Monday 14 January 2019
[David Hanson in the Chair]
Leaving the EU
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 229963, 221747 and 235185 relating to leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, 232984 and 231461 relating to holding a further referendum on leaving the EU, and 226509 and 236261 relating to not leaving the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. The list of e-petitions shows that Brexit still exercises our nation. If I may be indulged—this may take longer than the rest of my speech—I will read the text of the petitions, so that we know exactly what we are talking about. We have grouped them by theme. Not all of them have reached 100,000 signatures, but those that did not were similar enough to be put into one of three categories with others that reached the threshold for the Petitions Committee to consider them for debate.
The title of the first petition is “Leave the EU without a deal in March 2019.” It says:
“We are wasting Billions of pounds of taxpayers money trying to negotiate in a short space of time. Leaving the EU in March 2019 will allow the UK good time to negotiate more efficiently. The EU will be more eager to accept a deal on our terms having lost a major partner.
We will save billions of pounds from our EU divorce payment as well as a similar amount from Civil Service and Govt costs. This money will be used to support our own country whilst we await the EU to talk to us to make deals more in our favour. The EU border in Ireland to be managed simply by having a dual Euro / pound currency as legal tender in both the North and South. Exports to the South would be dealt with in Euro and vice versa when importing to the North. Rates fixed at time of the deal.”
A similar petition, entitled “Leave the EU now”, says simply:
“The Government is not going to achieve a satisfactory outcome from its negotiations with the EU. We should walk away now. No Deal is better than a bad deal.”
The third petition is, again, similar. It is entitled “Walk away now! We voted for a No Deal Brexit”. It says:
“Theresa May has failed to negotiate a Brexit deal that is acceptable to Parliament and the British people. The Withdrawal Agreement does not deliver the Brexit we voted for. It is clear that the EU is not going to offer anything else, particularly regarding the backstop. The Government must now be prepared to walk away from the negotiations.
No Deal is better than the Deal that has been negotiated. No Deal is also what we voted for. Give the people what they voted for. Anything less is not Brexit.”
I move on to the second group of petitions, which are about a second referendum. The first one is entitled “Grant a People’s Vote if Parliament rejects the EU Withdrawal Agreement”. It says:
“The Prime Minister has negotiated an EU withdrawal agreement. However, it is clear from resignations and interviews that the deal will not pass Parliament. As no credible alternative has been proposed, the public must be allowed to vote on whether to accept this deal or to remain in the EU.
Dominic Raab’s resignation is perhaps the strongest indication that this withdrawal agreement will not be approved by Parliament. However, he is responsible for this deal as former Brexit Secretary, which suggests that a better deal is not possible. The only better deal is to remain in the EU on similar terms to what we have now - not in Schengen, not in the Euro, deciding on EU legislation.”
Another petition on a second referendum says:
“It’s no secret that a vast amount of people who voted to leave the EU didn’t realise what they were voting for.
The Leave campaign said that leaving would create new trade deals, strengthen the economy and public services and reduce the number of incoming immigrants. But this is not happening.
Theresa May has really struggled so far in Brexit negotiations and time is running out. She’s failing to secure trade deals and my personal biggest fear is the Irish Border, this could lead to a United Ireland. May has lost support not only from the Cabinet but the whole nation. I’m calling for a second referendum”—
this is still part of the quote, please understand—
“because if you voted to remain or to leave we need a final say. The Brexit decision was so tight and I just think that it help everyone if there was a second vote. Sign if you agree.”
The third group of petitions is about stopping Brexit in its entirety. The first says:
“It’s so desperately simple. The Government’s standard response to these kinds of petitions is ‘The British people voted to leave the EU and the government respect that decision’. BUT, the government themselves DO NOT KNOW the outcome of that decision, so how can they possibly respect it???
Quote Theresa May: ‘We don’t know what the outcome will be’. The referendum was advisory, not conclusive. The result of the referendum has now been proven to be illegally biased (something ‘our’ government is choosing to ignore). Hence, the ‘vote’ (actually an opinion poll) is now null and void. The referendum was voted for with no indication of any actual facts. 2yrs ago there was no detail about what ‘brexit’ actually entailed. Today, still no detail. For all these reasons: STOP BREXIT.”
The final petition is a short one: “Stop Brexit if parliament rejects the deal”. It says:
“Brexit is not worth it. A hard border in Ireland will destroy the Good Friday Agreement, meds are being stockpiled and there’s news that a contract has been given to a company with no ferries, and the army is on standby in the event of no-deal too. Stop Brexit if MPs vote to reject the PM’s deal.”
It took me the first five minutes of my speech just to read out those seven petitions, none of which agrees. This is where we are as a country. In this place, we reflect the views of the people outside. The number of signatories to those petitions ranged from 6,000 for the smallest to 330,000-odd for the biggest. Any number of people have supported the petitions. That is what is great about Petitions Committee debates: we talk about the things that people ask us to speak about.
The Government deal is being debated in Parliament today. One reason why not many Members are present is that the Prime Minister is in the main Chamber making a statement about the last assurances she has had from the EU. Members will raise questions with her, then the debate will continue, and the vote will take place tomorrow. The deal is, undoubtedly, a compromise. I campaigned and voted to leave, but I will vote for the deal tomorrow because I see it as the best way to leave in an orderly fashion. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it could be made good in the second half of the negotiation.
Unfortunately for people who are bored with Brexit, we are only halfway through. If we can get an agreement through to the next stage, we have to deal with the future relationship with the EU. It will take time to reach a trade deal and get through all the finer points of security, education, research co-operation and so on. When I looked at the deal and thought about how I would vote tomorrow, I asked, “Does it fulfil the reasons I voted to leave? Can I look other people in the eye and say, ‘Yes, it does’?” Under the deal, we leave the EU political institutions—the biggest thing that drove me when I voted for the Referendum party back in 1997, which is what got me into party politics. This is my penance for having brought in a Labour Government and a Lib Dem local MP.
I wanted to leave the political institutions. This deal allows us to do that, and to end the huge membership fees we pay the EU. It enables us to end freedom of movement, and to start to negotiate trade deals and even ratify them, though we cannot put them in place until we have left the implementation phase—as long as the backstop does not come in. If we have a deal in place with the EU, we can move on to putting those independent trade deals in place. That is why the deal is imperfect—because, looking back to two years ago, by now I would have hoped to be at that place. However, I make my decision based on where we are, not where we started.
We got stuck on the sequencing—the fact that we could not have a twin-track debate on our future relationship and withdrawing, and we got stuck on the Irish backstop issue last year. That has suddenly become a thing over the last year. We are kidding ourselves if we think that we will be able to remove the backstop because we do not like it. I understand the argument about us not being able to leave the backstop unilaterally; naturally, that causes concern to a lot of people. That is why I have asked a lot of questions of Ministers, the Prime Minister and others. The explanation of the backstop sets out why both parties find it uncomfortable, but that is not good enough for me; I want to know why they find it uncomfortable. I have been asking questions and looking at the issue in closer detail. Interestingly, politically, the backstop is incredibly difficult for Unionists, but economically it would be pretty advantageous to Northern Ireland, should it ever come into use. Why? Because overnight, Northern Ireland would then become the most competitive part of Europe.
As part of the compromise with the EU, the whole country would get brought into the backstop. That would give us full access to the single market and the customs union, having left it, without paying any membership fees. Imagine what France, for example, thinks about that. For once, it would be subsidising us; it would still be paying full membership fees for the same access. It cannot be comfortable about that. We would not have freedom of movement, but we would have the same access, so we would be breaking one of the pillars of the EU. Members may remember that at the beginning of the referendum debate, the EU said, “We will not allow the UK to cherry-pick,” but that is exactly what would happen under that system: we would be cherry-picking, because we would still have access, but we would not have freedom of movement or make payments. To my mind, although the rhetoric is sufficient to prove to people that the EU is punishing us for leaving, the actuality—what is written on the bit of paper—is inconvenient but would in no way punish us in the long term.
The final reason the EU finds the backstop uncomfortable is that, suddenly, the whole of the UK would become its backstop should it want to strike further trade deals with other countries. Countries looking to finalise trade deals with the EU will say, “Okay, we understand how we’re going to trade with you and what that’s going to be like, but what about the top-left corner of the map? What about the whole of the UK? What’s its relationship going to be with you? We don’t really understand this.” It will mean those countries dragging their heels even more than they do now.
Some people describe leaving with no deal as leaving on World Trade Organisation terms. As I was preparing for the debate, I had a Twitter chat with a constituent, who said, “Well, it’s not no deal; it’s WTO arrangements.” That is fine—people can call it what they want—but WTO arrangements do not cover non-trade issues. The WTO is only about trade; the withdrawal agreement goes so much further than that.
I would be comfortable leaving with no deal if we were properly prepared, and we had done everything we could to have as orderly a departure as possible. As I said, I believe the withdrawal agreement, although it is not perfect, allows us to do that. Anyone who proposes no deal has to recognise that there would be short-term turbulence. One of the reasons why I am uncomfortable having no deal as my first position is that it would affect real people. When I cast my vote, I always have at the front of my mind what it will mean for my constituents and other actual people. I do not think, “It’s just something on a bit of paper that will be okay later on.”
There will be short-term turbulence. We can survive it; we will get through it. None the less, there are better ways of leaving, and I do not think we would be thanked in the short term for leaving with no deal. If we have the confidence to say, “You know what? We can leave on WTO terms and go it alone. We can work with the other 192 countries and strike our own trade deals,” surely we should have the same confidence that we can get this deal through, go to the European Union with a different negotiating strategy and say, “Look, we want an overarching, ambitious trade deal with you that’s actually going to work for both of us.”
How would that negotiating strategy work? Negotiations cannot all be done by one small cabal of people. We have brought Crawford Falconer, a hugely experienced trade negotiator, in from New Zealand; it does not make sense for him to work on every trade deal around the world apart from the biggest one—the one with next door. Surely it makes sense for him and the Department for International Trade to work on trade. We could then get the Brexit Secretary to work on the overarching issues, and the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary to work on defence, immigration and security. We should have a far wider-reaching set of negotiations. As well as bringing in expertise and a wider group of people, that would help engender trust, which is sadly lacking in this entire process. One of the reasons why people cannot get beyond a certain point in the debate is that no matter what is said, they just do not believe it. That is the problem.
People are also concerned about our paying the reported £39 billion in advance. The implementation phase is nearly two years, so £24 billion of that is the equivalent of a membership fee. We are quibbling about £15 billion, which is still a lot of money, but it is not quite the same. We need to work out where that money is going, how the figure is worked out, and at what point we pay it.
The idea of a second referendum has increased in popularity, but I struggle to see how it will get off the ground. Clearly, anything like having a second referendum or revoking article 50 in its entirety would need to come from the Government, because it would need primary legislation. There is clearly no agreement on what the question would be in a second referendum. Some people have said to me, “Hold on a sec. In 2016, we had leave or remain. Leave won, so that’s sorted. Surely remain shouldn’t even be on the ballot paper; the question should be how we leave.” People with a slightly different point of view, shall we say, have said, “The Government shouldn’t be leaving with no deal, so it should be between remain and the Prime Minister’s deal.” We would be back to all the same vested interests I mentioned at the start.
People talk about how divisive the original referendum was and how terrible the quality of the debate was—frankly, both those things are true—but then say, “I tell you what: let’s do it all again.” I know what would happen. We would have “vassal state” on one side and “cliff edge” on the other. There would be a lot of heat but no light whatever. Lord knows what the buses would do at that point.
I tend to agree with the chap who said:
“I’m sorry, I’m not one of those people who thinks we should be calling for a second referendum. I think that would just look like, the referendum was fought under rules we agreed to, a result was delivered, because we don’t like it we now want to replay it again—which will simply entrench a view that we’re some elite, who don’t want to pay any attention to the people.”
That chap was the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), who happens to be spearheading the people’s vote campaign—I should think he is doing so as we speak. A second referendum is unlikely to resolve anything; nor do I believe a general election would resolve anything.
That brings me to why this place is so divided. There is a lot of self-interest at the moment. The Leader of the Opposition could draft his own deal and hand it to the Prime Minister to put to the vote, and he would still vote against it. He wants a general election—that is all. Obviously, there are splits in the Opposition. Opposition Members who want a people’s vote tend to want to avoid a general election because that would be their worst nightmare. It would risk a Labour Government led by the Leader of the Opposition, which I do not think Opposition Members who propose a people’s vote particularly want; they are not exactly close.
The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party basically want to pretend this never happened. They just want to unpick the referendum. For various reasons, they want not to leave the UK. At least that is an honest position. The Lib Dems write things like “Let’s have a people’s vote,” followed by “#ExitFromBrexit”. That clearly demonstrates the angle they come at this from. I have yet to meet someone who voted to leave and still intends to leave who says, “I tell you what, before we do, shall we just test the water by having a second referendum?” Inevitably, people want that Bobby Ewing moment—they want to wake up and find that he is still in the shower. At least the people who want to unpick the referendum by revoking article 50 are honest and explain their true intentions, but that would have severe consequences. The Archbishop of York talked about the possibility of a second referendum causing civil unrest.
We have come to this place and listened to people. Some 17.4 million people put their trust in us doing what they mandated us to do. One of the petitions refers to the vote we had as an opinion poll. It was not; it was a national referendum, which delivered a bigger mandate than any other vote in this country. I cannot remember the figures, but many Members queued up to vote to trigger article 50. In so doing, we put the referendum result into legislation, making those people’s voices heard. We need to redouble our efforts and find a deal that works, so that we can leave the EU in the most orderly fashion possible, demonstrate to people that we can do this and respect their wishes, and move on and gain the inevitable benefits of leaving the EU.
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) said, except his final conclusion that somehow this deal is a way forward. There are a number of reasons why it is not. First, it is not a deal; it is an agreement to have negotiations for a final deal. On Sunday, Neil Warnock, the manager of Cardiff City—I am not used to quoting him on his political stance or on football matters—spoke for probably the majority of the United Kingdom when he said that the Government should get on and implement what the people had decided in the referendum. After two and half years, that should happen, but the Government have not done so. They have come back with an agreement to negotiate that the Prime Minister should be embarrassed about. It leaves control over the end of that negotiation, and over whether Northern Ireland has different laws from the rest of the United Kingdom, subject to a different legislature. That is an outrage. It is an embarrassment to the Prime Minister and a disgrace to the country that anybody, of whichever political party, would bring back a deal like that.
The debate on the petitions ranges all over the place, but it is worth going back to the referendum. The wording of the referendum was unambiguous and unconditional. There was no condition on the ballot paper. It was absolutely clear that if people voted one way they were voting to remain in the EU, and if they voted in the other box they were voting to leave. The Prime Minister has not managed to deliver the result. Since then, we have had a vote to trigger article 50, which passed by a huge majority. In many cases, although not in all, remainers have looked for ways to undermine the decision, even though it was unconditional and unambiguous. A number of statements have been made, which at first sound quite sensible. I hear regularly in the Chamber, and I have heard it said here, that people did not vote to make themselves poorer. I know they did not—it is true—but they did not vote to make themselves richer. They voted to leave the European Union.
The statement that people did not vote to make themselves poorer has two implications. One is that people never vote to make themselves poorer—that it would be absurd even to think that. But a moment’s thought shows that that is absolutely not true. Right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber regularly stand for election on manifestos that contain tax commitments. Tax commitments are a way of confiscating people’s income and capital resources, and they make people poorer. We all vote for them, and we all stand on manifestos that make people poorer, usually for social and public benefit. I think it is a nonsensical statement. It appears to have credibility—who could disagree with it?—but its objective and purpose are to undermine the democratic decision that was taken by more than 17.4 million people, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said.
The other implication is that being in the EU always makes us richer and never makes us poorer, and that its decisions always benefit the people of the United Kingdom and the EU. That is demonstrably not true. As a member of the Labour party for many years who opposed the monetarism of the early 1980s, I am astonished that members of the Labour party are so wedded to the EU, which has at the core of its policies the stability and growth pact. The stability and growth pact is, in fact, monetarism; it is Thatcherism internationalised. It is not just abstract thought. It is one of the reasons why youth across the whole of southern Europe have lost the democratic right to determine what happens in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, and why there is a whole generation of young people on the dole. The situation has been created by the macroeconomic policies at the centre of EU policy. The policy does not just affect those people; by deflating the EU economy, it affects our ability to export there.
There are many examples of perverse EU decisions that have led, and will lead, to job losses. Last summer, the European Court of Justice, in line with what the EU Commission had said, ruled that the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which is about inserting parts of genes into crops, was unlawful. That decision has been widely condemned throughout the scientific community as anti-scientific and as having “a chilling effect” on research and the economy. The rest of the world is happy to get on with it, because this technology, where it exists, leads to a drop of about a third in the use of herbicides and a 20% increase in crops. That decision will damage UK and European science, and related jobs in science and agriculture, and it may lead to less food. It is extraordinary that the CRISPR technology has, in effect, been banned, while new crops created by random genetic mutation—using irradiation, so there is no controlling what happens—are allowed.
I use those examples—one economic one, at the huge end of things, and a specific scientific one—to illustrate the point that it is nonsensical to think that the EU always makes decisions that lead to more jobs, more growth and better science. It simply does not. I believe fundamentally that we would get better regulations if we made them ourselves, for our own industry and science, rather than having them designed to fit across the 27 or 28 countries of the EU.
Another argument that is made for a second referendum, or for not implementing the 2016 referendum, is that people did not understand what they were voting for. As I said, it was a simple proposition, and people did know what they were voting for—to leave the European Union. Having talked during the period of the referendum to people I represent from some of the poorest estates in the country, it is fairly clear to me that they knew exactly what they were voting for. It is an insult to them to say they did not know. The implication is that the educated, cosmopolitan elite are superior, and that their votes should weigh more than the votes of people in poorer parts of the country without degrees and A-levels. I do not believe that, and I guess that if it is stated explicitly, most people in the Chamber do not believe it, but that is at the base of “didn’t understand it”. If people did not understand a simple proposition such as the one about leaving the European Union, how are they going to understand the pre-negotiation agreement, with its 585—or perhaps it is 685—pages of nonsensical legal script? They are not going to. It is ludicrous to pretend that that is easier to understand than the simple proposition.
Also, if we are to ignore the first referendum, what credibility would a second have? What credibility would any future referendum have? Would we have to say, when it was agreed to hold a referendum, “We’ll have a first one, and if it goes the way the establishment would not like, we will make it the best of three”? That is what the proposition for a second referendum is like. We should not proceed with a second referendum. We have had many debates about it here and on the Floor of the House, and we should not have another.
I have one further point to make about the economic impact of the EU. It is assumed not just that the EU is economically beneficial to us, but that stopping the current trading arrangements, under which we are in the EU internal market, would be wholly negative. We are running a huge trade deficit of between £70 billion and £80 billion a year. I think that if the rules are changed we will get a lot of substitution. Jobs will be created here, because any tariffs—and possibly a drop in the pound—would make it cheaper to manufacture here. Why we consider it so economically advantageous to us to be in an internal market where we have a huge trade deficit, I do not know.
It is worth thinking about why the EU had done as it has. We are in complete regulatory alignment with it, and it has a trade surplus with us. We have been paying a lot of money into it. The reason why many of the university exchanges work is, to put it bluntly, that our top universities are better than the EU’s. To take a simple criterion such as the number of Nobel awards, one college at Cambridge has won more Nobel prizes than the top universities in the EU. They need our universities. So what motivates the European Commission to be so unaccommodating in the negotiation? I do not think it is to do with trade. The Commission is prepared to punish EU citizens by coming to what is, from their point of view, a bad deal, given their trade surplus, because it does not want any other states to follow our example. I think that it is partly its non-democratic nature that is responsible for what is happening around the EU—not only economic problems on the southern coast, but the rise of the far right in many countries. It is extraordinary that in my political lifetime there should be a party of the far right in Sweden, and that Sweden—one of the great, long-standing democracies in Europe—should not be able to form a Government. There are other strands to the reasons for the resurgence of the right in Europe, but one is that people can no longer vote for Governments that will do what they want them to, because those factors are determined by the EU.
If it came to a no deal—although frankly it would be better for us to have our cake and eat it, and have a deal beneficial to EU citizens and to us—would it be the end of the world? I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that it would not. There would be some short-term disruption, but nothing like the disruption suggested in what the BBC propagates, or in the regular cries of woe heard on the Floor of the House of Commons. However, there is bound to be some disruption. We heard from the sub-prefecture of Calais that there would be no halting of goods there—and why would there be? Why would countries try to make it more difficult for their own industries to export? It has always been a put-up job—the idea that somehow, in support of the European Commission, the French would not want to sell us wine, but would want the people producing wine in Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône valley to be poorer. That is an extraordinary proposition. The same would be true of Spain and other European countries.
Those things are not going to happen, but when anything is changed there will be some short-term disruption. Because we would be making our own laws, in a very short time there would be major benefits. We would also keep most of the £39 billion that the House of Lords EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee said we had no legal obligation to pay. That would probably give a 2% boost to our GDP. Incidentally, I think I would go to Mystic Meg for predictions about the economy before I would go to the Bank of England, which said that the mere vote to leave the EU would lead to half a million job losses after 23 June. How many jobs were lost? More jobs were created. Yet people regularly state on the floor of the House of Commons that we will have an economic disaster, based not only on the Bank of England but on other think tanks and institutions that are using the same failed models, which do not allow for the flexibility and substitution that exist in the market in this country.
In a more general sense, most of our trade is done under World Trade Organisation rules anyway; most of the world trades under World Trade Organisation rules. I am not saying it is better than what we have—it is not—but it is adequate. The car industry has bleated quite a lot, but the imports of parts are not solely from the EU. Some come from other parts of the world economy. The rest of the world is also where most of the growth is. The EU has been one of the slowest-growing parts of the world economy. It is in Asia, the United States and even South America that most of the growth is occurring, so I do not think we have a great deal to be frightened of on those matters.
I have covered a lot of ground, and one could cover more, because the petitions themselves cover a huge amount of ground, from staying to leaving to what the impact will be. The view that I have set out may not be the majority view in my party or in the House of Commons, but it is the majority view in the country, as the 2016 referendum showed. I remind hon. Members of what the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, said—that the people are sovereign. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said in response, “This is not for Members to decide; it is for you, the public, to decide what happens.” It would be quite wrong for us to stop now.
Sadly, the Government have not come back with a deal after two and a half years, and I will vote against what they have come back with. I agree with the leader of my party that if there is a general election, it may well help to put pressure on the Commission, but one thing we know: if this pretty appalling deal is rejected, the EU is master, or mistress, of the last-minute deal. The EU will suffer more than the UK in absolute terms, although less in percentage terms, if there is no reasonable agreement on 29 March. I do not think tomorrow is the end of the story. I think the Prime Minister should have said at the beginning, “We are not accepting a ridiculous deal like this.” She needs either to go back to the Commission and get a better deal, or to go back to the people; hopefully, the Labour party would then get a mandate to negotiate a better deal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I will speak in support of the petition that has received more than 300,000 signatures and argues that we should leave the EU on World Trade Organisation terms.
Clearly, a free trade agreement with the EU is optimal. I am an economic liberal and I believe in the benefits of free trade and open markets. However, leaving the EU under the Prime Minister’s deal will restrict our ability to sign free trade agreements with the most exciting and fastest-growing economies in the world. That cannot be allowed to happen. The withdrawal agreement will make the UK a vassal state, a country whose destiny is controlled by the EU and its institutions. That cannot be allowed to happen; it would be a sell-out of the British people.
Leaving on WTO terms should not panic the UK. There are positives to leaving under such a deal when compared with the Prime Minister’s disastrous deal. If we want to take back control of our money, our laws and our borders, keep our £39 billion and trade freely with the rest of the world, a clean WTO Brexit will achieve that. Some in this place have warned that negotiating a new free trade agreement with third parties will be more difficult and we will not be able to achieve such good terms as those negotiated through the European Union, but I believe that argument is flawed.
We all know that the EU is cumbersome; it is over-bureaucratic and full of red tape. For free trade agreements to be signed off in the EU they must be approved by every member state, so the economies and priorities of 27 nations, including individual regions, must be considered. When negotiating our own free trade deals, we can be proactive and seek out opportunities. We can be flexible while the EU is rigid. We can be fast and nimble while the EU is slow and cumbersome. The UK will be free and liberated to sign free trade agreements with the exciting economies of tomorrow.
Let us not talk down the UK. We are the fifth largest economy in the world and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and we speak the global language of business. We have world-class universities and an incredible global reach, and we sit at the heart of the Commonwealth, which is home to 2.4 billion citizens. I could not be prouder to say that I am British and believe in Great Britain and the United Kingdom. We will succeed no matter what lies in our future; we will prevail because our strength and dynamism lie with the British people, not in being part of the European Union.
The reason we are here today is that the Prime Minister’s deal has failed. She has failed to achieve a deal that is good for the UK, but this is the deal before us. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has stated:
“I am totally convinced that this is the only deal possible.”
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has told the European Parliament that
“the treaty that is on the table is the only deal possible.”
The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has also said that the deal agreed is the only possible one, as has our Prime Minister. Let us not forget what the Opposition’s shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), said about Labour’s Brexit plan—I will not use the swear word in the Chamber that he used then.
He was right.
Therefore, if politicians want to respect the outcome of the referendum, WTO becomes a legitimate option and it is right that we are here today discussing it. The world has benefited hugely from the considerable progress made in trade liberalisation in the past 70 years, but multilateral liberalisation has slowed and it now needs a new champion. The UK can be that champion. The benefits of free trade are clear to see. The world needs a liberalising voice, and the UK can be that voice at a time when open markets are threatened.
The UK will prosper as a WTO member. We can immediately start further liberalisation with other WTO members on day one. I acknowledge that tariffs are a concern for some, but I ask them to keep in mind my desire for fewer tariffs and fewer restrictions to trade. Currently, under WTO rules, tariffs vary significantly by sector, but we need to see the bigger picture. In the 1980s, the EU’s share of world GDP was about 30%. In 2017 it was about 16% and by 2022 it is expected to fall further to 15%. The EU has a shrinking share of world trade, and Brexiteers can see the benefits of trading freely with the rest of the world, which is growing at a much faster rate than the EU.
The organisation Economists for Free Trade recently released a detailed report that considered the many implications of leaving the EU on WTO terms. In my view, the report shows that, although a deal is preferable, we have nothing to fear from leaving on those terms. From an economic perspective, the report showed that under WTO rules, we would be more prosperous as a country than we are now, and a lot better off than under the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, which would leave us worse off by a staggering £100 billion. The report also showed that under no deal, consumer prices would fall by 8% and there would be an additional boost of 15% to the poorest households. I know many of my constituents would welcome that at a time when ordinary families are feeling the pressure.
It is important to note that since the mid-1980s, British exports to WTO countries have grown three times faster than those to the European single market. In fact, our biggest overseas market is America, and we trade with it on WTO terms. All that, taken together, demonstrates that, despite all the fear-mongering and demonisation of no deal, the reality is that there is nothing to fear. We already conduct much of our trade under those terms, which are essentially a set of global, enforceable rules that outlaw protectionist tricks, discriminatory tariffs and bureaucratic hurdles. The result is free and fair trade for us and our global partners.
After we leave, trade between the UK and the EU can move to WTO rules, meaning tariffs averaging about 3%. Some products have higher tariffs, such as cars, at 10%, with a 4.5% tariff on components from the EU. However, car companies can withstand a 10% tariff on sales into the EU because they have already benefited from a 15% depreciation in the value of sterling. Border checks on components from the EU will be unnecessary, counterproductive for EU exporters, and illegal under WTO rules, which prohibit unnecessary checks. The heads of firms such as Dyson, JCB and Northern Ireland’s Wrightbus support Brexit because they see the long-term benefits of our being free from the EU’s red tape. A WTO Brexit can achieve that.
I may have agreed with the decision to leave the EU, but it was the British people, not politicians in this place, who decided to leave, and their decision must be upheld. I was only elected to this place in 2015. I am not a career politician and I never worked in the Westminster bubble before being elected. I may not have had the traditional route into politics, but I strongly think that that is a positive. Trust in elected politicians is vital if the public are to have faith in this place and in the democratic process. I aim to uphold that trust. It is naïve to think that we know better.
My constituents know best: they know how best to run their lives and spend their money, and they know what is best for their country. They voted for Brexit, and Brexit must prevail, be that under a WTO Brexit or under a better deal than that agreed by the Prime Minister. My constituency, the Yorkshire and the Humber region and the country voted to leave the EU. We need to leave the European Union and its institutions and take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit can deliver.
I wanted a deal like the Prime Minister’s vision in her Lancaster House speech, which would have satisfied the referendum result. However, the Prime Minister decided, mistakenly, to no longer pursue that vision. Moving to WTO rules will achieve that global Britain vision. We want to be in Europe but not run by Europe. We want to be a truly global, free-trading powerhouse. That can still be achieved, but only by trading under WTO rules. Let us now look to the future, where we can all be free from the EU, to make our own decisions and to chart our own destiny.
This may be the first time I have served under your chairship, Mr Hanson. It is a pleasure to do so.
I am a patriot. I love my country. Serving my neighbours, estate, city and country is the most important thing I can do with my life, which is why I come here every week. I leave my family on a Monday morning and desperately hope to get back by the time I said I would, not breaking any promises along the way. I find that that is the best way to do it.
This week we arrive at the significant crossroads that we have been approaching for several weeks. There are a number of paths ahead of us, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some options will please some people, others will please other people, and none will please everybody. In fact, I presume that every option will anger significant portions of our society. I say that as a preamble because when talking to friends in a more relaxed setting over Christmas—this may have happened to other hon. Members as well—people would try desperately not to talk about Brexit, but eventually somebody would ask why it is taking so long. This debate, and the petitions that sit behind it, show precisely why it is taking so long. The subject is difficult and unclear, and there are multiple points of view.
I attended this debate because I think it neatly encapsulates that. The arguments in favour of the Prime Minister’s deal, as well as those in favour of no deal, a new deal and another vote, all have things going for them—that is not a very popular thing to say, but I believe it to be true—but they also have a lot not going for them. Those who support those options do so with a deep passion, and those who do not often oppose them with a deep anger. I believe that virtually everybody holds a sincere belief that their course is the correct one to follow.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) skilfully introduced the debate, which covers such a broad and contrasting set of views. However, it is interesting that each of the petitions states as fact assertions that the others say are not facts. That shows that this is a difficult subject, which is why it is up to us in this place—we have put up our hands and said that we, as patriots, want to lead our local communities and our country because we care about them—to pick through it and arrive at a solution that serves our nation’s best interests.
Tomorrow will be our first test. Our first choice will be laid out in front of us—whether to accept to Prime Minister’s deal or not. I will vote against the Prime Minister’s deal. I cannot in good conscience bind our nation to a 585-page legally binding withdrawal agreement in pursuit of a well-meant but non-binding political declaration. I believe that this document threatens our historic Union and, frankly, that it does not please or deliver for those who wish to leave or to remain.
The deal is the result of the sum total of 31 months of negotiation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, probably rather more artfully than me, it is a pre-agreement rather than a deal. Do we think that we will have negotiated a comprehensive deal by the end of 2020? No, of course not; I do not think anybody believes that. We could therefore apply the extension. Do we think we will have negotiated a deal by the end of 2022? Using the narrowest definition, the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement took five years of pure negotiation. Do we think that we could do it in less than four years? Has anything suggested that that could happen?
Before Christmas, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and I were on our local television channel, Notts TV, as we often are. We always seem to get paired together; I think it is something to do with being younger Members. I am sure that we agree on many things about the world in general, but on political matters he and I disagree on quite a few. We discussed where Brexit would go in the new year and began to agree that the withdrawal agreement may in time become so attractive to the EU27 that it becomes the deal itself. The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) said that getting deals done with the EU requires the consent of all 27 other countries, one of which might say, “You know what? We’ve got quite a good relationship here. Why don’t we just stick with it?” That risk is another reason why it is not worth supporting the deal.
I read and took seriously what the Prime Minister said earlier today, as I always do. Obviously, I have not heard what has been said in the Chamber, but I suspect it was closely related. I do not take much comfort from the letters from the European Council, either, although I understand where they come from and the intentions behind them. The Prime Minister has said that she will not be here at the end of 2022. How many more leaders on the European Council will have gone by then? The answer is plenty. I therefore cannot in good conscience swap the legal certainty of what will happen to our country in the future for the assurances on a letterhead from those leaders, many of whom will not be here at that time. That seems to me a very poor trade. I am surprised anybody would be persuaded to make it.
The probable outcome, as has been said for a long time, is that the Prime Minister’s deal will fall tomorrow. No deal is not and should not be an option. The trade arguments are well played out. At the end of last year I visited Toyota outside Derby to see its just-in-time manufacturing operating model, and it was clear that any delay in the system would be very injurious to it. The economic shock resulting from tariff barriers will be felt by my community, one of the poorest in the country. That cannot happen.
We talk a lot about the economic impact of no deal, but we rarely talk about the security implications. The Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a very good report on that subject. We took a lot of very good evidence from people with differing views. We covered the Schengen Information System II, which ensures that violent criminals, possible terrorists and paedophiles from other countries cannot get into our country; they get the tap on the shoulder, go to a side room and do not come into our country. That database, which we check 500 million times a year, relates to people who present at a UK port. We do not know about it, but it keeps us safe in our beds.
I do not agree with the argument made by the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood about WTO trading terms, but it was well made and I respect it. However, the WTO provides no fall-back in relation to security. I know that people will push for a no-deal option, which is valid. I understand that, and I get emails to that effect. However, those who do so should explain what would happen to someone who presented at a port at 12.1 am—one minute after we have left the EU, while the fireworks or whatever are going on—who would previously have got that tap on the shoulder and not been allowed into our country. The answer to that question is critical, but I do not think there is one; our Committee’s inquiry certainly could not find one. As a result, I do not think that any responsible Government ought to countenance no deal.
I shall put that to one side and move on. It is well known that Labour Members seek a general election, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said, so that we can secure new leadership on this issue and, of course, many others, although this is probably not the moment to go through them. Having said that, I am not averse to a trip to the bookies and I am very aware that the bookies do not think that we will win in our pursuit of a general election any more than the Prime Minister is likely to win tomorrow night, so let us say that both of those fall. What happens then? It means that, come Wednesday or onwards, into early next week, Parliament as a whole will have a real job to find something that respects the referendum result but does not damage our country.
I am here today—I take the chance to speak to and engage with Government Front Benchers when I can—to appeal for a change of tone. I say this very personally. There is no party politics in this; it is my personal feeling. It is a culmination of 18 months of frustration, because I feel that we have been derided throughout this process. I was elected in June 2017, and I feel that since then those of us on the Opposition Benches have been told that we cannot count, that we do not read the documents—that is always a good one—that we are not being honest in our intentions and when we say we are pursuing one goal, we are actually pursuing a second, secret goal, or that we are playing politics in what we do. I believe those to be unfair and untrue charges. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I come here because I want to serve my city and my community.
I believe that the Government will have to change their tone because, frankly, whether it is on Wednesday morning, Thursday morning or next week, the Government will need support from Opposition Members. It does not take a political strategy genius, which I am not, to say this. We are getting to the point at which we know what there is not a majority for in Parliament. We know or may well find that there is not a majority for the Prime Minister’s deal. We know from last week that there is not one for no deal. If it is shown that there is not one for a general election, either, we will become defined by what we know there is not a majority for. That means that we will have to look at what there is a majority for, and we will start with the biggest blocs, which are the Government’s payroll vote and Members on the Opposition Front Bench. The Government will have to engage with the Opposition. Labour Members are derided for not having a position on Brexit, but our priorities have been on the website for a long time. We have been talking about a customs union for a long time. We have talked about migration, rights at work—
My hon. Friend is right to say that there is no majority in the House of Commons for a general election at present—partly because a two-thirds majority is needed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011—but does he really believe that if the Prime Minister loses tomorrow by more than 100 votes and potentially 200 votes, this Government will have any credibility left at all if the central plank of their existence has failed by so many votes in the House of Commons? Is not the only honourable thing to do to have a general election and see what the public think?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I would not presume to explain any elements of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to him, given that he legislated it and I did not, but as well as his reference to a two-thirds majority, the failure to achieve a second vote of confidence within 14 days will automatically lead to a general election. However, I take the point that, on the issue of the day, on the sum total of 31 months of work and leadership—what we are answering tomorrow is the product of all that work—if that fails, it is a fundamental failure for the Government and one that I do not think could be seen off. I think we ought all to be careful, certainly on the Opposition Benches, about setting what we think are good and bad losses. Any loss on this issue is devastating for the Government, whatever the number is.
If they want to carry on, the Government will have to engage with the Opposition on the presupposition that we want to engage on the issue, that we want to make things better and that we might want to find a solution, all of which has been said so far. We all might—this would be of benefit outside the House as well as inside—try to change the way we engage with each other. The petitions show the need for that. They start with assertions that are not necessarily facts; they are just strongly held views, and we all have strongly held views. And we all come at the issue—I assume this is true of all hon. Members present—from the perspective of what we believe is best for our country, so perhaps we ought to engage with one another on those terms, rather than on the basis of what fits into 140 or, now, 280 characters and going down to those very pure binaries. Frankly, if we do not show that there is a parliamentary solution in this place—I have talked about the things that there perhaps are not majorities for—where does that leave this issue? Hon. Members who might passionately have wanted to see a particular goal achieved might end up not getting it at all.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and an honour to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris). I congratulate my fellow member of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), on the way in which he opened the debate on these petitions.
The referendum vote was the single biggest democratic exercise in our nation’s history. More people voted in that referendum than had voted in any election before, and many people who had never voted before voted. I have spoken to many people in my constituency who had never voted before. Some people had voted many years ago and given up voting because they felt that their vote did not make any difference, but they voted in that referendum because they felt that it was their opportunity to make their voice heard and to bring about change. A clear majority voted to leave. As has been well documented, 17.4 million people had the courage, despite “Project Fear”—despite all the predictions of doom and gloom, the world ending, the economy crashing and half a million jobs going—to say, “No, we are voting for change.” They did not vote for things to be almost the same; they voted because they wanted things to be different.
The responsibility is now on us in Parliament to deliver on the result. In bringing about the referendum, we made the position clear to the British public. In fact, the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, famously said that we were putting the decision in the hands of the British people and we would implement whatever decision they made. This was not a decision to be made by politicians—not a decision to be made by Parliament—but a decision that the British people would make, and Parliament would implement what they decided.
That was two and a half years ago; indeed, it is coming up to three years ago, and here we are, in this very significant week in Parliament in the process of us implementing the decision that the British people made in the referendum. We have a huge challenge before us. The challenge is this: are we going to do what the British people instructed us to do, or not? For me, this whole process has become about far more than simply whether we leave the EU. It has become about trust in our democratic process. We need to understand that there is a growing sense among many, many people in our country—I receive countless emails; I get them virtually every day expressing this concern—that we are in the middle of an establishment stitch-up. The view is that there is an attempt to prevent us from leaving the EU—that the establishment will somehow manufacture a technical outcome that means we do not actually leave. I have to say that the events of last week and some of the newspaper headlines in the last few days have heightened that genuine concern. I believe that, the people of this country having been told that we were giving them the decision and the choice, the consequences of us now not delivering on that decision would be incredibly serious for our country.
We are here today to debate a number of petitions regarding our leaving the EU. As we have heard, some are calling for us to leave immediately, some are calling for us to leave with no deal, others are calling for another referendum and others are basically saying, “Let’s scrap the whole thing and pretend it didn’t happen.” Clearly, the petitions reflect the deep divisions in our country at the moment. There are strongly and genuinely held views right across the spectrum as to where we are and what should happen next.
It is interesting to note that the biggest petition by far, with, last time I checked, over 327,000 signatures—more than all the others put together—is the one calling for us to leave without a deal. That generally reflects what I get in my postbag. The vast majority of people, particularly of those who voted to leave, say, “On the ballot paper, it didn’t say, ‘Leave with a withdrawal agreement or a free trade deal.’ It didn’t say, ‘Leave with any strings attached.’ It simply said, ‘Leave or remain’,” and they voted to leave.
The majority of the British people—certainly, the majority of those who voted leave—simply want us to get on and do as they instructed us. If that means leaving without an agreement, that is what they want us to do. We need to understand that that is the legal position. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which this House passed, states that we will leave on 29 March this year. It does not say that we will leave if we can agree a withdrawal agreement or a future trading deal. It simply says—it has established in law—that we will leave. We need to understand that. There are Members of this House who voted for that withdrawal Act but who do not seem to understand that that is what we voted for. There were no strings attached to that decision. It simply says that we will leave.
I do not want to leave without a deal. I desperately want a withdrawal agreement and a future trading arrangement that I can support and vote for. Sadly for me, the deal that the Prime Minister has agreed and brought back to this House is not one that I can support, because I do not believe that it delivers what we promised—delivering on the referendum result. It locks our country into an untenable situation that completely undermines our ability to negotiate a future trading arrangement.
Over the last two years of negotiations, we have had things to negotiate with. Having surrendered those things to the EU, I do not understand how we think that we will get a better outcome than we have manged to get in the last two and half years. We had our £39 billion to negotiate with and we had the ability to say that we will walk away without a deal, and yet we have not made any progress. The withdrawal agreement hands those things over to the EU and leaves us hoping that we can get a decent deal out of it.
The withdrawal agreement works only if we have faith in two things: first, the goodwill of the EU towards us and, secondly, the negotiating ability of those negotiating on behalf of the UK. Given the experience of the last two years, I am sad to say, I would be absolutely foolish to have confidence in those two things—no reasonable person could. The withdrawal agreement would undermine our whole negotiating position and lock us into a situation that we were in great danger of never being able to get out of. Regrettably, I cannot support the deal.
I hope that the Prime Minister will go back to the EU, having lost the vote tomorrow. I believe that a significant loss will give a clearer message to the EU that the withdrawal agreement is completely unacceptable to Parliament, and that the EU cannot tinker at the edges or provide us with reassurances and nicely worded letters to go with it but must come up with something fundamentally far better for our country, or we will have to leave with no deal.
I know people will say that the EU has said time and again that there are no grounds for renegotiation. However, as other hon. Members have said, the EU has a good record of backing down at the last minute when it is up against a wall. I do not think we have really tested the EU’s resolve in these negotiations. Losing the vote tomorrow will give the Prime Minister the opportunity to go back and truly test the EU’s resolve. Is the EU really serious that it will not give ground and renegotiate? Is it prepared for us to walk away without a deal?
Let us be clear that leaving without a deal will involve some huge challenges, but it will not be the disaster that some predict. Time and again, we have heard the doom-merchants say that we will have no medicines and our aeroplanes will not be able to fly, but all the economic predictions have been proved wrong. I find it incredible that people are predicting the impact of Brexit in 10 years, when, in my time in politics, every six-month prediction from the Treasury has proved to be wildly wrong. It is utterly beyond me how they think they can predict 10 years ahead when they cannot get six-month predictions right.
Every scare story has been exposed as being completely untrue. Even the Mayor of Calais has made it clear that there will be no disruption to trucks coming across the English channel from Calais. I am sure that on our side of things, we will not make it more difficult for our exports to go the other way, either. Therefore, I think we can put to bed the scare stories that paint this as an utter disaster. Yes, there will be challenges, but, throughout its history, our country has shown itself to be at its greatest when faced with challenges. I believe in the ability of the British people and British business, if there is no deal, to overcome any challenges as quickly as possible and move on to the future.
It is worth highlighting some of the other things that the petitions call for. There are petitions calling for a second referendum. I certainly do not support that. Not only would it send a hugely damaging message to the British people—that somehow the first referendum was wrong or invalid—and be hugely disrespectful to them, but I fail to see what it would achieve. The first referendum was divisive enough, but in the current climate, a second referendum would be even more divisive and damaging to our society. What will we do if leave wins again? We will have wasted our time. If there is a narrow victory for remain, do we have a third one to make it best of three? I fail to see how it would make real progress.
Over the weekend, I was thinking about today and I suddenly remembered, in the depths of my memory, that the House had actually considered this matter. On 20 December 2017, when the House was debating and voting on the withdrawal Act, an amendment was tabled calling for a second referendum on the deal. I do not know how many hon. Members remember that. Do you know, Mr Hanson, how many Members of Parliament voted for that amendment? I was quite astounded. Having listened to some of the voices from across the House, I thought it would be hundreds. It was 23. When the House had the opportunity to express its view on a second referendum, a whole 23 Members of Parliament—good on them, virtually all the Lib Dems voted for it, so at least they have been consistent—voted for one. That amendment was resoundingly defeated.
As we had the opportunity to vote for a second referendum only a year ago, I find it quite difficult to accept that so many Members of this House are now calling for one. I am not sure what has gone on during that year, but clearly something has. My line is quite simple: the House had the opportunity to vote for a second referendum, the amendment was resoundingly defeated and we should put the matter to bed. Continuing to call for a second referendum after not having voted for one at that time shows a lack of credibility.
Then there are the petitions that say that we should rescind article 50 and scrap the whole thing: “Let’s just cancel Brexit and put it in the too-difficult-to-do pile.” That, above everything, would be hugely damaging to our democracy and would send a disrespectful message to the British people. For Parliament, which voted for the referendum by a huge majority and said, “We put this decision in the hands of the British people,” to now say, “We cannot deliver it. It’s too difficult. Let’s just scrap it and call the whole thing off,” would send a wrong and damaging message to our country.
It is essential that we deliver on the referendum. I am concerned by some of the things that have been said by those, including some Conservative colleagues, who are clearly scheming and trying to find some unconstitutional technical way to overturn it and prevent Brexit. We must be honest with the British people and have integrity. All hon. Members in my party stood on a clear manifesto commitment in the last election that we would honour the referendum and deliver Brexit, so to go back on that and try to prevent it would be hugely damaging and would send all the wrong messages.
I genuinely hope that when it looks as though the vote has been lost tomorrow night, the Prime Minister goes to try to get a better deal that we can support. Let us not forget, however, that the legal position that the House voted for is that come what may—deal or no deal; withdrawal agreement or no withdrawal agreement —we will leave the European Union on 29 March. It is vital that the House delivers on that commitment.
I am pleased to respond to the many petitions on the future of Brexit that have been submitted for our consideration. My constituency voted 71% in favour of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, and it still supports that decision. In fact, as Parliament has become increasingly chaotic and unable to reach a consensus, I have felt that determination to leave the EU harden among my constituents. Increasingly, correspondence from constituents makes the point that they voted to leave and that, one way or another—with a deal or without—that decision must be respected come 29 March.
My constituents who have signed the petitions have made their views equally clear. Just short of 1,000 people from Mansfield and Warsop signed the petitions in support of a clean Brexit on world trade terms, while only 150 signed the petitions in favour of a second referendum or of stopping Brexit. Nationally, as has been touched on, the biggest petition by far is the one in support of leaving on world trade terms.
Contrary to the narrative we often hear, I would argue that numbers in my constituency have, if anything, shifted more in favour of leave since 2016. Anecdotally, my experience is that those attitudes have certainly hardened. We argue in this place about precisely what “leave” meant on the ballot paper, but it did not have caveats. It said remain or leave, one way or another, not “leave subject to the EU being willing to grant us a deal.”
Parliament voted to have a referendum, and the result was to leave. Parliament voted to trigger article 50 and start the leaving process. Parliament voted for the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which set in stone the date of our leaving as 29 March, but which did not specify that we must have a deal to leave, simply that we must leave. That remains the default legal position. It is no surprise that so many have signed petitions to show their strong feeling that that has already been decided, and that the House should respect that.
Politicians should not be debating whether we leave, whether we have another vote, or even whether we should stay in the European Union; the only question on the table is how we leave. There can be no question of going back on the Conservative and Labour parties’ 2017 manifestos, which both promised to leave the European Union and respect the result of the vote.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) mentioned our TV appearance before Christmas. If I remember rightly, he was wearing a very snazzy Christmas jumper. We had a good debate, as we often do, but I struggle with his position and that of those who say no to the deal and to no deal. I wonder, in a scenario in which the European Union is clear that this might be the only deal on the table, what else is left that respects the result.
We have to decide how we leave. The deal that we will be asked to vote for tomorrow is, unfortunately, not good enough. It requires us to be part of the customs union, which would mean we continued to be bound by EU rules and regulations over which we no longer have a say. That is not taking back control; that is worse than being in. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) rightly said, we cannot deliver on a vote for change by sticking as closely as possible to the status quo.
If we cannot come to an agreement on a future arrangement, which seems likely, given how the last two years have gone, we will be tied into a backstop that would make that customs union permanent, and that we could not leave without the European Union’s permission. That customs union arrangement is only for Great Britain; different rules would be in place for Northern Ireland. That puts our Union under threat, allows the Scottish nationalists to further stir the pot and seek yet more referendums until they get the answer they want, and breaks the Prime Minister’s promise to the people of Northern Ireland. The withdrawal agreement that we have been presented with does not fulfil the promises of the Conservative manifesto and is simply not acceptable. That is why so many of my constituents signed the petitions in favour of no deal.
We in this House all know, or can pretty much guess, that the withdrawal agreement will not pass in the House of Commons tomorrow. Some in the media have suggested a losing margin of 200 or more; I suggest that it will perhaps not be as big as that after we have gone through the confusing process of lots of amendments, which are likely to make tomorrow difficult for people out in the real world to follow. In fact, there are scenarios in which even the Government could vote against the withdrawal agreement at the end of the day, if it is amended in a way that they are not happy with. One way or another, however, the most important question is now, and always has been, what happens next. It is not about tomorrow, but plan B.
I want a deal that works, but it seems that none is forthcoming. If that is the case, I agree with my constituents who voted to leave and who expect us to leave. At no point has that been subject to us getting a deal. Although the media and many in this place like to talk about no deal, leaving on world trade terms is not no deal at all—it is hundreds of deals and transitional arrangements, both in co-operation with the EU and independently, that will make sure that we leave as smoothly as possible. Nobody wants chaos, and we will continue to work together to make sure that that does not happen.
Many constituents supported the petition because they have seen through “Project Fear”, and they appreciate the benefits of an independent Britain that will go into the future on world trade terms or with a no deal—whatever we want to call it. World trade terms have several benefits that we should relish, not least the benefit of us being a sovereign nation again, fully in control of our own affairs and able to keep some of that cash.
The withdrawal agreement promises £39 billion for a non-binding wish list of what we might like in a future relationship. I am a firm believer that we should pay our way, and that if we have signed up to projects and if there are things we want to continue to be involved in in the future, we should honour that, but of the £39 billion, only about £18 billion is for such things. Much of the rest is for things such as EU commissioners’ future pensions, which we do not need to contribute to if we are not members. As has been touched on, we have had that leverage in our pocket in the negotiations and we have not used it, and we would give it away if we signed the withdrawal agreement. A significant proportion of the money could be saved and spent on our priorities in the UK.
All hon. Members who have contributed have spoken about the problems and challenges of securing a clean break that would draw a line under the uncertainty when there is no consensus in Parliament, and when everyone has a strongly held view—for all the right reasons—but that is the only way to move on. If everyone knows where we stand and the debate is done, we can focus on the things that genuinely affect the everyday lives of citizens in this country. There is so much that we need to deal with that has been lost in the Brexit melee. The best thing for Britain is to move on.
Leaving on world trade terms would allow us the freedom to make trade deals of our own, in contrast with the withdrawal agreement, which the US, New Zealand and Australia have suggested would make that difficult. The Government are already looking at how to transfer existing deals from the EU, such as with Switzerland, to provide continuity and to ensure that we are trading on better than world trade terms with many advanced economies. In fact, we will never need to trade on world trade terms with Europe either. Article 24 of the World Trade Organisation treaty allows us to continue to trade with Europe on zero tariffs while we negotiate a free trade arrangement.
Leaving on such terms would be a change, of course—change is required whether we have a deal and the withdrawal agreement or not—but the scaremongering about the impact has been ridiculous. People have suggested that there will be queues of lorries trying to get into the UK, which will cause delays to things such as medicines coming into the country. Let us not forget that there have already been occasions when there have been such queues at Dover, because of protests in France or whatever, so we cannot pretend that EU membership has protected us from those challenges. But we should not forget that we, the UK, control who enters our country, and therefore we decide what checks are needed, not Europe. If we do not want to stop goods coming in, we can decide not to stop them coming in.
Both Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs say that no additional checks will be needed; and anyway, most physical checks are made away from the border, at source or at destination. We have the ability and flexibility to make changes, and make things work. The authorities at Calais say that they have every intention of prioritising the continued flow of goods at their port, too.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
There is not time in this debate to go through all the details, but I recommend that Members read the many works on the subject by Lord Lilley in particular, which lay out the facts about WTO terms in great detail.
The important point to make is that Brexit is not Armageddon. Last night, I watched “Bird Box” on Netflix with my wife, in which strangers’ voices kind of sweep in on the wind and make people kill themselves. I wondered whether it might be a documentary on the impact of a no-deal Brexit, funded by Lord Adonis, Alastair Campbell or somebody along those lines.
“Bird Box” was not too dissimilar from some of the scare stories that we have heard. We have heard that super-gonorrhoea will come flying in from Europe and take us all; we have heard that babies will die because of milk shortages; and we have heard that cancer patients will die if we are not in Euratom, when Euratom does not even cover medicines at all. The level of scaremongering on this subject has been absolutely unbelievable. In fact, it has got so ridiculous that most people simply do not believe it; they discount it, and it serves only to harden the attitude that we should leave regardless.
Many people have a vested interest in whipping up that fear, but we have to deal with practical realities. We can put in place measures to make leaving with no deal, which in fact requires lots of deals, work for the UK. Preparations for that should have started earlier, absolutely; but now they are well under way.
A second referendum or revoking article 50, which are called for in some of the petitions that we are considering, would be an absolute betrayal of the trust we put in the citizens of this country to decide on this issue, and I will never support those two options.
Operating on WTO terms is not my first position, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) said it was not his. I want a deal that I can support and that is the best option for the UK, but in the absence of a good deal, we still have to leave. If the Prime Minister comes back next week, after the withdrawal agreement has failed, to say that she now intends to pursue a looser free trade relationship with the EU and to try to negotiate something better in all of our interests, then, in the absence of WTO terms, that could be the back-up, but first let us try to find something better; I would absolutely support her in that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the vote is lost and we move closer to WTO terms, or no-deal terms, or whatever people want to call it, we must move from contingency planning, which is really important, to starting to negotiate and sign bilateral agreements—that two-way thing—to alleviate some of the turbulence that we have discussed?
Absolutely, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right that we need to put in place everything we can to make this process work for the United Kingdom. That means we need to move from talking about things that we might need to do and having those contingency arrangements to getting things signed and sealed on paper, so that we can move forward, one way or the other, in the future.
However, as I say, if the Prime Minister wants to go back to Europe with a stronger hand, having seen exactly how much feeling there is against the nature of this withdrawal agreement in the Houses of Parliament, and give the European Union one last chance to come with something that we can all get behind and support for the benefit of both the UK and the European Union, then I would absolutely support her in that, and I hope that is what she will do next week. But one way or another, we have to leave.
Britain can thrive outside the European Union. No deal is very much better than the bad deal that is on offer, and I feel that increasingly my constituents are absolutely adamant—as is increasingly represented in the correspondence that I receive—that this place must support us leaving on 29 March, one way or the other.
It is a pleasure, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairpersonship; I think it is for the first time.
Before I get on to the subject of the debate, I will make two points about the manner in which we are discussing it. First, a great many people have taken the time and trouble to read and sign the various petitions, and Parliament has previously said that it is very respectful and supportive of people petitioning this institution; and yet today, to consider a topic that has gripped the country, during what can only be regarded as a political crisis that has no end in sight, only nine Members of Parliament have turned up.
I know why that is so: the main event is still happening only 100 metres away. However, it is not the first time that this has happened. I remember a very similar occasion before Christmas when I was here to respond from the third party to a petition about Brexit while a big Brexit discussion was going on in the main Chamber.
I do not say that to criticise; I am merely making an observation. I say as gently as possible to the Petitions Committee, the Panel of Chairs and the Clerks of the House that we know that this is not a topic that will go away; it will dominate our politics at least throughout the next year. We know that Parliament sits at 2.30 pm on a Monday; we know that after a weekend of not sitting, there are likely to be statements; and we know that any significant event in this process is likely to happen on a Monday afternoon. If, in the months to come, we receive further petitions relating to Brexit, I ask that we do not schedule debates on them on a Monday afternoon—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will take an intervention, but I am really trying not to be divisive or critical; I am simply asking the Petitions Committee at least to give consideration to a different schedule.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I just wanted to explain that 4.30 pm on a Monday is the slot that is allocated every week, so there is not a lot of scope for flexibility. The Petitions Committee meets in private, but one of the questions that we often ask about Brexit petitions is whether, because we debate the matter so often in the House, we are just duplicating debates. We try to give people a voice as much as we can, but I take his point.
I understand that. The same is true of the Backbench Business Committee, which has no control over when it can schedule debates; it has to work within times that are given to it. Nevertheless, I am raising this issue so that the Petitions Committee might consider it and make representations to whoever is in control of the schedule, to point out the problems that we are having. We can make jokes about it, but if this continues I think there will come a point when the public ask, “Are these petitions really being taken seriously enough by Members of Parliament?”
My second point is not a major one, but I am not sure about the efficacy of lumping petitions together in a oner for consideration. I know that it would take more time if we did not do that. However, although the petitions that we are discussing appear to be alternatives to each other, we cannot necessarily test the pros and cons of each by reference to people who have petitioned on a completely different matter. I think we ought not to aggregate such matters. We should not simply make the assumption that anybody who signs a petition about Brexit will be happy and content to have their concerns considered in conjunction with those of anybody else who signs a petition about Brexit, which may come from a completely different perspective.
I will move on to the substance of the debate. I am against Brexit, my party is against Brexit and Scotland voted against Brexit, so I think people know where I stand. I am not into “Project Fear”; I had enough of “Project Fear” in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. I do not suggest that the world will end if Brexit goes ahead on 29 March. In fact, I do not even think that it will be that big a historical event, apart from the significance of the date, in terms of what materially happens.
I think that the most horrible thing about this process is that we will enter a process of slow, insidious grinding down of living standards, and with that will come a grinding down of the hope and optimism of the country and a fuelling of many of the sentiments that led to the vote in 2016. My concern is that we are about to commit a degree of national self-harm that we could avoid; it is entirely self-inflicted.
Having said that, all that we can summate from the petitions that we are considering today is that opinion is divided. The big question now: what are we going to do to take this process forward, knowing that the country is divided, knowing that Parliament is divided and knowing that it is very, very difficult to try to chart a course through?
I turn to the question of whether there should be another referendum on the question. I do not think that we should put the same question again, but I do think that there are circumstances in which it is legitimate to go back to the people and consult them further. We cannot do so every day, but in a democracy people have the right to change their minds. Particularly when one decision has created a process and led to things that were not anticipated, people have the right to be consulted again.
The hon. Gentleman referred to optimism, and the optimism of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave cannot be ignored. I respect his comments. He and I probably disagree on many things, including this issue, but does he not agree that a second referendum would, by its very nature, be divisive and, unfortunately, engineer more disquiet and anger among the people by totally ignoring the referendum of June 2016, when 17.4 million people said, “We want to leave”? Let us honour that.
The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted me. I will come on to those precise points, so bear with me.
In a democracy, people have the right to change their minds, but we cannot provide procedures for them to do that every day, every week, every month or even every year. There are, however, circumstances in which it is legitimate to revisit the question. I would set three tests. The first is: has the information on which the original decision was made changed significantly? In this case, it has. Far more information is available now than was available three years ago, and some of the promises that were made appear, even to those who proposed them, not to be possible to deliver. Secondly, have people changed their mind on the subject by an extent significant enough to suggest that the result would be different were the question asked again? Thirdly, has the legislature—the Parliament—that is charged with the responsibility of executing the decision of a referendum proved unwilling or unable to do so? I contend that the first two of those tests have been met and the third will be met tomorrow night, when the Government’s proposal crashes and burns.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I am interested to know the basis for his second point, which is about people changing their minds. If it is opinion polls, we all know that over the past few years opinion polls have been very wrong—those on the referendum predicted a win for remain. Surely, therefore, we cannot trust opinion polls as evidence that people have changed their mind.
I do not know about trusting opinion polls, but they are clearly evidence that people have changed their mind. Yes, 17.4 million people voted in a certain way three years ago, but the aggregate of opinion polls suggests that a significant number of them have changed their mind. We have ignored, up to now, the 48% who did not go along with the proposition, and we are in danger of not only continuing to ignore them but denying the possibility that people might have changed their minds, and ignoring the fact that they have.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?
I will give way one more time, but I am anxious not to labour the point for long.
In my constituency, people voted 56% to 44% to leave. Over the holiday period, I made it my business to talk to my constituents in fishing, farming, business and ordinary life, and opinion is hardening in relation to leaving the EU. That is happening in my constituency, and I am sure it is happening in others.
I have no reason to gainsay what the hon. Gentleman says about his constituency. Likewise, in my constituency the direction is the other way. Current polling in Scotland suggests that while 62% voted to remain three years ago, if the vote were held today the figure would probably be more than 70%. That can be played either way.
The point is that not only is public opinion fundamentally divided, but there is a churn in that opinion and people are anxious to discuss and to be consulted on the matter again. Some of the arguments that have been made against that are disturbing. Over the weekend, for example, the Prime Minister said that it was ridiculous for people to ask for a second vote, and that if the UK Parliament overturned a referendum result in Wales or Scotland, people would be outraged. Of course, it was quickly pointed out that she had voted in this Parliament to overturn the referendum result in Wales, but my concern is about Scotland.
The Prime Minister’s comparison is a false one, because the 2014 vote in Scotland was to secede from the United Kingdom. Asking what would happen if the United Kingdom Parliament were to overturn the vote of the Scottish electorate is no comparison at all. The comparison would be to ask, “What would it be like if people had voted in a UK-wide referendum to leave the European Union and the EU then decided that they couldn’t?” No one would suggest that that was in any way—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh, but no one surely suggests that the EU is either trying, or has the legal ability, to prevent the United Kingdom from leaving.
Clearly, the EU has no legal right to do that, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is trying every trick in the book to make it as difficult as possible for us to leave, partly because, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, it wants to make an example of us to ensure that no one else dares vote to leave.
As the hon. Gentleman says, the EU has absolutely no right to do that. It may be concerned about agreeing to certain aspects of the nature of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal, but it has no right to prevent the withdrawal. To suggest that it does is disingenuous.
I am slightly concerned about another thing. People have talked, including here today, about Parliament overturning the will of the people. I ask hon. Members to please consider that language, because it is not particularly helpful. No one is suggesting that Parliament should vote to disregard and overturn the result of the 2016 referendum—[Interruption.] The Minister chunters at me from a sedentary position. Okay, perhaps I cannot say “no one”, but I do not suggest that and neither does my party. I have not heard anyone in this Chamber suggest that Parliament should vote to overturn the decision of the 2016 referendum. What people are arguing about is whether the people who took the decision to leave the EU should be consulted on whether, knowing what they do now, they wish to continue with that decision.
That brings me to what the question on the ballot paper would be, about which there has been some discussion. As I see it, and I am trying to be logical, in June 2016 the people of the United Kingdom voted to start a process. They said, “This is the direction we want to go in. We want to leave the EU and we want the Government to go ahead and do that.” I have many criticisms about how the Government of the day did that, but I cannot claim that they did not engage and commit resources and time to trying to discharge that mandate.
Two and half years later, the Government have got to a position with a deal on the table—let us not even call it a deal; the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) is right. There is a set of proposals about how that 2016 mandate could be implemented, and how it should be discharged and executed. The question is: are those proposals acceptable to the people who commissioned the process in the first place? Is this really what they want to do? They should be given the choice of whether to go ahead or call a halt to the process, in which case the status quo ante would pertain and we would remain in the EU. Those are the two broad choices.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will take the intervention, because I think I can guess what the hon. Gentleman will say.
Does the hon. Gentleman not see the problem in presenting a deal that a petition of 300,000-odd people say is not Brexit, and that Conservative Members have today said does not represent Brexit? Having “Brexit” on a ballot paper does not give anyone an educated choice about what they are voting on.
But it is Brexit. It may not be the type of Brexit the hon. Gentleman wants—it may not be as hard and quick as he wants—but it is the United Kingdom leaving the EU. The Minister will perhaps confirm that when he makes his statement. I am pretty sure that what we will be voting on tomorrow night is a form of Brexit.
My point is that after two and a half years of intense discussion, argument, negotiation and research, the Government say that this is the best they can come up with. I think it is pretty shoddy and I shall vote against it, but I do not dispute the fact that it probably is the best they can come up with, so that is it. I say to the people who wanted this to happen, “This is what it looks like. Do you want it to happen, or do you not?” That is the question that people should be given.
People have said, “It is impossible to do that by 29 March.” Of course it is. Everyone accepts it is impossible to have another referendum by 29 March. That is why the obvious decision for Parliament would be to say, “We want to go back and consult the people, and we wish the European Union to allow an extension of the article 50 process in order for that to happen.” I cannot conceive of a situation in which the European Union would not, in those circumstances, consent to a three or six-month extension of article 50—however long it would take—to organise a plebiscite and ask people whether they are really sure that they want to go ahead with Brexit. The European Union has said that it would not countenance an extension of article 50 if the proposal were not changed, but the whole purpose of seeking an extension would be to offer the possibility of changing the proposition. I cannot believe that the European Union would deny the United Kingdom the opportunity to do that; in fact, if it did, I would call foul on the European Union, and I might even change my mind about what our relationship should be, so convinced am I that the EU would not take that position.
Some of the language that has been used in this debate is potentially very dangerous. People have suggested, for example, that we cannot possibly allow people to vote on this question again because if the result went a different way, it would not just be divisive, but the people who lose might go out on to the streets, there might be political violence and the far right in this country might increase, taking us back to scenes that we saw in the 1970s, when I first came into politics. However, that will only happen if we tell people that they are being excluded from the decision. If we make it clear that the reason for a people’s vote or another referendum is to include people and involve them all in the decision, I do not see why that should happen; if it did happen, it would be an illegitimate response to any decision that might be taken. I am assuming, of course, that a people’s vote would lead to a change in position, but it might not. In that case, I really think it is better that people get the chance to make absolutely sure that want to go ahead with the process, with all its potential difficulties.
I turn to position of the Labour party, and I would like the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) to clarify something. My understanding is that the party’s position, as several Labour Members have said, is that there should be a general election. Now, we are not going to get a two-thirds majority, but the obvious route to a general election is to place before the House a motion of no confidence in the Government. I ask the shadow Minister when, or in what circumstances, that is going to happen. Will it happen when the Government are defeated tomorrow night? Will it happen after the Labour party has given the Government another three days to come back with plan B—of course, we decided on that last week—or will it never happen unless the Labour party is convinced that it knows the result, because it does not want to table a motion of no confidence and be defeated? As much as we need to get over tomorrow night’s decision before we can move forward, we also need to get over the no confidence question before Parliament and the country can move forward.
The leader of the Labour party seems to have been hardening his position in recent days. He has said that were there to be a general election, he would put in the Labour manifesto a commitment to implement the result of the 2016 European Union referendum—in other words, to proceed with Brexit. Perhaps the shadow Minister could clarify whether that is the case. If so, it seems to me that Labour would be in the position of calling a general election on the question of Brexit without offering people the option of stopping Brexit. I think that would lead to political disillusionment on a scale far greater than that which might be caused by another people’s vote. It would be helpful to have some clarification, because as far as I am concerned, a choice between the Prime Minister’s Brexit and the Leader of the Opposition’s Brexit is not really a choice at all.
I will finish by referencing the situation in Scotland, because we have been trying very hard to play a constructive role in this debate. As I say, we have our mandate: 74% of my constituents told me they did not want to leave the European Union, and that figure is probably now closer to 80%. Some 97% of the thousands of people who write to me about this issue are against going ahead with Brexit, so I am quite clear, but I am not saying, “Stop it now.” For two and a half years now, we have tried to engage in this Parliament, and the Scottish Government have put forward compromise proposals. However, those proposals have been rejected time and time again, because the manner in which this has been gone about has been an object lesson in how not to do politics.
Last week, the Prime Minister had a cross-party meeting with Back Bench MPs, which I attended. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) pointed out, it was a welcome event; it was just a shame that it had not been done two and a half years ago when the vote was initially taken. It really was a case of too little, too late. However, I ask the Minister to clarify whether, in the event of a defeat tomorrow night, the Government—given that they are no longer able to get their own position through the House—will consider working on a cross-party basis and consulting with Members from different parties and with different views, in order to see whether it is possible to reach a consensual and agreed way forward. At the minute, Scotland is involved in trying to stop Brexit—to create a situation in which the UK does not leave the EU—because it is in the interests of the people we represent, as well as the people of all the UK. However, if our voices continue to be ignored, then we have an alternative, and it will be activated once this Brexit dust settles.
It is a pleasure to wind up the debate for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Davies; I am sure you will deeply regret having missed many of the contributions made earlier in the debate, knowing your views on these matters. I thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for the way in which he opened the debate—he drew on points made by petitioners on both sides of the argument and on different proposals—and for the way in which he explored the complexity of the issues that we face. In that context, I draw attention to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris): the tone of our discussions is so important, particularly given some of the stuff we have seen around the precincts of Westminster over the past week. He was right to say that we are at a crossroads. People are expressing wildly diverse but sincerely held views; the reasons why people voted as they did in the 2016 referendum were sincere, too. We should respect all those views.
The petitions we have debated reflect the divisions in the country, and indeed in Parliament—divisions that have been exacerbated, not healed, by the way in which this Government have approached the negotiations over the past two years. It did not have to be like this. When the negotiations began, we urged the Prime Minister to look beyond the war in her own party, and to reach out to the majority in Parliament and across the country who respected the fact that the people had voted to leave—the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) are right about that—but also accepted that they had done so by a painfully close margin. We urged the Prime Minister to recognise the vote for what it was: a mandate to end our membership of the European Union, but not to rupture our relationship with our closest neighbours, our key allies and our most important trading partner, and certainly not to crash out of the European Union without any agreement.
The hon. Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), in disagreeing with the deal, both said that it was the only deal that would be countenanced by the European Union—that, in the words of the Prime Minister, it was the only deal possible, a point that I am sure the Minister will make. But it was the only deal possible within the constraints that the Prime Minister had set herself. The European Union made it clear that there were a range of options and relationships that it was prepared to consider, but the British Government had effectively ruled those out with the negotiating terms that they had set. We regret the fact that the Prime Minister allowed the agenda to be set by what her own Chancellor described as the Brexit “extremists” within her party. She set the red line, boxed herself in and ended up pleasing nobody—neither leave nor remain voters—with the deal.
In December, with the clock ticking, the Prime Minster wasted a further month by delaying the vote on the deal that is doomed to fall tomorrow. So what is her strategy now to get the deal through? Threatening MPs and the country with no deal at all. We have made it clear from the start that we would not accept a blackmail Brexit: the choice of “My deal or no deal.” We will reject her deal tomorrow, confident that Parliament will not allow the country to leave without a deal; that is the clearly expressed view of the majority of Members of Parliament. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made clear, leaving without a deal would be a “terrible” outcome for the UK economy. He compared it with the dark days of the 1980s.
It is not enough to talk about doom merchants or the car industry “bleating”. I say to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay that the stories about stockpiling medicines were not scare stories run by doom merchants. They were the proposals made by the Government in the preparatory papers that those supporting Brexit had urged them to prepare to ensure the country was ready for no deal. It was the Government who said we needed to stockpile medicines and food, and who said they could not continue to guarantee the power supply in Northern Ireland. That is their assessment of the position in relation to no deal.
We should recognise that the voices warning against no deal do not simply come from partisans within this place. They come from the CBI, the Engineering Employers Federation, the British Chamber of Commerce and the TUC—those who are at the coalface of the consequences if we leave with no deal. I have heard it said in this debate, and it is strongly argued by many, that if we leave without a deal, we should reclaim the £39 billion that we are to hand to the EU. Many of the people who make that argument also argue that we should strike out to secure new trade deals with many other countries around the world. The Chancellor was right to ask what country would sign up to a deal with a country that has demonstrated its ability to renege on agreements properly made in good faith.
We agree on tomorrow’s vote, but disagree on the objectives. I assume we agree that we all should follow the law. Does my hon. Friend not accept the view of the House of Lords Committee about where our legal obligations start and finish? We do not have a legal obligation to pay £39 billion, and the basis of trade deals is to follow the rules and the law.
I obviously agree with my hon. Friend that we should follow the law; there would not be much purpose to this place if we did not accept that premise. The House of Lords Committee expressed an opinion. There are different opinions. I would probably accept that we do not need to pay all of that £39 billion. There are different views, and the hon. Member for Mansfield differentiated between some of them, but reneging on the entire £39 billion, as some Brexit extremists suggest we should, would put us in contravention of agreements.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the EU’s own words, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed? On that basis, we have not yet agreed to the £39 billion. We are not reneging on anything if we cannot come to an agreement with the EU.
The hon. Gentleman knows that it was the last but one Brexit Secretary, himself an opponent of the Prime Minister’s deal, who agreed to the sequencing of the decisions, and who signed up to the £39 billion question.
I will move on to another aspect of the no-deal argument. It is important, because those who advocate no deal have said, “If we leave with no deal, it’s easy; we will just slip out on WTO terms. No problem at all.” I highlight the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, which echoed what the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said in his opening remarks: WTO terms cover only a part of our relationship. They do not, for example, cover the critical relationships relating to security and the protection of this country in fighting crime and terrorism.
Even with regard to our trading relationship, there was a suggestion that we could slip into WTO terms easily, seamlessly, and without process, and that those terms are the default position for every member of the WTO. But there is not a member of the WTO that does not have additional trade agreements above and beyond those terms. Our current agreements with some 70 countries are through our membership of the European Union. They were negotiated bilaterally. It is worth noting that some time ago, when the Government’s White Paper talked about expanding our markets around the world, the Government rightly cited South Korea as an example. There have been huge developments in UK trade with South Korea since the EU signed a bilateral trade deal with South Korea.
Those arguing for an easy process have suggested that it will be simple to roll over the agreements in the brave new world, but they have already had to confront the harsh truth that some 20 countries, including allies whom they regularly point to—the United States, Australia and New Zealand—have objected to our simply rolling over agreements because they see an opportunity to gain a commercial advantage. I do not blame them; we would probably do the same in a different situation. The process of simply slipping into the WTO in the way that has been suggested bears no relation to the real situation.
I understand why the idea of no deal has gained in popularity; it is partly because it is a simple and straightforward proposition, but it is partly and very significantly the fault of the Prime Minster. She launched the meaningless mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal” way back in January 2017 at Lancaster House, and she and members of the Government have repeated it endlessly. No wonder people think no deal is a viable option. She justified it by saying,
“We would...be able to trade with Europe. We would be free to strike trade deals across the world.”
However, she failed to make it clear that no deal does not mean the status quo. In that sense, it is not like buying a house, which is how the former Brexit Secretary described it—as someone walking away, after a deal breaks down, with no less advantage than when they entered the negotiations. Walking away in the context of no deal means substantially damaging our position. Yes, it would mean in theory that we had the ability to trade with the EU, but not on the same terms as we currently do. The terms of seamless trade that countless supply chains and just-in-time production rely on would disappear.
Back then, the Prime Minister was happy to suggest that nothing would change in our trade relationship with Europe, but the truth is now out, and she has turned her own slogan on its head. She is now desperately going around the country, and within Parliament, saying that we have to accept her doomed deal because the alternative is no deal. She says that no deal would be a disaster. On that, at least, she is right, but the country deserves better than a choice between shrinking the economy by 4% under her deal and by 8% under no deal.
Clearly, we are in unprecedented times. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay said that the EU27 were trying to frustrate the process. What has frustrated the process more than anything has been the Government’s inability to agree their own position. I have spent some time talking with politicians from across the political spectrum and across nations within the EU27. Time and again they have said, “We’re sorry that the UK has chosen to leave the European Union. We wish you weren’t leaving, but we recognise that you are. We would simply like to be able to negotiate with certainty, knowing what your country wants; and once there was agreement, we would like your Prime Minister to be able to deliver on that, even just within the framework of her own party.” The war within that party has held back the negotiations more than any other factor.
It is pretty clear that the deal will be defeated tomorrow, but what then? The House has made it clear, against the Government’s opposition, that the Prime Minister will have to return within three days with plan B, and cannot try to run the clock down any further. Governments who can no longer govern do not have a place. That is why we are calling for a general election. I will come to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard).
This is the central issue of our time. It is certainly the central issue of this Parliament. The Government have spent two years focused on it above everything. It has caused paralysis in other critical areas of economic and social policy. All the Government’s energies have been focused on the deal, so if that deal is defeated tomorrow, the honourable thing—the right thing, and the thing that would have happened in years gone by—would be for the Government to step down. Owing to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, it is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton pointed out, more complex. After the deal is defeated we will therefore, without wasting time, seek to move a vote of no confidence in the Government.
If the Government run scared from facing the voters, and I understand why they might after last June—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
May I ask for a little more clarity? The hon. Gentleman says that if the deal is rejected, Labour will seek a vote at some point. Will he give us an indication of the Front-Bench thinking on that? Crucially, would Labour give the Government time to present a plan B before it made a decision on a no confidence vote?
I anticipated that intervention, and the hon. Gentleman will anticipate my response. I said that we would waste no time. I am not going to share with him exactly the way in which that decision will unfold.
I hope that Government Members might recognise at that point that a general election would be a way of resolving the issue, but I recognise that they might not, after their experience last June. I say to those who have signed petitions for a second referendum—we have debated similar petitions previously, and at much greater length—that at that point, if there is to be a general election, we will look at all the options available, including a further referendum.
In that context, it is profoundly irresponsible of the Prime Minister to go around the country rallying the people against Parliament, for the Foreign Secretary to attack the Speaker of the House of Commons in the way that he did on Friday, or for the Transport Secretary to say that if the Prime Minister’s deal is not accepted it will lead to a
“less tolerant society, a more nationalistic nation…open…to extremist populist political forces”.
Their efforts would have been better spent condemning those who are driving intolerance within our politics, and presenting a united front against that sort of extremism. Briefings to the Sunday papers about a coup in Parliament are clearly intended to set voters against MPs, but we in this place should not allow Parliament to be intimidated.
The truth is that there are no easy choices facing us over the next few weeks, and there are probably no good outcomes. We have to make the best of where we are. Those are the difficulties that Parliament is grappling with. We need calm heads. We should not be ramping up the rhetoric, but should recognise the consequences of all the choices that we face. That is what the Opposition are committed to doing, in the interests of all the people we represent.
I said to myself, I think about halfway through the debate, that I would keep my remarks brief, because we have had an extensive debate, we have had excellent speeches, and frankly we have rehearsed many of these points—
May I say that you have only 45 minutes?
I am fully aware of the timescale. You are lucky, Mr Davies, that my hour-long speech will have to be curtailed. I wanted to make brief remarks because many of these points have been rehearsed at length in debates gone by, and I am sure that they will be in the future.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) introduced the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. He read out the petitions and the views of hundreds of thousands of people. It was striking, as he pointed out, that all those viewpoints were, essentially, contradictory. There is a full and wide range of opinion in the country—as evidenced by the petitions—as there are divergent views in the House of Commons. In the Chamber today, with only about nine MPs, we have a wide range of views. We have people who support Brexit but do not like the deal, people who support Brexit but do like the deal, and people who do not like the deal and do not like Brexit. The permutations seem endless, and that is with only nine MPs.
I want to make it clear that that degree of divergence in view—the very different opinions expressed right across the country—shows the level of confusion that there might well be if this exercise of Brexit is not concluded in an orderly fashion. As one would expect, my view, and that of the Government, is that the best way of delivering Brexit in a timely, orderly manner is through the deal in the withdrawal agreement. It is not true to say that it does not deliver Brexit. That is a grotesque exaggeration and caricature of the deal.
I fought very hard alongside many MPs, some of whom are in the Chamber, for Brexit in 2016. I was very clear about the three things that I wanted from Brexit. I wanted to see a drastic curtailment, if not an end, to the club membership—the £10 billion net a year that we were paying indefinitely, and that would have increased as we entered a new budget period. The deal completely prevents that. There is no £39 billion figure in the agreement. That is a snapshot, or a shorthand expression.
It is a lot of money, but it actually equates to only four years of net payments. We were in the EU, or the European Economic Community, for 46 years. Everyone understands that to leave such a commitment—to leave that union after such a long period of membership—will take time. The deal recognises that. It curtails the length of the implementation period. It curtails the money. The £39 billion figure is often quoted, but that is against £10 billion every year from today until kingdom come.
Importantly, one of the big issues in the Brexit referendum was freedom of movement from the EU. Many people, particularly among ethnic minority communities, were saying, “How is it that someone from the EU who speaks no English at all can come to Britain without a job, while my relatives from Commonwealth countries outside the EU do not have that opportunity?” Many others in my constituency, including builders and people working in construction, also mentioned freedom of movement. I remember coming out of Staines station and meeting someone who said that he would vote for Brexit because he had not had a wage increase for 15 years. A clever economist might say that that was simplistic, but that was the view—that was how people felt that their professional experience was developing. Freedom of movement was a big issue.
The withdrawal agreement—the deal that we need to vote on—is not perfect; like any deal in history, it includes some give and take. However, it substantially delivers on putting an end to freedom of movement, and that is why we are introducing an immigration Bill. As I recall, the third big issue in the campaign was about the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice: would it continue to be sovereign over this Parliament? On that issue, too, the withdrawal agreement delivers. It is a good deal, and it largely delivers on what we campaigned for as Brexiteers.
I say to my Brexit colleagues, as the Prime Minister said in her speech today in Stoke, that there is a marked and strong current of opinion in the House of Commons that wants to subvert or reverse Brexit. I know that those are strong words, and people will say, “Oh, we just want to scrutinise legislation.” Forget all that—it is clear to a child that there are MPs in this House who want to reverse the referendum. They have openly said that the referendum result was a disaster and have pledged to overturn it, but they know that the only way that they can do that is by means of a second referendum. It is not that they like the idea of a second referendum because they want to test the robustness of the decision or celebrate the exercise of democracy, but that the way to reverse Brexit is very clear: it has to be done through a second referendum, to give it the authority that the first had. I do not know about our Scottish National party friends, but it would take a very bold remainer to say that the House of Commons could simply unilaterally disregard the referendum.
If one wants to stay in the EU, one has to accept that the only way of doing so is with a second referendum. Hon. Members who sit on the Conservative Benches or who represent leave constituencies have detected a hardening of public opinion, however. As a Member who represents a leave constituency, I concur: even if a second referendum took place, I do not believe that the remainers would get their wish. Nevertheless, I fully understand that that is their only shot—their only conduit to reversing something that they think is a disaster—so it is the route they want to pursue. The Government’s view is that that would be wholly disruptive, divisive and simply a cheat, because it would be an attempt to circumvent the decision.
The vast majority of Members of this House voted to have the referendum, voted to trigger article 50 and voted to pass the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Let us be under no illusions: the debate on a second referendum is simply about trying to reverse the result of the first. The Government simply cannot accept that. We want to move forward and conclude Brexit in an orderly and managed fashion—I was almost going to say an elegant fashion, but I think that that would be pushing things too far.
If the Minister is so convinced that he and the Brexiteers, as he calls them, would win a second referendum, why is he so scared of letting the people have a say?
What was interesting about the hon. Gentleman’s speech was that about halfway through it, I realised I had heard it all in a speech he gave before Christmas. It was eloquent and well put, but I have heard all the arguments before.
I am not scared of a second referendum; I am simply trying to focus people’s minds on what it means. It is being proposed not by great exponents of democracy or champions of the people’s voice, but almost exclusively by people who are on the record as saying that the first referendum result was a disaster, that they want to reverse it and that they fully accept that the only way of getting their cherished aim of staying in the EU is with a second referendum. I reject that approach because it tries to subvert the result of the 2016 referendum. We can pretend that it is a wonderful exercise of democracy, but it is not; it is trying to go against the clear and decisive vote of the people in 2016.
The hon. Gentleman says that opinion polls have changed, but they have not changed that much. And as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) points out, they are the very opinion polls that said the day before the 2016 referendum that remain would win by 10 points, and that got things consistently wrong throughout the whole referendum campaign. I do not believe that the second premise of the argument made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—that somehow there has been a marked shift in public opinion—should precipitate a referendum.
I agree completely with the Minister’s point about the motivation for a second referendum, but some of the people who want to subvert the 2016 referendum result have another string to their bow: attrition. By extending article 50, they want to extend the whole process until the House or the public should get weary of it. Will the Minister give us an assurance that under no circumstances will the Government introduce a statutory instrument that changes the date for leaving the European Union that was set in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. My understanding is that the Government will not seek to extend article 50. That is the Government’s view, but in the light of what happened last week and the fact that we are hearing stories about a potential motion of the House to overturn Standing Order No. 14, it may well be that the House will take a collective view. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), said something to the effect that the House would not countenance no deal—I may be quoting him loosely. That means that the House would take it upon itself to introduce legislation or a motion to bind or strongly encourage the Government to extend article 50.
I know the Government’s position, but given that last week, extraordinarily to me, the amendment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) was made and was allowed to be made, who knows what will happen? The Prime Minister is quite right to suggest—indeed, it is a statement of fact —that Brexit itself is in danger.
If the House votes down the deal tomorrow, we will have about two and a half months. The House may take it upon itself to stop no deal; I suggest to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) that enough MPs have said publicly that under no circumstances will they countenance no deal. Those people will not simply sit on their hands watching the sand running down the egg-timer until no deal happens on 29 March. They are bright people, skilled in parliamentary debate and procedure, and they will do all they can to frustrate no deal—they have pretty much said that, and their actions have shown it. I feel that a lot of my Brexiteer colleagues are showing remarkable complacency in thinking that all we have to do is sit and wait for no deal to take place. What I am saying is that nobody knows.
I think that the best, clearest, most elegant and simplest way of delivering Brexit is simply to vote for the deal. The deal is not perfect—no deal is perfect—but it takes us forward to the second stage of negotiations with the EU. It means that we leave the EU, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East suggested. He is honest: he says he does not want to leave the EU, which is why he will vote against the deal. It is extraordinary for Brexiteer colleagues to say that they want Brexit but will vote down the deal by marching through the Lobby with people whose sole political aim is to frustrate Brexit. Members who advocate Brexit will, metaphorically, link arm in arm with people who want to frustrate the whole project. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) have radically different views on the nature of Brexit, its purpose and its good effects, as she and I see them, but they will probably go through the same Lobby. Frankly, this is a crazy situation.
The reason we are likely to go through the same Lobby is, quite frankly, because the Government have failed to listen time and again. Behind closed doors we have all been having meetings with the Whip and the Prime Minister and expressing our concerns for months, but they have fallen on deaf ears. With respect, it is no wonder that we are in this situation, because the Government have put a bad deal to the House.
That illustrates exactly what I was going to say—in a funny way, it actually makes my argument for me. Two groups of people who think diametrically opposed things have come together to vote down the deal. One group thinks that by voting down the deal it will get to stay in the EU; another thinks that by voting down the deal it will get a perfect Brexit. Both groups cannot be right. They are rational, intelligent people on both sides, yet they think diametrically opposed things will happen, which suggests to me that the deal is probably the best way forward. The unholy alliance between principled Brexiteers—many are close friends of mine, whom I respect—and people who have openly said that they would vote down Brexit shows me very clearly that the deal is the only rational and sensible way forward.
It takes a lot for somebody who has always been loyal to the party over the past decade or so—and since I have been a Member—to vote against the Government. I have never done so, like many of my colleagues who have resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Let us not forget that it is the remain colleagues in our party who have been thwarting Brexit and who have voted against the Government so far. To return to my previous point, you have not provided the House with a deal that actually represents Brexit. So many constituents have written to me to say, “Please vote that deal down”. It is you, the Government and the Prime Minister who have done the job of uniting Conservative Members against your deal.
Just to clarify, obviously it is not me.
I urge the hon. Lady and her Brexiteer colleagues to vote for the deal. I am not speaking as a Government Minister but as a Brexiteer, and my real worry is that Brexit will be abandoned because the Brexiteers are divided.
I am a historian and someone who loves reading about history. There are countless examples of situations where people have won what they were fighting for and then simply fallen out—there have been divisions. That is a very grave danger for Brexit: having won the argument and the referendum in 2016, we see the Brexit side quite fractured. As a Brexiteer, I support the deal. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, as a Brexiteer, supports the deal. Yet there are other Brexiteers here in Westminster Hall, not to mention in the wider House of Commons, who support Brexit but feel that they cannot support the deal. I urge all Brexiteers, and remainers who want to see their manifesto commitments fulfilled—the entire Labour party, according to its manifesto—to vote for the deal in order to move forward. Any other outcome, as a result of voting down the deal, would add to the chaos and confusion, and it would imperil Brexit.
Thank you very much for your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions to this very high-quality debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second half of the debate, Mr Davies. I thank the Minister for his excellent speech, and I thank everybody for their interesting and informative contributions, which have been made in such a constructive, passionate and respectful way. We have had a lot of passion running high around the country and there has been harassment and bullying from both sides. My right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) and others have suffered harassment, bullying and worse. It is possible to engage constructively, passionately and respectfully with people with polar opposite views.
When I was on platforms arguing for Brexit, people said to me, “Well, what does your Brexit look like?” I would say, “Actually, I can tell you what mine looks like, but that precludes you from having any say in it whatsoever if that’s how it’s going to be. We need to debate this and discuss it.” A number of people said, “Well, if only it was like the Common Market rather than the extra bits we have had over the last 20 years.” Ironically, the original Chequers White Paper was closer to the Common Market. It is important to remember that this deal is not even Chequers—a lot of that comes in the second half of the negotiations.
We know that a referendum is unlikely to resolve anything. We cannot agree on the question, the timetable or even how we would approach it in this place, so I cannot see how a referendum would work. Revoking article 50 because people find Brexit too difficult—they put it in the “too difficult” box—is not something that people will live with in this country. The thing that has saddened me in this House over the past couple of years is its paucity of ambition for our country to take what will be good about Brexit, whether that be reclaiming control or future trading arrangements. We know there will be difficulties to get to that place in the next few months, but I am confident and optimistic that we can do that. The Minister was absolutely right to say that there are two sides and one is going to be wrong: it will lose, and what happens will be the diametric opposite of what they want.
I will not be a heroic loser. If I am wrong and have blinked too early, I will be the first to shake hands with my colleagues who have spoken. I want to ensure that we leave the EU in an orderly fashion, and I thank everyone again.
Question put and agreed to.
That the House has considered e-petitions 229963, 221747 and 235185 relating to leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, 232984 and 231461 relating to holding a further referendum on leaving the EU, and 226509 and 236261 relating to not leaving the EU.