[5th Allotted Day]
Debate resumed (Order, this day).
Question again proposed,
That this House approves for the purposes of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the negotiated withdrawal agreement laid before the House on Monday 26 November 2018 with the title ‘Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community’ and the framework for the future relationship laid before the House on Monday 26 November 2018 with the title ‘Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom’.
Before Christmas, the Government presented to Parliament a comprehensive deal for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. We continue to believe that this is the best deal to honour the referendum result and deliver certainty for our businesses, our citizens and our security. It was clear that there was much that Members agreed with, but we listened to the views of the House, which in particular expressed concerns in relation to the backstop. We therefore paused the debate to enable those concerns to be discussed with EU leaders.
In the intervening month from when the meaningful vote was delayed to the debate restarting just now, not very much has changed. On Monday, I asked the Secretary of State whether he had brought forward any plan B contingency work, and he ignored that question. In the light of the motion and the amendment that have just been passed, it is rather more contingent on the Government to have a plan B —and rather urgently. Will he explain to us now what work has been going on?
We have a very good early illustration in this debate of the attitude of Scottish National party Members, because even before I get into my statement setting out what measures have been taken since the pause in the debate, they have already decided that they have reached their judgment on those measures.
The hon. Gentleman has already had one go. Let me enlighten him on some of the developments that have happened since the pause in the debate.
Today, we have published a document entitled “UK Government commitments to Northern Ireland and its integral place in the United Kingdom”, which sets out the domestic reassurances we can provide. As the Prime Minister has said, these are one aspect of our strategy to reassure the House.
I will take interventions in a moment.
Another aspect of our strategy is our commitment to work in a more targeted way and more closely with Parliament in the next phase of negotiations. I will return to that later. I reassure colleagues that, whatever the outcome of this debate, we will respond rapidly, recognising that we must provide Parliament with as much security as possible.
Amendment (n) deals with what further information the Government might put before the House to ensure that, should we need to use the backstop, this House can decide alone to leave it, without Europe deciding it with us. I had a quick word with the Attorney General, because the amendment involves him. It states that he should report to the House should the Government say that they have new arrangements whereby sovereignty resides in this House in respect of whether we should leave the backstop. Might the Government accept that amendment, please?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important question: what will the role of this House be in the event that the backstop has to be triggered? As he knows, there are safeguards that will mitigate the need for the backstop. It is in neither side’s interest to have the backstop, not least because it breaks the four freedoms that the EU has always rigorously sought. I will come on in my speech to some of the safeguards that apply.
The Secretary of State says that he was listening to the debate, which is why he paused it and came back with answers on the backstop. If he did listen to the debate, he will know that concerns relating to importing, manufacturing and security were mentioned as many times as, if not more than, the backstop. What reassurances and changes has he delivered on those things?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there are concerns about issues such as security. That is the very essence of why we need the deal. It will provide confidence on issues such as security and it will secure the implementation period so that things such as security measures will remain in place.
It was clear in the debate before Christmas that there were many views in the House about what trade deal we should enter into with the EU. The possible trade deals included no deal, no deal plus, Norway, Norway plus, Canada, Canada plus, Norway for now and Norway forever. There is a whole spectrum of deals that different Members cling to, but the reality is that whatever deal is to be put in place, it requires the winding down of our 45-year relationship with the European Union. Therefore, whatever deal is put in place requires a withdrawal agreement, and that withdrawal agreement requires a backstop.
The Secretary of State made a comment about working more closely with Parliament. I ask him to reflect on the fact that this place is grossly out of touch with the public on the fundamental issue of whether we are a member of the European Union. This House is not representative of the people. The Executive are a legitimate branch of government, so can we be assured that in whatever way they increasingly work with Parliament, the Executive will not give up their responsibility to implement the will of the people, which is a much greater body of sovereignty than this place?
I think it is fair to say that there is a range of views in this House, and that those views are held sincerely by Members of Parliament. As I just alluded to, those views cover a vast range of different deals. I think the point of substance my hon. Friend is referring to is that the clear majority of the House voted to give the public the decision on whether we stayed in or left the European Union, and indeed the majority of the House voted to trigger article 50. It is therefore incumbent on Members of the House not simply to say what they are against, but to be clear what they are for.
I will make a little more progress, then I will happily take further interventions.
The withdrawal agreement addresses many of the key issues that Members, including Opposition Members, have spoken about. For example, it protects citizens’ rights: it protects the 3 million EU citizens in the UK and the 1 million UK citizens in the EU. It provides a financial settlement that honours our legal obligations. Not to do so, as Opposition Members have often pointed out, would undermine our international position. It guarantees an implementation period that means that businesses will have one change to make as we enter a new trade deal, as opposed to two. Most importantly—this is an issue on which the Opposition rightly have a proud record, because they played a key part in the peace process in Northern Ireland—the withdrawal agreement enables us to preserve that hard-won peace and ensure that the commitments that were made in the Belfast agreement are honoured.
Does the Secretary of State realise that the withdrawal agreement and especially the backstop arrangement, which would forcibly remove Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom because laws would be made in Brussels rather than in Westminster and the Northern Ireland economy would be cut off from trade deals that the United Kingdom entered into with the rest of the world, have put in jeopardy the fine balance in the Belfast agreement? That is not helped by the Secretary of State’s reported comments to the Cabinet yesterday that a refusal to vote for the withdrawal agreement would be likely to lead to a referendum on a united Ireland.
I recognise the genuine concerns the right hon. Gentleman has about the backstop. I will come on to address some of those concerns, although I readily concede that I do not expect to address all of them with the areas of movement I cover today.
This is about assessing the balance of risk. The backstop does not cover 80% of our economy, as the services economy is outside it. Many in the business community in Northern Ireland see huge benefits in the certainty that is offered through the withdrawal agreement. Indeed, it is not our intention to enter into the backstop, not least because many businesses in Northern Ireland will have access to both the EU and UK markets. That is one of the attractions, and it is actually one of the reasons why Labour’s sister parties in the north of Ireland—the Social Democratic and Labour party—and in the south actually support the withdrawal agreement, as well as because it will secure the commitments on peace, as I mentioned.
The Scottish Government have for quite some time made known a number of concerns they have about the agreement. Since December, when the UK Government cancelled the debate to go away and listen, what has changed in the agreement to make the Scottish Government support it?
Again, I will come on to that. As we move from dealing with the winding-down arrangements to the trade negotiation—that will be the second phase of the negotiations, because leaving the European Union is not a single event but a process—there will be a significant opportunity to recognise the fact that Scotland voted differently, as did other parts of the United Kingdom, and to engage with Parliament, as the Prime Minister referred to in her interview on “The Andrew Marr Show” at the weekend. We will be looking to work with Parliament in different ways, and particularly in a targeted way with the Select Committees, and to work more closely with the devolved Administrations, because there are different interests. The trade negotiation phase will allow us to explore that.
I think that “show not tell” is important in politics. My very first meeting in this role—I prioritised this—was with the lead Ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Governments to discuss their concerns, so that we could move from having regular meetings to making them more effective and more targeted.
We know that there is no future trade agreement and no implementation period without a withdrawal agreement, as that agreement contains the guarantee on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the backstop, but let us just look at the Opposition’s position. The Leader of the Opposition rejects that on the basis that he can first trigger a general election and then negotiate a new deal that secures things the EU has consistently ruled out, such as a third party having a say over its trade policy. He is then going to secure that new deal and pass the legislation to enact it, and he is going to do all of that before 29 March. So we are going to have a general election, a new trade agreement—even though the EU itself ruled that out and says this is the only deal on offer, he is going to uniquely secure a new deal—and he is going to pass the legislation to ratify that, all within the next 78 days. Yet Labour’s sister parties actually support the withdrawal agreement, not least to recognise one of the proudest achievements of the Labour party, the peace process.
I obviously agree with the Minister’s point about the fantasy policies of the Labour party, but I am afraid the Government themselves are indulging in fantasies. Is it not time that the Government set out a realistic basis for this debate? As the former permanent secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nick Macpherson, said the other day, there is no chance at all of us concluding a trade deal with the EU by 2020 and very little chance of doing so by 2022. A far more realistic prospect is that we might do so in the mid-2020s. Can we not conduct this debate on the basis of reality, rather than continued fantasy?
I pay heed to my hon. Friend, because he is one of the most serious thinkers in our party and I know he engages very seriously on these issues. Of course, the former permanent secretary to the Treasury is also someone we all listen to intently. The point is that there are a number of things that are different in this instance. First, on trade deals, a significant amount of time is often taken up by the first phase of understanding the regulatory positions of both sides. Well, after 45 years of being part of the European Union that regulatory understanding is already there. Secondly, there is a difference because often there are six-week time lags in trade rounds. If people are flying back from Canada or the US, the physical geographical issues can constitute a delay. Clearly, our geographical relationship with Europe will allow us to inject much more pace into those trade rounds and accelerate them. Thirdly, the fact is that we have a political declaration that sets a framework for those trade discussions to take place.
Fourthly, there is also the issue of the incentives that the UK offers—I was going to come on to this point—including the position on security, which is obviously of interest to many member states in Europe, and the fact that the backstop is uncomfortable for the EU. On day one of the backstop fishing rights are lost, which is why President Macron may not be keen on entering into the backstop. There is also the fact that the backstop breaks the four freedoms, which have always been safely guarded by the European Union. The backstop is not a desirable place for the Europeans to enter, which is why there is an incentive for them to get momentum into the trade agreements.
I thank the Secretary of State. Will he now, as a matter of good contingency planning, urgently publish our schedule of tariffs for trading as an independent country? Can they please be lower tariffs than the EU schedule, and will there be zero tariffs for all imported manufactured components?
My right hon. Friend will know, because he has often spoken in warm and glowing terms about trading on a no-deal WTO basis, that tariffs are just one aspect of our relationships, particularly given the UK economy’s interest in services. Issues such as data adequacy are actually much more significant to our economy. The political debate often focuses on tariffs, but as a service economy issues such as data are much more serious to us. The WTO, which my right hon. Friend often advocates, actually does not address such issues. That is one reason why the WTO is not the land of milk and honey that some pretend.
The problems with the withdrawal agreement extend far beyond the backstop. The Secretary of State talks about services. The fact is that the withdrawal agreement will substantially not help services in this country, which make up approximately 80% of our economy. He talks about certainty. At the end of the day, can he not agree that this political declaration is a declaration of aspiration? We have absolutely no idea where we will be at the end of the trade negotiations, which EU officials will have told him will take at least three to four years.
The hon. Gentleman has not been able to convince his own Front Benchers. Senior Opposition Front Benchers, such as the shadow Business Secretary, have spoken of the huge damage there would be to our democracy if we did what he advocates, which is to end the uncertainty by calling a second referendum. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We hear the cheers from the Labour Benches. The policy in the manifesto on which Labour Members were elected was to honour the referendum, yet they cheer. It is on page 24 of the Labour manifesto on which the hon. Gentleman stood.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a fundamental fallacy at the heart of the Opposition’s position? On the one hand they say that there is zero appetite on behalf of the European Union to renegotiate the Government’s deal, yet they claim there is somehow a huge appetite to negotiate another deal as yet unspecified. The reality is that unless they vote for this deal they will become the handmaiden of hard Brexit.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. He alludes to the 78-day plan being put forward by the Opposition, which the EU has made clear is not credible, their sister parties have made clear is not desirable, and which I suspect many on their own Back Benches recognise is not doable. Yet they persist with it.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will make some progress and come back to my fellow Cambridge colleague very shortly.
The more material issue raised in the House on the backstop related to whether it damages the European Union or would be used in trade negotiations. It is for that reason that we have published the paper on Northern Ireland in respect of that. I recognise that that alone will not be sufficient for all the concerns colleagues may have, but I think it is a welcome step forward.
In the event that a subsequent agreement that meets the objectives of the backstop will not be ready by the end of 2020, we will face a choice of whether to seek to extend the implementation period or to bring the backstop into effect. We will provide in law for a mandatory process of consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly in that scenario. Before any decision is taken on whether to seek to extend the implementation period, the Assembly would be given an opportunity, ahead of any parliamentary scrutiny, to express its view. Those views would then be brought before Parliament prior to a vote at Westminster. This procedure places a clear obligation on the UK Government, guaranteeing a strong voice for Northern Ireland. We will consult the parties in Northern Ireland on the details of those proposals and how best to provide for them.
I will just make progress on this section and then I will happily take further interventions.
Secondly, the protocol provides for alignment in Northern Ireland with a small fraction of EU single market rules. Where there is a proposal for a new EU law which is within the scope of the backstop but concerns a new area of regulation, that addition needs the consent of the United Kingdom. The EU cannot mandate the UK to accept that such a regulation must apply in Northern Ireland. We recognise that accepting new regulations for Northern Ireland under the backstop would be significant. Therefore, we plan to legislate in domestic law to ensure that a UK Minister will be required to seek the agreement of the Northern Ireland Assembly before reaching any agreement in the UK-EU joint committee to add additional rules to the scope of the protocol.
With reference to the possibility of trading on WTO rules, does my right hon. Friend agree with what was said this morning on the “Today” programme by the president of the Port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau:
“The trucks will be passing as they are doing today…there will not be a queue in Dover because there will not be control, so where is the problem?”?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than scaremongering from the comfort of these green Benches, we should take note of the person who is actually in charge of the Port of Calais and who knows what he is talking about?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course those representing a port will want to talk up the benefits of that port. The issue will be what legal obligations apply, not just what commercially they would want to do. I think he was talking more in terms of what flows into the UK than necessarily what is flowing back into France. In my remarks in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), I referred to the fact that we have a political debate that tends to focus very heavily on goods, yet we have an economy that is predicated on services. On issues such as data and professional qualifications, there are many other issues that would not be addressed in a WTO scenario. That is the issue. Many Members are raising various different deals to which they feel most closely aligned, but the issue is that those deals would all require a withdrawal agreement and they would all need to address, as the EU has made clear, issues such as citizens, the financial settlement and a backstop, which is needed as a safeguard. It is not enough for the House to say what it is against; we have to say what is the deal, with a withdrawal agreement and a backstop, that we in this House can unite behind.
Clearly, the whole point of the backstop is to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, so will the Secretary of State outline the Government’s timeframe for the invention, trial and deployment of the new technology needed for an invisible border with absolutely no infrastructure?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the political declaration reflected the Prime Minister’s negotiation success—this point has been raised by a number of my hon. Friends—in terms of using technology to mitigate the issue of a hard border. In the interim, the issue is whether we can do that to the timescale required to avoid a backstop. The political declaration allows us to explore that, but this is about having insurance to protect the very peace that so many on the Opposition Benches worked for and quite rightly should take pride in.
I strongly support the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, which also has considerable support in Northern Ireland among businesses, farmers’ organisations, community leaders and fishermen. I want the Secretary of State to take a few moments to explain to this House the very serious consequences that Northern Ireland could face in the event of the UK coming out of the EU on 29 March this year—it is a very short time away—without a deal. Sinn Féin’s seven MPs, who do not take their seats in this House, are sitting back thinking that all their Christmases have come at once. Will the Secretary of State confirm that they will use a hard border to agitate for a border poll, which could undermine the constitutional status of Northern Ireland? I think that is the issue he may have raised in Cabinet this morning. Will he elaborate on that?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, first for her support for the Prime Minister’s deal, and secondly for the way in which she engages with such seriousness with issues of substance in Northern Ireland. I am conscious that there are genuine concerns among other Members in Northern Ireland, and we are seeking to address that. She is right to draw the House’s attention to the level of uncertainty that would flow from there not being a deal in place. The Prime Minister’s deal allows us to guarantee the hard-won progress of the peace process and, as the hon. Lady rightly says, many businesses and farming groups in Northern Ireland are very supportive of the deal.
I will just make a little progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
On the backstop, some have asked whether the terms of the withdrawal agreement raise questions for the Union, but Members also need to consider the consequences to the Union of inaction. As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has said, if there is no deal, that in itself would pose a risk to the Union, and not just in Northern Ireland, but, as a number of my hon. Friends will know, in Scotland, because SNP Members will seek to exploit a no-deal situation in order to have a further independence referendum. Similarly, inaction that results in a second European referendum would carry risk for the Union, because SNP Members would say, “Well, if we can have a second European referendum so quickly after the first one, we can have a second referendum on independence.” I accept that Members across the House have concerns about the terms of the withdrawal agreement and the backstop—we are trying to mitigate those—but this is not a purity test. This is about balancing those risks with the risk to the Union of inaction and a second referendum being exploited by Opposition Members.
I hope that the Secretary of State understands that the issue for some Opposition Members is that there is no legal certainty in the next stage. For instance, the Home Secretary has repeatedly said that we are going to have the best security arrangements that any third country has ever had with the European Union, but that does not mean anything. It does not mean that we will be in the European arrest warrant or that we will be able to secure proper extradition of paedophiles, murderers and terrorists from other countries to this country—or the other way around—to face justice. That is why some of us think that the Government are completely selling us a pup here. The evidence of the fact that nothing has changed since they pulled the debate is that we have exactly the same motion today and exactly the same deal—nothing has changed.
I am in the process of setting out what has changed, and as I go through my speech, I hope I will have an opportunity to do so. The point is that this is a process, not a single event. The framework signals areas related to the trade negotiation, as I touched on in my remarks to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson).
I will just make some progress, and then I will happily take further interventions.
On the backstop, let me address colleagues’ concerns about being trapped, which was raised in a previous debate. The Government are not shying away from the fact that the backstop is an uncomfortable situation for the United Kingdom, but it is also an uncomfortable situation for the EU, in terms of the break in the four freedoms and the fact that we have a mutual interest in avoiding entering into it.
Indeed, since the previous debate, progress was made in the December Council on the confirmation of its commitment to use best endeavours to negotiate and conclude a subsequent agreement. Indeed, the EU27 gave me a new assurance in relation to the future partnership with the UK, by stating that the EU
“stands ready to embark on preparations immediately after signature of the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure that negotiations can start as soon as possible after the UK’s withdrawal.”
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is busy checking his phone, but that relates to his point. Both sides intend to make early progress on the issues he raised.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the risks to the 96-year-old United Kingdom. I see this as an opportunity for independence, as underlined by the fact that this Government have shown more respect to, and have engaged more with, the Government of Ireland than they have to and with the Government of Scotland. That shows that independence gives you power, a voice and respect—something that the UK does not show the Scottish Government but that it does show in spades to the Government of Ireland, an independent country. The Celts who are independent are in a far better situation than the ones who are stuck with Westminster.
There is a legitimate point as to how we engage with the House as a whole—with Members on both sides—as we move into the next phase. I have already touched on my desire, and the Prime Minister’s commitment, to look at how we do that with the devolved Administrations in a more targeted way. If we look at the first phase, we will see that a huge amount of hours have been spent on engagement. The Prime Minister has spent a huge number of hours at this Dispatch Box. There are opportunities for us to work in a much more targeted way, to listen to Members’ concerns about issues such as citizens’ rights and employment, and to look at how, through the Select Committees in particular, we can work in a much more targeted way. I think that the next phase lends itself to that approach. I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that that also requires a dialogue both ways. If Members are going to jump in, before we have even responded, with a judgment on the withdrawal agreement or on measures that have been taken, that suggests a lack of engagement on their part to work in a collaborative way.
I had my first consultation with the Prime Minister last night—two years into the process. The Secretary of State is talking about the backstop, but the DUP, which has a confidence and supply agreement with the Government, is vehemently opposed to what he is laying out. How did the Government get themselves into this position? The answer is that they did not consult. If they had taken on the view of this House earlier in the process, they could have negotiated with Europe something that could have been acceptable to this House. The Government have put themselves in this position.
First, as we move into the next phase, there is an opportunity to operate in a much more targeted way with the House. Secondly, on the pause—[Interruption.] I am trying genuinely to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. The pause was about listening to the House’s concerns about the backstop. Look at the comments yesterday by the Taoiseach, who said:
“We don’t want to trap the UK into anything—we want to get on to the talks about the future relationship right away.”
That is because the Prime Minister has been listening to the House and relaying that. As we move from a phase that was about implementing the result into a phase that is about trade negotiations and how they align with the sectoral interests of both the different nation state economies and the Select Committees, there is scope for a different dialogue, and I am very keen to signal that.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that by definition, if a backstop is to work, it has to be mutually uncomfortable, because there needs to be an incentive for both sides to get out of it? If not this backstop, then another backstop will be necessary. That, too, would have uncomfortable elements. We are not hearing any viable, practical alternatives.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This comes back to the point that businesses and our citizens want the certainty of a deal and want one set of changes in the implementation period. It is clear that that requires, after 45 years, a winding down of our relationship, and that involves a backstop, regardless of which deal—it is almost like cinema pick ‘n’ mix—is on offer. It is almost like there is a deal with “plus” attached for every variant, but he is absolutely right that they all require a backstop.
Is it not a fact that the Republic of Ireland Government, this Government and the European Union have spent years rejecting all and any suggested alternatives to the backstop? What confidence should we have that the European Union, the Republic of Ireland or this Government will, two years after the commencement of this process, start seriously to consider alternatives? The reality is that the backstop will be the European Union’s and the Republic of Ireland’s Northern Ireland solution in a substantive deal.
The answer is that we have already seen a signal of that in the political declaration—on the technology that a number of Members have highlighted, for example. There is a shared desire to avoid going into the backstop, for reasons I have already alluded to, such as the breaking of the four freedoms and the fact that under article 50, there is no legal underpinning for any permanence in the backstop.
Members also need to address the reality of this. Some say, “Well, we’ll pay for an implementation period.” That is another of the myriad deals that people suggest. The reality is that the legal underpinning of the implementation period is article 50, which requires it to be temporary, not permanent. We sought that clarification, and there was a reflection of that in the December Council. Of course I recognise that there are ongoing concerns, and I am very keen to work with colleagues on those.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the way he is taking us through the developments that have taken place. One of the things that a lot of us cannot understand is why, if everybody is so reluctant to go into the backstop—we are told the UK and the European Union are reluctant, and the DUP certainly is—it is not possible to get a legal undertaking about when it will end.
My right hon. Friend brings me on perfectly to the next phase of my speech, which is about the role of Parliament, how we look at the decision on extending the implementation period, and how we avoid that. We will continue to work closely with Stormont, Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly, especially on the future frameworks, which will strengthen decision-making abilities and allow for decisions previously made at EU level to be made locally. Indeed, as I said, we want to learn from this and engage with Parliament in a much more targeted way. As the Prime Minister has made clear, the Government’s intention is to ensure a greater and more formal role for Parliament in the next stage of negotiations.
The withdrawal agreement provides that if the future relationship or alternative arrangements to supersede the backstop were not going to be ready by the end of 2020, either the Northern Ireland protocol would apply or the United Kingdom could seek to extend the implementation period for up to one or two years from the start of 2021, with any extension needing to be agreed by 1 July 2020. Should that situation arise, the view of Parliament would be crucial. I am pleased to say that we will accept the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), which will cement Parliament’s role in that process by requiring a vote on whether to seek to extend the implementation period or bring the backstop into effect. On the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin) makes, by accepting that amendment, we give Parliament much more of a say on this issue of concern about the triggering of the backstop.
Does my right hon. Friend not accept that extending the transitional period would merely amount to kicking the can down the road, and that to solve the problem of the Irish backstop, which it is generally agreed across the House is the most repugnant element of this withdrawal agreement, what is needed is a rewording of the withdrawal agreement? Has he agreed a rewording of that agreement?
No, because, as I have said on a number of occasions, whichever deal we have will need the elements we have talked about in respect of the withdrawal agreement, including a backstop. Let us not forget what that is about. It is about asking, because of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland—because it is the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border, and because of its history in terms of the peace process—how we provide a guarantee. It is like insurance; one does not want to have to call on it, but how do we ensure that there is a guarantee to address the concerns that the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) set out?
I applaud the Secretary of State and his excellent ministerial team in the Department for Exiting the European Union for all their efforts at this challenging time for the Government. In December, the Attorney General published his legal advice, which contains a statement on the backstop. He wrote that
“despite statements in the Protocol that it is not intended to be permanent…in international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place, in whole or in part”.
Is it the Secretary of State’s position that that legal position is unchanged, notwithstanding the reassurances that have been garnered to date, and does he agree that that means that in international law, we still risk being trapped indefinitely in the backstop?
With characteristic aplomb, my hon. Friend alludes to one of the key issues in this debate: how one assesses the balance of risk. The Attorney General said in his statement to the House on 3 December, when these issues were explored in great detail, that how one assesses that balance ultimately is a political decision. In a way, the same point can be made about the concerns Members have expressed about the Union. There is a balance of risk in terms of concerns about the backstop, including the issue of that small section in the backstop where EU competence will continue. What is the risk of that? I have alluded to the safeguards. How does that risk elide with other risks, such as the risk of inaction?
The same is true of the assessment of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), whom I hold in the highest regard. The difference there is an issue not of understanding—he understands these issues in great depth—but of how one assesses the balance of risk. The Attorney General dealt with that in some detail in his comments to the House.
I support the backstop. What concerns me is our future trade relations. We are essentially renegotiating access to our biggest market as a third-party country. Does that not leave the British state in an extremely vulnerable position?
It is a statement of the legal position to say that to enter into a permanent arrangement, we need to be a third party. That reality is part of the difficulty of this situation. That is why we need an implementation period. We have in the political declaration a framework and in the business statements of the December Council a commitment. In “best endeavours”, we have something that gives legal force to ensuring momentum. It is a shared endeavour, too, because it is in neither side’s interests to trigger the backstop. There is, then, a mechanism, a framework and a process for addressing these concerns. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, however, that there is further significant work to be done, and that will be the job of this House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is somewhat inconsistent for Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru MPs to suggest that Britain would not be in a position to draw up a trade treaty with the rest of the EU as a third-party country, when both believe that an independent Wales and Scotland would be in a position to draw up trade agreements with the rest of the United Kingdom if, God forbid, they ever got independence?
My hon. Friend is quite right to draw the House’s attention to the inconsistency that many of us are familiar with in the SNP’s position, particularly given that Scotland’s biggest market is the United Kingdom. It seems strange that it wants to sever itself from its largest market in that way—and strange also that it appears to want to remain within the remit of the European common fisheries policy.
We are spending a lot of time talking about the risks of the backstop, but my constituents are concerned about the risks to their jobs, if they work in sectors not covered by the World Trade Organisation; to citizens’ rights, if they are married to an EU citizen; and to security. All these issues are covered by the implementation period and the breathing space of the withdrawal agreement. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important to focus on the benefits of the agreement in front of us, as well as the risks?
My hon. Friend, as a former Member of the European Parliament, always speaks with great authority on these issues, and she is absolutely right. After 45 years, we are winding down a complex relationship with the EU, and certain things are incumbent on us in that process, including safeguarding citizens’ rights and honouring our legal obligations. As a Brexiteer who supported leaving on the basis that we should be trading with the rest of the world, I find it a strange idea that our first measure on leaving would be to walk away from our legal obligations. I do not think that other countries around the globe would find that persuasive.
I know that my hon. Friend is a huge champion of business in her constituency; it is important that we respond to the fact that businesses do not want a series of changes; they want one set of changes, and they want transitional arrangements in place to give them certainty as they go through that process. This is the challenge for the House. It is not enough for it simply to say what it is against, or to suggest that under WTO rules these risks could be mitigated.
Is not the reality that the so-called implementation period will essentially keep us in the EU—in the single market and the customs union—so that we do not harm our economy and have more time to sort out what on earth we are going to do, and that the so-called backstop is about aligning Northern Ireland with the EU, so that there does not have to be a hard border and we do not threaten peace in Northern Ireland? The Secretary of State talks about the House having to make up its mind. Why is he not more honest? Why does he not admit that this is essentially about keeping us in until we can make up our minds what on earth we are going to do? If that is the case, what is the point?
No, I do not accept that, not least because 80% of the economy is outside the backstop. The political declaration is quite clear that the country will get control of its trade policy. That is one of the inconsistencies in the position of the Leader of the Opposition, who seeks both to be in a customs union and to have an independent trade policy. The shadow Business Secretary is on record as saying that is not a tenable position—[Interruption.] Sorry, the shadow International Trade Secretary.
The point is—this goes to the heart of the hon. Lady’s question—that we need to honour the result of the referendum, which was the biggest democratic vote in our history, in a way that gives us control over immigration through a skills-based system, and over agriculture and fishing, and in a way that allows us to put an end to sending vast sums of money to the EU. These were the key issues on which the British people voted. I recognise that some, in particular the Father of the House, did not vote for a referendum, but the vast majority of the House did, and the vast majority voted to trigger article 50. We need to honour that, but accept that we leave either with a deal or—by default, if the House does not support the deal—with no deal. We cannot run away from that reality.
As the Secretary of State will be aware, there are reports in the newspapers that Jaguar Land Rover will imminently implement a transformation plan. What that says to me is very simple. Parts for an average Land Rover cross between the UK and the EU 37 times, so it says to me that we need the withdrawal agreement to maintain that just-in-time movement of parts in a way that protects jobs in my constituency and the wider supply chain. This is a matter of urgency. Hon. Members need to think about that when deciding how to vote on the withdrawal agreement.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right both to draw the House’s attention to the urgency of this issue—we have 78 days before we leave the EU—and in his sectoral understanding of the flow of goods and how that impacts the key industries in his constituency. That is why so many business groups support the deal. They want that certainty.
Further to the question from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Father of the House, to the Prime Minister earlier, and in the context of the House having voted against the Government twice over its concerns about the possibility of no deal, does the Secretary of State accept that it would be the Government’s responsibility, if they were defeated next Tuesday, to bring forward legislation to suspend article 50?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point that many hon. Members have raised, but it does not address the legal position. The position of the courts is that we cannot unilaterally extend article 50. That requires the consent of the other 27 member states, and we do not know what conditionality would be attached, if it were sought. In particular, the courts were clear that the only way would be to revoke on the basis of a permanent decision. Given that more than 80% of the electorate voted for one of the two main parties, and that both parties’ manifestos backed the decision to leave—that commitment is on page 24 of the Labour manifesto—I feel it would be divisive for our country to proceed in that way.
As somebody who did not vote to trigger article 50, I would ask the Secretary of State to consider this very carefully: if he genuinely does not want a no deal, as many Cabinet members do not, when the Government are defeated next week, should they not come forward with a specific proposal—he has made clear the difficulties of extending the process—either for a people’s vote, so that the public can choose between staying in the EU and the Government’s proposals, or for revoking article 50, so that we can have a national consultation, as they did in Ireland on abortion, and get this right?
I respect the principled position that the hon. Gentleman took in his vote on article 50, but if one recognises the majority opinion of the House, which is what he says we should do next week, it would be only consistent to recognise also that the majority decision of the House was to trigger article 50, and that set a timetable. For the sake of consistency, he needs to accept that. The consequence of triggering article 50 is that we either leave with a deal—the EU has made it clear that the Prime Minister’s deal is the only deal, so it is not logical for Labour to say it could negotiate another deal in the time remaining—
The hon. Gentleman nods. I think many other Labour Members would agree. Members have to accept the risk of a no deal, therefore, and as a Government, we have to be responsible. We certainly do not want a no deal; I join him in not wanting that. Some Members are very relaxed about a no deal; I do not agree that we should be relaxed about it, because of issues such as data and qualifications, which I think they need to address.
Yesterday, outside the House, the Secretary of State said that he was beginning to get used to being a punch bag in the House, so I shall try not to metaphorically punch him.
The Secretary of State has said that no deal would be irresponsible. In the light of the recent votes, I hope that he can rule it out, because it would be catastrophic. The Bank of England’s analysis shows that, in a worst-case scenario, the economy would be 8% worse off and unemployment would be 6.5% higher, and the current deal—the Government’s deal—would make our economy nearly 4% worse off. Neither of those are good prospects for our country. Can the Secretary of State at least keep an open mind about a public vote if all else fails?
I respect the concern that the hon. Lady feels, but it is not in the power of an individual Minister to say that that will not happen, because the House has to decide what it is for; it is very good at saying what it is against. The reality is that having triggered article 50, we either leave with a deal or we do not. I do not think it is credible to say that we can negotiate another deal in 78 days, as Opposition Front Benchers have suggested. I think that the alternative would pose a risk to the peace process, which is a fine achievement that should be cherished, but it cannot be ruled out. That is why the deal on the table is the right deal, and one that we should support.
I must draw my speech to a close.
With just 78 days before we leave the European Union, the House should now give citizens and businesses the certainty that they seek, and the way in which to do so is to back the deal that, after two years of hard-fought negotiation, the Prime Minister has secured. It is for that reason that I commend the deal to the House, and I hope that all Members, mindful of the risks of uncertainty that will otherwise flow, will respond by backing it.
It is a pleasure finally to be able to resume this debate.
Thirty days ago, on 10 December, the Prime Minister told the House that the meaningful vote would be deferred. She did, of course, do so without consulting the House on the issue. The ground that she laid out on 10 December was that if the Government
“went ahead and held the vote”,
which was due to take place the next day,
“the deal would be rejected by a significant margin.” —[Official Report, 10 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 23.]
That was her judgment call. She said that she would do everything possible “to secure further assurances”, particularly over the issue of the Northern Ireland backstop.
The Leader of the House went further, saying:
“going back to the EU and seeking reassurances, in the form of legally binding reassurances”
“absolutely doing the right thing”.
The implication was that this was a pause to allow further assurances—legally binding reassurances, according to the Leader of the House. The International Trade Secretary, with his usual foresight, said:
“It is very difficult to support the deal if we don’t get changes to the backstop.
I am not even sure the Cabinet will agree for it to be put to the House of Commons.”
That was his assessment.
Those were senior members of the Cabinet, indicating to Parliament and to the country that the deal, the proposition before the House, needed to be changed if it were to be voted on and not defeated by a substantial majority. They were, of course, challenged. They were challenged on the basis that this was just a way of delaying and avoiding a humiliating defeat, and they were running down the clock. Now, 30 days on, those rebuttals ring hollow.
The Prime Minister is often mocked for saying that nothing has changed, but this time nothing has changed. The proposition before the House today is the same proposition as the one that the Prime Minister put before the House on 5 December, when she opened the initial debate. I have my own copies of these two documents, but the two copies that I have here were laid on the Table at the beginning of the debate. They are the proposition that is before the House, and, as everyone in the House knows, they are precisely the same two documents that were put before the House on 5 December. When we go through the Lobby next Tuesday, we will be voting for or against these two unchanged documents.
Given that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just picked up the withdrawal deal, I am sure that, being the learned gentleman he is, he has read, on page 307, the guarantee and the protection for the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—and the consent principle. Twenty years ago, his party, the Labour party, was the architect—thank the Lord—of that agreement, which put an end to the appalling violence of more than 30 years in Northern Ireland, when 302 police officers lost their lives and thousands of innocent people lost theirs in the terrorist campaign. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain to the House, and to the Irish diaspora in Labour constituencies, how it is that the Labour party is voting down a deal that guarantees the agreement?
Let me take that point head on, because it is very important. Our party—both parties—played an important part in the peace process, and I genuinely think that there is a consensus, or a near-consensus, across the House on the importance of that agreement. We have been very proud of upholding it. Even in the course of these debates over the last two years, every time it has come up there has been a reiteration of the principles. I myself worked in Northern Ireland for five years, with the Policing Board, implementing some of the recommendations of the Good Friday agreement, and I therefore have first-hand knowledge of how both communities see it, what the impact was before change, and what it is now. However, I do not think it fair to characterise anyone who says that these two documents are not the right deal for our country as undermining the Good Friday agreement. That simply means that there can be no criticism, no issue, no challenge to the Government, which cannot be right.
In addition, I have stood at this Dispatch Box and moved amendment after amendment whose objective was a customs union and a single market deal, which I genuinely believe constitute the only way of securing no hard border in Northern Ireland. On every occasion, the Government voted those amendments down. To say at this stage that we have tried to do nothing to protect the position is simply not right. [Interruption.] I will come to the issue of the need for a backstop—I will tackle that issue—but I wanted to deal with the intervention.
I do not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has answered the key question asked by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). I cannot understand why the Labour party is joining in the criticisms of the Irish backstop. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has repeated his commitment to a permanently open border. He has also repeated—and I agree with him about this—that there can only be a permanently open border if there is a customs union and regulatory alignment. If they are to be permanent, that must be kept permanently.
What the critics on this side of the House are saying about the backstop agreement is “We are not allowed to cancel it unilaterally.” If they are given that power, it is no longer a permanently open border. With the greatest respect, it does smack of opportunism that the Labour party is joining opponents of the backstop with whom it has no agreement whatever politically. The answer is to have the same open border for the whole United Kingdom and for the United Kingdom to be in a single market and regulatory alignment, and that is not inconsistent with the referendum.
That suggests that the customs arrangements under the backstop are the same as customs arrangements that we have currently, but they are not. I have read the document in detail several times, and I know what the customs union that we are in looks like and I know that the one under the backstop is fundamentally different. It is fundamentally different from the amendments that we have been faithfully tabling for 12 or 18 months. It is therefore unfair to say that because it is called a “customs arrangement” or a “customs union” that it is all the same; it obviously is not. The arrangements for Northern Ireland are different from those for England, Wales and Scotland, and even the arrangements for England, Wales and Scotland are not the same as the customs union that we are in now.
Among the deficiencies is that we would not have any say over future trade agreements during any period in the backstop, which has not been built in because the Government are pretending that any period would not last long. I will address the point about having a say, but we would not be able to strike our own agreements and would take no advantages from trade agreements struck by the EU. That is a fundamental deficiency of being in the backstop. It is not right or fair to pretend that such issues do not exist, that we cannot seriously engage with them, or that the importance that the Labour party puts in the Good Friday agreement is somehow undermined. That just removes the ability to challenge. The withdrawal agreement is a serious document, and it is what the Government have put before us to analyse and vote on, so we are entitled to say that it is not good enough. However, that does not mean in the next breath that we do not stick by the commitments in the Good Friday agreement.
I will make some progress and then take further interventions.
The withdrawal agreement is the same document that was before the House when the Prime Minister announced that she was postponing the vote. It is the proposition that she said she thought would be defeated by a significant margin. No changes have been made either to the 585-page, legally binding withdrawal agreement or to the incredibly vague political declaration. There is no new text for this House to consider.
Some of us expected the Prime Minister to make a statement on Monday to tell the House what had happened while we were in recess, to update us on any meetings or discussions that she may have had—we read about them in the press—and to say whether anything had changed. She did not come to make a statement. The Brexit Secretary handled an urgent question, the central thrust of which was about what progress had been made and what changes there had been. The Brexit Secretary defended his position with a smile, attacking the Opposition, as he always does, by asking, “What’s your proposition?” while ignoring the fact that we are voting on the withdrawal agreement, not on what anyone else is saying. He smiled, attacked the Opposition and swerved challenges, but he did not answer the question, and the reason why is that there has been no meaningful change.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
I will just make this point and then give way.
I was here for Prime Minister’s questions today, and I carefully noted what the Prime Minister said in answer to the first question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. First, she said that the changes that she is now relying on are the results of the December European Council summit, at which the EU agreed that it would use “its best endeavours” to secure the future relationship as quickly as possible. What else could it say? Of course, we would hope that it would do that. However, the EU also said at the same summit that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated, so that does not take us very far.
Secondly, the Prime Minister said that further clarifications might be “possible” by Tuesday, so we are in exactly the same position as we were on 10 December, with a hope for possible assurances—there may be something coming.
Thirdly, the Prime Minister referred to the paper on Northern Ireland published this morning, and the Brexit Secretary referred to it, too. Members may not have had the chance to read this 13-page document, but I have read it. I do not dismiss anything that marks a step towards ensuring that the concerns in Northern Ireland and across the whole United Kingdom are addressed, whatever they are, so I am not dismissing this document. However, on my reading—if I am wrong, I will correct this or be corrected—I think I am right in saying that the document does not contain any new commitments. It brings together the unilateral commitments made in other places at other times into one document. I have been going through the document as I have been in the Chamber, so if I am wrong, I will be challenged but, as far as I can see, it just builds on the unilateral commitments in paragraph 50 of the phase 1 joint report document from December 2017 and adds the commitments that the Prime Minister has made in Belfast and other places. I am not saying that those commitments are not important or are without significance. I do not dismiss them, but we need to see the document for what it is, which is a bringing together of existing commitments. The position has not changed between 10 December and today.
The fourth thing that has been relied upon as a change that the House needs to take into account is that it is now said that Parliament will have a role in July 2020 when we must choose whether to apply for an extension of the transition or to go on to the backstop. There are several points about that, one of which is that it does not change the options, and I will develop why I think that those options will have to be exercised. Arguably, it is the logic of the article 50 case in the Supreme Court, certainly if we go on to the backstop, because the whole argument in the Supreme Court was that if we change the rights of individuals in this country as a matter of international law then we have to have a vote in this House, so I am not sure that this is much of a gift or concession from the Government.
The other point is the practical reality, which we have seen today and yesterday: the idea that the Prime Minister or anybody else was going to get away with freezing Parliament out of that decision in July 2020 is misconceived. We were always going to have a say on that, because it is such an important position. So the proposition on the table is not altered. The Brexit Secretary did not answer substantively on Monday because the December summit does not really take us anywhere: further clarifications may be possible but they are still long awaited, the Northern Ireland paper is a bringing together of existing commitments that does not change anything, and Parliament was always going to find a way of having a say in July 2020 as to which option we take.
I concur with my right hon. and learned Friend that nothing has changed. Does he therefore agree that the Prime Minister’s decision to delay was not only wrong, but irresponsible, because on every single day that has gone by during that time we have seen the Treasury spending more and more taxpayers’ money to prepare for a no deal that it says it does not want, businesses cancelling investment plans, and jobs being put at risk? All of that is deeply irresponsible, particularly when nothing has changed.
I agree with that, because if the Prime Minister’s own judgment is right that this deal as it was on 10 December is likely to go down by a significant margin, that brings into sharp focus the role of this House in debating and deciding what happens next, and the more time we have for that, the better. We have just been deprived of 30 days of that because we will not now get on to it, probably, until next week.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has listed a series of things that have not changed. One thing that I note has not changed are the terms of his and the Leader of the Opposition’s amendment in calling for
“a permanent UK-EU customs union”,
a perfectly clear phrase that we all understand completely, and a “strong single market deal”. I am one of those in this House who would like in some way or another at some point or another in the not too distant days to arrive at some cross-party agreement about something we could actually go forward with, and therefore I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to explain to the House what kind of “strong single market deal” would need to be delivered in order to get an agreement.
I can deal with that because, as Members know, I have been talking to the EU and the EU27 for quite a long time now, not to undermine the Government’s position—it was actually facilitated by the first Brexit Secretary of State in some respects—but to explore what other options are possible. At present the customs union operates on the basis that the Council sets the mandate for the Commission, the Commission does the negotiating, and Parliament then has a role. So if we want a customs union that replicates the benefits of the current customs union and we want the UK to have a say in that we must find something that is similar to that, but obviously not the same as it, and the central question I have been addressing is whether the EU would be interested in a discussion about what that sort of working customs union would look like. [Interruption.] I actually had the discussion. [Interruption.] It is very easy for Members on the Treasury Bench to chunter, but I have been responsible and actually gone and had the conversation asking whether there is a basis for a discussion about a customs union that would work in that way. I have been very clear that if it ended up as something akin to the Turkey customs union—which works for Turkey—that really would not be good enough.
As for a single market deal, my own view is that there are advantages in what we call the Norway model but that there are also disadvantages in that, and therefore it must be possible—again, I have had discussions—to explore a close economic relationship that keeps alignment, with, of course, oversight and enforcement mechanisms to go with it, but which is not simply the EEA.
I say all that in some detail in order to reassure the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) that when we talk about a close economic relationship, a customs union with a say, and a close single market deal, we are talking about concepts that I have surfaced only after I have had discussions with EU27 countries and the EU about their possibility. I am not going to stand here and pretend that that will be easy; rather, I am standing here saying that we have been pressing for at least 12 or 18 months to have that. One of the major problems—this is at the heart of the debate and the fractiousness about it—is that the Prime Minister and the Government have pushed Parliament away. They had a choice—
I will give way in a moment, but I want to make this point because it is very important.
I campaigned to remain; I wanted to remain.
I agonised over whether we should trigger article 50, but I worked out that, having accepted the result of the referendum, it was not open to me to stop the Prime Minister starting the negotiations. What I wanted is for this House to have a proper role—by consensus, or at least by majority, if possible—in finding a way forward.
It was obvious that the sorts of arguments that are happening in the House, particularly among Conservative Members, if I may say so—I do not think that is controversial—would break out. It was obvious because for 30 years there has been a discussion, for want of a better word, in the Conservative party about not just the relationship with Europe but the vision for our country. That argument was always going to break out, and it was always going to divide Conservative Members. That is obvious, and it is not just an Opposition point. In those circumstances, a different Prime Minister might have said, “I can see what is going to happen down the line, and I need to bring Parliament into this.” That has been refused at every twist and turn.
Let us be honest that we are having a vote on Tuesday only because we fought to have it. I coined the phrase “meaningful vote”, and, working across parties, we got the amendment, which was resisted by the Government. They went through the Lobby to say no. We said, “You have to publish a plan,” and the only reason we got a plan was that we won an Opposition day motion—the Government were going to oppose that motion. We said that we wanted to know what the impact would be, and the Government said, “You can’t.” We had to get it via a Humble Address. We have seen the Supreme Court and the idea of even voting on article 50 in the first place, and then the Attorney General’s advice. The Government have persistently voted down every motion. The one thing I remember the first Brexit Secretary saying to me, over and again, on the article 50 Bill was that he wanted a clean Bill: “I want a clean Bill, and I will make sure that every amendment is voted down.” That was his avowed aim.
I completely accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s central point, which is that there is space for completely honourable debate within and between political parties in this House about the outcome of the negotiations on the future permanent relationship between this country and the EU27, and the various options, from Norway to Canada and every variation in between, have their champions in this place. But from his conversations with the EU institutions and with members of the 27 Governments, surely he will have accepted that the essential and unavoidable gateway to any such destination of a final agreement has to be the withdrawal agreement, which covers citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the financial settlement, which is the key document that we are being asked to endorse and ratify. What is his objection to that document?
I accept that there has to be a withdrawal agreement, and I accept that it has to cover citizens’ rights and that there are payments. I have on more than one occasion stood here and said that the progress on citizens’ rights under the withdrawal agreement is a step in the right direction, although it does not go far enough—we have quibbled about that, but there will always be an argument about whether we have gone far enough.
I have also stood here and said that we will have to fulfil our financial obligations, for the very reason the Brexit Secretary said, which is that we will not get very far in trying to reach trade agreements, or any agreements, with anybody else on the international plane if, at the same time, we are walking away from the international agreements or obligations that we have.
That does not mean I do not have concerns about the withdrawal agreement, and about the backstop in particular. The backstop has become the central issue for two reasons: first, the lack of progress on the future relationship, and I will develop that point in just a moment; and, secondly, the avowed aim of some Conservative Members to diverge as far as possible from EU alignment. It is that fear that has driven the debate on the backstop, and it could have been avoided months ago.
I am doubly grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way again. It is helpful to address this point after the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.
Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman take this one stage further? If there were a cross-party agreement on the terms of an EU-UK customs union of the kind he describes, and if there were some variant of a “strong single market deal”—whether Norwegian or otherwise—is he saying it is the position of the Labour party that it would then co-operate with Her Majesty’s Government to arrive at an agreement about how to reshape the political declaration in such a way as to enable the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration to go forward so that we can exit on 29 March?
There is the customs union point and the single market deal point, and there are other issues relating to rights and protections, whether they are workplace rights or environmental rights and so on. Obviously, at some stage, if we are to leave other than without a deal, there has to be a consensus in this House for something. That is why the wasting of the past 30 days has been so regrettable, because that is where we need to get to. At no point have the Government reached out across the House at all, even after the snap election. I actually personally thought that at some stage somebody might give me a ring and ask what would be the main features that we could at least begin to discuss, or whether it was worth even having a discussion about them.
The second point gives meat to this. Time and again we have tabled amendments along the lines I have been talking about, and time and again the Government have just blindly whipped against them, without any regard to whether they were good, bad or indifferent; they were just Opposition amendments, so they were going down.
We know from the author of article 50 that it was drafted with the intention that it should never be used, so 29 March is an arbitrary date. It is only now that the Government have started to reach out and indicate that they might be willing to discuss Brexit with other parties in this House in order to get consensus, but we have run out of time. Surely the Government now have to listen and consider the fact that we may have to suspend article 50, or even to seek its revocation.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do accuse the Government of running down the clock, and it is a serious allegation. The article 50 window is two years—it is very short. The Government started the two years by having a snap general election, and lost two or three months. They then went through to the end of the phase 1 agreement, but it was not until June last year that we even had a Chequers plan, so the two-year window has in effect been run down. There is a question of the extension of article 50, which may well be inevitable now, given the position that we are in, but of course we can only seek it, because the other 27 have to agree.
The other serious question with which I have been engaging is about the appetite of the EU, after the negotiations have gone the way they have, to start again and to fundamentally change what is on the table. I have to say, with regret, that I genuinely think that the way the Government have gone about the negotiations, particularly in respect of the red lines that the Prime Minister laid down in the first place, has undermined a lot of the good will that would otherwise have been there.
This is my last intervention. To go back to the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), which was pertinent to the situation we are all in, he asked whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman was saying on behalf of the Labour party that, if there were a cross-party agreement on a form of customs union, sufficient regulatory alignment and so on, his party would join in that positively, with a view to reaching a solution and moving on to the serious negotiations. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has turned that question into an attack on the Government, and I agree with him. I share his criticism that the Government should have made serious overtures to the Opposition long, long ago; but as we are now so short of time and we are all in danger of going towards a no-deal exit, which only a small minority in the House positively wants, is it not time for him to answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset? Is the Labour party available for discussions with a positive view to reaching a conclusion on a customs union and sufficient regulatory alignment to keep open borders?
I have been available for discussions for the whole time I have been in this post. I have spoken to Members on all Benches about amendments, some of which have had cross-party support. We are going to have to have a discussion—I think starting after Tuesday—about where we go next. We will all have to enter that in the right spirit, because I genuinely think that leaving with no deal would be catastrophic. I also genuinely think that we cannot do it on 29 March this year; it is simply not viable for so many practical reasons. We are going to have to look at what available options are realistically still on the table and what now are the merits of each of them. There are different options; we are just discussing one of them. There are other options that I know members in my own party feel very strongly about, such as a public vote. But we are going to have to sit down and consider credibly what are the options and how Parliament takes control of what happens next. We will enter that in the right spirit, but we will all have to acknowledge, I am afraid, that some of the options that may have been there a year or two ago are not there in the same shape and form as they would have been at the time of the manifestos.
No, I really am going to make some progress now because I have been giving in—hopefully, I have been giving way, though I may have been giving in as well!
I have made the point about this being the same proposition on the table, but let me just go to the heart of the problem of why we are so stuck on this question of the backstop on which I have been challenged. At the heart of the problem is the future relationship document. The truth is that there has been barely any progress on the future relationship. It is a flimsy 26-page document. In truth, it is an options paper—a 26-page options paper—which could and should have been written two years ago. Paragraph 28—I know that everyone has marked it up, but it is worth having another look at—covers the implications for checks and controls. This is the future relationship. It says:
“The Parties envisage that the extent of the United Kingdom’s commitments on customs and regulatory cooperation, including with regard to alignment of rules, would be taken into account in the application of related checks and controls, considering this as a factor in reducing risk.”
It then goes on to say that there is a “spectrum of different outcomes”. What it is saying is that we do not know yet what the commitments on customs and co-operation will be. We do not know what the alignment will be. If it is close it might lead to one result; if it is not close it might lead to another result—a spectrum of different outcomes.
The document has 26 pages, at the heart of which is a “spectrum of different outcomes”. We keep calling it a deal, but this is not a deal; it is an options paper. It is an options paper that has been written by others. We have all mocked up an options paper, as have various academics. Let me contrast this with what the previous Brexit Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), said. We were challenging him over the summer about the future relationship and trying to get an assurance from him that we would have a precise and detailed document that we could vote on so we know where we are going. He said this:
“What is important is that it is clear and specific enough”—
the future relationship document—
“that we are not talking about options for negotiations”—
that is what it would not be—
“but we are clear on the choice of model”—
so it is a clear model that he said we would have—
“and therefore that it reads as a direction for the UK and the EU to get on with it—that we are really implementing heads of terms for an agreement.”
This is miles away from that. This is not a deal, and that is the cause of the problem.
The cause of the problem is this: whatever the Secretary of State says, nobody but nobody who is serious about this thinks for one moment that this document will turn into the future relationship and come into force on 1 January 2021. Nobody credible thinks that. It is a complete myth. It is precisely the same as the myth that this would all have been negotiated by now, which is why there is such anxiety about the backstop. The backstop should never have been the driving force—the focus. We should have been so far advanced in this part of the negotiation that the backstop would have been a bit of a non-issue.
I just want to make this point. We need to understand why this document is so flimsy. It is not just an accident. It is not just that people were not working hard. It is not just that the civil servants, who have worked really hard in all this, were not doing their job. It is for two primary reasons.
The first was that the Prime Minister laid down her red lines in autumn 2016 without consulting the House and, I think, without consulting the Cabinet. She said that those red lines were: outside the customs union, outside the single market and no role for the European Court of Justice. She added the suggestion that
“if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
That was an interpretation of the referendum—we can argue whether it was a good or bad one—by a small team of, I think, three of four people. That was not even the interpretation of the Cabinet, and certainly not of this House. We only have 26 pages on the future relationship, because that got us off to the worst possible start to the negotiations. Those were political choices, not necessities. They were the Prime Minister’s choices, which set her on a path, and this is where it ended.
Add to that the fact that we only got the Chequers proposal in June last year. Anybody who visited Brussels between the triggering of article 50 and June 2018 will have heard the same complaint that I heard: “We don’t know what the UK is actually asking for, and therefore we can’t really advance the negotiations.” When we first got the Chequers proposal in June last year, those in Brussels acknowledged that at least there was now a plan on the table. Of course, Chequers did not unlock the problem, because it was a plan that led immediately to Cabinet resignations, that MPs were quick to say they opposed and would not agree to in any circumstances, and that the EU rejected. That is why there are only 26 pages, which expose the thinness of the proposals.
I will just crack on.
What we see from this document is that the envisaged future relationship will not deliver frictionless trade; it does not aspire to any more. There is no plan for a permanent customs union and no certainty for financial services. In fact, there is almost nothing for financial services. On workplace rights and environmental protections, there is nothing to ensure that standards do not fall behind over time. No wonder the general secretary of the TUC said:
“This is a bad deal for working people: bad for jobs and bad for rights.”
It also places us outside a whole raft of common EU programmes and agencies. Again, much of that flows directly from the Prime Minister’s insistence that there should be no role whatever for the European Court. She put that red line down, and once she had done so, any meaningful participation in those bodies became very difficult.
For five years, I was the representative of the UK in Eurojust, which, as the House will know, plays an important part in the investigation and prosecution of very serious offences across Europe, as do other agencies. In order to have the full participation that makes sense, we have to accept the oversight and enforcement mechanisms that go with it, but the red line made it impossible and led to such a thin document as this.
I have heard colleagues ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman repeatedly about the Labour party’s proposals and whether it would work on a cross-party basis. He indicated at the Dispatch Box that he would enter into cross-party discussions. Is he speaking for the Labour party or as an individual, and what proposals does he have?
I have to say that I love this. We are voting on the Government’s deal, but Members are attacking the Labour party’s plan. Well, that makes a lot of sense. Whatever else we are going to do next Tuesday, we are not going to vote on our plan. Let us be serious.
The hon. Gentleman asked me a question and I am answering him. Whether we like it or not, the Government’s deal is what we are voting on. We are not voting on what any one of us may think, say or do. Having not made any attempt to engage seriously with the Opposition on amendments and proposals, it is a bit rich for Government Members to now say that it is somehow the Opposition’s fault that the Government are in a mess and cannot get their deal through. I gently say that there is huge interest in what the Opposition think. Why? Because, in an ordinary set of proceedings and absent the snap general election, there would be a majority on the Government Benches for the Government’s own proposition. This challenge needs to be put in its proper context: it is because Conservative Members know full well that they are not all going into the same Lobby.
If anyone wants to intervene on me and say that the Conservatives are all going into the same Lobby, they can, but I do not think that is the case. The point is that the Government are so divided that they cannot get their own deal through. That is the truth of the matter.
Order. I am well aware that the hon. Lady is a former chair of the Internal Market Committee of the European Parliament. In case there are people present who were not aware of that, among the litany of achievements that she can proclaim, I have done a public service in advertising that important fact. However, it does not give her an automatic right to intervene. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) will decide whether he wishes to give way to the hon. Lady, and at the moment he is not giving way.
I am not going to give way.
It is no good us pretending about this. I have said in recent weeks and months that the future relationship document is 26 pages long and that it is thin and flimsy, and the answer that now comes back occasionally is, “It was always going to be that way. What did you expect? It’s a future relationship.” Well, I will tell Members what the Prime Minister expected. I see nods from Conservative Members, but the Prime Minister was very clear about what she expected, and she set it out in her Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017:
“I want us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article Fifty process has concluded.”
“I want us to have reached an agreement.”
“From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation, in which both Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements”.
At the time, I was proposing that that was a transition period, and the Prime Minister and various Secretaries of State for Brexit kept insisting it was not a transition period, because that would imply that we were negotiating in it; instead it was an implementation period, because—[Interruption.] No, this is what they argued. They said that the agreement would have been reached and all we would need to do was implement it—to phase it in—during the two-year period. So the idea that this is as it was always going to be—that a blind Brexit was inevitable or an inherent part of the process—is completely contradicted by the Prime Minister’s own words when she said what was going to be achieved.
There are very serious consequences to having such a flimsy document on the future relationship. First, it invites this House to vote on a blind Brexit. I and other Labour Members have very strong views on what the future relationship should look like. Given a document that does not set out whether it might end up as a distant Canada-style model of some sort, or a closed Norway-style model, how can one expect any responsible Member of this House to say, “I don’t know where this is going to end, I don’t know what it’s going to look like, it could actually turn out to be an agreement I fundamentally disagree with, but I shall vote for it”? That just cannot be right. That is the problem—it is a blind Brexit. Secondly, as I have said, because the document is so thin, nobody serious, either here or in Brussels, is suggesting for one moment that the agreement is actually going to be ready by January 2021.
That means that we are going on to either an extended transition or the backstop. That is going to happen. If anybody is intending to vote next week on the pretence or understanding that we are not going to be here arguing about this in July 2020, I genuinely think they are labouring under a misconception—they are wrong. We will either be going on to the transition or going on to the backstop if the deal goes through in this form. We cannot escape that and simply pretend it is not going to happen.
I have said a few words about the backstop. As the Secretary of State rightly said, it provides for citizens’ rights and financial obligations. I do not shy away from the commitments made under the Good Friday agreement. I certainly have no truck with those who play down the importance of the Good Friday agreement—it is not the Secretary of State, the Government or the Prime Minister—or even say that their version of hard Brexit somehow overrides it. Those commitments are serious, and they have to be kept.
I also accept that, given the lack of progress in the 26-page document that we have, at this stage, sadly, some sort of backstop is inevitable. Having got to this stage of the article 50 exercise, it is now inevitable that we cannot finish the exercise within the transition period. There are risks under the backstop, and the Attorney General’s advice, which we fought to uncover last year, set them out pretty starkly. There is the fraught question of whether the backstop would, in truth, be indefinite or temporary. We can have views on that, but we cannot avoid the fact that it is a live dispute, and the Attorney General gave his view on that.
It is also indisputable that once we are in the backstop, if that is what happens in January 2021, it will introduce barriers to trade between England, Wales and Scotland and the EU. That is spelled out in the document. We are putting up barriers to trade in January 2021 if we go into the backstop. I have already touched on the inadequacy of the proposed customs arrangements.
I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have seen the article written over the weekend by Peter Hain and Paul Murphy—both former distinguished Members of this House and Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland who played an important part in the peace process—in which they made the case that the backstop is an important element that we must honour. Has he had an opportunity to reflect on that?
I have read the article, and I reflect on it. I used my words carefully; I said that there are risks in the backstop, which the Attorney General’s advice set out, and they are real risks.
There is a risk that we should not be blind to. The Attorney General spelled out in his advice that the backstop, as a matter of international law, may well be indefinite—he said that it is arguable either way—and that we therefore cannot get out of it unilaterally. We know that, and we have had a discussion about it. However, he went on to say that we cannot get out of it even if the negotiations completely break down and an allegation of bad faith is found. That is not just—
He did say that. I flushed that advice out, and I have read it over and over again. It is absolutely clear. The Attorney General says that if an allegation of bad faith is found, the only remedy is to ask the parties to act in good faith. That is spelled out in the advice. I know that the Minister is an honourable man and will concede that. I am not suggesting for a moment that there is bad faith—of course I am not. I do not think that the negotiations have been or will be negotiated in bad faith, but a country ought to pause before it simply says that an international agreement with those sorts of arrangements is to be waved through because we have used so much time up that we cannot do anything else.
The point I was making—I apologise for making it from a sedentary position—is that the Attorney General said that, on the balance of probabilities, the backstop would not be entered into. He also pointed out that it could be challenged legally under European law were it ever to be entered into.
I understand the argument that article 50 can only be a vehicle for a temporary arrangement and not a permanent one. The Attorney General addressed that, and it is obvious to anybody who has read and understood article 50 rightly. However, the point the Attorney General was addressing was the circumstances in which we could bring the backstop to an end once we were in it, as a matter of international law. Whether article 50 permits it or not, or what the Court would do if it were challenged, is an open question.
The Attorney General said that the backstop may be indefinite—he did not say it was indefinite—but he called into question the argument that it will be temporary. I have noticed that the Prime Minister is very careful in the way she puts it: she always says that the backstop is intended to be temporary. I do not think she has ever used any other phrase, presumably because she is bearing in mind what the Attorney General has advised. I am not saying that there does not need to be a backstop or arrangements to protect the Northern Ireland situation, but we cannot simply and casually say that these are matters to which we should not have too much regard. I honestly cannot think of another treaty that the UK has ever entered into that it could not exit in such circumstances. We might say that that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a very unusual thing to be doing.
I want to address the notion that rejecting the deal somehow leads to no deal. I have never accepted that, and it is deeply irresponsible of the Government to pretend that this is a binary choice. No Prime Minister has the right to plunge the country into the chaos of no deal simply because the deal has been rejected, or to run down the negotiations. I believe that that view is shared across the House. There is no majority for no deal. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and others for the amendment to the Finance Bill that the House passed yesterday. It will not formally prevent no deal, but it will give consequences to a non-endorsed deal.
The amendment is also symbolic, in that it shows that the House will not simply sit by and allow a no-deal exit. I do not think that the Prime Minister would attempt that, because I think she understands that a no-deal exit in March this year is not practically viable. I have been to Dover several times to look at the customs arrangements, and it would be impossible to get from the arrangements as they are today to those that would need to be in place on 29 March in the time available. Whatever anyone else says, it would be impossible to do that. There are plenty of other examples. However, if the Prime Minister attempts a no-deal Brexit, we will fight her tooth and nail every inch of the way.
Every Member of this House has a solemn duty to consider the deal before us—not the deal that the Prime Minister pretends to have negotiated or the deal that she promises to change between now and when we go through the Lobby, but the text before us. Labour is clear that the deal is not in the national interest. It does not come anywhere near to meeting our tests, it will make the country poorer and more divided and it will not protect jobs and the economy. I say that with sadness, because I have shadowed three different Brexit Secretaries, and the fact that we now have a deal that is so demonstrably not uniting the country and not able to command the support of this House is a tragic waste of the two years that have been available for negotiations and a miserable end to this part of the process. We will have to vote on the deal next Tuesday. After that, it will be time for this House to decide what happens next.
Order. The House is now embarking on the resumption of the debate started on 4 December and interrupted. A lot of Members put in to speak on 9 and 10 December, and the order just agreed allows those who have already spoken the possibility of a second speech. I must tell hon. and right hon. Members that if they wish to speak on any of the next four days of debate, they should put their names in to my office, and that they cannot rely on notification that was given a month ago. Apart from anything else, the days have changed and my team cannot be expected to anticipate the thought processes of hon. and right hon. Members, so if people would notify my office, that would be greatly appreciated.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. We have just heard two heavyweight and extremely important speeches from the two Front Benches. I congratulate the new—he is not really new anymore—Brexit Secretary on his grip on the extraordinary complexity of detail that he so evidently demonstrated at the Dispatch Box. I have only rarely troubled the House with my views on Brexit— I think this is only the second time I have done so— and I have approached the whole process on the basis that as Government Back Benchers, it is our job to try to assist the Government in reaching a satisfactory deal. Our job is to support and assist.
We have some special issues in the west midlands. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) has made it clear that the issue of just-in-time supply is important to us there, but this is not just about cars. It is also about food. Much of the food in this country is not stored in a warehouse, but is on a motorway, so just-in-time supply is a very important matter for us.
I also think the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and the Father of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), and indeed the response from the shadow Brexit Secretary, are a very important start to this resumed debate and need to inform our discussions.
It has always been quite clear that it is the Government’s job to propose and Parliament’s job to dispose. Let me be clear: I have great sympathy for the Prime Minister. I served with her in Cabinet and shadow Cabinet for seven and a half years, and I believe that she has a steadfast determination and integrity. No Prime Minister could have given so much time to the House at the Dispatch Box on this issue. However, I have to say that I have been astonished that she would bring back to the House of Commons a deal that she knows she has absolutely no chance whatsoever of getting through, and apparently with no plan B. I think this is a matter of very great concern.
The Government are accountable to Parliament. We have had the beginnings of a new constitutional strategy: that it should be the other way around, and somehow the House of Commons should be accountable to the Government. That is not the way we do things. While I was unable to support the amendment last night, because I thought it fettered the Government’s ability for Executive action too much, I did support the amendment to the Business of the House motion this afternoon, because I think the House of Commons now has to be very clear that if the deal does not go through next week, this House of Commons has got to reach some conclusions and, if I may coin a phrase, take back control. It seems to be that it should do so on the basis of what my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and my right hon. and learned Friend the Father of the House were saying.
As of today, I cannot understand what the Government’s strategy is or has been. It has all the appearances of drawing on the strategy pursued by Lord Cardigan at the charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea. Indeed, it does not seem to be a strategy at all. As Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese general, said:
“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
The danger with the tactics being pursued was set out very eloquently by the first Brexit Secretary, and they of course relate to the issue of the backstop and of sequencing.
In summary, with the greatest of regret, I am unable to support the Prime Minister in the Lobby next week. Briefly, that is for three reasons. The first is to do with the backstop. The backstop issues have been very well rehearsed. In the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, we had the pleasure of welcoming Arlene Foster to speak, and it was very clear to me that her reservations about the treatment of Northern Ireland on the backstop were extremely difficult.
I would make this point in addition to what has been said already about the position of Northern Ireland. Having now been in this House for nearly 30 years, on and off, I have sat through heartbreaking statements about the situation there, with the violence that so dreadfully afflicted Northern Ireland for so very long and, indeed, that went wider than Northern Ireland. The fact is that there was a hard-won, hard-fought treaty—lodged at the United Nations—which says there shall be no border in Northern Ireland. For me, that is the beginning and the end of the matter.
I do not want to question the sincerity of the comments that the right hon. Gentleman has just made. There are very few references to the border at all in the Belfast agreement, but where there are references, they do not in any way suggest that this decision cannot take place. There is no commitment to open the hard border. There is a commitment to co-operation among our nations—between Northern Ireland and the Republic. There is a commitment to relationships on a north-south basis.
One of the things that is in the Belfast agreement, which is completely absent from this discussion, is that it says in paragraph 12 of strand 2 that any future relationship—or impediment—or regulation or rule can be implemented only when it is agreed by the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas in the south. That is completely absent from the considerations on or indeed the text of the withdrawal agreement.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but the point I am making is that the absolute importance of an open border in Northern Ireland—indeed, it is enshrined in an internationally lodged treaty—seems to me to be completely unexceptional.
The second reason I cannot support the deal is that, far from settling matters, it enshrines or embeds the conflicts and divisions that have so convulsed our country. It perpetuates, not heals, the deep divisions that have engulfed our country. It leaves us as a rule taker, which will antagonise and inflame both sides. Those who voted remain will campaign to become rule makers once again, and those who voted to leave will feel that we have not done so and that the result of the referendum has not been fully respected.
The Government present the deal as the compromise that should bind us together; it is, in my view, the worst possible common denominator. It perpetuates the toxic, radioactive afterlife of the referendum. We need look no further than what is said about the deal by the leading proponents and opponents of Brexit on the Government Benches. Consider the eloquent arguments put by my hon. Friends the Members for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) and for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), and the equally eloquent and passionate arguments put by my right hon. Friends the Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). Listening to their eloquent, well-argued points against the deal before us, one can see that it will perpetuate the deep divisions.
Thirdly, all of those points are before we start on the political declaration, about which we have heard some astute comments today. We will be out, we will have paid the £39 billion and we will be saddled with the backstop. We can already see how difficult it will be to negotiate and agree the trade and commercial deals with our 27 European neighbours in the European Union. We have heard what the French have said about fisheries. We have heard what the Spanish have said about Gibraltar. We have heard what Greece and Cyprus have said about any precedents set in respect of Turkey. Alas, I cannot support the deal.
So what is to be done? It seems to me that we almost certainly need more time, although the amendment that we passed today makes it clear that the House of Commons expects the Government to address these matters with great urgency. The former Brexit Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, makes the good point that deals in the European Union are normally done up against the clock. I recognise the validity of that point. The much bigger role for Parliament to take, which was set out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, is clearly extremely important.
The Government, as the servant of Parliament—not the other way round—need to go back to Brussels, Paris and Berlin and spell out clearly to our friends in the European Union why the deal is unacceptable, in particular the backstop. They should explain that if the Commission persists in this vein, it will sour relations between the European Union and the UK for generations, to our huge mutual disadvantage.
The Government have rightly stepped up planning for no deal, but given the will of the House on this matter, even talk of cliff edges and no deals seems unduly alarmist. It will clearly be in everyone’s interests for a series of deals and preparations to be put in place, however temporary. We must use any extra time to look again at the available options. The shadow Brexit Secretary talked about this. What are the pluses of Norway and Canada—both deals that the EU offered us earlier? Clearly, no money that is not legally, contractually due should be handed over at this point.
If the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected, it will be for Parliament to reach a conclusion on how to proceed. I profoundly hope that we can, because if we are unable to do so and this House cannot reach a resolution on these matters, the possibility of a further referendum will undoubtedly arise—something I believe profoundly to be most undesirable. A large cohort of our constituents will feel that a second referendum tramples on their democratic rights and is an attempt by a complacent establishment to make off with the referendum result. As a matter of fact, I do not think the result would be likely to change in the event of a second referendum.
Parliament must now seek to reach an agreement on how best to proceed. Only if we find ourselves incapable of reaching any agreement should we consider the option of going back to our constituents to seek their further guidance.
Mr Speaker, it feels like déjà vu all over again. We seem to be back to where we started just before Christmas. As the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) rightly pointed out, it seems that nothing has changed, but we hope that we will have a vote, and that it will be meaningful, so that we can get on with finding solutions to the problems with which Parliament is faced.
I think the point was made earlier that part of the problem for MPs, businesses and others is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe anything the Government tell us will definitely happen. We have to feel for those who have had to negotiate their way through this, and for the officials who have had to negotiate on behalf of the UK Parliament. I sincerely hope that Monsieur Barnier is enjoying his birthday today; he deserves to, after two and a half years of “nebulous” arguments, as some might put it. Indeed, the Prime Minister got off very, very lightly when Jean-Claude Juncker referred to her proposals in that way. I think he was just trying to be helpful to the Government.
Those of us on the Scottish National party Benches cannot vote for a deal that will make us poorer, less secure and more isolated, and which will deliver worse public services and a worse future for young people, depriving them of the rights and opportunities that we have enjoyed and taken advantage of. It is timeous that during the biggest crisis in modern times, with a weak and unstable Government in place who are clearly the most incompetent in living memory, “The Scream” is to come soon to the United Kingdom.
We have a Government who are spending money on food and medicine shortages in peacetime, because they have lost control of the situation in this place and beyond. With every day that passes, they show us just what a disaster this is. This disaster is entirely of the Government’s making. This Brexit mess was left to them by the grossly irresponsible Brexiteers, who have had a political lifetime to prepare for this moment, but when the moment came, we found out just how ill-prepared they were. In many ways, those who proposed this in the first place do an utter disservice to cowboys and snake oil salesmen.
This situation will make us poorer. What kind of Government proactively pursue a policy that they know—because their economic analysis tells us—will make us poorer? A hard Brexit will cost £1,600 for every person in Scotland. We know that because the Scottish Government had the decency to produce independent analysis, something the UK Government have pointedly refused to do—and we know why: because they are deeply embarrassed by the situation, as they should be.
There is a tendency among those who favour Brexit to think that maybe it would be good for us to tighten our belts, and that a little reduction in income is something we can get over. However, I represent the furthest away part of mainland Britain. I have businesses that will go bust if we have a hard, no-deal Brexit. Their owners will lose their livelihood, as will all the people who work in those businesses. To take forward the hon. Gentleman’s point, surely the ultimate role of Government is to protect those people and protect those businesses? Without enterprise—the little acorns from which mighty oaks grow—this country is going nowhere.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. He represents a rural area with many similarities to my constituency. He will be aware that the Bank of England warned that crashing out would be worse than the 2008 crisis. We know how devastating years of austerity have been for our public services and household incomes. The University of St Andrews found that small businesses will be particularly hard hit, so he is right to make that point. Even the Chancellor recognises that remaining in the European Union is better. We are all paying the penalty for the Tories’ folly and, frankly, extremism in this regard. The EU single market is the world’s largest economic bloc, with half a billion consumers. It is eight times bigger than the United Kingdom, and 40% of Scottish exports go there. It has become very expensive indeed to leave the EU, and the question has to be asked: is it now unaffordable to remain in the United Kingdom?
Other industries will be badly hit as well. The UK, and Scotland in particular, does well out of education and research. Since 2014—we have had no answers about what will come next—Scottish universities and other research institutions have drawn down about £500 million of EU funding, and the UK has done particularly well competitively. I represent some universities; research conducted by those such as St Andrews, Dundee and Abertay through EU funding—I see this daily, as do colleagues elsewhere in the House—will benefit each and every one of us for years to come, and that is before we even start on the financial benefits of membership.
What have the UK Government said in response to the biggest employer in my constituency? Absolutely nothing. That is an abrogation of their responsibility to people who own small businesses, and who work in research, which makes our lives better and improves our healthcare. The same goes for other industries. The Secretary of State mentioned the food and drink sector and talked about having a no-deal Brexit if the agreement was rejected. Extraordinarily, some of his colleagues have actively said that they would like a no-deal Brexit, but the National Farmers Union of Scotland has said:
“It would be nothing short of catastrophic and could have a devastating impact”.
On access to markets and much-needed labour, it said:
“It is becoming clear to NFU Scotland that there is misleading and damaging rhetoric coming from the UK Government…on where the gaps in skills and labour are.”
I hope that the Secretary of State will not mind me saying—I am sure that others will not—that the NFU is not renowned for coming out with strong words. It does so sparingly, not often, so I certainly hope that he will heed those words.
On fishing, which the Secretary of State mentioned, we have consistently argued for being taken out of the common fisheries policy. For years, Conservatives have consistently voted against that proposal in this place: they voted against the Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill, and against our proposed amendments to previous treaties. Now that we are being taken out of the EU, however, with the impact that will have on the markets to which we need access, all of a sudden they are all in favour of a hard Brexit.
If the backstop is enacted, tariffs will be applied to Scottish fishing exports, but Northern Ireland will be protected by tariff-free access to both the EU and the UK. The Scottish Secretary said that he would resign if special provisions were given to Northern Ireland. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Scottish Secretary is not only still in the job, but urging his colleagues to back a deal that disadvantages Scotland?
My hon. Friend is right. It is truly remarkable that the Secretary of State for Scotland is still in a job. He is pursuing a policy that he knows will not only make us poorer, but put Scotland at a competitive disadvantage. I say to our friends from Northern Ireland that we want them to thrive. This has nothing to do with the state of Northern Ireland; it is simply about having a level playing field across these islands. Having a level playing field means that under the agreement, we have access to the markets that Northern Ireland has access to, and it means having EU vessels—
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned a number of sectors; it is only right to put on the record that NFU Scotland, the Scotch Whisky Association and every other trade body in Scotland is imploring this House to support the Prime Minister’s agreement with the European Union. That is what our constituents and the businesses that employ them expect of all Scottish MPs.
It is good to hear the hon. Gentleman’s point, which he makes well and honestly, but it is extraordinary, and a shame, that many of his colleagues—some of whom are in the Chamber—were not listening to him. If he cannot even win over his colleagues, what hope does he have of winning over everybody else? There is almost nobody on his entire half of the Government Benches—extraordinary stuff—but I have the greatest respect for the courage and indefatigability he demonstrates.
This Government’s disrespect agenda has turned the constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom upside down. The UK Government have imposed legislation on the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly against overwhelming opposition from across the parties—from not just the Labour party but the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. The Scottish Parliament rejected the deal by 92 votes to 29, leaving the Conservative party in utter isolation in Scotland, as it has been for decades.
As the Government turn the constitutional settlement upside down, without reference to this place and ignoring the Scotland Act 1998, let me paraphrase the great Winnie Ewing—Madame Ecosse—who said that it was claimed once upon a time that Britannia ruled the waves; now, Britannia simply waives the rules. We heard howls of protest in this place today when Parliament took back control, but Parliament did the Government a favour. The Government have wasted all this time, but now they will be forced to come back within three days, not because of something they did, but because Parliament reasserted itself, and you, Mr Speaker, did the right thing today in allowing the vote. That is incredibly important as we reach this crunch time. One cannot do this kind of thing in the European Union.
I have found utterly baffling and really quite depressing the lack of knowledge about the European institutions in this place. The EU is made up of independent and sovereign states, which reach agreement and compromise in what is truly a partnership of equals. There is democratic oversight from the European Parliament—Ministers here have attempted to stifle democratic oversight—and there is a Court, not to impose anything on anybody but to resolve disagreements, which will arise in any democracy with 28 independent and sovereign member states.
I am not entirely sure what future arbitration mechanism the Government propose. I see from their agreement that they propose a role for the European Court of Justice. I welcome that, but it is a bit too little, too late, and it has been met by a wall of opposition from their own Members, who do not seem to understand what the Government are arguing for.
As I set out what the European Union is all about, it strikes me that despite all those who try to compare it with the United Kingdom and ask whether, if Scotland becomes independent, we want to be in the EU, no one can tell me in what way they are similar. Can anybody compare the EU with the UK? Silence. It is not possible to compare them. To do so would be to disregard every treaty, and the fact that the EU is a club for independent and sovereign states. I am astonished, since Government Members persistently make that argument, that nobody can tell me what the difference is. That argument is almost as dead and defunct as the Prime Minister’s deal.
Let me move on to a human element. The way EU nationals have been treated is a disgrace. No Member should be complicit in what is being done in our name. That is nowhere clearer than in the appalling treatment of our friends and neighbours who happen to hold passports from a different European country. They contribute so much to our homes and our NHS, and they contribute financially so much more than they take away.
On a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry)—as well as, to be fair, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) during Prime Minister’s questions today—does the Minister agree that it is deeply offensive to be asking those who already pay their taxes and so much in contributions to pay £65 each to remain in their homes? Would anybody on the Government Benches like to defend that? Anybody? I didn’t think so. Would anyone want to defend the disgrace of charging people £65 to remain in their homes?
Does it not offend natural justice that people are being made to pay that fee to maintain rights that they already have and enjoy, yet they were excluded from the vote itself and have played no part in the democratic mechanisms that have brought us to this point? The Government have done everything to isolate them and are doing everything to isolate them further. Would it not show an element of good will, at least, if they cancelled the £65 fee?
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Is the situation not even worse, because these people—our friends and neighbours, our colleagues, people we depend on in our communities and throughout Scotland, have been asked—even when they have been here for decades, to apply to pay to stay in their own homes?
As usual, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point about EU citizens on behalf of his constituents. Truly there is shame on this Government for the way they treat our neighbours and fellow citizens. They are whipping up a frenzy over immigration and those seen as outsiders. The Government have disgraced themselves, and, following the vote of no confidence, are no longer fit for office.
Can the hon. Gentleman defend the SNP’s policy? In July 2014, in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon spoke about her “common sense position” on this issue. She said:
“There are 160,000 EU nationals…living in Scotland… If Scotland was outside Europe, they would lose the right to stay here.”
Does he defend that?
It is extraordinary that the hon. Member cannot engage with any of the arguments or defend his own Government. Indeed, he cannot even vote for his own Government. The way the First Minister came out the day after the referendum to give that reassurance to EU nationals and the way the Scottish Government have said they will waive the fees of public sector workers which as yet the UK Government have not had the decency to do—I hope they will change their mind—should put each and every Government Member to shame. In the independence referendum, as in Scottish Parliament and local authority elections, those EU citizens—our friends and neighbours—have the franchise, they have the vote, and they are treated with decency, which is a lot more than can be said here.
Everyone will know by now that my husband is German and that we have many friends who are EU citizens. With many EU citizens who have been here for decades being refused permanent right to remain and they or their children being refused citizenship, does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just about the money? There should not be an application. Even a registration would suggest something different. An application implies that someone can be refused.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She frequently makes very good points on that very matter. This goes to the heart of what kind of society we want to build and how we treat our friends and neighbours. Do we want that isolationism, or do we have the decency to treat our friends and neighbours appropriately?
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech touching on the human elements and our responsibility to our friends and neighbours, but there is also the fundamental point about our rights as EU citizens. Could anyone defend the current position? He worked in Europe for many years. We today have the opportunity to work in 28 member states. How is it right that if the Government get their way UK citizens will have the right to work in only one state and will be excluded from the opportunity to work in Europe which he, I and many others had? It is a disgrace that that right is being taken away from our young people.
That is an excellent point. I spent years benefiting from freedom of movement on the Erasmus programme. I know that many other Members who are present did as well, and that it has benefited our friends, our relatives and many of our constituents. Who are we to deprive the next generations of the benefits that we have had—the rights and opportunities that we have had? It is utterly shameful to be depriving our young people of freedom of movement, from which many of us across the House have benefited, and which benefits everyone without fear or favour. That is yet another failure.
Then there is security, which is a basic priority of the UK Government and of any Government anywhere in the world. This is a Government who are, proactively and consciously, making us less safe, isolating us from key partners elsewhere in Europe and drawing away from key planks such as the European arrest warrant. According to the Royal United Services Institute,
“the full benefits of membership—combining both shared decision-making and operational effectiveness—cannot be replicated”
by the deal that we are seeing today.
Nowhere has the disregard for security—and for the peace process—been seen more clearly than in Northern Ireland. There has been an utter disregard for it throughout the debate, although that is not the Government’s fault, and it is not the fault of one or two Ministers who argued for remain. The disregard shown during the EU referendum and subsequently was appalling as well, especially given that the European Union has been a key partner for peace in Northern Ireland for decades.
Let me now, briefly and finally, say a little something about the Labour party. We have the weakest and the least stable Government in living memory. They cannot even defend their own record. They cannot even defend the basics. They are actively making us poorer and less secure—proactively—and at great cost as well. All that the Government have going for them—and I say this with great respect to the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, who was very good today and always is, as are many other Labour Members—is an exceptionally weak Opposition Front Bench.
I want to work with the Opposition Front Bench, and we work together very well. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras has been a champion for his cause. However, the Leader of the Opposition appears to have washed his hands of any kind of leadership when it comes to this issue—the biggest issue to have faced his party. There is no such thing as a “jobs first” Brexit, but there is such a thing as a jobs-destroying Brexit.
We want to work with Labour, and the House should not just take my word for it. Last night, as I was preparing for today’s debate, I was contacted by a member of the Labour party who lives in Crail, in my constituency. She sent me a letter which she has sent today to the Labour party’s international policy committee. I know that all Labour Members will have read it, but I will read some of it out for the benefit of the House. She wrote that
“if there is a general election, or a second referendum, the Labour Party should make it clear that being in the EU is in the UK’s best interests, and that it is Parliament’s duty to ensure that we stay.”
That did not come from the Scottish National party, or from my friends among the local Liberal Democrats, or even from the Conservatives or the Green party, but from my own local Labour party. I always like to say that there is a great deal of sense in North East Fife, but apparently there is even a great deal of sense in the North East Fife Labour party, and I hope that its members are listening.
What my hon. Friend may not know is that a Labour spokesperson said after Prime Minister’s Question Time that in theory Labour could change its mind and be against Brexit in any future snap election. Does he agree that a Schrödinger's Brexit is not exactly a step forward for the official Opposition?
As usual, my hon. Friend has made an excellent point.
I appeal to the Labour party. We have a weak Government, and an absolute crisis is facing us. I have worked with many Labour Members, and I know that many of them are pained by the position that has been taken by the Leader of the Opposition in particular. They behave honestly and decently, and they make a fine contribution, as has been evident today. I appeal to them to join with the SNP in the short time that we have left, because there are alternatives, and other Members and Ministers have made that point. As the shadow Secretary of State and others made clear, we must revoke article 50 or seek an extension. That is the only sensible course of action left to us, because the current situation will not play out sensibly. Although helpful, no amount of motions requiring a response within three days can help us beyond that point. It will be embarrassing for the Prime Minister, but it is a small price to pay.
Over two years ago, the Scottish Government set out a compromise that they devised with members of other parties, with experts—we still like to listen to experts—and others, but that compromise was rejected by the UK Government without them considering it or coming back on anything. This Government have comprehensively failed on the biggest issue to face a post-war Government, so this Parliament must take back control of the situation. It also means that we are now in a place, after almost three years, whereby when we get some kind of final solution such is the huge impact that we must put it back to the people in another referendum to let them sign it off. I know that that certainly has support across the SNP Benches and, increasingly, among those on the Government Benches as well. Given the time that the Government have wasted since 2016, that is our only reasonable option. No deal must be ruled out. Billions of pounds have been totally unnecessarily wasted. We have not struggled for metaphors for the Government’s failures over the recent past, but a ferry company without any boats is up there with the best of them.
Brexit has no redeeming features—none. We are almost three years on from the referendum, and I believe now even more than I did then—I was strong for remain—that Brexit is the wrong thing to do and that nothing good whatsoever will come out of it. I want everyone across these islands to thrive, but what underlines the current set-up is that the UK is broken and that we probably need to move on to a new relationship. Every one of Scotland’s neighbours—similar-sized countries—is more successful, fairer and has a more equal and respectful relationship with the UK Government than Scotland does. Our close neighbours in Scandinavia have a healthy and respectful economic and political relationship, even though not all those independent states are members of the EU. That is a healthier and better state to be in. I note that none of the 50 states that have gained independence from the UK since the second world war has made as much of a mess as the UK Government have made of this situation, because they had a much more straightforward way through.
Right now, however, we must focus on sorting out the almighty mess that the Tories have left us in. The Government have had their chance, but they have blown it over the past two and a half years. All that they have achieved is to drive up support for the EU across the other member states. Support for the EU in Ireland is at 92%, meaning that those of our near neighbours who believe in leaving the EU are giving the flat-earthers a wee run for their money, and they are even giving those who believe that the Prime Minister still runs a strong and stable Government a bit of a run for their money. We have been sold this nonsense for far too long. We are stuck on a sinking ship, and this Parliament must take back control. We need a common-sense solution, and this deal is not it.
In May last year, when I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary, I believe that I was the first person on the payroll to resign to fight for Brexit. I had deep concerns about how Brexit was being handled, and I felt compelled to resign for the Brexit that I believed in and the Brexit that my constituents and our country voted for. I was the first to step down, but I was not the last. We have seen talented, committed and hard-working colleagues on both sides of the Brexit debate resign because of numerous concerns.
Our reasons for standing down may vary, but one thing that we all have in common is our belief that this deal is a bad deal for our country. Be they remain or leave, I respect all those colleagues who bravely stood by their convictions and made the principled decision to fight for what they believe in, but the fight is not yet over. The Prime Minister speaks of a deal that will unite our country, a goal that no doubt we all desire, but the division we have seen is of the Prime Minister’s own making. Her desire to get a deal at any cost, prolonging “Project Fear”, and her decision to postpone last month’s withdrawal agreement vote were mistakes—and that decision has only led to more division at a time when our country should be uniting behind the democratic decision to leave the EU.
On 23 June 2016 the question was clear: should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU? The British people spoke and decided overwhelmingly to leave.
Well, I think 1 million more people is quite a big clue, actually.
It was never supposed to be this way. At the referendum there was no third option: the choice was either leave or remain. The referendum did not mention a half in, half out or worst of both worlds choice for our country’s future. The referendum question said nothing about giving the EU £39 billion of taxpayers’ money and getting nothing in return, the referendum question said nothing about a continued role for the European Court of Justice after 2019, and the referendum question said nothing about an Irish backstop and restricting our ability to sign new trade deals. This deal is a sell-out of those who voted to leave. It is therefore impossible for the House to unite around this deal, and it is impossible for our country to unite around a bad deal.
At the referendum two years ago the British people spoke and our objective was clear: as elected Members of Parliament we were tasked with delivering Brexit. Some Members thought the British people would deliver a different result and would vote remain in the referendum, but they did not, and this is the problem: some Members do not accept the result of the referendum and are using every opportunity to thwart the will of the British people.
It is a sad period in our great Parliament’s history when MPs try to overturn the democratic mandate; that is completely unacceptable, After all, it was Parliament that gave the British people the opportunity to have the referendum in the first place. Our great British parliamentary model has been a beacon that has been used as a template in parliamentary democracies across the globe for centuries. Let us not insult our greatest institution, or forget that we were elected by the British electorate. We are all democrats, so let us respect the result: our British people have spoken and it is time for us now to deliver. Our people decided to take back control and said we should leave. [Interruption.] They are still British citizens.
This was a vote dictated not by fear, but by hope: hope of a different tomorrow and a new path; hope of a new system not restricted by the EU’s institutions; and hope that once again our people will feel that they have a true stake in our country’s future. The chance of a global Britain was promised, but that promise has now been broken.
We must leave, and we need a clean Brexit and to trade under WTO rules if necessary. The US and China sell billions of pounds’ worth of exports each year to the EU using WTO rules; the UK can do the same if necessary. As the EU’s largest trading partner and with a deficit of £95 billion in trade in goods, we should have been negotiating from a position of strength, but the Prime Minister’s determination to get a deal at any cost gave the EU the upper hand. The Prime Minister showed her hand too soon, and now the EU has called her bluff.
I say that it is time we put the ball firmly in our court and take the upper hand in these negotiations. The EU fears our leaving on WTO terms as it will give Britain the competitive advantage if we do, so let us fully embrace a clean Brexit; I have no doubt that the EU will come running back to us at the eleventh hour. But besides being a good negotiating tool, leaving on WTO terms is not something we should fear.
My hon. Friend talks about the potential advantages of our leaving on WTO rules. Can she explain why, if WTO rules are just fine for trading with our largest trading partner, it is so necessary that we are able to do trade deals on our own terms with other, much smaller economies?
I believe in a global Britain, as the Prime Minister said in her statement several times, and it is important that, in trading with both smaller nations and larger nations, Britain is free to chart its own path in the world and to forge new trade deals with whoever.
My hon. Friend will not be aware of it, but, in evidence to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs today, Ryan Scatterty of Thistle Seafoods in the north-east of Scotland, representing seafood processors, said that the growing market for his industry is in places like Australia. The industry currently trades on WTO rules, as he confirmed to the Committee. If the industry can do that with Australia, surely it can do it with the EU.
As I said earlier, we have seen how the EU negotiates—look at how it negotiated with Greece—and it usually comes back at the eleventh hour. It would be great to have a deal with the EU, but I do not agree with having a bad deal. The Prime Minister’s mantra is that no deal is better than a bad deal, and in that case I would rather leave on WTO rules.
No. I need to make some progress.
It is time that we put the ball firmly in our court and take the upper hand in these negotiations. The EU fears our leaving on WTO terms, as it would give Britain a competitive advantage, so let us fully embrace a clean Brexit. Leaving on WTO terms is not something we should fear.
There has been some concern about engineering firms being disproportionately affected by a clean WTO Brexit. However, the heads of firms such as Dyson, JCB and Northern Ireland’s Wrightbus support Brexit. Car companies can withstand a 10% tariff on sales into the EU and a 4.5% tariff on components from the EU because they have benefited from a 15% depreciation in sterling. Border checks on components from the EU will be unnecessary, counterproductive for EU exporters and illegal under WTO rules, which prohibit unnecessary checks.
A better deal was available and is still available. The Brexit deal was never only a choice between the Prime Minister’s deal and reverting to WTO rules, but if that is the choice, let us go on WTO rules.
This place is often divided by its very nature, but one thing that unites us is our belief that the British people are remarkable and can succeed, no matter the obstacle. Our great history shows that we can overcome any hurdle and that we always triumph. This deal is a submission, and the British people should never accept a bad deal. This deal is remain masquerading as leave, and it is time that entrenched leave Members started believing in Britain and respected the result of the referendum.
Instead of fear, we need to see forward planning and a vision for the future—a future away from the EU—that the whole country can get behind. I am hugely optimistic about our country’s future. There may be difficult times ahead, so we need a leader who can take this great country out into the world and start trading freely around the globe, and this deal simply does not allow us to do that.
In her Lancaster House speech, the Prime Minister said:
“A Global Britain must be free to strike trade agreements with countries from outside the European Union too… the great prize for this country—the opportunity ahead—is to use this moment to build a truly Global Britain. A country that reaches out to old friends and new allies alike. A great, global, trading nation. And one of the firmest advocates for free trade anywhere in the world.”
That was a vision for Brexit that many of us had, but the Prime Minister’s deal will not allow it to happen. I therefore urge colleagues on both sides of the House to reject her deal. Let us stand up for democracy, let us restore faith among our electorate and let us now deliver on our promises to our great British public.
It is nearly two months since the 585 pages of the withdrawal agreement were published, and it is already gathering a little bit of dust. As we have already heard, despite deferring the vote and pretending otherwise over Christmas, and ringing up Mr Barnier or Mr Juncker on Christmas eve or new year’s eve saying “Please can we have a negotiation?”, the Prime Minister has found that, in that famous phrase, nothing has changed. So here we are yet again facing a Government who are determined to prevaricate and kick the can further down the road.
Earlier today, having seen the Government defer this issue previously, Members realised that once the Prime Minister’s plan was defeated there would potentially be 21 days, and then perhaps another seven days, before the Commons would be allowed to determine what happens next. We had the ridiculous spectacle of the Government objecting to that and saying, “No, Members must not be allowed to vote on moving things forward.” That prevarication is extremely dangerous. It is dangerous to put political calculations above the country’s best interests when we could crash out with no deal on 29 March.
I am glad, Mr Speaker, that you withstood the attempts by a loud and vociferous minority in this place to thwart Members and prevent them from having a say. You have in the past made decisions and rulings with which I have disagreed, but on this occasion allowing parliamentarians to express their views was the right thing to do. Indeed, that proved to be the case, because a majority of MPs said, “No, we don’t wish to wait 21 or 28 days, till the middle of February; we want to get on with things.” The time has now come to decide. The House has instructed Ministers, if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected on Tuesday, to come forward with a motion three sitting days later, which would be Monday 21 January. We could then make some decisions.
By the way, I do not address my remarks on prevarication only to Ministers. I gently say to those on the Labour Front Bench that they, too, should stop prevaricating on the question of Brexit. The time has come for the Labour party to make some decisions and stop this notion of constructive ambiguity. I know that this complex sequenceology has been constructed to try to avoid having to confront these issues, but the politics should come second to the national interest. We cannot afford to gamble at this stage, given how close we are to 29 March.
The withdrawal agreement is wrong for the country, as is the political declaration that accompanies it. The withdrawal agreement ignores 80% of our economy, the service sector. It might not necessarily provide good pictures for the television cameras, unlike queuing ferries at Dover and so forth, but the service sector is very much where the UK excels, whether in legal, professional, media, creative or financial services. Not only do many of our constituents work in those services, but they provide the engine for the revenues needed for our public services—for our NHS, schools, local authorities and social care. If we ignore the risk of diminished prospects for those sectors in our economy, we will be facilitating a further decade of austerity to come. That is why I say to all Members, across all parties, that we cannot just kick the can down the road and pretend that this will not matter.
The problem with the withdrawal agreement is that it is full of warm promises about what might be agreed, but it does not actually agree many, many things. It contains no agreement on data or energy policy. It says that we will establish a process on transport policy, and that we will talk about the Erasmus programme to allow students to study throughout Europe. It does not resolve the security situation or the question of Euratom. It fudges the question of the Northern Ireland border still further. The withdrawal agreement does not actually settle many of these things.
What is worse is that the political declaration is non-binding on the parties involved, which means that it amounts to little more than warm words. The Government got themselves into this ridiculous situation by embarking on the article 50 process without a commitment that, by the end of it, we would have not just the divorce arrangement settled, but, in particular, a settled plan for an EU-UK trade deal. That should have been part of the negotiation framework.
For us now to be asked to leave on 29 March without having settled our future relationship with Europe is highly irresponsible. Ministers may say, “Well, we intend to do it this way”. European officials may also say that they intend to do it that way, but, of course, they are here today and gone tomorrow, and commitments that are made by those particular individuals will not necessarily bind us on what happens to the UK. Therefore, we will not have the EU-UK arrangement settled down by the time that we are asked to leave, and anything could happen in that process.
There are many difficulties with that, because of course if we do not have the EU-UK trade deal buttoned down, our prospects of doing deals with the rest of the world will have to wait. Other countries, such as Japan, Singapore, Canada, America and others, will say, “We may be interested in doing a trade deal with you, but we would like to see what your relationship is with the EU first. Will you be allowed to reduce tariffs or not?” That arrangement could take two, three, four or five years—an ever unknown amount of time. The Canada trade deal with the EU took seven years.
The idea that the poor old Secretary of State for International Trade is raring to go with all these new deals across the world is, of course, fantasy. That is the delusion of Brexit that so many people are operating under, but the real world is beginning to bite. Businesses know it, and increasingly our constituents see it, and they want the right to determine their own future.
The withdrawal agreement and this settlement would end the free movement of people across Europe. I regard that as a great tragedy. It is a shame that we have not stood up and spoken out for the benefits of free movement. We should remember that free movement is reciprocal, so just as we restrict European movement into the UK, we will potentially be sacrificing UK citizens’ right of movement to the rest of Europe. Let us think of the future generations, their work opportunities, their study opportunities, the freedom we enjoy, the 2 million British people who already reside across the rest of Europe, and the uncertainties that this will create—and for what? What is this great harm? It is a ridiculous proposition, and that alone would be a reason to reject the withdrawal agreement.
There is also the notion that the agreement will allow us to control taxpayers’ money, but we know that we will lose a great deal of money because of the effect on the economy. Members do not need to take my word for that; the Treasury, the Government and the Prime Minister herself have articulated how we will be worse off by going down this pathway. We will be controlling a diminished amount of money. We will be paying out £39 billion, and possibly even more during the transition arrangement, in exchange for what? There is no commitment on a trade with the EU deal going forward, which I regard as a fundamental failure.
The Prime Minister has made a number of strategic errors all the way along this process, such as setting down red lines and interpreting the outcome of the referendum in her own way—for instance, on whether it was to do with the single market or the customs union, when, of course, none of that was on the ballot paper. She has also failed to take the temperature of Parliament. She did not exactly read the runes of the House of Commons from the beginning, and now she faces this situation. Under this arrangement the UK could be left in limbo in this situation for the next four years, and we would not even have a seat around the table to shape the rules to which we would be subject—it is a nonsense. Britain has had a fantastic ability to shape the rule-making arrangements of an entire continent—the whole European Union—for many years, and many of the rules and regulations that we have chosen to adopt have been generated by the United Kingdom. Some of the best ideas that we have had have shaped EU policies, and it is a great shame that we will be moving away from that.
Whether it is because of the failures of the withdrawal agreement or the wishlist presented in the form of the political declaration, which is an almost meaningless document, this House has to reject the Prime Minister’s proposal when it comes to the vote next Tuesday. The House must quickly realise that we have to extend article 50 at the very least, if not suspend or revoke the article 50 process, while we put this question back to the British public so that they can decide, in the full knowledge of the facts and the economic and social impact.
A people’s vote is a solution whose time has come, and increasing numbers of Members on both sides of this House are realising that it is the way ahead. I strongly hope that the Labour Front Benchers will also realise that the people’s vote has the support and is the preference of the vast majority not just of Labour party members, but of Labour supporters and voters. Now is the time to decide. We cannot afford to prevaricate any longer.
If the referendum were rerun today, everything that I have seen over the last two years—not least as a member of the Brexit Select Committee—would still lead me to vote to stay within the European Union. Having said that, I do respect the result of the referendum as a valid expression of the will of the people, but to me this means leaving the EU in a way that secures the best economic deal available with the EU and that maximises the potential for retaining the close cultural, educational, justice and security relationships that we have developed with our closest partners and allies. The referendum was “in or out”, but it did not, as some wrongly insist, dictate the terms of our leaving, nor the terms of our future relationship with the EU once out. Both of those questions were left for Parliament to resolve, and that is what MPs must now do. It is for this primary reason that I would oppose a second referendum, which would be indeterminate, complicated to implement and very divisive.
The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware that the Prime Minister spoke to 200 MPs in one of the rooms in Portcullis House last night. Again, she ruled out a second referendum, but she said that if the deal does not get through, there are two options left: a no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all with the revocation of article 50. Businesses up and down the country are going to have to start thinking about how they react once the deal is voted down. Will the hon. Gentleman venture his view on what he would do in that scenario?
I was at that meeting, which I thought was a good expression of joint interests from all parties to the Prime Minister. I hope that we saw within that meeting the start of what could become a consensus, moving forward after what might be a defeat next week. Having said that, I do not discount a second referendum, as the Prime Minister did not. I am simply saying that I think it would be a very poor second best and a sign that this place had failed, but I do not dismiss the possibility.
As for the Prime Minister’s deal, on balance I find it to be a fair one and practical in the overall circumstances of the hand that we had to play; it has my support. To criticise the deal as not being as good as what we have with the EU now is a facile argument, if only because the EU was never, ever going to allow us to leave on the same or better terms than apply to the remaining 27 countries, no matter how many German cars we bought. The deal was always going to have to represent a compromise of views within the Conservative party, within Parliament and certainly with the EU. The deal reached does not represent my optimum position, but no one was ever going to get everything they wanted.
That is not to say that I do not share some of the criticisms of the deal, including many that can be found in the Brexit Committee’s report on the deal. For instance, despite assurances from two Secretaries of State, the financial settlement has not been included in the withdrawal agreement as being wholly or even partially conditional on securing a binding future relationship. To my mind, this has been a failure of negotiation that will undoubtedly reduce our leverage in future relationship negotiations due to start in March 2019 if we have a deal. Furthermore, the lack of detail in the future relationship political declaration means that there will still be another cliff edge as we reach July 2020, when we will need to decide either to head towards the backstop or to extend the implementation period, and there will still be a level of uncertainty for business as to the final form of the deal, although much less so than if we crash out with no deal.
So, on balance, we should take the deal on offer. The mess and upset that would be caused by a hard Brexit is unacceptable. Yes, the legalities can be brought to the fore on things like the backstop, but the legal cart should not be leading the commercial horse.
I suspect that the hon. Gentleman might agree with me that the deal is very different from what people were promised during the referendum by those leading the Brexit campaign. If he does agree, is there not a case for thinking that it is undemocratic not to allow the people to have a say now, given that what is on offer is so different from what they were promised?
I would not argue with the right hon. Gentleman about promises being made during the referendum campaign that could now be disputed, but the same could be said for a lot of general elections that we have had in the past. To say that elections or referendums are discounted because of what people maintained during the course of them would not, I am afraid, be a line that I would take.
Furthermore, if the deal is rejected by this House, from my point of view I will do everything I can to ensure that we do not leave the EU without a deal, and, to my mind, the next best thing after the Prime Minister’s option would be the Norway-plus alternative. If the Government’s deal fails to pass this House, and assuming that the Opposition’s no-confidence motion fails, I hope that we shall then start to find a new tone of cross-party working. We shall need a degree more honesty in how we describe Brexit issues, where in reality no one is going to win—not us and not the EU. We have the Labour Front Bench changing its position; we have the Brexiteers shouting, “Sell-out”, at every initiative while offering nothing as an alternative; and we have a Government who have frequently made soothing hard Brexit noises to Brexiteers while lining up a deal that clearly has a trajectory of close regulatory alignment to the single market and some form of customs arrangement. I do hope that the Government get their deal, but if not, it will surely be because they have unsuccessfully attempted to be all things to all men.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. If the deal is rejected and we start looking at other possibilities—on a more consensual cross-party basis, I hope—then clearly whatever route we take leads to the deadline, and an answer to that may well have to be to extend the article 50 period. I am very pleased, looking back over a year ago now, that some of us in this place decided to ensure that the Government were not able to restrict the timing of the article 50 period, and so that will be a possibility.
Rather than add to the fudge, let me explain why and how, if this deal fails, Members of all parties should coalesce around a Norway-plus option, and why the “plus” element—being in a customs union with the EU—is a good thing. First, most business wants a customs union because it allows free movement of almost half our exports between Union members without tariffs and checks and paperwork. Opponents say that this would stop the UK forging its own trade agreements, but, to my mind, the benefits of the EU customs union are far greater. We must keep in mind that the EU has some 250 FTAs with some 70 countries, and the UK plan is to “roll over” those deals, meaning that, at best, we would have the same—not better—terms as the EU with one third of the world’s countries. There would be no advantage of being outside the EU. That is, of course, assuming that we are able to make those deals happen, which we know is proving somewhat elusive, as the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) explained.
Secondly, the chances of negotiating better FTAs as a country of 50 million, rather than a bloc of 500 million, is realistically and simply not how it normally works. Thirdly, there will be significant costs of going it alone on FTAs, from being forced to take US genetically modified crops to issuing visas to countries, as currently requested by Australia and India. Fourthly, FTAs take a long time to negotiate—an average of seven years.
Fifthly, the claim that Commonwealth countries will prioritise us over the EU is unrealistic, not least considering that the Czech Republic currently has four times the trade with New Zealand than we do and that the Swiss do much more trade with India than we do. Sixthly, “most favoured nation” clauses in our rolled-over EU agreements and the integrated nature of world trade will significantly reduce our ability to get commercial advantage. Finally, high levels of foreign input into our manufactured goods will create huge problems under the so-called rules of origin.
In conclusion, my view is that we shall be better off with a customs union arrangement with the EU, and the deal on offer presents the best opportunity of securing future prosperity for our companies and employment for our people. We should support it.
One problem of having extended debate and resumption of debate is that we are getting a lot of repetition and recycling of arguments that we have heard many times before. For that reason, I want to focus on one specific issue, which is the idea of World Trade Organisation rules and exactly what they mean. The term “WTO rules” is used casually in every pub, and in every radio interview I encounter, but I suspect that many of the people who use it are not at all clear what it means.
Before getting into the detail of that, I will make one general point about no deal, which was brought out rather brilliantly by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who got to the heart of this very well. He exposed the fact that no deal is actually a choice. It is not just something that happens; it is the conscious choice of a Government who could choose to revoke article 50, as the Father of the House keeps reminding us. That may be a difficult decision and a very unpopular one, but article 50 could be revoked, and by choosing not to revoke it, the Government will be choosing to have no deal, with all its catastrophic—or so they tell us—consequences.
Let me narrow down to the specific issue of what the WTO rules would be if we found ourselves in a no-deal world. The basis on which I speak is that many years ago, long before I came into the House, I was part of a small community of international trade specialists and got involved in negotiating the so-called Uruguay round and then the Doha round as part of the World Trade Organisation—or, as it was then called, the general agreement on tariffs and trade. I saw at first hand the way in which the WTO system operates. I realise that there is no longer just a small community of anoraks, which is what we were. A large number of people now consider themselves experts on trade policy, but the glibness with which the term “WTO rules” is applied leads me to believe that there are probably not too many anoraks, because there are some very real difficulties in applying WTO rules.
The World Trade Organisation is to trade what the United Nations is to peace. It has some admirable principles, but I think most Members, and certainly those on the Government Benches, would consider it seriously negligent of us to make our national defence dependent solely on the rules of the United Nations. Rules have to be enforced, and they have to be effective.
We need to look back on what the World Trade Organisation is and what it is trying to achieve. In the post-war world, it has established one central principle, and actually it is not free trade; it is something called the most favoured nation—MFN—rule. It is about non-discrimination. It has one big waiver, which is to allow common markets and customs unions such as the European Union to function on the basis of total free trade within themselves, but its whole objective is to stop the proliferation of bilateral agreements.
Such agreements were common in the inter-war period, and they are becoming fashionable again. Many people who are in favour of Brexit say that they are the whole purpose of trade policy. Those people want deals with numerous countries, but the whole purpose of the WTO was to stop this happening. It was supposed to be a multilateral organisation. In that capacity, the WTO achieved a great deal. It cut tariffs to single digits on most manufactures except agriculture, and it got rid of quantitative restrictions, except for the quotas that still exist for agriculture and textiles. It also began to establish a set of rules around intellectual property and various other intangible non-tariff barriers regarding, for example, government procurement.
The problem is that the WTO reached the zenith of its authority about 10 years ago, when the Doha negotiations collapsed and multilateral trade negotiations ceased to make any progress. This was largely due to the obstruction of India, Brazil and, to some extent, the United States. The European Union was actually the main liberalising force, but anyway, the negotiations collapsed and the WTO’s authority is now much less strong. Where does that leave us in terms of what the WTO rules now mean? If they mean anything, it is the application of the rule of law. In the WTO, the rule of law operates through dispute panels, which in theory have the same force as the European Court of Justice in settling disputes. It baffles me that Conservative Members are so affronted by the intrusiveness of the European Court of Justice, because it was designed to achieve precisely what the dispute panels of the WTO were designed to do.
However, like the United Nations, the WTO is not a desperately effective body, and many of its rulings are not carried through. Because it is a weak organisation, it is possible for big countries to bully weak ones. A celebrated case some years ago involved a trade dispute between the United States and Costa Rica—over men’s underpants, as it happens—and Costa Rica won the dispute. The United States felt deeply humiliated and refused to comply. A face-saving compromise was eventually reached, but that dispute sowed the ill feeling that in due course led to President Trump, who has made it absolutely clear that he does not believe in the World Trade Organisation. He does not want it to work, and he is doing everything he possibly can to stop it working, including not sending judges to sit on the dispute panels. It is now a very weak organisation. If we were to crash out of the EU under WTO rules and found ourselves in a dispute with the United States—or, indeed, with the European Union, which we had left—we would not be able to rely on the WTO dispute panels to settle the dispute in an orderly manner.
That is one of the WTO’s central weaknesses. Another is that, throughout its history, it has been overwhelmingly concerned with getting rid of tariffs. The main problem in international trade these days is the divergence of standards, which is of course why we originally entered the single market under Lord Cockfield and Mrs Thatcher. That was perfectly logical. If we are trying to liberalise trade, we attack the non-tariff practices that obstruct trade, hence the harmonisation of rules on mutual recognition. However, the WTO does not do that. It has very weak rules covering government procurement and all the barriers that are dealt with in the European Union through the rules on state aid, competition and the like. That, in turn, means that there is very little in the WTO that covers the services sector, which, as we have been reminded, accounts for 80% of our economy. We have a fair degree of liberalisation in the services trade in the European Union, which benefits our high-tech industries, financial services and so on. No such arrangement exists in the WTO. Those sectors are completely unprotected.
Finally, and not least, the fact is that some tariffs remain, and they are on agriculture. We have the problem that if we leave the European Union with no deal, on WTO terms, the European Union’s tariffs on dairy products, lamb and various other items, which are quite high, immediately kick in. The problem with that, as we discovered when we had the foot and mouth epidemic, is that if we cannot export, prices crash. The only logical response from the farming industry, in order to maintain the value of the stock, is to slaughter large herds. This will happen. We know there is a paper at the moment in the agriculture Department—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—setting out a plan for slaughtering a third of all British sheep in order to maintain the integrity of the market. That is an inevitable consequence of a high tariff obstructing British exports.
That is not all; I had only 30 seconds in the House yesterday, but I mentioned the particular problem associated with exports through the port of Portsmouth. It is actually the lifeline to the Channel Islands; that is the main route. The Channel Islands are not otherwise affected by Brexit of course, but they will be in this case. If trade is obstructed at the port because of the need to comply with veterinary requirements, phytosanitary requirements and things of that kind, lorries will be obstructed and fresh produce will not be able to get through. Quite apart from the disruption to traffic, the whole system of agricultural trade and the supply of food to the Channel Islands will simply dry up. We have an enormous practical problem resulting from this.
The right hon. Gentleman is giving an excellent speech, which is very helpful indeed. Did he see that the Financial Times reported yesterday that the Department for Transport commissioned research that says that just a 70-second delay in authorising a vehicle at the border could mean a six-day queue to get on a ferry?
Yes. Indeed, if I have made a contribution to this argument, it is in pointing out that this is not just a problem in Dover; this problem exists in all the ports around the country. There is going to be serious disruption of supply chains—of the supply of fresh food and many other items. Those people who trivialise the issue by simply saying, “WTO rules—nothing to worry about”, are completely disregarding these consequences.
The conclusion I come to—I think many Conservative Members share it, publicly or privately—is that no deal is just not a viable, acceptable option under any circumstances. We will therefore, within the next few weeks, be brought to the point at which the Government will have to revoke article 50. That would be a major step; it would be overturning the result of the referendum. I feel uncomfortable about Parliament, through Government, doing that. That is why I and other people who are not enthusiasts for referendums believe that the only way of dealing with this properly and of reasserting democratic legitimacy is to go back to the public and seek their approval for doing just that.
I rise briefly to explain why I feel I have to vote against the draft withdrawal agreement that we are debating over the next few days.
Before doing that, however, I want to welcome warmly the statement made very clearly by the Prime Minister after the Salzburg summit that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom would be protected. I think that was a hugely important promise to give. I urge the Government to make sure that their settled status scheme operates smoothly so that we ensure that those rights are fully and properly protected, because it is vital that we do so. EU citizens are our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours. We want them to stay, and we want to ensure that their rights are appropriately protected.
Turning to the draft withdrawal agreement, I regret that I have to diverge from the Government on this crucial question but I cannot support an agreement that I do not think is in the national interest and that I do not believe respects the result of the referendum in 2016. Of course, I fully recognise the need for compromise as we settle a new relationship with our European neighbours. I strongly believe that we need to listen to the views of people on all sides, whichever way they voted in the referendum, but right across the spectrum of views on Brexit there are many who believe that this draft agreement is not the right one for our country.
A legal obligation to pay £38 billion to the EU, without any certainty on our future trading relationship, would significantly undermine our negotiating position. We would be giving up a key advantage in the negotiations for little in return.
The so-called backstop would do even greater harm. It is not acceptable for the United Kingdom to become a regulatory satellite of the EU, locked permanently into its regulatory and customs orbit, without a vote, a voice or even an exit door. Northern Ireland would have an even greater proportion of its laws determined by institutions in which it has no say than the rest of the United Kingdom under the terms of the deal. Even listing the titles of those regulations takes up more than 60 pages in the draft agreement. As the Attorney General’s legal advice confirmed, Northern Ireland would be required to treat Great Britain as a third country in relation to goods crossing the Irish sea.
According to Martin Howe, QC, the backstop arguably contradicts the articles of the Acts of Union of 1800, one of the fundamental founding statutes of this Parliament. The articles state that
“in all treaties…with any foreign power, his Majesty’s subjects of Ireland shall have the same privileges and be on the same footing as his Majesty’s subjects of Great Britain.”
The articles also stipulate that all prohibitions on the export of products from Great Britain to Ireland, or vice versa, should cease from 1 January 1801.
Even if the backstop were removed, I am afraid there would still be unacceptable flaws in the draft agreement. In particular, the significant continuing role for the European Court of Justice would prevent us from restoring democratic control over the making of our laws. Of similar concern is the statement in the political declaration that the backstop and the withdrawal treaty will be the starting point for the negotiations on the future relationship.