03 July 2017

Think of a coach hurtling down the motorway. Fifty-two passengers wanted to make the journey, the other 48 didn’t. A couple of the 52 are screaming at the driver to go faster. A handful of the 48 are shouting at her to turn back.

The more the pedal-to-the-metal merchants urge the driver to step on the gas, the more panicked the reverse-gear gang become. Their panic simply spurs on the speed demons to exhort her to accelerate even more which in turn – well, you get the picture.

The vast majority of us – both Leavers and Remainers – accept that we are on the road to Brexit. The question is, or should be, how best to get there without a crash. Yet, since the referendum, just over a year ago, the debate has been dominated by two extremes.

We have the uber-pessimists with their unshakable belief that leaving the EU will inevitably result in ruin. They agitate for as much delay as possible, in the vain hope that the nation will change its mind.

The other lot are no better. They blithely assert that Brexit is simple, easy-peasy. We must roar ahead at full speed with barely a glance at the road map, whatever the consequences.

Each extreme encourages the other side’s intransigence. The over-optimists fear delay will give the pessimists time to turn the bus around so they urge the Government on.

That convinces pessimists that those Brexiteers really are reckless, and so deepens their gloom. The polarisation and irrationality become more entrenched and self-reinforcing.

The truth is that Britain can make a success of Brexit. Many nations, far smaller than our own, thrive outside a single market or customs union.

From Canada, Australia and New Zealand, through to South Korea and Singapore, great nations have proven that independence need not mean isolation or impoverishment.

Delivered in the right way, an open Brexit could – and I passionately believe will – herald an economic renaissance for our country.

The uber-pessimists must open their minds to this possibility, or they risk fulfilling their own prophecy.

If we are to leave the EU we must ultimately leave the single market and customs union.

To remain in either would be the worst of both worlds. The single market would mean we had no say in vast swathes of legally-binding regulation. The customs union would prevent us seeking new trading arrangements with key economies such as China, India, Canada and the US.

But accepting the long-term goal of a complete Brexit does not mean we must reject an interim arrangement for a smooth journey. This is important because if Brexit is managed badly or rushed, it could result in years of economic decline and high unemployment.

I voted to leave the EU and remain convinced I voted the right way, but I think Remainers such as Chancellor Philip Hammond have the right idea when they say we need a Brexit that is focused on prosperity and jobs.

What does that mean? It comes down to three important elements: a pro-economic immigration plan, an open approach to international trade and an orderly transition process – we have to navigate what is going to be a tricky route very carefully. Of course, Britain must not welcome benefit- seekers or health tourists, nor should we accept people who represent a threat to our security.

We must have control over immigration, but that does not mean pulling up the drawbridge and reducing immigration to a trickle. We have near record low unemployment. So to reject hard-working law-abiding taxpayers who greatly enrich our nation would be folly.

When it comes to trade, we should abandon the sterile and misleading debate between a so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit. To some extent the ‘hardness’ of our departure is in the hands of our European partners. Instead, we should focus on our approach to trade with the EU and the rest of the world.

Do we want an open or closed Brexit? Do we want this journey to end in free-trading uplands or a protectionist dead end?

The openness of our economy is within our control. We should adopt an outward-looking approach that recognises that trade is the life blood of economic growth. Tariffs and trade barriers serve only to impoverish us all.

Finally, we need to consider the timetable for Brexit. Less than two years is insufficient to get through the nitty-gritty of the process.

To return to our journey analogy, there are hairpin bends and narrow tracks. We can’t go careering along hell for leather. There is a huge amount of complex work to be done.

The UK Government and EU need to rethink the timetable for negotiation and set out options for a realistic transition period.

Brexit can be a success or a failure – and the approach we take will make the difference. It’s not a race. Let’s slow down and make sure we get there safely.

This article originally appeared in the Mail on Sunday