Thank you Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who have done an outstanding job over the last two years, and I am very proud that we have rallied the world against Russia’s barbaric use of chemical weapons with an unprecedented 28 countries joining together to expel 153 spies in protest at what happened in Salisbury. We have rejuvenated the Commonwealth with a superb summit that saw Zimbabwe back on the path to membership and Angola now wanting to join. And as I leave we are leading global campaigns against illegal wildlife trade and in favour of 12 years of quality education for every girl. And we have the flag, the union flag, going up in nine new missions, in the Pacific, in the Caribbean and Africa, and more to come. So that we have overtaken France to boast the biggest diplomatic network of any European country. None of this would have been possible without the support of my right honourable friend, the Prime Minister.
Everyone who has worked with her will recognise her courage and her resilience. And it was my privilege to collaborate with her in promoting global Britain. A vision for this country that she set out with great clarity at Lancaster House on January 17th last year. A country eager, as she said, not just to do a bold, ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU – out of the customs union, out of the single market – but also to do new free trade deals around the world. I thought it was the right vision then. I think so today.
But in the 18 months that have followed, it is as though a fog of self-doubt has descended. And even though our friends and partners liked the Lancaster House vision – it was what they were expecting from an ambitious partner, what they understood; even though the commentators like it, and the markets like it – as my Right Honourable friend the Chancellor observed, the pound soared – we never actually turned that vision into a negotiating position in Brussels and we never made it into a negotiating offer.
Instead we dithered. And we burned through our negotiating capital. We agreed to hand over a £40 billion exit fee with no discussion of our future economic relationship. We accepted the jurisdiction of the European Court over key aspects of the withdrawal agreement. And worst of all we allowed the question of the Northern Irish border, which had hitherto been assumed on all sides to be readily soluble, to become so political charged as to dominate the debate. No one on either side of this house or anywhere wants a hard border. You couldn’t construct one if you tried. But the certainly can be different rules North and South of the border, to reflect the fact that there are two different jurisdictions. In fact, there already are. There can be checks away from the border, and technical solutions as the Prime Minister already described at Mansion House. But when I, and other colleagues – and I single out my honourable friend the Right Honourable member from Haltemprice and Howden, proposed further technical solutions to make customs and regulatory checks remotely. Those proposals were never even properly examined, as though such solutions had become intellectually undesirable in the context of the argument. And somehow, after the December joint report, whose backstop arrangement we were all told was entirely provisional, never to be invoked, it became taboo even to discuss technical fixes. So Mr Speaker, after 18 months of stealthy retreat we have come from the bright certainties of Lancaster house to the Chequers agreement, and you put them side by side. Lancaster house said laws will once again be made in Westminster. Chequers says there will be an ongoing harmonisation with an EU rulebook. Lancaster House says it would be wrong to comply with EU rules and regulations without having a vote on what those rules are. Chequers now makes us rule takers. Lancaster House said we don’t want anything that leaves us half in, half out. Chequers says we will remain in lock step on goods and agri-foods, and much more besides, with disputes ultimately adjudicated by the ECJ. Far from making rules in Westminster, there are large sectors in which ministers will no power to initiate, innovate or even deviate. After decades in which UK ministers have gone to Brussels, and expostulate against costly EU regulation, we are now claiming we must accept every jot and tittle for our economic health, with no say of our own, and now way of protecting our business and entrepreneurs, from rules now and in the future that may not be in their interest. My right honourable friend, the Chancellor was asked to identify the biggest single opportunity from Brexit. After some thought he said ‘regulatory innovation’. Well there may be some regulatory innovation post-Brexit, but it won’t be, alas, coming from the UK (and certainly not in those areas).
We are volunteering for economic vassalage, not just in goods and agri-foods but we will be forced to match EU arrangements on the environment and social affairs and much else besides. Of course we all want high standards but it is hard to see how the Conservative government of the 1980s could have done its vital supply side reforms with those freedoms taken away. And the result of accepting the EU’s rulebooks and of our proposals for a fantastical Heath Robinson customs arrangement is that we have much less scope to do free trade deals as the Chequers paper actually acknowledges and which we should all frankly acknowledge. Because otherwise, if we pretend otherwise, we continue to make the fatal mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the public, saying one thing to the EU about what we are doing, and then saying another thing to the electorate. And given that in important ways, this is Brino – or Brexit in name only – I am, of course, unable to accept it, as I said in the Cabinet session at Chequers, and I am happy now to speak out against it and be able to do so. Mr Speaker, it is not too late to save Brexit, we have time in these negotiations.
We have changed tack once, and we can change again. The problem is not that we failed to make the case for a free trade agreement of the kind spelled out at Lancaster House – we haven’t even tried. We must try now. Because we will not get another chance to get it right. And it is absolute nonsense to imagine, as I fear some of my colleagues do, that we can somehow afford to make a botched treaty now, and then break and reset the bone later on. Because we have seen, even in these talks, how the supposedly provisional becomes eternal.
And we have the time – and I believe the Prime Minister has the support of Parliament. Remember the enthusiasm for Lancaster House and for Mansion House. And it was clear last night that there is no majority in this House for a return to the Customs Union.
With good will and common sense we can address the concerns about the Northern Irish border and all other borders. We have fully two and a half years to make the technical preparations along with preparations for a world trade outcome, those preparations which we should now accelerate. We should not and need not be stampeded by anyone. But let us again aim explicitly for that glorious vision of Lancaster House: a strong, independent, self-governing Britain that is genuinely open to the world. Not the miserable permanent limbo of Chequers. Not the democratic disaster of ongoing harmonisation with no way out and no say for the UK.
We need to take one decision now before all others. And that is to believe in this country and in what it can do. Because I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that the UK’s admirers – and there are millions if not billions across the world – are fully expecting us to do what we said and to take back control. And to be able to set new standards for technologies in which we excel. To behave not as rule takers but as great independent actors on the world stage, and to do free trade deals – proper free trade deals – for the benefit and the prosperity of the British people.
That was the vision of Brexit that we fought for. That was the vision that the Prime Minister rightly described last year, that is the prize that is still attainable. There is time, and if the Prime Minister can fix that vision once again before us, then I believe she can deliver a great Brexit for Britain, with a positive, self-confident approach that will unite this party, unite this house and unite this country as well.