Lawson's EU intervention is a preview of the Tory war to come

If, as Lawson predicts, Cameron's renegotiation strategy fails, the Tory party will suffer its worst split since the reform of the Corn Laws.

There is a significant body of opinion in the Conservative Party that will not be satisfied until David Cameron finally supports what they really crave: unilateral withdrawal from the EU. That group has now won its most significant recruit in the form of Nigel Lawson. In a 2,000 word essay in today's Times, the fomer Tory chancellor writes that the EU has become "a bureaucratic monstrosity" that imposes "substantial economic costs" on its members, and that "the case for exit is clear". Having voted in favour of membership in the 1975 referendum, Lawson declares that he will vote "out" in 2017. 

For Cameron, already struggling to fend off demands for an early EU "mandate referendum" after UKIP's performance in the county council elections, the intervention could not come at a worse time. The Prime Minister's strategy is premised on the belief that the UK can use the euro crisis to repatriate major powers from Brussels, but Lawson warns that he is doomed to fail. In the most damaging section of the piece, Thatcher's former chancellor writes "that that any changes that Mr Cameron — or, for that matter, Ed Miliband — is able to secure" will be "inconsequential". He points out that the changes that Harold Wilson (who similarly renegotiated Britain's membership before staging an in/out referendum) was able to secure were "so trivial that I doubt if anyone today can remember what they were". Cameron, he suggests, will do no better. 

Lawson's piece is a reminder of why the EU referendum has the potential to result in the biggest Conservative split since the reform of the Corn Laws. Around a third of Tory MPs (by Tim Montgomerie's estimate) are committed to supporting withdrawal, with more likely to join them if, as Lawson predicts, Cameron fails to secure significant concessions. Cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove and Eric Pickles, have already signalled that they will vote to leave the EU unless Britain's membership is substantially reformed.

The question that will again be put to Cameron is that which shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has continually asked: what percentage of your demands do you need to secure to support a Yes vote? 30 per cent, 50 per cent, 80 per cent? The PM's response is to say that no one goes into a negotiation "hoping and expecting to fail" but Lawson's pessimistic forecast will sharpen the debate. At a time when the Tories would do well to take Cameron's earlier advice to "stop banging on about Europe", the two Nigels - Farage and Lawson - have ensured that they will do little else. 

Former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson warns that any concessions David Cameron wins from the EU will be "inconsequential". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.