(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if she will make a statement on progress made in achieving legal changes to the EU withdrawal agreement and the timetable in this House for the meaningful vote.
I would like to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all the House a happy new year.
In a tone that I am sure will reflect the year ahead, may I join the Leader of the Opposition in wishing you, Mr Speaker, and colleagues across the House a happy new year?
As the House will be aware, the Prime Minister today launched a new 10-year plan for the NHS, allocating an extra £20.5 billion a year in funding. I am therefore responding to this question on her behalf. I am sure colleagues across the House recognise the importance of the NHS plan.
As confirmed by the Leader of the House in her business statement before the Christmas recess, this Wednesday the House will debate a business motion relating to section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That will be followed by the main debate on section 13(1)(b), which will continue on Thursday 10 January and, subject to the will of the House, Friday 11 January. Discussions are taking place through the usual channels as to the proposed length of that debate and the date of the vote, but ultimately it will be a decision for this House, through the business motion, which will be voted on this Wednesday. Debate will also take place in the House of Lords on Wednesday 9, Thursday 10 and Monday 14 January.
The decision to postpone the debate last year was not taken lightly. Over the two years of negotiations, the Prime Minister won hard-fought battles—most importantly, to agree a bespoke deal, rather than the flawed off-the-shelf options initially offered. But it was clear from the three days of debate held in this House that it was not going to pass the deal and that further reassurances should be sought, particularly on the issue of the backstop.
Following December’s European Council, a series of conclusions were published that went further than the EU had ever gone previously in trying to address the concerns of this House. Over Christmas, the Prime Minister was in contact with a number of her European counterparts on the further legal and political assurances that Parliament needs on the backstop. She has been in touch with the Taoiseach, and indeed British and Irish Government officials have been in contact over the past week. Securing the additional reassurance that Parliament needs remains our priority, and leaders remain in contact. Leaving the EU with the deal that has been agreed is in the interests of both sides.
When the debate begins on Wednesday, the Government will make clear for the House what has been achieved since the vote was deferred last year. As I said when I spoke in the debate on 4 December, the deal will enable us to deliver a fair, skills-based immigration system and to have control over our fisheries policy and agricultural policies—
Unlike the Scottish National party, which wants to retain the European approach. We will have our own trade policy for the first time in more than three decades, and there will be an end to sending vast sums of money to the EU. It is a good deal, it is the only deal, and I believe that it is the right deal, in offering certainty for this country.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. With less than three months until we reach the article 50 deadline, there can be no more hiding and no more running away. This issue will define Britain’s future and should not be decided by the internal machinations of the Conservative party. This House and this country deserve much better.
A month ago, the Prime Minister shamefully pulled the meaningful vote, promising to do everything possible to secure assurances from the EU on the temporary nature of the backstop. Now the time has come for the Prime Minister to tell the House exactly what legal assurances she has been given by EU leaders. She achieved nothing at the December summit, but now surely she has plenty to update us on. Although I am delighted to see the Brexit Secretary here today, it is the Prime Minister who should be here to answer these questions. She suggested that a breakthrough had been secured last week. She is not here because she is busy promoting “Project Fear.” It is all hot air.
There also seems to be confusion about exactly what the Prime Minister is demanding from EU leaders. The Leader of the House promised “legal reassurances”, but yesterday the Prime Minister told the BBC:
“We’re not asking for anything new”.
Can the Secretary of State clear this up and tell the House exactly what is being requested, because this morning Ministers in his own Department did not seem to have a clue? When asked what the PM was demanding, the Brexit Minister had to concede that he did not know, but he reassured the whole world by saying that he was “an important person”, so that is all right.
I fear that the reason so many members of the Cabinet are in the dark is that there is nothing to know. If that is the case, what guarantees do we have from the Secretary of State that, faced with yet another humiliating defeat, the Prime Minister will not just run away? Can he do what the Prime Minister should be doing here today by confirming the timetable for the meaningful vote and providing what we have not received so far: a cast-iron promise that it will not be reneged on yet again?
The Government are trying to run down the clock in an attempt to blackmail this House and the country into supporting a botched deal. The Prime Minister has refused to work with the majority over the past few months, in a desperate attempt to spark life into what is actually a Frankenstein’s monster of a deal. Now we are told that, if we do not support the deal, the Government are prepared to push our whole economy off the cliff edge. To prove this, preparations for no deal are now under way.
The Transport Secretary, who has a PhD in incompetence in running Ministries, has awarded a shipping contract to a company that does not have any ships. Even today, we see the farce of lorries being lined up to stage a fake traffic jam in Kent to pretend to the EU that the Government are ready for a no deal—a stunt that the Road Haulage Association describes as “window dressing” and that one of the drivers describes as a “complete waste of time.” The Government are fooling nobody. These shambolic preparations are too little, too late.
The reality is that there is no majority in this House to support no deal. Why will the Government not face up to this truth and stop wasting our time and our money? The Prime Minister should be here updating MPs on what progress she has achieved, if any. Instead, she is continuing her approach, as before Christmas, of ducking scrutiny and dodging accountability. We will hold this Government to account for their incompetence.
Based on the lack of content in that, it is good to know that the Leader of the Opposition had a good break over Christmas. He talks about colleagues not knowing. What they do not know is what Labour’s plan is. However, what they do know is that it is riddled with contradiction. Labour say they want to remain in a customs union, yet they also say that they intend to have an independent trade policy, even though the EU has made it clear that that is an area of EU competence. They say they want to be in the internal market but, at the same time, end free movement, even though the two are contradictory.
The shadow Business Secretary says that he does not want to rule out the option of a second referendum, yet the shadow Education Secretary says that that would be a betrayal of the democracy of the main referendum vote. Page 24 of Labour’s manifesto said that they would respect the referendum result; now they seem to have a policy to go back on that. So the confusion we have is as to what the Leader of the Opposition actually believes. He started out saying in interviews that we could not stop Brexit, yet his shadow Brexit Secretary says that they can.
I am pleased that the Leader of the Opposition started his remarks by seeming to upgrade me. Last time he said that my role is purely ceremonial. Now he seems to welcome me to my post. Yet he seems to suggest that the NHS 10-year plan, with an extra £20.5 billion of investment, is in some way “Project Fear.” Well, we are used to “Project Fear” on the NHS; it is “Project Fear” that we see from the Opposition on a regular basis.
The reality is that the right hon. Gentleman opposes the preparations for no deal, which any responsible Government need to make, while at the same time saying that he will vote against the deal. It is that internal machination in the Labour party that he needs to address, and nothing in his contribution to the House today sought to clarify that. It is now time he became clear. Does he maintain the position in the manifesto, that Labour will respect the referendum result, or does he agree with his shadow Brexit Secretary and want a second referendum?
We have only about 80 days left. The Government face a deadline which depend crucial decisions that will affect future generations and the whole basis of our political and economic relationships with the rest of the world. We are nowhere near consensus, either in this House or in the country, on what new arrangements with the European Union we are actually asking for, let alone on the arrangements that we are likely to achieve. Now we have a completely ridiculous urgent question from the Leader of the Opposition, who has no idea what he wants but who just feels that he has to say something about the crisis we are in.
As we are in this position and as 29 March is an entirely arbitrary date—it was accidentally set when the Prime Minister, for no particular reason, decided to invoke article 50 before she knew what she was going to ask for—may I ask my right hon. Friend: is not it obvious that the national interest requires that we now delay matters by putting off the implementation of article 50 in order to put ourselves in the position where we can negotiate with 27 serious Governments by showing that we know what we are asking for and can deliver from our side, and to protect the national interest and future generations?
It is always good to hear from my right hon. and learned Friend, but I take issue with his question. First, he says this is an arbitrary date. The article 50 process set a two-year timeline and, indeed, this House voted for the date to be set in the Bill. Secondly—he touched on this in his interview on the “Today” programme, when he suggested that we revoke article 50 with a view to having a second referendum decision—the European Court of Justice was clear that revoking article 50 cannot be done as a tactical device in order then to go back on that decision; it has to be a confirmed intention at that time. If this is about extending that, an extension requires the agreement of all 27 member states, but if it is about revoking it, the Court was clear that revoking article 50 is not about buying more time; it is about making a clear decision that we do not intend at that point to proceed.
May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Members and staff a happy new year?
It is with regret that we return after the Christmas break with no progress from the Government on the withdrawal agreement and—even more remarkable—that we return with no Prime Minister in Parliament. She cannot be bothered to be here. We are now just days away from the deadline to get a deal to protect our economy and the Prime Minister is not in Parliament to explain her lack of progress. Why is the Prime Minister not responding to this urgent question?
It is now clear beyond doubt that the Prime Minister’s tactic is to run down the clock and deprive Parliament of any alternative to her Brexit proposals, bringing the prospect of a no deal closer. The SNP we will work across this House to get support for an alternative that is about having another EU referendum and letting the people take back control from this Government. I say to the Leader of the Opposition: get off the fence and join us. Stop this Government’s chaotic Brexit plan.
Shamefully, we are in exactly the same situation as before Christmas, with the Tory Government again facing defeat but having wasted a month of precious time. The risks are real. The economic disaster facing our communities across these islands is real. It is suggested that the proposed letter between the UK and the EU regarding the backstop will not come before the debate and the meaningful vote. We cannot operate in the dark. This Government must show us the detail and tell us today how they believe these assurances will be enough to win support for their shambolic deal. Moreover, if, which is extremely unlikely, this Government manage to get their vote through, will they commit to extending article 50 immediately and remove the threat of the cliff edge?
The First Minister of Scotland was very clear today that the events of the last few years have made the case for Scotland being an independent country in charge of our own destiny even stronger. Scotland will not be dragged out of the European Union against its will. Our Parliament’s powers are being eroded. The UK Government are treating the Scottish Government with contempt. Even when we seek compromise, our voice—Scotland’s voice—is sidelined. This Government should wake up to the reality. Scotland knows who is leading in our interests, and it is not the Government in Westminster.
I think that Members across the House will recognise that this Prime Minister has spent probably more time at this Dispatch Box answering questions from colleagues across the House than any of the previous incumbents. The right hon. Gentleman asked where she is. As I said in my opening remarks, she is launching the NHS 10-year plan because this party—Members on this side of the House—is committed to ensuring that we have an NHS fit for the future, which is what that announcement is about.
There seems to be, inherent in the right hon. Gentleman’s questions today and in previous questions, a constant refrain from the SNP. On the one hand it calls for referendums, but on the other it cannot seem to cope with the results of the referendums in 2014 or 2016.
The right hon. Gentleman is right as to the concern about a no-deal outcome. That is why the best mitigation of a no deal is to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal. It is the only deal on the table and it reflects over two years of hard-fought negotiation with the EU.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about extending article 50, I touched on that in my reply to the Father of the House. The reality is that extending article 50 is not a unilateral decision: it would require the consent of the other 27 member states. It would also raise all sorts of practical issues, not least in relation to the timing of the European parliamentary elections at the end of May. It is the Government’s firm intention not to extend article 50 and to leave the EU as the Prime Minister set out. The SNP should respect the largest vote in the United Kingdom’s history.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Do the Government understand that opposition to the withdrawal agreement goes way beyond the unacceptable Irish backstop and includes paying huge sums of money with nothing nailed down over the future partnership? Worse still, it would plunge us into 21 to 45 more months of endless rows and disagreements, with all the uncertainty that would bring.
May I join you, Mr Speaker, in congratulating my right hon. Friend on his well-deserved knighthood? As regards the interplay between the financial settlement and how a no-deal scenario would be managed, there is a contradiction in saying on the one hand that we can leave the EU with no financial contribution, and on the other that there would be sufficient good will on the EU side for them to move beyond anything more than contingency planning and offer some sort of managed deal, when, at the same time, we are not honouring the legal obligations we have.
The Leader of the Opposition clarified, over the recess, that in the event that the Labour party obtains and wins a general election it will proceed with Brexit, so what are the Minister’s civil service advisers telling it that is in any way different from what the Government are doing?
It is not for me to speculate on what civil servants tell the Leader of the Opposition. I am not sure they would be having those discussions. The reality is that the Leader of the Opposition’s party was the first to offer an in/out referendum. His party should therefore respect the decision, as its then leader said it would. It was the biggest vote in our country’s history and that is why it is right that we avoid further divisiveness and ensure we leave as we said we would.
First, may I endorse the comments by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) about the money side of things? It is not just that the backstop is not sufficient in itself. It is a vital issue, but it is not the whole story by any means. We have the European Court of Justice, the question of control over laws, the question of the extension of time under article 132, the issue of state aid and the incompatibility of the agreement with the repeal of the European Communities 1972 Act. So many aspects of the withdrawal agreement are, if I may say so to the Secretary of State, matters that go way beyond mere reassurances. Reassurances will get nowhere. They are certainly not going to convince anybody who is thinking hard about this when it comes to the vote next week.
As my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister made clear that she has heard the concerns of the House in relation to the backstop and that is subject to the further discussions with European leaders. In terms of its scope, it is worth reminding the House that 80% of our economy is covered by services that would not be within the scope of the backstop. It is worth having some proportion with regard to that discussion. On the other issues, I was not sure whether he was saying he wants more freedom for state aid, which would be the Leader of the Opposition’s position. That is not, characteristically, what I would expect my hon. Friend to be calling for. The reality is that any deal we enter into with the EU will require a backstop. That is the substance of it. Whether that is a Canada option, a Canada-plus, a Canada-plus-plus or a Canada-plus-plus-plus, the reality is that, whatever the deal, it will require a backstop.
Nearly a month has passed since the vote on the Prime Minister’s deal was cancelled, and the EU shows no signs of being willing to offer her the legal assurances she says she is seeking about how long the Northern Ireland backstop might last. Unless the Secretary of State can reassure the House today that such assurances will be forthcoming, I urge the Government to take at least one decision in the national interest now and rule out the disaster that a no-deal Brexit would be for this country.
I am very mindful of what the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee says, and of the letter on this issue signed by a significant number of Members. The core point about ruling out no deal is that the House has to be for something rather than simply to agree what it is against. It is clear that the signatories to the letter suggesting that no deal should be ruled out support a whole spectrum of issues. The House has to decide what it is for, not simply what it is against.
Does the Secretary of State agree with my constituent who runs a chemical business, who says a no deal would be a disaster for him? Can my right hon. Friend give a direct assurance that we will proceed to a vote on the deal next week?
I think we need to move away from some of the more inflammatory language around the consequences of no deal, but I do agree with my hon. Friend that there will be significant issues arising from no deal. I do not support the view expressed by some Members, including the Democratic Unionist party spokesman, who is supremely relaxed about the consequences of no deal. I think the consequences of no deal will be material, but I do not think they will be of the inflammatory sort that we sometimes hear and read about in the press.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd, a blwyddyn newydd dda i’r Tŷ i gyd.
It is generally regretted that the British Government triggered article 50 in March 2017. They did so with the aid of the Labour party and without any semblance of a plan. The result, as people see, is a Parliament consumed by chaos and disorder. Delaying the meaningful vote a day longer only delays the inevitable. Will the Minister admit that the Government are now acting as a willing agent of crippling economic uncertainty, and immediately make good the harm they are choosing to do by bringing forward the vote to this week?
I feel I must slightly correct the hon. Lady. It was the House that voted to trigger article 50—a clear majority of Members voted that we should send the article 50 letter. On her point about agents of uncertainty, the agents of uncertainty are those Members who are opposing the deal—the deal that will give us an implementation period and give businesses and citizens the certainty they need—while at the same time not coming forward with a proposal that can command the confidence of the House. It is those opposing the Prime Minister’s deal who are generating the uncertainty.
The Secretary of State mentioned legally binding agreements. Will the Attorney General be coming to the House to be challenged on how legally binding some of the agreements will be? Those of us who are sceptical about having agreements rather than things written in law would like to have some of the legal advice we have already explored explained to us in the House.
My hon. Friend is a very experienced Member, and she will know that it is the House that governs its business. As happened with the previous statement, the business is shaped by business motions and what the House does. It is not normal practice—this has been an issue for successive Governments—for legal advice to be published. There are very good reasons for that, which the Attorney General set out, but ultimately the House controls its own business.
Has the Secretary of State been out and about talking to people during the Christmas break? Is he aware that people are saying, “Here we are in the greatest crisis this country has had in any of our lifetimes, at a time when we can have a 10-year plan for the national health service but no 10-year plan for the future of this country”? The people of this country feel let down by politicians on both sides. We have no plan. We have no purpose. We need leadership, and we need it now.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that we have a genuine plan for the NHS, and I pay tribute to the work of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on that.
On what people say to me and other Members, I am always slightly wary of that, because it is somewhat subjective, and people have a tendency to select the conversations that suit their argument, but the majority of comments I have had from constituents demonstrate a desire for us to get on with it, back the deal, move forward and end this period of divisiveness. That said, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have had different conversations with different constituents.
My right hon. Friend has said that the withdrawal agreement, which we intend to recommence debating this week, represents the best deal and the only deal. Are we to infer from that that any legal assurances we may expect to receive from the European Union will stop short of a rewording of that agreement?
My right hon. Friend, as an ex-Minister in this Department, will understand these issues extremely well. As I said in my opening remarks, we will update the House on the conversations the Prime Minister has had with European leaders in the debate starting later this week, and we will comment further on the nature of the assurances at that point.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the British public understand this whole debate about the EU much better than they are sometimes given credit for here? Does he also agree that some of the wording and scare stories put about on the possibility of going over to WTO rules are outrageous? Will he as Secretary of State make sure that his Department does everything it can to ensure that the full truth of what WTO would mean gets across to the public, who I think are already aware that this is a way forward?
I agree with the hon. Lady that it is in no one’s interest to cause false alarm, but at the same time we should not give false comfort. There are material issues to be addressed in terms of a no deal, and we are working actively in government to mitigate them—I pay tribute to the work of many officials during the festive period who maintained their work in the preparation of those no-deal plans. Indeed, we are stepping up our communication—there will be a big communication campaign of radio and social media ads tomorrow and in the days ahead—but people cannot suggest that not honouring our legal obligations and not paying the financial settlement would allow us to enter some sort of managed no deal that allows us to cherry-pick the bits we want and avoid the bits we do not.
Did my right hon. Friend see the interview in the Augsburger Allgemeine on 11 December given by Martin Selmayr, secretary-general of the European Commission, in which he said about the Commission:
“We have negotiated hard, and realised all our objectives”?
He says that the agreement
“shows that leaving the EU…doesn’t work”.
Other Brussels officials have said that the UK is “locked in” and that
“losing Northern Ireland is the price Britain has to pay for Brexit”.
Is my right hon. Friend really as enthusiastic as Martin Selmayr and the Commission about this agreement?
My right hon. Friend brings to the House his specialist interest, understanding and engagement in German politics, but the Prime Minister has been clear throughout—the political declaration itself makes this clear—about the sovereign position on Northern Ireland. Its constitutional status is unequivocally guaranteed and the integrity of the UK’s internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it are preserved. She has made that extremely clear, and the political declaration also makes it clear, but of course politicians in Germany, like those in the UK, will make a range of statements.
The public are sick and tired of Ministers spinning this out and prevaricating. It will have been noticed that the Secretary of State did not answer the question from the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), who asked for a simple guarantee. Will he guarantee that the meaningful vote will definitely take place next week?
The scope to exit from the backstop—which is really at the heart of my right hon. Friend’s question—was explored in the House at length on, I think, 3 or 4 December, when the Attorney General spoke about that specific issue in great detail. The crux of what he said was that it involved a balance of risk, and that, ultimately, these were political decisions in relation to the ability of a sovereign state to be bound in the future. I know that my right hon. Friend is an assiduous follower of the Attorney General and his legal advice, and I commend that earlier debate to him.
There will have been a 35-day abyss between the date on which we expected to have the meaningful vote and next week, when we have been told that we will have it. There is no prospect of a different outcome from the one that we were told about before Christmas. I think it is unforgivable for our businesses, our public services and the country that we are having to contend with such uncertainty. The Secretary of State wanted to hear from the House what we wanted to rule out. I can tell him that I am in favour of ruling out uncertainty and a no-deal Brexit. Why is he not in favour of ruling out that uncertainty?
The best way to avoid the uncertainty is to vote for this deal, but I do not accept the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. She said that there had been no progress, but the European Council’s conclusions in December showed progress in terms of its commitment—its
“firm determination to work speedily on a subsequent agreement”.
It stated that it
“stands ready to embark on preparations immediately”,
and so forth. Moreover, as I said in my opening remarks, the Prime Minister has been having ongoing discussions with European leaders.
The reality that Members in all parts of the House must confront is that unless the House is for an option, no deal then becomes the alternative. It is not a unilateral decision of the UK Government to extend, and the Court, in announcing its position on revocation, made clear that that would require a breach of the manifesto commitment on which the hon. Lady stood, and on which the vast majority of Members stood.
According to that excellent website TheyWorkForYou, the Prime Minister has assured the House on no fewer than 74 occasions that we will be leaving the EU on 29 March. Will the Secretary of State confirm that in no circumstances will that date be postponed?
Tapadh leat agus Bliadhna mhath ùr, Mr Speaker. Thank you, and a happy new year.
Even the most deluded have conceded that Brexit is not going terribly well. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the Prime Minister regrets having made the United Kingdom an international laughing stock? When might the delusions that she shares with the Tory party and the Labour leadership come to an end? Might it be when we have the meaningful vote on Tuesday week? It has to happen some time.
What is deluded is on the one hand to say, “We want more control in Scotland”, and on the other hand, when we reach a point at which the UK Government are gaining greater control over fisheries policy, to say, “Actually, no, we want to give it back to Brussels.” It is that sort of incoherent policy making by the Opposition that has created this constantly revolving door. They call for referendums, then lose them, and then say that they want another one.
While it is of course right for us to debate the manner of our leaving the EU, and right for us to have those negotiations, does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that we are leaving the EU was set beyond any doubt by the British people in the 2016 referendum?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We were given a clear instruction to leave by the British people in the biggest vote in our democratic history. As the Prime Minister has said, now is the time for the country to come together after what has been a very divisive period in our public life, and to move forward from the referendum debate. That requires us to honour the referendum result, rather than replaying the division on a much more intense scale.
The Secretary of State continually says that there is no alternative plan, but in fact my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) and his colleague the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) have produced “Common Market 2.0”, which sets out how we can leave the EU and join the European Economic Area. It is a Brexit that deals with concerns about free movement and the backstop and has a real chance of reuniting our deeply divided country. Will the Secretary of State take the time to read this document and perhaps come back to us with his views?
I know the hon. Gentleman looks at these issues in detail and very seriously and I very much respect that. I have looked at the report to which he refers and the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on this, but the reality is that there is an inherent contradiction in respecting the referendum result and suggesting that we can cherry pick from the four freedoms that the EU has always been clear cannot be divided. The reality is that the Norway option does not give us what is needed. There is Norway or Norway plus, but the reality is that Norway has a population of 5 million and much of what is done in terms of rule taking for Norway is not suitable for the UK in areas including financial services. There is also an inherent contradiction in what was committed to in the manifestos of the hon. Gentleman’s party and my own, and delivering on the referendum result.
Mr Speaker, may I wish you and the House a constructive new year?
Given that neither the EU nor the UK wish to be in the backstop for any length of time, can my right hon. Friend explain to the House why it is so difficult to agree with our 27 EU partners a short protocol to the withdrawal agreement that would allow the UK to have a unilateral right to withdraw from the backstop in a relatively short period of time?
As my hon. Friend knows, there has been some progress in this area, in terms of the commitments around best endeavours and the backstop being temporary. Indeed, article 50 requires that the backstop would be temporary. These issues have been raised across the House. The Prime Minister is discussing them with EU leaders and we will have more to say on this in the forthcoming days.
This is pathetic. We should have had all of this dealt with by now; we should have voted before Christmas, and we should be moving on to a plan B. I ask the Secretary of State this quite seriously: we do not know when these legal reassurances from the Prime Minister are coming, so will he tell us if they are going to be given to us today, on Wednesday—when?
I know the hon. Lady feels extremely strongly about this issue, but what is damaging to our public life is to stand on a manifesto that commits to respecting the result and then to spend time campaigning for a second referendum to undermine that result. We in this party are committed to honouring the referendum result and ensuring we deliver on it.
I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all Members of the House a happy new year.
One of our most distinguished ex-civil servants, Lord Macpherson, estimated this morning that the earliest time by which a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU could be reached would be 2025—that is, two years of transition and then five years of a backstop. If the Secretary of State does not agree with that estimate, why not?
I do not think it will surprise the hon. Lady to learn that I do not agree with that estimate. That is because we start from a position of equivalence after 40-odd years of close co-operation, we are looking to put in place an agreement based on shared values, and we have a framework in the form of the political declaration that acts as an instruction for the next stage of the negotiation.
As the Secretary of State will know, much of the debate in this House has focused on the Northern Ireland backstop and not on the principle of guaranteeing that there will be no return to the hard border of the past. Will he confirm that an essential part of the next week will involve the Government giving us a reassurance that the backstop will relate to keeping the border open and that the UK will not be held in that arrangement by extraneous matters such as fishing?
I agree with my hon. Friend; there is a very good reason why the backstop is there. It is a reflection of two things. First, it is a reflection of our firm commitments under the Belfast agreement, reflecting the difficult history of Northern Ireland and the violence that the people of Northern Ireland have suffered. Also, Northern Ireland is the one part of the United Kingdom that has a shared geography with Ireland. That is why there are special circumstances and it is why the backstop is required. The reality is that whatever deal is put forward—including any put forward by Labour, if the Leader of the Opposition were to work one out—it would still require a backstop.
Mr Speaker, before I ask my question I should like to draw your attention some further serious events going on outside Parliament today. They include intimidation, threats and potentially unlawful actions targeting Members of this House, members of the press, members of the public and peaceful activists. May I urge you to use your offices to communicate with the Metropolitan police at the highest level to ensure that proper action is taken, as this issue has been repeatedly raised?
I would say to the Secretary of State that there has clearly been no progress in the negotiations or on the Government’s position. There has, however, been progress on spending taxpayers’ money. Will he tell us how much the delay has cost the taxpayer on a daily basis and in total since the Prime Minister decided to delay the meaningful vote?
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I have obviously not seen the incidents outside, but anyone who stands at this Dispatch Box is mindful of the plaque commemorating Jo Cox, which I know is so dear to many Members, not only on the Opposition Benches but across the House. I am sure that we would all unite in believing that, wherever we stand in the Brexit debate, all of us in this House should be able to air our views with respect and proportion.
On the hon. Gentleman’s question on spending, the reality is that we do not want to spend money on no deal—[Interruption.] The amount of money for no deal has been set out by the Treasury—that is a matter of public record—but the fact is that those who criticise that spending, which any responsible Government need to allow for, need to explain why they are not backing the deal. It is the fact that people are not backing the deal that is requiring the Government to divert spending to no deal. The best way to avoid spending on no deal is to back the deal and give businesses and citizens the certainty that they need.
As one of the signatories to the letter about the consequences of no deal, particularly around manufacturing and particularly in the west midlands where my constituency is, I believe that the Secretary of State will appreciate my concerns. He has referred to the fact that 80% of our economy involves services. Will he please give us his assessment of the impact on services of no deal on 29 March?
I very much recognise the point that my hon. Friend is making. I shall pick out one example from among many. It relates to data, which is extremely important within the service economy. Those who say that in the event of no deal we will go to WTO rules and that that will be completely benign have not, from what I have seen, addressed the question of what that would mean to service businesses in terms of data adequacy and how data would flow. There are many other examples, but that is one that would apply specifically to the service economy. I know from my discussions with my hon. Friend that he is well aware of what the impact would be on manufacturing in his own constituency as well.
I have to confess to the Secretary of State that I am sad to see that he is answering this urgent question rather than the Prime Minister, because it would have been helpful to understand how, in the light of the NHS 10-year plan, our becoming the largest purchaser of fridges in the world fits into those effective, value-for-money spending plans. He can redeem himself to the House today, however, by answering the question that was clearly put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) about the legal reassurances that we have been told will change all our minds on this deal. When will Parliament have an opportunity to read them? Will it be before the debate starts on Wednesday? Yes or no?
I did try to address that in my opening remarks. I said that we would update the House as part of the upcoming debate, and we have set aside a significant number of parliamentary hours in which to do that. I know the hon. Lady well from our time on the Public Accounts Committee, and I am not sure that any legal assurances secured by the Prime Minister would be enough divert her from her desire for a second referendum. I have made it clear that we will update the House this week on the further discussions that the Prime Minister has had.
The Secretary of State has already referred to the letter calling on the Government to rule out no deal. Does he agree that if we foolishly ruled out no deal, we would be left with one of two invidious choices: remaining in the European Union or accepting whatever deal the European Union saw fit to grant us? Were the Government to agree with the letter, that would fatally undermine our negotiating position, so they should categorically not do so.
As my hon. Friend says, if the Government ruled out no deal, the only other option in the event of the Prime Minister’s deal being rejected would be to revoke article 50, which would be contrary to the manifesto commitments of both main parties and hugely damaging to democracy.
When a permanent secretary is not happy about being asked to spend money, they seek a written ministerial instruction to make it proper. I have today had written confirmation from the Department for Transport that the permanent secretary sought such a direction. Does that not prove that no deal is a bluff?
Given the hon. Lady’s Treasury experience, she will be familiar with chapter 3 of “Managing Public Money” and the requirements on civil servants during their appearances at the Public Accounts Committee relating to value for money. She will also know that letters of direction are not new and have been sought under successive Governments, including during her time as a Minister. They form part of the checks and balances within Government and are a perfectly proper process.
If we want to leave with a deal—the Leader of the Opposition is right that that is the majority view in the House—and if we want to end uncertainty for our farmers, businesses and citizens, is it not time to stop playing party politics and the ideological games, and vote for the deal? As national politicians, all of us should mean it when we say that we are here to act in the national interest.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The business community and citizens are clear that they want the certainty that the deal offers. They want the implementation period to allow investment to be made and planning to proceed. Given the risk of uncertainty that will result from the uncharted waters we will enter if the deal does not go ahead, it is time for Members to look again at the deal and at the complex set of terms within the withdrawal agreement and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Once again, a representative of the Government has come here to make a nebulous statement that can be summed up in three words: nothing has changed. It is groundhog day again. We have heard nothing new, and the only difference is that there are now only 81 days before we risk crashing out of the EU. Will the Secretary of State stop playing chicken? Will he show a bit of leadership and hold the meaningful vote this week so that we can get on without delay?
I am slightly perplexed at being accused of playing chicken when I am at the Dispatch Box answering the hon. Lady’s question. As I touched on in reply to the Westminster leader of the Scottish National party, no one can suggest that the Prime Minister has not been incredibly diligent in her willingness to come to the House and to answer questions, which she done assiduously on many an occasion.
As for “nothing has changed”, perhaps the hon. Lady prepared her question before hearing my previous answers because I have referred to that. The fact is that there have been discussions and the Council statement was made in December, and we will explore such points in much more detail in the coming days.
Whatever happens next, my right hon. Friend will agree that a second referendum would do nothing to move the debate forward and would create further division and confusion. We have had a people’s vote, so let us get on and prepare either to implement a heavily amended deal or no deal and to deliver Brexit on 29 March this year.
My hon. Friend is right that we have had a vote, and I think his constituents want that vote to be respected, just as mine do. That is what the Government are committed to doing, but we should do so in a way that gives businesses and citizens the certainty that they need. That is what the Prime Minister’s deal offers, and I commend it to the House.
The no-deal planning is clearly a total shambles. It has included giving a contract to run ferries to a firm that does not have any ferries. When the Government lose the vote on their deal next week, as they surely will, will the Secretary of State really contemplate risking leaving the EU without a deal—knowing all the chaos that that would create—rather than extending article 50 or, indeed, going back to the people and asking them whether they would rather remain in the EU or accept the half-baked deal that the Government have agreed?
The hon. Lady should be much more candid with the electorate about the fact that she is actually calling for revocation. Extending article 50 is not a unilateral decision for the UK Government; it requires the agreement of all 27 member states. She is, in essence, calling on us to revoke article 50. That goes against the commitment in the Labour party’s manifesto, on which she stood, and goes against what people voted for. If that is her position, that is fine; she is entitled to it, but she should be clear with the electorate that that is what she is calling for. Members who voted to trigger article 50 also need to explain why they have changed their minds.
I am totally committed to delivering the Brexit that my constituents voted for, and I know that the Secretary of State is as well. In that context, does he agree that it is instructive to note that not a single one of the leave campaigns argued for a no-deal Brexit as their first choice? This deal is the way to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
I agree with my hon. Friend. Part of the reason why I supported leaving the European Union is that I want us to be much more global in our approach. I want us to look to the growing economies in China, India and Brazil, develop the work of the economic and financial dialogues that the Treasury has had in place for a number of years, and look at how we can supercharge them and take a much more global approach. We recognise that the best way to trade with those growing economies is not on a WTO basis, but by putting in place more bespoke trading arrangements with them. I find it slightly illogical that we should have that global objective of closer trading relationships with the wider world, while saying that with our largest trading partner we can revert to something that we are trying to move away from elsewhere.
A happy new year to all across the House. Will the Prime Minister bring further clarifications and any legal assurances that she has to the House on Wednesday to allow MPs sufficient time to debate them before any meaningful vote?
As I set out in my earlier remarks, there will be a business motion on Wednesday, when these issues will be discussed—as they are being discussed, prior to that, through the usual channels—and the House will have an opportunity to debate them in much more detail.
The Secretary of State was kind enough to meet me before Christmas to discuss some of my concerns about the withdrawal agreement, and particularly about the fact that the role for the Northern Irish institutions set out in the December joint report was not carried across into the withdrawal agreement. Can he confirm that in the discussions that took place over the Christmas break, the role of the Northern Irish institutions and the question of future regulatory divergence were on the agenda?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and it is one that we have been looking at. I think it is part of a wider question: as we move into phase 2, how do we give a greater role to Parliament and the devolved Assemblies? We are actively looking at those issues, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in bringing them to the fore.
It is a new year, but it does feel like a groundhog statement, with exactly the same strategy as before: trying to force Parliament to choose between a bad deal for the UK and no deal at all, while talking up the even worse consequences of no deal. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), will the Secretary of State set out today how much was spent on the farcical exercise of having 100 lorries drive around Kent? What does he think that that does to the UK’s international reputation? Does he think that any other country is looking at that exercise and thinking that Brexit would be a great example to follow?
The rest of the world will be looking at the fact that we have had a democratic vote and whether, as a Parliament, we respect and honour that vote. In respect of the deal, it is about not only what the UK Government say but what the EU has said. The EU Commission has been clear that this is the only deal. The idea that in the remaining days someone can go back to the Commission and negotiate a completely different deal is just not credible.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question about the precise cost of the contingency planning, he is an experienced Member and I am sure that a written parliamentary question, or another type, will be tabled in due course. I have answered many such questions from him and know that he is assiduous in posing them. I am sure that the Department for Transport will answer that question. The substance of the matter is that we do not want to be spending money on no-deal preparations, which is why we should support the deal and bring the certainty that it offers. Nevertheless, it is responsible for the Government to prepare for no deal if there is uncertainty about the vote.
When the Government’s deal is voted down in this place, there will be just 73 days until 29 March, so will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions he, the Prime Minister or their officials have had with the EU about extending article 50?
Let me unpick that question. There have been extensive discussions with EU leaders, but not on the issue of extending article 50. The extensive discussions have been about the concerns that the House has expressed about the backstop. The Prime Minister has had conversations with the German Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Rutte, Donald Tusk, President Jean-Claude Juncker, President Macron and of course, as I said in my statement, with the Taoiseach. There have been extensive discussions with European leaders, but they have been about getting assurances in line with the House’s concerns.
A broken economy is an opportunity for those with money and connections to exploit, to their own advantage. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many more furtive contracts, such as the one with Seaborne Freight, we should expect over the next 81 days?
It is not a broken economy that is putting £20.5 billion a year extra into the NHS and investing in a long-term plan. It is not a broken economy that is seeing the lowest unemployment rate for more than 40 years. That is a sign of the Government’s having taken the difficult decisions on the economy. We now have an industrial strategy that is ensuring that we start to drive the productivity that the economy needs.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly asked the House to say what it wants. I think the House has said many times lots of different versions of what it wants, but I shall give him an example he can toy with: why will the Government not give us a vote on staying in the customs union?
I am pleased that the hon. Lady is clear about what she wants, but the point I was making was about what would find consensus in the House. It is easy for the House to talk about and unite behind positions that it is against, but the point I was making was about the extent to which there are positions that the House will unite behind—
It is always nice to know what the Labour policy is, because it keeps changing. One minute Labour cannot stop Brexit, and the next minute it can. [Interruption.] I was just answering the heckle from the Labour Front Bencher, but I shall come back to the hon. Lady’s question—[Interruption.] If her colleagues will stop heckling, I will happily come back to her question. She asked about the customs union. The fact is that we want to have an international trade policy. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot say that we will be part of a customs union yet at the same time expect the EU Commission to give us unilateral control of our trade policy.
The Prime Minister changed her policy on whether we should leave the European Union. She changed her policy on no deal being better than a bad deal. She changed her policy on this being the best possible deal when she went off to try to get a better one. Is the Secretary of State here instead of the Prime Minister because the Prime Minister has finally realised what we all realised a long time ago, which is that she has lost the plot, that she is no longer in control of these negotiations and that she should be packing her bags and going?
The reality is that the Prime Minister was committed to respecting the referendum result, and that is what she has done. She set out a manifesto commitment to honour the referendum result, and that is what she has done. She has been consistent in both.
As a birthday present next week, I am looking forward to voting down this terrible deal, which will lead the country into a much worse position than it is in currently. Will the Minister confirm that it is not the case that, by default, this country will then drop out under a no-deal situation? It is in the gift of the Government to use their powers to withdraw article 50. Will he confirm that it will be at the Government’s discretion to allow a no-deal Brexit to happen?
Well, the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot, on the one hand, say that he is voting against the deal and then, on the other, pray against the uncertainty that will result from voting against it. We have already covered this point on a number of occasions: the UK Government cannot unilaterally extend article 50. That requires the consent of the other 27 member states. Even if they wanted to grant such consent, there are practical issues to consider, as I have set out, such as the timing of the European parliamentary elections. Let me be very clear: it is not the Government’s policy to extend or to revoke article 50. I thought, as I am sure many other Members did, that that was also Labour’s policy—I am sure many Labour voters also thought so, based on its manifesto. He needs to be clear, if he is voting against the deal: is he, or is he not, going back on the manifesto on which he stood?
Before Christmas, this House had a great deal of problems getting hold of a copy of the Attorney General’s advice. If there is now to be any change to the deal itself, or to the agreed explanatory wording that sits alongside the deal, may I suggest to the Secretary of State that the Government would run the risk of once again being held in contempt if they withheld any changes in the Attorney General’s advice? Will the Secretary of State avoid the Government once again being held in contempt by giving an assurance to the House here and now that, if there is any change to the advice, that change will be given to the House, or that confirmation will be given that the advice has not changed at all?
It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that no Minister wants to be found in contempt of the House. Obviously, any possibility of our being found in such contempt will be taken extremely seriously, and the Government would look at that and respond accordingly.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State has read the proposal that I and the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) put forward for a Common Market 2.0. Given that plan A is all but doomed now, and that the Secretary of State says he wants to know what the House is for, will he ensure that, after the vote next week, he and his team bring forward to the House a series of votes on plan B, including our proposal for a Common Market 2.0, so that he can have a very clear view of what the House is for?
I respect the work that the hon. Lady has done and the seriousness with which she and my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) have looked at this issue and tried to engage with it in a material way. I have set out my concerns with the substance of their proposal, but that does not negate the work that has been done.
On whether there will be indicative votes, the reality is that, if the deal does not go ahead, we will be in uncharted water and we as a Government will need to look at that. None the less, it is our policy to win the vote. That is what the entire Government are focused on, and we will continue to make that case to colleagues from all parts of the House.
A guid new year tae yin and a’, and mony may ye see!
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the emergency services contract, and any other contracts to deal with a no-deal Brexit, will not be part of the EU procurement process or under EU procurement rules? What does he believe it means when the UK Government can produce worse procurement than the European Union?
I am not sighted on emergency services contracts, but I am happy to have a discussion with the hon. Gentleman about any specific concern he has about procurement. As hon. Members know, I share the desire of many others for value for money and ensuring that we procure effectively.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly told us that the Government have been preparing for no deal, yet it was under legislation that allows for the awarding of contracts outside the normal rules that the Department for Transport spent nearly £14 million on a ferry company with no ferries. We have also seen the issues around Operation Brock in Kent. Given that his Department’s job is to assure itself and Parliament that the Government are prepared for Brexit, what does he say about the Department for Transport? Is it really up to the job?
I know that the hon. Lady looks at these issues in detail through her chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee, and I suspect that she will be looking at those contracts in due course. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has answered a series of questions on this matter over the festive break to address the concerns to which the hon. Lady refers. The reality is that a responsible Government need to put in place contingency arrangements and ensure that we have additional capacity at our borders. That is the responsible thing to do. The individual mechanics are issues that I am sure the hon. Lady will explore through her Committee.
It is nearly a month since the Government pulled the original meaningful vote, so can the Secretary of State tell the House and the country what percentage of the EU withdrawal agreement or the political declaration will have changed by the time we recommence that debate on Wednesday?
With respect, it is a fairly specious argument to look at the percentage, because surely it is about the quality of the change, rather than counting words in the texts; it is not about going through the texts and asking what percentage has changed. The Prime Minister has been very clear that she is seeking further legal and political assurances. We have already covered the fact that we will explore these points in the coming days, and I look forward to having further debates with the hon. Gentleman on the matter.
Today’s written statement from the Transport Secretary on the Government’s no-deal Brexit contract with the self-styled ferry operator Seaborne Freight says that the
“negotiated procurement procedure without prior publication was concluded as allowed for by Regulation 32 of The Public Contracts Regulations”.
I have been studying those regulations fairly closely, and they seem to envisage an emergency situation brought about by events unforeseeable by the contracting authority. It seems to me that it has been foreseeable by the Government and everyone in this country for some time that there might be a no-deal situation, so will the Government publish the legal advice that enabled them to proceed under regulation 32? If so, when can we expect to see it?
I respect the hon. and learned Lady’s point, but the reality is that she is critical of the Government when we do not prepare for no deal and then she is critical of the Government when we do prepare for no deal. The responsible thing for a Government to do is to ensure that we have additional capacity. Given the short timescales, it was necessary to follow a specific procurement route, as the Transport Secretary has set out.
The Secretary of State has alluded to various contingency arrangements that his Government are making in the event of no deal. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), will he tell us exactly why a ferry company that does not own any ships and that appears to have some very spurious terms and conditions on its website has been awarded a contract worth over £13 million? Can we assume that the same level of due diligence will be completed if any further contracts are issued?
The reason is quite straightforward—that, against a finite deadline for when we leave the European Union, we need to put in place contingency plans. We were hoping to have secured the deal, which would have meant that we would not have needed the no-deal contingency arrangements, but given the level of uncertainty those arrangements have been necessary. Preparing for all eventualities is the responsible thing for a Government to do.
My constituent Joanna Adams from Strathbungo emailed me yesterday deeply concerned about this whole situation, saying:
“I can’t believe with only a couple of months to go we still don’t know what’s happening. To have the options of the PM’s terrible deal or a no deal seems incomprehensible to me.”
It is incomprehensible to most of us, including 880 people who emailed me from the “Exit Brexit” website. The reality is that there are 81 days before we have to get out of the EU—we are running out of time. Is it not the case that running out of time is inevitable and extending article 50 is essential?
I respect the 800-odd people who emailed the hon. Lady on this, but the reality is that 17.4 million voted in the referendum, and it is on their mandate that this Government are acting. Unlike some Members of the House, I do not think that no deal is a no-risk option and I am not supremely relaxed about it—I think there are risks to no deal. We are planning and preparing to mitigate those risks. The reality is that the best way to avoid the uncertainty and mitigate the risks of no deal is to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal.
May I put it to the Secretary of State that for a company that has no idea how long the delays due to a no-deal Brexit will be to trucks vital for its export and import business, it is not a lot of comfort to be told that the Government have issued a multi-million-pound contract to a ferry company with no ships, or to be told that it will have an airport to park its trucks in when they cannot get where they are meant to go? Will he not recognise that the growing demand from business and from Members of this House is that a no-deal scenario is not possible—that it has to be not mitigated but avoided and rejected? There are different ways of doing that, some multilateral and some unilateral, but why will he not join that growing chorus and say that he rules out no deal because that is in the interests of this country?
The hon. Gentleman really goes to the heart of the issue, which is that I am seeking to rule out no deal by backing the Prime Minister’s deal, but the difference is that he is not. He stands on a manifesto that says he will honour the referendum result, then says that he does not want to support the Prime Minister’s deal, but then wants to complain about the consequences of no deal. I agree with him that there will be disruption from no deal; that is why he should be supporting the Prime Minister’s deal.
The Secretary of State will be aware that as things stand with the proposed withdrawal agreement, there is no legal guarantee that means that the common fisheries policy will end in December 2020. There is no legal separation of fishing negotiations from general trade negotiations, but if the backstop is invoked, tariffs will, by law, apply to Scottish exports but not Northern Ireland exports. Does he therefore agree that any Scottish Tory voting for this so-called deal does so in the knowledge that those are the facts that platitudes will not change?
I think that we really have a misrepresentation of the reality of what the political declaration says. The political declaration is absolutely clear that we will be taking control of our coastal waters. We will be in a position to negotiate in the same way as other states such as Iceland. The real betrayal is the hon. Gentleman’s party wanting to sell out Scottish fishermen by selling off the policy back into the EU.
Since article 50 was triggered two years ago, a full nine months after the EU referendum result, we have seen staggering incompetence from the Tory Government, and dangerous and deliberate constructive ambiguity from the main Opposition party, on the biggest issue facing the UK since the second world war. Regardless of how people voted in the EU referendum, does the Secretary of State think that this shambolic spectacle has enhanced or diminished faith in politics?
I think that what we have seen is the Prime Minister working day and night in the national interest to fight for a deal for the entire United Kingdom, securing through a two-year negotiation a withdrawal agreement that allows us, after 40-odd years, to wind down our deeply ingrained relationship with the EU. The political declaration allows us to set a course for a future relationship that respects our trading relationship with our largest trading partner but also allows an independent trade policy with the rest of the world and gives us control of our immigration system and our fishing and agriculture. I think that corresponds to the work that the Prime Minister has put in.
It seems that very little has changed in the month since the meaningful vote was postponed in either the legal changes secured from the EU or the opinion of this House. Given that it seems inevitable that the Government will lose the meaningful vote next week, what is the Secretary of State’s plan B?