With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the further assurances and clarifications we have received from the European Union on the Northern Ireland protocol.
As a proud Unionist, I share the concerns of Members who want to ensure that in leaving the European Union we do not undermine the strength of our own Union in the UK. That was why, when the EU tried to insist on a protocol that would carve out Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK’s customs territory, I said no. I secured instead a UK-wide temporary customs arrangement, avoiding both a hard border on the island of Ireland and a customs border down the Irish sea. I also negotiated substantial commitments in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration to do everything possible to prevent the backstop ever being needed, and to ensure that if it were, it would be a temporary arrangement. But listening to the debate before Christmas, it was clear that we needed to go further, so I returned to Brussels to faithfully and firmly reflect the concerns of this House.
The conclusions of December’s Council went further in addressing our concerns. They included reaffirming the EU’s determination to work speedily to establish by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements so that the backstop will not need to be triggered. They underlined that if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would indeed apply temporarily. They committed that, in such an event, the EU would use its best endeavours to continue to negotiate and conclude as soon as possible a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop. They gave a new assurance that negotiations on the future relationship could start immediately after the UK’s withdrawal.
Since the Council, and throughout the Christmas and new year period, I have spoken to a number of European leaders, and there have been further discussions with the EU to seek further assurances alongside the Council conclusions. Today, I have published the outcome of these further discussions, with an exchange of letters between the UK Government and the Presidents of the European Commission and European Council. The letter from President Tusk confirms what I said in the House before Christmas, namely that the assurances in the European Council conclusions have legal standing in the EU.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has also written to me today confirming that in the light of the joint response from the Presidents of the European Council and the Commission, these conclusions
“would have legal force in international law”.
He set out his opinion—“reinforced” by today’s letter—
“that the balance of risks favours the conclusion that it is unlikely that the EU will wish to rely on the implementation of the backstop provisions.”
Furthermore, he stated that it is therefore his judgment that
“the current draft Withdrawal Agreement now represents the only politically practicable and available means of securing our exit from the European Union.”
I know that some Members would ideally like a unilateral exit mechanism or a hard time limit to the backstop. I have explained this to the EU and tested these points in negotiations, but the EU would not agree to this because it fears that such a provision could allow the UK to leave the backstop at any time, without any other arrangements in place, and require a hard border to be erected between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I have been very clear with the EU that that is not something we would ever countenance—the UK is steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast agreement and would never allow a return to a hard border—but it is not enough simply to say this. Both sides also need to take steps to avoid a hard border when the UK is outside the EU. To fail to do so would place businesses on the island of Ireland in an impossible position, having to choose between costly new checks and procedures that would disrupt their supply chains or breaking the law.
We therefore have the backstop as a last resort, but both the Taoiseach and I have said consistently that the best way to avoid a hard border is through the future relationship—that is the sustainable solution—and that neither of us wants to use the backstop, so since the Council we have been looking at commitments that would ensure that we get our future relationship or alternative arrangements in place by the end of the implementation period so that there will be no need to enter the backstop and no need for any fear that there will be a hard border. That is why, in the first of the further assurances that it has provided today, the EU has committed to begin exploratory talks on the detailed legal provisions of the future relationship as soon as Parliament has approved the deal and the withdrawal agreement has been signed. The EU has been explicit that that can happen immediately after this House votes through the agreement.
If the House approved the deal tomorrow, it would give us almost two years to complete the next phase of the negotiations, and of course we would have the option to extend the implementation period, were further time needed, for either one or two years. It is my absolute conviction that we can turn the political declaration into legal text in that time, thereby avoiding the need for the backstop altogether.
The letters also make it clear that these talks should give
“particular urgency to discussion of ideas, including the use of all available facilitative arrangements and technologies, for replacing the backstop with permanent arrangements”,
and furthermore that those arrangements
“are not required to replicate”
the backstop “provisions in any respect”. So, contrary to the fears of some hon. Members, the EU will not simply insist that the backstop is the only way to avoid a hard border. It has agreed to discuss technological solutions and any alternative means of delivering on this objective, and to get on with that as a priority in the next phase of negotiations.
Secondly, the EU has now committed to a fast-track process to bring our future trade deal into force once it has been agreed. The Commission has now said that if there is any delay in ratification, it will recommend provisionally applying the relevant parts of the agreement so that we would not need to enter the backstop. Such a provisional application process saved four years on the EU-Korea deal, and it would prevent any delays in ratification by other EU member state Parliaments from delaying our deal coming into force.
Thirdly, the EU has provided absolute clarity on the explicit linkage between the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, and made that link clear in the way the documents are presented. I know that some colleagues are worried about an imbalance between the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, because the EU cannot reach a legal agreement with us on the future relationship until we are a third country, but the link between them means that the commitments of one cannot be banked without the commitments of the other. The EU has been clear that they come as a package. Bad faith by either side in negotiating the legal instruments that will deliver the future relationship laid out in the political declaration would be a breach of their legal obligations under the withdrawal agreement.
Fourthly, the exchange of letters confirms that the UK can unilaterally deliver all the commitments that we made last week to safeguard the interests of the people and businesses of Northern Ireland and their position in our precious Union, for it gives clear answers to address some questions that have been raised since the deal was reached—that the deal means no change to the arrangements that underpin north-south co-operation in the Belfast agreement; that Stormont will have a lock on any new laws that the EU proposes should be added to the backstop; and that the UK can give a restored Northern Ireland Executive a seat at the table on the joint committee overseeing the deal.
President Juncker says explicitly in his letter that the backstop
“would represent a suboptimal trading arrangement for both sides.”
We have spoken at length about why we want to avoid the backstop, but it is not in the EU’s interests either, for this backstop gives the UK tariff-free access to the EU’s market, and it does so with no free movement of people, no financial contribution, no requirement to follow most of the level playing field rules and no need to allow EU boats any access to our waters for fishing. Furthermore, under these arrangements, UK authorities in Northern Ireland would clear goods for release into the EU single market with no further checks or controls. This is unprecedented and means the EU relying on the UK for the functioning of its own market, so the EU will not want this backstop to come into force, and the exchange of letters today makes it clear that, if it did, the EU would do all it could to bring it to an end as quickly as possible.
Nevertheless, I fully understand that these new assurances still will not go as far as some would like. I recognise that some Members wanted to see changes to the withdrawal agreement, a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop, an end date or rejecting the backstop altogether, although it should be said that that would have risked other EU member states attempting to row back on the significant wins that we have already achieved, such as on control over our waters or on the sovereignty of Gibraltar. The simple truth is that the EU was not prepared to agree to this and rejecting the backstop altogether means no deal. Whatever version of the future relationship Members might want to see—from Norway to Canada, to any number of variations—all require a withdrawal agreement, and any withdrawal agreement would contain the backstop. That will not change however the House votes tomorrow. To those who think that we should reject this deal in favour of no deal because we cannot get every assurance we want, I ask what a no-deal Brexit would do to strengthen the hand of those campaigning for Scottish independence or, indeed, of those demanding a border poll in Northern Ireland. Surely that is the real threat to our Union.
With just 74 days until 29 March, the consequences of voting against this deal tomorrow are becoming ever clearer. With no deal, we would have no implementation period, no security partnership, no guarantees for UK citizens overseas and no certainty for businesses and workers such as those I met in Stoke this morning. We would also see changes to everyday life in Northern Ireland that would put the future of our Union at risk. And if, rather than leaving with no deal, this House blocked Brexit, that would be a subversion of our democracy, saying to the people whom we were elected to serve that we were unwilling to do what they had instructed.
I say to Members from all parts of this House that, whatever you may have previously concluded, over these next 24 hours give this deal a second look. No, it is not perfect and, yes, it is a compromise, but when the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this House tomorrow and ask: did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the European Union; did we safeguard our economy, our security and our Union; or did we let the British people down? I say that we should deliver for the British people and get on with building a brighter future for our country by backing this deal tomorrow. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement.
In December, the Government shamefully pulled the meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s deal, with the promise that she would secure legal assurances from the EU that the backstop would be temporary. The Leader of the House confirmed that when she said:
“The Prime Minister is determined to get the legal reassurances that…Members want to see.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 1013.]
The Foreign Secretary told us that the Prime Minister would “find a way” to win tomorrow’s Commons vote by getting assurances with “legal force” that the Irish border backstop is only temporary. On receiving today’s letter to the Prime Minister from the Presidents of the European Commission and the Council, it must now be clear to all Members across this House that, yet again, the Prime Minister has completely and utterly failed to do that. Today’s letter is nothing more than a repetition of exactly the same position that was pulled more than one month ago. It categorically does not give the legal assurances that this House was promised, and contains nothing but warm words and aspirations.
Is it not the case that absolutely nothing has changed from the Attorney General’s letter of advice to the Cabinet? His advice, which the Government tried to hide, explained with great clarity the reasons why the UK could find itself locked into the Northern Ireland backstop protocol with no legal escape route. Today’s letter means nothing. The truth remains that by the end of 2020 the UK will face a choice of either extending the transition period, which comes at an unknown financial cost, or falling into the backstop, which the Attorney General has said endures indefinitely until such time as an agreement supersedes it.
The Attorney General has updated his legal advice today, as the Prime Minister just said, and he clearly says that the assurances do not alter the “fundamental meanings” as he advised the Government in November. If there were legally binding assurances on the temporary nature of the backstop, surely they would have been written into the withdrawal agreement itself. The letter published this morning is clear that this is not possible, saying,
“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement”.
This morning’s joint letter does say that
“negotiations can start as soon as possible after the withdrawal of the United Kingdom.”
But my question to the Prime Minister is: how is that possible when the Cabinet cannot agree it amongst themselves? That is why the political declaration is so vague. Actually, I believe that the right word is “nebulous”.
Given that the Prime Minister has failed to secure the promised changes, there can be no question of once again ducking accountability and avoiding tomorrow’s vote: no more playing for time; no more running down the clock to scare people into backing this damaging shambles of a deal. I am sure that Members across the House will not be fooled by what has been produced today. It is clear that what we are voting on this week is exactly the same deal that we should have voted on in December. I am sure the Prime Minister knows this, which is why today she is trying to blame others for this chaos.
Given the lack of support for the Prime Minister’s deal, we might have thought that she would try to reach out to MPs. Instead she is claiming that, by failing to support her botched deal, Members are threatening to undermine the faith of the British people in our democracy. The only people who are undermining faith in our democracy are the Government themselves. I can think of no greater example of democracy in action than for this House to reject a deal that is clearly bad for this country. During the past two years of shambolic negotiations the Prime Minister has failed to listen. She has not once tried to work with Parliament to construct a Brexit deal that this House and the country can support, and now she is left facing a humiliating defeat and is blaming everybody but herself.
If this deal is rejected tomorrow—and I hope it is—the blame will lie firmly with the Government and firmly at the feet of the Prime Minister. There is a deal that could command support in the House that would include a new and comprehensive customs union, a strong single market relationship, and a guarantee to keep pace with European Union rights and standards. Instead, the Prime Minister still chooses to take the most reckless path.
As we enter the week of the meaningful vote, we should remember that the meaningful vote is only happening because of pressure from the Opposition in this House. Let us remember the incompetence that we have been forced to endure. We have seen two years of shambolic negotiations; red lines announced, then cast aside. We are now on our third Brexit Secretary, all of whom have been largely excluded from the vital stages of the negotiations. We were promised the easiest trade deal in history, yet we have seen a divided Government deliver a botched withdrawal deal with nothing more than a vague outline of what our future relationship with the EU will be. Meanwhile, conditions in this country for millions of people continue to get worse. We just had an urgent question about universal credit and the disaster that is for millions of people in this country.
The Government are in disarray. It is clear: if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected tomorrow, it is time for a general election; it is time for a new Government.
I am not sure that there were many questions to me in the response that the right hon. Gentleman gave, but let me respond to some of the points of fact that he referenced, some of which were perhaps not as correct as they might have been.
The right hon. Gentleman said that there is no legal termination mechanism in the withdrawal agreement on the backstop. There is, but the point is that it is not a unilateral termination mechanism—it is a termination mechanism that requires agreement between the two parties.
The right hon. Gentleman said that in December 2020 we would face either having the backstop or the implementation period extension. Of course, the point is that we are negotiating to ensure that at that point no such choice will be necessary because we will have the future arrangement in place.
The right hon. Gentleman says that it is not possible to start the negotiations as soon as the meaningful vote has been held and agreement has been given to the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. Indeed, Whitehall stands ready to start those negotiations. We have been looking at this, because we know the basis of those negotiations—it is in the political declaration—and everybody is ready to start those as soon as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman talked at the end about universal credit. May I just remind him that under this Government 3.4 million more jobs have been created? That means all those people being able to earn a regular wage to help support their families. Under universal credit, we see a system that is helping people get into the workplace rather than leaving them living on benefits for nearly a decade, as happened under the last Labour Government.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman called, as he does regularly, for a general election. Here, as I think we saw yesterday, he is not thinking about the national interest—he is merely playing politics, because yesterday, when asked whether, if there was a general election, he would actually campaign to leave the European Union, he refused to answer that question five times. We know where we stand—we are leaving the European Union and this Government will deliver it.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on getting rather further than I thought she would with the assurances and the letters that she has obtained, but I fear it will do no good, because she is up against two bodies of opinion. One is the hard-line Brexiteers on this side, and the Leader of the Opposition and his Front Bench, who think that if they cause crisis and deadlock it will result in leaving with no deal. The others are a lot of hard-line remainers, largely on the Labour Back Benches, who think that if they cause chaos and deadlock it will lead to a second referendum. One of them is wrong, but the problem is that she is up against both of them.
Does the Prime Minister accept that if we lift our eyes from the present chaos and look to what the country needs, beyond our leaving the EU, if the House of Commons can insist on doing that, we need a permanently open border in Ireland for treaty and security reasons, and we need a permanently open border, for economic reasons, across the channel for our trade and investment? Does she accept that it is difficult to proceed until there is some consensus for that across the House of Commons, and it does not look as though we are going to get there by 29 March, which is a date that should obviously be delayed?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his points. I do not believe that the date of 29 March should be delayed. He set out that there are those who want to see no deal and those who want to see a second referendum and potentially frustrate Brexit. The inexorable logic of that, if this House wants to ensure that we deliver on Brexit for the British people, is to back the deal that will be before the House tomorrow.
Obviously we want to ensure that there is a consistently and sustainably open border into the long term between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That is our commitment—to ensure that there is no hard border there. There would be economic advantage in an open border and frictionless trade between the UK and the European Union, and that is exactly the proposal that the Government have put forward.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement, though I am left asking myself, “Is that it? Is that all you’ve got, Prime Minister?” Nothing has fundamentally changed. It is a wishlist.
With little more than 24 hours until this House votes on the Prime Minister’s deal, she has come back completely humiliated. The letters published between the UK Government and the European Union reveal that she has utterly failed to get the concessions she promised. The EU letter explicitly insists that there cannot be any renegotiation of the backstop or the withdrawal agreement. It states:
“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement”.
The Prime Minister is simply in fantasy land, presenting her statement as bringing changes when it does not. This Government must stop threatening no deal. It is time to face reality, extend article 50 and let the people decide.
In Scotland, people know that it is the Tory Government dragging Scotland out of the European Union against our will. It is the Tories treating the Scottish Parliament with contempt, and it is this Prime Minister and this Tory party who continue to silence Scotland’s voice and sideline our interests. The Prime Minister said this morning:
“What if we found ourselves in a situation where Parliament tried to take the UK out of the EU in opposition to a remain vote? People’s faith in the democratic process and their politicians would suffer catastrophic harm”,
and yet she is demanding precisely that of Scotland, taking Scotland out of the EU in opposition to an overwhelming remain vote. To people in Scotland, the Prime Minister has made it clear time and time again that our voices are not to be listened to. She talks about respecting the results of referendums, but this is the same Prime Minister who voted against Welsh devolution and voted to wreck the Scottish devolution referendum result.
This is a defining moment. The people of Scotland know more than ever what comes from a Tory Government we did not vote for. Why does the Prime Minister continue to ignore Scotland’s voice and Scotland’s interests? Why is she so petrified of allowing the people to decide, now that we know the facts? If she is not, will she now do the right thing—extend article 50 and let the people decide?
The people across the United Kingdom did decide; they decided in June 2016 that we should leave the European Union, and it is absolutely right that this Government are committed to delivering on the vote of the British people.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the interests of Scotland. As he knows, the interests of Scotland are best served by ensuring that Scotland remains a part of the United Kingdom. If the Scottish National party is so clear that politicians should listen to the voice of the people, it should listen to the voice of the Scottish people expressed in the referendum in 2014 and abandon the idea of independence.
Given that the EU intends to take huge sums of money and powers off us in return for just 21 or 45 months of more talks and massive uncertainty, why should we ever believe the EU would give us a good deal when it pockets all that it wants up front?
Throughout the negotiations, we have actually ensured that the European Union has had to concede to the United Kingdom Government in a whole range of areas on which it did not wish to concede. If we look into the future, my right hon. Friend and I do have a difference of opinion on this in that he believes that World Trade Organisation terms are right for our future trade with the European Union, but I think that a more ambitious free trade agreement between us and the European Union is what is right. That is what is set out in the political declaration, and that is what I believe is the good deal for the UK in leaving the EU.
The Prime Minister has confirmed today that, under her deal, Britain will remain between two and four years—possibly longer—in a customs union. The Leader of the Opposition is supporting Brexit with a somewhat longer period in a customs union. With that relatively small difference, are they not essentially two peas in a pod?
Will my right hon. Friend confirm what she said at Stoke today: namely, that she will never extend—never extend—the date of our leaving beyond 29 March this year, and never in any circumstances whatsoever allow the repeal of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, or of the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 under that Act?
I did indeed confirm that our intent and what the Government are working for is to leave the European Union on 29 March. There are those who may try to find ways to prevent that from happening—I think that is a real risk—but the Government are firm in their commitment in relation to leaving the European Union.
On the issue that my hon. Friend has raised on the withdrawal Act, we have passed the withdrawal Act through this House—through this Parliament—and it does repeal the European Communities Act 1972. Of course, for the period of the implementation period, it would be necessary within the WAB—the withdrawal agreement Bill—as my hon. Friend knows, to ensure that we are still able to maintain the rules that we need to operate by in order to abide by the negotiated agreement on the implementation period, but I can assure him that it remains the commitment of this Government to leave the European Union on 29 March.
I know the Prime Minister is totally sincere in her sense of duty to this country and in her belief in her deal, but I want to turn her attention to something she does not want to contemplate, which is defeat tomorrow night. I say to her in the strongest terms that the tone and substance she strikes in the wake of that eventuality will define her legacy to this country. I want to urge her not to succumb to the absurd argument that this is a war between this House and the Government, when this Government are a servant of this House. I want to urge her also, if she loses tomorrow night, to give this House an open and honest process where it can express its view, and she and the Government then become the servant of this House in the negotiations.
The Government are the servant of the people: we are ensuring that we are delivering what the people want in relation to Brexit. We have negotiated what I believe genuinely is a good deal for the United Kingdom, and that is why I will continue to encourage Members of this House to support it.
It is absolutely clear: the British Government, the Irish Government and the European Union have always said that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and today’s border works perfectly satisfactorily with electronic means. It is extraordinary and exasperating that we are still stuck on the question of the backstop, when the Prime Minister has met technical experts who know that existing techniques and processes could deliver smooth delivery of that border. What meetings have been held since she met those experts prior to pulling the vote in December?
It is exactly those sorts of technological solutions that we are committed to pursuing. As I said to my right hon. Friend when he brought a proposal to me, the proposal he brought to me did not fully address all the issues in relation to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but we are continuing to look—and will look actively and with the European Union—at the ways in which we could ensure that those alternative arrangements would deal with the issue that we are addressing.
May I also say to my right hon. Friend that it is not the case that the European Union has said that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland? The no-deal plans published by the European Commission in December make it clear that there will be no flexibility on border checks in no deal, so the Irish Government will be expected to apply EU checks in full.
To be fair to the EU, it has made it clear that there will be no changes to the withdrawal agreement, and there is nothing in these letters that is inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement. To be fair to the Attorney General, he says in his letter today that the letters do not alter the fundamental meanings of its provisions. Five weeks after the Prime Minister pulled the vote, saying that there had to be a legally binding assurance, will she admit that nothing has fundamentally changed? That is the reality; let us not kid ourselves about that. In pulling the vote, she must have realised that there needed to be legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement for it to have any chance of getting through this House. Even at this late stage, does she not accept that the problem with the backstop is that it effectively defines the future relationship for Northern Ireland, because if the whole of the UK is not aligned to a high degree for single market purposes and we are not in a customs union, Northern Ireland will be?
It was right that I took the views of this House. The overwhelming view of this House on the backstop was that people wanted to ensure that it would not carry on indefinitely or be a permanent arrangement. The right hon. Gentleman has just indicated that he thinks that that is the case for the backstop. What we have received from the European Union are those further assurances and the recognition that the European Council conclusion in which some of those assurances are referred to does have legal force in international law and effectively sits alongside the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration package, and that it would be part of any consideration on any challenge to the withdrawal agreement in relation to those particular issues.
I recognise that what I have brought back, as I said in my statement, is not what some Members wanted from the European Union, but it is not the case that this has not gone further than when we were initially discussing the debate. There have been some further assurances from the European Union, but I accept that they are not the same level of assurances that some Members of this House wished for.
The Prime Minister is right when she says that she is the servant of the people. There are 2 million young people who were not able to vote back in 2016, two and a half years ago. [Interruption.] I am so sorry that hon. Members on this side of the House seem to be in some way dismissing those young people. They are the future of our country. The Treasury’s own analysis shows that, whichever way we cut it, Brexit is going to make our country poorer. Why should those young people not have a right to a say in their future, given that they will bear the brunt of Brexit? Why, when the Prime Minister’s deal fails tomorrow, can it not go back to the British people, so that everybody, especially young people, can have their say on their future and on Brexit?
My right hon. Friend has asked me questions in relation to putting a decision back to the British people in the past, as have other hon. and right hon. Members, and referred to a new generation of young people who were not able to vote in the 2016 referendum. This House was very clear that this was a decision to be taken in that referendum and that Government would abide by the decision that was taken in that referendum, and 80% of the votes cast at the last general election were for parties that said that they would respect the result of the referendum. I believe that we should respect the result of the referendum and ensure that we deliver leaving the European Union.
We will find out tomorrow evening whether the House is willing to support the Prime Minister’s deal, but what is now clear is that the EU will not be able to offer any further help, because as long as it continues to say
“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes…the Withdrawal Agreement”,
a number of her Back Benchers will not be reassured. While the Prime Minister will, for the next 26 hours at least, argue that we should back her deal, can I invite her today to commit, if she loses, to reaching out across the House to try to find a way out of the crisis that is facing our country that can command the support of Parliament, and if it is necessary in order to do that, to being willing to seek an extension to article 50?
Of course, the House will give its view tomorrow night. I will be continuing to encourage Members of this House to vote for what I believe to be a good deal. The right hon. Gentleman might have noticed that, actually, I have been meeting and hearing from Members from across the House on this particular issue. I continue to believe that this is a good deal, because it delivers on the referendum. It is crucial that this House delivers on the referendum and does so in a way that protects people’s jobs and security, and gives certainty to businesses. That is why I believe it is a good deal.
No one is ever going to get what they fully want out of negotiations, but the very simple fact is that all the leaders of our major industries, including Rolls-Royce, Toyota and Jaguar Land Rover, have said that this is the right deal for them to continue winning markets and employing people in this country. Is that not one of the most important decisions we should bear in mind in trying to protect manufacturing jobs and our country’s future?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, but it is not just leaders of manufacturing industry. He is absolutely right that they have made clear it that this is a good deal and a deal that should be supported, but others have too. For example, Scottish fishermen and farmers have also been saying that this is a deal that should be supported. When Members think about the jobs of their constituents, it is important that they remember that.
The Prime Minister comes hot-foot from her speech in Stoke where she commanded us to honour the result of the referendum, yet in 1997 she voted against legislation to establish the National Assembly of Wales and in 2005 she stood on a manifesto calling for another referendum, with the option to overturn the result. How does the Prime Minister square her personal track record on referendums with such commands?
The Conservative party went into opposition in 1997. We accepted the result of the referendum vote in Wales. [Interruption.] Yes. We made clear at the time that we respected the result of that referendum in Wales. I think anybody who sees the Welsh Assembly today, and what it has been doing over recent years, will recognise that that was the right decision.
I commend my right hon. Friend for listening to the concerns of hon. Members, and for seeking to obtain further concessions and clarifications from the European Union, but does not the use of the words by Presidents Juncker and Tusk that
“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement,”
simply serve to underline those concerns and make it all the more likely that hon. Members will reject the withdrawal agreement tomorrow?
The concern that Members overwhelmingly raised was the issue of whether or not the backstop could continue indefinitely. The European Union, within the withdrawal agreement in a number of ways, makes it clear that the backstop can only be a temporary arrangement. It has given further assurance in Council conclusions, which, as I say, have legal force in international law. That has been confirmed here in the UK, so it has gone further than it did within the withdrawal agreement. I have said to the House on many occasions that there is no deal with the European Union that does not involve a withdrawal agreement and there is no deal that does not involve having a backstop, as a commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The Prime Minister called on everyone this morning to
“move beyond division and come together”.
Does she not recognise that she has made the divisions worse and made it harder for people to come together by not consulting either Parliament or the public on her red lines or the negotiating objectives, and by ducking and delaying votes? Does she not recognise that brinkmanship is the worst possible way to make such big decisions for the future of our country? Will she tell the House now that she has not ruled out extending article 50 if her plan is rejected tomorrow?
As I have said on many occasions in this House—I have come regularly to the House and answered questions from Members on the position that the Government have been taking on these particular matters—I am clear, and it is in our legislation, that we should leave the European Union on 29 March this year.
Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reconfirm to the House that whatever the future trading relationship that the United Kingdom wishes to have with the European Union, the withdrawal agreement is clearly absolutely necessary to securing it?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The point is that there are two issues: how we leave the European Union and what our future relationship will be. Any trade agreement that we would wish to agree with the European Union will require us to have agreed the details of the withdrawal agreement. As I have said previously, any withdrawal agreement will include a backstop.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Will the Prime Minister go back to that very good question asked by her colleague the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who made a very intelligent plea for more time? This decision will be one of the most important we take in 100 years, let alone this century. Why should we rush it? It is complex, and the Prime Minister’s statement today shows how complex it is. We need more time. Why can we not have it?
On 29 March, it will be almost three years since people voted for us to leave the European Union. This House voted overwhelmingly to trigger article 50 in the knowledge that the process had a set time and that that meant we would be leaving on a particular date.
The withdrawal agreement is a draft international treaty. If we were to vote for it tomorrow and then ratify it, it would be binding upon us in international law. It would outrank legally any motion or amendment of this House, or even an Act of Parliament. The agreement confirms that in black and white in article 4 on page 11. The question is whether the letters have any legal power over the treaty. The Prime Minister quoted from the operative paragraph 2 of the Attorney General’s advice. Forgive me, but she quoted selectively. The paragraph, which is brief, reads:
“I agree that in the light of this response, the Council’s conclusions of 13 December 2018 would have legal force in international law and thus be relevant and cognisable in the interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol, albeit they do not alter the fundamental meanings of its provisions as I advised them to be on 13 November 2018.”
In other words, the letters do not overrule the treaty. They are a fig leaf, and a small fig leaf at that. Is that not true?
The letters are additional to the text in the treaty and they do have force in international law. I say to my right hon. Friend that I was clear in my statement, and I have said since, that I recognise that what we have from the European Union does not go as far as some Members of this House would like and prefer it to go, but we have those further assurances that sit alongside the withdrawal agreement. In any position in which the backstop within the withdrawal agreement was being challenged, they would be part of that consideration. As has been said, they have force in international law.
To be clear on the Prime Minister’s strategy, she is asking us to trust her and agree to get past exit day before we even start to negotiate the whole future relationship between the EU and the UK. Does she not accept that that would be a massive leap in the dark? Anything could happen in that two-year period. For example, who will be her successor concluding those negotiations?
The political declaration sets out the instructions to the negotiators for the next stage in relation not just to the trade arrangements but to the security arrangements and some issues underpinning all of those, such as the questions of data exchange. Those are the instructions according to which the negotiators for the next stage will be working in order to change it into a legal text. It is not possible for the EU to agree a legally binding text of the trade agreement with a country that is a member of the EU; it has to wait until we are a third country and outside the EU.
The Prime Minister will have read the comments from leading European Commission officials at the very highest levels about the withdrawal agreement since it was finalised. Sabine Weyand, Michel Barnier’s deputy, has said:
“This requires the Customs Union as the basis for the future relationship”.
She has also said:
“They must align their rules, but the EU will retain all the controls”.
Finally, she said:
“The EU retains its leverage”.
Martin Selmayr, the secretary-general of the Commission, has said:
“The power is with us”.
He also told the Passauer Neue Presse on 7 December that the agreement showed that
“leaving the EU…doesn’t work”.
Those in Brussels clearly believe it is a great deal for them. Why is the Prime Minister seemingly equally enthusiastic in thinking this is a great deal for the UK?
I know that a number of Members were concerned about the phraseology in the political declaration around the future relationship in relation to customs and about building on the protocol and the assumption that therefore what was in the protocol would effectively have to be taken forward into that future relationship. In fact, the letters we have received today from the EU make it clear that that is not the case. My right hon. Friend asks why I believe this is a good deal. I believe it is a good deal because, as I have said previously, it delivers on the vote of the referendum—control of money, borders and laws; out of the common fisheries policy and common agricultural policy; the ability to have an independent trade policy—and enables us to do so in a way that protects jobs and security and gives certainty to businesses.
I genuinely respect the Prime Minister’s willingness to come back time after time to talk to Parliament and the public about her deal, even if today she has not really brought back anything very different—if we are honest. Will she state very clearly that this Parliament voted to give the people the opportunity to decide whether to leave or not to leave, not this Parliament, and will she therefore state categorically that, whatever happens tomorrow night and in the next few weeks, we will be leaving on 29 March, because that is what the people voted for?
We will be leaving the EU on 29 March. I believe it is important that Parliament delivers on the vote that people took in 2016. As I just said in response to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), Parliament voted to trigger article 50 with the two-year timeframe it contained. For the sake of our democracy, it is important that we deliver on the Brexit vote in 2016.
In Wakefield on Saturday, a man approached me to say that, on the day the Prime Minister delayed the vote, his business lost a multi-million-pound contract and, as a result, his order book was empty and redundancies were starting. Her delay has achieved nothing, apart from paradoxically leaving her a little safer in her job, thanks to surviving a vote of no confidence, and my constituents quite a lot less safe in their jobs. After her deal is voted down tomorrow, will she extend article 50 and work across the House to give our constituents the option to vote again but this time on what they know will happen, which is continued uncertainty in the trading relationship between their businesses and the EU for at least the next four years?
My right hon. Friend is trying to tempt me down a road that I do not think I should go down. Were Parliament to prorogue until April, I would be denied the opportunity to see my right hon. Friend and answer his questions on a regular basis, and that would be very sad.
I accept that the Prime Minister has tried her best, but does she not accept that everything she has said today does not alter the fact that she has no majority in this Parliament and no authority in the country, and that her Government now serve no useful purpose?
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the Government are getting on with what we believe is right in putting a deal to this Parliament to deliver on Brexit and for the British people. I also say to him that this is not the only thing that this Government have been involved in. I would hope that, when he talks about what the Government have been doing, he would recognise the importance of the long-term plan for the national health service and the significant investment in the national health service that the Government have agreed and are going to put in.
In her statement, my right hon. Friend pointed out that the EU will not agree to an end date to the backstop or a unilateral exit mechanism. Does that make her doubt its sincerity when it says that it does not really want the backstop?
The concern that the European Union has about those two options are, as I said in my statement, that somehow the United Kingdom would engineer a situation where it simply pulled out and there was a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It wants to guarantee that there would be no such hard border.
I have said to the European Union that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom: we want to guarantee that commitment to the people of Northern Ireland—it is important, because they are part of the United Kingdom. But the European Union has been clear that in every circumstance, whatever trade agreement was negotiated in future and whatever the withdrawal agreement, it would require a backstop to be part of that.
What we can do is ensure that we get the future relationship in place, such that the backstop is never needed and that, were it to be needed, it would be only temporary. It is getting that future relationship in place that enables us to ensure the long-term sustainability of the guarantee that we have given the people of Northern Ireland.
In spite of what we heard from the Prime Minister just a few minutes ago, she was one of 144 Tory MPs who voted against the foundation of the Welsh Assembly back in December 1999; that was 18 months after the referendum result. Why was it acceptable for her to do that then, given that today she has ruled out the opportunity for this country, including 2 million young people who did not have a say back in 2016, to have a people’s vote on the actual terms of the withdrawal agreement?
I did not answer the specific point about young people when my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) raised that question, so I would like to address it now.
I recognise that there are people today who are now eligible to vote who were not eligible to vote in 2016. But I have to say to Members who say that that is a reason for having a second vote that actually, regardless of how that vote went, people could say in two years’ time that there was another group of young people who should be voting and therefore we should have another vote. No, Parliament was clear: the decision in 2016 was a decision that would be delivered.
Tempting as it is to sex up international law by talking about fig leaves, could the Prime Minister confirm to me that the status of these letters from the EU today is that they are legally binding if we were to have, say, an arbitration under international law in the future?
I am very happy to respond to my hon. Friend, who, with her legal experience, has rather more experience of these matters than I do. That is right: the letters do have that legal force and they would be taken into account. In looking at any arbitration or dispute that arose, they would be part of the consideration that would be taken into account, so they do have that legal force.
May I gently say to the Prime Minister that whatever our views on Brexit across the House, we are all patriots? It is not subversive to take a different view from the Prime Minister; it is simply democracy in action. It is not subversive because otherwise the position that the Prime Minister and the Conservative party took for nearly eight years after Welsh devolution would also have been subversive. It was not: it was just a different point of view.
I am very proud that the Welsh Assembly is in my constituency, and that it is there today. Does the Prime Minister not agree that there is a fundamental difference between Welsh devolution and Brexit? Support for Welsh devolution grew, which is why the Prime Minister was not successful in her call for another referendum or abolition of the Welsh Assembly. Support for Brexit has fallen, and that is exactly why we need to put it back to the people.
I am afraid I do not accept the underlying premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which is that support for Brexit has fallen. There are indeed people who say that they voted leave but would now vote to remain. There are also people who say that they voted remain but would now vote to leave the European Union. The overwhelming view that is expressed to me when I knock on doors and hear from people directly is that they just want the Government to get on with the job that the people gave the Government—the job of leaving the EU.
Last week the shadow Brexit secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), implied that he supported much of the withdrawal agreement, but would vote against it because he wanted more clarity on the long-term relationship. However, the EU has made it clear that we cannot have the clarity on the long-term relationship before the withdrawal agreement: the horse must come before the cart. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the Opposition who are being reckless in jeopardising our chances of moving on with the negotiations before Europe shuts for its elections?
My hon. Friend has made a very important point about the timing. In agreeing the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, we have the opportunity to start those negotiations—to get that work going—before the European parliamentary elections take place in the summer. It is indeed right that the European Union cannot negotiate that legally binding text and sign up to it until we are outside the EU, but is willing to start the negotiations so we can ensure that we are in the best place possible to deliver the future relationship in December 2020.
Why is the Prime Minister prepared to hold the House to ransom? She knows that she will lose the vote tomorrow, and she still insists on the exit date of 29 March in spite of calls for article 50 to be extended. Would she really want to see this country crash out of the EU, with all the losses of jobs and business that would go with that?
The Prime Minister is aware that many of us have wished her well in these negotiations, but in the absence of any legal certainty about the UK’s right to leave the backstop unilaterally—something that my amendment (f) seeks to address—what certainty is there that the EU will not drag out the trade negotiations so that in, say, five years’ time we are still discussing the issue?
My hon. Friend and I have discussed this before. The European Union does not see the situation that would exist if the trade negotiations were continuing for some considerable time, and if the backstop had come into existence, as a good place for the EU. Tariff-free access to EU markets without paying any money, with no free movement of people and with no access for EU boats to our fishing waters, is not a good place for the European Union to be in.
As I explained, the reason why the EU is concerned about the idea of a unilateral exit mechanism is that it does not want to see circumstances in which the UK pulled out of the backstop and left the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. I suspect that my hon. Friend does not trust the European Union not to try to keep us in the backstop. The EU’s concern is about whether it can trust us not to effectively leave a situation in which there was a hard border. What we have been working at is finding a compromise between the two in which we can all have confidence.
The Prime Minister claims that the possibility of no Brexit would be a subversion of democracy. Is it not true that the real subversion of democracy is a Prime Minister who has consistently sought to shut Parliament out of this process from the very beginning, and who now refuses to go to the people to see whether they are still satisfied with a deal that bears no resemblance to the one that they were promised two and a half years ago? Why will she not go to the people? Why is she so afraid to put her deal to the people? If they still like it, they will vote for it, but if they do not, they should have the right to remain.
When people voted in the referendum in 2016 they wanted—in the words used at the time and that I have used since—control of our borders, our money and our laws; this deal delivers on that. They wanted us to be able to have an independent trade policy; this deal delivers on that. They wanted us to be out of the CAP and CFP; this deal delivers on that. I think we should be delivering what people voted for in 2016.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on standing firm on the date. Does she agree that, bearing in mind the track record of the EU and the difficulty we have had in negotiating anything like a fair trade deal, the only way we will actually achieve one is when we leave the EU, regain our sovereignty and sit down and discuss properly with it a fair trade deal—which I am personally convinced we will reach, and very quickly?
We have the outline of that free trade deal with the EU; we have set that out in the political declaration. We have the opportunity and commitment to ensure that that can be put in place by December 2020 by agreeing the withdrawal agreement and the package with the political declaration, and I believe that is the right thing to do.
Last week Parliament voted in favour of two amendments tabled from the Back Benches, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). The support for those amendments against the wishes of the Government makes it clear that Parliament does not support leaving the EU without a deal. The Prime Minister said in her statement just now that no deal would mean no implementation period, no security arrangements in place and no certainty for businesses and workers, and would put the future of Northern Ireland at risk. Given how catastrophic the Prime Minister accepts a no-deal Brexit would be, will she now rule it out and instead look to extend article 50 if and when Parliament rejects her deal tomorrow?
Yes, I do agree with my hon. Friend, because many people who voted in the referendum in 2016 had not voted before or had not voted for some considerable time, and I think their faith in politics, and indeed the faith in politics of all those who voted to leave the EU, would be damaged if we did not deliver on that. I think it is very simple: we asked the people what their view was and said we would do what they decided, and we should now do it.
It was the Prime Minister’s absolute conviction in 2017 that it was not in the country’s interests to hold a general election. It is now the Prime Minister’s absolute conviction that we will secure a legal deal setting out our future relationship with the EU by December 2022 at the latest, albeit six and a half years after the Brexit vote. Why should we believe the Prime Minister?
Will the Prime Minister confirm that whatever tactics are used by the Labour party—whatever Trump-style shutdown threats to Government finances it may bring to this House—she is determined that we should leave the EU on 29 March, and does she also agree that while no deal would not be ideal, it would not be the end of the world either?
As I said earlier today, of course there would be damage to the economy; there would be an impact and consequences from no deal, and I have set them out. Over time the UK could recover from that, but I believe that, as my hon. Friend says, it is important that we deliver leaving the EU, and I am concerned about attempts that could be made to try to find ways of effectively rejecting the vote of the British people in 2016. I believe we should deliver Brexit, and this Government will do so.
The Prime Minister said that she had listened to the previous debates and withdrew the vote so that she could focus on the backstop, but the truth is that concerns about trade and Dover were raised three times more often than concerns about the backstop. What negotiations has she had with the EU about trade and the border at Dover in the past few weeks, and what changes has she brought back to the House?
The political declaration sets out an ambitious trade arrangement with the European Union for the future. It sets out clearly a number of specifics in relation to the customs arrangements across the border between the United Kingdom and the European Union at the various border points. What we now see is a clear commitment from the European Union to the nature of that political declaration, and the fact that it is part of the package with the withdrawal agreement.
Will the Prime Minister provide assurances to the distribution, exporting, technological and manufacturing businesses in my constituency that if and when the deal is passed, as I hope it will be, she will move quickly to put in place our future arrangements, in order to give those businesses—and most importantly their employees, who are my constituents—the certainty that they need?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We should consider those businesses, those employers and the constituents who are employed by them. Indeed I will move quickly. It is clear now from the EU, and once the withdrawal agreement has had the agreement of this House, we can sit down and start the work of putting the future relationship in place such that it is there at the end of the implementation period and there is a smooth and orderly exit for businesses and their employees in this country.
In May 2012, the Government asked the people of Sheffield to vote in a referendum on whether they wanted a city Mayor. Sheffield rejected that proposal by 65%, but the Government went on to impose a mayoral model three years later. Why is it right for the Government to ignore the wishes of the people in one referendum but to say that they will abide by the wishes of the people in another?
In 2016, as part of the campaign for the referendum, the Government, who took the position that they supported remaining in the European Union, sent out a leaflet to every household in the United Kingdom in which they clearly said that they would abide by the decision of the referendum.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, contrary to the assertions made by President Macron and others, in the event of a backstop, which would be undesirable for both sides, there would be no more common access to our waters for EU fishing vessels?
Yes, I can confirm that to my hon. Friend. It is clear that if no agreement has been reached on this matter, there will be no access to our waters for EU boats in the circumstances in which the backstop is in place. That is one of the reasons why the European Union will not consider that to be a good place for it to be.
In the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, she said that a future agreement with the EU would be concluded by the time the article 50 process had finished. That was to be used for businesses to implement the deal during the transition period. That is now not the case, is it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her determination to secure a deal that protects jobs across Erewash. Can she also confirm that the EU27 have committed to work at a rapid pace to get future trade deals in place so that we will never need the backstop?
Yes, that is one of the things that we have now seen confirmed by the European Union. That is indeed its commitment. It wants to ensure that we can work together so that we get that future relationship in place at the end of the implementation period and so that the backstop need never be used.
Does the Prime Minister recognise that by threatening Members of Parliament with a democratic catastrophe if we vote against her job-destroying deal, she is embracing not only the hand of President Trump, but his methods? Will she now say, explicitly and for the particular benefit of those who threaten Members of Parliament both online and on our streets, that her Government losing tomorrow’s vote would not undermine democracy and that, on the contrary, it would show that no one, particularly not this failing Government, is above our parliamentary sovereignty?
What I have said would undermine democracy—I am clear about this—would be the failure of this Parliament to deliver on the vote of the British people and to deliver Brexit. However, there should be none of the sort of behaviour that we have seen online or physically in relation to Members of this House or other members of the public regarding their views on the European Union. I have absolutely no truck with that. That aggressive and vicious attitude is absolutely wrong. I say to the hon. Lady that this deal protects jobs and that what would have a negative impact on jobs would be to leave the European Union without a deal.
Much of the concern about the Northern Ireland backstop relates to trust, so will the Prime Minister confirm my understanding of one of the reassurances that she has secured, which is that even if EU member states have not ratified a future trade agreement, that agreement would still be applied in order to avoid the backstop? That would mean that we would not be hostage to those in any regional Parliament, such as the Walloons or anyone else, in the way that the Canadian agreement was.
My hon. Friend is right. It is normal practice in trade agreements to enable them to be provisionally brought into place while ratification processes are being undertaken. We have been clear that that is what we would do, and the European Commission has been clear that it would recommend that that is what the European Union should do. The agreement could therefore be put in place and the backstop would not need to be used, and it would not be hostage to those ratification processes.
Downing Street has repeatedly briefed that the Prime Minister intends to support the amendments tabled by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) and the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) tomorrow. However, earlier on in this process, the Government argued forcefully that any amendment to the motion under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 would make it impossible for the Government to ratify the treaty. If the Prime Minister supports those amendments tomorrow, she will be arguing that she should not be allowed to ratify the treaty. Surely that cannot be right. Surely it is time that she came clean and decided that we will either vote in favour or against the deal tomorrow.
Nobody yet knows what amendments the Speaker will choose for voting on tomorrow. As for the ratification of the treaty as in the withdrawal agreement Bill when that comes through, the Bill will obviously need to reflect what is in the withdrawal agreement. A number of issues have been raised by hon. Members across the House—not just the ones to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but also issues around workers’ rights—on which we have the ability to give further confidence to Members in a way that does not actually have an impact on the ratification of the treaty.
Whatever option people want for the future relationship, other than actually remaining in the EU, there will need to be some sort of agreement with the European Union on money and citizens’ rights and some guarantees around the Northern Ireland border. Does the Prime Minister agree that just kicking the can down the road, as some Opposition Members want, will not change any of those issues?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Any agreement will contain those elements, and we have those elements in the deal before us. The suggestion that all we need to do is somehow take longer and longer is not right, and the British people would turn around and say, “Three years on, we need to leave.”
In December 2017, in response to a question from me, the Prime Minister said that Northern Ireland would never be treated differently in relation to the single market and the customs union. I welcomed that reply—and today the Prime Minister has referred to herself as a “proud Unionist”—but the withdrawal agreement has changed it and Northern Ireland will be treated very differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. The Unionism that the Prime Minister is putting forward has been weakened. Will she reiterate the Unionism of December 2017 and not her watered down and false version of January 2019?
As the hon. Gentleman will have noted, we published a document last week in relation to Northern Ireland that confirms the commitments we have given on one of the issues of concern that he and his hon. and right hon. Friends have raised about the potential differences in regulation between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We are clear about the commitments we would give in relation to that situation, such that we do not see that difference occurring should the backstop be put in place. I believe firmly in the Union of the United Kingdom, and I want to do everything to ensure that we maintain the Union of the United Kingdom. There are of course already some differences in the treatment of Northern Ireland in relation to some laws, and some of those differences are significant in the areas in which they operate, but we have given a commitment to ensuring we do not have that divergence in future.
I am very appreciative of the Prime Minister’s seemingly tireless efforts in negotiating the withdrawal agreement, but is it not the case that, because we could not unilaterally leave the backstop if it were to come into force, we are effectively ceding sovereignty, not taking back control?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is no unilateral right to exit that mechanism. There is, of course, a termination mechanism within the withdrawal agreement and the protocol, but both sides would need to agree because of the fundamental point of ensuring that, at every stage, there is the guarantee of no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The backstop need not come into force if the future relationship is put in place by the end of December 2020. Even if there were a need for something at that stage, it would be possible for this Parliament—we have been clear that it would be for this Parliament—to choose whether to go down the route of extending the implementation period instead. I believe that the best thing for us to do is to work to ensure that the future relationship comes into place, with a long-term and sustainable guarantee of no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The Prime Minister has just informed the House that she and her party accepted and respected the vote of the Welsh referendum on devolution in 1997. If that is the case, why did the 2005 Tory manifesto call for a further referendum on Welsh devolution, including an option to abolish the Welsh Assembly?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that any failure of this House to comply with the instruction of the people to take this country out of the European Union in an orderly way will play right into the hands of those who wish to destroy our precious Union and break up our United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People want to see us leaving the European Union in an orderly, smooth way that does not disrupt people’s jobs and livelihoods. To do it in any other way would, indeed, be a threat to the Union of the United Kingdom.
Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), over the weekend we have seen a very disturbing increase in threats of violence against colleagues. Does the Prime Minister agree it is important that we are all mindful of our language, particularly when discussing parliamentary procedures and no deal and its consequences? Otherwise we are at risk of widening the divisions we have worked so hard to close, enabling a space in which the far right and its followers can step in.
I absolutely agree that there is no place for these kinds of threats, and for the abuse and harassment that has, sadly, been taking place. Members of this House, and indeed members of the public, should be able to hold different opinions, and hold them passionately, and debate them with passion and vigour, without the threat of physical violence and the sort of harassment and bullying that has happened online.
The Prime Minister has said that the assurances she has from the EU would give legal certainty and clarity. If there is a dispute in that matter in relation to what is in the withdrawal agreement, who will be the final arbiter on it? Will that go to article 174, with the European Court of Justice to look at European law? Who will be the arbiter on that?
It is has been reported that Ireland has gained more than 5,000 jobs, including one assumes those created by a move by the firm set up by the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) because of what the firm calls “considerable uncertainty” and increased costs due to Brexit. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is all the proof needed to show why Scotland’s best interests lie in being an independent member state of the EU?
Given today’s joint letter to the Prime Minister from Presidents Juncker and Tusk saying that the EU is
“not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement”,
is it not the case that the Prime Minister has achieved nothing since pulling the meaningful vote on 10 December? In her own words, “nothing has changed”.
As I said earlier in response to a number of hon. Members, the concern that was expressed was about ensuring—[Interruption.] I am trying to answer the hon. Lady’s question. The concern people had within the House, overwhelmingly, was one of ensuring that the backstop would be temporary if it ever came into place. That is in the withdrawal agreement already, but the further assurances that we have received further confirm that. As I have said, the December Council conclusions do have legal force.
In a speech on 11 October last year, Michel Barnier stated that in the event of no deal there would be checks at the border for all live animals and products of animal origin. Is that not potentially disastrous for Northern Ireland and for the integrity of the UK?
I admire the Prime Minister’s efforts to contort her deal over the backstop to try to get it over the line and passed, but surely she must now be stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, which is that her deal and any version of it is still a betrayal of what people voted for. Her deal is not what people voted for in 2016. So much has changed, and it is time to go back to them with the truth now and ask them for their view.
I believe that what people voted for in 2016 was to ensure that the ECJ jurisdiction ended in the UK—the deal delivers that; that free movement would come to an end—the deal delivers that; and that we did not continue sending significant sums to the EU every year—and the deal delivers on that.
Should not anyone in any party who purports to be concerned about having a positive future with the EU, preserving our Union with Scotland and protecting our Union with Northern Ireland now stop playing politics and vote for my right hon. Friend’s deal, because a failure to do so is going to let genies out of bottles that are best kept corked?
All but 4% of Hull North constituents who have contacted me have asked me to vote down the Prime Minister’s deal—and that includes many leavers. Does the Prime Minister think that is because they no longer support Brexit, or because they want the promises made during the leave campaign to be delivered and her deal does not do that?
There was obviously a vigorous referendum campaign. As I said earlier, I believe that when people voted, they voted to take back control of money, laws and borders. That is what this deal delivers, alongside the other things that people were concerned about, such as leaving the CAP and the CFP and having an independent trade policy.
The Sunday Times was in Boston on Saturday to take the temperature of the most heavily leave-voting town in the country. In a genuinely random sampling of people in the marketplace, it heard that my constituents understood that the wind was in the sails of those who want to stop Brexit. I cannot pretend that I was overwhelmed with love for the Prime Minister’s deal, but people in the marketplace said that it was either back this deal or see no Brexit, and that would be anathema to British democracy.
I am interested in the views that were expressed in Boston at the weekend. I agree with my hon. Friend, and it is absolutely right that the Government deliver on the vote of the British people. People are becoming increasingly concerned about the possibility of there being attempts to try to thwart, frustrate or, indeed, stop that Brexit.
The complexity of these islands is summed up in the Good Friday agreement, which allows and recognises the diversity of identity. On 22 October, the Prime Minister assured me, on the Floor of the House, that the right to be both British, Irish or both is secure, yet today those who seek to retain their Irish identity are having to officially renounce a British identity that they never had, at a cost of £372, and are having their freedom of movement limited for up to six months, and citizens in Northern Ireland are even having their residency questioned. Can the Prime Minister assure me, and people like Emma DeSouza and those of a Northern Irish background in my constituency, that the Prime Minister’s Government are not using Brexit to undermine the fundamentals and complexities of the benefits of the Good Friday agreement?
We are indeed ensuring that the Brexit arrangements that we have negotiated with the European Union abide by the commitments in the Belfast Good Friday agreement. As was indicated in the December joint report, it is very clear in the withdrawal agreement that the point of nationality raised by the hon. Gentleman is referenced, and it is clear that the ability of people in Northern Ireland to identify as British or Irish is in there.
I have sat through the entirety of the exchanges on this statement, and those on many before it, and I commend the Prime Minister for keeping her temper and for the polite way in which she has answered every question when it must sometimes be infuriating for her to do so. Will she just reassure me that if things do not go quite to plan tomorrow, she will still apply the fantastic British grit she has shown to how we leave under WTO rules?
I am of course working to ensure that things do go in the right way tomorrow, but I assure my hon. Friend that whatever I do and whatever happens, I will be working in the national interest with the determination, which I have always had, of ensuring that we deliver for this country.
Small businesses with no time, energy or resources for no-deal planning are appalled to see the phantom ferry company’s Government contract, the Kent lorry park experiment and the swathes of civil servants now given over to some sort of “Dad’s Army”-style wargaming of troops on our streets, so will the Prime Minister tell us how much, by running down the clock and not ruling out no deal, her blackmail Brexit has cost the taxpayer to date and since 11 December?
The hon. Lady will know the sums of money that have been made available by the Treasury to Departments across Government to provide for both no-deal preparations and the preparations for a deal. It is entirely right that we make those contingency arrangements to ensure that we have made the decisions and put in place the operations necessary should there be no deal.
Does the Prime Minister agree that all deals would require a backstop of some sort? As unpalatable as this deal and the backstop are, there is simply no such thing as a painless, risk-free backstop. If it was not this backstop, another backstop would be required, and it would perhaps be as dangerous as, or more concerning than, this one.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is clear that whatever agreement was reached with the European Union, a backstop would be required. Some people talk about a different trade agreement for the future, but a backstop would still be necessary, because a negotiation would be required to ensure that a backstop was there for circumstances in which that new agreement could not come into place at the end of the implementation period. There is no agreement without a backstop.
A survey by Harvard researchers of 120 small and medium-sized enterprises and stakeholders concluded that for most companies
“the May deal is inferior to remaining in the EU or…a much closer relationship with the EU that includes continued participation in the Single Market”.
We still respect experts in Scotland. When will the Prime Minister follow their advice, fulfil the people of Scotland’s vote in the EU referendum, and protect our place in the single market and the customs union?
What we have negotiated with the European Union—what is set out in the political declaration—is the most ambitious trade relationship with any third country that the EU has ever negotiated. It is one with a good customs arrangement and good access to market. The protection of jobs was one of the things that I wanted to ensure we achieved in the deal that we negotiated, and it does just that.
I thank the Prime Minister for meeting a group of MPs from all parties with manufacturing in their constituencies last week. Given the assurances that have now come forward from the EU, and bearing in mind that the overwhelming message from that meeting was that manufacturing businesses do not want a no-deal situation, which would be highly disruptive—that message came from both sides of industry in the meeting—does she agree that voting for the deal is the way forward?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that it was clear in that meeting that a number of Members from both sides of the House, in conversation and discussion with the manufacturing industry, recognised the importance of ensuring that we protected jobs, and the potential impact that no deal could have on those jobs. I believe that it is a good deal because it delivers on the referendum, but protects jobs.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that, despite today’s letters, the legal position remains that the UK cannot enter into the extension period without the explicit agreement of the European Union; that we cannot avoid going into the backstop unless we have the explicit agreement of the European Union on an alternative; and that once we are in the backstop, we cannot legally withdraw from it without the explicit agreement of the European Union?
As I have said to Members when they have referred specifically to the last of those points, there is no unilateral withdrawal mechanism. The United Kingdom can make the choice, and we are clear that Northern Ireland—Stormont—should have a voice in that choice, as to whether to go into the backstop or the implementation period. The reason why a unilateral exit mechanism is not there is that the European Union has a concern that the United Kingdom—we are clear that we would not do this—might use such a mechanism to put Northern Ireland and Ireland in a situation where there was a hard border.
The Prime Minister clearly cannot get her deal through tomorrow night—the Foreign Secretary conceded as much last week—despite the false choice we are being offered. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition wants to call an election in the hope, like Micawber, that something will turn up. It gives me no pleasure to say that I am beginning to think that, given how things are going, perhaps we all might as well wait to see whether a mermaid riding a unicorn will happen by and provide a solution. Does the Prime Minister not think that a sensible way forward would be, at long last and finally, to listen to the majority of the Scottish people, and reject Brexit and this entire shambles once and for all?
The Prime Minister received a letter that I and many other colleagues across the parties in this House signed warning against the impact of a no-deal Brexit on our industries, particularly our manufacturing industries, that rely on very sensitive supply chains across the European continent. Faced with this dilemma tomorrow night of a deal that is dead in the water or a default to a no-deal situation, it is clear that the Prime Minister cannot in all conscience entertain any scenario in which no deal is a possibility. Is it not her duty now to rule out, once and for all, no deal under any circumstances, as it is not in the national interest? She should not countenance it under any circumstances.
The Prime Minister has agreed the backstop as an insurance policy. Insurance policies usually protect but, according to her own MPs, this one leaves the UK vulnerable. Prime Minister, no one would even take out a car insurance policy that would leave them vulnerable, so whose insurance is it, and has she agreed to pay for the other driver’s policy?
The point of the backstop as an insurance policy is that it is a guarantee that, in all the circumstances that have been set out, there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, so it is a guarantee for people in Northern Ireland and for people in Ireland. I have been clear that the United Kingdom Government would not erect a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland but, as I have indicated and as has been clear from a number of questions today, the European Commission is also clear that, in a no-deal scenario, checks at the border would be expected.
Prime Minister, at the eleventh hour, you decided to contact the trade unions of Great Britain that represent the workers who create the wealth of this country. Did you get a good response?
The Prime Minister has said that these written assurances have legal standing and legal force, and that they will be taken into account, but she has also acknowledged that paragraph 2 of the Attorney General’s letter of advice says that they do not “alter the fundamental meanings” of the provisions of the withdrawal agreement. Can she confirm that, ultimately, as a matter of law, in any conflict between the wording of these assurances and the wording of the withdrawal agreement, the withdrawal agreement would triumph, and that therefore, in the months since she pulled the meaningful vote, nothing has changed?
The hon. and learned Lady says that it is my claim that these assurances have legal force. Obviously it is the European Union that has been clear that they have legal force and, as she has said, the Attorney General himself has said that they would have
“legal force in international law and thus be relevant and cognisable in the interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement.”
The Prime Minister referred to the “subversion of our democracy”. In our parliamentary democracy, no Parliament can bind its successor. It was not this Parliament that agreed to hold a referendum or to prematurely trigger article 50, but the previous Parliament. If she is talking about subversion of democracy, was her calling of the general election that she lost in 2017 a subversion of democracy?
This Prime Minister and this Government have been engaging in acts of outright fuddery—the spreading of fear, uncertainty and doubt—with the bizarre spectacle of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury running up and down with planted notes saying, “No food” and “No channel tunnel”. Is it no surprise to the Prime Minister that people in Scotland, as they watch this ridiculous spectacle, are starting to think that we could do a lot better running things ourselves?
It is entirely right that we are taking those mitigation measures in relation to no deal to ensure that we can deal with that consequence should that be the situation in which we find ourselves. I say to the hon. Lady that she and a number of her colleagues, including the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the leader of the SNP in Westminster, talk about listening to the voice of the people, but listening to the voice of the people means accepting the result of the 2014 Scottish referendum.
It is in the hands of all of us in this House to show that we are respecting the vote of the people, that we are respecting the views that people gave in 2016, and that the debate is about how we deliver on that vote. That is very important for everybody across the whole House.
If regulatory alignment is good enough for Northern Ireland, it is good enough for Wales, good enough for Scotland and good enough for England. For that reason, I will be voting against the Prime Minister’s deal tomorrow, because we want a level playing field in the United Kingdom. Moreover, 88% of constituents who have contacted me reject her deal. Many young people—75%—think that they will be worse off with Brexit. Now that she has been exposed as having form in voting against the will of the Welsh people in the election and standing on a manifesto to overturn it, can she, at this eleventh hour, give the people a vote and a final say on Brexit?
May I plead with the Prime Minister to mind her language? She used a term in her statement to say that people’s opinions would represent a “subversion of our democracy”, which is completely unnecessary at a time when there is far too much inflammatory language about already. She holds the office of Prime Minister. She is describing the views of Members of this House, including former members of her own Government, when she talks about a subversion of democracy. I genuinely appeal to her to consider her office when using language of that kind.
And I appeal to Members across the whole House that they consider the duty that we have to the British people to deliver on the vote that they gave in the referendum of 2016, and to accept that and not to try to find ways of frustrating or stopping Brexit.
I think that the Prime Minister owes this House a full and frank apology. While stealing 40 winks this morning after my 50th birthday celebrations at the weekend, I had to move train carriages just before Stoke-on-Trent to accommodate the Prime Minister and her entourage. I was forced to spend the rest of the journey with parliamentary colleagues and eminent BBC journalists. The point that I really wish to make is that, while this is a place of disagreement at the moment, the one thing on which I do agree with the Prime Minister is that she supports peace on the island of Ireland. No matter what tempests and storms we have over the next days and weeks, will she keep that as a priority and not be buffeted?
First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for the note that he left in the train carriage when he moved places. Seriously, I say that it is absolutely the case that we have been clear throughout the negotiations with the European Union that we want to respect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The peace process has brought incredible benefits to the people of Northern Ireland. We want to maintain that peace process and we will not be doing anything that damages it.
May I, from the Opposition Benches, also acknowledge the courtesy with which the Prime Minister has answered myriad questions?
Mr Speaker, if I could magic you and the Prime Minister to the beautiful Scottish highlands, I would show you infrastructure projects such as roads, harbours and airports that would not have happened had it not been for European money. That expenditure was incredibly important in reversing the depopulation that was the historical curse of the highlands. When I return to my constituency at the end of this long week, what should my answer be when my constituents say to me, “Jamie, what will replace this money?”
We will be putting in place the shared prosperity fund, which will look at disparities that occur between nations of the United Kingdom, and within communities and regions of the United Kingdom. We will obviously consult on how the shared prosperity fund will operate, but it will ensure that this is a country that works for everyone.
After two and a half years of complete lack of direction, the Prime Minister wants us to vote for this agreement, which only puts everything into touch and into the transition period. Yet she is somehow trying to convince herself that, to avoid the backstop and avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, within the next year and a half or so she can agree a trade deal, a customs deal and find from nowhere a technology solution—invented, trialled and implemented within that year and a half. Will she tell me the key milestone dates for this magic solution, and can she name one major IT infrastructure project delivered in such a timescale?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the direction over the past two and a half years. The Lancaster House speech, the Florence speech, the Munich speech, the Mansion House speech, the December 2017 joint report, the agreement in March last year of the arrangements for the implementation period, and now of course the political declaration and the withdrawal agreement—they set a very clear direction and it is a good direction for this country. It is a good deal for Scotland and for the whole UK.