Brexit is a case our conflicted PM shouldn’t have taken on

People in high places have been shocked by the ignorance of the leading Brexiters, who are embarked on a course which threatens, unless they are thwarted by our sovereign parliament, to bring this country to a sorry state. It is astonishing that in the early days after that fateful day of 23 June it had to be explained to the leading Brexiters what exactly a customs union was!

This reminds me of the occasion a few years ago when my old friend Lord Lawson and I were invited to address a conference of high-powered lawyers and accountants on the subject of Europe at a resort in Portugal, our oldest ally. We were on different sides of the argument about our membership, but we both gave the audience a historical perspective from our own vantage points. It later became apparent that many of the intelligent members of the audience were grateful for the history lesson because, as they confessed, they knew little about the origins of the EU, not least the way it was designed to bring previously warring nations together in the hope of achieving a lasting peace by linking them economically.

Given what I have gathered about the ignorance of Brexiters concerning the exact nature of a customs union, I should like to take the opportunity this week to recommend to interested readers a most accessible guide to all things European. It is called The Routledge Guide to the European Union, and the authors, Dick Leonard and Robert Taylor, have long experience of the EU.

One thing I have noticed during the so-called debate about Brexit is that the customs union and the single market are often confused. Leonard and Taylor are worth quoting on this subject. They point out that, when the original six (Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries) started the ball rolling with the European Economic Community in 1958, “the common market (or customs union) created by the six included internal free trade whereby goods made in one country moved duty-free to the others”, while the same external tariff was fixed for each member country “so that imports from outside the EEC paid duty in the country of arrival and could circulate freely to other member states thereafter”. This was achieved step by step and was finally realised in 1968.

The single market came much later. As they explain: “By the 1980s, tariffs were long gone. But it had become clear that many unforeseen obstacles were preventing companies and individuals enjoying the full benefits of liberalisation … complex frontier formalities, different national regulations, standards and testing procedures, plus divergent excise duties and VAT rates, and other so-called non-tariff barriers hampered cross-border trade and the free movement of workers and other citizens.”

Much of the work on the single market was done by the late Arthur Cockfield, a Conservative peer, with the enthusiastic backing of one Margaret Thatcher, whose close confidant Charles Powell, now Lord Powell of Bayswater, recently assured us that he had no doubt that the Iron Lady would have been a Remainer.

Which brings us to the person who, as I write, is still our current prime minister, but who is besieged on all sides and has fallen out with her chancellor, whose private advice must surely be: “Don’t do it!” Now, I did not get where I am today without learning from my barrister wife that advocates should not take on a case if they are “conflicted”. Well, thanks to someone at Goldman Sachs leaking a transcript of a pre-referendum talk she gave, we now have overwhelming evidence that May is conflicted up to her neck.

The prime minister who has since been taken prisoner by the Brexiters told investment bankers on 26 May: “We shouldn’t be voting to recreate the past, we should be voting for what is right for the future … the UK needs to lead in Europe.”

Well, you don’t lead an institution by leaving it. We know that the European Union has all sorts of problems, but the danger is that a Brexit would aggravate them, as well as being destructive to ourselves. In a timely article the former Austrian finance minister, Hannes Androsch, points out that, notwithstanding all the obvious flaws, “it is forgotten that Europe, especially the EU, is a veritable success story, as this continent has never before experienced a period such as the past seven decades of democracy, peace and prosperity”.

May should listen to her chancellor on the risks she is taking when the economy is already struggling with serious balance of payments and budgetary problems – just think of all the lost revenue and export potential if crucial manufacturing and financial institutions relocate! Obfuscatory deals with Nissan – and how many others to come? – sound like panic stations.

But she should also take Polonius’s advice and to her own self be true. As it becomes more obvious that, by a narrow margin, the British referendum voters made a mistake, she should refer the situation to a parliamentary vote. We already know, from a recent British Election Study panel, that 6% of those of who voted Leave now regret their decision, compared with only 1% of regrets among those who voted Remain. It would be good that Tony Blair is rallying to the cause, if it were not for – but let us not go there.

Move on? Certainly. Back to the EU.