WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT, in the dark days of 2018/19, when the Theresa May administration appeared to be capitulating to Brussels, that we would today be standing on the brink of genuinely leaving the European Union on terms that then seemed beyond hope? If, however, there is any lesson that Brexiteers have learned over these past few years it is we have walked a tightrope – some would argue a very lucky tightrope – and continue to do so. Nothing can be taken for granted, and certainly not the outcome of the current negotiations.
At the heart of the sea change is the Government’s seeming willingness to depart on ‘Australia’ terms, should a better deal not be available. Anyone who has handled any kind of negotiation, from business people and trades unionists through to you or me just buying or selling a home, knows that there is a point at which you have to walk away. And yet even now – amazingly – there is no certainty that this policy would command a majority in the House of Commons, for many Tory MPs remain to be convinced, however basic the concept seems.
Yet where, since the 2016 Referendum, has been the coordinated and well planned and resourced support for No Deal as a Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA), particularly on behalf of business? Remember how Business for Britain quickly took over centre stage in promoting the Brexit case during David Cameron’s wretched “negotiation” and set the redlines with its massive and comprehensive Change or Go document? It laid the foundation for the successful Vote Leave campaign, and then sadly disappeared into the past on 24th June 2016, never to be replaced by a significant alternative commanding its broad and national support.
Since then there has been no shortage of excellent and apposite comment and research on so many of the massively complex and diverse issues surrounding Britain’s exiting the EU and re-entering the world stage as a key independent player, not least from Global Britain and Brexit Watch. This important corpus of material has in particular been used as one of the pillars for the absolutely key historical role of the European Reform Group in preventing the Parliamentary approval of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, a political feat rivalling that of the Spartans’ last stand at Thermopylae, from which they no doubt derive their nickname.
What has been lacking, however, is a single, well resourced, non-partisan and credible campaigning organisation to build on this material and powerfully and effectively to take the case to Government, parliamentarians, opinion formers and the general public, using every means of distribution and communication available, including general and social media. The momentum behind Boris Johnson’s astounding General Election victory provides the opportunity – and the need – for such an initiative, and that is the object and vision of The Foundation for Independence, launched last weekend. Led by veterans of the long Brexit struggle and well supported across the political, industrial, social and cultural spectrum it seeks not only, where appropriate, to support the Government in the crucial months ahead, but also to hold it to account where it may be tempted to deviate from the excellent Brexit outcome that is attainable.
We are all too aware of the baleful influence and negativism of the Usual Suspects, despite much of their credibility being undermined by the manifest debunking of Project Fear. The CBI and TheCityUK stood for Remain, and the Priti Patel affair has exposed the attitudes – some would say contempt – of the mandarins across the Civil Service and Foreign Office, the very people on whom we depend to carry out the democratic mandates of our politicians. The Foundation will firmly stand on its own independent ground, building on all available ideas, commentary and research including its own, and will play constantly off the front foot; its approach will be positive and innovative, but critical where necessary.
It will have a strong business orientation, and will certainly back the Government in its fall back of an ‘Australia’ deal – not without its significant advantages – and pursuit of Free Trade Agreements within the Anglosphere, Commonwealth and other major economies. But it will also focus on other specific issues with both a sectoral and regional orientation, not least in relation to financial services and deregulation generally, defence, fishing, border controls, the preservation of the Union, immigration, infrastructure and rebalancing towards the regions, tax policy, state aid and free ports.
A massive agenda? Yes. A clear and longstanding vacuum filled? Yes. Support from across the entire political, business and social continuum sought? Yes. The case rests. The hard work begins now.
Daniel Hodson is Gresham Professor Emeritus and Vice Chairman of The Foundation for Independence; Chairman of The City for Britain; President of The Brexit Coalition; and has served as Director of Vote Leave;. Formerly Treasurer, Business for Britain and the People’s Pledge, CEO of LIFFE, Deputy CEO of the Nationwide Building Society, Finance Director of Unigate plc.