I think the time has come to revisit the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech. Not Theresa May’s in 2017, setting out the UK’s negotiating objectives for leaving the European Union, but Margaret Thatcher’s in 1988, making the case to business leaders for Britain to join the Single Market. She explained to her audience that, “Europe wasn’t open for business. Underneath the rhetoric, the old barriers remained. Not just against the outside world, but between the European countries. Not the classic barriers of tariffs, but the insidious ones of differing national standards, various restrictions on the provision of services, exclusion of foreign firms from public contracts. Now that’s going to change. Britain has given the lead.” She went on to highlight the importance through the creation of the single market for, ‘Action to remove the customs barriers and formalities so that goods can circulate freely and without time-consuming delays.’ This is an issue, which is of course of the first importance to us here in Kent.
Now the European Single Market proposals of 1988 are very different from today’s Single Market. In particular, then it was envisaged that freedom of movement would only extend to the right for people to visit other countries and to work there, not the right to live in any EU member state with full social security benefits. Britain has prospered as a member of the Single Market, for just as Mrs Thatcher could foresee, our hard-working people and entrepreneurial businesses would gain competitive advantages from lifting the restrictions to trade across Europe. However, the price that has been paid has been ever increasing and unnecessary EU regulation, and the inability to control migration from Europe. These were avoidable mistakes by the EU that undoubtedly contributed to the British people voting for Brexit. They will also continue to increase tensions between the EU and other member states.
My reason for reflecting back on Margaret Thatcher’s speech was that it highlighted that the big issue we faced then, as today, is not the prospect of trade tariffs with the EU if no free trade agreement is reached, but the much more damaging problem of deliberate, anti-competitive delays caused by the imposition of unnecessary customs checks. The government’s priority has to the negotiation of a Brexit agreement with the EU which keeps goods moving freely, and Theresa May’s proposal to Brussels sets out how this could be achieved through a common rule book. However, we need to do more now to invest in the necessary support we will need in case this is not achieved. When parliament is back in September I will be seeking to secure a debate so that the Department for Transport can set out clearly its plans to keep the traffic moving on Kent’s roads post Brexit – this should include lorry holding areas, as well as investment in new technology to help speed up the movement of vehicles at the border. The UK will leave the EU at the end of March next year, and I have supported every vote in the House of Commons since the referendum to achieve this. However, I want to make sure that the final Brexit agreement is one that works for Kent.