We sat down with Kent MP for South Thanet, Craig Mackinlay to discuss the latest on Brexit and look ahead to the UK’s position in the world post-Brexit. He is a member of the secretive ERG and has campaigned for the UK to leave the EU for decades. Listen to the full interview here.
Like any MP, He enjoys a busy schedule, especially with the Brexit saga seemingly edging towards a long-awaited conclusion. He managed to fit us in between an interview with BBC South East Today and a meeting of the 1922 committee, taking a short break from the grind of politics.
Inside his office in the bustling corridors of Parliament, he says he barely has time to leave the Parliament grounds in case there is an important vote at quick notice that he has to rush back for.
After Tuesday’s vote on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal when, for the first time, a deal looked like one that may get through Parliament, Mr Mackinlay reflected on May’s original deal: “it was diabolical, it was foul, it offered no way out of attachment to EU institutions.
“The backstop meant that you were reliant on the EU and the EU alone to let you out and it was worse than EU membership in many ways because you could leave the EU but you couldn’t leave this unless the EU said you could.”
We moved on to talk about Johnson’s current deal which he sees as an imperfect achievement negotiated against the odds, he said: “Johnson’s deal (was) not perfect in many respects, but the backstop was re-opened, which many people said couldn’t be done and it means that we can actually do international trade deals in the future as we choose. To me that was the biggest Brexit dividend.
“It comes down to trust, Boris Johnson’s team were leavers and that’s a vast difference from the Theresa May team, so even if there are flaws you know that it’s in safer hands.
Mr Mackinlay said it was hard to go forward with the deal without their support and that the victory was tinged by the DUP not being there with them. He understands the widespread fears that the border will create a vast bureaucracy on the border, but thinks the issue has been overstated.
A free-trader at heart, he expressed his feelings that “the whole concept of having to fill in paperwork to do trade between two parts of the same country is appalling.
“But Theresa May’s backstop would have meant not just Northern Ireland trapped in a customs union-single market arrangement, it would have been the whole of the UK.
“So, say we did come up with some whizzy, fantastic, technology-driven, GPS-driven customs arrangement that everybody had reliance upon, the EU could say a simple ‘no,’ it doesn’t work for us. That was how seriously bad the backstop was.”
The vote was also tinged by MP’s rejection of Johnson’s Brexit timetable and the enactment of the Benn Act – now making an extension to the October 31st deadline almost inevitable.
He said this has “given power to a foreign government to tell us what to do, hence why I call it the ‘surrender act’ and when history is written about this period, I’m sure it will go down as one of the most disgraceful moments in British political history.”
Pressed on whether ‘surrender act’ is a fair description, he added: “If the EU comes back with (an extension of) six months, six years, 12 years, the government is honour bound by the Benn Act to actually accept that, so it really is a surrender act.”
On the benefits of leaving with this deal and the ‘Brexit dividend’ he envisions, he said that even though the situation is imperfect for Northern Ireland, they will have a common customs policy with the UK, so they can still take advantage of international trade deals.
He says that the EU is too big to be nimble when it comes to negotiating trade deals. “You’ve got 28 countries with their own competing conflicts. You’ve got the French worrying about agriculture, you’ve got the Germans worrying about engineering and cars, the Italians worrying about their engineering works so you never get to an easy compromise and that I think fundamentally is the problem with the EU.
“Far better to be fleet of foot, able to speak to friends and colleagues around the world. We have a unique language; we have the uniqueness of the legal system which actually is replicated across the commonwealth and that’s a third of the world’s population.”
Contrary to arguments that say the UK is stronger as part of a larger union, the Kent MP sees the EU as a club in which we are often pushed around, outvoted and told what to do by countries with more clout. “Just this last week, the row about Airbus subsidies has caused a potential trade war between the EU and the USA and we saw that last week with the potential imposition of tariffs on Scotch whiskey, so we’ve been dragged into a row because we have no choice. Who knows where that would end up in the future?”
Looking to Africa, he sees the opportunity for mutually beneficial trade outside of the EU. “It’s quite a remarkable fact that Germany and Italy earn more out of the coffee trade than do the growing countries in Africa because there is a massive tariff on roasted coffee coming out of Africa, so it impoverishes Africa and then what do we do? We pour them full of foreign aid because they’re impoverished countries. This is just crackpot economics, we can break ourselves free of that and we should never forget, we are the fifth largest economy in the world. We’re a powerful country with consumers, who have got money to spend around the world, and that is how we can open the door to deals with India and China and elsewhere.”
As we move to the end of our interview, Mr Mackinlay says he sees the deal as the culmination of decades of his and others’ work and the product of meaningful compromise, “None of us live in the house we want, drive the car we might want, we don’t get what we want, it’s very rare that you do and on this of course it’s not entirely what I’d want in an ideal world but it’s as close enough to, to make it a tolerable deal.
“But it mustn’t be forgotten that I’ve never had a fear of no-deal.
“Everyone has all this fear about no-deal, cliff edges, medicine shortages and all of that: project fear nonsense, none of that would come to pass because business would find a way and there are enough international law accords that actually require countries to do trade with each other fairly unhindered, so all of that scare-factor has never really worked with me and don’t forget when we had the referendum we were told if you vote leave we’ll have emergency budgets, there’ll be 800,000 extra unemployed and all the rest of it – none of it came to pass. The economy has actually grown faster than anywhere else in the EU over those last few years and employment has grown by half a million. I’m afraid forecasts are rarely right and I think they’ll be wrong on this one all these fear forecasts.”