Last week, it was with tremendous sadness that I resigned from the government following the decision by Parliament to allow the postponement of our exit from the EU. Since Parliament is now in direct control of events, I wanted to be free to participate in the critical debate that will take place in the weeks ahead and I feel that the only place to do so is on the backbenches.
I have worked in Defra for over 5 years, and I can truly say that it has been an honour to work alongside so many talented individuals. Defra has phenomenal expertise and, more than any other government department, has embraced the opportunities posed by our exit from the EU. I have particularly welcomed the chance to craft two new Bills on farming and fisheries, which are the first for half a century, as we have prepared the ground to restore self-government in this country.
Whilst I have resigned from the government, I will be voting for the Withdrawal Agreement when it returns to the House. Although I campaigned to leave, I have always supported compromise to achieve a reconciliation in our country, and that is why I very much hope that the Attorney General succeeds in securing final changes to the deal. Leaving the EU would represent an historic change and it is natural that some people will feel apprehensive. I have made clear in this column before that there is an opportunity to use our existing membership of the EEA as an exit mechanism for a smoother exit.
I supported the Prime Minister’s approach outlined at Chequers when others did not, and I stuck with the government through a series of rather undignified retreats. However, the developments of the past few weeks will lead to a sequence of events culminating in the EU dictating the terms of any extension requested and the final humiliation of our country. Evidently the Prime Minister has been terribly undermined by those in Parliament who refuse to respect the referendum result. She has shown great tenacity and resilience over the past year, but what our country needs from all its political leaders at this critical juncture is courage, and we are about to find out whether Parliament has it.
In my role as a Defra Minister, I have enjoyed good relations with the European Commission and with Ministers from other member states. However, I do not believe that the Commission has behaved honourably during these negotiations. They have deliberately made progress slow and difficult. They have stated in terms that they will refuse to even hold substantive negotiations on a future partnership until after we leave. If the position of Parliament is now that we will refuse to leave without an agreement, then we are somewhat stuck. This is uncomfortable for everyone, but we cannot negotiate a successful Brexit unless we are prepared to walk out the door.
We must therefore have the courage, if necessary, to reclaim our freedom first and talk afterwards. We must be ready to face down the European Union here and now. The absence of an agreement poses risks and costs for them too. We already know that in the event of "no deal" the EU will seek an informal transition period for nine months in many areas and settlement talks could continue within this window.
I will continue to do what I can from the back benches to try to salvage this sorry situation and I hope that, when the moment comes, Parliament will not let our country down.