(Urgent Question): To ask the Attorney General to make a statement about the Government’s obligations under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.
I recognise that this question was the subject of much discussion and some speculation yesterday, so I hope to be able to put the minds of the right hon. Lady and other hon. Members at ease.
Put simply, in keeping with the clear intention of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Government will ensure that the question whether to accept an agreement is brought back to this House before 21 January. If Parliament accepts that deal, we will introduce the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill to implement the withdrawal agreement in domestic legislation.
If Parliament were to reject the deal, the Government would be required to make a statement on our proposed next steps and table a motion in neutral terms on that statement. Following the passing of the amendment to the business of the House motion last week, that motion will be amendable. It is our clear intention that this House will consider the matter before 21 January, and have the opportunity to decide on the deal.
Let me also say this clearly: in the unlikely and highly undesirable circumstances that, as of 21 January, there is no deal before the House, the Government would bring a statement to the House and arrange for a debate, as specified by the law.
I am confident that we will have a deal that the House can support. I hope that the statement puts to rest hon. Members’ concerns about the Government’s commitment to meet the spirit, as well as the letter, of the withdrawal Act, and to respect the will of the House.
I thank the Minister for those assurances but, in the current circumstances, they are not enough. I asked this urgent question of the Attorney General because we need to know the Government’s legal interpretation of section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and we need to be assured that, as well as legally, the Government will abide by the spirit of the Act. Now that the Government have pulled the vote, we do not know when a vote will come on the deal, or even whether a vote will come.
No. 10’s official spokesman said this morning that the vote would come by 21 January, and the Minister has said that it will come by 21 January. However, yesterday morning the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is sitting on the Front Bench, confirmed that the vote was 100% going to happen. Yesterday, at 11 am, No. 10’s spokesperson said that the vote “is going ahead.” By 3.30 pm, the Prime Minister had pulled it.
The Minister’s warm words are therefore not enough, when so much is at stake. Who knows? This goes for the Cabinet and for all Conservative Members, too. None of us knows whether the Prime Minister is going to pull the vote again, or whether she is even going to table a vote on the deal again.
If we get to 21 January and there is no deal, the agreement of Parliament was that the Government should make a statement, that Parliament should be able to vote on it and that it should be amendable. The Minister says that, in the unlikely event that there is no deal, that would happen. However, we need an urgent assurance from the Attorney General that the Government will not find a loophole in this by saying that there is a deal, even though we have not voted on it, and thereby avoiding the requirements of section 13 subsections (7) to (11), which would require a vote by 21 January.
In other words, if the Government never quite get round to offering a vote on this deal until it is too late, but also do not have a vote on no deal, keeping us in limbo—no vote on the deal and no vote on no deal—it would be a constitutional outrage. It would upend the spirit of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and, much worse, it would either let the country drift or force the country into no deal without a parliamentary vote.
We need written assurances from the Attorney General on the Government’s interpretation of the Act, and we need the assurance that, even if there has been no vote on this deal and even if the Government still claim that the deal applies were there to be no vote on it by 21 January, the Government will still abide by section 13 subsections (7) to (11) and ensure there is a statement and an amendable vote on their plans, including on whether or not this means no deal, and that it will happen, under any circumstances, by 21 January.
I make no apology for my purpose in asking this urgent question. I already think 21 January is far too late for businesses and for Government Departments, which will already be thinking that they have to chuck everything at preparing for no deal. I want to stop this country careering into no deal, either by accident or by the deliberate intention of the Government, with all the damaging consequences for jobs, for prosperity and for our national security, without Parliament having a say and without Parliament being able to stop that happening. Even if other Members do not agree with me in that purpose, I hope that they will agree that this Parliament cannot be ignored, which is why we need the Attorney General’s written advice.
I have great respect for the right hon. Lady. I understand that she came to this House expecting to have a row about the Government’s interpretation, and I understand the questions she has just asked. I am responding to this urgent question because my Department is responsible for the legislation that enacts the deal, and I have given her our very clear interpretation of that legislation, which is that we will have a motion before the House by 21 January, in all the different scenarios I talked through in my statement.
The answer to the right hon. Lady is very clear. We respect the decision made by this House that the Government should come back to the House with a motion in the event that no deal had been agreed or in the event that this House had rejected a deal. That is clear from my statement.
What we are therefore saying is that there will be a motion by 21 January, and I agree with the right hon. Lady—I would much rather it were, and I fully expect it to be, sooner. I fully expect this House to have the opportunity to debate a withdrawal agreement that it is able to support. So let us work together to achieve that, but let us not allow some of the conspiracy theories and the scare stories that have been told about this to run away when I have just clarified the Government’s position.
I have great sympathy for the points made by both the Minister, who is acting with integrity, as he always has done in his parliamentary career, and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). It is unquestionable that this Parliament must have a say—a meaningful vote—on the deal, or no deal, that comes about. Can the Minister give a categorical assurance that there will be no trickery by the Government to stop Parliament from having a say?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s words, and I am happy to give that categorical assurance. As my statement reflected, we will be putting a motion before Parliament, even in the circumstances that no deal was before the House, but I strongly believe and expect that there will be a deal before this House, which I will be urging Parliament to support.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for applying for this urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. I am grateful for the Minister’s response, but the reality is that the Attorney General should be here to speak about the legal implications of this agreement. Yesterday, the Prime Minister used the phrase “an accidental no deal” in this House. The fact that she used that phrase is itself evidence of a dereliction of leadership. Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 is therefore crucial to this House’s ability to prevent a chaotic no-deal outcome, which would do enormous damage to our security, economy and society.
I wonder whether the Minister can answer the following questions. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson has reiterated today that the Government will bring back the meaningful vote by 21 January, but is it not completely contrary to the national interest for the Prime Minister to run down another six weeks on the clock when all she is seeking is reassurances and clarification on a document that Parliament already understands? If we are relying on the Government’s word or, to use the Minister’s phrase, “clear intention” that they will keep to the 21 January deadline, rather than the clear force of the law, does he not understand that in this week of all weeks that constitutes no reassurance at all?
Yesterday, the Prime Minister could not properly answer questions about the legal force of the 21 January deadline, and the Leader of the House could not properly answer questions about the legal status and force of the amendment from the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). The reassurance that was just given by this Minister means nothing without the legal backing of the Attorney General, who is not here. Is the truth not that this decision to pull the vote was made in panicked haste, without thinking through the economic, political and constitutional implications for our country?
The hon. Gentleman made my point clearly when he said that the Prime Minister’s spokesman has said the same thing as I said this morning from the Dispatch Box—that there will be such a meaningful vote before the House before 21 January. The hon. Gentleman also talked about acting contrary to the national interest, and I think we are clear on what acting contrary to the national interest is. It is Labour’s approach of blindly opposing any sensible steps taken by the Government to secure a deal, while proposing no alternatives.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his statement, but may I just pick him up on a couple of points? First, the section 13 procedure presupposes that the Government have an initialled deal with the EU, and of course we have such a deal, which is why we started debate on it last week, for the purpose of deciding whether the House should or should not approve it. In those circumstances, can he provide an assurance to the House that if the initialled deal is continuing in its current form, as initialled, the House can complete its consideration, not on a day just before 21 January but expeditiously, as was clearly provided for in the 2018 Act? Secondly, may I take it from what he has said that the amendment that was tabled to the procedure under section 13 to allow for amendable motions thereafter is now fully accepted by the Government, as it should prevail in future?
Yes, and I commend my right hon. and learned Friend for the points that he has raised. I agree with him; I have given that commitment from the Dispatch Box with regard to his amendment, which does mean that the motion would be amendable. As for the House being able to complete its considerations expeditiously, we all have that in mind. The Prime Minister has made clear her determination to seek out those assurances, listening to the concerns that have been raised in the House, and then to come back swiftly to this House so that we can complete those considerations.
This is a Government who have been found in contempt of Parliament and who continue to demonstrate their contempt for parliamentary democracy on a daily basis. Clearly, they prefer to communicate with MPs through the lobby briefings rather than on the Floor of this House, and they are trying to evade their legal responsibilities by failing to have the Attorney General here to answer this question and putting the Minister up. I see that the Solicitor General is on the Front Bench and engaged in anxious conversation. Why was he not put up to answer this question?
It has been made clear in the past 24 hours by many member states of the EU, and by Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, that there is no question of any meaningful renegotiation. So may I ask the Minister now for a cast-iron guarantee that the initialled deal will be brought back to this House for a vote before 21 January—and if so, on what date? Can he also guarantee that that motion will be amendable? If he cannot give me that cast-iron guarantee, will he look seriously at the possibility of putting this deal to the people of the four nations of the United Kingdom to see whether they want this deal or whether they would prefer to stay in the EU on our current terms and conditions, as the European Court of Justice made clear is possible yesterday?
The hon. and learned lady should pay attention to what I have already said in my statement, which is that we will be bringing a motion before the House, either on this deal, as I would much prefer, with the assurances that the Prime Minister will by then have won, so that this House can vote on that, or even in the circumstances that that were not on the table. She raises the idea of a people’s vote once again, and we very clearly had a people’s vote. We had that people’s vote across the whole of the UK in 2016, and it is our duty as Members of this House to deliver on that.
I am grateful to the Minister for his clarifications, but may I press him on one point that I do not think he covered? Is he confirming that if there is, under section 13(8), a statement at some point before 21 January, as there must be under that section if the Prime Minister has by then concluded that she cannot complete a deal, that statement will be accompanied by a motion which, though in neutral terms, will be amendable? Or did his point about the amendment cover only a statement and motion under sections 13(1) and 13(4)?
I am afraid the Minister, for whom I have great respect, has not wholly succeeded in his aim of providing reassurance to the House, because what we learned yesterday is that today’s assurances can disappear tomorrow like a puff of wind. Can he clarify the following? If the withdrawal agreement comes back—the Government say that it will—before 21 January and is defeated, legally speaking, for the purposes of section 13 of the 2018 Act, is there still “agreement in principle” with the European Union? This is a very important point in view of the previous question that was asked, because even if it is defeated, for the purposes of the Act the only thing that is referred to as “agreement in principle” has been reached. The Prime Minister and the Government said, I believe on 28 November, that agreement in principle had been reached. So can he clarify that that remains the case, even if the withdrawal agreement is defeated?
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman and the work that he does with the Select Committee, but I must say that in this case I do not share his interpretation. Section 13 is very clear: in scenarios in which either a deal had not been reached or a deal had been voted down, a statement would be required. That is my understanding of the commitment that we have made. We would need to come to the House and have that vote, even in circumstances in which a deal had been brought before the House and turned down.
Just to press further on this point, will my hon. Friend clarify, in the light of the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, whether the Government still maintain that a political agreement has been reached in line with the statutory statement presented to Parliament on 26 November? As things stand today, do we still have a valid initialled deal?
The Prime Minister has been clear that of course we have reached an initial deal with the EU, but she has listened to the concerns of this House and gone back to seek to discuss that deal and to seek assurances on it. I think that means that she will want to put before the House a deal with those assurances and to ensure that the House has its meaningful vote on that arrangement.
I have some sympathy for the Minister, because he is doing his best to give the House assurances about what is likely to happen, but the fact is that he is appearing on behalf of a Prime Minister who has completely shredded her credibility by doing what she did yesterday. She was prepared to send out her Cabinet colleagues to make one assertion with confidence in the morning, while she was plotting to reverse it at the same time as she had them in front of the TV cameras. Despite the Minister’s personal integrity, why should we believe a single thing that he tells us today?
My hon. Friend has been absolutely crystal clear that there will be a meaningful debate and a meaningful vote. Does he share my concern that Opposition Members are more interested in driving damaging uncertainty than in supporting the Prime Minister, who is trying to deliver the best deal for this country?
Unfortunately for the Minister—he should not take this personally—any assurances that the Government give have the half-life of one of those isotopes that we are all so worried about. He must be aware that there will be absolute uproar in the House if the Government try to engineer, by trickery or chicanery, avoiding having a vote on this deal. Will he give us a categorical assurance that if we do get to vote on the deal and, as is expected, amendments in support of a people’s vote are tabled, the Government will not seek to thwart any such amendment or vote?
To have a suggestion from the Liberal Democrats of assurances not being worth the paper they are written on is quite strong. The House has already voted, many times, on a second referendum, and every time the idea has been defeated, because clearly the majority of Members of this House want to respect the people’s vote that we had in 2016.
Why would anyone believe a word that the Government say about when the vote will take place when Ministers have spent weeks promising that the vote would be today, and when the Prime Minister’s only hope of survival is to delay the vote till the last possible minute to try to force MPs to change their minds?
I simply do not agree with the hon. Lady’s narrative. The Prime Minister has been clear that she has listened to the House. She understands the concerns throughout the House and wants to take them back to European counterparts to make sure that we have the best deal before the House. She will then bring that back here and put it before the House for us to decide on.
That was a very engaging wave from the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), but it is not the normal means by which to procure the attention of the Chair. It would be a pity to squander the right hon. Gentleman at such an early stage of our proceedings, so I shall come to him in due course.
In 108 days we run out of road, and the only red line that has not been laid down is the one in front of the cliff’s edge, over which we would fall into a chaotic no deal. I urge the Minister and the Government to bring forward the meaningful vote to next week, because by then at least we will know what cosmetic changes have been made in Brussels.
I say gently to my hon. Friend that we should make sure the Prime Minister has the opportunity that she seeks to get the best deal in front of this House, and that we have the assurances we need so that the whole House can get behind the deal. My hon. Friend is a great champion of working across party lines; we ought to be taking this matter forward in a cross-party manner that delivers for the whole country. I do not believe that it would be right to rush into having a vote of this nature before we had sought those assurances.
But given the fact that the NHS and thousands of businesses throughout the country will have to start to implement their plans for no-deal contingencies before Christmas, would that not be grossly irresponsible? What possible reason can the Minister give for refusing to hold the rest of the debate and the vote next week?
The right hon. Gentleman should be working with us to provide the certainty and stability that the NHS and many others want by securing the agreement and the implementation period that it provides. That would be in the best interests of all the organisations of which he speaks.
I fear I have raised the bar too high, Mr Speaker.
It seems unlikely that the Prime Minister will get any substantial changes to the withdrawal agreement, so it is beginning to look like she has withdrawn the vote for her benefit, not for Parliament’s benefit. Is it not time to bring back the withdrawal agreement, have the vote and allow Parliament to make a decision? Like the Minister, I do not favour a second referendum. I would like Parliament to reach a conclusion on Brexit.
We are all clear that Parliament will have its crucial say in this process, which is why I made this statement to make it clear that there will be a meaningful vote before Parliament. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the date of 21 January is at the back end of when we want to see that vote. We want to see it come sooner, and I am sure that the Prime Minister will strive to ensure that she can bring it to the House even sooner than that.
I have considered the withdrawal agreement in good faith, but time after time the Prime Minister has broken her word, and over the past two and a half years she has sought to withhold information about the impact that the different options will have on us from not only the House but the public. I have businesses in Wigan that are not bidding for contracts because they do not know whether they will be able to deliver them, I have thousands of food manufacturing jobs at stake, and I have smaller food manufacturing firms that will go under if no deal becomes a political reality. Will the Minister begin to restore some trust among Members of Parliament, whose votes the Government still supposedly seek, and tell us today, categorically, that the Government will explore every option, including the extension of article 50, before they will allow the country to leave the EU with no deal at all?
We have before us an option to make sure that we leave with a negotiated deal with an implementation period. The Prime Minister is seeking to improve that deal still further to make sure that the House has the best option to move forward on an orderly basis. That is the route that we should take.
I genuinely believe that there are Members on the Labour Back Benches who, like me, want to avoid a no-deal Brexit and the risks of a divisive second referendum. I therefore urge the Minister, whom I know to be a thoughtful listener, to spend some of the time that has become available in his diary with some of those Labour Back Benchers, to see whether their concerns can be addressed.
There are circumstances in which, under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Government are required to make a statement on how to proceed by 21 January. Those are if the Commons decides not to approve a deal presented by the Government, or if no agreement in principle can be reached. But the House of Commons Library, in its note prepared overnight on this, says:
“If the Government maintains that its political agreement persists, the requirement to make a statement could be avoided.”
That is why Opposition Members are suspicious. Is the Government’s strategy to continue to give us a meaningful vote, or is it instead to run down the clock and, in the face of no deal, in the words of “The Godfather”, make us an offer that we can’t refuse?
The right hon. Gentleman asks an important question, and I think I have already provided the answer. Let me just repeat the line towards the end of my statement in answer to this urgent question: in the unlikely and highly undesirable circumstances that, as of 21 January, there is no deal before the House, the Government would bring a statement to the House and arrange for a debate, as specified by the law. That answers his question precisely.
Section 13(2) provides that the meaningful vote should, so far as practical, be held before the European Parliament decides whether to consent to the withdrawal agreement. The withdrawal agreement has been concluded, but not approved. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the meaningful vote will take place before the European Parliament makes that decision?
This whole situation is bonkers and the public are, frankly, fed up with this carry-on. We already know the impact that it is having on the academic sector, so will the Minister confirm that allowing this to drag on into the new year is simply unacceptable to the electorate? Will he categorically rule out the possibility of the Government waiting until March before announcing no deal?
I could not have been much clearer in my statement earlier that we will be having a meaningful vote before 21 January. I am very clear that I want the Prime Minister to go and get the assurances that she seeks and to come back to this House as soon as possible, and I am sure that that is exactly what she intends to do.
I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This is important not only for everybody in this country, but for the people in Gibraltar. Will my hon. Friend first reassure me that the initial deal still exists as of this moment and is still a legal deal on the table, because that certainty is really important for them; and, secondly, take on board the fact that, for those of us who want to support the deal, the sooner that it is brought back the better, as we wish the Prime Minister well in what she is trying to do?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He and I have both recently heard directly from the Chief Minister in Gibraltar, who is very clear in his support for this deal because he thinks that it meets Gibraltar’s key interests and preserves British sovereignty. Those are crucial points, which I look forward to supporting when the deal returns to the House.
I am sorry to sound suspicious, but the Minister has used two words in his statement that make us all suspicious. They are “assurance” and “reassurance”, which we have heard time and again from this Government, and then they have reneged on them. Given that a vast majority of MPs in this House wish to prevent no deal—indeed, the Chancellor repeated that in Treasury questions just before this urgent question—will the Government either rule that out now, or bring a motion to the House so that we can vote on it and rule out a no-deal scenario?
The Minister will understand that yesterday shredded all the good will that was left in the House on assurances such as these. I listened to the Attorney General last Monday when he told this House that he had
“a solemn and constitutional duty…to advise it on these legal questions objectively and impartially, and to place such legal expertise as I have at its disposal. The historical precedents strongly support that view. The House may be sure that I shall discharge this duty with uncompromising and rigorous fidelity.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 546.]
The fact that he is not here today to give that legal weight to what the Minister is saying is a concern to all of us who have to go back to our constituents to explain what on earth is happening in this place. Can the Minister therefore confirm that the Attorney General has consulted him on what he has said today, and that he will publish any legal advice that he has given in the light of yesterday’s rulings and what happens on section 13?
I am sure that if the hon. Lady were to approach the Attorney General, he would discharge all those responsibilities, but this question was about an Act for which my Department is responsible. Of course it is right that I should be at the Dispatch Box as a Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union to answer questions on our legislation.
The leader of the Labour party regularly attends meetings of his European socialist colleagues, many of whom are actually in Government. Is the Minister aware of anything positive whatsoever that has come out of those meetings to facilitate the deal and help to deliver on Brexit, or is the Labour party, as far as delivering a workable Brexit is concerned, part of the problem, not part of the solution?
Order. I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his inquiry, which suffers from the rather notable disadvantage that the Leader of the Opposition has no responsibility for the formulation of policy or for the continent-wide attempts to secure an agreement. Therefore I emphasise, on advice, that there is no responsibility on the Minister to attempt to answer what was no doubt a well-meaning, but, in practical terms, disorderly question.
Will the Minister confirm once again for the benefit of this House and for the people in the country who will read his remarks and listen to what he has said that there are absolutely no circumstances—no legal interpretation, no scenario that may crop up over the next few days or weeks—that will deny this Parliament the opportunity to vote on whatever the Government come back with? I say to the Minister that, as he has heard from Members across the House, trust in the Government is such that he has a lot of work to do to make people believe him.
My hon. Friend referred to the withdrawal agreement Bill that would follow a successful vote for the agreement. Does he agree that that will be a major piece of constitutional legislation covering some important issues such how citizens’ rights are embedded, what the legal base is for laws during the transition period, what the duty on our Supreme Court is in terms of Court of Justice decisions, and so on? What steps will he take to make sure that there is an opportunity to consult widely on that, and that we are not left with inadequate time to consider those very important points?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point: that will be a crucial piece of legislation as we move forward. Of course it is right that the House should have its meaningful vote first before the introduction of the withdrawal agreement Bill, but we have been doing a huge amount of work to prepare that legislation. We have published a White Paper on it, and we shall continue to engage with the House and its Select Committees on it.
The Prime Minister has mentioned on a number of occasions recently, including in her statement yesterday, that it is her deal, no deal or no Brexit. How are the Government preparing for the Prime Minister’s third option? If she is not taking it seriously, why would she mention it?
I think the Prime Minister has been very clear that that is a political comment about the outcomes if other people were to take control. We are very clear that we will not be revoking article 50—my Secretary of State made that very clear yesterday—so it is a question of having an orderly withdrawal with an agreement, or no deal. The orderly withdrawal with an agreement is the preferable of the two options.
It is absolutely right that you, Mr Speaker, your Clerks, the Library and the Government will want to agree on the rules arising from the legislation thus far passed, so that we can have certainty over the Brexit endgame. But that endgame is the most chaotic and uncertain scenario imaginable within the entire Brexit process, so are we not better finding common ground now so that we can support a deal and deliver Brexit for the British public?
The Government’s credibility is in threads. If this country faces a no-deal exit from the European Union, the fault and responsibility will lie squarely with the Government, particularly the Prime Minister. Having listened to the Minister this afternoon, is it not the case that what we are now facing is not a meaningful vote, but a blackmail strategy?
Absolutely not. I have made it clear that this House will have a meaningful vote under all circumstances, but it is incumbent on MPs on both sides of the House to remember what they promised to their electorate—that is, delivering the outcome of the referendum and getting a good negotiated deal. That is something that we should all be supporting when the withdrawal agreement returns to this House.
If Opposition Members continue to oppose any of the very generous compromises that have been put forward, at what point will he withdraw the offer of £39 billion for the bureaucracy in Brussels and spend it preparing for the full, clean, World Trade Organisation Brexit that over 17 million people have voted for?
My hon. Friend always makes his point with great force and power, but today I am talking about the Government’s commitments to this House and how we will meet them; that is what I want to focus on. We have put before the House a withdrawal agreement, which of course includes settling our dues with Brussels, but crucially also ending them and taking control of our money as we leave the EU.
Yesterday the Prime Minister failed to put before the House the deal that she herself described as the “best possible negotiable deal”, and now she is travelling the capitals of Europe pleading for help. There is a growing sense of chaos in the country, and a feeling that the Government are simply not in control. Does the Minister agree that one of the options he should be considering is putting this issue back to the people with an option to stay in the EU—the best deal we have?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady. It is incumbent on us all to remember that it was this House that legislated for the referendum, and that promised people their views would be listened to and followed. It is therefore for us to deliver on the outcome of the referendum, as both our parties promised in their manifestos just last year.
It is vital that the House has its say on this crucial issue, so I am grateful for the Minister’s assurances, but 21 January is nearly six weeks away. Does he agree that that should be a deadline, not a target? If this matter can come back before the House, it should. We need to resolve this at the earliest possible opportunity.
The problem is that nobody believes the Government anymore. That is exactly why the Attorney General should, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, be forced to come to the House and to put in writing the assurances that the Minister has given. Today the Minister has simply been put up as chaff for other Ministers above his pay grade who, quite frankly, are willing to resort to any level of trickery and contempt for this House. That is the reality. Speaking of trickery, will the Minister be very clear about whether any EU member states or European Commission officials were informed of the plan to pull the vote before the Cabinet discussed it and before this House was told?
I have to say that chaff is a new description for me that I am honoured to receive from the hon. Gentleman. I am here to be very clear about the Government’s interpretation of section 13 of the withdrawal Act and to answer that we will have a meaningful vote. I am not here to speculate on other matters.
The contempt with which this Government hold Parliament seems to know no bounds. The answers of the Minister today suggest that it is either their way or the highway. That is not good enough. Parliament’s voice must be heard on this issue. Apart from the Minister’s word, what actual consequences are there if the Government do not bring a vote to the House of Commons by 21 January? There seem to be no consequences for holding Parliament in contempt, nor for pulling the vote that should have taken place today, so what will the consequences be if the Government do not bring a vote to the House before 21 January?
Yesterday we had a significant judgment from the European Court that opens up another option, so when the Minister tells the Attorney General that we want written advice, can the Attorney General take into account yesterday’s judgment in what he sends us?
The date of 21 January is a long way in the future, particularly for those EU citizens whose lives are on hold and who are struck with uncertainty. The Minister said that he thought that the vote could be brought back a lot earlier than that. Could we hear a bit more of the Minister’s thoughts? Given that there are more than four sitting weeks until 21 January, why can we not have this vote before we break for the Christmas recess?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the date of 21 January is set in the Act because that is what Parliament decided should be in the Act. I have been very clear that I would like to see this voted on before then, and I think that many Members across the House would like to see that. The hon. Gentleman talks about the important matter of European citizens. The deal that we have negotiated is the best way of securing their livelihoods and allowing them to continue as before, but of course the Government have also made significant commitments about the unilateral steps we would take, even in the absence of a deal.
This week’s events have meant extra cost and extra disruption for business and public services. Can the Minister help me to understand why we are expected to believe his assurance that the Government will bring forward a vote before 21 January, in several weeks’ time, when we were unable to believe the word that was given by Government Ministers yesterday morning that there would be a vote today? May I also invite him to use a different expression? Rather than saying, “We will have a vote before 21 January”, can he tell us in legal terms that this Government must have a vote before 21 January?
I think we all have a fairly shrewd idea that no amount of sugar-coating is going to salvage this deal. It is dead in the water and is highly likely to fail when it does meet the test of a parliamentary vote. Given that that is the situation, what contingencies are the Government planning? They have agreed that it would be disastrous for us to crash out with no deal, so are they ruling out any option, including potentially unilaterally revoking the article 50 declaration?
The hon. Gentleman talks about contingencies. Of course, a huge amount of contingency work has been done, including by the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). We are very clear that the best way forward is to secure a deal to ensure that we have the best deal possible, and that is exactly what the Prime Minister is fighting for.
Given the dysfunctional and duplicitous behaviour that we have seen in the last few days, would not it be best if the Government listened to the very wise words of the former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major, speaking in Dublin today, who has asked for the revocation of article 50?
No, I do not believe that it would be best. We have to remember that we were all elected on manifestos that respected the referendum result, and we have to deliver on that. I do pay heed to Sir John Major, when he makes the point about how important it is that we protect the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. That is exactly what we seek to do through the negotiations with the EU.
The Government’s handling of this whole thing has been woeful. After yesterday’s shambles, I met staff of Reckitt Benckiser this morning, who told me that they are having to step up the preparations for a no-deal scenario, having received a letter from the Health Secretary saying that there could be problems at the ports for up to six months, which would mean major problems for pharmaceuticals and getting raw materials into the country. Is it not time that we now actually get on and have the vote? The Prime Minister will not bring back any major change to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration; let us have the vote before Christmas, and then we can see what we need to do next in the new year.
I regularly meet pharmaceutical businesses to talk to them about the Government’s plan for a deal, and also no-deal contingency planning such as that which the hon. Lady talks about. I recognise that the industry strongly supports securing a deal that provides an implementation period that provides a clear pathway ahead for trade. We want to see that delivered. I think it is right that the Prime Minister should seek to put the best possible deal before this House.
The success of Jaguar Land Rover in my constituency has transformed the lives of thousands of workers, but they now face a bleak new year. Six weeks more of uncertainty take us ever closer to the cliff. Pending Parliament deciding where we eventually go, we must rule out no deal. Will the Government therefore call a vote next week on no deal-no Brexit?
I have been very clear that the Government will allow a meaningful vote that will follow the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal Act. However, the best way to ensure the certainty that businesses crave is to make sure that we support across this House a withdrawal agreement that secures the implementation period and secures a good trade deal for our country.
Figures from yesterday show that the Minister’s Government spent £100,000 on social media promoting the Prime Minister’s deal before withdrawing it from the vote. Will he do two things? First, will he apologise for squandering public money in that way; and will he also give a guarantee that he will waste no more public money on pointless propaganda during this needlessly extended process?
Will the Minister acknowledge the enormous disquiet not just in all parts of this House but outside this place, across our country, that the expected vote today was pulled, despite repeated promises that it was 100% going ahead? We have heard from Europe that there is no chance of any change to the deal. Will his Government now take responsibility, stop this uncertainty—which, as he will have heard from countless colleagues, is having such a detrimental impact on our businesses and also on our nation’s mental health—and commit to bring forward the vote by Christmas so that we can all start 2019 with some certainty?
The hon. Lady has called for certainty. The best way for certainty is that this deal is brought back to this House with the assurances that European capitals are already saying that they can give to aid its ratification, so that we can all get behind it, back it and provide that certainty.
Yesterday’s fiasco has done further damage to this country’s once proud reputation for stability and good governance. Could the Minister explain to the House how another 40 days of drift and dither is going to help to restore that battered reputation?
The hon. Gentleman, who once had aspirations to lead the Opposition, might have provided perhaps less drift and dither from the Opposition Front Bench. But what he would not have done, I think, is actually do what the Labour manifesto promised to do, which was to deliver on the outcome of the referendum.
I told my constituents in Bristol West that I will be voting against the Government’s deal and voting against no deal this evening, but the Government have pulled those votes, and yesterday the Minister’s boss said that he would not be revoking article 50. So is not the truth that this Government are trying to hold a no-deal Brexit gun to the country’s head?
No. I respect the fact that the hon. Lady has always been consistent in her views on this issue; of course, it is right to point out that those views conflict with the promises made in the last Labour manifesto. This Government are very clear—we want this House to be able to vote on a deal, we think that that deal will be in the interests of our country, and we will bringing that deal back to this House to vote on it.
After yesterday’s shenanigans and—let us face it—a total abuse of power by the Executive, all trust in this Government has broken down. So while I believe that the Minister is being sincere, will he, to restore trust, promise to have the Attorney General’s legal advice on section 13 of the withdrawal Act published, and also call for the article 50 clock to be stopped on this process?
The Minister has to understand that the reason why Members on both sides of the House have little faith in what he is saying is that he keeps answering by saying that with section 13 there will be a vote. The reality is that there was a business motion last week where it was agreed that there would be a vote today, and the Government have reneged on it, which is why we do not trust them. The language that he has been using in answering these questions is extremely important. He said that he hopes for a vote before 21 January, that he hopes for a vote shortly, and that 21 January would be the back end of when he would expect there to be a vote. He clearly knows something, so will he set out now when the vote will come?
The Government are relying on the House trusting them in bringing forward a meaningful vote in the future, but yesterday’s escapades suggest that they are not always dealing from the top of the pack. The Leader of the House came here yesterday and collapsed the business without making any reference to that at all, and it was moved by a Minister of the Government just shouting “Tomorrow”. It would help to restore some of that trust—although that is a very difficult thing for the Government to do—if they were to promise never to do that again in this process and give this House the opportunity to vote on any future changes in the business motion.
I would gently say to the hon. Gentleman that he is very generous in giving me such wonderful powers to make commitments on behalf of the Government for evermore. I have been clear today about the meaningful vote that this House will have, and clear about our interpretation of section 13 of the withdrawal Act. I think that colleagues across the House should take that very clearly as the Government’s intention as to what we are going to do. I would therefore gently appeal for the trust that he talks about.