Sammy Wilson: If EU refuses to ditch Brexit backstop then UK can leave without a deal

The scale of the government’s defeat in the House of Commons vote on the Withdrawal Agreement astounded even those of us who were involved in the organising of the opposition to this pernicious deal.

Despite the views of the great and the good, the chattering classes, some of the business community in Northern Ireland and various other groups who swallowed the increasingly desperate arguments pumped out by our useless Secretary of State, this toxic agreement united disparate elements in the House of Commons.

MPs announcing that Prime Minister Theresa May had lost massively a vote on her Brexit plan in the House of Commons, London on January 15, 2019. Sammy Wilson says: "The toxic deal united disparate House of Commons elements despite the views of the great and the good, the chattering classes and some in the NI business community. Photo: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA Wire

MPs announcing that Prime Minister Theresa May had lost massively a vote on her Brexit plan in the House of Commons, London on January 15, 2019. Sammy Wilson says: "The toxic deal united disparate House of Commons elements despite the views of the great and the good, the chattering classes and some in the NI business community. Photo: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA Wire

Tuesday night’s battle was won but the war to honour the referendum result has still to be won.

The question on everyone’s lips is what happens next.

First of all there are those who say we should just give in. We are not going to change the mind of Junckers and Co, we can’t find agreement in Westminster, the issue is too divisive so lets just scrap the date for leaving on 29th March and hold another referendum.

This would be a gross betrayal of the biggest vote ever held in the history of our democracy. It would undermine the democratic process and could only be brought about by a total u-turn in government policy.

Sammy Wilson, MP for East Antrim, with DUP colleagues sitting around him, speaks in the House of Commons on Monday January 14 2019, on the eve of the vote on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

Sammy Wilson, MP for East Antrim, with DUP colleagues sitting around him, speaks in the House of Commons on Monday January 14 2019, on the eve of the vote on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

The government would have to bring in legislation to change the date of leaving and legislate for another referendum in which the question to be imposed would be unclear. In fact some of those proposing such a course of action are suggesting it might be like a multiple choice ballot!

The truth is that if the Conservative Party split apart on the Withdrawal Agreement it would implode if there was any attempt to scrap its manifesto commitment to leave the European Union.

The second option is for the government to use this vote to go back to the EU and demand a removal of the legally binding backstop which keeps us in the customs union, tied to the EU rules on many parts of the economy, keeps Northern Ireland totally in the EU, badly damages the NI economy, splits up the UK and sets the terms for a one sided trade deal between the EU and the UK for the future.

It is clear that if this part was removed then many of the Conservatives who joined us in voting against this deal, would accept it despite their reservations about other parts of it.

There would be huge advantages for the EU in accepting such a proposal because they would secure the money which they want from the UK instead of facing the huge hole in their budget which other EU countries already complaining about the cost of EU membership would have to pay.

Secondly it would ensure that EU businesses would retain unrestricted access to the lucrative UK market on which millions of EU jobs depend.

Thirdly it would remove Brexit from the EU agenda at a time when there are other problems which are tearing the EU apart and which need to be addressed.

The EU has already acknowledged that there are solutions to monitoring trade across the Norther Ireland/Republic of Ireland border and all the other crossing points between Great Britain and the European Union so there is no reason why it needs to dig its heels in on this issue.

The real question is whether the prime minister is willing to pursue this course of action. Her failure to negotiate with any real skill or zeal to date is the reason why we have this disastrous agreement and why she was pulverised in the lobbies on Tuesday.

If the EU refuses to alter its dogmatic stance on this deal then we have the option of leaving without a comprehensive deal on 29th March.

That is the legal date of departure in both EU and UK law. To alter it, would be tantamount to abandoning Brexit.

There has been much alarm spread about leaving without a deal but the fact of the matter even if we had accepted the Withdrawal Agreement we would still not have had any agreement on our future trading arrangements with the EU anyhow. That was to be negotiated after 29th March.

So all the claims that in order to give certainty we need to accept the agreement, are simply nonsense. Government preparations for the no deal option are well developed as are similar preparations on the EU side.

No one wanted to admit it because they feared that it would have made MPs less fearful of voting against the Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday.

The fact is planes will still fly, lorries will still drive, goods will still be moved, medicines will still be available, food will still be on the shelves and people will still be able to move from one country to another and we will have achieved the objective of leaving the EU.

Our preference is for both the UK and the EU to quickly work towards reaching amicable terms for our departure from the EU, it makes sense, but the haughty, disrespectful and belligerent behaviour of the EU negotiators and the weakness of UK negotiators to date does not produce much confidence that such an outcome will be achieved.

Our efforts over the next few weeks will be to encourage and help the UK side to approach negotiations with that objective as its priority.

• Sammy Wilson is DUP MP for East Antrim