As the clock struck 11pm last Friday night, I was on stage in Parliament Square in front of a sea of tens of thousands elated Brexit supporters. Looking at hundreds of large Union Jacks fluttering brightly against the night sky, I felt a rush of optimism and confidence about what lies ahead. Now is the time to press home our advantage – and I believe we must act much faster than Downing St plans.
Checking out of the European Parliament in Brussels for the last time as an MEP, I reflected on the palpable sense of trepidation I detected among our European friends. Their big fear is that we make a spectacular success of Brexit, and we should lose no time in showing we mean to do just that.
I’m pleased that ministers say we will not accept regulatory alignment, nor supervision under the ECJ; and that we will diverge on standards. It is also reassuring to hear that there will no back door free movement of people. The Fisheries Bill is a good start on an issue that is pivotal to an iconic British industry and matters hugely to many of those who backed Brexit. I am glad that State Aid will be available when we need it. Big business lobby groups like the CBI are already uncomfortable by the pace Downing St has set – a sure sign that the prime minister is doing something right.
Now we have left, attention is switching to our negotiating tactics and ambitions for free trade deals. There is already much hand wringing about whether there is enough time to hammer out an agreement with the EU before the December 2020 deadline. Brussels is trying to worry people, saying a deal needs to be done in the Autumn to allow for ratification by the year end. Rather than fret that the timetable is too constrained, I suggest we take EU negotiators by surprise, and make it even tighter, by the end of June.
We must not wait for the EU to be ready to talk in March. Instead, we should shock them, while they are fearful and weakened. We should approach this in the way our magnificent Special Forces approach their military operations: hitting the target hard and fast, with pinpoint precision.
There is nothing like a short time frame in business to focus minds. The mechanism is there, using Article 24 of the World Trade Organization rules. If they refuse to sign up to this tighter time frame, let’s make it clear we will stop the talks and urgently adopt such measures as are required to prepare for life under WTO rules from December, such as slashing corporation tax, changing VAT and ditching unnecessary regulations. Investment would pour into the country. Nissan has already shown it is ready to expand in the UK under this scenario. I am confident others will follow.
The EU will bleat and splutter and say it can’t be done. There is no such word as can’t; just won’t. We must not be held back at this crucial time by unelected, protectionist, bureaucrats in Brussels. Forget the bluster – I could smell the anxiety in the EU Parliament last week. Elected MEPs from other countries were congratulating us and wishing us well; while officials were full of concern. The penny has finally dropped: they know that our economy is doing much better than the main Eurozone countries, and is forecast to continue in that vein.
Simultaneously we should announce the same June target date to agree heads of terms for a quick partial trade deal with the US. Trump has a big incentive to do so: it will boost his re-election campaign. What will work with the Trump administration is to appoint successful business people to lead the negotiation. We must not rely on the usual dry, technocratic civil servants. The crucial word here is “partial.” Some issues will take longer and can be put in a “Phase 2” box. The key is to build momentum, build trust, get going. Details can be ironed out later if needed. Traditionally trade deals take ages because technocrats want to agree a huge all encompassing deal. We should adopt the opposite approach. Lets be innovative and disruptive.
We should adopt the same tactics with our friends in the Commonwealth. They have been waiting for this moment for far too long as our Government have been timid and weak. Deals can be agreed again using Article 24 of the WTO rules. We must foster a sense of optimism, excitement and enthusiasm. This may seem unlikely and unusual in the world of traditional trade talks, but the truth is that technology, climate change, and consumers demand it.
Following three years of turmoil, the UK is likely to have the most stable political environment in Europe for the next five to ten years. Global investors are raring to go. Successful, smart business people and good companies will adapt and keep up. We should trust entrepreneurs who want to make money – not big lobby groups with agendas linked to tired old ways. They should be ignored.
It’s time to press home the advantage, do the unexpected and accelerate trade talks, not delay. The prize is huge.