Cookies: We use cookies to give you the best possible experience on our site. By continuing to use the site you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more.

House of Commons Hansard
05 December 2017
Volume 632

  • (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on progress of the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Union.

  • I start by apologising for my voice. Once again, I have acquired the single European cough, but I hope that it will pass.

    Negotiations regarding our exit from the European Union are ongoing as we speak. Indeed, we are in the middle of an ongoing round. As such, I have to be a bit more circumspect than usual. We held further talks in Brussels over the past few days and progress has been made, but we have not yet reached a final conclusion. However, I believe that we are now close to concluding the first phase of the negotiations and moving on to talk about our future trade relations. There is much common understanding, and both sides agree that we must move forward together.

    Our aims in this negotiation remain as they have always been. In particular, on the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland, we have been clear that we want to protect all elements of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement to maintain the common travel area and to protect associated rights. We want to ensure that there is no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. We recognise that, as we exit, we must respect the integrity of the EU single market and the customs union, but we are equally clear that we must respect the integrity of the United Kingdom.

    There remain some final issues to resolve that require further negotiation and consultation over the coming days. Our officials are in continuous contact, and we expect to reconvene in Brussels later this week for further negotiations. I or the Prime Minister will formally update Parliament once this round of negotiations concludes, as I have done for every round so far. As was made clear by the comments from President Juncker and President Tusk yesterday, all parties remain confident of reaching a positive conclusion in the course of the week.

  • What an embarrassment. The last 24 hours have given a new meaning to the phrase “coalition of chaos”. Yesterday morning, No. 10 was briefing that a deal would be signed. There was high expectation that the Prime Minister would make a triumphant statement to the House. By teatime, we had a 49-second press conference saying that the deal was off. It is one thing to go to Brussels and fall out with those on the other side of the negotiating table; it is quite another to go to Brussels and fall out with those who are supposedly on our own side of the negotiating table. If ever there was a day for the Prime Minister to come to this House to answer questions, it is today.

    But let us not be fooled that yesterday was just about choreography. There are two underlying causes of this latest and most serious failure. The first can be traced back to the Prime Minister’s conference speech in October last year, when she recklessly swept options such as the customs union and the single market off the table, and ruled out any role for the European Court of Justice, yet maintained that she could avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. Well, yesterday the rubber hit the road. Fantasy met brutal reality. Labour is clear that there needs to be a UK-wide response to Brexit, so the question for the Government today is this: will the Prime Minister now rethink her reckless red lines and put options such a customs union and single market back on the table for negotiations? If the price of the Prime Minister’s approach is the break-up of the Union and the reopening of bitter divides in Northern Ireland, that price is too high.

    The second major reason for yesterday’s failure is that we have a Prime Minister who is so weak that the Democratic Unionist party has a veto over any proposal she makes. What precedent does it set when the Prime Minister is called out of negotiations at the 11th hour to be told by the DUP that the deal is off? What signal does that send to the EU about the Prime Minister’s ability to deliver Brexit?

    Yesterday confirmed what we already knew: the DUP tail is wagging the Tory dog. This is now deeply serious, so what assurance can the Secretary of State give to the House that a deal will be agreed by the end of the week? Will he now drop the proposal for a fixed deadline in law for exit day of 29 March 2019? If ever there was an example of why that would be absurd, yesterday was it.

  • The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s speeches in such proceedings are becoming rather repetitive—they are always crowing and carping. [Interruption.]

  • Given my voice, I will wait it out, Mr Speaker.

    Let us start with this issue of the single market and customs union. I am glad to see the shadow Chancellor in the Chamber, because he said earlier this year that remaining in the single market would be interpreted as “not respecting” the referendum result. The shadow International Trade Secretary—I cannot see him here—said that a permanent customs union is “deeply unattractive”. He said that as a “transitional phase”, it

    “might be thought to have some merit. However, as an end point it is deeply unattractive.”

    In fact, he described it rather later as “a disaster”. So much for Labour policy on this matter; we can see why it has changed 10 times in the course of the last year.

    On the question with respect to the United Kingdom, I said in my response to the urgent question that I would be circumspect, and I intend to be. I am not going to go in for tit-for-tat comments—that would be very bad for our negotiations—but I will take the opportunity to rebut one falsehood I saw being stirred up by various of our political opponents yesterday: the suggestion that we might depart the European Union but leave one part of the United Kingdom behind, still inside the single market and customs union. That is emphatically not something that the UK Government are considering. So when the First Minister of Wales complains about it, the First Minister of Scotland says it is a reason to start banging the tattered drum of independence, or the Mayor of London says it justifies a hard border around the M25, I say they are making a foolish mistake. No UK Government would allow such a thing, let alone a Conservative and Unionist one.

  • Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that, whether it is in relation to regulatory alignment in Northern Ireland, or in relation to citizens’ rights in respect of these negotiations, there is a serious danger that the European Court of Justice will get itself into every nook and cranny? There is no way in which it can be contained under article 344 of the treaty or, for that matter, in relation to the interpretation of all the matters I have just referred to.

  • My hon. Friend, who has a long history of wisdom in this subject—[Interruption.] Wisdom—he saw it before most Opposition Members did. He has a long history with this subject, and he explains better than I could why we said that no divergence is a bad option.

  • On reflection, I think I prefer the phrase “the rubber has hit the road” to the one that I was going to use to describe yesterday’s fiasco.

    It is no surprise that leadership contenders are now circling the Prime Minister. I can reveal that there is a vacancy coming up, because the Prime Minister is today being interviewed for the job of Scotland football manager, where her fantastic ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory could be put to very good use.

    A Government who said they would bring sovereignty back to Parliament are now being controlled by someone who is not even a Member of this Parliament. A Government that refuse to give Parliament any say in the development of our negotiating position are now allowing that negotiating position to be dictated by the leader of a minority Parliament in the smallest of the four nations of this Union. I could not put it better than the shadow Minister: what a shambles; what a complete mess.

    Will the Secretary of State now go back to “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, the document published by the Scottish Government that his Government rejected out of hand a year ago, and use that as a basis to produce a solution to an otherwise intractable problem? The fact is that the Government’s red lines are not compatible with each other, as the Brexit Committee concluded only last week. We were therefore unable to see how it is possible to reconcile leaving the customs union with avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Will the Secretary of State go back to that paper and use it as a basis for reopening negotiations?

  • Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has concluded his remarks. [Interruption.] The problem is that he has taken one and half minutes plus, and there is huge pressure on time, so I think we must now proceed.

  • Yes, that is only fair, as I allowed the hon. Gentleman to blurt out his question to allow the Secretary of State briefly to answer.

  • I will answer very briefly. First, I am very surprised by the hon. Gentleman, of all people, being so dismissive of small nations. Secondly, the Scottish Government document to which he refers was read carefully, and many of its elements are consistent with our negotiating strategy, not least the aim of protecting employment rights. I really think he should recognise that.

  • The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency states that only 5% of Northern Ireland’s sales cross the border south and only 1.6% of the Republic’s exports go north. The Government paper, confirmed by the head of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, says that that is easily surmountable without a hard border. The Belfast agreement confirmed Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom with standard regulation throughout. We are going to leave the single market and the customs union. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this week the integrity of the United Kingdom comes first, and that, if necessary, no deal is better than a bad deal?

  • My right hon. Friend makes his point well. I have already confirmed that the integrity of the United Kingdom comes first. That is why we have adopted the strategy of saying that the issue of maintaining a free border—an open border; a frictionless border—is best dealt with in the next phase: phase 2. Indeed, that is not just my view, but the view of the Taoiseach, who said on 20 August:

    “I think the suggestion that”

    has been made

    “to a certain extent, is common sense. If we are able to have a trade agreement between the EU and UK then of course it will be much easier to sort out issues around any border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

    I have suddenly realised that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has also said the same thing: “To be fair to David Davis, he is right on issues like Northern Ireland. There is only so far you can get before you move to the next phase.”

  • Order. If I am to accommodate a significant number of colleagues, there will be a premium on brevity, which is always brilliantly exemplified by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).

  • We all hope that the Government find a form of words that enables the negotiations to move on to phase 2, but do they not have to realise that the reason why there is this problem is because of their decision to leave the customs union and the single market? Given that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and the Mayor of London have both suggested that whether it is convergence or no divergence, it should be applied to the whole of the United Kingdom, is it not time for the Government finally to recognise that they need to make a different decision if they are to avoid the imposition of a hard border in Northern Ireland?

  • I am afraid that, uncharacteristically, the right hon. Gentleman is just wrong about that. I just read out the comment from the Taoiseach in August and a comment from his own Front-Bench spokesman about this subject, and I have set out the views of other Labour Front Benchers who are completely dismissive of being in the customs union in the long run. They are right, I am afraid, in this respect.

  • The British people are fed up to the back teeth with all this. They want a solution. It might be that regulatory alignment is the solution, but if it is good enough for Northern Ireland, it is good enough for the rest of the country. We are a Union, and we will not allow a deal for one part of our great Union and not for the other. May I gently say to the Secretary of State that there is a consensus in this place? Even though, when we had a debate on a motion, Labour Front Benchers, including the shadow Chancellor, voted against the customs union, we are—over here, over there and down there—as one. There is a solution. I do not care how we wrap it up in whatever fancy words, but if it conveys the effect on British business of the single market and the customs union, let us grab it, seize it, rub out the red lines, move on, work together, build a consensus, and get a deal for our nation.

  • My right hon. Friend makes her case with her characteristic tenacity. She can have this as a guarantee from me: we will not be treating any part of the United Kingdom differently from any other part.

  • The way to solve the border issue, to protect the Good Friday agreement and to hold our United Kingdom together is to stay in the customs union and single market. Is it not the case that the Government only have themselves to blame for choosing—choosing—to rule this option out when they do not have to, which is putting the future of our country at risk?

  • I think that the hon. Lady was elected on a manifesto pledge to respect the result of the referendum, and her own shadow Chancellor said that staying in would not respect that result.

  • Does my right hon. Friend share my sense of gratitude to our friends in the Democratic Unionist party who have helped Her Majesty’s Government to stick to their own policy in these negotiations? Is it not essential that the red lines on maintaining the United Kingdom, and on regulatory divergence whence the benefits of leaving come, are indelible red lines?

  • The red line, for me, is delivering the best Brexit for Britain, and that is what we will do.

  • Actually, there is not a consensus in this House about what should happen. The Government are making a choice. They are choosing a majority that is based on the DUP and trying to keep the Conservative party together, whereas in actual fact there is a vast majority in this House, in the country and in the House of Lords in favour of us staying in the customs union so that we keep the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland together and do not harm our trade. Why will not the Secretary of State just see that?

  • As ever, the hon. Gentleman asks an intelligent question, and I will answer it as clearly as I can. He said that we are making a choice. We are, and it is based not on any one party, but on 17.5 million votes that were cast to leave the European Union.

  • May I point out to my right hon. Friend what I know he will agree with: the consensus that we must deliver is the consensus that was delivered in the referendum vote last year; and that was not for some half-in, half-out solution now being advocated by Her Majesty’s official Opposition?

  • My hon. Friend is of course right. The other thing we can say is that 85% of the Members of this House were elected on manifestos that said they would respect that referendum. [Interruption.]

  • Order. I just make two points. First, there is a lot of noise in the Chamber. Members must be heard. Secondly, may I say very gently to the Secretary of State that I appreciate that he has trouble with his voice, but that accentuates the importance of his facing the House so that we can all hear him?

  • In the chaos that was yesterday, it did at least seem to be clear at 9 o’clock in the morning that the Government believed in the idea of regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland and for the Republic, but what is their position now? Have they now ditched any idea of regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland, or do they recognise that actually regulatory alignment is really important not just for the Good Friday agreement, but for businesses right across the United Kingdom? That is what the Secretary of State should be trying to achieve for all of us.

  • I refer the right hon. Lady to the speech that the Prime Minister made in Florence, because in it she dealt with—[Interruption.] Clearly, if Opposition Members cannot read, that is not a problem. I refer the right hon. Lady to that speech, because in it the Prime Minister made a very plain case for the sorts of divergence that we would see after we left. She said that there are areas in which we want to achieve the same outcomes, but by different regulatory methods. We want to maintain safety, food standards, animal welfare and employment rights, but we do not have to do that by exactly the same mechanism as everybody else. That is what regulatory alignment means.

  • The Secretary of State is absolutely right to remind the House that the only way of respecting the result of the referendum is by leaving the customs union and single market, which are part and parcel of the EU. Does he accept that in any negotiation there will be ups and downs, and that we should remember that both sides in this negotiation have agreed to the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed?

  • My hon. Friend is right, and that was part of the text that we discussed yesterday. Of course there will be ups and downs and pressure points—that is what negotiations are like. I have to tell the House that yesterday it was not London but Brussels that forecast an instant outcome. We had said that Monday’s discussion was a “staging post”, and we want to get to the outcome by 15 December—full stop.

  • I am sure that millions of members of the public think that our Government are not being tough enough with the European Union, and that in these negotiations, we should say clearly that the EU is stopping the continued co-operation—[Interruption.]

  • Order. I am very keen to accommodate colleagues, and please rest assured that I will do everything I can to do so, but the hon. Lady must be heard.

  • The EU is stopping the co-operation, which has been very good, between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That could continue, but the EU is stopping it. Is it not time that the Government said so?

  • The hon. Lady makes a point that is, I am sure, supported by many members of the public. I said at the beginning of the process more than a year ago that I would be unusually courteous and polite to the other side in this negotiation. I will continue to be so, because that is the best way to advance the British cause.

  • Yesterday’s difficulties demonstrate how hard it will be to get an overall agreement. If there is no trade agreement, there will be no transition period beyond 2019. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the necessary contingency planning takes place in case that happens, and that that planning includes identifying the best way of making sure that the border between the north and south of Ireland is as soft as possible?

  • I think I said to my hon. Friend when he was Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee that we had a great deal of contingency planning under way to deal with all options, from the option we are seeking—the free trade agreement—right down to the option we are not seeking, which is no agreement. That is the whole range, and we are looking at and planning for all those outcomes. More than 150 projects are already under way, and there will be more.

  • It should come as no surprise that Dublin and the Irish Government wish to advance their interests. The aggressive and anti-Unionist way in which they have gone about doing so is disgraceful. It has set back Anglo-Irish relations and damaged the relationships built up within Northern Ireland in relation to the devolution settlement. That damage will take a long time to repair.

    It should also come as no surprise that the Democratic Unionist party stands strong for the Union and stands strong for Northern Ireland’s place in the Union under the terms of the devolved settlement. We will not allow any settlement to be agreed that causes the political or economic divergence of Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. To do so would be not only politically damaging, but economically catastrophic for everyone in Northern Ireland—Unionist, nationalist, remainer or Brexiteer.

    The reality is that one of the good things that came out of yesterday was an agreement from Members on both sides of the House—from Labour and Conservative Back Benchers—as well as from Ruth Davidson, Carwyn Jones and everybody else, that the United Kingdom stands together and that nothing will happen that will cause the breakup of this great United Kingdom.

  • The right hon. Gentleman is dead right. It is no surprise that the Democratic Unionist party stands for the United Kingdom. So, equally, does the Conservative and Unionist party.

  • Tens of thousands of jobs in my constituency are in sectors that are urging the Government to adopt regulatory alignment. May I therefore support the Prime Minister in making that offer to the European Union, on the condition that it applies, as others have said, to the whole United Kingdom?

  • The presumption of the discussion was that everything we talked about applied to the whole United Kingdom. I reiterate that alignment is not harmonisation. It is not having exactly the same rules; it is sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection and all that sort of thing. That is what we are aiming at.

  • In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), the Brexit Secretary intimated that staying in the customs union and single market would betray the referendum result. No one told my constituents or the country before the referendum that Brexit would entail leaving the customs union and the single market. In the light of yesterday’s shambles, will the Brexit Secretary look again at the Government’s decision and move towards staying in the customs union and the single market?

  • If the hon. Lady will forgive a factual correction, people certainly did. The Prime Minister at the time did so, as did the Chancellor at the time and, I think, the leaders of the leave and remain campaigns. I suggest that the hon. Lady looks at the records of “The Andrew Marr Show”, on which they all said that.

  • May we return to the Prime Minister’s original intention that there would be no running commentary? This discussion is driving the Opposition into a state of apoplexy when strategic patience is required.

  • I thank my right hon. Friend for his inducement to my patience.

  • If the Secretary of State is serious about wanting a solution in the national interest that commands majority support in Northern Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom and this House—I am delighted to say that that would seem to include my own Front Benchers—why does he not bring to this House a motion, on a free vote, on staying in the customs union and the single market?

  • We were elected on a manifesto that said that we would leave the customs union and single market—full stop.

  • Does the Secretary of State believe that it is possible to leave the single market and the customs union, yet have UK regulatory alignment?

  • As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), yes, but using things such as the mutual recognition and alignment of standards. That does not mean having the same standards; it means having ones that give similar results.

  • I understand that yesterday the Prime Minister had to withdraw her agreement to her own agreed text as a result of the DUP’s intervention. Does the Minister really think that it is acceptable for a British Prime Minister to have to conduct herself in such a way in international negotiations?

  • I refer the hon. Lady to the short speech given at the press conference by Jean-Claude Juncker, who clearly thought that the Prime Minister had carried herself off with great dignity and effectiveness.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that this discussion demonstrates that no workable solution to the border conundrum will satisfy the purists, wherever they stand in the debate? Does he therefore agree with the point made by Bertie Ahern and William Hague in recent days that the way through this is to show a much greater appetite for using technology-based solutions—[Interruption.] Does he agree that on the problems that technology cannot overcome, all sides will just have to show flexibility and adaptability about how rigidly they enforce and interpret their own principles and border rules?

  • My right hon. Friend is absolutely on the nail, although what he said clearly did not go down very well with the luddite tendency in the Opposition. The other thing that is required is for us to get on to the second phase and talk about a free trade agreement, which will do more than anything else to facilitate this.

  • Perhaps the Secretary of State could accept the constructive offer made by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), as well as Opposition Members, have said that there is a majority in favour of the regulatory alignment that the Prime Minister proposed for Northern Ireland, the Republic and the rest of the United Kingdom. With a few exceptions, the Secretary of State would get a lot of votes from Opposition Members if he put that question. Why does he not just do so?

  • We have talked at great length about what we mean by regulatory alignment—I have just done so today. It is not harmonisation, being in the single market, or having exactly the same rules; it is this House exercising its democratic right to choose our own laws in such a way as to maximise our ability to sell abroad. That is how it will work.

  • Is it worth gently reminding the Taoiseach and the Government in Dublin how we behaved when they were in financial trouble and we helped bail them out? Is it also worth gently reminding them that, post Brexit, Irish nationals will continue to have the right to live and work in the UK? Finally, is it not worth gently reminding them that the UK is the most important economy to the Republic of Ireland? We wish to be good and productive neighbours, and they should enter into these negotiations with that long-term view in mind.

  • I am sure that the Irish Government are conscious of all those things, but let me pick one point that my right hon. Friend made. When I last reported to this House—on 17 November, I think—I reiterated that the common travel area, which allows absolute freedom of movement between the two countries and absolute equality of treatment between our citizens, will remain in place, as will the constitutional protections allowing people from Northern Ireland to choose which nationality they wish to adhere to. We are protecting those rights very carefully.

  • I put it to the Secretary of State that his Government’s dogmatic insistence on pulling us out of the single market and the customs union threatens not only our future jobs, rights and prosperity, but the future territorial integrity of our country. When he looks back in a few years’ time and reflects on his role in creating this mess, how does he think he will feel?

  • I say to the hon. Lady what I said at the beginning of this urgent question: all these stories put about by her Labour party co-members yesterday were just nonsense. The Conservative and Unionist party puts the integrity of the United Kingdom at the forefront of its aims.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as with the Ashes test match, the week is not yet over? It is in the interests of Ireland as well as the UK to avoid a no-deal Brexit and find the long-term strategic partnership, and therefore all parties need to keep talking.

  • My hon. Friend, who has a long and distinguished record in the European Parliament and knows the institutions there as well as anybody, brings great wisdom and insight to this discussion, and she is of course absolutely right.

  • The Government’s sheer incompetence is turning the Brexit negotiations into a national humiliation. Is it not time that the Secretary of State agreed that staying in the single market and the customs union is the only way to solve the Northern Ireland border, and indeed by staying in permanently—I say that as much for the benefit of Labour Front Benchers as for his—and that he should give the people a vote on the deal, to secure popular support for that stance?

  • I will break the habit of a lifetime and pay the right hon. Gentleman a compliment: he is at least standing by the manifesto on which he stood at the general election. Of course, being a Liberal Democrat manifesto, it was completely wrong.

  • Will the Minister reassure me that when it comes to negotiations with the EU, the Government will pursue a flexible policy that includes the possibility of establishing a model similar to that of Norway or Switzerland, which would undoubtedly benefit the Irish issue?

  • No, the Prime Minister has made it clear that we are not going to take any off-the-shelf model. We are a very large country in European terms, and we have very great trade reach—and very great reach in other respects—so we will choose a model that is appropriate to us.

  • The Prime Minister’s humiliation yesterday, when she was forced to disagree with herself, shows that this is less a negotiation and more a set of decisions, and those decisions are being framed by the contradictory red lines that the Government have thrown out, without regard to the consequences, on a hard border, the single market and the customs union. The Secretary of State’s colleague Ruth Davidson said this morning:

    “If regulatory alignment in a number of specific areas is the requirement for a frictionless border, then the Prime Minister should conclude this must be on a UK-wide basis.”

    She is right, is she not?

  • What I will say to the right hon. Gentleman, given that he is a Labour party member, is that he must have much greater experience than I have of disagreeing with himself. Look at his own Front Benchers and the 11 different positions they have taken.

  • Did you notice, Mr Speaker, that the shadow Minister, just at the end of his question, committed the Labour party to dropping 29 March 2019 as the date on which we come out of the European Union? Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is the Government’s policy that we are definitely coming out by 29 March 2019?

  • It is not just the Government’s policy; it is the law of the European Union.

  • Will the Secretary of State confirm when the Cabinet took the decision that our country would leave the single market and the customs union?

  • Effectively—[Interruption.] As someone behind me says from a sedentary position, it was 24 June 2016. I cannot remember the exact date when that specific decision was taken, but it reflects the judgment of the British people.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that maintaining the integrity of our country requires that there should never be any internal borders, economic or otherwise, within the territory of the United Kingdom?

  • Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right.

  • The Secretary of State will know that the Democratic Unionist party and businesses in Northern Ireland have advocated a sensible Brexit deal with Northern Ireland, but does he also agree that the Republic of Ireland, through its intransigence, could risk everything and lose the most out of this?

  • The hon. Gentleman is asking me to break my vow of courtesy, so I say, “Get thee behind me, Satan”—this time anyway.

  • Does my right hon. Friend agree that if regulatory alignment in certain specific areas is a requirement to solve the Northern Ireland border issue, then protecting the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom requires that solution to be adopted UK wide?

  • Every approach we take will treat the whole United Kingdom as a single constitutional entity and a single economic entity.

  • Yesterday, our Prime Minister was humiliated by having the rug pulled from under her by the DUP. Was she not naive even to attempt to do a deal of the sort she tried to do, knowing that the DUP would inevitably veto it? With the negotiations in such fantastic hands, will the Secretary of State now admit that the only way to move forward without a hard border in Northern Ireland, to protect the jobs of my constituents, is for us to stay in the customs union and the single market?

  • This urgent question is spectacularly badly timed, in the middle of talks to move to the next phase—[Interruption.] The truth is—

  • Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. [Interruption.] Order. I will deal with this. The hon. Gentleman is unfailingly courteous. He is entitled to criticise a Member for submitting an urgent question, but it is not for him to question the judgment of the Chair. I took the view that this matter warranted the attention of the House of Commons today. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to depart from that view, he should not express it on the Floor of the House. If he has a serious question to ask, I am happy to hear it, but I seek his assurance that he is not arguing the toss with the Chair.

  • I would never dream of it, Mr Speaker. My point was that many negotiations, if not most, come good towards the end. Therefore, rather than sledging the Government, I urge the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to maintain their resilience and patience and see this through, which will require compromises on all sides to reach a good solution.

  • My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

  • The Secretary of State talks about the will of the people, but of course the Government put leaving the customs union and the single market to the electorate at the general election and lost their majority. Can I ask him a very specific question? Clearly, there is no consensus on having an arrangement whereby only Northern Ireland is part of the single market and the customs union, and no business or Government I have spoken to think that technology is the answer. He has said that he does not think that keeping the UK overall in the customs union and the single market is the answer, so what does he believe is?

  • A comprehensive free trade agreement, a customs agreement and all the associated regulatory alignment. While I am on my feet, let me pick the hon. Gentleman up on his comment about the result of the general election. I remind him that 85% of Members of this House were elected on manifestos that said we should leave the European Union.

  • My right hon. Friend will of course know that the UK has a large surplus in services with the EU. Does he agree that, for the continued success of legal, professional and financial services post Brexit, not only mutual recognition, but UK-wide regulatory alignment with the EU will be necessary?

  • If by alignment my hon. Friend means mechanisms such as mutual recognition, yes, I agree entirely.

  • I am slightly confused now. Yesterday, the Government seemed to accept the principle that the only way to achieve no border or a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was through regulatory alignment. Does that principle still stand today? Do the Government accept that that is the only way to deliver the frictionless border?

  • I can understand the hon. Lady’s confusion if she has not been listening for the past half hour. The simple truth is that we will need to establish arrangements whereby we get the same or similar outcomes for some areas of industry and service—no more, no less.

  • What can be done to help our good friends, the Irish Government, to climb down from the position that they were unwittingly misled into adopting yesterday?

  • The aim of the negotiation is together to get to an outcome that serves our interests, the EU27’s interests and particularly Ireland’s interests because, as my hon. Friend says, they are our good friends and the people who, in some ways, are closest to us.

  • If the Secretary of State is so confident that we in this place, the media and the general public are misinterpreting what may or may not have been in the draft agreement, will he publish it to clear things up?

  • I cannot imagine that the hon. Gentleman thinks that that would advance the negotiations one jot.

  • The EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, has today tweeted that when we leave, our existing free trade agreements will not be rolled over. That is obviously a significant point, so further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), does that not add weight at least to considering those trade models whereby we can negotiate our own trade deals globally, but remain part of those that the European Free Trade Association currently has?

  • There is more than one benefit to departing from the European Union. One is trade arrangements, and we are well advanced in our plans for dealing with those ongoing trade arrangements and ensuring that we do roll them over.

  • Yesterday, for the first time, the Secretary of State realised that the importance of the Irish border issue extends beyond the island of Ireland. To unite the United Kingdom, will he meet the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers to discuss regulatory alignment because it impacts on everyone? If he wants to unite the United Kingdom, he must do better.

  • In response to the first half of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I recommend that he read Hansard for my statements here, which will prove that he is absolutely wrong. It is really quite a calumny.

    As for the First Ministers, there is a body called the Joint Ministerial Committee, which includes representatives of all the devolved Administrations and meets regularly. Sadly, the Northern Ireland Executive is not there at the moment, which is one of the difficulties we have to deal with.

  • We leave the EU in 16 months. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House and the country that the EU delegates are well aware that we are preparing to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules if negotiations fail?

  • I think that that has been apparent for some time.

  • Does the Secretary of State think that it furthers the cause of the Union to refer to the actions of the First Ministers of Wales and of Scotland as “foolish”, as he did a moment ago? They are not foolish. When it comes to the single market and the customs union, they are absolutely right.

  • Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants to give advice to them about how they describe other people.

  • One of the big prizes to be gained from being free of the European Union is enabling us, as a United Kingdom, to negotiate our own free trade deals across the world. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that nothing in these agreements will fetter our ability to do that?

  • Will the Secretary of State accept that leaving the customs union was not on the ballot paper on 23 June 2016?

  • It was said earlier that nobody voted for that; nobody knew that that was a consequence. In fact, both sides in the referendum campaign made it plain that departure from the European Union meant departure from the customs union.

  • Given that in European negotiations nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, does the Secretary of State agree that any concessions that we may now make are contingent on reaching a satisfactory end state free trade deal in future?

  • Yes, my hon. Friend is right that in every European negotiation, that phrase, “nothing is agreed till everything is agreed” is a mantra, and it matters.

  • Will the Secretary of State tell us the difference between regulatory convergence and regulatory alignment?

  • One is about harmonisation, one is not.

  • The Secretary of State said that one is about harmonisation and the other is not. Somebody suggested that he or she could not hear.

  • Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the negotiations, the Government still aim to conclude an agreement on an implementation phase as early as possible in the new year and that that agreement would similarly benefit the European Union?

  • Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right on both counts.

  • Despite trying to cave in on every EU ask so far, the Government have not been able to conclude the preliminary negotiations in 18 months, yet we are to believe that they will conclude the substantive negotiations in 15 months. They have not been able to agree a good deal with the DUP, yet we are to believe that they will get a good deal from the 27 member states. It is obvious that they do not know a good deal from a bad deal and we are heading towards a no-deal scenario, so when will they start planning and present transparent information on the implications?

  • The hon. Gentleman seems to be having an argument with himself in that question. It is seven months of negotiation so far and it will be concluded.

  • Where are the Government, in terms of our post-club membership, on handing over a bill to the European Union? What is the amount that has been decided: £40 billion, £50 billion, more, or less?

  • I am afraid that I will not be drawn on numbers at the moment, but we are pretty close to alignment on that.

  • The Irish issue has never been about wandering cows or static cameras. It is about what is written behind me: we have “more in common”. The Irish are our closest neighbours and that is the basis of the Good Friday agreement, which I am disappointed that the Secretary of State did not mention in his opening remarks.

    I repeat the same question that I have asked the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and other Ministers six times since January. When will the Prime Minister show courtesy to the people of Northern Ireland and put a date in her diary at least to visit? If she had been there and listened and talked to people, she might not have ended up in the farce that was yesterday.

  • Let us start with the hon. Lady’s opening comments. She said that I did not mention the Northern Ireland agreement. I will read the paragraph from my opening statement: “In particular, on the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland, we have been clear that we want to protect all elements of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement to maintain the common travel area and the protected associated rights.” So much for that. [Interruption.]

  • Despite the noise from many Opposition Members, is not it right that, at this stage of the talks, we are closer to an agreement than we have ever been, that that is a good thing—progress has been made—and that we should want to move on to talks about trade, which will be in our national interest and also in the EU’s interest?

  • Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. That is pretty much what Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday.

  • Although I readily accept that there are 10 duly elected DUP Members in this House, nevertheless the DUP does not speak for or represent all the people of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State therefore take a few moments to explain to the House, and particularly to all the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, the benefits for the whole country of the proposals the Prime Minister took to Brussels yesterday? I was profoundly embarrassed on her behalf.

  • The aim for the whole country, as the hon. Lady says, is to maximise the trade benefits of being outside the customs union and the single market, while maintaining as much as possible the benefits we currently enjoy. That is the aim and that is what we are heading towards. I am pretty confident that that is what we will achieve.

  • It is increasingly clear to anyone watching that the Government are incapable of focusing on anything but Brexit, and even then they are making a complete Horlicks of it. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give that the Government are ready to put country before party, not just on the border issue but on our crucial trade negotiations with the EU and the rest of the world?

  • Is Horlicks a parliamentary word, Mr Speaker? I might use it in future. I am the Brexit Secretary, so that is of course what I focus on most of the time. The simple fact is that the free trade agreement the hon. Lady talks about is precisely what we are aiming for. It is exactly where we and Brussels want to get to as quickly as possible.

  • The word is certainly not unparliamentary. It could be said to constitute a form of advertising, but it is not disorderly.

  • Or indeed a euphemism, as the right hon. Gentleman pertinently observes from a sedentary position.

  • When will we have a decision on the rights of EU nationals in the UK? The Secretary of State has yet again forgotten about them amidst the current chaos. More than 3 million people are in limbo with regard to their future rights, including many Irish citizens to whom we have a particular and long-standing duty.

  • We recognise that duty. Indeed, I have said from the Dispatch Box that we view it as a moral imperative. We have made plain that we are doing everything possible to ensure that they carry on with their lives as they do now. We have made that plain and I really wish the hon. Gentleman would not frighten people by taking the opposite view.

  • The customs union was not on the ballot paper in the referendum. The Prime Minister was right yesterday to be willing to sign up to regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU. From the Secretary of State’s answers today, I think he is suggesting that regulatory alignment should apply to the whole UK. Will he confirm that that is the point he is making, and will he explain how he sees that being delivered?

  • Of course the referendum question was a short question, but it was a very long campaign. In that campaign, both sides made it plain that being outside the union meant being outside the customs union and outside the single market. Both sides made that plain and, if need be, I can point the right hon. Gentleman to the television programmes on which that was said. I have explained to the House that regulatory alignment is not harmonisation. It is a question of ensuring similar outcomes in areas where we want to have trade relationships and free and frictionless trade. Anything we agree for Northern Ireland in that respect, if we get our free trade area, will apply to the whole country.

  • Will the Secretary of State confirm today that Brexit is the

    “easiest thing in human history”?

    If it is, how is it that the Government are incapable of making it so?

  • As the House can see, it is a complete cinch.

  • Of course the British people voted to leave the European Union, but the common market is extremely popular with the public. We joined the customs union in 1973. Not only would staying in it help to resolve the Irish issues, it would boost British exporters across the country.

  • I say to the hon. Lady that if it was still just the common market I suspect the vote might have been different.

  • The Secretary of State says a vote to leave was a vote to leave the single market and the customs union, but that is not what leavers said. He says that the Conservative manifesto committed to pulling us out of both, but that is not what the majority of the public voted for. Is it not time to accept that he will have a majority in this House for a Brexit based on membership of the single market and the customs union, but that we will never give him a majority for a destructive hard Brexit?

  • Nobody wants a majority for a destructive Brexit. We want a majority for a constructive Brexit.

  • The Prime Minister pushed the Secretary of State to one side to take personal responsibility for leading the negotiations yesterday. Why is she not here today to update the House? Did Arlene Foster say no?

  • I do not know—they complain when I come and they complain when I do not come.

  • The choices the Secretary of State has made have led him into a cul-de-sac where he now has to make a choice between honouring the spirit of the Good Friday agreement or pleasing the right wingers on his own side and the DUP. Which choice is he going to make?

  • I have to make a choice that preserves everything in the Good Friday agreement and preserves the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

  • May I thank the Secretary of State for proving yesterday that he can listen and that when he tells Europe no, he means no? We thank him on behalf of the Northern Ireland. Will he take the next available opportunity to speak to the Dublin Government and let them know that if they continue down this reckless path and do not get a trade deal with us, they will end up stumping up a further £1.5 billion in membership fees to the European Union? Better to move to a trade deal sooner rather than later.

  • As I said, I am not going to go in for any tit-for-tat with other Governments. What I will say is that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the best outcome for Ireland is a free trade deal and a customs agreement. That will preserve by far and away the largest portion of its trade and protect its economy. That is what we are trying to do.

  • Yesterday’s events were a shambles that must undermine our credibility in our negotiations with the EU. However, if there are two positives, they are, first, the Government’s belated recognition of the importance of regulatory alignment with Europe in going forward; and secondly, the display of unity, with all parts of the United Kingdom demanding that what is good for one is good for all. Will the Secretary of State recognise the logic of that, change his position and negotiate on the basis of access to the single market and the customs union?

  • First, the hon. Gentleman does not need to point out to a member of the Conservative and Unionist party the importance of the United Kingdom. Secondly, the Union does not require membership of the single market. As far as I remember, the United Kingdom existed well before we were a member of the single market.

  • Article 50 was designed to be harsh on the country that triggered it. Its author, Mr Giuliano Amato, a former Italian Prime Minister, described it as a

    “safety valve that was there”

    but should never be used. Are we not setting an unrealistic timescale and is it not time for us to seek to delay the implementation of leaving the European Union, so we can resolve issues around the customs union and the single market?

  • I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and if I were to give him one piece of advice about negotiations, it would be not to give up before they start.

  • As Arlene Foster now seems to be running the rule over the Government’s EU exit negotiations, are we to expect that a Member from the DUP Bench will join the Secretary of State’s team in a confidence and supply arrangement?

  • Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should address that question to those on the DUP Bench, not to those on the Government Benches.

  • The Secretary of State says he is serious about delivering the best for the United Kingdom and that he thinks Brexit is a cinch. The EU Commissioners estimate that there are currently 142 areas of north-south co-operation that depend on EU law. Is the plan for Northern Ireland to remain aligned in each of those 142 areas, or more widely?

  • First, the hon. Lady should not take sarcasm as fact. Secondly, the 142 areas do not all rely on EU law. I am afraid she is factually wrong.

  • Presuming that the Government do finally make progress at some stage and we leave the single market, will the Secretary of State outline to the House what sort of agreement he expects to reach on UK access to the European market for services?

  • First, we have made a lot of progress. The question this week is sufficient progress—on that, by the way, I am quoting Jean-Claude Juncker again. On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive question, we would expect the free trade agreement to include the services sector.

  • My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) rightly raised the issue of citizens’ rights. Thousands of people in my constituency, and millions across Britain and the EU, are worried about their futures. Last year, we were told that this would be sorted out swiftly and that it would be simple, but it turns out that it is much more complicated. What is the position now in relation to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice?

  • That is one of the elements being discussed this week. The main aim is not around ECJ jurisdiction but to get the treatment of both British citizens and European citizens to be symmetrical—to be similar.