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It’s time to delay Brexit

I’m a Leave voter – and I want to press pause

February 22, 2019

6:52 PM

22 February 2019

6:52 PM

I’m for Brexit. As a Young Conservative in Wadhurst, I wanted to leave the EU. When John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty, I saw it as a betrayal of such massive consequence I briefly joined the Labour party – and was later forced to confess this indiscretion to Tory associations up and down the country. As a student at Oxford, I joined the Campaign for an Independent Britain, and formed lasting friendships with like-minded undergraduates for whom sovereignty was the first principle of patriotism and politics; everything else depended on being able to govern our own affairs. I am one of those Conservatives who, like the grass roots, cannot understand why so many MPs are so wedded to the idea of the EU. It is everything the Conservative rank and file oppose in three-quarters of Conservative associations up and down the country. There was a hideously awkward moment in 2008 when, as a candidate in a ‘workshop’ (don’t ask), I listened to Jane Ellison, selected for Battersea, give an answer on the EU that seemed far too soft. ‘Oooh no,’ I said helpfully, ‘no don’t say it like that – you’ll sound like Ken Clarke.’ Her expression was icy. At the next tea break, an organizer pulled me aside. ‘She was Ken Clarke’s Chief of Staff,’ he said.

I campaigned fervently for Brexit on social media. I wrote my first New York Times op-ed in favor of Brexit, telling Americans Leavers were no racists. The night before the vote, I appeared on Channel Four’s debate with Jeremy Paxman, debating Yvette Cooper. It was a ratings success. Yet when I left (in a cab with Toby Young and Julia Hartley-Brewer) I was pessimistic; polls said we’d lose.

We didn’t lose. Even as gloating Remainers wrote us off I was on the phone to my friend Dan Hannan. ‘It’s not over yet,’ he said as I sat in a hotel in my pajamas. ‘There’s something good going on in Sunderland…Our people at the count think it’s looking good…’

I tried to sleep. I had a TV appearance for Fox News, the sister company of my employers, booked early in the morning. When I woke up after three hours sleep, the news was so glorious that I barely needed a cup of tea to keep me awake. My cab driver to the studio was an immigrant from Pakistan; he told me he’d voted for Brexit. As the sun rose over the Thames, I was suffused with joy. There is no other word for it.

So I will lay my pro-Brexit bona fides against those of any person. They are rock solid.

But we need to delay Brexit – urgently. To say this is not to abandon principle or surrender to Remain. Before the end of this parliament, Britain should have left the EU. But we should do so on our own terms, and in our own time. Being pro-Brexit was about taking back control; not lifting our hands from the wheel because of an arbitrary date.

Now is not the time for Britain to leave without a deal, when we would all prefer a deal – because some self-imposed clock has run out. That will not benefit Britain; it won’t benefit the EU; the only person it would please is Vladimir Putin. Over the last two months, Russia has been demanding that we leave immediately. ‘Theresa May must fulfill the will of the people,’ Putin has insisted. Russian TV channel Ruptly pushed a Tommy Robinson-led march for ‘immediate Brexit’. ‘Stock up on popcorn,’ one Russian paper said; ‘Theresa May’s troubles won’t make anyone sad in Moscow.’ The BBC’s Moscow correspondent noted their press welcoming the idea of an EU army: ‘it’s becoming clear Moscow sees it as a way of weakening NATO’. That’s right. Russia is openly cultivating its assets in the EU to weaken sanctions, and citing Brexit as a reason to do so.

Theresa May, and our partners in Brussels, need more time to see if a technical solution to the Irish border backstop is feasible, as various EU mandarins have hinted. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t; a delay in the leaving date, however, will allow the Treasury and other departments to implement and test procedures across government for leaving with or without a deal. We will be better prepared. It will allow the Prime Minister, and our allies in Europe, to negotiate without the arbitrary pressure of a random, unimportant date acting as emotional blackmail. It will let Britain negotiate deals outside the EU, whether we actually sign them now or later. It will mean small business has plenty of lead time and does not suffer an economic shock.

While we keep the economy calm and carry on, a delay will also allow Parliament to require the UK intelligence community to produce a report on Russian influence in Brexit. There are far too many claims and counter-claims; US intelligence produced a report for President Obama on the 2016 election with classified and unclassified versions. While light on detail, the unclassified version at least told the public, officially, that Russia had interfered with the purpose of helping Donald Trump. UK citizens on both sides deserve a similar explanation from our security services. Whatever the conclusions, such a report would allow Parliament legislate protections against foreign interference in a future UK-wide vote, such as the next General Election.

Britons are, by nature, pragmatists. We do not see ideology and facts as two opposing forces. Margaret Thatcher wanted to oppose what she saw as overarching trade union power, but she did not make a move immediately; she waited for years until she saw her moment. Churchill relied on correct weather conditions for Operation Dynamo, better known as Dunkirk; in the movie Zulu, surely close to every patriotic and conservative heart, Michael Caine (playing Lt. Gonville Bromhead, VC) shouts to his men ‘Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!’

The tactical pause has never been a surrender. At this moment, a chaotic exit from the EU simply because of a deadline would be madness. Luciana Berger, a wonderful woman and MP, and six others, have left the Labour party due to anti-Semitism; some Conservatives have quit our party too.

For Leavers, as well as for Remainers, this is bad timing. Theresa May, the grown-up in the room, should ask Brussels for a delay. As long as we leave the EU by the next election, I, and surely millions of Leave voters, will be content. If Brussels will not agree, we should simply revoke Article 50 and re-invoke it at the time of our own choosing.

Last year, Russia attempted to kill Sergei and Julia Skripal, who were both under British protection. Putin’s so-called ‘soldiers’ threw a perfume vial filled with Novichok into a charity bin, and killed Dawn Sturgess, a civilian, and a vulnerable British woman. Last week, trolls scaled Salisbury Cathedral and hung a Russian flag from it, and the Russian Embassy in London celebrated that aft on social media.

I am for Brexit. I was always for Brexit. I am still for Brexit. First and foremost I am for Britain, for her national security and her prosperity. We, as a nation, are not ready to leave the EU. We should do so in our own time and on our own terms, not those set in Moscow.


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