Voices in Politics: Ann Widdecombe on the Coronavirus and Brexit

By Ann Widdecombe |

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Was it really just a little over three short months ago that, at 11pm, Parliament Square was thronged with rejoicing crowds waving Union Jacks and cheering our long-delayed exit from the European Union? That the fishermen of Newlyn and other coastal communities could at last see a glimmer of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel? That enterprising businessmen could envisage a global future free of EU regulations and limitations?

It then all seemed fairly straightforward: there was a year in which we would still be subject to EU law while we negotiated a trade agreement and then, if the UK negotiators had done their job properly, it would at last all be over.

At first sight it might appear that Coronavirus has muddied those waters but in fact it has made the case for leaving promptly and decisively more urgent than ever. As face to face meetings became impossible, Remainers were quick to beat the drum for a delay but Coronavirus has made it vitally necessary to bring the matter to a swift conclusion.

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European regulations forbid state aid to ailing industries. That was why we could not prop up British steel. When EU law no longer applies, the UK government can intervene where and when it wishes and with the economy crashing as a result of Coronavirus, it was never more important that it should be free to do so. 

These are uncertain times for industry and commerce and that does not need to be compounded with a return to uncertainty over Brexit and an inability to take longer terms decision. By now every affected business in the country should know the likely impact of leaving on WHO terms and should have formed a contingency plan to deal with it, but as this scenario is not in the interests of the EU itself, I suspect a deal will be forthcoming as time threatens to run out.

One industry which certainly cannot afford any extension is the fishing sector. We need to take back control of our own waters and any delay to that could see more fishermen losing their livelihood. Coronavirus has had its own impact on UK fishing and that makes the timely conclusion of the trade deal vital.

The brutal truth is that the Coronavirus has exposed the fragility of the entire EU project.

Then there has been a rather woolly feeling that as we come out of this virus crisis, it might be better if we part of a bigger bloc. After all, did not the EU give us £50bn to deal with it? No, it didn’t. It merely gave us permission, for a limited time, to spend that out of our own money  propping up our own businesses, which of course normally would not be allowed under the rule I refer to above.

The brutal truth is that Coronavirus has exposed the fragility of the entire EU project. The first reaction was for individual nation states to abandon the god of free movement and close their own borders. Then there was a fierce division over the economic response, with outrage in Italy reaching such a pitch that in April a poll showed half its population wanting to leave the EU. That disunity will fester and the Eurozone has a rocky future ahead.

What Coronavirus has undoubtedly done is to take the media focus away from Brexit, to the point where the latter is all but ignored and that is bad news. We are engaged in the most important international negotiations for more than half a century and it is in the interests of democracy that we know what is happening rather than simply being presented with a politicians’ fait accompli at the end. The time will come when the virus is defeated but whatever we agree with the EU will bind us for decades or more, so politicians must be held to account and that means a bit more reporting than we are getting at the moment.

At the last General Election the people of the United Kingdom gave a massive majority to the man who promised to “get Brexit done”. Of course it is understandable that his immediate priority is with British health and life itself but that does not negate his mandate to get a decisive end to the too-long drawn out Brexit process.