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A Debate with Rory Stewart, MP

BfB co-editor Robert Tombs has written an open letter to Rory Stewart, Conservative Member for Penrith and The Border since 2010, and Minister of State with responsibility for prisons, probation and sentencing. He has previously served as Minister of State for Africa. At our request, Mr Stewart has kindly replied. The two letters follow.

Dear Rory,

I have twice had the pleasure of meeting you, once at your request and once at mine.  On both occasions I was struck by your clarity, frankness and freshness of vision.  None of this surprised me, from a man who had walked to Afghanistan and served as deputy governor of a war-torn province of Iraq.  It made me hope, for the sake of the country, that you would rise to high political office.  I mention this not to flatter, but because it makes your recent emergence as one of the most forceful defenders of the government’s policy on Brexit all the more difficult for me to understand.  Your evident impatience with Whitehall convention, your ability to think of the future, and your experience far beyond the solipsistic cultures of Westminster and Brussels, seem to me to make you an archetypal Leaver. 

Instead, you have made yourself a spokesman of the status quo.  Let me first say that I do not ascribe this to personal ambition.  On the contrary, it is a course that risks sending the Conservative Party, and you with it, to political oblivion.   

“We need a standard bearer for the middle ground” was the headline of The Times article about you and quoting you.  Leave aside the fact that as a slogan this is the epitome of political dullness – not your style at all!  Let us look at it seriously.  Your fundamental argument is that Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement represents sensible moderate compromise, what you call “a soft Brexit deal”, and which you praise as “fudge”.   

Even if you are right that “fudge” is the typical British way, there are many times when it does not work.  This is one of them.  Mrs May’s “fudge” is an agreement that the whole world knows has been defeated in an unprecedented manner in parliament.  Why?  Because it manages to combine all the economic disadvantages of Remaining with many of those of Leaving; and it similarly fails to provide the political advantages of either Remaining or Leaving.  It would keep us subject to the political and economic decisions of the EU with no voice and hence no way of defending our principles or our interests.  It would deprive us of the political liberty to make decisions in important areas, and of the economic liberty to build on and extend our dynamic trade outside the declining EU.  And at what cost?  Immediate political fragmentation and future economic disadvantage. 

The essential nature of this agreement means that it cannot end our domestic turmoil, and it almost guarantees future conflict with the EU. 

Your implicit response is to reassure us that being in a Customs Union and having our trade policy decided by Brussels is not “the same as being in the EU”.  Indeed not, as we would have no control over, or even a share in, its decisions, which inevitably handicap our economic relations with our largest and growing market – the non-EU. 

Your response is that “this trade thing is being exaggerated, it is quite a niche concern.”  Forgive me for saying that this seems to me an extraordinary comment.  So major areas of government, legislation and international law can be dismissed in a phrase and outsourced with a shrug.  They affect the livelihoods and living standards of millions, from London bankers to Scottish fishermen, and of course those without jobs or with precarious employment who pay higher prices for necessities and compete for work with the unemployed masses created by the destructive policies of the Eurozone.  A recent independent study estimated that reducing trade and investment barriers with the non-EU by only 5% would raise UK welfare by £25-30 billion per year, even allowing for increased restrictions on trade and investment with the EU.  Some niche!  How would you explain to voters that their government has deliberately given away much of its power to help them, could no longer protect them from the potentially damaging actions of others, and considers their long-term economic future as a ‘niche concern’? 

You speak movingly in Prospect of the concerns of a dairy farmer in your constituency.  Yes, his and other interests should be at the centre of our concerns.  A study by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) finds that most UK farm products – including milk — will experience higher output and prices after a WTO Brexit because tariffs would make EU imports uncompetitive.  But have you looked, on the other hand, at the implications for the farming industry of the Withdrawal Agreement and the Backstop, which explicitly freeze British subsidies to agriculture while allowing those of the EU to rise, thus enabling EU producers to undercut British farmers? 

You warn against the Conservative Party becoming “sectarian” in pressing for Brexit; but it is hard to see what is sectarian about supporting the legal decision of the majority.  You say in Prospect that “Brexit could kill moderate Conservatism.”  What really seems capable of killing it is abandoning Brexit, and this has already revived previously moribund populism and threatens to put Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in Downing Street.  The immediate danger is not that the Conservative Party becomes a sect, but that it becomes a rump. 

What price the United Kingdom then?  Do you not think it strange that the SNP is so bitterly opposed to Brexit if, as you suggest, Brexit undermines the Union?  Once the United Kingdom is outside the EU, Scottish independence becomes a hugely risky and unattractive prospect.  That is why the EU remains so popular with separatists in Scotland and elsewhere, even when it damages or abandons them – as the Catalans discovered too late.  I would be interested to know why you see it differently. 

The Times reports a comment by you that I hope is not as cynical as it sounds: you say that a good outcome is one where “everybody is equally unhappy”.  As I am sure you know, this paraphrases a comment attributed to the Austro-Hungarian Chancellor Graf von Taaffe in the 1880s, in his doomed attempt to keep that empire from falling apart.  As a political recipe, it failed disastrously. 

It seems to me that the reason so many people of all opinions today are “equally unhappy” is the irresolute, opaque and even duplicitous policy followed by the government. 

One example of duplicity: concealing the preparations being made for a so-called No Deal in order to frighten us into swallowing Mrs May’s deal.  This deplorable policy of feeding the exaggerated fears of Remainers while attempting to trick Leavers explains the political radicalization that you deplore.  An honest and responsible government would have worked to reassure and to prepare, not to inflame and alarm. 

In what sense can you think that this position you have chosen to defend is “the middle ground”?  It can only rationally be described as Ultra-Remain, unacceptable even to moderate Remainers inside and outside parliament.  Ultra-Remain in its willingness to keep Britain effectively as a dependent of the EU whatever the political and economic costs in the short and long term.  You deplore “ideology” and praise “ambition”.  I cannot imagine a more ideological and less ambitious course than the one you are defending.

What would be a genuine “middle ground” position?  We have one.  The Malthouse Compromise, put forward by both Leavers and Remainers in the Conservative Party and supported by a substantial group of Labour MPs: to leave under WTO rules while moving quickly towards a Free Trade Agreement.  This would minimise disruption, end uncertainty, reassure all but the most ideological Remainer minority, and fulfil the majority vote.  It would provide clarity to economic interests here and in the Eurozone and set the course of our future relations with the EU. Is there a better way of bringing the nation together?

But the government you defend has dismissed it. 

As ever,

Robert

Rory Stewart’s Reply

Dear Robert,

Please forgive me for taking some time to reply – I have been struggling to balance my respect and admiration for you against my strong disagreement with your proposal. I will try to be as direct as I can. First, as you say we agree on many things. Not least in our vision for Britain and in the fact that we both want Brexit to happen as soon as possible, and are strongly against any attempts to remain, revoke Article 50 or hold a second referendum.

I believe – like you – that it would be a profound mistake to attempt to remain in the European Union. This is not only because it would damage our politics. It would be like spending two and a half years getting divorced, insulting your partner. And then saying ‘it turns out to be more expensive than I thought –I’m moving back into the bed’ – before trying the next morning, to impose your views and opinions on everything (in this case from the budget to the European Army). France and Germany would quite understandably say ‘you’ve spent forty years uncomfortable with our project – you’ve then spent three years saying you’re leaving and causing an immense amount of trouble for us – and now you’re back – but how long are you going to stay?” (Particularly since a third referendum campaign would have already begun). We would have almost no influence in such a scenario. This is only one of many reasons why, although I voted Remain, I am now a believer in Brexit. 

But I completely disagree that the best way to achieve Brexit is through a no-deal departure. And I am puzzled by your particular argument for no-deal. One type of advocate for no-deal is prepared to accept that there would be serious economic consequences. He would argue that the price is worth it (“I’d rather be poor but free’). A second type simply asserts that all economic predictions are worthless. He is forced to concede that “we don’t know what the economic future would hold – it could be better but logically it could also be much worse”. I can understand both of those positions – they are perfectly logical (although I believe both involve unnecessary risks). But you are a rarer, third category who seem to believe you can confidently predict – against the overwhelming majority of professional economic opinion – that we would be more prosperous in a no-deal Brexit. 

Your evidence is based on a single paper by an academic at University of Minneapolis. And you have chosen to cite the only scenario in that paper, in which the United Kingdom would choose to lower trade and FDI costs on all non-EU partners by 5 percentage points.  You don’t explain that this is only one scenario among many others in the paper – a great many of which involve losses. Nor do you explain why this particular academic from Minneapolis is to be preferred over the many Nobel-prize winning economists, and economists from institutions ranging from the Bank of England to the OECD, the LSE to the Treasury, who have long argued that the economic impact would be negative. And you do not address the more basic problem, which is that ‘no-deal’ – it is not going to happen – because there is simply not the majority either in parliament or the country for a no-deal Brexit. 

At the same time, you have chosen to write off the one practical detailed, negotiated Brexit plan as ‘Ultra-Remain’. Why is it “Ultra-Remain’ to leave the political institutions of the EU – the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Court – while ending any talk of ‘ever closer union’? Why is it “Ultra-Remain” to leave the Single Market, and regain control over immigration?  Turkey is in the Customs Union – it is by no stretch of the imagination in the European Union. And any future British relationship to a Customs Union (which is any case not what the PM’s deal seeks to achieve) would be quite different to Turkey’s. A Customs Union would cover only the trade of goods – which accounts for only around a fifth of the British economy – not the 80% which is services. And – because no economy the size of the UK has ever sought membership of the Customs Union before – it is reasonable to expect that our influence would be greater than Turkey’s.

But our basic disagreement is that I feel  passionately that we must deliver Brexit in a “smooth and orderly fashion” – just as we promised to do in our manifesto. A Brexit deal is not just a deal for this month or this Government – it’s the foundation for the next 30 years of Britain’s relationship with the world so it must be a stable and enduring Brexit. It must be a Brexit that can heal the really deep divisions in our society that are emerging between young and old, North and South, and Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England. And it must be a deal that can provide investors and international partners with the certainty that the deal will be sustained through changes in the Government and party over decades ahead. 

Where we do agree is that our country needs to restore its pride and self-respect. And that we must become again a truly United Kingdom, passionately engaged with the world, energetic in action, practical and fair. But to achieve what we both want, we need to deliver Brexit, rapidly but also in a measured and thoughtful fashion. And that is – pace your greater historical knowledge – much more in keeping with our national traditions of pragmatism and common sense. 

Yours ever,

Rory

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Briefings For Brexit