Tory ERG Hardliners Will Be 'Pragmatic' About Boris Johnson's Brexit Trade Talks, MP Says

Tory Leaver Lee Rowley tells HuffPost UK there is a 'willingness' to give the PM 'space' to negotiate a long-term UK-EU relationship.

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Tory hard Brexiteers will be “pragmatic” and give Boris Johnson the space to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU next year, a prominent Leaver has said.

Lee Rowley, who voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal and at one point backed leaving with no deal, suggested the prime minister’s massive election win had created a willingness to wait for the outcome of the next phase of negotiations.

Rowley, who became one of the first “red wall” Tories when he was elected in North East Derbyshire in 2017, insisted politics must turn away from the “navel gazing” of the past year, when negotiating details were pored over by MPs and journalists alike.

The Tory hard Brexit European Research Group (ERG) was among the groups that set red lines for talks as they were ongoing over the last year, and at times pushed for what essentially amounted to a no-deal Brexit before eventually choosing to back Johnson’s withdrawal agreement.

Rowley told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast that now “there is a willingness to look at what comes forward”.

“I think there is a genuine acceptance we want to make something work here,” he said.

“You’ve seen the ERG be willing to be pragmatic when it’s needed.

“Within an appropriate framework there’s a willingness to allow something to happen here.

“One, because we know we’ve got to move on and, two, because ultimately we have done this to death now.

“Of course there will be different voices but Boris has just come off an extremely positive result and he’s going to have the space to work out how we plot a way forward.

“And then we can all look at how it’s going to work.”

Johnson’s deal will allow the UK to leave the EU and enter a standstill transition period, when little will change, while negotiations take place over a long-term trading relationship.

But the PM’s decision to outlaw any extension of the transition beyond December 2020 has led to concerns that the truncated timetable could force him into making concessions to get a deal in time, or result in an accidental no deal.

It has been suggested that Johnson may have to give way to EU demands on things like the “level playing field”, which would keep the UK in lock-step with Brussels rules in areas like workers’ rights and environmental protections.

The ERG would be expected to fiercely oppose such measures but Rowley, who is not a member of the group, suggested Johnson will be given time to iron out the issues during the talks.

“I hope we won’t go into another navel-gazing 12 months where politicians and journalists go into this symbiotic bad relationship where they just spend every moment talking about every movement on Brexit,” the MP said.

“When, actually, the reality is we are in the negotiating process and that negotiating process is going to take a number of months and we’re not going to be clear until a certain point next year. Let’s just take a breath for a moment.”

Rowley also acknowledged that concessions would have to be made.

“Of course there will need to be compromise. Of course there will be change. Of course we will need to be pragmatic,” he said.

Lee Rowley was one of the first Tory MPs to make inroads in Labour's so-called 'red wall', winning his North East Derbyshire seat at the 2017 general election
Lee Rowley was one of the first Tory MPs to make inroads in Labour's so-called 'red wall', winning his North East Derbyshire seat at the 2017 general election
UK Parliament

But ultimately, Brexit will be a “footnote” in the UK’s history, with different types of trade deal only having a minor impact on economic growth compared to challenges in areas like automation.

“The reason I have been so frustrated with parliament over the past three years is we are debating effectively how quickly we grow and how we get out and what the economic impact of that is,” Rowley said.

“I want to grow quickly and also minimise any economic impact when we leave.

“But ultimately that will be completely dwarfed by automation and artificial intelligence.

“We are talking here about a GDP change in single digits and automation is 30%.

“Let’s flip this on the head and say: ‘How are we prepared for all that kind of stuff which is happening already whether we like it or not?’ Big companies are making decisions.”

He added Brexit was “probably more of a footnote than a chapter head”.


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