I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 205169 relating to Parliament’s vote on the deal for the UK’s exit from the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I am pleased that the lead petitioner is in the Public Gallery to hear the debate. I present this petition on behalf of the over 113,000 people who signed it. The petition is quite straightforward:
“Parliament’s vote on the Brexit deal must include an option to remain in the EU.
A lesser of two evils choice between a bad deal and no deal is not acceptable. Our country deserves better than Hobson’s choice, and our MPs should be allowed to vote with their conscience to deliver what they believe is best for the country.”
It is either fortuitous or a strange coincidence that we are debating this petition the day before the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the House of Commons, having been through the House of Lords, where it was significantly amended—in fact, some might say, put through the wringer in several important ways.
The question of Parliament’s role in Brexit has been running since the referendum—from Gina Miller successfully taking a case to the High Court in 2016 to argue that the Government could not trigger article 50 without consulting Parliament, through to the Government’s announcement at the start of the year that they would put the final deal agreed between the UK and the European Union to a vote in both Houses of Parliament. The Government’s position is that if the Commons does not approve the agreement they present to Parliament, the UK will leave the European Union on 29 March without a deal. That is a “take it or leave it” decision.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the speech she is making and to the petitioners for raising this important subject. Does she agree that amendment 19, which is due to be voted on this week, would prevent the kind of Hobson’s choice the petitioners are concerned about? Over 600 people in my constituency appear to be concerned about that, because they have signed this petition.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will touch on that point later in my speech.
If the agreement that the Government present to Parliament is not approved, the UK will leave the European Union on 29 March without a deal. That is a “take it or leave it” decision or, as the petitioners describe it, “Hobson’s choice”, with no option of saying, as the petitioners do, that Parliament’s vote on the Brexit deal must include an option to remain in the European Union. No matter what the outcome, there will be no chance for Members of Parliament to say, “It is better for us to stay in the EU than to accept the deal that the Government manage to negotiate, whatever that ends up being”—something the petitioners believe is essential.
The Labour party has said all along that Parliament should have a meaningful vote on the terms of any withdrawal agreement the Prime Minister reaches with the European Union. It cannot be acceptable, as the Government originally proposed, for the Prime Minister simply to force through a deal on an issue of this importance or, as the Government now propose, for Parliament to have only a binary, “take it or leave it” choice. That is why Labour has repeatedly tried to amend the withdrawal Bill—to ensure that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote, and we have seen much discussion about what a meaningful vote means.
On Tuesday and Wednesday we will return to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and consider some of the 192 amendments made as it went through the House of Lords. For this debate, however, there is one particularly significant amendment, which is the subject of much discussion in the press, as well as inside and outside Parliament, and most of us will know from our constituents contacting us how much discussion there is about it. Amendment 19 looks at the role of Parliament in approving the outcome of negotiations with the European Union. The amendment, which was proposed by Viscount Hailsham and agreed by the Lords, says:
“Her Majesty’s Government must follow any direction in relation to the negotiations under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union which has been—
(a) approved by a resolution of the House of Commons, and
(b) subject to the consideration of a motion in the House of Lords.”
That amendment and the amendments on the customs union have the potential to give Parliament a much greater say on the final shape of the Brexit negotiations, but these are of course highly contentious amendments, which the Government are resisting. We must wait for the outcome of votes in the next two days to see what actually happens. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) said, the Lords amendment would ensure that, if any withdrawal agreement is rejected by the House of Commons, it would be for Parliament—not the Prime Minister—to decide the next steps via a resolution of the House. The amendment would also ensure that, in the event of no deal being reached, it would again be for Parliament to decide what happens next.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill raises important questions about the powers of Parliament. Those who argued for Brexit talked about taking back control. Many hon. Members and other people feel that it is important that Parliament has a strong role in shaping the negotiations, just as we must have real scrutiny of how European legislation is translated into our domestic law, which is also central to the Bill. The petitioners believe, however, that the choice before Members of Parliament must include the option to remain in the European Union, and not simply to change the exit deal, whatever that turns out to be. They believe that the no deal option is not acceptable. They are asking the Government to look at this again and to allow Members of Parliament to vote on a remain option. They are asking not for the referendum to be rerun, but for Members of Parliament—nearly two years on from the referendum, and with a great deal more detailed information out there on the real issues and on the real costs of Brexit to our economy and our communities—to have the option to vote for remain when the Government put the final agreement to the vote.
As MPs, we need to think very carefully about how we vote, bearing in mind the wishes of our constituents, how they voted—to leave or to remain—and whether their views have changed. It is my job, however, to speak for the petitioners on this important issue. They are clear that there should be a remain option when it comes to the vote.
As with all petitions, the Government have already responded online to this petition. They said that the final vote will be as they originally proposed:
“The British people voted to leave and the Government will implement their decision. The vote on the final deal will give Parliament the choice to accept the agreement or leave the EU with no agreement.”
I will let the Minister make her own response to the petitioners in more detail and explain that position to them, but it is pretty uncompromising. Barring a sudden change of mind from the Government, which I am sure the petitioners would welcome, it seems they may be disappointed in the Minister’s response.
The petitioners strongly believe that when it comes to the vote in Parliament, we, as Members of Parliament, should be given a remain option, based on the information now before us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin, and to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who gave a thoughtful speech that captured the sense of many people on the remain side of the argument. However, in any debate about Brexit or about Britain regaining sovereignty, we must be clear about why we were in the position we were in the first place.
We joined the European Economic Community in 1973. At that time, people thought of it as the common market. In 1975, we had a referendum. The decision in that referendum was overwhelming endorsement by the British people, who were about 2:1 in favour of remaining in the common market. Since then, the common market has morphed, with no direct say from the British people, into the European Community and the European Union. Once again, Parliament gave the decision to the British people as to whether we should stay or go. There is no doubt about what was decided or what is required.
Out of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union, how many put on the ballot paper that they wanted to leave the single market and the customs union? The hon. Gentleman says that there is no doubt about it, so he must have the answer.
In the run-up to the referendum, it was abundantly clear from leave and remain campaigners, including the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that if we chose to leave the European Union, we would leave the single market and the customs union.
There was a 72% turnout in the 2016 referendum. At the last election, the Labour party and the Conservative party stood on manifestos that pledged to deliver Brexit. With regard to the Scottish question, Scotland decided to stay in the United Kingdom. Is the point not that there has been a democratic opportunity and a once-in-a-lifetime referendum—interestingly, the Scottish referendum was supposed to be once-in-a-lifetime referendum? Does my hon. Friend agree that not to deliver on that would be an absolute betrayal of 17.4 million people, and of the 16 million people who took part on the other side of the referendum?
Given that we have introduced referendums into our parliamentary system, is it not the whole point that we have asked the people once, and the debate has moved on, so it is now imperative that we ask them again, because we want to have a healthy democracy? We need further clarification on the decisions that are being made about moving on.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about clarity and what people were voting for. We could debate every single general and local election, and the Scottish and the alternative vote referendums, in those terms, saying that the people did not understand and that we must try again until they get it right. I do not agree with that. When we take the question to the people, it is for both sides, and even for people in the middle who are undecided, to make their case and their argument.
Perhaps there were flaws in the timing of the referendum, but that was not down to anyone on the leave side. It was a remainer—the then Prime Minister, David Cameron—who decided the campaign’s timing. If there are any doubts or uncertainties about people not having enough information, or enough time to gather that information, accountability has to sit with the lead remainer, who was responsible for the timetable?
We must regain control over our laws, borders and money, and we must have the right to negotiate trade deals with countries around the world. The petition has 113,613 supporters, which is a substantial number, but it falls far short of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union, as has been highlighted.
In her opening remarks, the hon. Member for Blaydon described the e-petition as suggesting a choice between two evils, or of the lesser of two evils, but that is disappointing language from the remain campaign. To describe the decision of leave voters in terms of being between one evil and another suggests that leave voters voted for evil.
In my mind, there is no doubt about the feelings of the British people and the direction of travel they want us to take. Increasingly, whether people were undecided, voted leave or even voted remain, they just want politicians to get on with it, to deliver the result and to deliver a good no deal option or—my favoured option—a good deal with the European Union.
We, the British people, want a fantastic relationship with the European Union and our friends in Europe. We want a far better deal than World Trade Organisation most favoured nation status. That is in our power and the European Union’s power. I urge the Minister to talk to all her friends and colleagues in the Department, to win that argument and win that deal.
I thank the petitioners for bringing this debate to the House. It is a good debate to have. I have already made it clear that it is important to extend the argument about who should make the decision. Does it lie with Parliament or, in the end, with the people, whatever question we ask? That is the point I want to make.
The Liberal Democrats have long and consistently campaigned to let the people have the final say on the deal. That includes the question of remaining in the EU, for this reason:
“We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for.”—[Official Report, 26 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 202.]
Those words were spoken by the now Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. I agree with him, and I wonder whether he agrees with himself.
When a referendum result is so close, as was the case with the Brexit vote, and so crucial for the future of this country, it is important to provide clarification.
We are two years on from the 2016 referendum, and the Government’s legitimacy for their version of Brexit is lessening. The “will of the people” is the last remaining argument as to why we have made the right decision and why the Government are going forward in this way. Although the discussion and information about what the UK can and cannot achieve when or if we leave the EU moves on all the time, we are repeatedly told that the referendum decision is fixed once and for all and that there can be no change, no update, no clarification, no confirmation and no review—we are stuck.
The hon. Gentleman addresses an important debate: what is the lifetime of a referendum? When can we say that a referendum decision has been respected? If he looks at referendums in other countries, he will see that the people of Greece made a decision that was not compatible, but they were asked several times, and that was brave. I think this Government should be brave enough to go for that.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will let me make a little progress.
We are stuck with a decision that was made in 2016. Why is that? Are the Government too afraid to find out what the people think now? Indeed, the last to be asked now are the people. That is why I continue to say that if we want to be truly democratic and if we truly believe in the will of the people, what is the problem with asking them again?
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, but referendums hold a very strange place in the British constitution, because there is not really a constitutional position for them. Today’s debate is about the legitimacy of a referendum. The Liberal Democrats are Unionists, so does she agree with the Scottish National party that there should be another independence referendum in Scotland because people’s minds may or may not have changed?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I do not believe that a discussion on the Brexit referendum should be swapped with one on the Scottish referendum.
Britain is a parliamentary democracy—the hon. Gentleman has pointed that out— and we have now introduced this strange element of a direct democracy and of asking the people directly. However, the Government are now not allowing any mechanism for confirming or updating that referendum, or allowing any say in the final deal. It is that deal that matters most now; it will affect the lives of British citizens for generations.
It is obvious that 650 MPs cannot update, confirm or review a decision by 33 million people, but the people themselves can and should be allowed to see through the decision-making process that they started. As the MP for Bath, I am fortunate enough to have a clear mandate from my constituents that reflects my own beliefs. However, many of my colleagues are torn either between their conscience and the majority vote in their constituency, or between their conscience and their party Whip.
In addition—I have said this before—the closeness and the fierce divide of the referendum vote have made it virtually impossible for many MPs to represent their constituents fairly. Ministers have on countless occasions changed their minds on Brexit. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union himself said on 24 January, concerning his previous support for remaining in the customs union: “New facts, new opinions”.
Much has changed since 2016; we know far more now than we did then. I will hold my hand up and say, “So do I. I didn’t know everything.” Members of the public were told by the leave campaign that we could leave the European Union in an afternoon, but now even the hardest of hard Brexiteers will admit that it is far more complicated and will take much longer than many expected. We were told that £350 million a week would go to the NHS; that has been quietly dropped. The potential conflict of leaving the customs union and keeping an open border on the island of Ireland was never mentioned once by the leave campaign, never mind fully understood; it is not fully understood even now.
I would like to make some progress.
Who in 2016 mentioned Euratom, REACH—the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—or Galileo? Information changes, and politicians move on and tweak, change and update, but they absolutely forbid the people to do so. They hide behind the false pretence that they respect the will of the people and democracy, but that is cynical and insincere. If the Government were truly interested in respecting the will of the people, they would ask them the question now, and again on the deal—although we do not even know whether there will be a deal—including the option to stay in the European Union.
I believe that the real answer is to give the people the final say on the deal. The people must finish what the people have started.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and hear her arguments, and to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) lay out the case for the motion. As one would expect from a constituency such as mine, where 81% of people voted to remain in the European Union, a number of my constituents have signed the petition and it is a delight to project their voice this afternoon. Just today, we read that there will potentially be 4,000 job losses at Rolls-Royce and that Poundland is likely to go under, with 5,000 jobs lost, and I believe that over the weekend House of Fraser announced that it is closing a number of its flagship stores, which will affect many of our high streets.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I am sure it reflects trends such as the increased use of the internet to purchase products, but it is also a fundamental question of there being less money in people’s pockets. For example, there is just as much footfall as there has ever been in the high street in Wood Green, which I represent, but all the shops are closing because people do not have money in their pockets to spend. That reflects the 30-year flatness of wages, which I believe has been a big contributor to people’s dissatisfaction with traditional politics and led to some of the debate that we have ended up with.
Furthermore on the economy, of course, we have seen the drop in sterling, although it is slightly better now than it was just after the referendum result. However, we have also seen the effect on trade, in terms of uncertainty.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and I am very pleased that unemployment is now about 4%. That is something to be proud of and I am pleased that so many people are forcing themselves to go out to jobs that in other circumstances might not be that attractive. We know that most people—50% of the population—earn under £23,000. London MPs know that a lot of that money goes on rent for those in the private rented sector, and that those in the social housing sector still pay a lot of money for service charges and other things. Although I am very pleased about the employment statistics, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is, we cannot just celebrate on that one fact alone; we have to consider the wider meaning, in terms of the level of income and the other costs that must be borne.
There is another thing to mention, of course, about trade being one of the general indicators of the economy. Today, the Financial Times shows the huge drop-off in both exports and imports for the UK, which is very troubling. We cannot say whether that is Brexit-related, of course, but what we can say is that it is related to uncertainty. Also in today’s Financial Times, I read that even the City of London—of course, as a London MP, I take an interest in jobs, not just the traditional City jobs but also those in all the supply chains that go into the City—seems to be losing its patience with the chaos around the Brexit negotiations. For example, when the Prime Minister gave her Mansion House speech, there was a lot of talk about, “Let’s be positive. We can do better.” However, there is now more and more concern from Catherine McGuinness, who is a leading member of the City of London corporation. For example, there is a real concern about the insurance industry and the financial services industry, and ensuring that we field the real economy efficiently. We feel that time is running out to mend the many fractures that Brexit has caused. For policy makers to have a chance of success, the City must first agree on its own priorities. So the City itself is confused, which is quite unusual for the City; City people are normally quite confident lobbyists, and rally both the Bank of England and the Treasury behind them.
I appreciate and recognise exactly what the hon. Lady is saying, but the strongest expression of that confidence and certainty about the future would be people choosing to remain in the City of London and the United Kingdom. Alternatively, they could head over to Paris and Frankfurt, but that has not happened in a substantial way; we do not want it to happen, but it has not happened in a substantial way. That goes against some of the fears that people had a while ago.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but I am not sure that he is accurate. My understanding is that many companies have now started to set up subsidiaries in the Netherlands, Berlin and other places—perhaps New York—and it would be remiss of us not to take that seriously. The City has wanted to give the Government time, but it is now getting frustrated. I understand that during the recess, when we were off doing constituency work or having a little break, members of the City of London went to see the Prime Minister and came out a little dissatisfied—because they are worried, I guess, but also because of the lack of coherence in the Brexit strategy, which is something that I, as a London MP, am particularly worried about.
My next point is about the national health service. We are all well versed in what was on the side of the bus and the promises of £350 million for the NHS, so I shall not go over those, but I want to make a point about the workforce. We seem to be in a parallel universe. We know that Brexit will have an effect on migration and it is the stated desire of the Prime Minister to reduce migration, but when our GP clinics and our secondary care—our hospitals—are crying out for talented doctors and nurses to come and serve our constituents when they are ill, it seems rather unadvised that the Prime Minister refuses to at least look at the migration quotas she seems to have set herself.
The other big issue regarding migration is, of course, international students, who, along with education, are one of our best exports. The shadow Minister has done an awful lot of work in that regard and I have followed up on it, trying to raise his concerns and those of others about placing education at the heart of things as one of our proudest exports, and looking again at the target for students. At the moment, there is a cap on international students that is counted as part of the total immigration cap, which seems a bit like cutting off our nose to spite our face. I hope that we will consider that matter urgently, particularly now that we have a new Secretary of State, who might have a different view and a little more sway and that, following the Windrush and other scandals, we will try to take a much more sensible approach to immigration.
I do not think that any of us who are on Twitter will have missed how the tone of the debate has deteriorated somewhat since the referendum. My neighbouring MP, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), has received the most horrendous abuse, not just because he has spoken out clearly in favour of remaining in the EU—fine, that is his position—but because of the colour of his skin. We have seen that again with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and I am sure that other Members have also experienced terrible racist remarks. I cannot help thinking that that has been part of the whole Brexit package. Indeed, I feel that there was a lack of leadership, originally, by Mr Cameron. He has gone now so we cannot ask him to come before us, but he promised that referendum without even indicating his plans for the economy or anything else, including for tackling what has become a terribly xenophobic debate, particularly on social media.
I briefly want to mention the leave campaign funding. In the past couple of days, a number of emails have been revealed that show the sheer scale of contact between members of the public who funded that campaign and the Russian Government.
That is a very good question, and I am sure that if we asked the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee they would get to the bottom of it if, indeed, the people who were requested to turn up did so. I have been astounded by the cheek of some people who will not come before a Committee of elected Members, and I am pleased that Mr Speaker has taken a firm line on that.
A point has been made that we need to develop more: is the funding for our political campaigning somehow being abused? Do we need to tighten up legislation, approaches and rules? I, too, am worried about that. We know that there is a rule that donations can come only from British residents who are on the electoral register but we must look behind the individual, at what they might be getting in return for their support for a particular side, as with the allegations in today’s papers about Mr Banks’s business interests and the sheer amount he gave to the leave campaign.
I want to touch on Northern Ireland. As someone who cares a lot about peace and is interested in all sorts of peace negotiations around the world, be they in Colombia, Cyprus or Israel and Palestine, I think that we have made much progress on peace in Northern Ireland. For me, that is the biggest issue, and not just on a pragmatic level. Before Christmas, in phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations, we saw that to be the sticking point, with everyone holding their breath as the Prime Minister spoke to Arlene Foster. That was a fudge, wasn’t it? It really just slipped over because it was the end of phase 1. I have a horrible feeling that we will gallop up to the end of the Brexit process and there will be exactly the same issue. Therefore, with your permission, Mr Austin, I thought I might spend one minute going through what I believe to be important in relation to the Northern Ireland question.
Peace in Northern Ireland is one of the largest concerns for all parties negotiating the withdrawal from the European Union. Northern Ireland remains at the heart of the negotiations due to its unique history. Its 300-mile land border with the Republic of Ireland, its at times splinted political structures, its economy and the lasting terrorist threat continue to cause concern. Many now worry that its economic and political fabric could crack as the UK meanders towards a hard Brexit, in part because joint EU membership helps to underpin the Good Friday agreement. The Irish Government have ceded articles 2 and 3 of their constitution, which claim jurisdiction over the whole island of Ireland, willing to rely on collective European identity to reassure nationalists in Northern Ireland that the island will come closer together.
The EU has played a large role in boosting Northern Ireland’s economy, through structural funds. In comparison with the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland benefits disproportionately from the common agricultural policy and if, as many expect, London’s fiscal transfers do not match the lost EU funds, its economy will be harshly hit. Leaving the EU also puts Northern Ireland at risk of losing future funding for peace and reconciliation programmes.
Meanwhile, Ireland, the EU and the UK Government have all repeatedly made clear their opposition to a hard border, something that locals and campaigners say could risk the peace process and hit cross-border trade and the economy. However, the UK Government currently rule out being in the customs union, and I await with bated breath the votes that come between now and 1 August to see how that resolves itself. In the absence of regulatory alignment, all sides are beginning to acknowledge that there will be a hard border, because what else could there be. That has led many of us, in different parties, to call for remaining in the customs union or, at a minimum, committing to regulatory alignment, and that is echoed by many, including Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ireland’s European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, and even Michel Barnier. We cannot ignore the question of Northern Ireland and I am sure, instinctively, that we will end up with that being the sticking point at 11.59 pm on the day that Brexit is decided.
Finally, on the wider geopolitical picture, this weekend Mr Trump made a number of strange statements, including a questioning of NATO. The idea that America would leave NATO is rather strange, but his speeches, if read carefully, appear to suggest that. That puts a rather different shine on our relationship with Europe and I, for one, am much more concerned to hug Europe closer because of that. Some of Mr Trump’s values regarding not wanting to be part of the climate change process—
NATO is incredibly important, as are all our international relationships. In a conflict situation, would the hon. Lady depend more on Germany’s 1.1% or 1.2% of GDP on defence spending, or the United States’ 4%? Is the United States of America not living up to her international responsibilities in a way that Germany and many other European countries are not?
I do not think it was Mrs May or any of us who said we did not want the US to be in NATO. Unless I am mistaken—perhaps I am reading different newspapers—it was Mr Trump who was putting into question his commitment to NATO over the weekend. It raises questions in the same way as when he wanted to walk away from the Paris climate agreement. He was able basically to decide not to be part of that when almost every scientist internationally accepts that climate change is our greatest scientific challenge. In addition, some of his statements about ethnic minorities and the Muslim community in particular are deeply worrying. I feel they add to the sense of xenophobia that we are seeing not only in this country, but internationally. Such statements corrode our sense of our values as western powers—our values of human rights and a commitment to peace, stability and doing things right.
My deepest concern is about the international rules-based approach being deeply challenged by someone as important as Mr Trump. Last week, on the International Trade Committee visit to Geneva, I was able to speak to negotiators, who described the style of leadership as disruptive leadership. I am not sure what the best description for it is, except “deeply troubling”. This is a time for all of us in the west who are concerned about some of the international challenges to stick together. We should not tear ourselves apart or shout insults by tweet; we should pull ourselves together and face those challenges together. The whole debate on Brexit is corrosive. It fractures what is so important right now, which is to stick up for our values of human rights, peace, stability and security. I hope those who signed the petition will look at this debate and know we are taking these issues very seriously.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), who introduced this debate very fairly, walking on eggshells as she did. I congratulate the petitioners, because it is right and proper that Parliament has the opportunity to debate these issues. I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West).
I want to keep my remarks very narrow, in the sense that I have been clear that I do not want another referendum. When I was in this place previously, I argued that the decision on the EU had to be taken by the British people. I was not directly involved in politics at the time of the referendum, but I thought the experience of the referendum was dreadful. It brought out the very worst in politicians and, dare I say, the public.
I am sure I am the only Member here who took part in the 1975 referendum, in which I voted. I was a member of the Labour party at the time—I have been one for 48 years now—and I remember that referendum being called out of weakness by the then Government, who were in direct conflict with their own party. There is nothing new in politics, is there? The referendum was conducted. It was not left versus right, because the left was split, the right was split and the centre was split, but compared with what happened in the recent referendum, it was so genteel. People actually argued their case. They did not involve themselves in personal invective, and they did not try to get money from wherever to allow the case not to be presented in the way that was best for the British public to understand, but slanted so that the British public ended up believing it was just about pure prejudice. That was not a good way to take the decision.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who has since disappeared. I am clear that if we re-ran the referendum, things would not get any better. All the evidence is that another referendum would be much more divisive. What would it resolve? If leave won, it would confirm that leave had won, but that is the situation at the moment. If remain won, we would have “neverendum”, because there would have to be a play-off. That is the worry with having another referendum. I am someone who has argued that, in fundamental constitutional issues, there has to be a referendum, but I have changed my mind. I would be happy to bring forward a Bill to ban referendums in this country. They are alien to our form of parliamentary democracy. It might work in Switzerland or other countries, but it has not worked in this country. We have ended up with the worst-case scenario. We had a narrow victory on one side and a poor debate that did not yield the arguments that needed to be brought forward.
What is the alternative? It is about time Parliament reasserted its authority. We only end up with referendums when a Government do not feel they can get their business through and Parliament cops out and refuses to take responsibility. Parliament cannot cop out on this matter anymore. When we come to the end of the negotiating period, it has to look at what is on the table. To be fair to the Government, this week we are all trying to pre-empt what we think the final deal will look like. Those of us who are partial towards the customs union hope that, at the very least, the Government will move on that issue. On other issues, we will have to see.
Hon. Members should remember that it takes two to tango. We can have all the arguments we like on this side, but if the other side—the EU—decides, “That is not what we want”, we are back to where we started. To my mind, we should rule out a second referendum. We should at least give the Government some opportunity to negotiate, but with pressure from the Opposition, because that is our job. We have to make the Government’s life fairly unbearable. We will do that this week, and we hope they lose a few of the Divisions, because that will make things much more interesting. That is what Oppositions do, and it is what Parliament is there for. Governments have to try to withstand that pressure. They may or may not. The one thing I feel absolutely certain about is that it will be a disaster if we go along the referendum path again. It will lead to even more division.
That is a wonderful notion, but what will come out of the negotiations, if anything, will be a complicated settlement. We could end up with no deal. That would be a disaster, because I fear we would then move towards free trade deals with Lord knows who. We have got a debate on Thursday on agriculture, which is my area of responsibility on the Opposition Front Bench. If we do not negotiate something, I fear we will end up with a real dog’s breakfast of agreements that we might be able to sign.
I know what my hon. Friend is saying. My problem is that it will still lead to an incredibly divisive outcome—people feel so strongly. Anyone who feels differently from me should say so and intervene. I have heard strong opinions on both sides, and I do not think that people have shifted, in the main. Some people will have done, because that is inevitable—some people shift between parties between elections, dare I say—but in the main, people are pretty clear in their views. If those opinions are stirred up by anybody or any side, things will only get worse.
We have to take responsibility, and it will not be easy. We are going to upset some people. Parliament will not necessarily be flavour of the month for those who feel we have come up with the wrong solution, but that is what they elect us for. That is why I have a problem with referendums. In a sense, they negate our power as parliamentarians to do what we believe is right. If people do not like it, they get rid of us. At the moment, if we go back to the referendum, I fear we will end up with an even more difficult outcome, whichever way it goes, and the debate will be dreadful, because what we have seen so far will be there with knobs on. People will feel even more strongly, and they will get up to even more antics because they believe that is their right. That is where we, as a democracy, will struggle, because we have to put things back together. At the end of the day, whoever is in power will have to try and run things for the whole of the country, divided or not. I worry that the further apart we get and the more divided the debate is, the more difficult it will be to put things back together again.
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about referenda. However, our result was not like the Republic of Ireland’s recent referendum result of 66:33, or whatever the maths is, and the difference was so fine. Does he not accept that, although I am not a great fan of referenda, and given that Mr Cameron has led us this far, a referendum is perhaps the only thing that could give either a stamp of approval or overturn things? I do not put any value judgment on either position. I am talking about giving clarity.
Of course, the Scottish referendum had a 40% benchmark, which derailed the whole process for Scottish devolution for a time, so there are ways in which we can play tricks, but that is a problem. I do not think we can play tricks anymore. I think the general public will see through it and will feel let down.
We are going to take a lot of stick over the coming weeks and months—dare I say even years—but Parliament needs to reassert its authority to make decisions in the best interests of the people of this country. We individually stand or fall by that. It is easy to say that, eventually, there will be a fail-safe solution, but I fear that if we have got to that stage, it will not be a fail-safe at all and the people of this country will be at war with each other. I do not mean that in a nasty sense, but people’s opinions are divided on this issue. We might suggest having very strict guidelines on another referendum. There were supposedly guidelines on the previous one. Well, you could have fooled me. People simply misbehaved and said things that they thought were attractive and would win votes for their side, without any accountability whatever, so I would worry about that.
Parliament has to take a decision. It will be difficult. We have to get the Government back and hold them to account. We have to see what the final deal is. As I say, I fear a no deal situation. That might be where we push the Government back to say that that is not acceptable. We will be voting this week. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on the Front Bench might have things to say about that—perhaps not today, but in future. We believe there will have to be a deal, but, as I say, the referendum that could follow it, which might result in a divided outcome, is the worst possible outcome, so please, Parliament, make a decision.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am really worried that there has been no White Paper published. That is a big concern for me because people ask me questions about it. Should the Government be held to account for not delivering a White Paper to the people of Great Britain?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It would be helpful if parliamentarians had the evidence to start with, so that we could make up our minds. The public will not read it and make a decision. They will base their decision on prejudice, which is what we, effectively, catalysed in the debate that took place in the previous referendum. So, please, Parliament, reassert authority, hold the Government to account, force them to get a deal, and let us see where we go from there.
Thank you, Mr Austin, for allowing me to make a short speech. I apologise for being in the main Chamber, first for the Yemen statement and then for the G7 statement, but I had put in a request to speak in this debate when neither of those were scheduled.
I want to comment on a couple of points made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew). He described the referendum two years ago as dreadful, and I agree with him on that point. I do not, however, agree with his conclusion that we should not have another referendum. It does not automatically follow that if we have a final say on the deal, or a people’s vote, that that referendum would be dreadful as well. That is not necessarily the case. From talking to people on both sides of the argument, I have found that the discussion we should have had before the referendum is the one that we have had over the past two years. People’s awareness of what it means is therefore much greater now than it was prior to June 2016. I am confident that, although any such campaign will never be 100% clean—I am certain of that—it will be a hell of a lot cleaner than the one we had two years ago, particularly if we make sure that certain safeguards are put in place, as has happened in referendums in other countries.
For instance, an independent arbiter can examine the claims made by both camps. I accept that, two years ago, people on both sides of the argument told porkies. They were, on occasion, mendacious and fantastical. On other occasions they were deluded, and in some cases their claims were all three of those things at once. We could have someone with the ability to say, “No, you cannot say that”, and clamp down on it straightaway.
We also need a much higher degree of awareness and checks and balances in social media campaigning, so that every single advert that goes out on Facebook—if we allow it—has the equivalent of the “printed and published by” that appears on the bottom of our leaflets, and people can see who it comes from. If it comes from me, they will see, “Tom Brake, Liberal Democrats”, and know it is an advert funded by me. Equally, if it comes from my Conservative or Labour opponent, they will know that as well. If it has nothing on the bottom of it and has therefore come from President Putin, they can draw their own conclusions about the possible source of that particular advert in a referendum campaign. I think we can do things differently.
There is another reason why opinions are so divided, to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Stroud. There is nothing to suggest that, as the Government steamroller through the proposals that some Conservative Brexiters love so much, the nation will not be anything other than even more divided that it was when it voted in June 2016. He might think otherwise. He might think that the Government will somehow, miraculously, manage the process, but they have not even managed to unite their own Front Benchers, so how will they unite the country behind their proposals? Frankly, that will not happen. If we do leave, we will be as divided as we were before June 2016.
In some ways, therefore, having a final say on the deal, or a people’s vote, gives everyone the opportunity to look at what it means now that we have an understanding of what is involved. Rather than the European Union being about to give us billions of pounds, the truth is far from it: we are about to give it billions of pounds—up to £40 billion. If people understand the extent of what is involved, they will go into the campaign with a clearer understanding. If a people’s vote were to take place and we had a 10-week campaign that was relatively fair and properly administered, and if the country voted 52-48 for whatever deal the Government had secured, as far as I am concerned that would be it. We would have voted to leave the European Union and we would go, even though I dislike intensely that approach. At least most people would feel that they had had the campaign to which they were entitled—but never got—in June 2016. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Stroud that proceeding in the way proposed by the Government will ensure that the country is not extremely divided.
The petition gives rise to the question whether there should be a people’s vote, so I suppose the first thing to ask is whether one is wanted. The hon. Member for Stroud said that there has not been a shift in people’s views. Most polls suggest that there has been a slight shift in favour of remain. In Northern Ireland, which perhaps has more knowledge than anywhere else of the impact of Brexit, there has been a very large shift in support for staying in the EU.
I gently point out that this debate is not on the subject of having a people’s vote, but on Parliament’s ability to have more options as part of a meaningful vote, including—specifically for the petitioners—the option of remaining in the EU. I just want to clarify that, because many thousands of people signed the petition and it is important that we talk about the exact subject.
I am very happy to do that. Of course, I think of Members of Parliament as people. Clearly we are entitled to a people’s vote, as are the people.
Does Parliament want to have a vote on this subject? Certainly, the Lords have made their views clear. From votes that have taken place so far, it seems there is perhaps not yet a majority in the House of Commons in favour of a people’s vote or a parliamentary vote that would allow us to choose between the deal the Government secure and staying in the European Union. That would be a meaningful vote. Parliament’s meaningful vote cannot be a choice between a deal that we know will be bad—the Government’s impact assessments have told us that whatever deal they come up with will be bad for us and shrink the UK economy—and crashing out of the European Union, which we know would be an absolute catastrophe and lead to blockages at every single port and airport around the country and to huge job losses. That is a not a meaningful vote. A meaningful vote would be one where the Prime Minister conceded that Members of Parliament could send it back.
Frankly, I think the Government are going to come up with a deal that no one likes. Which Member of Parliament, when the Government come forward with a deal, will stand up and say, “This is a brilliant deal—I absolutely love it”? I do not think a single Member of Parliament will stand up and say, “The deal the Government have struck is brilliant.” I will not, because I am a remainer, but nor will the members of the European Research Group, because they can see that the Government are making compromises. I suspect we will end up in a position where Members of Parliament are presented with a deal that no one will support.
Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on the closeness of the original vote? A no-deal exit is so far from any interpretation of the very close original referendum result. It would be different if it were a soft Brexit. Perhaps it could be argued that that was okay, but a no-deal exit is so different from that 52% to 48% result. We all have to interpret the wishes of our constituents, but no deal is so far removed from what people wanted from Brexit in the best case scenario.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. Members of Parliament should be offered a choice that reflects the choices that people made in the EU referendum campaign. I certainly cannot remember anyone saying to me, “I think the best thing for the United Kingdom would be to crash out overnight, on World Trade Organisation rules. That would be brilliant for British businesses and jobs.” If anyone had a constituent come to them and say, “That’s a fantastic solution,” they should stick their hand up now. No one will do so, because no one thought that that was a solution. Yet it seems that that is the choice that Members of Parliament will be offered.
Either we go for a deal that no Member of Parliament will support, whether they are a supporter of the ERG or a remainer like me, or we go for no deal, which nobody has ever supported from the outset. We are in a strange position. If the Government want to do this the right way, I suggest to them that remaining in the EU should be on the ballot paper. If it is, we might end up with a parliamentary outcome that reflects more closely the views of Members of Parliament and possibly those of the public more generally.
Members of Parliament should have a meaningful vote, for the reasons that I have set out. We are entitled to a real choice—not a Hobson’s choice between something catastrophic and something even more catastrophic. I will touch briefly on why there should also be a people’s vote. I have heard worrying reports from some Members of Parliament. Unfortunately, during the EU referendum campaign two years ago we had the murder of Jo Cox. Since then, Members of Parliament have been threatened for their views on our membership of the European Union. The only threats I have had are the comments that everyone who stands at a stall in favour of remain gets. A person stops, says, “You’re a traitor,” and then walks off.
That is the only sort of threat I have had, but I am aware that other Members of Parliament have had much more serious ones. There is a question mark over the extent to which they will be able to vote fairly and cleanly in the forthcoming votes. Potentially, a very small number of votes will determine the outcome, one way or the other. If Members of Parliament are scared of making the decision that they think is right because they have had threats to their lives—often the threats are not as serious as that, but they still have to be reported to the police—that is another reason why throwing this open to the country might be the right thing to do.
I thank the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) for her earlier intervention, ensuring that I came back on track and that, as opposed to focusing all my effort on the people’s vote, I came back to the parliamentary vote, which is just as significant.
My worry is that whatever pressure we come under in this place and outside, our role in another referendum would be even more dangerously vulnerable, because of the nature of that debate. The right hon. Gentleman said earlier that it would be a better debate. I wish I believed him, but I think it would be a worse debate.
We are each entitled to our views. I do not know what level of engagement the hon. Gentleman has had with people in his constituency or further afield, but all the discussions we are now having about whether the European arrest warrant will continue, the European Aviation Safety Agency, the European Medicines Agency, and whether we should comply with EU standards on products are, frankly, discussions that were not had before the referendum. They are being had now, and I believe there is a greater awareness of the implications than there was before. That is why I have a hope, though this is not a certainty, that were such a referendum to take place it would be better informed than the previous one.
I should not be overly indulgent, Mr Austin, given that you have allowed me to speak in special circumstances. I congratulate the petitioners on securing more than 100,000 signatures, and on reinforcing the point that not only should there be a people’s vote in the wider country, but Members of Parliament are entitled to be treated as grown-ups and have the opportunity to take part in a meaningful vote—not one that presents us with two options that are completely unacceptable.
It is as pleasure to begin summing up the debate. I commend the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for the detailed, well-informed way in which she presented the petitioners’ argument. Thank you, Mr Austin, for relaxing the dress code for those of us with a slightly different thermostat. Hon. Members will be immensely relieved to know that I do not intend to adopt the dress code that may have been sported by the hon. Lady’s constituents in Blaydon and people in other parts of the great city of Newcastle upon Tyne at the weekend—that might be a wee bit much for the parliamentary cameras.
We have had an interesting debate, but disappointingly a lot of hon. Members confused the question of a meaningful vote in the House of Commons with the question of a meaningful vote in another referendum. Frankly, that is disrespectful to the petitioners. I understand why people tend to conjoin the two proposals, but the arguments for and against them are completely different. I will focus on the argument for giving elected Members of Parliament a meaningful vote once we know the full details of the deal that has—or, heaven forbid, has not—been struck at the end of the negotiation process. Let us remember that the negotiation process has about four months to go, perhaps five, if we are lucky, so we are running out of time.
The hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) made a stirring speech, but missed the point entirely. I even gave him the chance to come to the point when I asked him how many people who voted in the referendum said in their vote that they wanted to leave the customs union and the single market. The answer is absolutely none. I do not know how many of those 17.4 million people wanted to leave both of those institutions. Perhaps all of them did; perhaps none of them did. We gave people a simple, binary, either/or choice on a question that was far too complicated to be resolved in its entirety by such a vote.
It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that the manifesto on which his party got its only overall majority in this place in 25 years said that we would stay in the single market. The manifesto on which it threw away its overall majority—against what, to begin with, looked like an utterly disorganised and divided Opposition—was the one in which it said that we would leave the single market.
I have seen numerous clips on television and read numerous articles in which campaigners from both the leave and the remain campaigns clearly stated that if we voted to leave the European Union, we would leave the single market and the customs union. I have seen abundant examples of people saying that. I am in no doubt that my constituents were perfectly clear about that.
I have seen abundant statements from leading leave campaigners that said that if we left the European Union we would get £375 million for the health service. I have also seen abundant statements from the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Conservative party who said that voting for me to come down here was a declaration of a desire for Scottish independence. Sadly, it was not; we need a bit more than that.
I do not understand the nonsensical idea that the interpretation of any electoral contest should be dictated by what the losers said was going to happen. What a ridiculous way of interpreting a democratic contest! Most Opposition Members who spoke referred to the serious flaws in the way the referendum was set up and conducted, and the way the referendum rules were enforced—or, as is becoming increasingly clear, were not enforced. The fact is that the referendum produced a result. On a UK-wide basis, it produced a result; in England and Wales, it produced a result; in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it produced a different result, and we ain’t going to let people forget that in a hurry.
The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse)—my colleague on the Exiting the European Union Committee—rightly drew attention to a number of the false promises that were made during the leave campaign. It is a complete fudge to say, “That wasnae our leave campaign; it was somebody else’s leave campaign. A big bad boy leave campaign done it, and then they ran away”—in some cases, they ran away to become Foreign Secretary.
The hon. Gentleman has had enough chances to speak, between his substantive speech and his interventions. I note that when questions are raised about the conduct of the leave campaign, he wants to know which leave campaign it was. The question, then, is, which leave campaign won the referendum? If we do not know that, we cannot possibly know which version of leave people voted for.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), who is backed up by a substantial majority in her constituency—her constituents are clearly in favour of remaining in the European Union—also drew attention to some of the flaws in the process. Questions must be asked about who provided the massive funding for the leave campaign. I know that opinion polls can sometimes be misleading, but there are certainly many indications that, if it is established that there was something seriously dodgy about how any of the leave campaigns were funded, even people who voted to leave will see that as cheating. That is simply not the way we do what passes for democracy in this place and in these islands.
The hon. Gentleman is making some very important points. Does he agree that, once we know more and journalists have an opportunity to uncover more—perhaps in their own emails—we might discover that there should be a police investigation into some of those worrying issues, such as how the money that pushed the vote in a certain direction was amassed?
Some of the revelations of the past few days could certainly lead to that. We now need to ensure those in charge of the investigations have the information they need and are co-operated with fully when they carry them out. That, of course, includes Select Committees of this Parliament. It is fascinating that some of the champions of the “bring sovereignty back to Parliament” brigade ran a mile when Parliament asked them to come in and account for the way they ran their campaigns, but the leave campaign has been full of contradictions from the beginning.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) made an interesting speech. He, too, tended to talk about a second referendum, although he made the point that it is possible to reject the idea of another referendum while supporting the idea that Members of Parliament, who have been guaranteed a vote, have to be given a meaningful vote. I do not think that choosing between an option the Prime Minister says is unpalatable and one she says is unacceptable is anything like a meaningful vote.
I find it extraordinary that a Prime Minister who has told us so often that our relationship with the European Union cannot be based on a binary choice is so obsessed with giving us a binary choice when it comes to the crunch. She told us in October 2016 that controlling immigration is not a binary decision. In March 2017, she said:
“It is wrong to think of the single market as a binary issue”—[Official Report, 14 March 2017; Vol. 623, c. 190.]
In October 2016, she said that
“the way in which you deal with the customs union is not a binary choice”—[Official Report, 24 October 2016; Vol. 616, c. 35.]
She must have meant it about the customs union, because she repeated that in November 2016, February 2017 and March 2018. That is only in the House of Commons Hansard. That does not include the number of times she has made the same comments at press conferences and in fancy speeches. In fact, the only time the Government seem to think that this is a binary question is whenever they want a decision to be made. In the referendum, we had a binary choice—in or out of the European Union, without any consideration of the infinite variety of what in or out could be. The Government palmed off any attempt to amend the article 50 Bill. We either had to support it in its entirety or reject it. In the first major speech the Prime Minister made about the European Union, she made a binary decision that we were leaving the customs union and the single market, before anybody, including the Prime Minister herself, had the faintest clue about where we would go after we had left those destinations.
Incidentally, I can advise the hon. Member for Bolton West that there is no such thing as a good no deal at the end of these negotiations. There is no such thing as a no deal that is better than a bad deal. Even the Government could not negotiate a deal worse than what no deal would mean for the people of these islands.
We are now being told that, when it comes to the last chance to avoid a catastrophic hard Brexit, we will be presented with a choice between a possibly horrific deal that the Government have agreed with the European Union and an even more horrific deal that they have failed to agree.
A better way of dealing with it is for the Parliament whose job is to hold the United Kingdom Government to account to concentrate on doing that and let our MEPs hold the European Commission and the European Council to account. The potential catastrophes at the end of the Brexit negotiations are piling up not because the European Union negotiators are not looking after the interests of the population of Europe, but because the United Kingdom Government are not looking after the interests of the people of the United Kingdom. They are looking after their own political skins more than anything else.
Last week’s stand-off between the Prime Minister and the Brexit Secretary is a perfect example of that. So they go to nose to nose, probably both threatening to resign if they do not get their own way, and they come up with some kind of fudge. They then realise that they have been so busy fighting to score points off each other that no one has had the idea of trying to put together a solution that will be even vaguely acceptable to our colleagues in the European Union.
The hard-line Brexiteers are bitterly disappointed that Europe has not fallen apart. The 27 remaining member states of the European Union are doing what Europeans do well in a crisis: they are sticking together. Speak to parliamentarians and Ministers in almost any of the 27 countries and there is no suggestion that the Foreign Secretary or the International Trade Secretary will somehow drive wedges between our neighbours in mainland Europe. That will simply not happen, and the sooner the UK Government understand that the better.
The UK Government need to understand that they took a unilateral decision—without the backing of a referendum—to leave the customs union and the single market, and only then started to look at what the consequences might be. We cannot blame the Europeans for that, or the Irish for the catastrophe that the Government may be stoking up on the Irish border; the catastrophe is entirely of the United Kingdom’s making, and it is entirely up to the United Kingdom to sort it out. We cannot ask everyone else to sort out the mess that our own Government have made for us.
There has to be a meaningful vote in Parliament at the end of the process. There has to be a meaningful chance for the devolved nations to have a say—the voices of the devolved nations have been silenced throughout, despite all the promises about them being listened to and respected. None of the three devolved nations has had any real chance to influence the discussions.
The Prime Minister wants us to have a straight binary choice between unpalatable and unacceptable. I hope that we will now say to the Prime Minister and the rest of the Government that neither of those solutions is an acceptable position to put this Parliament in. At the last gasp, Parliament should have the opportunity to say, “No, Prime Minister, we’re not doing it—take it back and think again”—[Interruption.]
It is a pleasure to wind up the debate on behalf of the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Austin. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on the thoughtful way in which she presented the feelings of the petitioners. I also congratulate the petitioners on their engagement in this process.
The debate is timely—that is an understatement, given the week that we have ahead. Tomorrow the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the Commons, and this issue will be at the very heart of those discussions, because it is critical. The petitioners could have expected many more colleagues from all parties and a much longer debate had we not been preparing for discussion of the Bill this week. If anyone gets bored with that, we also have Brexit oral questions on Thursday, so it is a Brexit-packed week in Parliament.
The current situation is clearly something of a national disaster. We are having the most important negotiations for our country since the second world war, but we are being led by the most dysfunctional Government in our lifetimes. The uncertainty created by that was highlighted powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) in terms of the impact on our economy. We have four months to go until the October conclusion of the negotiations. After two years, with just four months left, we see open warfare in the Cabinet. The Government are still incapable—this is quite extraordinary—of publishing the negotiating objectives White Paper they promised only four weeks ago.
I am not surprised, frankly. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Strasbourg talking to colleagues from different parties and countries, and they are shocked by Britain at the moment. Whatever their differences have been with us in the past, they always respected Britain as having an effective Government with a well-oiled diplomatic machine and being clear on their objectives and how to achieve them. They cannot believe the Government’s shambles, creating the uncertainty that my hon. Friend spoke about.
We still have no solution to the Irish border and to fulfilling the obligation made by the Government. We are no further forward on plans to protect what was originally described as frictionless trade—the Government are now backtracking on that and talking about a more limited ambition. We certainly have no clarity on how they will achieve the exact same benefits that we now enjoy in the single market and the customs union—a negotiating aim that they set for themselves and that the Prime Minister has repeated.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
The open warfare is incredible. Only last week the Foreign Secretary unfavourably compared the Prime Minister’s negotiating approach with that of Donald Trump. Is that what we have come to? The holder of one of the key offices of state is undermining his own Prime Minister and, indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said a little while ago on national television that he was being openly undermined and briefed against by other members of the Cabinet. This is a shocking position to be in.
With the Government paralysed by their own divisions, it looks increasingly as if Parliament will need—to coin a phrase—to take back control. It is ironic that some of the most vocal supporters of leaving the European Union, who made grand demands about parliamentary sovereignty central to their campaign, are so reluctant to concede that parliamentary sovereignty at this vital time. Those who cried foul about being a vassal state during the transition period seem to want a vassal Parliament in these vital negotiations. At this critical juncture, they say yes, they want parliamentary sovereignty—but not just yet, and not if it undermines their desire for the most extreme Brexit.
That is a point that I have made on the Floor of the House: there are those within the governing party—though clearly a minority—who want Brexit at any cost to the political stability of our continent and to the economy of this country. They are driven by Brexit above everything, and the Labour party and I do not believe that that is in the interests of this country.
Since First Reading, having a meaningful vote for Parliament on the final deal has been one of the Labour party’s key tests for the withdrawal Bill. We have been clear that a binary “take it or leave it” vote, in a zero-sum game tactic from the Government, will in no way constitute a meaningful vote. Crucially, that view unites Members across parties, and that is why the House voted last December for the amendment moved by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), to give Parliament a meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement—to the consternation of the Government.
The Government immediately looked for wriggle room to avoid meeting that ambition of Parliament. The Lords therefore added greater clarity about what constitutes a meaningful vote, by accepting the amendment moved by the Conservative peer, Viscount Hailsham, which provides for a motion and an Act and, in the event of the motion not passing, for any decision on the next steps to be firmly in Parliament’s hands. With two defeats under their belt on the issue, the Government have now moved their own amendment—but they have not moved far enough.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think it slightly ironic that the Government and their friends at the Daily Mail are decrying the anti-patriotic behaviour of lordships who agreed 15 amendments that the Government did not like at the same time as agreeing 160-plus amendments that the Government did like?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. There has been a series of contradictions over the years in the position that some extreme Brexiteers have taken on the House of Lords—some have been its greatest champions and opponents of its reform.
Let me come back to the Government’s amendment. If the House was to vote down a motion under their proposals, Parliament would lose all influence. We would get no more than a statement from the Government informing us how they will proceed, frustrating the ambition of the vote that we had in December. Let us be clear: the Government’s amendment does not stop them sidelining Parliament from a crucial decision that will determine our future relationship with the EU, and nor does it prevent us from crashing out without a deal.
Viscount Hailsham’s amendment is explicit that if we do not accept the Government’s deal, it is for Parliament to determine the next steps. We will not be boxed into accepting “take it or leave it” options. We support the amendment because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) pointed out, it is Parliament that is elected to determine the country’s future. Viscount Hailsham's amendment would ensure Parliament directs the Government on how to proceed in the article 50 negotiations, in whatever way it sees fit at that time.
It is right that, in the words of the petition,
“A lesser of two evils choice between a bad deal and no deal is not acceptable. Our country deserves better than Hobson's choice”.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) is no longer in his seat; it is unfortunate that he misrepresented the petition’s objective and the use of “evil”. I do not think that the petitioners mean that a deal of some sort would in no sense be acceptable; their words were simply that the
“choice between a bad deal and no deal”
When Parliament makes a decision, all options have to be open, but the petitioners need to recognise that Parliament does not have the political mandate to overturn the referendum. To do so would create a democratic crisis. Clearly, some argue for a further referendum—those arguments were exercised today by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse); the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), although at one point he seemed confused about which petition he was talking about; and, in a different way, by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud. But there is no indication of majority public support for a further referendum. There is growing support for a public vote on the final deal, but when polled, people do not want staying in the EU necessarily to be an option on the ballot paper—they are seeking a choice between that deal and a better deal, without looking back at the original referendum choice.
I appreciate the Liberal Democrats’ love of referendums, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as far back as 2010, it was the Liberal Democrats who called for a referendum on our membership of the European Union—at the time, the Labour party opposed it—for that to be a decisive vote and for Parliament to accept the outcome. They are in a bit of a difficult position as they argue their point.
I do not think the hon. Gentleman answered my right hon. Friend’s question, so it would be nice to hear his answer. Precisely because we believe in debate and in the sensible arguments coming forward in the end, there is no contradiction in our saying, “Let’s discuss it to the end and take it to the people in the end.” That is the most democratic way forward.
Let me return to the right hon. Gentleman’s question: it is not possible for us at this stage to predict how Parliament should exercise its response to the final deal. We need all the options to be available. I was simply pointing out that when the Liberal Democrats called for the 2016 referendum, they said that the results should be binding. It is a little ironic that, just as they jumped on that bandwagon, they are jumping on this one.
Mr Austin—sorry, Mr Davies—
That was a seamless transition, Mr Davies.
The majority in Parliament respect the referendum result and those who voted in it, too. That majority knows that people voted to get out of the EU but that they did not vote to lose out. The majority wants a sensible approach to Brexit—no longer being in the EU but being in a customs union, with the closest possible relationship with the single market and continuing membership of the agencies that we built together.
The hon. Member for Bolton West was wrong in his characterisation of Labour’s position; our position was clear in our manifesto at the last election. The Prime Minister should reach out to the majority in Parliament and the majority in the country. If she comes back in October with a deal that fails the British people, it will be Parliament’s duty to set the direction for the next steps.
I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for opening and contributing to the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, and for speaking for the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition. The petition calls for Parliament’s vote on the Brexit deal to include an option to remain in the European Union. I applaud the way in which she presented the heartfelt views of the many people who took the time to sign the petition.
I thank also all those who spoke, whether in support of or in opposition to the petition. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) provided a balanced speech in which he acknowledged the vibrant democracy and lively debate that Brexit provokes and reflects. He has been a principled campaigner not only for his constituents but for the leave campaign. He made a powerful contribution.
The hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) made thoughtful contributions, too. I was, however, concerned to hear a high number of negative words; the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), used the words, “catastrophe”, “disaster” and “warfare”. I must challenge the pessimism of hon. Members—I disagree with it and I will talk about that later.
I echo the sentiment of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central in response to the calls for a second referendum by the hon. Member for Bath and the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). It is at odds with what their erstwhile leader Nick Clegg pledged in his now famous leaflet that called for a “real referendum” on the European Union, to settle the question once and for all. I do not know about them, but the events of 2016 looked pretty real and authentic to me. In their call for a second referendum, they are slightly at odds with what their previous leader advocated.
I am not going to comment on the speculative and hypothetical theories that are being circulated, but it is clear that the accusations that the right hon. Gentleman puts are not against the official campaign—the organisation that was nominated to lead the leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green made an interesting and wide-ranging speech about many aspects of the European Union—not least the economic case for remaining in the EU, if it is fair to describe it in that way—but again, I disagree with her sentiments. Output in the service sector is up, consumer spending is up, output in the manufacturing and construction sectors is up, growth forecasts have been revised up, foreign direct investment projects are up and unemployment is at a 40-year low—all that despite Brexit—so I question what economic picture she refers to.
What does the Minister make of the 90% drop in foreign direct investment, which has been commented on in the financial pages of every major newspaper? I am referring not to projects—I noticed that she qualified what she said by referring to projects—but to the 90% drop in FDI. Further, what does she make of the drop in house prices in high-value areas, which has an impact on supply chains?
The hon. Lady can refer to the Department for International Trade figures that I relied on, which show that foreign direct investment projects have been on the increase since the referendum. More broadly, we can also look at the number of global companies that are choosing the UK as an investment location. Most recently, Amazon announced the creation of 2,500 jobs by the end of this year. If that is not a vote of confidence in the British economy, I do not know what is.
Out of respect for the strength of our democracy and the public’s trust in our democratic institutions, I cannot respond in the way that the 100,000-plus signatories to the petition may wish me to. Simply put, remaining in the EU is not an option. I do not say that lightly, as I recognise the strength of feeling about this issue on both sides of the debate. The Government’s position is clear: we will respect the result of the referendum. The UK will not remain a member of the European Union. We are also clear, as a matter of firm policy, that our notification under article 50 will not be withdrawn. We will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019.
Before I turn to Members’ specific questions, let me set out why that is our policy and how it will be reflected in our approach to the vote on the withdrawal agreement and the terms of our future relationship. When voters walked into polling booths on 23 June 2016, they had received through their doors a leaflet from the Government that set out very clearly, with no room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation:
“This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.”
That decision was equally clear. Voters were asked:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union”?
On 23 June 2016, 72% of the electorate voted on that question, and 17.4 million of them—52% of those who voted—made a clear and unambiguous decision. They instructed the Government to take the UK out of the EU—to leave.
To me and to the millions of people who listened to any of the debate in the run-up to that important vote—as I said, there was a record turnout in many constituencies—it is clear that it was said time and again that leaving the European Union would mean leaving the customs union and the single market. Someone would have had to be pretty isolated and switched off to ignore that central feature of the debate.
That is the biggest democratic mandate for a course of action achieved by any Government in the United Kingdom. After the referendum, the House voted by a clear majority to authorise the Prime Minister to trigger article 50, which provided the legal basis for our withdrawal and commenced the leaving process. In the recent general election, more than 80% of people voted for parties committed to respecting the result of the referendum. That is why I must say at this point that the amendments recently tabled by Labour, and the move in its policy, confirm our worst suspicions. Labour’s policy is now for us to remain in the single market and the customs union, and it seems likely to accept free movement of people. That looks like remain, it sounds like remain—yes, it is a policy in favour of remaining in the EU.
The instruction from the referendum cannot be ignored. The Government are clear that the British people voted to leave the EU, so that is what we must do. As the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU noted,
“the electorate voted for a Government to give them a referendum. Parliament voted to hold the referendum, the people voted in that referendum, and we are now honouring the result of that referendum, as we said we would.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 818.]
The Prime Minister said in October:
“This is about more than the decision to leave the EU; it is about whether the public can trust their politicians to put in place the decision they took.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2017; Vol. 630, c. 45.]
The UK can trust this Government to honour the referendum result. We recognise that to do otherwise would be to undermine the decision of the British people, which would have worrying implications for our democracy.
Right hon. and hon. Members may regret the chain of events I have described, and they may regret that there was not a caveat that the result of the referendum could be overturned by Parliament if it did not like the result of the negotiations, but the time to add that caveat was when the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was passed. I note that many Members in the Chamber—the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, and the shadow Minister, for instance—voted in favour of passing that Act. That Act did not say that the referendum result would be the best of three, it did not say that, if we did not like the first result, we could go away and rerun the referendum to get the result we wanted, and it did not say that there had to be a certain result. That was the time to make these suggestions—not now, after the public has voted.
Does the Minister not agree that it is in the best interests of the whole country that we come together behind a decision that most people see as a good way forward that will lead to a good future? Does not her insistence on the result of this one Brexit referendum hide all our difficulties as a country? Is not the best way forward for us all to go to the people again and to clarify and confirm the matter so that we can all move forward together? I absolutely believe that we should get that clarification, in the interests of everyone—including the Government.
The hon. Lady’s point is inherently contradictory. On the one hand, she says, “Isn’t it important that we all come together and unite and put our divisions behind us?” I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. I urge every Member present to get behind the referendum result and support the Government’s agenda.
On the other hand, however, the hon. Lady says, “Let’s have another vote”—a divisive vote on a contentious question again. I do not see how that sits easily. We have had a vote and the argument, the people have instructed the Government and we will deliver what they have told us to do.
I do not recognise any of the terms used by the right hon. Gentleman. I do not believe in a hard Brexit or a soft Brexit, a hardest possible Brexit or a softest possible Brexit. I believe in Brexit. We are either in the European Union or out of the European Union. We are either in the customs union or out of the customs union, and either in the single market or out of the single market, with either free movement of people or no free movement of people.
I will not, because I need to get on with my speech and I have given way many times. Those are the objectives of the Government and of the Prime Minister.
As I have said, the Government recognise the strength of feeling on this issue. That is why we know that it is incumbent on us to secure a deal that works for all of the United Kingdom and one that Parliament will want to support. As the Prime Minister has said, our decision to leave the EU does not mark an ending; it marks a new beginning for our relationship with our European allies. This is where I diverge from right hon. and hon. Members and their pessimistic view of negotiations so far: we have made significant progress on the negotiations. We have agreed the terms of a time-limited implementation period.
Will the Minister acknowledge that when Labour, echoing the views of business, the trade unions and many across the country, first floated the idea of a transitional period, the Prime Minister said she did not want that, so she defines progress as embracing Labour’s aspirations?
I do not think the Government have embraced Labour’s aspirations for a long time, and long may that continue. The implementation period was requested by the business community and the Government responded in kind. We have agreed the terms of a time-limited implementation period, and on the wider withdrawal agreement we have locked down entire chapters on citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. As to our future relationship, we are confident that we will secure an ambitious future partnership with the EU, covering both a significant economic relationship and a deep security relationship. I look forward to the forthcoming publication of our White Paper, which will set that out in detail.
On the economic side, we want the broadest and deepest possible partnership, covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today. We want the greatest possible tariff and barrier-free trade with our European neighbours as well as the freedom to negotiate our own trade agreements around the world. That is why we are leaving the customs union and the single market. We want to ensure that UK companies have the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets, and to let European businesses do the same in the UK. We therefore propose a unique and ambitious partnership, based on our rules and regulations being the same at the start and on maintaining our commitment to free trade and high standards while allowing for us both to make changes where we want to in a stable and orderly way.
On security, we have been clear that we must do whatever is most practical and pragmatic to provide security for our citizens. We must not allow competition to inhibit our co-operation and jeopardise the security of our citizens.
To return to the detail of the petition, the Government have committed to holding a vote on the final deal in Parliament as soon as possible after agreement has been reached on the withdrawal agreement and the terms of our future relationship, and the negotiations have concluded. The House will know that the Government have tabled an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill for consideration this week, which will write into law our existing commitment on the vote on the final deal.
Some reference has been made to amendment 19—the Hailsham amendment—which is of concern. The Government’s amendment in lieu will write into law our existing commitment on the vote in the final deal. The problem with the Hailsham amendment is that it would remove Parliament’s ability to direct the Government in the negotiations—sorry, the amendment we have tabled will remove Parliament’s ability to direct the Government in the negotiations, which is a dangerous element contained in Viscount Hailsham’s amendment. It is important that I get that right.
The Minister has, on the second attempt, defined what the Government’s amendment seeks to do: to remove from Parliament the opportunity to direct the Government in the event of not accepting the deal. Does she not recognise that that would leave the Parliament of the United Kingdom powerless in the most important negotiations facing our country?
I disagree. The Hailsham amendment would set a dangerous constitutional precedent that would limit the Government’s prerogative in the act of international treaty negotiation. That would reduce the flexibility necessary for a successful negotiation, which is essential for the Government if we are to get the best deal possible.
The Government have been clear, and our amendment reiterates that clarity, that Parliament will have the power to have a vote on the final deal. That will be a meaningful vote. The hon. Lady talks about parliamentary sovereignty and encouraging scrutiny, and a meaningful vote on the final deal is the best example and biggest opportunity for Parliament to have the very say she talks about on the deal presented and negotiated by the Government.
No, not at all. The Government amendment writes into law our existing commitment on the vote on the final deal. It makes it clear that that is the case. In no way does it reduce the opportunity for and power of Parliament to have a meaningful vote on the final deal.
The Minister is of course right that the Government’s amendment does not remove Parliament’s power to have a vote. However, will she not accept, addressing her remarks to those behind the petition as well, that the Government’s amendment takes all meaning out of the word “meaningful”? It simply provides for Parliament to have a take it or leave it, like it or lump it, no real choice vote.
The Government will present to both Houses of Parliament the terms of the withdrawal agreement as agreed between the EU and the UK. We will also present the terms of our future economic partnership. There will be considerable opportunity for scrutiny of the terms of our final deal, and the motion will be presented to both Chambers. That will provide Parliament with the opportunity to accept or reject the deal—there is nothing more meaningful than that.
On 25 April, the Secretary of State gave evidence to the Exiting the European Union Committee. Its Chair, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), was trying to tease out what the timing was likely to be and, in relation to the details of the final deal, the Secretary of State told us:
“We will know all of it, to the very last bits of the negotiation, way before we are in a position to put it to the House.”
Will the Minister clarify the Government’s present thinking on timescales? When can we expect to get that detailed statement on what the final deal will look like and on what date does she expect to put that to the House for a vote, so we can have an indication as to how many days, weeks, hours or minutes we will have for consideration before that?
We have been very clear, as has Michel Barnier on behalf of the EU, that we hope that by the time of the October European Council we will be in a position to have a full withdrawal agreement agreed between the EU and the UK, and detail on the terms of our future economic partnership.
I will not, because I am running out of time and the hon. Member for Blaydon needs time to respond. When the vote is held, it will cover both the withdrawal agreement and the terms of our future relationship. We expect and intend to achieve a deal that Parliament will want to vote in favour of. Again, I am confident that a deal that hon. Members will be able to support will be presented to Parliament. At the end of the day, it is mutually beneficial to both the UK and the EU to strike such a constructive economic partnership, one that supports our businesses, our citizens and our countries.
The choice that will be offered is not whether we should stay in the EU. We have had that debate. We have heard those arguments. This year is not the time to look into that issue again. This choice is in line with what the European Parliament is entitled to: a yes or no vote on the final deal.
The Government’s approach, which I have set out today, will no doubt disappoint those who have signed this petition, but that should not be misrepresented as ignoring their views. It should be understood as respecting the view of the majority of voters, who chose to exercise their democratic right in a referendum made possible by Parliament, on terms agreed by Parliament. For those who say a vote under the Government’s approach is not meaningful, I ask: what more meaning can there be than to show that Parliament will faithfully enact a decision that we trusted the public to make?
It is my pleasure to respond on behalf of the petitioners to some of the points that have been made. I start by thanking the many right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. I thank the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), the hon. Members for Bolton West (Chris Green), for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Gordon (Colin Clark) and for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), and my hon. Friends the Members for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for Stroud (Dr Drew), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) and for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield).
We have had a wide-ranging debate, not always on whether Parliament’s vote must include an option to remain in the European Union, but certainly reflecting the importance of the decisions that we are about to make on Brexit and its importance to our communities. It has been valuable and relevant to have that debate; the fact that we have this petition reflects the concerns of people on the ground.
The petitioners had asked to have a vote that would allow a remain option and was not just, “Take it or leave it.” The petitioners were clear that they want Parliament to have an option to remain. Sadly, I fear that, following the Minister’s response, it is now clear that that will not happen and that the vote will indeed be, “Here’s the deal; vote on it—whether you like it or not.” I suspect that the petitioners will be disappointed with the Government’s response.
To paraphrase the hon. Member for Bolton West, the best thing for us to have is a good deal. I think we can all agree on those words, but it is more difficult for us to agree what is a good, or a good enough, deal. That is the crux of the problem. We have heard that the Government amendment does not go far enough to address the concerns about a meaningful vote.
The Minister said she was concerned about the pessimism she has heard. I would say that it reflects an intense interest in the wellbeing of our country and our future development. I do not think it should be taken as pessimism, but as a sign of the vibrant interest from both the petitioners, all 113,000 of them, and Members of this House in ensuring that we have a deal that best reflects the interests of our country, and that we go forward on that basis.
To conclude, I remind the Chamber that the lead petitioner, who was here today—I think she may have run out of time, but she was here to hear much of the debate—was clear that the petition was about having a remain option. I am sure she will be disappointed. I hope she will be heartened by the shouting we heard a few moments ago outside the window, which to my ears said, “Stop Brexit!”; perhaps she can take comfort from that.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 205169 relating to Parliament’s vote on the deal for the UK’s exit from the EU.