Theresa May must name the day a transition period will end or risk losing the British people’s trust
If you struggle to tell your Article 50 from your acquis communautaire, or your subsidiarity from your sequencing then fear not. For it is time to strip out the jargon and boil the battle for Brexit down to something much more readily understandable.
Where William Hague once launched something called “Kitchen Table Conservatism”, I propose to take things even lower. From this point on O’Flynn’s Kitchen Floor Test is, I contend, the only Brexit metric you will ever really need.
Let me explain. It is pretty clear that the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on March 29, 2019. But if the Government gets its way, we will head not boldly out on day one to make our way in the world, shake hands on new free trade deals and all the rest, but into a “transitional arrangement”.
The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has cheerfully (that is cheerfully in the manner of an undertaker who has just heard he has only one funeral to arrange the next day rather than two) remarked that things during this phase will feel pretty much like EU membership. And if the EU is to be persuaded to grant such a transition, you can bet your bottom euro that it will.
So we will still be under some form of jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice, still be contributing to the EU budget, still be in a customs union with the EU, still have our entire economy subject to single market rules and still be bound by a freedom of movement obligation. The most noticeable difference is that we won’t be represented in EU institutions. Nobody in the Commission, nobody on the Council of Ministers and – ahem – no MEPs.
Aside from the wholly laudable aim of making MEPs redundant, this does not deliver any of the significant changes most Brexit voters wanted and amounts to Leaving In Name Only (LINO).
So this is where kitchen flooring comes in. If Theresa May is asking us to put up with lino as a transitional arrangement before delivery of the brand spanking new permanent kitchen floor we believed we were getting then she needs to tell us how long we will have to wait. And not “roughly” how long, but a precise deadline please.
Because what we insist on is a tile floor – that is tile as in Territorially-Independent Law-making Entity (TILE). In other words, becoming once again a proper country in charge of its borders and its waters too, making its own laws and not subject to any higher foreign authority.
And yet there is no precision in the Government’s policy on transition. The prime minister says our lino phase will be “about two years”. The Foreign Secretary suggests it must not be a second longer than two years. But the Chancellor says it may well be a little longer than that and is understood to be pushing behind the scenes for three or even four years.
This is corrosive of trust. History is full of so-called temporary arrangements that have stuck around to become part of the political fixtures and fittings. Take the Barnett Formula (someone please take the Barnett Formula). It was devised in 1978 as a short-term solution to the financial aspects of planned devolution. Yet it is still with us to this day and shows no signs of fading away. An even more drastic example is income tax, first introduced by Pitt the Younger in 1799 as a temporary measure to fund the Napoleonic Wars but still going strong.
It would take nothing like the 218 years and counting of income tax, or even the 39 years and counting of the Barnett Formula, for post-membership transition to wreak havoc with the wishes of the Brexit majority. In fact it would only take three years.
Suppose the transition begins in April 2019 on the current basis of lasting “about two years” but with no firm sunset clause date agreed. Suppose then that Mr Hammond and his allies succeed in stretching it to three years and hence we head into spring 2022 with it still running.
That would allow Remainers (by then billed as “soft Brexiteers”) in each of the two main parties to ensure their general election manifestos included the proposition that the transitional phase be extended into the next parliament with no end date in sight. These 2022 manifestos would of course over-ride commitments made in the 2017 versions.
And under the brutal electoral sorcery of First Past The Post, the electorate would then find itself choosing between two versions of extending the transitional agreement. The lino would have turned into limbo.
Lo and behold, an ongoing Norway-type arrangement would have been foisted on us and meanwhile EU-philes could hope for the EU to adopt some kind of officially sanctioned “variable geometry” (I’m afraid you will have to look that one up) as a prelude to trying to get us back into an outer ring of members.
From UKIP’s point of view, we do not need a transitional phase at all. Indeed it can be argued that the Government is simply extending uncertainty by proposing it. After all, Article 50 was supposed to be triggered the day after the referendum but we had to wait nearly a year for that to happen. And Article 50 is itself a strung-out two year process.
But given that there is likely to be a transition, it is absolutely essential that the Boris Johnson formula of not a second longer than two years before the kitchen floor goes from lino to tile is signed up to by the entire Government.
Were Mrs May to announce that transition will end and full national sovereignty begin again no later than March 29, 2021 then I think she would have got herself a deal. That is, not necessarily a deal with the European or British political establishment, but a deal with the British people.
Some of us would still think almost five years after the referendum was an awfully long time to wait before being able to get immigration under control or to begin new trade deals with the world’s fastest-growing economies. But most of us would also acknowledge that disentangling fully from the EU had been a pretty big deal and was worth taking a little time over in the interests of doing properly.
But, really, Mrs May has already put Brexit at grave risk once via the unnecessary general election. She must not be allowed to compromise it again by allowing Remain ultras even the sniff of a chance of keeping their Brexit-blocking dreams alive going into the next election in 2022, fully six years after the great British public voted to leave.
So my own Brexit campaigning over the coming period will be focused on one central demand: Name the day, Mrs May.
Tell us, precisely, when your transition will be over. Give us an outer-limit. A dated sunset clause. The May Interregnum must not be allowed to turn into a Barnett Formula for Brussels. We don’t want and won’t put up with lino for long. We want tile.