Time is running out for the Prime Minister to get a worthwhile Brexit deal

I am used to alarming statements from the government, but I couldn’t believe it when I was sitting in the House of Commons on Tuesday and the Northern Ireland Minister said he knew that the internal market bill would break international law but was going ahead with it anyway. I looked round to see if others had heard the same thing and confirmed – in shock and despair – that they had. Other Conservative ministers have since lined up to cheer him on and the bill is set to be rushed through next week.

In an alternate reality, Conservative MPs would be saying that this bill changes the deal they signed up to support before the election. They would argue that they couldn’t back it and couldn’t betray voters in this way. But in this reality, we’re going back out to the world asking to make new trade deals when we can’t even be trusted to stick to the agreements we’ve already made.

We are facing more businesses unable to trade in these conditions, as well as price hikes on food, cars and other goods. Families and businesses cannot afford to foot the bill for these costs in a post-Covid economic recovery. 

The Prime Minister has said he wants a deal at least as good as the ones that other countries have negotiated with the EU. I want far more. Why become independent if you don’t aim to have better standards on workers’ rights, the environment and food? Yet we’re running out of time to get any kind of deal by the end of October deadline. There are just five weeks left to agree on the deal so it can be sent to the EU for approval. The EU and Canada have taken almost 15 years to negotiate a deal that is still under ratification.

The Northern Ireland protocol has been repeatedly kicked into the long grass by successive Brexit ministers. It seems there is no resolution and the issue is still claiming careers, with head of the UK government’s legal department resigning over it this week.

After the transition period, Northern Ireland will continue to enforce the EU’s customs rules and align with the single market on goods. This will mean no checks are needed on goods passing from Northern Ireland into Ireland. But what is still not clear is what exactly will happen with goods passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Unilateral decisions by Whitehall risk undermining painstakingly-built relationships with both Ireland and Northern Ireland based on the foundation of the Good Friday agreement.

State aid and fisheries quotas are still sticking points, even at this late stage of negotiations. Reclaiming British waters is not a straightforward proposition. For many years, the UK fishing industry has legitimately sold quotas to European fishing boats. Leaving the EU with or without a deal does not change the legal ownership of these quotas – EU boats will still have the right to fish in UK waters with the same legitimacy they enjoyed before Brexit.

There are practical issues, too. Over 200 million new customs declarations will need to be filled in and processed. A huge waiting area for lorries will need to be built at Dover to stop trucks backing up the M20 – but the building hasn’t even started yet.

The time for posturing is over. Any deal, even a non-comprehensive Australian-style one, needs to be agreed, go through legal clearance and get translated, and that’s all before ratification. Both sides will need significant amounts of time to get any deal properly ratified, with the UK needing at least 21 days in parliament.

The Prime Minister has already begun to cover his bases, soften the blow and speak of ‘no negotiated outcome’ or an ‘Australian style deal’. Don’t be fooled by the labels. It’s a no-deal Brexit. It will mean reverting to WTO trading terms with the EU.

This government’s signature omnishambles approach is already emerging from where it was lurking in the shadows. Confusion and U-turns won’t be acceptable. The next few weeks are the last chance to put in place a deal that protects jobs, workers’ rights and the environment without resorting to more law-breaking.

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