Brian Monteith: Voting down May’s Brexit plan is about more than the backstop

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There is far more to worry about in the Prime Minister’s plans than just Northern Ireland, writes Brian Monteith

It does look likely that the vote on the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement will go ahead tomorrow and will be heavily defeated.

Tata steel works . Pic: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images.

Tata steel works . Pic: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images.

There is a large exercise in expectation management emanating from Downing Street, with the possible scale of a defeat being talked up so that if it happens to be less than a hundred it can then be portrayed as not as bad as it might have been and this will justify Theresa May carrying on to try and get some concessions from the EU.

This behaviour should not be acceptable to anyone who supports democracy. The Withdrawal Agreement is completely and utterly owned by Theresa May. She has told everyone it is her deal or no deal – or even no Brexit. She has sought to rely on the votes of Labour MPs – providing briefings for key Labour MPs ahead of those from her own party. Accordingly the deal has undergone close detailed scrutiny and been found wanting. Some of the legal advice that the Government then chose to ignore has exposed the deal’s real weaknesses – which, crucially, are far more than the Irish Protocol known as the backstop.

Of real concern must also be the failure of Theresa May’s government to show that it has made a serious effort to prepare for No Deal. Those two counts – losing a vote over her flagship policy and leaving the country ill-prepared to face an economic risk – are capital offences that would normally warrant removal from office. It should be remembered that in 1940 the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain actually won a vote of confidence following the failure of the Norwegian campaign yet he knew he no longer had moral or political authority and resigned with dignity. Theresa May must also resign to maintain any degree of political respect, and if she does not she should be subject to a vote of confidence within her parliamentary party, for that is the only way to replace her with someone who can get down to the task of preparing the country for leaving without a deal while trying to get the EU to compromise.

A vote of no confidence put forward by Labour would most likely fail, as the DUP would not wish to bring down the governing party in favour of Jeremy Corbyn – and recalcitrant Tory MPs would also fall into line rather than be responsible for the fall of the government and the calling of an early general election. So it must be down to backbenchers to submit their letters to trigger the Conservative Party’s own procedures. At that point I would expect the likes of Jeremy Hunt and Savid Javid to tell the Prime Minister it was time to step aside or face humiliation from her own colleagues.

There is much talk for May being given one last chance in Brussels this week and that if she can get a time limit on the Irish Protocol or other such fix that allows the UK to claim a minor victory then her deal could then pass. This would be a foolish and dangerous approach, for even without the backstop the deal is not Brexit. It would still tie the UK into many Single Market rules overseen by the European Courts of Justice and throw away £39 billion for nothing in return. Countries like South Korea and Canada make no contribution to access the EU’s markets and the House of Lords found there was no obligation to pay the EU £39bn.

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure to meet, Simon Boyd, the Scottish CEO of Reid Steel. Simon, who served his apprenticeship in a Clyde shipyard, explained to me how the company he runs, which exports to some 140 countries around the world, was originally established in France in 1919 – but is now located in Dorset. Yet despite this pedigree and the existence of the so-called Single Market he finds it easier to export steel to Mongolia than he does to France. He gave me two examples of why; the first was when his company had a UK Government contract to build storage facilities at Calais, and the second was for a £1.5M aircraft hangar in Toulouse – but Reid Steel could not do either because it is not a French company. In France only French companies can buy the insurances needed to work in their country. Those insurances also require that all materials have been approved by the French testing authorities, making it more difficult for UK manufactured goods.

Far from creating a level playing field like the single market Scotland enjoys across the whole of the United Kingdom, the EU has rigged the game; rampant protectionism is the only winner – and this state of affairs is what the Withdrawal Agreement seeks to maintain.

Boyd also explained to me how the EU’s Eurocodes system for design uniformity ensures each different country, and in some cases different regions, have their own local ‘annexes’ or conditions. Often they are in native languages and are simply a means to tie up competition in a tangle of prohibitive and costly red tape. Businesses have to purchase Eurocodes from the British Standards Institute, which is a significant overhead and can be a barrier to entry for many SMEs. To purchase just one part of the Eurocodes for Reid Steel’s type of work costs circa £2,000, and that is for just one of the 10 parts of the codes that relate to their industry. For an SME like Reid Steel these overheads are burdensome, if not completely unaffordable.

As a further example Boyd told me of how Reid Steel designed and helped build 150 structures in the Caribbean, all designed to British Standards (BS). Every single one stood up to the category five hurricanes last year. Boyd doubted Reid Steel would have been able to win that work using Eurocodes as the use of Eurocodes internationally is rare.

The UK needs to be free from the EU’s bureaucratic restraints of the Single Market, Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the ECJ if companies like Reid Steel are to maintain their global reach and grow. The Withdrawal Agreement is a bad deal – with or without the Backstop – and on Tuesday MPs need to take the brave pills and defeat it to ensure a real Brexit can be delivered by setting up the chance for a better deal.