Johnson and Davis isolated as key Brexit Tory MPs opt for pragmatism

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British Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis leave after a first cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Britain, 6 September 2016. [EPA/ANDY RAIN]

On the eve of the second anniversary of the Brexit plebiscite, nothing but nothing is clear on what the UK government’s policy is, still less on what the official opposition’s policy is. All the enthusiasm for Brexit has disappeared from political life in Britain, writes Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane is the former UK Minister of Europe and author of Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris).

This week, MPs vote on 15 Lords amendments which seek to assert some parliamentary control over the Brexit process. One was tabled and won by the Duke of Wellington, the quintessential Tory aristocrat. It shows how far the British cabinet is removed from classical Tory positions when the Duke of Wellington feels moved to lead a rebellion in the Lords.

The London press coverage tends to focus on the outbursts from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis. They are sad, reduced figures compared to the victors of the Brexit plebiscite of lies two years ago.

In the happy days after the Brexit vote, David Davis could cheerfully announce in October 2016 “there will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside” and Boris Johnson could declare soon after he had won his 25-year campaign to divorce Britain from Europe that “There will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market”.

His hapless colleague, the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, could still proclaim a year later in July 2017 ”the free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history”.

But those claims seem to belong to the same category of assurances made by Conservative ministers and isolationist editors in the 1930s that Hitler and Mussolini were splendid chaps and Britain faced no problems at all from their ideology.

Now a group of Tory MPs who voted and campaigned for Brexit have written a letter published in The Times which is light-years away from the rodomontades of Johnson and Davis.

They are long-standing MPs – Knights of the shires and Dames of the Home Counties like Sir Henry Bellingham and Dame Cheryl Gillan – who joined in the growing Tory anti-Europeanism unleashed by William Hague when he became leader of the Tories in 1997 and which was maintained by his successors as Tory leaders up to David Cameron’s announcement of a referendum.

Now the MPs say the UK must make “sensible and pragmatic arrangements that afford scope for accommodating legitimate economic, commercial and financial interests”. The government and Parliament “must take into account the complexity of the real world. There is no such thing as absolute autonomy. An insistence on doctrinaire and ideological purity risks the postponement of settlement and perpetuation of division.”

They argue that “international agreements invariably make inroads upon the autonomous action of states.” They want to see “the independent sovereign control of our nation’s affairs” which of course will occur upon leaving the EU Treaty at the end of March 2019.

But the whole tone of their appeal is for the UK to make peace with Europe to ensure trade and commercial access which can only be achieved by staying in some form of an EEA arrangement described to me by Michel Barnier as “Norway, plus, plus, plus.”

Unless the advocates of a new referendum get their way, it is hard to see how the UK can avoid leaving the EU Treaty in conformity with Article 50. The discussions with Brussels on this have to end by October in order to allow the Withdrawal Treaty and any accompanying document about the scope of future talks to be examined and accepted by 27 EU governments and ratified by the European Parliament.

There is simply no time left other than to continue current customs unions and single market arrangements into the 2020s. The Tory MPs appear to be accepting this in their Times letter. They might be called Bremainers as they embrace a Brexiternity of future talks going on and on.

For three centuries, the business of the Tory Party has been business and these traditional party loyalists and MPs are not going to risk the kind of amputational no-deal crash-out Brexit ardently desired by the anti-Europeans, who still believe their own rhetoric from before June 2016 that the EU would roll over and give in to any demand from London.

At the same time, the Daily Mail‘s fanatical anti-EU editor, Paul Dacre, is quitting to be replaced by the pro-EU Geordie Greig, editor of The Mail on Sunday, which has run powerful anti-Brexit news and comment pieces.

Soon it may be only the openly Europhobe propaganda pages of The Daily Telegraph and Sun and unread Daily Express that keep alive the true faith of the anti-European obsessive.

Given the Labour Party’s refusal to campaign against Brexit, it is not clear if the votes in the Commons this week will be decisive but the wind in the sails of the Brexit camp has disappeared and the confidence in the Brexit dream is now all but dead.

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