An article by the former Secretary of State for Wales the RT Hon David Jones MP:
Boris. What a breath of fresh air.
No, scratch that. What a glorious gust of bracing ozone, dispelling the dismal, grey timidity of the past three years and replacing it with Technicolor sunshine, positively daring us not to be optimistic, and making us smile into the bargain.
Boris is a force of nature unlike anything seen in British politics since the days of the Lady herself. Like her, he has the capacity to engage, enthuse and inspire. Like her, he knows precisely where he’s going; and, like her, he’s determined to take us with him.
So “getting Brexit done” was more than a campaign slogan; it was a solemn promise that was kept. With his brand new, thumping 80-seat majority, it was the easiest thing in the world to whisk the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the Commons, brushing aside the curmudgeonly, Remainerish amendments that their Lordships half-heartedly put forward. The Bill duly became an Act and, on 31 January, Brexit duly got done.
But extricating us from the EU is only the beginning of the process for Boris. The next step is to formulate and forge our trading relationship not only with the EU, but with the rest of the world.
And on 3 February, in the gorgeous setting of the Painted Hallof the Royal Naval College at Greenwich,
Boris set out his stall.
Speaking with characteristic brio under Thornhill’s famous ceiling (aptly, given the content of the speech, entitled The Triumph of Liberty and Peace over Tyranny), he laid out his vision of a dynamic, outward-looking country, committed to the quintessentially British economic ideal of free trade.
Rightly pointing out that over recent years the world hadwitnessed the regrettable ascendancy of protectionism, with tariffs being “waved around like cudgels even in debates on foreign policy, where frankly they have no place“, Boris identified the next historic function of the United Kingdom:
“Humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the superchargedchampion of the right of the populations of the Earth to buy and sell freely among each other.
“And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.”
In response, a bewildered European Union appears to have nothing new to offer. Michel Barnier is reduced to reprising his greatest hits from the first round of negotiations. There will have to be strict sequencing of the talks, he sternly tells us.
Before we discuss anything else, says Barnier, the UK will have to agree to accede to EU regulatory standards, accept EU access to British fisheries and acknowledge that the final agreement must exclude Gibraltar. Oh, and the European Court of Justice must retain judicial oversight.
In response, Boris has made it clear that the UK already not only meets EU standards but actually exceeds them, and has no inclination to reduce them. He has forthrightly retorted that “there is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules.”
Access to UK fisheries can be negotiated, but strictly on a year-to-year basis. And as for Gibraltar, well that treaty-legitimised piece of British territory must naturally be included in the agreement.
The relationship Boris seeks is similar to the one that Canada already enjoys with the European Union; but if that is not possible, then we will go for an Australian style deal – in other words, a World Trade Organisation arrangement withadditional standalone provisions.
After this opening skirmishing, talks with the EU will continue – but in parallel with similar negotiations with Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the CPTPP and, of course,the United States. Because Boris’s Global Britain will enthusiastically pursue truly global free trade, not a clone ofthe restrictive, over-regulated, unhappy relationship with the EU that has been rejected in the referendum and at two subsequent general elections.
And on that score, Boris could not have been clearer:
“The reason I stress this need for full legal autonomy, the reason we do not seek membership or part membership of the customs union or alignment of any kind, is it least partly that I want this country to be an independent actor and catalyst for free trade across the world.”
Doubtless, Boris‘s speech will have been received with little acclamation within the echoing corridors of Berlaymont. But at least the EU can’t say they have not been warned. Boris commands a strong majority in Parliament and a united Conservative Party. He has the overwhelming electoral approval of the British people.
Unlike his predecessor, he has a strong hand of cards. The EU would do well to treat him with respect, drop the posturing, and start to negotiate seriously.