Angela Smith MP

Penistone & Stocksbridge

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Just when you thought it was safe to come out from behind the sofa

Published in the February edition of the Farmers Guardian 

Just when you thought it was safe to come out from behind the sofa, Brexit has turned into the mid-winter nightmare many of us feared.   

As a famous football manager once said, we are now at the business end of the season with time running out to get out of trouble.

The problem is the managers of both teams involved in this soap opera seem determined to get the same result, all be it for different reasons.

With just a few weeks to go before we are supposed to leave the EU and after Theresa May’s deal was massively defeated in the Commons, we are in a surreal world of deals and proposals that don’t add up, don’t have support and that the EU has said it won’t accept. A world where the Leader of the Opposition loses a vote of no confidence in a government which enjoys very low levels of trust on the part of voters, but who himself seems to think it possible to do something proving impossible to Theresa May.  

What we are suffering, in fact, is a crisis of leadership as far as the Brexit crisis is concerned.  The future of our country is at stake and yet it must seem to many voters that the major political parties are putting their own interests before the national interest.

Parliament is at the moment dealing with six major Brexit related Bills and around 700 pieces of delegated legislation.  The Bills before Parliament include the Agriculture Bill, which establishes the enabling powers for a post-Brexit subsidy regime connected with the delivery of public goods.  But the Bill is nowhere to be seen; it completed its second stage in Committee in November but appears since then to have disappeared down a legislative black hole. 

The half-term recess has been cancelled to accommodate Brexit related legislation in the Commons and yet, as I write, the House of Commons is spending that week on General debates!

We have been told too that the International Trade Secretary, after travelling over 200,000 miles, has finally signed a trade deal. Yes, we now have a deal with the mighty Faroes with a population of 50,000, a GDP of around £2bn and where our exports are worth £30m. In other news from the Trade Secretary, he says the Government is considering removing all import tariffs in the event of a no deal. Framers will no doubt be very pleased to find out that food prices will be either kept stable or lowered, in the context of their exports to the EU incurring a range of tariffs.  In some cases, tariffs could exceed 40%.    

Yes, we have officially gone through the looking glass and are living in a parallel universe where all realities are possible.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. People’s livelihoods are at risk and the country could be facing decades of stagnation. As far as agriculture is concerned, how can anyone plan for a future when as yet no one is sure what the terms of trade will look like?  Can farmers be confident, for instance, that their food exports will not suffer delays at the border, reducing the quality of their produce? 

Given the seriousness of the situation and the complete impasse both within the ruling party and across Parliament, it’s about time the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition came to their senses and put the country first.

That means agreeing on a deal, even if it is Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, on the proviso that it is put back to the people for ratification. 

That is the democratic thing to do.  Once Parliament has established what Leave looks like, give the people the Final Say as to whether or not they want to proceed with EU departure.   

One final word.  If we fail to develop a compromise on these terms and find ourselves crashing out of the EU with no deal, I am confident the British people will never forgive those who were seen to be agents of such a catastrophe.     

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Meaningful Vote

Printed in the Farmers Guardian December 2018

As I write this article the Prime Minister has just decided to delay the meaningful vote on the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’, to allow her to get some sort of assurance from the other 27 members of the EU on the Irish backstop.

As we know, the Prime Ministers Agreement includes an Irish backstop which would leave Northern Ireland in a different place to the rest of the UK.  This is a mechanism the DUP, hard-line Brexiteers and many others could never tolerate. Whether the Prime Minister can get further assurances from the EU is debatable and whether these might satisfy her opponents is highly unlikely.

So where now? Well, to be honest your guess is as good as mine. The truth is we are as a country in uncharted waters, with a full blown political crisis on our hands, if not a constitutional one, with maybe an economic one thrown in for good measure.

What is certainly true is this is not a great place to be.  I know, though, that ‘No Deal’ would be utterly disastrous and hopefully Parliament will work to take this option off the table.   

Some are saying we need a General Election, to be honest I think that’s the last thing the country needs right now.  And who could guarantee it would deliver a radically different outcome to the 2017 result? 

I’ve therefore come to the firm conclusion the only way out of this gridlock is to put the issue back to the people in a ‘People’s vote’.  This would offer on the ballot paper May’s Agreement alongside staying in the EU as the alternative option.   

It has been suggested this would be undemocratic and a betrayal of the 2016 result.  I disagree.   First of all, how can more democracy be the wrong thing to do?  A further vote would offer a final say, an opportunity for voters to give informed consent to May’s proposed Brexit.  And the betrayal belongs to those who campaigned for leave on the basis of a fantasy vision of what leave would look like. 

As we move on to an uncertain Christmas and New Year, one thing is clear – the Government has not got on with Brexit.  Moreover, if May’s Agreement is adopted, we will be focused for many years on agreeing with the EU the future trading relationship.

Brexit is not over and done with and won’t be for many years to come. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail in the New Year and the country can start to chart its way out of the stormy seas it finds itself in, towards calmer waters.  If we don’t all of us will all suffer the consequences, not least the farmers who work so hard to feed the nation.