Decision day looms as North-East rallies itself for historic Brexit vote

Britain is on the brink of making its biggest political decision since the Second World War: how do we Brexit? Chris Lloyd talked to two of the region’s most senior Conservatives ahead of tomorrow’s vote on the Prime Minister’s deal

Simon Clarke (SC) is the Conservative MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

The Northern Echo:

Ben Houchen (BH) is the Conservative mayor of the Tees Valley

Theresa May’s deal

MR CLARKE believes the “backstop” part of the deal, which is meant to ensure that if future negotiations go wrong there will never be a hard border on the island of Ireland, is so fundamentally flawed that Britain is likely to remain entrapped within the European Union with no say and no way out.

SC: “The PM’s deal demonstrably does not deliver what the people voted for. I can’t turn round to the people whose votes I asked for 18 months ago and say we had to settle for the risk of being a rule-taking vassal state. The backstop locks us into a prison without a key. No British MP who believes in our country should be signing up to that. It is a colossal failure of statecraft.”

The backstop would only come into effect should Britain and the EU fail to come up with a trade deal before the transition period of two, or three, years runs out. But, says Mr Clarke, Canada took seven years to negotiate its deal, and Britain doesn’t have a negotiating record that suggests it might be done quicker.

SC: “There is still a possibility that we get a deal, that we vote Mrs May’s deal down and the EU realises we need a meaningful concession on the backstop. It doesn’t have to be its complete removal, although I would prefer that, but you could time limit it, saying it must expire by the end of 2023 or 2024, something which allows me to tell my constituents that I haven’t mortgaged the future in perpetuity to the goodwill of the Europeans.”

However, there is no sign yet that the EU intends to budge, and “so the choice is no deal or no Brexit. That is stark. Both options are highly imperfect”.

No deal?

ON Thursday, Redcar MP Anna Turley said that a no-deal exit would be catastrophic, particularly for the Teesside chemical industry.

BH: “We’ve had Government officials in the Combined Authority for weeks talking about how the Government will support the Tees Valley and the North-East in the advent of a no deal. There will be significant financial stimulus to be able to manage it in the short term to get us stable on the next level.”

SC: “I don’t believe there will be job losses. Government will not sit idly by. There are levers you can pull fairly swiftly. If we accept we are going to have an extraordinary situation for the next five years, you can do things that you wouldn’t conceive of doing for the next 100. You can provide targeted support to those sectors that are struggling with the consequences – there are some industries that are highly integrated with the European market and would need support until we negotiate a trade deal on the other side.

“No deal does not end up being the end position. The logic of trade reasserts itself after the politics of withdrawal are over. Once we’re out, both sides will recognise the mutual benefit of doing a deal, over time, and in the meantime you would have our £39bn payment to the EU supporting industry.”

Mr Houchen said: “In the medium term, there will be an issue. The day after there will be an issue with sterling, but nothing that cannot be overcome, and over the longer term we will not have anything to fear from no deal.

“I don’t think people will lose their jobs through no deal. There is a concern in the chemical industry over the REACH regulation, about will regulate those regulations, and we believe the HSE will be taking that on and I believe the chemical sector will be happy with that.

“90 per cent of the investors on the development corporation site are international, American, Far East, Africa, and none of them are interested in Brexit. Only the Japanese are, because they are completely risk adverse, they want to know the rules, but business here is used to massive shocks. Governments have done stupid things for centuries, but always business copes.”

SC: “A lot of the challenges of no deal can be overcome. It would be unworthy of the world’s fifth largest economy to be so terrified by project fear that we give in at the last. It is ironic that I will be in the same division lobby as all our local Labour MPs (voting against Mrs May’s deal), but I am voting to leave come hell or high water, and they are voting to try and impose a stop.”

Vote of no confidence

IT seems likely that if Mrs May loses, Labour will table a vote of no confidence in the Government in the hope of forcing a general election. Mr Clarke, who signed one of the 49 letters late last year saying he had no confidence in the Prime Minister, said: “I would never vote no confidence in a Conservative government full stop. However much I disagree with government policy, I would not vote no confidence in a Conservative administration. It would be a complete betrayal of my voters, particularly when the alternative is as dire as it is now.”

General Election

THERE is a theory that if Mrs May somehow wins tomorrow, Labour will call its vote of no confidence, and the DUP, which vehemently opposes the backstop, would join Labour in bringing down the Government.

SC: “We will get the election we thought we were going to have in 2017: it would be all about Brexit, and we would get to directly challenge our local labour MPs in a short campaign.”

BH: “In 2017, Labour stood on a manifesto of leaving the customs union and delivering on Brexit. Had their manifesto been what they say today, they would not have won Darlington, Hartlepool or Sedgefield, and the Parliamentary arithmetic would be very different.

“I’m sure the Conservative Party would come out and say that we will be leaving come what may. If Mr Corbyn goes into an election campaigning to remain, he would lose those seats. When I go to Redcar, no one has changed their mind – it is still 70 per cent leave.”

Second referendum

SC: “A second referendum would be an almighty gamble and I will vote against it. It is shorthand for saying cancel Brexit, for remain – no one on the leave side is arguing for it.

“But I don’t rule us out from winning it again. The public may be so beaten down and bored of this topic that they give in to no-Brexit, but a lot of natural Conservative voters, like my father, were remain voters, but now they have changed to leave.”

BH: “I think leave would win by a bigger margin. The British public will say that they have already made the decision. Think how the campaigns will go: that London liberal elite don’t think that you in Teesside know what you are doing… It would be the country against London. Leave would be the anti-establishment campaign.

SC: “What worries me is that conventional politicians, like Ben and me, would not own this process. If you think Nigel Farage is a controversial figure, wait until Tommy Robinson is on the streets of Hartlepool whipping up the people. A second referendum would take the lid off pandora’s box. In the Tees Valley, two-thirds of people voted to leave. What message are we sending if we tell them they can’t have what they voted for?”