With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on exiting the European Union.
We have now had three days of debate on the withdrawal agreement setting out the terms of our departure from the EU, and the political declaration setting out our future relationship after we have left. I have listened very carefully to what has been said, in the Chamber and out of it, by Members on all sides. From listening to those views, it is clear that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop, there remains widespread and deep concern. As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be rejected by a significant margin. We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow, and will not proceed to divide the House at this time.
I set out in my speech opening the debate last week the reasons why the backstop is a necessary guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland and why, whatever future relationship you want, there is no deal available that does not include the backstop. Behind all those arguments are some inescapable facts: the fact that Northern Ireland shares a land border with another sovereign state; the fact that the hard-won peace that has been built in Northern Ireland over the last two decades has been built around a seamless border; and the fact that Brexit will create a wholly new situation.
On 30 March the Northern Ireland-Ireland border will for the first time become the external frontier of the European Union’s single market and customs union. The challenge this poses must be met not with rhetoric but with real and workable solutions. Businesses operate across that border. People live their lives crossing and re-crossing it every day. I have been there and spoken to some of those people; they do not want their everyday lives to change as a result of the decision we have taken. They do not want a return to a hard border. If this House cares about preserving our Union, it must listen to those people, because our Union will only endure with their consent.
We had hoped that the changes we have secured to the backstop would reassure Members that we could never be trapped in it indefinitely. I hope the House will forgive me if I take a moment to remind it of those changes. The customs element of the backstop is now UK-wide; it no longer splits our country into two customs territories. This also means that the backstop is now an uncomfortable arrangement for the EU, so it will not want it to come into use, or to persist for long if it does.
Both sides are now legally committed to using best endeavours to have our new relationship in place before the end of the implementation period, ensuring the backstop is never used. If our new relationship is not ready, we can now choose to extend the implementation period, further reducing the likelihood of the backstop coming into use. If the backstop ever does come into use, we now do not have to get the new relationship in place to get out of it; alternative arrangements that make use of technology could be put in place instead. The treaty is now clear that the backstop can only ever be temporary, and there is now a termination clause.
But I am clear from what I have heard in this place and from my own conversations that these elements do not offer a sufficient number of colleagues the reassurance that they need. I spoke to a number of EU leaders over the weekend, and in advance of the European Council I will go to see my counterparts in other member states and the leadership of the Council and the Commission. I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House has expressed.
We are also looking closely at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government—[Interruption.] To enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely.
Mr Speaker, having spent the best part of two years poring over the detail of Brexit, listening to the public’s ambitions, and, yes, their fears too, and testing the limits of what the other side is prepared to accept, I am in absolutely no doubt that this deal is the right one. [Interruption.] It honours the result of the referendum. [Interruption.]
Order. The remainder of the statement must be heard, and I invite the House to hear it with courtesy. For the avoidance of doubt, and also for the benefit of those attending to our proceedings who are not Members of the House, I emphasise that, as per usual, I will call everyone who wants to question the Prime Minister, but meanwhile please hear her.
It honours the result of the referendum. It protects jobs, security and our Union. But it also represents the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU. I believe in it, as do many Members of this House, and I still believe there is a majority to be won in this House in support of it if I can secure additional reassurance on the question of the backstop, and that is what my focus will be in the days ahead.
But if you take a step back, it is clear that the House faces a much more fundamental question. Does this House want to deliver Brexit? [Hon. Members: “No!”] That is a clear message from the Scottish National party. If the House does want to deliver Brexit, does it want to do so through reaching an agreement with the EU? If the answer is yes, and I believe that is the answer of the majority of this House, then we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to make a compromise, because there will be no enduring and successful Brexit without some compromise on both sides of the debate.
Many of the most controversial aspects of this deal, including the backstop, are simply inescapable facts of having a negotiated Brexit. Those Members who continue to disagree need to shoulder the responsibility of advocating an alternative solution that can be delivered, and do so without ducking its implications. So if you want a second referendum to overturn the result of the first, be honest that this risks dividing the country again, when as a House we should be striving to bring it back together. If you want to remain part of the single market and the customs union, be open that this would require free movement, rule taking across the economy and ongoing financial contributions—none of which are in my view compatible with the result of the referendum. If you want to leave without a deal, be up front that in the short term, this would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden. I do not believe that any of those courses of action command a majority in this House. But notwithstanding that fact, for as long as we fail to agree a deal, the risk of an accidental no deal increases. So the Government will step up their work in preparation for that potential outcome, and the Cabinet will hold further discussions on it this week.
The vast majority of us accept the result of the referendum and want to leave with a deal. We have a responsibility to discharge. If we will the ends, we must also will the means. I know that Members across the House appreciate how important that responsibility is. I am very grateful to all Members on this side of the House—and a few on the other side, too—who have backed this deal and spoken up for it. Many others, I know, have been wrestling with their consciences, particularly over the question of the backstop. They are seized of the need to face up to the challenge posed by the Irish border, but genuinely concerned about the consequences. I have listened. I have heard those concerns and I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances.
If I may, I will conclude on a personal note. On the morning after the referendum two and a half years ago, I knew that we had witnessed a defining moment for our democracy. Places that did not get a lot of attention at elections and did not get much coverage on the news were making their voices heard and saying that they wanted things to change. I knew in that moment that Parliament had to deliver for them. Of course that does not just mean delivering Brexit. It means working across all areas—building a stronger economy, improving public services, tackling social injustices—to make this a country that truly works for everyone—[Interruption.]
It means working across all areas to make this a country that truly works for everyone, and a country where nowhere and nobody is left behind. These matters are too important to be afterthoughts in our politics. They deserve to be at the centre of our thinking, but that can happen only if we get Brexit done and get it done right.
Even though I voted remain, from the moment I took up the responsibility of being Prime Minister of this great country, I have known that my duty is to honour the result of that vote. And I have been just as determined to protect the jobs that put food on the tables of working families and the security partnerships that keep each one of us safe. That is what this deal does. It gives us control of our borders, our money and our laws. It protects jobs, security and our Union. It is the right deal for Britain. I am determined to do all I can to secure the reassurances this House requires, to get this deal over the line and deliver for the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for providing a copy of the statement before we met here this afternoon. We are in an extremely serious and unprecedented situation. The Government have lost control of events and are in complete disarray. It has been evident for weeks that the Prime Minister’s deal does not have the confidence of this House, yet she ploughed on regardless, reiterating “This is the only deal available.” Can she be clear with the House: is she seeking changes to the deal, or mere reassurances? Does she therefore accept the statement from the European Commission at lunchtime, saying that it was the
“only deal possible. We will not renegotiate—our position has…not changed”?
Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has said it is “not possible” to renegotiate the Irish border backstop, stating that it was the Prime Minister’s own red lines that made the backstop necessary. So can the Prime Minister be clear: is she now ready to drop further red lines in order to make progress? Can the Prime Minister confirm that the deal presented to this House is not off the table, but will be re-presented with a few assurances? Bringing back the same botched deal, either next week or in January—and can she be clear on the timing?—will not change its fundamental flaws or the deeply held objections right across this House, which go far wider than the backstop alone.
This a bad deal for Britain, a bad deal for our economy and a bad deal for our democracy. Our country deserves better than this. The deal damages our economy, and it is not just the Opposition saying that; the Government’s own analysis shows that this deal would make us worse off. If the Prime Minister cannot be clear that she can and will renegotiate the deal, she must make way. If she is going back to Brussels, she needs to build a consensus in this House. Since it appears that business has changed for the next two days, it seems not only possible but necessary that this House debates the negotiating mandate that the Prime Minister takes to Brussels. There is no point at all in this Prime Minister bringing back the same deal again, which is clearly not supported by this House.
We have endured two years of shambolic negotiations. Red lines have been boldly announced and then cast aside. We are now on our third Brexit Secretary, and it appears that each one of them has been excluded from these vital negotiations. We were promised a precise and substantive document, and we got a vague 26-page wishlist. This Government have become the first Government in British history to be held in contempt of Parliament.
The Government are in disarray. Uncertainty is building for business. People are in despair at the state of these failed negotiations, and concerned about what it means for their jobs, their livelihoods and their communities. The fault for that lies solely at the door of this shambolic Government. The Prime Minister is trying to buy herself one last chance to save this deal. If she does not take on board the fundamental changes required, she must make way for those who can.
I will respond fairly briefly. The right hon. Gentleman appears to argue, on the one hand, that it is not possible to change the deal because the EU has said that this is the only deal and, on the other hand, that the only thing he would accept is the deal being renegotiated. He quoted the European Union as saying this is the only deal, and he went on to say that the whole deal needs to be renegotiated.
The fundamental question that Members of this House have to ask themselves is whether they wish to deliver Brexit and honour the result of the referendum. All the analysis shows that, if we wish to deliver Brexit, if we wish to honour the result of the referendum, the deal that does that, and that best protects jobs and our economy, is the deal the Government have put forward. [Interruption.]
That is the fundamental question for Members of this House: to deliver on and honour the result of the referendum, but to do it in a way that protects jobs and our economy. That is what this deal does.
The Leader of the Opposition talks about a number of issues. He wants to be in the customs union such that the single market and free movement would have to be accepted. He refuses to accept that any deal requires a backstop, because that is our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland. He claims that he wants to negotiate trade deals, yet he wants to be fully in the customs union, which would not enable us to negotiate those trade deals. Finally, he talks about the uncertainty for British business. I can tell him that the biggest uncertainty for British business lies not in this deal but on the Front Bench of the Labour party.
Order. Before I look to the Father of the House, and then other colleagues, I want to say the following. Although the Government’s intention to halt the forthcoming debate at this inordinately late stage has been widely leaked to the media in advance, I felt it only appropriate to hear what is proposed before advising the House. Halting the debate, after no fewer than 164 colleagues have taken the trouble to contribute, will be thought by many Members of this House to be deeply discourteous. Indeed, in the hours since news of this intention emerged, many colleagues from across the House have registered that view to me in the most forceful terms.
Having taken the best procedural advice, colleagues should be informed that there are two ways of doing this. The first and, in democratic terms, the infinitely preferable way is for a Minister to move at the outset of the debate that the debate be adjourned. This will give the House the opportunity to express its view in a vote on whether or not it wishes the debate to be brought to a premature and inconclusive end. I can reassure Ministers that I would be happy to accept such a motion so that the House can decide.
The alternative is for the Government unilaterally to decline to move today’s business, which means not only that the House is deprived of its opportunity to vote upon the substance of the debate tomorrow but that it is given no chance to express its view today on whether the debate should or should not be allowed to continue.
I politely suggest that, in any courteous, respectful and mature environment, allowing the House to have its say on this matter would be the right and, dare I say it, the obvious course to take. Let us see if those who have assured this House and the public, over and over again, that this supremely important vote is going to take place tomorrow, without fail, wish to rise to the occasion.
On the question of Europe, this House is divided not just into parties; it is divided into factions. It becomes clear that, at the moment, there is no predictable majority for any single course of action going forward. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that no other Governments are going to start negotiations with us on any new arrangement while the British continue to explore what exactly it is they can get a parliamentary majority to agree to?
Furthermore, we are strictly bound, quite rightly, to the Good Friday agreement and the issue of a permanently open border in Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is particular folly for a large faction in this House to continue with their argument that we should insist to the other Governments that the British will have a unilateral right to declare an end to that open border at a time of their choosing? That is why the backstop remains inevitable.
I certainly agree. I think none of the alternative arrangements that have been floated and suggested in this House would actually command a majority of this House. My right hon. and learned Friend is also right that we retain our absolute commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and to the commitments that the United Kingdom Government made within that agreement. Any agreement that was being negotiated with the European Union, be that either of the other two options that are normally quoted—the Norway option in some form and the Canada option in some form—would require negotiation, could risk the possibility of there being a period of time when that relationship was not in place and, therefore, would indeed require a backstop.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of the statement, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the benefit of your words on how we could proceed.
The events of the past few hours have highlighted that this is a Government in a total state of collapse. The Prime Minister has been forced to pull tomorrow’s vote in a stunning display of pathetic cowardice. The vote tomorrow night would have shown the will of this House, but this Government are focused on saving the Prime Minister’s job and her party. Instead of doing what is right for these countries, she is abdicating her responsibility.
The Prime Minister’s deal will make people poorer. It will lead to years of further uncertainty and difficult negotiation, with no guarantee that a trade deal can even be struck. It does not have the support of those on her Back Benches; indeed, it has no support from the majority of those on the Benches across this place, no support from the Scottish Parliament and no support from the Welsh Assembly. Why has it taken the Prime Minister this long to face up to reality? Her deal was dead in the water long before this morning. Last week, it was this deal or no deal. She now needs to be clear with this House about what has changed.
Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, but yet again our views are being ignored, as they have been throughout this disastrous and incompetent Brexit process. Back in 2014, Scotland was promised the strength and security of the UK, but the reality has been Westminster collapse and chaos. We were promised an equal partnership, but we have been treated with contempt.
The Prime Minister has lost the confidence of those on her own Benches, and she has failed to convince this House of her plan for exiting the EU. We simply cannot go on like this. It is clear that the Prime Minister is incapable of taking decisions about the future and that Downing Street cannot negotiate any more—either with the EU or with those on the Tory Back Benches. What the Prime Minister is really scared of is allowing this House to determine the way forward and allowing the public the opportunity to remain in the EU. She knows she has lost, but she is still wasting precious time. We need the Prime Minister to be clear about when the House will vote on this deal.
This Government and the Prime Minister have failed. It is time they got out of the way. Prime Minister, Members across this House do not want your deal. The EU does not want to renegotiate. Is not the only way to break this deadlock to put it to the people?
The hon. Lady asked what I have been doing. What I have been doing is listening to Members of this House who have identified a very specific concern with the deal that was negotiated. As I said, we negotiated within that deal a number of aspects to address the issue around the permanence or otherwise of the backstop. I had hoped those would give sufficient confidence to Members of this House. It has proved, in discussions, that they have not, and therefore we are going to work to get those further reassurances that I want to ensure, with other Members of the House—
If the shadow Foreign Secretary would just have a little patience. The date of the vote was one of the questions asked by the Scottish National party and I am going to address that matter. The responsibility of this Government is to deliver on the result of the referendum and do so in a way that is good for the whole of the United Kingdom, and that is what this deal does. We are deferring the vote and I will be going to seek those assurances. Obviously, there are two parties in this—the United Kingdom and the EU—so we will be holding those discussions. Members will know that there is in legislation the issue of the 21 January date—[Interruption.] The shadow Foreign Secretary shouts “21 January” as though it is the first time she has heard of it. I suspect she actually voted for it when it went through this House, but there we are.
The key point of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) was that this should go back to another vote of the public. I have said, and she will not hear me say anything different from what I have said previously, that I believe it is important to honour the result of the referendum. I believe it is a matter of the duty of Members of this House to honour that referendum result. I believe also that it is a matter of faith in politicians that those many people who for the first time ever or for many decades went out and voted for leaving the European Union are able to have the confidence that the politicians in this House delivered for them.
I would like to focus my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the issue of the backstop, as it is critical to whatever she conducts with the European Union. Does she not agree that now that she has, in essence, suspended the remaining part of this debate, it is incumbent on her and the Government to go forward boldly to the EU and remind them that they have already said that no matter what arrangements would be in place there would be no hard border on the border of Ireland, and so have the Irish? Given that, will she now commit to going back to them to say that they need to reopen the withdrawal agreement, and to insert into it a commitment to open borders and take out those restrictions that would take away the power and control from this Parliament to decide its future?
I say two things to my right hon. Friend. He is right that the EU has been clear, as we have, about ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Actually, the EU has also been clear, as it is in the withdrawal agreement, about the temporary nature of the backstop. So he is right that we should go boldly back to the European Union on these issues. We have been rigorously and robustly debating with the EU on this, and achieved a number of changes to the withdrawal agreement in order to ensure that there could be that reassurance of the temporary nature of the backstop. However, it is now for me and this Government to go back to Europe, and to make the point that those assurances have not been sufficient for Members of this House. Nothing should be off the table, but everybody should be very clear that in calling for a reopening of the withdrawal agreement there are issues that would then be put back on the table, including the Northern Ireland-only customs territory.
After the fiasco today, the Government have really lost all authority. Let me just say that my colleagues and I will fully support the Leader of the Opposition if he now proceeds to a no-confidence vote, as duty surely calls. Specifically on the statement, may I ask the Prime Minister: how many of the Heads of Government whom she telephoned over the weekend have indicated that they would consider the Irish backstop dispensable?
The discussions that we have consistently had, as I have indicated in my references to other arrangements, are that there should be a backstop to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The concern that has been raised predominantly by colleagues is the question of the permanence or otherwise of that backstop, and the need to ensure that it can brought to an end and will not continue indefinitely. A number of the European leaders I have spoken to have indicated that they are open to discussions to find a way to provide reassurance to Members of this House on that point.
The Prime Minister knows that the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration both cover many legal issues beyond the backstop, important and vital though that is. Those issues include the European Court, control over our own laws and questions relating to compatibility with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Under the ministerial code, there is an absolute obligation to consult the Attorney General formally and in good time before committing to critical decisions that involve legal considerations. Under the order of the House of, I think, 4 December, the Government must publish in full the Attorney General’s advice on both the withdrawal agreement and the framework. So far, the only advice that has been published is on the Northern Ireland protocol. Did the Prime Minister seek the Attorney General’s advice, under the code, on both these matters in good time, or did she not? If she did seek his advice, why has it not been published?
I think my hon. Friend has asked me variations of that question each time I have made a statement recently. I am clear that the Government undertake their responsibilities in relation to the seeking of legal advice entirely properly and appropriately. Of course, the Government published a full legal position on the withdrawal agreement, and that contained more detail than Governments have previously published on any such occasion or in any similar event. Not only have we done that, but the Attorney General came to the House, made a statement and took many questions from Members on these issues.
Frankly, what the Prime Minister says today simply is not credible, is it? This is an impossible position for the Government to find themselves in. The Prime Minister says that she is listening, but she talks about reassurances and assurances. Does she not get it by now that the withdrawal agreement legally binding text is unacceptable to this House? She cannot pretend and go on defending the deal when she knows that had the vote been taken tomorrow, the deal would have been overwhelmingly defeated. Please, Prime Minister, really do start to listen and come back with changes to the withdrawal agreement, or it will be voted down.
The purpose of the announcement today that we will defer the vote and return to this matter is precisely to be able to go and discuss with other European leaders, the Council and the Commission those further reassurances that the House requires on the issues that Members are concerned about, notably whether or not the backstop, should it ever be used, can be brought to an end. That is exactly what we will be doing.
I encourage my right hon. Friend to ignore the Opposition’s mockery; I would always prefer a Prime Minister who will listen. Has she also heard the concern of West Midlands manufacturers that leaving with no deal would cause unnecessary economic damage? The best way to avoid that is to leave with a deal.
We did indeed listen to manufacturers in the West Midlands and up and down the country as we were putting the deal together. That desire to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods while respecting and delivering on the result of the referendum has underpinned the deal that we have, and this deal does exactly that.
The Prime Minister challenged others to be up front about what they want, but she needs to be up front, too, about the fact that it was her red lines that created the problem with the border in Northern Ireland, which led to the backstop and which has brought her to the House of Commons today in such a weak position. Given the answer that she gave a moment ago, will she tell the House whether, of the EU leaders that she spoke to over the weekend, there was a single one who indicated that they were prepared to renegotiate article 20 of the backstop protocol, because, in the absence of any such commitment, is not cancelling tomorrow’s vote merely postponing the inevitable?
The issue on which we were very clear with the European Union in relation to the Northern Ireland border was that there could not be a customs border down the Irish sea. In February, the EU’s proposals were that exactly that should happen. By October, we had persuaded it to enable a UK-wide customs territory to be in the protocol rather than a Northern Ireland-wide customs territory. That was the key issue in relation to the border that we had set as something that was unacceptable to the United Kingdom and we negotiated that out of the proposal.
I entirely share my right hon. Friend’s concern about the maintenance of the Belfast agreement, the peace process in Northern Ireland and an open border, but is not the reality of what has happened, which this Brexit that is being negotiated highlights with total starkness, that, far from recovering sovereignty as has been proclaimed, we are in fact about to part with it, replacing a bilateral agreement with the Irish Government, sustained by referendums on both sides of the border, with an arrangement on which no one has been consulted and that ruthlessly undermines our sovereign rights? In those circumstances, and mindful of the fact that she faces many difficulties here that are not of her making, surely we should go back to the public and ask them whether that is what they want, and offer them the alternative of remaining in the EU.
Every Member of this House who has raised this issue of going back to the public on this matter needs to consider very carefully the impact that that would have. I believe that it would lead to a significant loss of faith in our democracy, and to many people questioning the role of this House and the role of Members within this House. We gave people the decision. The people have made that decision; we should deliver on it.
Nothing has changed in the level of parliamentary concern about the Prime Minister’s deal since last week, but she still sent her Ministers and her official spokesperson out at 11 this morning to say that this vote was 100% going ahead, and yet we still, even now, do not know when she wants to bring this vote back, or even what she wants the deal to be. Does she not realise how chaotic and ridiculous this makes our country look? Given the importance of trust and credibility in this entire process, how can she possibly talk about duty and honour, and faith in politicians, when we cannot even trust the most basic things her Ministers are saying?
No, I should be clear with the right hon. Lady and with the House that I consulted the Cabinet late-morning about the decision to defer the vote. That decision was taken because of an understanding of a concern that Members of this House have expressed in relation to the backstop. It was taken, having discussed with Members of the House whether the reassurances that had previously been negotiated by the UK Government were sufficient to allay those concerns. It is that issue on which we will be going back to European Union and it is that issue on which we will be seeking those further reassurances. I say once again that this House has a responsibility, and there will come a point when it will be up to every Member of this House to determine whether they will accept the result of the referendum and deliver a deal for the British people that ensures a smooth exit from Brexit and that protects jobs and livelihoods.
Mr Speaker, as one of the 164 Members you referred to who have already spoken in this debate, may I assure the Prime Minister that I think that it is more important that we end up with the right deal for this country? What is most important for Parliament is that it is seen to take its responsibility and, if possible, agree a deal. Given that, as she rightly identifies, the Irish backstop has been the one element that has discouraged very many people across the House from supporting this deal, will she give the House an update on her conversations with European leaders over the last few days on whether progress is possible on that, and therefore can she give us some assurance that Parliament will be able to fulfil its responsibilities and agree a deal?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. Of course, the speeches of all Members who have already participated in the debate continue to be an important contribution to the debate on this subject. Having spoken to European leaders, I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that they are open to discussions with us on this issue. I am confident that we will be able to see some further changes. Of course, that will be the matter for further negotiations.
Does the Prime Minister realise that she has handed over power not to people in this House, but to the people she is going to negotiate with over there in Europe? She looks very weak, and she is. They want to be able to demonstrate their power to every other country that might be thinking about getting out of the EU, and she has handed them that power by demonstrating what Britain is doing. The British Prime Minister does not know whether she is on this earth or Fuller’s because of the actions she has taken. Mrs Thatcher had a word for what she has done today. F-R-I-T—she’s frit.
The control of the timing of the backstop by the European Union hands enormous amount of negotiating power to the other side in this negotiation. Without change, it jeopardises the control of our money, borders, regulatory independence and, yes, our constitution too. It must therefore be time-limited under our control, and that must be legally enforceable. Is that what the Prime Minister is seeking?
The issue of the length of time for which the backstop could or should be in place, if it is ever used—once again, it is the intention of neither side that it be used—is a matter that is already addressed in the withdrawal agreement. People here are concerned about the extent to which they can trust those assurances within the withdrawal agreement, which is why it is important to go back and get further reassurances.
The Prime Minister has changed her mind about the vote and about whether the backstop can be amended. If she can change her mind, why will she not just check whether the British people have changed their minds since they voted two years ago?
Does the hon. Lady honestly think that if we were to have a further referendum and it came out with a different result, people would not then say that we should have a third referendum to find out exactly what the result was? And if we had a second referendum with the same result, I also wonder whether the hon. Lady would still be asking for a third referendum. This Parliament gave people the choice and the people decided. They voted; we should deliver on it.
Far from being frit, I think this Prime Minister has great courage in coming back to face this House and delay the vote in an effort to get the best possible deal for this country. Quite frankly, some people who voted in the referendum did so for the first time, and they decided to accept the result no matter on which side they voted. Surely we should not be letting them down; they will see little point in exercising their vote again if the result is not honoured and we call a second referendum.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those people, many of whom voted for the first time at all or the first time in decades when they voted in the referendum in 2016, will indeed question why they should vote in future if this Parliament does not deliver on that vote. As she says, people across the country, whether they voted leave or remain, are saying, “This was the result: let’s just get on with it; let’s deliver it.”
In the light of this morning’s European Court judgment pursued by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and myself, which clarified that all options are available for our country, may I make the Prime Minister a sincere offer in the hope that she will at least keep her options open? If she takes her Brexit proposal back to the British public for a final say, and also allows the public the chance to stay in the European Union, she can be assured of significant support from many Opposition Members.
Prime Minister, you will recall how a number of us on these Benches urged you—indeed, begged you—to reach out across these Benches, across this House and, indeed, across our country and find a compromise and a consensus before you laid down your red lines and before you began your negotiations. After three days of debating, and given the statement of the Commission this lunchtime, it is clear that nothing has changed and nothing will change. But the thing that is changing is the view of the British people. [Hon. Members: “No, it’s not.”] I know it is nearly the pantomime season, but oh yes, it has. [Hon. Members: “Oh no, it hasn’t.”] That is why honourable—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Lady is giving eloquent and full expression to her views, which is not entirely unknown, but she must be heard and she will be heard. I am not having any Member of this House shouted down. That is not acceptable and it will not happen. Amen.
That is why the hon. Members for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) and for Redcar (Anna Turley)—two of the highest voting leave areas—are now supporting a people’s vote, and rightly so, because their constituents are entitled to change their minds and young people are entitled to have a say about their future, because, at the end of the day, they will bear the burden of Brexit most. I would urge the Prime Minister: we have found an impasse in this House; it is time now to take this back to the people and have a people’s vote.
The United Kingdom does not have a long tradition of holding referendums. There was the Scottish referendum. There was a referendum back in 1975 on joining the European Economic Community. There was a referendum in 2016 on whether or not to leave the European Union. In all those votes, the Government have taken a very clear view that the result of those referendums should be respected, and I believe that this referendum should be respected as well.
The people outside these walls see a shambles of a Government. With that in mind, we will support the Leader of the Opposition if he, as he should, tables a motion of no confidence. As of this morning’s European Court of Justice ruling, it is within the Prime Minister’s gift personally to take no deal off the table. Will she today rule out the threat of no deal and, should it prove necessary, be prepared to revoke article 50?
The European Court of Justice clearly has determined that it is possible to unilaterally revoke article 50, but the point it has made is that nobody should think that revoking article 50 is a short-term solution or short-term extension of article 50. Revoking article 50 would mean going back on the vote of the referendum and staying in the European Union.
When I spoke in the debate, I made it clear that I was supporting the Prime Minister but had concerns about the backstop and its indefinite nature. Given that the EU has already recognised that this is a temporary arrangement, and our Attorney General has said that it would not be forever and there are means of challenging it legally, does she agree that it would be helpful if our European partners gave more clarity about how long it would take for us to leave the backstop in the event that talks break down?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. The European Union has already indicated that the backstop is temporary in nature. It is therefore entirely reasonable to ask the EU to give further clarification about that temporary aspect of the backstop and the ability to bring it to an end.
In my 27 years in this House, I have rarely seen a Government in such a farrago of chaos as the Prime Minister has caused with her negotiations. Last week, she said:
“I caution hon. Members that not only has the EU made it clear that the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened—we have agreed the deal and the deal is there”.—[Official Report, 4 December 2018; Vol. 65, c. 755.]
She has now abandoned the vote and come back to the House to tell us that somehow the unopenable deal is open again. She is seeking assurances that will not be worth the paper they are written on, because she has done her legal deal already. Why on earth does she not just abandon this dancing on the head of a pin and let us vote on this appalling deal?
We have negotiated with the European Union a deal in two parts: the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on our future relationship. One aspect of the withdrawal agreement has raised particular concerns. That aspect is already dealt with in the withdrawal agreement through various assurances about the temporary nature of the backstop. In discussions with colleagues, it is clear that those assurances are not sufficient, and we therefore go back to seek further reassurance on the temporary nature of the backstop.
Many people think that signing away large sums of money would badly undermine our negotiating position on the Irish backstop and the future partnership. Will my right hon. Friend reassert the House of Lords findings that we do not owe this money, and nothing is agreed until everything is agreed?
My right hon. Friend has pressed that point before. I recognise that the House of Lords came out with an opinion, but there are other legal opinions in relation to the application of various aspects of international law on the treaty that say that we do indeed have legal obligations in financial terms. I believe that, as a country, we should meet those obligations.
The Prime Minister has said that she does not want a second vote because it risks dividing the country again, but I remind her that the United Kingdom is not a country; it is a Union of four nations. That Union is already divided, because two out of those four nations voted to remain. She has conceded this afternoon that she cannot get the House to support her deal. If she really believes in the deal, why will she not have the courage of her convictions and put that deal to the four nations of the UK, giving them a choice between her deal or remaining in the European Union, which the Court of Justice said this morning is possible? Why not put it back to the people, Prime Minister?
I can recognise why somebody representing the SNP might have a desire to try to change the result of a referendum when it has taken place, but I say to the hon. and learned Lady that I have answered the question in relation to going back to the people on a number of occasions this afternoon and on other occasions. I have not been lax in coming to this House and standing up in this Chamber to answer questions on this matter. I also point out to her that we entered the European Economic Community as one United Kingdom, and we will be leaving as one United Kingdom.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that I think leaving without a deal will be incredibly bad news for this country, not least for manufacturing businesses across the midlands? Will she confirm that the only way that will happen is if people refuse the deal that is on offer—we do leave on 29 March?
The Prime Minister has said that she is going back for more reassurances on the backstop. Does she accept that those reassurances, no matter how strong, will not be legal? Does she not think that she would be better able to negotiate if the EU knew that this House had overwhelmingly voted against the deal?
I think the fact that I have indicated that it is necessary to go back has sent a clear message to the European Union about the importance of engaging on this particular issue and ensuring that there is the level of assurance that is required by Members of this House that is sufficient for Members of this House to believe that they can have the confidence that the backstop is not indefinite. It is that indefinite—potentially indefinite—nature of the backstop, should it come into place, that has been raising concerns for all Members of this House, and I believe that it is that that we should be addressing particularly.
On 7 March, President Tusk offered the UK a wide-ranging free trade agreement, which foundered on the issue of the Northern Ireland border. It is therefore exasperating, today, that the Prime Minister is still talking about the backstop as the only solution to this border. She has heard from the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds). This is a breach of the Belfast agreement principle of consent, and it is even a breach of the articles of the Act of Union in 1801. Since then, she has met international customs experts and she has met a Nobel prize winner, my right hon. Friend Lord Trimble. She knows that existing techniques and existing customs procedures can continue to deliver a seamless border. Will she please, at this late stage, put the backstop and all its horrors behind her, go back to the European Union and take up the offer made by President Tusk, using these modern, seamless customs techniques?
The offer that the European Union put to the United Kingdom was for a Canada-style free trade agreement for Great Britain, because to deal with the seamless border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, it wanted to separate Northern Ireland away from the customs territory of Great Britain and therefore not have a single UK customs territory. In relation to the technical issues—the technical solutions—that my right hon. Friend refers to, yes, indeed, and we continue to engage with those who put these forward. The question is not just about no physical infrastructure on the border; the question is about the extent to which people on both sides of the border are able to continue to lead their lives as they do today, with no increased barriers or encumbrances to their leading their lives in that way. That is what I believe delivers on the seamless border, which does indeed underpin the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
The Prime Minister said in her statement that this is the best deal and the only deal, and it is time for all of us in this place to face up to our responsibilities. We are ready to do that, Prime Minister, so put this deal to a vote in this House, and if you are not prepared to do that, put it to a vote of the people.
I have made it clear that we are deferring the vote. We will seek these further—[Hon. Members: “Till when?”] We will seek these further reassurances. On the vote of the people, the right hon. Gentleman has heard my answer to that question several times already this afternoon.
I said earlier that nothing is off the table. There are a range of ways in which I believe we can find assurances for Members of this House. The task is to find sufficient reassurance that gives the confidence to Members of this House that the backstop will not be indefinite.
Successful renegotiations require trust and credibility. Given the Prime Minister’s breathtaking U-turn today, I put it to her that she has lost the trust and credibility of the House, lost the trust and credibility of the country and, most importantly, lost the trust and credibility of the European Union.
The Prime Minister told MPs to be honest about the options we face, but she has never spelt out to her Back Benchers or the public that any type of Brexit deal has always been a choice—damaging our economy and having a hard border in Northern Ireland or ending up as a rule taker. Is it not this failure that has led to this crisis? And she only has herself to blame.
No. We have been clear about the need for what we believe is right for the United Kingdom, which is to negotiate a bespoke deal that is neither the Norway/EEA option, which is at one end of the spectrum that the European Union offered in the first place, nor the Canada-style deal for Great Britain, with Northern Ireland carved out in a separate customs territory, which is the other end of the spectrum that the EU proposed. The political declaration does indeed include a trade agreement with a free trade area at its heart, with no tariffs, no quantitative restrictions and ambitious proposals in relation to the customs border.
The Prime Minister will be well aware that the backstop was just one of a number of grave concerns that Back Benchers have about the draft withdrawal agreement, so can she assure the House that she will seek to reduce, for example, the role of the European Court of Justice and change the text of the withdrawal agreement accordingly?
I hope I can give some further reassurance to my right hon. Friend. In discussions with a number of colleagues, there seems to be a misunderstanding about the role of the European Court of Justice. What we will have in our future relationship is that we will end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The European Court of Justice will not be the final arbiter of the withdrawal agreement. There has been, I think, some misunderstanding of the reference in the withdrawal agreement to the point that the arbitration panel that deals with disputes will be able to ask the European Court of Justice for its opinion on its interpretation of EU law, but the dispute would be determined by the arbitration panel and not by the European Court of Justice.
The Prime Minister might not know, but I have been in this House for nearly 40 years. If I had made my speech later today, I would have told her that my sacred duty as a Member of Parliament, overriding everything else, is to come here and look after the health, welfare and future prosperity of my constituents. I have been sympathetic to the situation that she finds herself in, but I have lost that sympathy because what I understand now, from today’s decision, is that she has actually been captured by the far-right, Brexit wing of her party—the so-called European Research Group, which does not believe in research. She is a captive of this unpleasant, nationalist, populist group in the Conservative party.
I very much hope for the sake of this country that the Prime Minister will prevail in the difficult negotiations that lie ahead. I hope that as she enters those negotiations she will be sustained by the widespread admiration—not just on these Benches, not just among Conservatives, but in the country as a whole—for the dignity and the perseverance she has shown.
Does the Prime Minister think that going back and changing minutiae about the backstop will actually make any difference to the kind of people on the Government Benches who like to go around calling themselves Aslan and circle around her head caring nothing for this country, only their own position? This backstop rejig can-kicking will make absolutely no difference to those people and they know it, so what is the plan?
What people are concerned about is the potential indefinite nature of the backstop. There is no intention for it to be indefinite. There is no intention for it to be used in the first place. That is a genuine concern that is held by people across this House. I think it is entirely right that the Government address it.
The Prime Minister rightly talks about listening to young people and first-time voters. Does she accept that they voted overwhelmingly to remain? They look at what is happening in this House and they see that this deal is Brexit, warts and all—this is as good as it gets. Is it not time, now that we know what Brexit actually looks like as opposed to some fantasy version of Brexit, that those people get the chance to vote on Brexit reality rather than Brexit fantasy?
I think my hon. Friend has heard my response in relation to a people’s vote, a second referendum, before. I genuinely believe that we should recognise that the referendum in 2016 was the biggest exercise in democracy in our history. We should respect the many people who went out to vote, including many who had not voted before. I believe that if we then go back to people and say, “Have another think, think again,” they will question the value of democracy and the value of the vote.
This is a political challenge for the Prime Minister, not a substantive one. It seems that the Prime Minister’s strategy is now to try to placate further the ERG wing of her own party. Is it not the truth that they are insatiable? They will never be satisfied. Given that the parliamentary maths are now so difficult, to really break the deadlock requires different parliamentary maths and a general election.
What the country requires is for us to continue to work to get a good deal over the line, so we can deliver on Brexit in a way that honours the referendum, and protects jobs and livelihoods across the country. Further uncertainty and division will do nothing to help people who are looking to their futures.
First, we are continuing with the no-deal preparations. As I said earlier, the Cabinet will meet to discuss those further. Secondly, in any circumstance we need to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It is finding ways we can do that in a way that enables us to be free in a future relationship which is the best possible deal for this country. That is what we are looking for and striving to achieve.
The Prime Minister talks about faith in democracy, but I think a lot of people looking at this shambles today, whether they voted leave or remain, will see a Prime Minister who has tried to keep economic advice from this House and from the public, has tried to keep legal advice from this House and the public, and a Government who have been found in contempt. She is trying to prevent us having a vote on her own deal and she is trying to prevent us having a vote on whether or not she should be able to have a vote on that deal or not. People will be looking at this aghast. I have spoken to many leave voters in my constituency. I deeply respect and understand the reasons why they voted leave in 2016, but many of them have changed their minds. They are looking at this and they are saying to me that they want a chance to have a say on what is before them: Brexit reality, not Brexit fantasy. That is why we need a people’s vote.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong, of course, because we did provide an economic analysis for this House. We published an economic analysis, and we published the legal position in relation to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. That has been available for Members of this House. He talks about the vote as if there is no vote in the future—[Hon. Members: “When?”] We are deferring the vote while we have these further discussions with the EU.
The Prime Minister cannot fail to have noticed that there are plenty of challenges—legal challenges—surrounding Brexit, including whether or not the referendum was legally binding and whether or not we could take article 50 off the table. My concern is that any reassurances or assurances given will only be subject to legal challenges down the road if they are not legally binding. Therefore, assurances and reassurances will not make a difference to how I feel about the flaws in this particular withdrawal.
I entirely recognise the point that my hon. Friend is making about the legal position in relation to any assurances that are achieved. Obviously, we are at the beginning of the discussions with the European Union on this matter, but what I want to ensure is that Members like my hon. Friend are able to have the confidence in those assurances when they come back from the European Union.
There is no one currently in the House who has been Prime Minister. Does she appreciate that other Prime Ministers under pressure did not delay their legislation? Margaret Thatcher did not delay after the poll tax. Tony Blair did not delay the Iraq war decision. John Major did not delay Maastricht. Prime Minister—[Interruption.] She knows that when the politics of this place are broken, you either resign or go back to the people in a general election or a referendum. No one gets to play for extra time before the game is over.
The Prime Minister in her statement said that the Government will step up their work in preparation for a possible no-deal outcome, and this is very important. She said the same last month, so I am wondering whether my right hon. Friend could tell us at least one action that is now taking place that was not taking place last month.
Yes, I am very happy to say to my right hon. Friend that we have indeed been stepping up the action that has been taken. Since I said that, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has taken action in writing to over 140,000 businesses, and the Department of Health and Social Care has written to pharmaceutical companies, for example, on the potential impact of no deal on medicines and devices.
The Prime Minister has come to the House to talk to us about honesty on the day when she is trying to pull a vote which she said would not be pulled in order to try to change a deal which she said could not be changed. Is it not time to be honest about the commitments that this country has made to no hard border, to the Good Friday agreement and to not doing huge damage to our economy? She can talk to the European Union about the backstop all day, but any deal that respects those commitments will require us to sign up to a set of common European rules over which we will no longer have any say by dint of the fact of Brexit. Is it not time to be honest both with her Back Benchers and the public about this, instead of trying to square unsquarable circles or even worse, hide the facts of this fundamental choice until after we are out?
We are committed to no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We are committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We are committed to a deal which actually delivers on the protection of people’s jobs and livelihoods. That is the deal that we have negotiated. The right hon. Gentleman refers to the issue of how one can operate on a trading basis with the European Union in relation to rules that the European Union set. Of course, what the Government set out was a proposal, and this is reflected in the balance identified in the political declaration—that if you want to restrict, reduce, or remove customs checks, it is necessary to make commitments in relation to the obligations that you are willing to sign up to. What we proposed in the proposal that the Government put forward in the summer was to do just that, but to ensure that Parliament had a lock on those votes—but of course, there would be a consequence, and we were honest that there would be a consequence if Parliament chose not to accept those rules. That is being open with people about the consequences of their decisions.
The Prime Minister has not yet confirmed when the meaningful vote will be held. My understanding from the House of Commons Library is that now that the Government have made a statement, as she has done, that the political agreement on the withdrawal agreement and future framework has been reached, the requirement on the Government to make a statement to the House by 21 January on no deal has been superseded because of her statement today. In its view, in practice, the latest date we could have a meaningful vote is 28 March. Is this what she intends? Can I get an assurance that the delay she is talking about is a matter of days, not weeks and months?
I do not believe that the scenario my right hon. Friend sets out is the correct one. The date of 21 January has been set in legislation—the vote on that took place last week—and we are conscious of the requirement that that places on the Government. It is right, however, that we recognise the concerns expressed in the House and attempt to find a way through them and to resolve them.
Could the Prime Minister confirm reports that more than £100,000 has been shelled out by the Government on Facebook ads in the last week promoting a deal that even she is not now happy with? Is this not now an even bigger farce, as, with uncertainty around UK business access to EU trade arrangements and many other issues, she seeks to sideline Parliament once again and make social media companies richer, while the country pays the price?
No. We have recognised that a specific aspect of the deal is raising concerns here in this House, and we will seek reassurances on that specific aspect of the deal, but I continue to believe that overall this deal is the right deal for the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister has been consistent since she assumed the premiership in stating that a bad deal would be worse than no deal, and we have had the time since June 2016 to prepare for leaving on WTO terms, yet Ministers consistently refer to the eventuality of our leaving without her deal as chaos. Are our preparations really so woeful?
We have been making those preparations, we continue to make them, and, as I indicated earlier, we have been stepping them up, but on the impact of no deal, it is not just a question of what preparations we make in the UK; what happens at the border also depends on others, and we cannot determine what action others will take. There will be consequences if we leave with no deal, particularly if we leave with a sense of ill will between us and the European Union and without having made any decisions to mitigate the impact of no deal. It is not just about what we do here; it is about what others do.
On Friday, the Treasury confirmed to me that the House has approved £4.2 billion of planning for no withdrawal agreement and, in terms, that stability in a no-deal scenario partly depends on the EU taking a similar non-disruptive approach to planning. With the economic prosperity of one of its members—the Republic of Ireland—very closely engaged, and with £39 billion at stake, as well as the interests of the EU businesses that sell twice as much to us as we sell to them, why on earth would it not be planning with us a non-disruptive move to the certainty of WTO terms and the certainty of our having control over our economy and the ability to make future trade arrangements?
My hon. Friend asks “Why on earth would it not?” The fact is that the European Union has been making some of its own preparations for no deal. It has sent out certain notices in relation to certain matters. However, it has not been engaging with us on the aspect of determining, or mitigating, the impact of no deal on both sides of the border.
I ask this on behalf of the many Livingston constituents who have been in touch with me, and, I am sure, many people across the United Kingdom. What the heck is going on? This is a complete and utter clusterbùrach. Why is the Prime Minister more concerned with her own self-preservation, and with narrow party unity, than with the lives and livelihoods of my constituents? How dare she postpone this vote, just because she was going to lose? Downing Street and her team have spent the last few days saying that the vote was happening. How can anyone in the House, or indeed anyone in the countries of the United Kingdom, trust a single word that she or her Government speak ever again?
May I return to what my right hon. Friend said at the beginning of her statement? The House passed a very detailed Business of the House motion, which even specified how many hours of debate there would be, the days on which it would take place, and when the vote would be. Ministers were sent out all over the country in relation to that debate. More than 100 MPs have already spoken, and 140 wanted to speak today. It may well be that the Prime Minister is right and the House would like to put off the vote, but it needs to be the House that decides that. I do not think that the Prime Minister has so far answered this question: will the procedure to be used be a motion to adjourn the debate, in which case the House would have a vote, or will one anonymous Whip just say “Tomorrow”?
I believe that it is important for the Government to be listening to the comments that have been made to us in relation to this specific issue, and to be responding to those comments. If we want to ensure that we get a deal over the line that is good for the British people, I believe that that is absolutely the responsible approach for the Government to take.
The Prime Minister’s negotiating strategy seems to be “Fail again. Fail better.” It is not going to revive her zombie Brexit deal. Whenever she decides to bring it back to the House—on Christmas eve, Christmas day or Boxing day—it will be voted down. She talks of the will of the people, but the will of the people cannot be undermined by a vote of the people. Is that not what she must now do?
The problem with the deal goes far beyond the backstop. May I ask my right hon. Friend what she intends to do about the fact that the Government’s own analysis shows that every region of the country will be left poorer, and that we will end up with less say over the rules governing huge swathes of our economy than we have at the moment?
Actually, the Government’s economic analysis shows that in delivering on the referendum, this deal does not make us poorer than we are today. What it does—[Interruption.] Read it. What the economic analysis shows is that if we want to honour the referendum, the best deal for doing that and delivering for jobs and the economy is this deal.
I not only respect the result of the referendum, I accept it. The Prime Minister said in her statement that she wants
“a country that truly works for everyone, a country where nowhere and nobody is left behind.”
She has been in government for nearly eight years now, and in that time both the previous coalition and this Government have had a deliberate policy of moving resources from poorer, most disadvantaged areas to some of the wealthiest areas. That is continuing today in public funding for public health in County Durham, which will be the worst-hit area anywhere in the country, while leafier parts of Surrey gain. People do not want warm words, Prime Minister; what they want is action, and action, irrespective of what happened with Brexit, is in her hands now.
We have been putting more money into our health service: we are going to give the health service the biggest cash boost in its history and a long-term plan that ensures the sustainability of the health service. In the eight years that I have been in government, under both the coalition and this Conservative Government, we have seen 3.3 million jobs being created across our country; that is good for the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents and good for constituents elsewhere.
My right hon. Friend said in her statement that alternative arrangements making use of technology could be put in place that would render the backstop unnecessary. Will she therefore incorporate those arrangements and go back to the EU and ask for a free trade agreement along the lines that Michel Barnier proposed and said was the only way to ensure her red lines were not breached, and which would deliver on what the British people voted for?
The alternative arrangements are specifically referenced in the withdrawal agreement, and of course what we are looking for, and have set out in the political declaration and the proposals the Government have put forward, is indeed a wide-ranging free trade area; it is just a better one than the EU was proposing to us.
I spoke in good faith on Thursday—one of the 164 Members of Parliament who did. I cannot understand why the Prime Minister did not hear before that debate started the concerns that Members had about the backstop and other issues, so which part of the shambles we are in today does she most regret, and when will I be able to vote against her deal, as most of my constituents are asking me to do?
We will indeed, of course, be bringing the matter back when we have sought the reassurances from the EU, but I also say to the hon. Lady that it was right that we listened. In negotiating, we listened to concerns raised by Members of this House; that is why we negotiated a number of changes to the withdrawal agreement, before it was agreed, that recognised the temporary nature of the backstop. Those have proved not to satisfy Members of this House, and it is on that basis that I will seek further assurances.
The Prime Minister’s grit and determination to get the best deal available is truly remarkable. Does she agree that in the event that the EU fails to give anything meaningful in relation to the backstop or a hard border that we all agree is not necessary and will not happen, it will not have demonstrated a scintilla of the good faith referenced in the political declaration?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about good faith. I believe it is important that both sides move together at this point with that good faith and do negotiate, and that the EU recognises the need for further reassurance on this matter and responds to that positively.
The Prime Minister told the House this afternoon that this is
“the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU”,
yet she now tells us she plans to go back to Brussels to plead with the EU to help her and get her out of this hole. This is not a Government in control; surely we should put this issue back to the people to ask if they really want to continue with this perilous journey that will make the UK poorer.
The United Kingdom is at the forefront of advocating democracy on the international stage. Indeed, colleagues on both sides of the House have regularly spoken in Parliament of the need for democracy in other countries, and Members on both sides regularly instruct MPs and legislators from other countries at seminars held by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union on the importance of listening to the people they represent. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to have a second referendum now would ensure that the UK would lose all credibility on the international stage when speaking up for democracy?
I should like to ask the Prime Minister to do three things. First, will she rule out no deal, because she knows that it would be extremely damaging? Secondly, will she support a people’s vote, if only to save herself the embarrassment of having to do so in a couple of weeks’ time? Thirdly, will she instruct her Chief Whip to make time available for a debate on the no-confidence motion that I know the Leader of the Opposition is going to table?
The right hon. Gentleman asks me to support a people’s vote, but he has heard me answer that question on a number of occasions. The Government will continue with their no-deal preparations, because that is the reasonable thing to do. On the question of time for debates in this House, there are accepted protocols in relation to that.
I respect the efforts being made by the Prime Minister, but will she tell me how many extra billions we would be paying per year if the transition period were to be extended by two years? Will she give the House a real say in determining how much money goes to the EU in that extra transition period, if it happens?
First, the terms of that further extension of the transition period/implementation period, were it to be the way forward, would have to be negotiated. There would be an expectation on the part of the EU for a sum of money, and we would consider it necessary for that to be fair and proportionate. Of course, this is one of the differences between the backstop as it appears in the withdrawal agreement and the extension of the transition period, in that, in the backstop, no financial obligation is required from the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister says that a people’s vote would not reflect the will of the people and that it would be divisive, but we do not know what the will of the people is in 2018 and we are already a divided country. Nothing would divide us more or fuel the far right more than a deteriorating economy. Is it not the case that, notwithstanding any tweak that she makes to her backstop, her withdrawal agreement will still leave us poorer, relative to the deal that we have now?
I am one of the hundreds of Members who was hoping to participate in the debate this evening and tomorrow, and I hope that the Government have listened closely to your guidance, Mr Speaker, and that they will allow Members the opportunity to explain their views. I would like the opportunity to explain to the people of Moray why I came to the conclusion that I could not support the Prime Minister on her deal. But may I ask the Prime Minister a question that has so far been evaded across the House? Not only the Members in this Chamber but our constituents deserve to know when the vote will finally be taken. When will it be?
We are going to discuss with the European Union, the other party to this negotiation, the requirements that we are putting forward. Until those discussions have properly started, it is not possible to say the length of time that will be necessary for them. Reference has already been made to 21 January, which is within the legislation that this House has passed. I want to work as quickly and as urgently as possible—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) says, “When?” As I have just said, we need to enter those discussions with the European Union, and until we have done that, it is not possible to give a date.
An Opposition Member said only last week that the Government always say no before they say yes, so I am holding my breath about the people’s vote.
In 2016, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU. The Prime Minister says that her deal delivers Brexit and the will of the people, but the hon. Members in her own party who also want to leave the European Union—such as the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), and the hon. Members for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and for Wycombe (Mr Baker)—do not believe that her deal delivers on Brexit and on the will of the people. How many of the 17.4 million people who voted in 2016 voted for her deal?
I speak as a remainer, which is probably a dangerous thing to do in this corner of the Back Benches. I respect the result of the referendum. However, I would like to ask my right hon. Friend what the point has been of all the pain and uncertainty of the last two years if, in the final analysis, the arbitration panel remains under the dominion of the European Court of Justice.
This is, I believe, a misunderstanding of the situation. The arbitration panel does not remain under the dominion of the European Court of Justice; the arbitration panel will make its own decisions. But if a dispute involves the interpretation of European Union law, there is only one body that can interpret European Union law, and that is the European Court of Justice. The arbitration panel will be able to ask the ECJ for its opinion on that particular point, and the arbitration panel will then determine the dispute. The European Court of Justice will not be the arbiter of that dispute.
Shortly after the Prime Minister announced that there would be no vote on this issue, Michel Barnier and the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic slapped down the idea that there would be any renegotiation of this deal. The Prime Minister may be prepared to be humiliated by arrogant EU officials and Irish politicians, but does she not realise that, every time she comes back here with her tail between her legs, she humiliates the British people? When will she stand up to the EU? If she is not prepared to stand up to the EU, let her have a vote of this House to tell them what we think of their rotten deal.
We have stood up to the European Union. Perhaps a good example of our doing so was our absolute refusal, as a Government, to accept a customs border down the Irish sea, separating the United Kingdom into two customs territories. In February, that was what the European Union wanted, and they stuck to that until we argued them out of it in October. We have stood up to the European Union. We have got a good deal for the UK.
It is the duty and responsibility of every single Member in this House to take our country out of the EU. My right hon. Friend’s deal does not do that, and many MPs on both sides of the House are intentionally thwarting that intention. May I ask her to go back to the EU, offer a free trade agreement and, if that is not acceptable, fall back on WTO terms and then deal with the EU outside the EU, where I am positive that a deal will be struck and this poison and division will be gone?
I agree with my hon. Friend that every Member of this House has a duty to deliver on the result of the referendum and take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The Government have been working to ensure that on the table, as part of this deal, there is a free trade agreement with the European Union—but a better one than the basic free trade agreement that was proposed by the EU in the early stages of the negotiation.
The Prime Minister said in her statement, and I agree with her, that the majority of people in this House do not want no deal. She also knows that the ERG is a small minority in this House. Rather than writing a side letter, which will not satisfy the ERG, why does she not do what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said and agree the next set of negotiating objectives across the House?
As I have explained to Members previously, this question of the backstop, and the concern about the backstop, is one that is not just held by a small number of Members of this House; it is held by a wide range of Members on both the Opposition Benches and the Government Benches. In that circumstance, I believe we are taking exactly the right action.
The Prime Minister started this process by going to the Supreme Court to stop the House of Commons having a say in starting the Brexit process. We are only having a vote tomorrow—or were only having a vote tomorrow, because she was defeated last year on the amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Is it not true that she has barefaced cheek to come before the House and lecture us about our duty to this House and our Parliament? Is not it true that no Prime Minister is better than a bad Prime Minister?
My hon. Friend is making an assumption about what will come back from the European Union. It is the task of the Government, obviously, to look to negotiate something that will be sufficient to give confidence to Members of this House in relation to the backstop not being able to be indefinite.
I have listened very closely to the Prime Minister’s responses so far this afternoon. Does she truly believe that the people who voted to leave two and a half years ago did so in order to make our country poorer? Did they want Brexit at any cost? If she is so sure that the majority of our country want this actual deal, rather than the false promises they were mis-sold, why does she not do the most democratic thing and take her deal back to the country, giving it the final say?
I think people voted to ensure that we bring an end to free movement, which the deal does; that we bring an end to sending vast annual sums to the European Union, which the deal does; and that we bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which the deal does.
My hon. Friends and Members across the House have been expressing anecdotal and unscientific assessments of their voters’ change of mind about the referendum result. In that spirit, I would like to highlight the conversations I have had both with friends and constituents who voted remain but are now determined that we leave the European Union in good order. Will the Prime Minister give me an assurance that she will go back to the EU, bang on the table, if that is what it takes, and get a deal that will have the support of this House and get us out of the European Union on 29 March 2019?
I can assure my hon. Friend that that is exactly what we intend to do. He is absolutely right, and I see many messages coming to me from people who voted remain but now say, “Actually, we accept the result of the vote. Let’s get on with it and let’s leave the European Union.”
The European Commission has made it absolutely clear that it is not going to reopen the 585-page withdrawal agreement. If the Prime Minister was able to get an aspirational addendum to the political declaration—a piece of paper that she could wave when she came back—would that mean we would definitely have a vote on Monday or Tuesday next week?
Changing tack a little, will my right hon. Friend assure me that the proposed new deep and special relationship on defence, security and intelligence matters mentioned in the draft withdrawal agreement will not affect our special dealings with other “Five Eyes” nations, especially the United States?
Surely the Prime Minister realises that this House must be given a reasonable period in which to reflect on the vote and take its decision. The new year is too late— 7 January is just 14 days before the all-important deadline. Surely the vote must come before this House before the end of next week.
On Friday I visited a haulage business in my constituency, and the owner told me how worried he is about the possibility of no deal and how it will affect his business. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when we come to vote on the withdrawal agreement, we must remember the importance not only of honouring the referendum result but of the jobs and livelihoods that depend on trade with the European Union?
It is very important both that we deliver on the result of the referendum and that we recognise the need to do that in a way that enables us to leave in a smooth and orderly way and that does, indeed, protect those many jobs that depend on the trading relationship with the European Union.
I have been reflecting on the referendum that I took part in as an 18-year-old first-time voter in 1979, in which Scotland voted on returning its Parliament. If the EU referendum had been subject to the same rules, we would not be leaving now. However, does the Prime Minister not accept that the difficulty in getting an acceptable trade deal and in resolving the problem of the Irish border is not the fault of the Irish, north or south, and is not the fault of Europe? It is the fault of the red lines that she unilaterally and unnecessarily set right at the start. If the Prime Minister will not accept that it is time for the red lines to go, surely it is time for the Prime Minister to go.
What this Government have been negotiating, and what is present in the deal, is a good future relationship in trading terms in relation to the border and, in relation to not being a member of the customs union and not being a member of the single market, delivering on the vote of the referendum. I believe that is what we should be doing for the people of this country.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when she says no deal would be bad for the UK, but it would also be bad for the European Union. With that in mind, would she agree that the European Union, as it and its diplomats watch this debate, needs to decide whether it wants a deal or not, because without changes to the backstop, a deal will not pass this House?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. I believe, from all my discussions with European Union leaders, that they do indeed want a deal, but he is absolutely right: it is about recognising the concerns that remain in relation to the backstop to ensure there is a deal that this House will accept.
I remind the Prime Minister that assurances will not deliver the people of Northern Ireland on this deal—no assurances will. Will she go further and admit that to get the deal as far as she has got it, Northern Ireland had to be made the sacrificial lamb to placate the Irish Republic and the EU?
No, that is absolutely not the case. Throughout these negotiations, this United Kingdom Government have been very aware of the responsibility we have to the people of Northern Ireland. It is that responsibility that leads us to want to ensure that in the circumstances set out in the withdrawal agreement it will be possible to assure people in Northern Ireland that there is no hard border between them and Ireland.
As somebody who represents a heavy leave-voting northern constituency and who actually lives in their constituency in the north, let me say that my voters—leave voters—are sick to the back teeth of being told by remainers, people who lost the referendum, what it was they voted for. We have been told that we are racists, that we are a bit stupid and that we are a bit too northern, and now we are being told that we did not know what we voted for. My constituents are none of those things, and what they can see going on in this place is a stitch-up by people who said they accepted the result of the referendum but who are using every trick in the book to deny the people what they voted for.
My hon. Friend speaks with passion on behalf of his constituents and he is right to do so. It is frankly unacceptable for Members in this House to try to suggest to people that they simply did not understand what they were voting for. The people of this country understood what they were voting for; they knew what they wanted in terms of leaving the European Union, and we should listen to that and deliver on it.
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that this is a theme that has been raised by a number of Members on the Opposition Benches, but it is not the case. What we have said on Northern Ireland is that we remain committed to the Belfast Good Friday agreement, and that we remain committed to no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and that we refuse to accept the European Union’s approach of carving Northern Ireland out as a separate customs territory from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Prime Minister has been on her feet taking questions for 11 hours with regard to this deal. It may not have escaped her attention, and it will not have escaped my constituents’ attention, that Members across the House are saying, on the one hand, that they speak for the people with a second referendum and, on the other hand, that they speak for the people when they want a no-deal. Obviously, that cannot be correct. Does she agree that when it comes to leadership we need the art of compromise? She has shown that and the European Union has shown that. If Parliament wishes to take control, we need to show compromise as well, otherwise we will be responsible for the damage that ensues to our constituents.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In any negotiation, it is necessary to compromise; it is necessary to know what your vital interests are and to stick to them, but also to be willing to compromise in order to achieve those vital interests. It is for all of us to recognise the damage that can be done to our constituents if this House does not deliver on the referendum and do so in a way that protects people’s jobs and livelihoods.
Since the Prime Minister has been on her feet this afternoon, the pound has fallen to its lowest level since early 2017. The FTSE 250 has fallen to its lowest level for two years, as a direct consequence of the uncertainty caused by this failed brinksmanship. Is it not grossly irresponsible of the Prime Minister to tell the country that we do not know when we will have a vote on this and that this uncertainty may continue indefinitely?
The parts in an average Land Rover cross the continent 37 times. My 9,000 car workers need an orderly withdrawal from the EU. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the withdrawal agreement is rejected, we may get no deal, a “permanent Norway”, not a temporary one, or––a stain on the soul of this House––a second referendum?
The Prime Minister is right to say that the House needs to honour the result of the 2016 referendum, and that need was why many of us in this House voted to embark on the article 50 process. The Prime Minister then set her red lines in January 2017, after which we went into a general election. The direct consequence of that general election was the loss of our Conservative majority and the gridlock that we see in Parliament today. If there is no majority in this House for any option and the Prime Minister, having gone back to renegotiate, has not got anything that the House can accept, we should not be boxed in again by our own red lines. Parliament is not frustrating the will of the people; the general election produced an outcome that cannot lead to a clear decision, so we should not be afraid to give the choice back to the people.
I hear the argument that that my hon. Friend is making, but I have answered the question about the people’s vote on several occasions. He talks about the views of people across the House; when the time comes it will be for people across the House to recognise the importance of delivering on the vote that took place in 2016.
The Prime Minister talks about trust, faith in politics and the importance of honouring the 2016 vote, but what does she think it will do to trust in politics when those voters realise that the deal she has negotiated bears so little resemblance to what they voted for? What will it do when people realise that we will be subjected to EU rules but with no say over them? What will it do when people realise that initially we cannot trade with the rest of the world, and that even when we can it will not substitute for the trade that she has sacrificed around the negotiating table? Worst of all, what will it do to trust in politics when people are feeling the pain and are subjected to what the Prime Minister has negotiated, but were given no say over it whatsoever? If she believes that her deal is in the national interest and commands public support, why will she not ask the people?
I respect the Prime Minister’ efforts to try to get the reassurances on the backstop to deliver on the referendum, and let us remember that delivering on it was a manifesto commitment for Conservative and Labour Members. Does she agree that those Members who hope that this situation leads to no deal should realise that the House will not support that outcome and that any other deal will not honour the referendum in a meaningful way? Snatching parliamentary defeat out of the jaws of referendum victory would be bad for trust, but not impossible if enough Members fail to get behind the Government’s proposals.
My hon. Friend has put the facts clearly to the House. In my statement I spoke of the responsibility that the House has to deliver on the referendum, to do that in a way that protects people’s jobs and futures, and to recognise the importance of the vote that people will take and its impact on people’s trust in our politics.
This morning, a prominent Nottingham business warned me that a no-deal Brexit could put it out of business. This afternoon, the Prime Minister raised the threat of an accidental no deal. It is crystal clear that her deal cannot command a majority in this House, whenever we vote on it. Is not her time-wasting delay simply reckless?
There is one part of the agreement that it is incontestable must be legally binding sooner rather than later: the issue of citizens’ rights. Will the Prime Minister reassure the House that if the ugly spectre of no deal arises when she speaks to EU leaders, she will reinforce her efforts to ensure that a legally binding agreement on citizens’ rights can be brought before the House as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has consistently championed the rights of EU citizens living in the UK throughout this process. I assure him that we have been stepping up to the plate in relation to citizens’ rights and a no-deal scenario. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has reminded me that a notification was issued last week on that matter, but we should also remember that there are 1 million UK citizens living in EU27 member states, and that we should encourage those member states to extend the same generosity to them.
Will the Prime Minister tell the House straight whether this is true: when she comes back with her assurances, it will still be the case that not a single word in the 585 page withdrawal agreement will have been changed. Is that correct?
I have answered that question previously. We are going into negotiations with the European Union. We have negotiated a deal with the European Union. We are looking at ways in which it will be possible to provide the necessary reassurance for Members of this House, and we will explore the options.
My constituency voted more heavily to leave the European Union than any other. When I talk to constituents, the feeling that I get is that more people now would vote to leave than when they first had the vote in 2016. For the sake of democracy, I would be one of them now as well. Does the Prime Minister agree that it should fill our constituents with horror when Members of Parliament who stood on manifestos to deliver Brexit now talk of a second referendum?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I receive messages from across the country from people who voted to remain who say, exactly as he has, that they would now vote to leave because they believe in the importance of recognising and honouring the result of the referendum.
The Prime Minister today asks whether this House wants to deliver Brexit. Well, I am more interested in whether my constituents do. Since she brought this deal to the House, 85% of the letters that I have received are in favour of a people’s vote with the option to remain. She also says that we need to be honest about the risks. I can tell her that my constituents know very well those risks. They are dismayed at the mess here, and they now consider it the least worst option. By denying the will of the people of Oxford West and Abingdon and of others across this country, is she suggesting that they do not know what they are asking for?
No, what I am saying to the hon. Lady—many Members of this House from across the country will also be receiving such responses—is that people are making the point that they voted in the referendum and that they expect Parliament to deliver on the result of the referendum rather than having a second vote.
In the Prime Minister’s statement earlier, in relation to the backstop, she made it clear that she had listened to the views of the House. That is a mark of true leadership, and she has done exactly the right thing. However, she will also acknowledge that, following the Attorney General’s statement last week, many Members of the House, on both sides of the Chamber, have concerns about the legally binding nature of the backstop and the fact that we require European Union consent to get out of it. Does she therefore agree that any changes to the arrangements that are designed to reassure the House must be legally enforceable?
I am well aware of the concerns of the House about the legal enforceability of this issue. What people have been saying is that they want to ensure that the backstop can be brought to an end, and there are various ways in which we can do that. What we will be discussing with the European Union is the whole question of how we can do that in a way that gives sufficient reassurance and confidence to Members of this House that they will not be faced with a situation where they have one aspect of this, which is under one determination, and another aspect, which is less secure. It is about giving that confidence to Members of this House that we will be negotiating.
I believe that the Prime Minister, who, incidentally, just last year promised us a strong and stable Administration, attended a lunch today where she said that her deal was the best available. What does she know now that she did not know then?
I have been very clear that we are looking at one aspect of the deal, and that we had negotiated ways of addressing it within the withdrawal agreement. What has been proved is that the way that we negotiated it in that withdrawal agreement has not been sufficient to give confidence to Members of this House. The European Union has been clear that the backstop is only temporary, but people want further confidence that it will be only temporary and that it can be brought to an end. That is what we will be negotiating and discussing with the European Union.
I welcome the general tenet of the Prime Minister’s remarks today. When she meets European leaders, will she be making it clear that this is not about anyone wanting to return to the borders of the past in Ireland, but that it is about ensuring that we will have the sovereign ability to choose our own trading destiny and that we will not be subject to potential vetoes on extraneous issues that are nothing to do with keeping a border open in Ireland?
My hon. Friend puts it very well. It is important that we remind the European Union that we are committed to no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but that we are also committed to having an independent trade policy, as the EU has reflected and respected in the political declaration. It is important that our policies to deliver on no hard border enable us to operate that independent trade policy.
The art of diplomacy is known as allowing someone else to have your way. Given that failure on the Government’s part, when a Government cannot get through their central piece of legislation, should they not stand aside? If they do not, should not the Leader of the Opposition table a no-confidence motion? I suspect that if the Prime Minister were sitting where the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) is sitting, she would do exactly the same.
The hon. Gentleman talks about legislation. The meaningful vote is not in itself legislation. The legislation follows with the withdrawal agreement Bill that we will put before the House. [Interruption.] He says he did not mention it, but he did use the term “legislation” for what the Government are doing. We are ensuring that we have listened to Members of this House, and we are holding further discussions with the European Union to deliver on the views on this House.
I would like to speak up for something that seems to be going out of fashion—that is, compromise and pragmatism to bring the country back together. Does the Prime Minister agree that Opposition Members need to respect the manifesto that they stood on, which was to deliver the result of the referendum, stop playing party politics with their own constituents and back the deal, because they say they do not favour a no deal—[Interruption.]