About 20 years ago, I was descending a Monro (mountain) in Scotland – Beinn Bheigeir on Islay, to be precise – leading two beautiful young people back to the sea. (My niece and nephew: the girl is now an academic in Switzerland and the boy is in private equity.) And, as it can do there, the sky folded in suddenly, and the visibility reduced to, literally, the length of one’s elbow. We could just about make each other out by voice and touch.
I could sense that my charges were still smiling. I said: Don’t move. I was aware that we were within fifty hundred metres of some precipitous crags – and that the map would be useless, because (this before the age of GPS) we didn’t know where we were anyway. In the event, I couldn’t even see the map…
I knew that we might be in big trouble, but they were still at the chatting and laughing stage. But as we waited longer in the murk, they fell silent. After about fifteen minutes, fear took hold. But, just about then, maybe 500 metres ahead, the clouds parted: and I could see, for no more than fifteen seconds, the direction of the path, leading to a col that I knew would take us back to Port Ellen. Roped together, we continued down the path – and soon emerged into a sunlit glade from where we could see the white-horsed sea… and Port Ellen beyond. I felt like Moses leading his people to the Promised Land…
The reason I am telling you this story is that for the last week our country has been up a mountain in a white-out with no GPS. Exactly who is responsible for this extraordinary misadventure is a complex matter that I shall leave to future historians. But I have just had one of those cloud-parting moments which I would like to share with you. You see, I do think that, although the game has only just started, we can work out the end-game.
All the candidates for the Tory Party leadership, and thus PM – Mr Crabb, Dr Fox, Ms May, Mr Gove and Ms Leadsom – want the UK to take back control of our frontiers. They know that, if that is not achieved, all this pain will have been for naught. The Farageistas would go to war. Between 1993 and 2014 the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 8.3 million[i]. Many of those foreign-born citizens make a huge contribution to the UK economy; but a large number are unskilled workers who are therefore more likely to have recourse to the welfare state.
The key bone of contention is whether the UK will remain in the Single Market while imposing restrictions on EU migrants, thus violating the sacred European principle of freedom of movement. (Just to be clear, I cannot imagine the UK requiring European tourists to carry visas in order to enter the UK; it’s a question of EU migrant workers requiring UK work permits before they can take up employment here.) The official EU position is emphatically that freedom of movement is not negotiable.
But last night, the French finance minister, Michel Sapin and the Deputy Prime Minister of Finland hinted that compromise on the issue might be possible. Everything is on the table said M Sapin. We know that German industry is desperate that an accommodation with the UK might be achieved.
This suggests that Soft Brexit (outlined in my piece on Tuesday) – which I suspect was always favoured by Messrs Johnson and Gove – might realistically be possible. Though it would be opposed by EU Member States which have large migrant communities in the UK. There are about 100,000 Lithuanians resident in the UK. Lithuania has an official population count of 2.8 million. So one in 28 Lithuanians lives in Britain. Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania’s not-very-Anglophile President, will resist all attempts to restrict freedom of movement. Overseas worker’s remittances are an important source of income for Lithuania, as in developing countries.
Moreover, Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose entire judicial career has been a frenzied pole-dance of adulation for the European Court of Human Rights, is saying that Parliament should just ignore the referendum and vote down any amendment to the European Communities Act, 1972. The Referendum II people are still beavering and a Zero Brexit bandwagon has started to roll. Even US Secretary of State, John Kerry has advised the UK “to row back”. (Thanks for sharing, John.) They are all on the wrong side of history.
On a brighter note, I read with delight in The Daily Telegraph that New Zealand has offered to loan experienced trade negotiators to the UK civil service, which is desperately lacking in home-grown wheeler-dealers. This comes alongside an offer of a new free trade deal with the Kiwis. And indeed noises have been made in Delhi that a UK-India trade deal would be quite amenable. (There is no existing EU-India trade deal.) Not to mention the Canadians are getting friendly. The Aussies are biding their time – but will surely come round. This opens the door to an Anglosphere strategy which I recently discussed.
The Europeans have a point when they say that a deal should be struck early to avoid uncertainty. I think it is quite possible that a deal could be struck before Christmas whereby the UK is empowered to restrict migrant flows, where the sovereignty of Parliament is restored and the European Court of Justice is put back in its box. And yet we retain unfettered access the Single Market. Further, I believe that Scotland will conclude that Soft Brexit with a continued Union is preferable to its bizarre alternative.
As that prospect becomes more probable, the stock market, which has proved remarkably resilient over the last week, will respond positively. The Pound may even get back its mojo.
This morning Mr Gove threw his cap into the ring, saying he did not think that Mr Johnson could provide the necessary leadership. This caused great consternation in Team Boris. And then we were astonished to learn that Boris had withdrawn.
Minutes ago I received an email from Sir Roger Gale MP, a Tory knight of the shires. He says that the speech that Mrs May gave on announcing her candidature was the most powerful he has heard in over 50 years in politics. He is confident that Mrs May will negotiate our exit from the EU on the best possible terms, and that she will pursue an agenda of social justice and equality.
Mrs May is now the favourite to be the next PM. Her likely negotiation strategy is becoming clear. The potential new trade deals that will become possible outside the EU are exciting. The clouds have parted.