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No one foresaw that any government would make such a mess of Brexit

4 min read

The Northern Ireland Protocol, a forced inheritance from Mrs May’s backstop, is now destroying peace and political stability in Northern Ireland and will prove to be politically fraudulent.

Has Brexit turned out as expected?  Yes and no. I certainly got one thing wrong.  I thought few MPs would seriously contest the result of a referendum.  If Remain had won by a similar margin, we would have been given no quarter had we contested the legitimacy of the result.

Many of us also originally argued that the referendum question should call for “a new relationship” with our EU partners, but others wanted a plain in-out question. We warned them: “Don’t imagine that the UK can vote to Leave the EU, and we would then just leave.  And why choose a question which will be so much harder to win?”  We got this right, on two counts.

I was one of only a tiny minority of Leave-inclined MPs who believed we could actually win such a vote

First, the in-out referendum was indeed much harder to win. It was only after we saw in horror how the Scots shifted their opinions during the 2014 independence referendum that we began to believe we could win an EU In-Out referendum.  And it was only after the 2015 election that many of us first committed to Leave, because we could not consider voting to endorse the whole of Maastricht-through-Lisbon and the emerging EU federal state. Just after the 2015 Cameron victory, however, I was still one of only a tiny minority of Leave-inclined MPs who believed we could actually win such a vote.

Secondly, Bill Cash, John Redwood, Owen Paterson, with me and a few others, were right to warn that leaving the EU would be a long and disputed negotiation. None of us foresaw that any government would make quite such a mess of it. I also freely admit I underestimated how the EU would be prepared to damage the interests of its own exporters and consumers in order to defend its fragile political authority.  A proper free trade agreement with mutual recognition of product standards, and regulatory equivalence, may still evolve and would be far better for UK-EU trade and jobs on all sides.

It was Nigel Lawson, in one of the first meetings of the ERG Steering Committee after the 2016 result, in Iain Duncan Smith’s office, who stilled the room by flatly predicting that the EU “will never give the UK a good deal, because to do so would legitimise the Eurosceptic movements in all the member states, which none of the EU governments can afford to allow.”

I also underestimated the way that the EU would be prepared to exploit the issue of Northern Ireland, to try to force the whole of the UK into alignment.  It was reported that Martin Selmayr, the then EU Commission Secretary-General, said that “Northern Ireland is the price [for the UK] to pay for Brexit.”  This was denied by the Commission, but he himself never commented on it. 

However, on resigning from the government over the ill-fated Chequers proposals, Dominic Raab said in Times interview, “you would hear rumbling that Northern Ireland was the price the United Kingdom must pay for leaving the EU… The EU has become incredibly controlling and I think that’s a sign of their insecurity as an organisation.”

The Northern Ireland Protocol, a forced inheritance from Mrs May’s backstop, will prove to be politically fraudulent. Bertie Aherne or Enda Kenny would have attached the highest importance to achieving a deal to maintain the consent of both communities in Northern Ireland.  Instead, Leo Veradkar’s EU ideology eclipsed any traditional Irish pragmatism.  The Protocol is now destroying peace and political stability in Northern Ireland. A system of trusted traders and mutual enforcement must in the end replace the Protocol to restore the trust between the two communities. To resist this is to elevate the importance of a mere protocol over the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland.


Bernard Jenkin is the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex.

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