" trade?

Take this from Dominic Raab, the Housing Minister, in the last few days: "I don't think we'll be in any form of customs union… at the same time we want frictionless trade with the EU."

These words betray either shameful mendacity or terrible ignorance.

It cannot be said enough: the Brexit this Government is determined to impose on this country cannot under any circumstances avoid the introduction of extensive new barriers, costs and frictions to trade with our largest trading partners.

There is something morbidly fascinating about the spectacle of Conservatives spouting the language of free-trade whilst overseeing the greatest retreat from open markets embarked upon by any party in the post-war period.

And, boy, it will come as a shattering shock to UK businesses when they realise what this means in practice: new lorry parks near the Kent ports; new checks to work out which tariffs should apply to each product; phytosanitary and veterinary checks on livestock and agricultural products; according to the Institute for Government, every single trader exporting to the EU could end up having "to complete a Single Administrative Document (SAD) and an Entry Summary (ES). The SAD consists of eight parts with 54 boxes which must be completed and submitted for every declaration."

Bureaucratic nightmare

And this excludes insurance certificates and other product-specific documentation. With each declaration costing between £20 and £45, the IFG reckons the additional annual cost could amount to £9bn per year.

Integrated supply chains will be destroyed. The fuel injectors assembled by the US automobile component manufacturer, Delphi, at its UK plant in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire, illustrate the point perfectly.

The injectors are made from steel from Europe which is machined in the UK before going to Germany for special heat treatment before returning to the UK for assembly. They will have crossed the channel five times before they are inserted into a lorry and sold to a customer.

This seamless, cross border assembly line will be slowed and eventually suffocated by the multiple bureaucratic incursions courtesy of the Brexiteer's new "customs arrangements".

Not satisfied with turning their backs on free trade, Boris Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Farage et al have now turned themselves into Soviet-style bureaucratic busybodies. Where we were promised free trade and a reduction in bureaucracy, trade barriers and infernal red tape beckons.

No wonder more and more Conservative MPs are starting to think what was once unthinkable: that they may feel compelled to vote against such a woeful Brexit deal.

But they would be right to do so, for there is nothing remotely Conservative about this Government's protectionist and bureaucratically intrusive approach to Brexit.

This was the week when soft Brexit died. Conservative MPs must now find the courage to save the country from hard Brexit.