[9th Allotted Day]
Debate resumed (Orders, 4 December and 9 January).
Question again proposed,
That this House approves for the purposes of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the negotiated withdrawal agreement laid before the House on Monday 26 November 2018 with the title ‘Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community’ and the framework for the future relationship laid before the House on Monday 26 November 2018 with the title ‘Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom’.
Under the order of 4 December, as varied on 9 January, I am now permitted to select amendments. I have provisionally selected the following four amendments: (a), in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn; (k), in the name of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford); (b), in the name of the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh); and (f), in the name of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). If amendment (b) is agreed to, amendment (f) falls. Reference may be made in debate to any of the amendments on the Order Paper, including those which I have not selected.
For the benefit of Members and those observing our proceedings, let me set out concisely what will happen at the end of today’s debate. This will be of interest to Members of the House and, I think, to those beyond the Chamber, whether within the Palace of Westminster or further afield, attending to our proceedings. At 7 o’clock, I shall first invite the Leader of the Opposition to move his amendment. If it is agreed to, I will then put to the House the original question, as amended. If it is disagreed to, I shall invite the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber to move his amendment. If that is agreed to, I will then put to the House the original question, as amended. If it is disagreed to, I shall invite the right hon. Member for Gainsborough to move his amendment. If that is agreed to, I will then put to the House the original question, as amended. If it is disagreed to, I shall then invite the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay to move his amendment. If that is agreed to, I will then put to the House the original question, as amended. If it is disagreed to, I will then put to the House the original question in the name of the Prime Minister.
That having been explained, I invite the Attorney General, Sir Geoffrey Cox, to open today’s debate.
I will suggest the next office you could perhaps promote me to, Mr Speaker.
I am more than conscious that last time I had a prolonged outing in this House the verdict did not go well. [Laughter.] On this occasion, I intend, if I may, to adopt an approach that I hope will be more to the House’s taste. I want to listen to the House’s views, and I shall be as accommodating as possible to the interventions of Members of this House, knowing as I do that many of them have very strong views upon this subject.
I have listened with care to the speeches of Members of this House during the course of last week’s proceedings, and I have been struck by the heartfelt and eloquent expressions of principled opinion that hon. Members have made. I was particularly struck, though I do not think he is in his place this morning, by the speech late last night—I commend you, Mr Speaker, and those who remained here until after 1 o’clock in the morning to complete yesterday’s proceedings—by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). He waited, I think, until midnight or shortly thereafter to begin his speech, and made the most passionate appeal to Members of this House to understand the value of compromise. He told the House that the membership of this place confers on us not only the great privilege of participation in the Government but the responsibilities that go with it.
In the past, when this country has faced these kinds of grave obstacles and impediments to finding a way forward, Members of this place have found the resource within themselves to achieve a compromise and to subordinate their ideal preference—the solution that they would like to see—to that which commands a degree of consensus. It is precisely for that reason that I support the withdrawal agreement—not because I like every element of it but for wholly pragmatic reasons: it is the necessary means to secure our orderly departure and unlock our future outside the European Union.
Since 23 June 2016, we have been on a road that has led us ineluctably to this point. One after another, this House has taken the steps, often by overwhelming majorities, necessary to bring us to the brink of departure, and there are now but two steps to take. The first is this withdrawal agreement. It is the first of the two keys that will unlock our future outside the European Union. It is sometimes said in various circles, I understand, Mr Speaker, that if you are moving from one pressurised atmosphere or environment to another, it is necessary to have an airlock. This withdrawal agreement is the first key that will unlock the airlock and take us into the next stage, where the second key will be the permanent relationship treaty.
I appreciate the point that the Attorney General has made with regard to the value of compromise. Anyone involved in any significant negotiation knows that compromise, and the timing of it, is absolutely essential. Is he aware of the most recent comments by the retired former Irish ambassador to the EU, a man who worked on behalf of the Republic of Ireland on the Belfast agreement, who said in The Sunday Business Post: “We”—the Irish Government—“were wrong to insist on the backstop—and softening our stance is the only way to prevent ‘no deal’”? Is the Attorney General pushing for that outcome?
Well, of course I would have been infinitely happier if the European Union had not laid down as one of its cardinal negotiating points and principles that there should be a backstop, but it has done that. On the basis of its own guidance to its own negotiating principles, it would have been a demand that it always sought, and we are faced with the position as it now is.
If we take this step of entering this withdrawal agreement, we will then enter a stage where we are to negotiate the second key to unlock our future outside the European Union. What I am commending to the House is that we take this key and we unlock the door to that first chamber—that airlock where we can then settle the permanent relationship that is set out in the political declaration.
The Attorney General’s use of the airlock analogy is very striking, but does he realise that the reason many of us will vote against the deal tonight is that on the other side of the second airlock is a complete vacuum about our future relationship with our biggest, nearest and most important trading partner?
I intend to address the very point that the right hon. Gentleman raises, because it is important to distinguish between the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration and the permanent treaties in which the long-term relationship between this country and the European Union will be settled. The political declaration sets the boundaries within which those permanent arrangements will be negotiated. The aims of the withdrawal agreement are to settle the outstanding issues that our departure creates. These are two separate and, importantly, distinguishable functions.
The withdrawal agreement commands across the House, I would submit, with the exception of two areas—the backstop and the political declaration—widespread consensus as to its necessity and its wisdom.
Might I draw the Attorney General’s attention to amendment (n) in my name, which calls on him to be a servant of the House and give his legal judgment on whether undertakings about the backstop and our ability to limit it are binding in law, and therefore actionable in law, internationally? Might he draw our attention to the letter he wrote in consequence—maybe in consequence—to the Prime Minister saying that we actually had that legal basis from the Council’s conclusions on 13 December?
The right hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that I published that letter in the spirit of the conversation I had with him—in the spirit of the Government’s desire to make clear as much information as this House needs to make its judgments.
On the backstop, can the Attorney General confirm that fish from Northern Ireland will have tariff-free access into the EU and tariff-free access back to the UK, but fish from Scotland will be subject to tariffs going into the EU, and that therefore Northern Ireland is going to be treated differently from Scotland in the backstop? The Scottish Secretary talked about responsibilities. He said that he would resign if Northern Ireland were given different conditions from Scotland. Is that not the case, and should not the Scottish Secretary consider his position?
Order. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) is rather excitable today. The Attorney General yields to none in his courtesy in the House, but it is not reasonable to expect of him, even with his formidable intellect, the capacity to try to respond to an intervention that he has not heard when he is dealing with one that he has.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the non-selection of the amendment in my name and the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, makes harder the Government’s challenge this afternoon to convince those of us who are still concerned about the implications of the backstop? What does he think can replace those two amendments?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. I have never underestimated the challenge that I face today or the one that the Government face. As I shall come on to say in due course, I have reflected deeply, as he knows, upon the question of the backstop. I have reached the conclusion that it is a risk that it is acceptable to take, even having regard to the perils that it involves if it were to become permanent and the questions that it unquestionably raises in connection with the Union with Northern Ireland.
Will the Attorney General confirm that, while the political declaration is aspirational in style, it is not legally binding in international law, but the withdrawal agreement, as a draft international treaty, would be fully binding in international law? Will he also confirm that he is offering the House an embarrassment of riches? After months of debating the backstop, we now have the airlock as well. Are the Government so desperate that they are now offering the House of Commons a buy-one-get-one-free?
My right hon. Friend knows what I mean. The airlock metaphor is indicated to demonstrate the distinction that exists. The withdrawal agreement has been negotiated over thousands of hours and is, as he rightly says, the legally binding text and the only legally binding text. It was only ever empowered under article 50 to deal with historic issues and outstanding matters that otherwise would have catapulted citizens, businesses and Governments into legal uncertainty.
I want to make a bit of progress, because it is important to look at what the withdrawal agreement does.
We should not underestimate the legal complexity of our disentanglement from 45 years of legal integration. It has taken two years and thousands of hours of detailed and arduous negotiation, some of it highly technical, to produce 585 pages of the most minute consideration of the possibilities that no deal would create in legal terms for the millions of people who depend upon the certainty of the legal system and rules to which we have hitherto been subject. It provides for the orderly, predictable and legally certain winding down of our obligations and involvement in the legal systems of the EU. If we do not legislate for that legal certainty, as a matter of law alone, thousands of contracts, transactions, administrative proceedings and judicial proceedings in the European Union and this country will be plunged into legal uncertainty.
It would be the height of irresponsibility for any legislator to contemplate with equanimity such a situation. A litigant in court who was dependent upon having concluded a contract on the basis of EU law and then found themselves suddenly having the rug pulled from under them, not knowing what their legal obligations were, would say to this House, “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground. You are legislators, and this is your job.”
I will give way in a moment. I intend to take many interventions in the course of this speech.
We are playing with people’s lives. We are debating the effects of legal continuity. Forty-five years of legal integration have brought our two legal systems into a situation where they are organically linked. To appeal to those who have a medical background, it is the same as if we were to separate from a living organism, with all its arteries and veins, a living organ—a central part from this body politic. We cannot underestimate the complexity of what we are embarked upon doing.
The Attorney General, as per usual, is addressing the House with a remarkable combination of the intellect of Einstein and the eloquence of Demosthenes. We are all enjoying it enormously— [Interruption.] Well, I am certainly enjoying it, but I hope he will not cavil if I gently remind him that 71 Members wish to contribute. I know he will tailor his contribution to take account of that important fact.
The Attorney General is making a good point, which a lot of us agree with—legal uncertainty is the worst possible outcome. That is why some of us are so angry that the vote was taken away from us in December. There is not a single chance of the Government getting the necessary legislation through by 29 March, even if the Attorney General were to get his way today. Can he confirm that if the vote is not won tonight, the Government will have to defer leaving the European Union on 29 March?
The hon. Gentleman knows the affection that I hold for him. It is not “my way”. I understand the heartfelt, passionate and sincere views held on both sides. I listened all last night to the speeches from Members on the Opposition and Government Benches. We must come together now, as mature legislators, to ask ourselves: what are the fundamental objections, if there are any, to this withdrawal agreement? Whether or not it can be done by 29 March does not affect the decision we have to take today, which is: do we opt for order, or do we choose chaos?
The Attorney General admitted that there are two problems with the deal. It is a bit like a yachtsman who, when seeing his yacht on the rocks, says, “That anchor chain was great. Only two links were bad.” That is what he is giving the House. It is a disaster, and well he knows it. My second point is that he misunderstood the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). He was not talking about fish being caught, but fish as a commodity once caught. If it is landed in Northern Ireland, it is in a more advantaged position for export to Europe than fish caught and then landed in Scotland for export to Europe. He should recognise that and be straight with my hon. Friend, which I am sure he was trying to be, but he misunderstood the point.
I apologise, Mr Speaker. I wanted to take the interventions together. If the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is referring, in relation to Northern Ireland, to the quota that is to be agreed by the Joint Committee for landing—
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says he is much exercised about legal certainty, so may I ask him about paragraph 2 of his letter yesterday on the exchange of letters? He said that the letters from the Council
“would have legal force in international law and…be relevant and cognisable in the interpretation of the…Agreement…albeit they do not alter the fundamental meanings”
of the withdrawal agreement’s provisions. He, as a senior lawyer, like me will know that in a competition between the letter of assurance and the withdrawal agreement, the withdrawal agreement, as the international treaty, will triumph. That is the case, is it not?
On this point about the legal effect and what the Prime Minister said—five weeks ago today, in fact—about legally binding assurances—does not what Attorney General has just said confirm the fact that legally binding assurances have not been achieved? That is the tragedy of where we find ourselves now, after five weeks. In fact, from our point of view, the thing that would have been essential to get this matter through the House with our support was not even asked for, which are the changes that would eliminate the trap of the backstop.
First, let me say to my right hon. Friend, the legal equation remains the same. The assurances are binding in the sense that, in international law, they would be a legally binding interpretative tool. What they do not do is alter the fundamental meaning of the provisions of the withdrawal agreement. In that respect, he is right.
I need to come to the first point that I want to make to the House. Let us examine the rest of the agreement. Do we have—
Will the Attorney General give way?
I will in a minute.
Do we have before us—the withdrawal agreement—a sensible settling of these critical historical obligations for continuing transactions to resolve, for millions of people, the legal uncertainty of taking ourselves away from the highly integrated legal system in which we were organically linked and, indeed, part of? The 585 pages—
I must make some progress. I will take many more interventions.
On the 585 pages, what does the agreement do? First, it secures the rights of 1 million British citizens living in the European Union and of 3 million European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom. What are we to say to them if this House today does not take the advantage of resolving and giving them the certainty of knowing that their position is enshrined in fundamental law?
I will in a moment.
The agreement settles the bills. It legally allows for the orderly completion of these thousands of continuing transactions—judicial proceedings, accounting procedures —that would otherwise be thrown into a legal void. It provides for a period of adjustment for people and for businesses of the next 21 months, extendable up to two years, to allow our businesses and our individual citizens to adjust to the new realities.
That is what I mean by the airlock. It is quite simple: an airlock enables the human body to adjust to the new pressure it will face when it exits the airlock. This period allows the transition and adjustment of this country to enter into the bright new world that we will enter when we leave the European Union. So I say to the House with all due diffidence and respect: we all of us would regard, would we not, these parts of the withdrawal agreement as essential to create the bridge for our departure from the European Union.
My right hon. and learned Friend speaks of the legal complexities of the withdrawal agreement, and he also speaks of a coming together. May I refer him to the advice that he gave to the Prime Minister on 13 November in his capacity as Attorney General? On page 2, paragraph 8, he said:
“for regulatory purposes GB is essentially treated as a third country by NI for goods passing from GB into NI.”
How can he talk about coming together, while his own advice to the Prime Minister talks of anything but?
I understand the force of what my hon. Friend says, but precisely the same prevails in numerous EU countries. For the purposes of regulation, the Canary Islands are treated as a third country to Spain. It is not for the purposes of regulation alone—single market regulations alone. There are examples all around the world of where there are regulatory differences between individual parts of the jurisdiction of sovereign states.
You are quite right, Mr Speaker. The Attorney General described the backstop as an instrument of pain. He said it was
“as much an instrument of pain to the European Union as…to the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 555.]
That is very strong language indeed—an “instrument of pain” for the European Union. Will the Attorney General take some time to explain that in detail? I think that would be very helpful.
I am immensely obliged to the hon. Lady because that is precisely what I want to move on to.
If we accept, and I urge this House to accept, that effectively 90% of this withdrawal agreement—some 450 of the 585 pages—in fact settles these crucial outstanding matters, which no sensible person could doubt require to be settled in order to effect our departure, that leaves the two grounds of objection that have been advanced—I listen with great care to speeches from Members on the Opposition side of the House—to this agreement and declaration, so may I come to those two grounds? Before I do, I simply say that there are some typical misconceptions about the withdrawal agreement. For example, it is said that the Court of Justice of the European Union retains jurisdiction over our courts once the time-limited obligations have wound down that the withdrawal agreement settles. It does not. It does not. It does not. It does not. How many times do I have to say it to my hon. Friends? [Hon. Members: “More.”] It does not! The fact of the matter is that once—once—these obligations have wound down, the CJEU will have no jurisdiction over the resolution of disputes between individuals, citizens, businesses in our country. This is what our people voted for and we, by adopting this withdrawal agreement, can give it to them.
Secondly, it is said that we will be permanently bound by EU rules. But we will not. The fact of the matter is that the withdrawal agreement’s obligations are inherently time-limited. Once they have wound out, the EU rules will no longer have effect in this country.
My right hon. and learned Friend is making his case with his usual eloquence, but on that specific point and his point about airlocks, airlocks need exit mechanisms. In the absence of legal certainty that we could unilaterally leave the backstop—my amendment (f) addresses this and I will be pressing it—what certainty is there that the EU does not drag negotiations on, so that we could still, with an extension to the transition period, be discussing these issues in four or five years’ time?
I thank the Attorney General for giving way. While he pauses for breath, may I too take him to the airlock? In travelling through an airlock, it helps to have a supply of air. In this particular case, I would urge conditionality—that we do not agree to write out a cheque for £39 billion of hard-earned taxpayers’ money unless or until a future relationship agreement is agreed that is legally binding. That would give us greater leverage in the negotiation and enable us to deliver serious value for the British taxpayer.
You cannot say to somebody to whom you owe money, “I am not going to pay you my debt unless you give me something else.” It is not attractive, it is not consistent with the honour of this country and it is not consistent with the rule of law. The fact of the matter is that the withdrawal agreement settles those historic obligations.
May I come to the critical question and the challenge that was—
I will do in a moment. Let me get on because time is short and I need to move on.
On the backstop, there is, I would suggest to the House, an inconsistency. There are those who say in this House that the EU will do what is in its interests and that it will, cynically, entrap us in the backstop. They have said—can anybody doubt that this is true?—that the only real thing that is in the best interests of any nation or any organisation of nations is to have cordial relations of good will and co-operation with one’s neighbours. History has taught us that over the centuries. To entrap us in the backstop against the overwhelming political will of this nation would have precisely the opposite effect of cultivating those cordial relations of good will between ourselves and the European Union. Any future relationship will depend on good faith and good will. These assurances, which I accept do not have effect on the legal equation, in my view represent solemn statements of the President, the Council and the Commission, which to breach would be incompatible with the European Union’s continued standing in international relations and forums. But even if—
I must make some progress.
But even if I am wrong about that, let us examine what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked me to look at. What is the position in the backstop? First, the European Union. No Belgian lawyer—there’s a Freudian slip, Mr Speaker. No Belgian fisherman, no French fisherman, no Danish fisherman, no Dutch fisherman will be allowed to point the prow of their trawlers one metre into British waters under the backstop. They will have no access to the rich hunting grounds that for decades they have exploited perfectly lawfully, because the backstop provides them with no legal basis to do so.
I ask the House to reflect. Why does the House think that the rumblings and hollow thunderings of concern are emanating from the counsels of the Quai d’Orsay? They have 10,000 gilets jaunes on the streets of Paris and elsewhere, but if their fishermen are told that they cannot catch a single cod or plaice in the waters of the United Kingdom they will place intense pressure upon the European Union. So I say to the hon. Lady that that fact alone affords a real issue for the member states. But on agriculture, we do not have any further participation in the common agricultural policy under the backstop, and we pay, though we get tariff-free access to the single market, not one penny for that system.
I must make progress.
I say to my hon. Friends, as I say to Opposition Members, the EU will have to set up entirely different legal and administrative systems in order to set up the customs union that is enshrined within the backstop, yet Britain will pay not one penny of contribution to those complex administrative and technical systems which the EU will, on their side alone, have to finance. How long does the House really think that the EU would wish to go on paying for a bespoke arrangement in which they are paying tens of millions of euros to sustain a customs union that is simply on their own admission a temporary arrangement?
But even if that was wrong, there are the regulatory provisions under the backstop. They are standard non-regression clauses. They exist in free trade agreements all around the world. They provide us with the ability, if we wish to take it, of being flexible about the means by which we achieve the outcomes because all they do is require us to maintain parity of standards with the position we had when we left the European Union. Therefore, it does give us regulatory flexibility if we wish to avail ourselves of it and the European Union is faced with not a penny being paid, with tariff-free access to the customs union, with not having to obey the regulatory law—
Order. I have been tolerant thus far and I enjoy enormously the performances of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but this perambulation is very uncommon and irregular. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must face the House. We want to see him and to get directly the benefit of his mellifluous tones.
Everything the Attorney General says about the backstop may be true, but he knows that many of our hon. Friends are deeply concerned about this and we want an end date. I am not asking him for an answer now, but I see the Prime Minister and the Chief Whip on the Treasury Bench. There is an amendment on the Order Paper that has been selected by Mr Speaker, which could unite the party, or most of it. It is a compromise. If we can have an end date to the backstop, then we can move forward. I do not ask for an answer now, but I beg the Government to consider, over the next six hours, whether they should not accept these amendments because they would try to unlock this process and get it through Parliament.
The amendment that my right hon. Friend has tabled would, in my judgment, not be compatible with our international law obligations. He may know and accept that, but it is certainly my view that it would not be compatible and therefore would be likely not to be seen by the European Union as ratification. It would certainly raise serious question marks over the amendment.
We need to examine the matter without the indulgence of believing that there is any other easy solution. It is sometimes said that the problem with the backstop is that it will not enable us to walk away. That is true, except in this regard: the question is what we would be walking away from. Would the other side regard it as something they would not wish to walk away from, or would it be an embrace that they would like to escape as well? If my hon. and right hon. Friends and Members of the House on both sides come to the conclusion, as I would urge them to do and as I have done after many hours of reflection, that it would be, as the hon. Member for North Down said, an instrument as painful to the European Union as it would be to us, it is a risk, weighed against the other risks, that we should take, if the consequence of not doing so is something worse.
May I take the Attorney General back to some time ago, when he was saying that there was a legal obligation to give £39 billion to the EU, despite the fact that we have been a net contributor of more than £210 billion since the EU started? Will he explain to me on what legal advice he says that, because the House of Lords said there was absolutely no legal obligation?
My hon. Friend is wrong. The House of Lords did not say that. The House of Lords Committee said that there was no obligation in EU law, but that there may well be public international law obligations. The basis of the argument that there are no public international law obligations is in my judgment—I have tested it, as I always do on matters of law, with some very distinguished lawyers with expertise in the field—flimsy at best. The House of Lords Committee did not say there are no public international law obligations.
What about giving way to a woman?
I will give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), but first I need to make some progress.
Orderly exit from the European Union would always require a withdrawal agreement along these lines. No alternative option now being canvassed in the House would not require the withdrawal agreement and now the backstop. Let us be clear: whatever solution may be fashioned if this motion and deal are defeated, this withdrawal agreement will have to return in much the same form and with much the same content. Therefore, there is no serious or credible objection that has been advanced by any party to the withdrawal agreement.
It was said last week by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) that we should have negotiated a full customs union with a say within the political declaration and then there would have been no need for a backstop, because the agreement could then have been concluded within the transition period. However, he knows, and it is clear, that the European Union is unwilling to and regards itself as bound by its own law not to enter into detailed negotiations on the permanent relationship treaties. The EU was never going to do it, and its own negotiating guidelines said it would not, so there was always going to be this withdrawal agreement, a political declaration setting out a framework and months, if not years, thereafter of detailed negotiation on any final resting place that any political declaration might have.
The Attorney General and I are both members of the criminal Bar, although I was never in his league. We both understand the art of negotiation. Someone cannot be a criminal barrister or, indeed, any kind of lawyer unless they understand negotiation. He advances the case for the withdrawal agreement on the basis that it has reached some pragmatic consensus, but I suggest to him that a good negotiation is something that settles things and that a majority can positively support. The problem with this agreement is that it does not settle anything and it does not satisfy the vast majority. In fact, it probably satisfies no one in this House.
I respectfully suggest to my right hon. Friend that that is because the expectations of the withdrawal agreement have been far too unrealistic. [Interruption.] This is a serious issue, and I ask for the indulgence of the House in making what I hope is a serious point, although I have to give way to the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). If the House does not accept the point, that is fine, but let me at least make it.
The withdrawal agreement and a backstop are the first and necessary precondition of any solution. Members on the Opposition Benches have real concerns about the content of the political declaration and the safeguarding of rights. I listened to Members speak last night about the enshrinement of environmental rights and environmental laws and so on, but the political declaration would never have been able to secure detailed, legally binding text on those matters, which will be discussed and negotiated in the next stage of negotiation. It makes no sense to reject the opportunity of order and certainty now because Members are unhappy that they do not have guarantees about what will be in a future treaty.
What will be in that treaty, governed by the parameters set out by the political declaration that I need to come to in a moment, will be negotiated over the next 21 months. This Government have made a pledge to the House that we will take fully the opinion of the House in all the departmental areas over which the negotiations will take place.
It is a point of inquiry, Mr Speaker. You will be aware that the Attorney General has now spoken for 49 minutes. I understand that a substantial number of colleagues wish to speak today. Can you tell us how many colleagues are waiting to speak and the approximate time people will get?
The hon. Gentleman is, as always, trying to be helpful, although it was really a point of frustration. The fact is, as I have previously advised the House, that no fewer than 71 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. There are notable constraints to which I do not wish to add, but of which I feel sure the Attorney General will take account.
The Attorney General talks about the danger of setting unrealistic expectations, but it was the Prime Minister sitting next to him who promised in her Lancaster House speech that we would have agreed the future relationship before exit day. Secondly, he makes great play of this implementation period, but it is of no use in some respects if we do not know to what we are transitioning. He knows that we will have a different European Parliament, a different European Council and a different European President, and two other presidents, who will all have changed by the time that the future relationship is due to be settled.
We must start from where we are now. It is easy to say, “We shouldn’t have started from here.” The political declaration sets out clear parameters about the future treaty. First, written into the DNA of the political declaration are two cardinal principles—
It is not a legal document, but no political declaration would ever be a legal document, by definition. Under EU law, we cannot have a finally negotiated text with all the legal detail.
Let me come to the two clear conditions in the political declaration—[Interruption.] I will complete in a few minutes. First, no free movement—
Will the hon. Lady forgive me, but I really cannot? Her own colleagues say that I am taking too long, and I must wind up.
The position is that the political declaration includes two clear conditions. First, there will be no free movement. One cannot belong to the single market without participating in the four freedoms, therefore we will have a deal that admits of a spectrum of landing places where we will not belong to the single market.
No, I must now make progress.
Secondly, there will be an independent trade policy. One cannot have a customs union—certainly one that is not bespoke—while having an independent trade policy. The Labour Front-Bench team say that they want a customs union with a say. That would be the first time—if it were ever negotiable—that the European Union had allowed a third country to have any say over commercial policy. Therefore, it is a fantasy, a complete fiction.
The Labour Front-Bench team also say that they want a strong single market deal, forming the exact same benefits—
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. He has been speaking for almost an hour, and for almost that entire time he has been addressing the concerns of a wing of his party, rather than the concerns of this House. In the past week, two amendments have been passed, neither with the support of the Government—to the Finance Bill and to the business motion—and both those amendments made it clear that the view of this House is to avoid a no-deal Brexit. That is the priority of this House—not the issue of the backstop, which he seems to have been addressing for the past hour. Instead of trying to unite his party, as the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) has urged him to do, will the Attorney General try to unite the country, and to do the right thing by it, by ruling out leaving the European Union on 29 March without a deal?
The hon. Lady can eliminate a no deal today; all she has to do is to vote for this one. In reality, it is the height of irresponsibility for the Labour party, which claims to be a party of Government, to plunge millions of our citizens into legal uncertainty of that type because of a factitious, trumped-up basis of opposition, whereas the real strategy is to drive this Government and this House on to the rocks, and to create the maximum chaos and the conditions for a general election—[Interruption.] We know the game, I say—[Interruption.] It is as clear as day—[Interruption.]
I say to the House with the greatest respect, we must seize this opportunity now. This is the key—the first of two—by which we unlock our future outside the European Union. I believe that it is an exciting future. I believe that the opportunity for this House to hold the pen on 40% of our laws, from the environment through to agriculture and fishing, should excite us as an opportunity to do good in this country.
Let us not forget, however, that many outside this House as well as in it wish to frustrate the great end to which the people of this country committed us on 23 June 2016—17.4 million of them in hundreds of constituencies, regardless of party, voted to part company with a political structure that no longer commanded their assent. We should be deeply grateful, because in other ages and other places, such a moment could only have been achieved by means that all of us present would deplore—but we should not underestimate the significance of the moment because it was expressed peacefully by the ballot.
If we approve this agreement, we know that we shall leave the EU on 29 March in an orderly way, and can commence negotiation of the permanent treaties. This agreement and the accompanying political declaration are the two keys that unlock the demand of the electorate that we should repatriate control over vast areas of our laws that hitherto have been in the exclusive legislative competence of the EU. If we do not take that first step, history will judge us harshly, because we will be plunged into uncertainty.
If this vote fails today, those who wish to prevent our departure will seek to promote the conclusion that it is all too difficult and that the Government should ask the electorate to think again. That is why former Prime Ministers and their spin doctors, and all their great panjandrums of the past, are joining the chorus to condemn this deal, for they know that this deal is the key. There is no other. Destroy it—in some form or other, the only practicable deal—and the path to Brexit becomes shrouded in obscurity. If we should be so deceived as to permit that, when historians come to write of this moment, future ages would marvel that the huge repatriation of powers that this agreement entails—over immigration, fisheries, agriculture, the supremacy of our laws and courts—was rejected because somehow it did not seem enough and because of the Northern Ireland backstop.
I am happy to open today’s debate for the Opposition and to follow the Attorney General—I am, of course, grateful for his remarks over the past hour. I was also pleased to see his letter to the Prime Minister yesterday, which gave advice on the backstop protocol and the latest exchange of letters, and to receive it without the need for a contempt motion on this occasion.
On 3 December, I was sitting at this Dispatch Box when the Attorney General made his statement on the legal position. He said of Members:
“It is time that they grew up and got real.”
He had even said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman):
“There is nothing to see here.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 557-563.]
After the Government were found to be in contempt of Parliament, however, and he had published his advice the next day, it turned out that there was everything to see here, and that it was the Government who needed to get real.
Let us be clear about what the Attorney General advised. What did he say about the backstop protocol? He said:
“Therefore, despite statements in the Protocol that it is not intended to be permanent, and the clear intention of the parties that it should be replaced by alternative, permanent arrangements, in international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place, in whole or in part, as set out therein.”
Which parts of the backstop are more likely than others to remain, even in the event of a trade deal being agreed, he has never actually told us. He added:
“There are numerous references in the Protocol to its temporary nature but there is no indication of how long such temporary arrangements could last.”
On Northern Ireland, incidentally, the Attorney General said:
“GB is essentially treated as a third country by NI for goods passing from GB into NI”—
those are his own words. The Attorney General even said:
“The Protocol appears to assume that the negotiations will result in an agreement.”
Are we in the House to assume, given the conduct of the negotiations, that this Government will be able to negotiate a full future trade deal in time for the protocol not to come into effect?
Nick Macpherson, the former permanent secretary to the Treasury, disagrees with the Secretary of State. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is not a fan of experts, but perhaps he will listen to this one for a moment. Mr Macpherson said:
“There is no way the UK will negotiate a trade deal with the EU by December 2020. Even 2022 is optimistic. Mid-2020s more likely.”
As a matter of law, as a shadow Law Officer, I ask myself whether there is anything to prevent the backstop from becoming permanent:
“As a matter of international law, no there is not—it would endure indefinitely, pending a future agreement being arranged”.—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 553.]
They are not my words, but those of the Attorney General in this House.
I have to state, clearly, for the House that, as the Opposition, the Labour party is committed to the Good Friday agreement—an agreement that my constituency predecessor, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, helped to negotiate when he chaired the peace talks. That was one of the greatest achievements of any Government since 1945. Labour Members are committed to the long-lasting peace that has been achieved since 1998 and care deeply about the livelihoods and communities of the people who live on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.
Our position is that a permanent customs union, with a say in external trade deals, a strong single market relationship and guarantees on rights and protections, would have rendered a backstop unnecessary.
Let me be clear that I would want our own arrangements. The Secretary of State asks me to give an example of that particular theoretical possibility. It is not one that I wish to emulate, but Turkey is one of them, if he actually looks at it. Secondly—[Interruption.] No, let me respond to the Secretary of State on this. He will vote this evening for a backstop that itself contains a bespoke customs arrangement—[Interruption.] It has a say, and that is the difference, as the Secretary of State should admit.
May I inform the hon. Gentleman—I am sure he already knows—that the vast majority of farmers, businesses, fishermen and community leaders in Northern Ireland strongly support this deal negotiated by the Government? I heard his warm words about his support for the Good Friday agreement, but actions speak louder than words. Voting down the Brexit deal tonight will be a clear signal that the Labour party does not care about the consequences for the Good Friday agreement.
I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but I fundamentally disagree with her final remark. There is a commitment to the Good Friday agreement among Labour Members. My constituency has great pride in the agreement because the peace talks were chaired by my predecessor—we have great respect for it and want to protect it.
Let me be clear why we cannot support the bespoke customs union within the backstop: it would have no proper governance; firms based in Britain, rather than Northern Ireland, would be outside the single market facing barriers to trade; and the protections for workers and the environment would be unenforceable non-regression clauses that would see the UK fall behind over time. The arrangement falls far short of what Labour has argued for.
What other routes are there to an exit from the backstop? I asked the Attorney General about international treaties that the UK has no unilateral right to terminate. His response was to direct me to the Vienna convention on the law of treaties. Even if it applied—and it only applies between states—the Attorney General knows this is clutching at straws. First, it is said, we could argue that the EU was not using “best endeavours” to complete our future trade agreement and that that constituted a “material breach” under article 60 of the convention. The Attorney General has said, in relation to article 2.1 of the backstop protocol, that
“it is the duty of the parties to negotiate a superseding agreement. That must be done using best endeavours, pursuant to Article 184 of the Withdrawal agreement. This is subject also to the duty of good faith, which is both implied by international law, and expressly created by Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement”.
But he has also said:
“The duty of good faith and to use best endeavours is a legally enforceable duty. There is no doubt that it is difficult to prove.”
Again, those are the words of the Attorney General. He knows that that is the case.
Secondly, we could try to argue that there had been a “fundamental change of circumstances” under article 62 of the Vienna convention, but we could not credibly argue that entering the backstop was such a change in circumstances when the situation is clearly set out in the withdrawal agreement in such a way. To say that a scenario we are all aware of and debating now represents a fundamental departure would not wash with anyone, as the Attorney General knows. It is not so much an airlock as a padlock, and it is a padlock with two key holders, of which we are only one.
What changed over Christmas? What has been achieved by delaying the vote? The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told us on the morning of the vote that it was
“definitely, 100%, going to happen”.
We all know what happened after that—it is one of many incidents during this process that has led many of us to disbelieve so much that the Government say. The Prime Minister said in her statement later that day:
“I have heard those concerns and I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances”.
The Leader of the House said:
“The Prime Minister has been clear that the vote will take place when she believes she has the legal assurances that Parliament needs that the backstop will not be permanent.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 25-84.]
The International Trade Secretary, went even further, saying that it would be
“very difficult to support the deal without changes to the backstop”.
He was not sure that the Cabinet would agree for it to be put to the House of Commons.
What actually happened? The Prime Minister went to the European Council but could not persuade leaders to give her the conclusions she wanted. The Christmas break came and went. We got a document on commitments to Northern Ireland that did nothing to change the legal text and then, yesterday, letters appeared between the Prime Minister on the one hand, and the President of the European Council and the President of the Commission on the other.
The hon. Gentleman is making a case about trust, and that is what the country is being asked to do—make this great leap of faith. We do not know what our future trading and security relationships will be. The sorry story is that all the way through the past two and a half years we have had a series of promises that have not been delivered. He will remember, for example, the then Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), saying at the Dispatch Box that we would have a deal before we left that would convey the “exact same benefits” of our current membership of the single market and the customs union. That is what is troubling people. This is a blindfold Brexit and that is why people will not vote for it.
The right hon. Lady is right and I am sure that she has noted the inconsistency. The Attorney General said only a few moments ago that we could not expect to have anything detailed negotiated at this stage, but that is precisely what the Government had previously promised. How are we supposed to believe those conflicting statements?
That point is exactly at the heart of this question of trust. The Attorney General just committed the EU to not agreeing to future trade deals, in response to our request for a customs union, but he refused to say—the Government still refuse to do so—whether the Government will commit to a customs union in that future trade agreement. If they were to do so, there would be no need for this discussion about the backstop or about the matter of trust that the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) talked about.
We have talked about trust and promises, which are vital. We promised to deliver on the outcome of the referendum. It was this House that gave the people the referendum in the first place. We passed our sovereignty to the people and promised that we would deliver on their verdict. That verdict was to leave the European Union. Does not the hon. Gentleman believe that if we failed to deliver on that verdict, it would be seen as one of the greatest betrayals of trust in this country?
My constituents, like those of the hon. Gentleman, voted to leave the EU, and I voted to trigger article 50 in good faith and in line with their wishes. I sincerely hoped that there would by now be something significantly better before this House that we could all have supported and got around.
I am going to make some progress, but I will give way again in a moment.
I want to move on to the letter that has been sent by President Juncker and President Tusk, page 2 of which states:
“The European Council also said that, if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would only apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement”.
They again spoke about “best endeavours” and about the backstop being in place only for as long as “strictly necessary”, but we all know that that represents no difference at all to the position on which the Attorney General advised in December. Have there been any changes to the withdrawal agreement text? None. Changes to the possible interpretations of it? None. Changes to the reassurances available? None. What did the Attorney General himself say in his latest letter to the Prime Minister about the Council’s conclusions and their impact on the Northern Ireland protocol? He said that
“they do not alter the fundamental meaning of its provisions as I advised them to be on 13 November 2018.”
To coin a phrase, nothing has changed.
I want to make some progress.
I made it clear in response to an intervention that my constituency of Torfaen voted to leave. I respect everyone who voted. In good faith, and in line with their wishes, I voted to trigger article 50 to start the process of our withdrawal. I wish there were a withdrawal agreement worthy of wide support across this House. I wish there were a political declaration that actually did point a way to a future that secured our economy, our jobs and our futures, and that it was not the meaningless text—the leap in the dark—that it actually is. Now, more than ever, we need to unite the country away from fractious debate and towards a shared vision of our future.
The Prime Minister says she wants to unite, but all she has done is divide. She failed to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens at the outset, which would have been the right thing to do, creating good will on both sides. Her red lines created more problems than they solved, and she has negotiated issues in an order and a way that made a backstop inevitable. The Prime Minister has had two years to reach out across the House for consensus, but she has failed to do so. Instead of speaking to others, she has stayed in her bunker. Now she only speaks at the concrete walls, unable to deliver the changes needed.
This country deserves so much better than this totally inadequate agreement. We hoped for more in the 916 days since the Prime Minister first stood on the steps of No. 10 with what have proved to be completely empty promises. I stand here today, nearly four years after I was first elected, knowing that we can and must do better at this key moment in our history. For that reason, the Prime Minister’s deal should be voted down by this House.
I shall try to compete with the Opposition spokesman on brevity by being briefer than he was.
This is a chaotic debate in every conceivable way. Future generations will look back and be unable to imagine how we reduced ourselves to this disorderly exchange on a whole range of views, cutting across the parties, at a time when we were taking such a historic decision. That was summed up to me yesterday when I drove through the gates into New Palace Yard and was flanked on either side by lobbyists waving things at me. To my right, I had people waving yellow placards with the words “Leave means leave.” To my left, I had people waving European Union flags and demanding my support. In so far as anyone was shouting any clear message to me, it seemed that both sides were shouting the same thing. Both sides were demanding that I vote against the withdrawal agreement. That summed up the confusion, because both were pursuing objectives, neither of which I agreed with and which took us a million miles away from the national interest, which the House of Commons should surely turn itself to in the end.
We all know where we are coming from, and I am not going to labour my well-known views, because I have been here so long. Yesterday I slightly offended one of my very good friends in the House when I referred to hard-line remainers as well as hard-line Brexiteers. I confess that I am undoubtedly a hard-line remainer. I do not think that there is anyone more hard-line on the subject in the House. When I was a Cabinet Minister, I refused to vote for the referendum being held. The Prime Minister and the Chief Whip chose not to notice my attempts ostentatiously to abstain on the vote. I am the only person on the Government side of the House who voted against invoking article 50. I am a lifelong believer in the European project, and no opinion poll is ever going to change my mind at this stage.
I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I have no time.
I believe that Britain’s role in the world now is as one of the three leading members of the European Union, and one that has particular links with the United States—when it has a normal President—that the others do not. That enables us to defend our interests and put forward our values in a very dangerous world. We have influential membership—we lead on liberal economic policy— of the biggest and most developed free trade area in the world, which is always going to be where our major trading partners are, because in the end geography determines that they matter to us more than anyone else.
I will not go on, but just in case there is any doubt about where I am coming from, let me say that I am being pragmatic, as we all have to be. The Attorney General was quite correct to raise the need for the House to achieve some kind of consensus and to accept some kind of compromise to minimise the damage, which I regard as my duty. The vote on invoking article 50 revealed to me that there was not the slightest chance of persuading the present House of Commons to give up leaving the EU, because it is terrified of denying the result of the EU referendum. To be fair to my friends who are hard-line Brexiteers and always have been, none of them ever had the slightest intention of taking any notice of the referendum, but there is now a kind of religiously binding commitment among the majority in the House that we must leave. So we are leaving.
Why, therefore, am I supporting the withdrawal agreement? It is a natural preliminary to the proper negotiations, which we have not yet started. Frankly, it should have taken about two months to negotiate, because the conclusions we have come to on the rights of citizens, on our legal historical debts and on the Irish border being permanently open were perfectly clear. They are essential preconditions, to which the Attorney General rightly drew our attention, to the legal chaos that would be caused if we just left without the other detailed provisions in that 500-page document.
The withdrawal agreement itself is harmless, and the Irish backstop is not the real reason why a large number of Members are going to vote against it. One would have to be suffering from some sort of paranoia to think that the Irish backstop is some carefully contrived plot to keep the British locked into a European relationship from which they are dying to escape. The Attorney General addressed that matter with great eloquence, which I admired. It is obviously as unattractive to the other EU member states as it is to the United Kingdom to settle down into some semi-permanent relationship on the basis of the Irish backstop.
In my opinion, we do not need to invoke the Irish backstop at all. We can almost certainly avoid it. It seems quite obvious that the transition period should go on for as long as is necessary until a full withdrawal agreement, in all its details on our political relationships, regulatory relationships, trade relationships, security and policing, has been settled. I do not think that will be completed in a couple of years, however. I actually think it will be four or five years, if we make very good progress, before we have completed all that, and I think that is the view of people with more expertise than me who will be saddled with the responsibility of negotiating it if we ever get that far. I have actually been involved in trade agreements, unlike most of the people in this House.
If we extend the transition period as is necessary, we will never need to go into the backstop. Putting an end date on the transition period is pretty futile, because we cannot actually begin to change our relationship until we have agreed in some detail what we are actually changing to. If this House persists in taking us out of the European Union, that is eventually where we have to get to.
If I give way to my right hon. Friend, who is a good friend, I shall suddenly find that everyone is leaping up, and I will not keep my word if I start giving way.
The outcome that I wish to see is, as it happens, the same as the Government’s declared outcome. Keeping to the narrower matters of trade and investment, we should keep open borders between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union and have trade relationships that are as free and frictionless as we have at the moment. I shall listen to people arguing that that is not in the best interests of the United Kingdom and future generations, but that is an impossible case to make. It is self-evident that we should stay in our present free trade agreement. We cannot have free trade with the rest of the world while becoming protectionist towards continental Europe by erecting new barriers. Nobody said to the electorate at the time of the referendum that the purpose of the whole thing was to raise new barriers to two-way trade and investment.
It seems quite obvious, and factually correct in my opinion, that if we wish to keep open borders—the land border, which happens to be in Ireland, and the sea border around the rest of the British Isles—we will have to be in a customs union and in regulatory alignment with the EU, which would greatly resemble what we call the single market. All this stuff about new technology may come one day when every closed border in the world will vanish, but under WTO rules we have to man the border if there are different tariffs and regulatory requirements on either side. That is where we have got to go, and we will have to tighten things up sooner or later.
The Government keep repeating their red lines, some of which were set out at an early stage long before the people drafting the speeches had the first idea about the process they were about to enter into. Most of the red lines now need to be dropped. The standard line is that we cannot be in a customs union because that would prevent us from having trade agreements with the rest of the world, which is true. We cannot have a common customs barrier enforced around the outside of a zone if one member is punching holes through it and letting things in under different arrangements from other countries. For some, that is meant to be the global future—the bright and shining prospect of our being outside the European Union, which nobody proposed in the referendum. As far as I can see, such things stemmed from a brilliant speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), who was praised for putting an optimistic tone on it all. He held out this vision of great countries throughout the world throwing open their markets to us in relief when we left the European Union and offering us better terms than we have spent the last few years obtaining when taking a leading role in negotiating together with the European Union.
Of course, the key agreement that is always cited is the trade agreement that we are going to have with Donald Trump’s America, which is a symbol of the prospects that await us, and China apparently comes next. I have tried in both places. I have been involved in trade discussions with those two countries on and off for the best part of 20 years. They are very protectionist countries, and America was protectionist before President Trump. I led for the Government on negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The reason why the EU-US deal had the funny title of TTIP was that we could not call it a free trade agreement, because the Americans said that Congress was so hostile to the idea of free trade that we could not talk about such an agreement, so we had to give it another title.
We got nowhere, even under the Obama Administration, because we wanted to open up public procurement and access to services, including financial services, in the United States, and I can tell you that it was completely hopeless trying to open up their markets. We are told that things are different with President Trump, that the hopes for President Trump are a sign of the new golden future that is before us. However, President Trump has no time for WTO rules. He has been breaking them with some considerable vigour, and he will walk out of the WTO sooner or later. His view of trade deals is that he confronts allied partner countries and says that the United States should be allowed to export more to them and that they should stop exporting so much to the United States. He has enforced that on Canada and Mexico, and he is having a good go at enforcing it on China.
President Trump’s only expressed interest in a trade deal with Britain is that we should throw open our markets to American food, which is produced on an almost industrial scale very competitively and in great quantities. That trade deal would require one thing: the abandonment of European food and animal welfare standards that the British actually played a leading part in getting to their present position in the rest of the EU, and the adoption of standards laid down by Congress—the House of Representatives and the Senate—in response to the food lobby. There is no sovereignty in that. Nobody is going to take any notice of the UK lobbying the American Congress on food standards. It is an illusion.
If we had enforced freedom of movement properly before all this, we would not be in this trouble. All the anti-immigrant element of the leave vote was not really about EU workers working here. We were already permitted to make it a condition that people could only come here for a prearranged job, and we were permitted to say that someone would have to leave if they did not find a new job within three months of losing one. Everybody in this House and outside falls over themselves with praise for the EU workers in the national health service and elsewhere, but it is another illusion.
Given the present bizarre position, my view is that we must get on with the real negotiations, because we have not even started them yet. It is not possible to start to map out the closest possible relationship with the EU if we are going to be forced to leave. We are in no position to move on from this bad debate and then sort everything out by 29 March. It is factually impossible not only to get the legislation through but to sort out an alternative to the withdrawal agreement if it is rejected today.
We should extend article 50, but that involves applying to the EU and it implies getting the EU’s consent, which would be quite difficult for any length of time. I advocate revoking article 50, because it is a means of delay. We should revoke it—no one can stop us revoking it —and then invoke it again when we have some consensus and a majority for something. I will vote against it again, but there is a massive majority in this House in favour of invoking article 50.
I am admiring my right hon. and learned Friend’s speech minute by minute, but there is one point on which he is wrong. We cannot revoke article 50 unless we provide satisfactory evidence to the European Union that we are cancelling our departure—not suspending it, not pausing it, but cancelling it.
I have not been in legal practice for 40 years so, if that is the case, I will examine it and look at what authority my right hon. and learned Friend gives me. Would we be prevented permanently thereafter from ever invoking article 50 again? I would like to examine that proposition. If that is the case, we have to extend article 50, but we cannot carry on having this chaotic debate and, in the next 70 days, coming to conclusions that commit this country to a destiny that will have a huge effect on the next generation or two, because we are heading towards leaving with no deal at all, which would be just as catastrophic as he described.
The vast majority of Members of Parliament are flatly against leaving without a deal. For that reason, pragmatism and common sense require us to vote for this withdrawal agreement to try to get back to some sort of orderly progress.
It is always a considerable pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). We live in a strange world because, as on so many occasions, I find myself pretty well agreeing with much of what he says. Of course, on many occasions, I find him in the Division Lobby with us, and I say to him with respect and friendliness that his analysis is spot on. He has demonstrated the futility of those who believe that a UK outwith the European Union could somehow quickly put together trade deals around the world. It is a fantasy; it is for the birds.
It is an absolute travesty that a binary choice between the Government’s deal and no deal is being put to the House today. That is not the case. Other options are open to the House, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman has talked about either revoking or staving off the article 50 process, which would give the House time to come to its senses, based on what we now know of the risks of Brexit.
Let us be absolutely clear that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. The Scottish Government’s analysis demonstrates that, in any Brexit scenario, the countries of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales will all be poorer than they would be under the status quo. It is the responsibility of any Government to provide security for their citizens. A Government who wish to make a proposition that imperils the employment opportunities and living standards of their citizens are abrogating their responsibility.
It is on that basis that I plead with the right hon. and learned Gentleman to vote against, or at least abstain on, the Government’s motion today, because this House, to use the often-used phrase, must take back control. We must talk to the people of the United Kingdom, however they voted, based on our knowledge of the facts. Last week Jaguar Land Rover announced that it will be making an additional 4,500 workers redundant, following the 1,500 redundancies already announced. We know the reasons for that are complex, and they include diesel cars and China, but Brexit is a significant contributory factor.
This Government stand accused of putting workers on the dole, and doing so as a function of ideology, because that is what it is. Look at the circumstances of where we are today. The Prime Minister called a general election because she thought she would come back with a thumping majority, but she came back as a minority Prime Minister. She should have seized the moment and recognised that this is a Parliament of minorities, a Parliament in which she has to reach across the House to try to achieve consensus, but she has failed to do so.
All that has happened since the 2017 general election is that we have had an internal battle in the Tory party. The Brexiteers want to drive us off a cliff, and there is no way that the Scottish National party and the people of Scotland will be sitting on that bus as the Prime Minister drives it off a cliff. There is no way that the people of Scotland will be dragged out of the European Union against their will.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. The Government’s own analysis shows that, no matter the outcome, with Brexit we will all be poorer, but does he agree that it is the most vulnerable in society who will pay the price? I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on disability, and people with disabilities have been writing to me in their hundreds because they are terrified that Brexit will happen and they will be thrown into further despair.
My hon. Friend is correct that it is the most vulnerable in our society—those who are disabled and those who rely on our public services—who will pay the biggest price for Brexit, because there is no question but that our public services will be poorer. We know that economic growth in the United Kingdom will be reduced by Brexit. Why are we punishing people to that extent? The Government have a responsibility to be honest with people and to reflect on what happened in 2016.
An economist, Dr Samuelson, said, “When events change, I change my mind.” Why has the Prime Minister not reflected on the situation we are in? I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, and I am delighted to announce to the House that all 35 SNP Members have spoken out in this debate about the risks we see to our constituents and to our industries across Scotland. Of course, we are particularly alarmed by the issue of freedom of movement. We have benefited enormously from those who have come to work and live in our country, to add to the diversity of our communities and to make a contribution to our economic growth. EU citizens who have chosen to make their lives here are now being told that they will have to register to sustain the rights they have.
It is, as my hon. Friend says, disgusting. This is about people who are a part of us: our friends, our neighbours and our relatives. We are now saying to them that they are going to have a different status as a consequence of what we have done. But it is not just about EU citizens who have chosen to come to live and work in this country; it is about our rights as EU citizens as well. If the Government get their way and Brexit takes place on 29 March, whereas today each and every one of us has the right to work in 28 member states, we will be automatically restricted to the right to live and work only in the UK. I was lucky enough to work in the Netherlands. My son worked in the Netherlands. Why should my grandchildren not have the same rights that my generation had? It is abhorrent that we are treating the people of these islands like that.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point about people who have come to live and work and be our friends and neighbours in our communities. Does he agree that it is an absolute disgrace that these people, who are so vital to us, are being told they must make an application to pay to stay in their own homes, even though many of them have been here for decades? It is an absolute outrage.
I absolutely agree, but of course it fits with the hostile environment that many on the Government Benches have prosecuted over the last few years. We have an expression in Scotland: “We’re all Jock Tamson’s Bairns”. If we look back at Scottish history over the last 100 years, we see that our population has barely grown—we have gone from 4.8 million to 5.5 million people. We face a ticking time bomb: an ageing population. The last thing we need is to be cut off from the supply of labour and people who want to come and contribute to sustainable economic growth in Scotland. How will we afford to invest in our public services if we cannot generate economic growth? That is what leaving Europe will do to us. It will restrain our ability to deliver growth and look after the vulnerable in our society.
This is the defining moment in the Brexit process and in the future of relationships. Members of Parliament must recognise their responsibilities, and for many I know that demands they make difficult decisions. I would say to each and every Member of Parliament that their primary responsibility is not to party but to their constituents. They ought to think about the risks consequent on this deal. It is the height of irresponsibility for the Government to suggest that this is a binary choice. The SNP’s amendment gives the House the opportunity to support extending article 50 and to give the people of the United Kingdom the choice to make that determination themselves on the basis of the facts and in the knowledge of what Brexit will do. It is only right and proper, according to the democratic principle, that we allow the people of the United Kingdom to make that choice.
I appeal to Members across the House. We in the SNP have many friends across this place, including on the Labour Benches. I appeal to the Labour party for goodness’ sake to get off the fence. The young people who voted for Labour in England in 2017 will never forgive the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues unless they recognise that this is the opportunity to unite the House, vote down the Government’s deal, support a people’s vote and allow the people to have their say. Will you do it? [Interruption.] I can see the shadow International Trade Secretary chuntering. If he wishes to intervene and accept his responsibilities—[Interruption.] Well, he can blow a kiss, but what he is doing is blowing a raspberry at the people of the United Kingdom. That is the reality. If hon. Members are serious about politics and responsibility, it is about time some of them grew up. Grow up and accept responsibility; do not dodge this.
The people of Scotland have a choice. The SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007. [Interruption.] I can hear Government Members say, “Too long”, but the fact is we have won three elections on the trot to the Scottish Parliament and the last two elections to Westminster. The party sitting in third place in Scotland is the Labour party, and that is because it is out of touch and out of step with the people of Scotland.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why I am appealing to every Member in the House to think about the people—about the people who have already lost their jobs, about the thousand people in the European Medicines Agency, about the thousand people in the European Banking Authority, about the workers at Jaguar Land Rover, who know that the Labour party today is not going to lift a finger to protect their economic interests. That is the reality: a party that was once of the people but is now sitting back and failing to accept its responsibilities. Thank goodness in Scotland we have an alternative.
The people of Scotland have watched everything that has gone on over the last two and half years. “Taking back control”, the Conservatives say. My goodness, they have taken back control from the Parliament of Scotland. When this House pushed through the withdrawal Act, it took back responsibility for fisheries, agriculture and the environment, which were laid down in the Scotland Act 1998 when the Parliament was established as devolved matters, and which were supposed to be protected by the Sewel convention. Nevertheless, the Government said, “These are not normal times”, and they grabbed back powers not so much from the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, but from the people of Scotland, who had voted for it in the referendum 1997. That is the reality of the Conservatives, who have always been hostile to devolution.
Of course, we are told, “The people voted in 2016 and we should accept it”, but the people of Scotland were told in our referendum in 2014 that if we stayed in the UK our rights within the EU would be respected. The fact that 62% of the people of Scotland voted to stay in the EU is ignored by this Government. The fact that the Scottish Parliament has said we wish to stay, as a very minimum, in the single market and the customs union has been ignored by this Government. They have shown contempt for the institutions in Scotland and for the cross-party unity that existed on these matters in Scotland.
The time is coming when the people of Scotland will have to reflect on how we are being treated and ignored. The Scottish Parliament has a mandate for an independence referendum, and if and when the First Minister and the Scottish Government choose to enforce that mandate, this House will have to respect the wishes of the Scottish people. I hope tonight that this House votes down the Government’s deal and has the confidence to extend article 50 and to give the responsibility back to the people, but if the House is determined to push ahead with Brexit, the day will come when the people of Scotland will have to determine their own future—do we wish to be tied to a United Kingdom that is going to damage our economic interests, or will we accept our responsibilities as a historic, independent European nation? That day is coming and it is coming soon.
For me, this has been a very long journey towards leaving the European Union. The European question has always been about who governs this country and how. The national interest is served by our democratic system of parliamentary government, which has evolved over centuries of our history. We make our laws in this Parliament, in line with the consent of the voters in general elections, on the basis of the party manifestos. The Government are chosen by virtue of those who win the most seats. It is also fundamental that our proceedings are both accountable and transparent. We have Hansard, and all votes are recorded. Any voter can see the transcripts and can see how their laws are made and voted on in this Parliament.
We must fully repeal the European Communities Act 1972 on 29 March, as the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 legislatively requires. I agreed with the Prime Minister when she said in her Lancaster House speech:
“we will not have truly left the European Union if we are not in control of our own laws.”
However, the withdrawal agreement does not achieve that, despite breathtaking assertions to the contrary. This situation may even be indefinite through the backstop, and through the undemocratic procedures of the Council of Ministers. We could be indefinitely shackled, as article 132 of the agreement affirms, even up to 31 December “20XX”. The decisions in the Council on which laws we obey, and changes to the rules creating great uncertainty for business, will be made through qualified majority voting or consensus by the other 27, behind closed doors. We will not be there. There will be no transcript, and no explanations will be given of how or why the laws imposed on us will be arrived at.
That alone is a reason why I shall vote against the withdrawal agreement. It is a denial of our democracy, and therefore of the national interest. It defies the referendum vote and the withdrawal Act itself, which repeals the European Communities Act and all the treaties and laws, including the single market and the customs union, which have been heaped on us since we joined the European Community in 1972-73.
It is outrageous to suggest that what we are doing in rejecting the withdrawal agreement is undemocratic. This is pure Alice in Wonderland. It turns the very notion of democracy and the national interest on its head, but that is not all. The agreement is not compromise, as the Attorney General suggested; it is capitulation. Nor is it pragmatism. We are not purists. We are defending our democracy against servitude.
Apart from control over our laws, there is the question of money. We will be paying not merely £39 billion but far more for nothing. We will lose the rebate. Then there is the role of the European Court of Justice. There is the issue of our not being able to trade independently outside the clutches of the European Commission. We have prodigious opportunities to create prosperity and to provide the revenue for the payment of our public services by trading on our own terms with other countries in the world throughout the Anglosphere and the Commonwealth. There is also the question of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
The state aid proposals in the agreement would give a power of veto to the European Union over our incentives in relation to ports and industrial development, which would be one of our primary means of attracting foreign direct investment. It should also be borne in mind that, in the European Union, we run a deficit in the single market in goods of about £95 billion a year, whereas Germany hides behind the euro with a surplus of £140 billion with the EU27. Sir Paul Lever, our former British ambassador to Germany, said recently in his book “Berlin Rules”:
“the EU is geared principally to the defence of German national interest.”
He explains, as I did in my own book “Against a Federal Europe” in the early 1990s, that there will be a German Europe. He shows that no decisions, including those related to the negotiations for the withdrawal agreement, were made by the Commission or by other member states without the prior agreement of Germany itself.
Why on earth would anyone want to remain? The EU does not work for the UK or, indeed, for the EU itself. Youth unemployment in countries such as Italy, Greece and France is running at between 20% and 50%. Those countries are utterly disillusioned with the austerity imposed by the German-led fiscal compact. Hungary, Poland and other countries in central Europe are in revolt, and even Sweden and Denmark have moved to the right. So what is it that makes the reversers in the House believe that we should remain in this imploding, undemocratic European Union, whose economic foundations are in tatters as the euro stagnates? Why on earth do they believe that a new “people’s vote” is needed, when one was enacted in the House of Commons and voted for by most of those who are now trying to unravel the withdrawal Act, and despite the fact that every Conservative endorsed the referendum vote in our manifesto?
As I argued some months ago, our system is one of parliamentary government, not government by Parliament. Government by Parliament would be anarchic. So we are faced with not only a constitutional crisis but a massive breach of public trust, as a party and as a Parliament. Until the time of the Chequers proposals, I was fully prepared to support the Government, but on 6 July my trust in the Government and the Prime Minister was completely lost.
On 9 July I asked the Prime Minister how she could reconcile Chequers with the repeal of the European Communities Act, and received no reply. During the debate that took place the following week, I stressed that the 80-page White Paper which set out those proposals, and which is now intrinsic to the withdrawal agreement, had been pre-planned for probably up to a year. I explained that it would unravel the European Communities Act, and that this was a gross misleading of Parliament. Indeed, the Chequers meeting itself had bounced the Cabinet, in breach of collective responsibility and in breach of the ministerial code. All those factors amount to a monstrous breach of constitutional and public trust.
That brings me to what happens next, when I believe the withdrawal agreement will be consigned to the grave of history. Far from Members of Parliament—as the Prime Minister has asserted—voting for the agreement, it is our duty to vote against it. We will not have effectively left the European Union if we do not. We will also be undermining our Westminster system of government, and depriving ourselves of the monumental opportunities of global trading on our own terms and with our friends in the United States who are so disillusioned with this agreement—and the same applies to other members of the Commonwealth.
As Churchill once said, and as I was reminded at the time of Maastricht by my constituents, we should put our country first, our constituency second, and our party third. Tragically, our Prime Minister became leader of our party by coronation and not by the will of the party members—all the recent evidence suggests that they are profoundly against the withdrawal agreement—and we then had the deeply unsatisfactory outcome of the last general election.
I simply say, therefore, that now is the time to walk away from this European Union. The expression “no deal” is a misnomer. It is not a default position; it is what the Act of Parliament endorsing the Lisbon treaty specifies. There must be no extension of time indicated by the so-called European Union (No. 2) Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). I am glad that the Prime Minister reaffirmed that to me yesterday. It will achieve nothing.
I strongly urge the Government to conclude, after the vote is cast tonight, that enough is enough, and that we have reached journey’s end. Now is the time to walk away from the intransigence of the European Union and our failed policy of seeking to supplicate its guidelines, its terms and its paymasters. We witnessed similar events in May 1940 when the then Prime Minister actually won the vote after the Norway debate, but, on reflection, concluded that he had to resign because he had lost the confidence of Parliament as a whole. I believe that there are lessons in that for the Prime Minister. She should consider her position, and should do so with dignity and without rancour.
I want to address what happens next, if, as seems likely, the Prime Minister’s deal is defeated this evening. The first question is “What will the Prime Minister do in that event?” Until yesterday, I thought that she might say “I am going back to Brussels to secure some more assurances”, but that route now appears to be blocked in the light of the letter that she brought to the House’s attention yesterday. I would like to think that she would take a bold step—that she would reach out across the House to look for a consensus, would say that she was prepared to consider a completely different approach, or would even announce that because she still believed in her deal, she would take it to the British people and ask them what they thought. That really would be political leadership. But if she does not do any of those things, the House of Commons will have to move swiftly to enable us to decide what we can agree on because, as the Prime Minister rightly said, the House of Commons can say what it is against, but in the end it will have to be for something. So we need to decide what a different policy might look like and how we get there.
One option is undoubtedly to leave without a deal. Some Members favour that, as we have just heard, but many of us think it would be a disaster—by the way, so do the Government. So let’s give the House of Commons a chance once and for all to make it clear what it thinks of that.
Then there are the alternative deals. There is Canada with a variety of pluses attached. There is the EEA and a customs union—which is what I have been arguing for—or a variation on that. And then there is the question of process: how do we enable any of the different approaches, if we can agree on them, to be negotiated with the European Union, and how can we do that when we are running out of time?
I think it is now inevitable that article 50 will need to be extended, whichever option the House of Commons chooses, assuming we can reach agreement on something. I support a series of indicative votes and I support the Bill that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) and others have tabled, which, if approved, would give the House the legal means to give effect to what we decide, including on whether to extend article 50. If this House cannot agree, apart from deciding that we do not want to leave with no deal—in other words, if this House remains deadlocked, which is a possibility—someone else will have to decide. In all fairness, I have to say that I can see no other way of doing that in those circumstances than by resolving to go back to the British people and asking them what they think.
I would give way, but time is very short and many other Members want to speak.
The reason the Prime Minister has got into such difficulty is that, as we will discover tonight, the House of Commons will not agree a deal because of fear, uncertainty and doubt: fear that we will be locked permanently into a backstop; uncertainty about entering into a process where we will be in an even weaker position than we have been in over the past two and a half years; and doubt about where this will all end up, in an age, as the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), so eloquently put it, when it is the quality of the alliances you have that determines the ability to influence what happens in the world in the interests of the people we represent.
Faced with this set of circumstances, what would be the rational thing to do? It would be to seek to remove that fear, that uncertainty and that doubt, and to say to the European Union “Look, the only way we are going to get a deal is not by another exchange of letters or asking for another assurance, but by moving on to negotiate the future relationship now, so that everyone can see at the end of the process what it would involve before we formally leave.” I understand the legal position that in law the European Union cannot sign such an agreement, as the Attorney General pointed out, until the United Kingdom has ceased to be a member state, but it has a choice about its negotiating mandate and we all understand why the EU chose to structure the negotiations in the way that it did: because far from holding all the cards, we have, as the last two and a half years have demonstrated, held hardly any cards at all. But if we were able to negotiate more detail on the future relationship, which I recognise would be very challenging for the EU—and also for the Government, because they would finally have to confront the choices they have been steadfastly avoiding for the last two and a half years—at the end of that process we would know where we stood on the backstop and on the nature of the future relationship.
To do that we would have to extend article 50. If we want to reassure people—we may confront this choice at some point—that extending, or maybe revoking, article 50 is not a device for the House of Commons to overturn the referendum result in 2016, the House of Commons could say to the people, “Don’t worry, whatever the result is of this process we will put it back to you, so you take the final decision.” If we could undertake those negotiations while still a member, from the EU’s point of view, it would not really make any difference at all: we would still be paying the money—we are going to do that under the transition; we would still be accepting the rules of the ECJ—we are going to do that under the transition; we would still be a member of the single market and the customs union—we are going to be under the transition; and we would still be accepting free movement, which we are going to do under the transition.
I acknowledge that that would be difficult, but it would be the sensible thing to do and who knows where the EU will be in two or three years’ time, which we all know is how long these negotiations will take to complete. Indeed, if the EU were to say to other countries, not just to the UK, “You’re not going to get what you want if you leave, but if you remain then there is the possibility of reform,” that would be the kind of leadership that the EU could potentially offer. I do not know whether there is the strategic vision in the EU to do that, but it should provide it because the forces present in Britain are present in all of its member states and reform, including on free movement, would be in their interests as well as in ours.
If this is not possible, and if the Government will not reach out, then we as Parliament must take responsibility. That would not be us subverting democracy in any way; it would be us doing our job—it would be taking back control. The draft Bill I referred to earlier, and which I support, will give us the means to do so. It proposes to ask the Liaison Committee to take a role. It could be amended to give that responsibility elsewhere—
No, as I am going to conclude my remarks.
And the House of Commons will in the end have a chance to vote on that.
The referendum result came as a shock to many in this House, but it did not come as a shock to those who voted to leave. It was a cry of anguish as the EU became the lightning conductor for the feelings of 17.4 million people about the change they have seen in their communities, the disappearance of well-paid jobs, the shrinking of opportunities and—let’s be honest—above all about our collective failure to share with all of our citizens the prosperity of this, the sixth richest economy in the world. But that will not be solved by a damaging Brexit. It will not be remedied by the convulsion, the argument, the lack of direction and purpose, and the refusal to be honest about choices we face that have consumed almost all our energy, effort, attention and time.
We cannot let this carry on for the next five years. We owe it to our constituents to tell the truth. We owe it to ourselves to do the right thing and, in rejecting the deal today, as we should, we must show, as parliamentarians of all parties and all views, that we are, after the vote tonight, capable of coming together—to listen, to compromise, in the interests of the people we come here to serve.
For my part in this debate, I have always understood the case for compromise, but compromise cannot come at any price, and the deal before us involves the most severe and enduring risks to our economy and our democracy while stifling the opportunities of Brexit that fired up over 17 million people with the optimism and the hope to vote in June 2016.
My reasons for my decision are straightforward. First, the Northern Ireland backstop and the scale of separate “regulation without representation” is undemocratic and a threat to our precious Union. Secondly, the UK-wide customs backstop has morphed into a hybrid customs union and single market arrangement, where the combination of alignment and non-regression requirements prevent this House from determining the right laws in the best interests of this country.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and on top of that powerful point the effect of this deal is to give up control, and it would precipitate a democratic cliff edge. That is compounded by the lack of an exit mechanism we can control. It gives the EU a veto over any UK exit from the backstop, even if negotiations on the future relationship languish for years or break down entirely. It is clear that none of the subsequent assurances alter the legal position as set out in the withdrawal agreement.
My hon. Friend is right on that, and I will come back to what I think the Prime Minister and the Government should do in the event that the deal is voted down.
My third reason for opposing this deal is that paragraph 23 of the political declaration means that the upcoming negotiations on our future relationship would take the backstop as the starting point, to be built on. The future relationship would not be a free trade agreement, nor would it even be the Chequers model, which was set out back in the summer. It would be a hybrid arrangement somewhere even further along the spectrum of legislative alignment with the EU, between the customs union and the single market, without our having any say over the rules to be imposed.
Given the EU veto over our exiting the backstop, we will spend the second phase of negotiations, from March, under massive pressure from the EU to accept additional single market rules, free movement—potentially—and access to UK fisheries as the price for exiting the backstop. The EU will inevitably press us right up until the next election, if not well beyond, and it would wield all the negotiating leverage. So I say to all hon. Members weary of Brexit that I share your desire to move on from Brexit, but be under no illusions: the deal before us cannot end this grinding process—it can only prolong it. This deal is so demeaning to our country that it would inevitably invite—no, demand—reversal by the British people from the moment the ink was dry. It would torment us and, as a result, our EU neighbours, for the foreseeable future.
So what next? If this deal is voted down, we should make our best final offer to the EU on the current deal, including, as hon. Members on all sides have said, an ability to exit the backstop and a transition to a best-in-class free trade agreement. At the same time, we must accelerate our preparations for leaving on World Trade Organisation terms, in case all our reasonable offers are rebuffed in Brussels, so that we can manage and mitigate the undoubted risks of leaving on WTO terms while leaving the arm of friendship extended to continue negotiations with the EU, whether it is right up until the end of March or even beyond.
That is what my head tells me about this deal, but this decision touches the hearts of so many of us in this House, on all sides, and indeed the very soul of who we are as a country. Like many of us, I think about what this deal means for our children. My two sons are four and six. I want them to grow up in a country that is even better than it is today, one that is more prosperous, more ambitious, more confident, and, yes, more conscientious in the world, too. I want them to know that we fearlessly chose the right path for their future, that we did not duck the challenge, weary of Brexit, and that we did not avoid the undeniable but manageable short-term risks at the long-term expense of the economic health and democratic foundations of the country that I know we all love.
But what I fear most in the terms of this deal is the drain on our economy, the loss of our competitive advantage and the enfeeblement of our democracy that it would inevitably inflict over time. I say that because it is the embodiment of a distinct view of the United Kingdom, one that acquiesces in defeatism and makes its peace with managed decline. I will not sign up for that, not for my country, not for our people, not for my children and not for theirs, because I believe in this United Kingdom of ours. I believe in our entrepreneurs and our innovators. I am proud of our culture, just as I love those across Europe—and well beyond. I believe that we in this place, the mother of parliamentary democracy, accountable to the people, must determine the vital, sensitive and controversial issues of the day, and not meekly abdicate such precious decisions to Brussels. So, I will vote against the motion and the deal, because it is racked with self-doubt, defeatism and fear. Equally, many of us who vote against this deal vote for and aspire to something better and something brighter. With my heart and soul, I vote for the promise of Brexit, which must be fulfilled. I vote for the temerity to regain mastery of our own destiny. I vote for the ability to reach our full, global potential. Above all, I vote for hope not fear, and for the renaissance of the democracy in this country and the people I love.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), and I fully agreed with most of what he said. It is with sadness that I am going to have to vote against this withdrawal agreement, because I had hoped that I would be able to support it, because I am one of the few Labour MPs who genuinely wants to leave the EU and one of a somewhat larger group of Labour MPs who genuinely wants to honour the referendum result—I include the leader of my party in that.
I am very conscious that this Parliament is full of remain MPs—it is a remain Parliament. Most of them were very upset when the referendum result came through, as they could not believe that people had not listened to their dire warnings. It is absolutely true, and the public know this, that some in this Chamber have spent their whole time from day one after that referendum trying to think of ways to stop this. They have been trying to think of ways of preventing us from leaving. Tonight, we have the culmination and we will have another opportunity for people who will be trying to stop this after tonight.
For me, today is about something very simple. I do not understand why we need to vote on any of these amendments, because if they go through they will have no bearing whatsoever on the legal agreement—they are not going to be “legal”. We have seen, and we realise now, that the assurances given are not going to mean anything, because they are not put in a legal, prescribed way. I remind people who think these assurances might be able to be fulfilled that we are going to have a new European Parliament in May and new EU Commissioners. The Prime Minister may have built a relationship with some of the current ones, but they will not be there then. We can reject the idea that somehow they would even think—some of them—of honouring those assurances.
What happened to the mantra of, “Nothing agreed until everything is agreed”? Why are we giving the £39 billion, even if we owe it—I do not think we do owe as much as that? Why are we giving that up front, before we have had anything in return? The withdrawal agreement will mean more uncertainty for the next few years, with the EU holding the trump cards, especially on the backstop. I can never support a situation in which Northern Ireland will end up being treated separately from the rest of the United Kingdom and in which the only people who will speak for it will be representatives of the Irish Government. That is just not tenable.
I have heard some people say, “It was only 52% to 48%, after all; why don’t we just give a little bit of compromise to those who voted to remain?” Had the result been 52% to remain and 48% to leave, does the House think that we, and all the lawyers, QCs and solicitors here, would have been beavering around trying to find a way to get a little bit of Canada or Norway into the remain decision? Let us be honest: there are people here who would do anything to stop us leaving the EU. We voted to take back control to, I believe, the people. The people made their decision. Parliament gave the decision to the people to decide whether they wanted to leave. We gave it up—we said, “People, you decide”—and they voted to leave. The idea that Parliament will spend the next week or so trying to find other ways to stop us leaving on 29 March is shocking.
The Attorney General said that we must vote for the withdrawal agreement “for wholly pragmatic reasons”. With respect to him, the vote did not ask the people of the United Kingdom whether they wanted a pragmatic leave or a pragmatic remain. It was very simple, and they wanted to leave. Whatever happens after tonight, one thing cannot be evaded, overruled or wrecked: the United Kingdom must leave the EU at the end of March to implement and honour the will of the British people.
My hon. Friend has listed a series of arguments and reasons that might undermine the 2016 decision. Does she agree that a second referendum would have no credibility if the result of the first referendum was not implemented thoroughly and properly?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people, many of whom voted remain, will just not understand why we should even think of a second referendum when we have not implemented the result of the first.
As I was saying, whatever happens after tonight, the UK must leave the EU at the end of March to implement and honour the will of the British people. I trust our Prime Minister on this. I have heard her say over and over again that we will not revoke article 50. I have heard her say over and over again that we will be leaving on 29 March. Yes, that may mean some difficulties, but those difficulties are nothing compared with what this country has had to go through in the past. We are a strong, proud and determined country, with a people who believe and have confidence in our country, so let us go forward to 29 March, leave the European Union and have that bright future that we know is ahead of us.
How is it possible for the right hon. and hon. Members who speak today to capture the past two and a half years in five minutes? How is it possible to capture the 45 years of our membership in five minutes? The good news for those who like to debate Europe is that we do not have to do that, because there will be many, many more debates to come—
I can hear the joy on the Opposition Benches.
As the Attorney General said, this is only the end of phase 1. I think that the point he was trying to make in his speech was that today’s debate should be about the 625 pages of the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. I will support the agreement tonight—as with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), people perhaps might not have expected that, given some of the statements I have made. I do not want to go into the detail, because it is easy to get stuck in the weeds of the EU debate and to talk about this appendix or that clause of the withdrawal agreement that we do not like. This House is in danger of getting so bogged down in the detail that we forget that the country is looking at us—not just at the detailed debate, but at the tone of the debate and the way that we conduct ourselves and disagree—and that we can do it well and in a way that, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, will hopefully, eventually, lead us to a place where there can be broader consensus and a majority can be found. Unfortunately, that ability to find a consensus has been somewhat lacking.
A previous Prime Minister talked about “general wellbeing”; there has not been nearly enough talk about flourishing. I have heard some contributors begin to say what people want—what is a positive way forward—and that is where we need to be, as a House, if the House does not approve the agreement tonight. The country is deeply divided, our constituencies are divided and this House is divided, but it is up to us as Members of Parliament to change the tone and start to heal the divisions if we are ever to get to talking about other issues. That is one of the lessons I have learned in the past two and half years. That is not to say that I have always practised it, but it is certainly something for which we should all aim.
Whatever is said today—whatever right hon. and hon. Members on all sides say—a substantial number of those watching and of our constituents will disagree with us. As we know, some will disagree more vehemently and violently than others, but there is a vast silent majority out in the country who are watching today and hoping against hope that the House does approve the agreement. On the basis of what I am hearing, I do not think they will be satisfied, but I have never before had so many members of the public coming up to me as a Member of Parliament and wishing us well for this vote. The country is watching what we do today and beyond.
I wrote an open letter to my constituents. I do not hear enough Members of Parliament talking about their constituencies in this debate today. We are their representatives. It is not about us; it is not about how we feel; it is not about our heads and our hearts: it is about who we are representing and what is best for them. I have come to a conclusion after wrestling with this greatly over the last two and a half years. Of course I would have been happy to see the referendum result go differently. I would be happy to see an even closer relationship with the EU going forward. But that is not what people voted for—the majority who voted in 2016. They did vote for change and it is up to us to deliver that change.
I have always been very clear that Brexit should not undermine our constitution, and we have put our representative democracy under massive strain through having one referendum. It should not be about undermining our economy, although that is not all about numbers. In order for people to flourish in this country, it is not just about the size of our economy—it is about other issues, too, that have not been tackled by Brexit, nor by the Government over the last two years as our UK politics have stalled. It should be about our values and not undermining our values as a country. One of those, undoubtedly, is that the British people are very independently minded, and I can understand why it is that people took the decision they did in June 2016.
Let me, in the time available, briefly take one issue from what the Attorney General said. If the deal goes down tonight, there are other deals—other models—on the table where I believe this House can find consensus and compromise. Carrying on with this deal cannot be an option, and I would be disappointed if the Prime Minister did that.
I am delighted to take part in this debate. My constituency voted by a majority to leave the European Union, but I recognise that there are many voices in opposition to that in Northern Ireland. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister has worked very hard to try to address the concerns that have been raised on both sides of this debate, and I commend her for that, but when I hear Members speaking about the danger that Brexit poses to the peace process in Northern Ireland, I have to refute that notion. I believe strongly in the peace process. I am delighted that in the past 20 years we have seen a reduction in violence—our streets in Northern Ireland have become more peaceful. That is something I want to maintain, and we do not want the clock turned back, but the British people voted to leave the European Union and we must respect their decision.
When we talk about the threat that a hard border could pose to the peace process, I look at what the Irish Government say. I hear the Irish Prime Minister saying very clearly that even in the event of a no-deal outcome, there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. That is the stated position of the Irish Government, and it is the stated position of the Government of the United Kingdom, so where is this hard border coming from?
We need to be clear that when people say that the Union customs code must be applied and WTO rules must be applied, yes, they are right, but that is in order to provide confidence that checks are being made. They do not have to be made at the frontier—they can be made away from it—so there is no need for a hard border in Northern Ireland.
And it is worth noting that even at the moment, with both the UK and the Irish Republic being members of the European Union, we have checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. If someone travels by bus from Belfast to Dublin, they can be stopped on the main road and their identity will be checked. With the movement of animals, there are checks across the border. The idea that there is no border and there are no checks at the moment just is not true. It does not reflect the reality. These things can be approached sensibly, as they have been in the past. There is no reason why they cannot be dealt with sensibly in the future.
My party does not advocate a no-deal outcome. We want a deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union. We want the Prime Minister to deliver a deal for this country, but we do not believe that what is on the table at the moment is the best deal, and nor is it in the best interests of the United Kingdom.
We have heard a lot of talk today about the backstop. My concern about the backstop is not only its implications for Northern Ireland. I echo the point that if we enter the backstop, it hands a massive negotiating advantage to the European Union, which weakens our negotiating position in the next critical phase of obtaining a free trade agreement with the European Union. That is why I do not believe it is in the interests of the United Kingdom.
We hear it said a lot that neither the EU nor the UK wants to implement the backstop and that it would be temporary. If that is the case, why does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the European Union will not budge on at least making the backstop time-limited?
I believe the reason is that it gives a negotiating advantage to the European Union, and the EU does not want to give up that advantage in favour of the United Kingdom.
What offends me about the backstop and its potential is, as the Attorney General described in his advice to the Government, that Northern Ireland would have to treat Great Britain as a third country for trading purposes. The Attorney General told us today that that already happens, and he gave the example of the Canary Islands, but the Canary Islands are not leaving the European Union—they will still have representation and will still be able to influence the way in which regulations are drawn up by the EU. That is not so for Northern Ireland. Under the backstop arrangement, we will have to accept regulations with no say in how they are drawn up—not at Stormont, if we have an Assembly back; not here at Westminster; and most certainly not because the Irish Government will advocate on our behalf. Indeed, the Irish Government have shown in the past that they will look after their own interests first, and rightly so—it is a sovereign state, in so far as it is possible to be a sovereign state in the European Union.
The backstop is not in the best interests of Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom, and that is why we need real change—change that the Prime Minister describes as legally binding. What is on offer from the European Union at the moment does not have legal effect. That is our concern, and it is why we cannot support the amendments that have been tabled. We need a clear commitment from the European Union that the backstop arrangement will be altered so that the UK has the unilateral right to leave the backstop at the time of its choosing and in circumstances that would be beneficial to the relationship.
We are not trying to create difficulties, but we do not want to hand to the EU a significant negotiating advantage, and nor do we want regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which would damage our economy in Northern Ireland. I respect the views expressed by business leaders and others in Northern Ireland who support the current withdrawal agreement, but I do not agree with their opinion that the proposed arrangements will be good for the Northern Ireland economy. They are not the so-called best of both worlds. They create a regulatory barrier between Northern Ireland and our biggest market—Great Britain—so that we can avoid regulatory differences between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, even though we do far less trade with the Irish Republic and the EU than with Great Britain. Although I am no expert in business, I believe that it cannot be in the best interests of Northern Ireland to have regulatory barriers with our biggest market in order to continue having free trade arrangements with the EU, which is a smaller market for us in trading terms.
We therefore urge the Prime Minister to look again at this withdrawal agreement. She said that she would seek to secure legally binding changes. That is what we need, and what we have on the table does not achieve that. For those reasons, the Democratic Unionist party will be voting against the withdrawal agreement this evening, and we will also be voting against the amendments, because they do not change the fundamental reality that until we get the assurances we need on the backstop, we cannot support what is on the table.
Entertaining as it was to watch the theatricality of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General, I have to say to the House that it filled me with a slight sense of gloom that the Government have got to such a pass that they had to rely on the skills of a criminal defence advocate to get them out of their difficulties.
We have had everything. We had the appeal to patriotism and the bright fields beyond. We had the analogy of the airlock, in which we were assured that if we placed ourselves for a period of time in an uncomfortable position, we would find that the door opened to the fields of ambrosia beyond. I am afraid that my own view is that we will either choke to death in the airlock as a nation or, when the door finally opens, find the landscape little to our liking.
At appropriate moments, we also had those delicious moments of confession and avoidance from the Attorney General. He gently pointed out that he thought the suggestion that we could have a negotiated deal without a transition had been overblown. Who overblew it? The truth is that for two and a half years, and during the period of the referendum, we have been living in a fool’s paradise in relation to expectations. When during the referendum was there mention of the backstop and its constitutional implications that worry so much Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies? Where was the 20-month transition, now potentially extended for two years, and where was the complete lack of concrete terms for a future relationship?
That is the reason why we now have the problem that only about 20% of the public appear to think that this is a good deal, and it should come as no surprise that so few Members of Parliament are also willing to support it. The difficulty—this is where I do agree with what the Attorney General said—is that we are where we are: we cannot turn the clock back. I know that some hon. Members talk of alternatives, and we can consider them, but I have to say that my view about where we are is that alternatives will be very hard to come by. In any case, I raise an anxiety about whether they can be justified.
One of the things I have found most curious in this debate is that I keep on being told that I must sign up to this deal because it would be a betrayal of the United Kingdom electorate not to do so. Yet there are hon. Members who are prepared to consider, for example, going for a Norway-style option. I have to say that that seems to me to be an example of the elites picking up the carpet and brushing the broken glass under it to try to avoid the difficulties that have been created.
That is why I am respectful of what the Prime Minister has tried to achieve. I accept that it is probably the only deal on offer, realistically, and might be willing to support it, if it had the support of the public. Yet we have spent months trying every possible device in this House to prevent Members from expressing any view saying that the public ought to be consulted. On that, I am afraid I will not budge.
It pains me to see how the discourse has developed. It pains me, Mr Speaker, to see you and me accused of being in a sinister conspiracy, all of which is utter and complete fantasy. It pained me to discover the No. 10 press office briefing against me last Friday for involvement in an initiative of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) in which I had not the slightest degree of involvement. Such is the level of madness that pervades us at present, and that makes me all the more determined—as the death threats come in and the rhetoric heats up—that we must stay sensible, be willing to have a dialogue across the House and try to resolve this. The question now is whether the Government are prepared to listen. For the present, I very much regret that I cannot support the Government this evening.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). I agreed wholeheartedly with the vast majority of his remarks.
I am in the House first and foremost as a representative of my constituents, the people of Cardiff South and Penarth. Their views are absolutely clear: they voted to remain in 2016 and that view has increased in intensity. I have received nearly 2,000 messages—in emails, phone calls and conversations—and 86% of them now tell me that my constituents want to stay in the EU. The vast majority of them want to see the question put back to them so that they can make the choice. Of those who still want to leave, there is a split between those who want to support the Prime Minister’s deal and those who want to leave with no deal. There is no consensus on what leaving even means.
Let me be clear to everybody in the House: the people who voted leave did so in good faith. They are my friends, my family, my constituents and my neighbours. Indeed, I have very strong and good relationships with many people across the House who fundamentally disagree with me on Brexit. We must listen to their concerns and we must hear them. Those concerns were made loud and clear, and we have to respond to them. We have to offer hope and a positive vision for the future, but I will not vote for a deal that will, by all measures and on all analysis, leave my constituents poorer and less safe, and actually lead to more uncertainty, not less, with this process going on and on and on. It is simply not acceptable when we are told by leading manufacturing organisations, trade unions and businesses about the jobs that are being lost or put at risk, and the livelihoods that are put at risk as a result.
I wholeheartedly support the Labour Front-Bench policy of opposing the deal. It is absolutely clear that it does not meet the six tests that the Labour party set out. I, of course, want a general election. I would like this Government to be removed, for many reasons, but it is clear that we are unlikely to reach that objective, so we must try hard. We would like a no-confidence motion to be tabled if the Prime Minister loses tonight, but if we are not able to resolve this matter in the House, we must put it back to the people.
I do not think that there is a majority in this House for other variations of the deal. I do not think, as a previous proponent of it in this House, that there is a majority for the Norway option. I also do not think that there is now time to engage in fantasy negotiations with the EU. It was very, very clear from the beginning what the possibilities were and the constraints that were put on those possibilities by the Prime Minister’s red lines. A problem exposed by many people—the failure to reach out across the House to find consensus at the start of the process—has led us to the situation we are in today.
I want to address two particular concerns that the Prime Minister and others have raised against those of us who advocate putting the issue back to the people. The first is that it is somehow anti-democratic. No, it is not. It is a continuation of democracy. I understand very much why the Prime Minister feels that she is duty bound to deliver on a result that happened in 2016, but what about the will of the people today? As the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield said, if there was clear consent among the people of this country—among my constituents and all the constituents represented in this House—we would not face the situation we are in today with the Prime Minister facing defeat from every angle and our needing to find a new way forward.
Secondly, I hear the concern that this will stir up far right or right-wing rhetoric, violence on the streets and civil disturbances. We simply must not indulge that terrible, terrible attitude. Those people do not represent leave voters. We must not give into them. Our colleague who was murdered would not have given into them; she would have stood up against them. That is what we all must be doing in this House. I see this as part of a much wider challenge that worries me deeply. We have talked much about the economic and business implications of the deal, but when the people rubbing their hands in glee at this chaos are Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and the enemies of this country, we all ought to be asking ourselves some very serious questions.
Winston Churchill was quoted earlier by the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I would like to draw the House’s attention to another quote by Winston Churchill, from the early 1930s. He warned about ignoring the warnings of our followers in the country and ignoring the signs of the times, saying:
“This was one of those awful periods which recur in our history, when the noble British nation seems to fall from its high estate, loses all trace of sense and purpose, and appears to cower…frothing pious platitudes”.
I think, Mr Speaker, of “global Britain” and “Brexit means Brexit”.
We are all patriots in this House. Let us find a way forward. Let us put this issue back to the people and let them decide.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty).
I have been a loyal Conservative Member of Parliament for nearly 14 years, but I do not believe that the withdrawal agreement before us is in the interests of my constituents or our country. That is why in November last year I resigned from my post as a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, allowing me to speak up against the agreement and to vote against it later today.
The Government have repeatedly said that the United Kingdom’s constitutional and economic integrity would not be compromised, but the legal advice given by the Attorney General to the Prime Minister on 13 November states in paragraph 8, on page 2, that
“for regulatory purposes GB is essentially treated as a third country by NI for goods passing from GB into NI.”
I raised the issue earlier with the Attorney General. While his answer was eloquent and articulate, he somewhat fudged the issue. We entered the then European Economic Community as a United Kingdom, and it is important that we leave it as such at the end of March.
The withdrawal agreement sets out the terms on which we will negotiate a future free trade agreement, but it is extraordinary that we are required to pay £39 billion up front before we have negotiated the deal itself. It is also extraordinary that we are agreeing to enter an unending backstop that we will not be able to leave unilaterally. Effectively, we are agreeing to be handcuffed by the EU, and it will determine when the handcuffs come off.
The assurances and warm words are just that, and they are meaningless. We are told that the backstop will be temporary, but “temporary” has to be judged in context. Given that the agreement with Canada took seven years and the agreement with Singapore took eight years, we can rest assured that “temporary” means many years. France and Spain have already made it clear that they will have conditions. In the case of France, that is access to our coastal waters for fishing, and for Spain, it is rights regarding Gibraltar. They have said that they will not agree to our departure from the backstop unless they have satisfaction on those matters. Not only will we be held hostage in the customs union in that way, but we will be heavily restricted in our ability to do favourable trade deals with the rest of the world.
I recognise the need for compromise in international agreements, but this deal is not a compromise, it is a cave-in by our country. It is an agreement that has been negotiated on the basis of fear of being outside the EU, rather than on confidence. It is important to remember—the facts make this clear—that in the decades ahead, economic progress in the countries outside the EU will far exceed progress within the EU. This debate is not only about today, tomorrow, next month or even next year; it is about the decades to come and the future of our children and our children’s children. We need to get it right, and this agreement does not do that. That is why I will be voting against it this evening.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and the Attorney General are not in their places, because I would like to say to them and all Members of this House that I need no lectures on how to love my country. None of us do. We all care deeply for Britain, but the fact is that, as the members of the Treasury Committee found in our report published for this debate before it was aborted in December, there is no dividend for our country in Brexit. Economically, there is only loss.
There is no Brexit bonus. There is only the madness of doing something we know to be a bad idea because we allowed another bad idea—a referendum for which we were ill prepared—to take hold. I will not repeat the cliché that people did not vote to become poorer in the referendum, because it does not matter now. What matters is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) made. The choice is ours: should we vote to make our constituents poorer?
I ask those who think that their constituents will be angry if they do not back the deal what they will say when they become accountable for a permanent downgrade of our economy. Can they do that without consequences either? I do not think so. Often in this House we talk about the real issue of how wages have fallen over the past 10 years. To properly understand the money in people’s pockets, however, we have to understand that it matters what they are able to pay for, and what has happened to our currency since the Brexit vote has made us all poorer. There is only more to come, and there is no escaping it.
The reason that happened was the deep dishonesty at the heart of the leave campaign. It said we could have global Britain, a Britain open to the world and more globalisation, but also less immigration, more command and control over our economy, and less globalisation. That contradiction at the heart of what people were offered is at the root of the impasse we find ourselves in.
The truth is, because of that contradiction, we now do not really know what the public want. We have had a general election with an inconclusive result, because people were offered something that was never really on the table and they voted for it. Another referendum would be far from perfect, but I have come to the reluctant conclusion that offering people a choice—Brexit as we now know it to be versus the deal that they have now—is probably the only way forward.
Finally, I will mention the thing that has kept me going through this turgid Brexit discussion: the reason why we are in this place. We are here for our ageing population; to produce Treasury Committee reports about wages and nursing homes, not about Brexit; for our young people; and to talk about how to fund libraries and teaching assistants, not about Brexit. I ask myself a simple question: judged by those objectives, does Brexit help, or is it a hindrance? Will it help our country to have the money it needs, or will it hold us back? The answer is glaringly obvious: Brexit is bad for our country, and it is time that in this House we took the steps that we need to take to rectify it.
I will support the Prime Minister’s deal today because, as the west midlands businesses that employ thousands of my constituents tell me, “It’s good enough”—good enough for us to leave and thrive outside the EU. Not perfect, maybe, but those who flirt with plan Bs must examine their conscience when they hear the plight of industry. This is not the time to take a stand against the pragmatic reality of what is on the table. I credit my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for recognising that.
Right now, what business needs is some certainty. With only 73 days to go before we leave the EU, firms are already having to take costly decisions to stockpile goods and parts and, in some cases, to mothball production capacity. The cost of that hits their bottom line and ultimately results in them having to let people go. The car industry, for which the EU is the principal market, is particularly hurt. Let us remember that its factories are drawing on workers from some of the most deprived parts of the UK. Colleagues might not yet have lost jobs in their constituencies, but in the west midlands we certainly have.
I call on the Government to find a way to help the UK car industry, which is such an important employer, exporter and life transformer, through the challenges that it faces. Those challenges grieve me deeply, as the renaissance of manufacturing had transformed the lives of my constituents. Take, for example, single mums on my council estate who have taken up well paid jobs through apprenticeships with companies such as Jaguar Land Rover. Next week, when Dawn—not her real name —shows up in my surgery to complain about losing her job, the thing she understands as “Project Fear” is not being able to keep up the mortgage payments on the home she has provided for her kids.
What can we do to stop that inescapable human cost? At the very least, as a Parliament, we must stop the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal. There is a majority for no to no deal in Parliament, and the letter I co-authored with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) attracted 225 signatures. I and other hon. Members have tried to withdraw amendments tonight that could have wrecked the meaningful vote, but we remain determined to rule out no deal.
Businesses tell me they have roughly 14 days to decide whether to shut factories to weather the storm of disruption after we leave the EU or stockpile at huge expense. The least we can do is to provide a stable platform or foundation by ruling out no deal. The hit on business is taking place now: 90% of the CBI’s members are stockpiling, along with the SMEs in their supply chains, spending billions on contingency that they would otherwise use to invest. Some 10,000 lorries pass through Dover every day. Just-in-time delivery will become not-in-time delivery with the slightest hold-up at the border. The path the country has chosen is fraught with risk, even if, in time, opportunity beckons, so let us at least manage the risk of a no-deal Brexit so that constituents like Dawn do not face losing their jobs, their homes and their livelihoods.
As Second Church Estates Commissioner, I might be expected to make reference to the profound comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury about Brexit in the debate in the other place, that leaving without a deal would be a political, practical and moral failure. I echo the words of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that we must come together, try to unite and bring unity to our country.
Given the time constraints, I will focus on what should happen later tonight when the motion is defeated, but I will start by saying that if the UK leaves the European Union under the terms that the Government propose, it will constitute one of the greatest acts of self-harm in our country’s history. We would be poorer, we would have less sovereignty not more, and we would guarantee that the uncertainty and political wrangling that have so disfigured Britain for the last two and a half years will continue for years and years to come.
It is increasingly clear to everyone, except perhaps the Prime Minister, that she and the country will face a choice after tonight’s vote, between reaching out, finally, across the House, to seek a majority for a less damaging, Norway-style Brexit, and putting her deal to the public in a people’s vote. I am extremely doubtful that there is a majority in the House for Norway now. If, after the 2017 general election, when she lost her majority, the Prime Minister had sought consensus, she could probably have got Norway through. Many of us repeatedly pleaded with her to do so. But she stuck to her red lines, for fear of what the hard Brexiteers in her Cabinet and on her Back Benches would do to her. As recently as last spring, nearly 80 Labour Members defied our own party leadership and voted for a Norway-style solution. But we were rebuffed, as we have been repeatedly rebuffed, when we have tried to steer the Government in the direction of the least damaging Brexit.
We are now told that several Cabinet Ministers and others on the Government Benches—and some Members on the Opposition Benches—would like us to rescue this disintegrating Government by backing Norway now. I am sorry, but it is too late. The overwhelming majority of those of us on this side of the House who backed Norway a year ago would not do so now.
The rest of Europe, which has shown commendable patience with the British Government, has said we can have more time and we can extend article 50, but only for a general election or another referendum, not for a tortuous renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement with no certain end point. Labour’s policy, unanimously agreed at our last conference, states that if the Government are confident in their Brexit deal, they
“should not be afraid to put that deal to the public.”
The Prime Minister could, at this late stage, save her deal, by seeking parliamentary support for it conditional on ratification by the public in a referendum. But, if she will not do so, Labour must act. Britain is facing the most serious political, economic and constitutional crisis in our peacetime history. The time for dither, delay and constructive ambiguity is over. The country is crying out for decisive leadership.
So, let us have our motion of no confidence tomorrow. Let us test Parliament’s appetite for an election. If we do not secure one, let us rule out no deal, test the Norway option if colleagues wish to do so, but then quickly pursue the only rational choice left for our country, which is to give the decision back to the people. I appeal to the Prime Minister for once—just this once—to put the national interest first. If she will not, Parliament must do it for her.
Every Member of Parliament faces a difficult vote this evening, representing as we do very different communities up and down the country. The additional challenge is that Brexit is not about party politics. All of us are genuinely asking ourselves how we can represent our communities and do what is in the best interest of this country. Like many other MPs, I cannot support this deal. I represent many remainers in my constituency who think that if we are still following so many rules, we should be around the table setting them. I also represent the many Brexiteers in my community, and they simply do not believe that this is the Brexit they felt they were voting for. It does not give them a clean break from the European Union. In many respects, Brexit has been a failure of party politics at leadership level on both sides of the House. Far from thwarting democracy, I feel that I am representing those in my community today, because they have told me clearly what they think about this particular deal and how they would like me to vote on it.
The failure on the Government Front Bench comes from the fact that all this has been clear since the summer. It is not a surprise that the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration have not found favour with enough MPs; it has been blindingly obvious. For those on the Front Bench to turn round and somehow suggest that the rest of the House has got it wrong is a bit like a person steering the Titanic towards an iceberg and then blaming the iceberg for not getting out of the way. This is a real failure on the part of No. 10, and a bit of recognition of that fact would not go amiss. The wasting of time and delaying of the vote before Christmas also did no good whatsoever.
I also think that this is a failure on the part of the Labour Front Bench. The dither and delay that have just been described have really shown party politics at its worst, at the very time when our British public need us to step up to the plate. The election in 2017 simply compounded the problem, with the Government unwilling to compromise after a close Brexit result that frankly required compromise if enough people were to be brought with it. I urge Members of Parliament not to think about party loyalty tonight. That is not what this vote is about. It is about the future of our country.
Whatever happens tonight and in the coming weeks, we as a House need to start finding better ways to work together on the long-term issues that British politics has failed to deliver on sufficiently for the British public, including housing, social mobility and opportunity—something I care about—the environment and social care. The only difference with Brexit is that it was a long-term issue that had a deadline, and sure enough, we have not been able to meet that deadline. It looks very much as though we will move from a fudged deal to a fudged delay, but if we have that delay, it should be one that has a plan in mind rather than nothing. Maybe the House will be unable to agree on any path forward, and if that is the case, surely we need to do the right thing and recognise that in a democracy we have big unanswered questions, and that the public have to be allowed a say on them.
Brexit, and the way it is being handled, is a national embarrassment. Worse than that, it is a damaging international embarrassment. That great tactician, David Cameron, devised what he thought would be a cunning plan to staunch the decades-long Euro bloodletting in his party: a referendum. But the referendum, instead of acting as neat sutures to bind together the ideologically driven Brexiters and their more rational colleagues, has taken a scalpel to the Tory party’s jugular, and—critically, and far more significantly—to that of the country, too. Driving the country to the brink, and in some cases being willing to drive over it, is overwhelmingly the Tories’ responsibility.
Of course, the Leader of the Opposition has a cameo in all this, demonstrating the same aptitude for leadership during the Brexit campaign as he has since. However, as a long-standing Member of Parliament, I share some of the blame for not tackling the conditions that led to a majority voting for Brexit. That blame must be shared by successive Governments—not this one, not the one before, not the one before and, indeed, probably not the one before that either. I regret not being active enough in promoting the benefits of being in the EU for students, research, common standards, medicines, and investment in, for example, the hospital where the PM launched the NHS 10-year plan, which received £50 million of EU financing, or the potteries factory where she gave her speech yesterday, which received £400,000.
I was not outspoken enough in rebutting the ludicrous, infantile and mendacious claims that Brussels-based British newspaper correspondents made about the threat to British pink sausages or standardised condom sizes. Most importantly, I regret the failure to tackle deep-seated concerns in some towns and cities over the failure to invest in infrastructure and under- performing schools and to rebuild proud communities devastated by the loss of heavy industry. I regret that devolution was not pushed hard and fast enough and that responsibility, funding and accountability for delivering jobs, skills training, bus and train services was not vested in politicians closer to those reliant on such services. Those challenges remain, and we owe it to those who voted for Brexit and, indeed, to those who voted remain to address them.
Does anyone in this Chamber believe that Brexit and the PM’s so-called deal provide solutions? They do not. Nothing that leaves us poorer can. The PM’s deal is nothing of the sort. It is a fiction, a chimera, a mirage. The political declaration comes in at a measly 26 pages. Compare that with 1,598 pages in the Canada-EU trade deal. According to the PM’s statement yesterday, the real deal—our future relationship with the EU—may not be struck until as late as December 2022, and some consider that wildly optimistic. That is one of the reasons why her deal will be defeated today.
With the red lines that the Prime Minister chose for herself, I do not doubt that this is the best deal that she could secure. Unfortunately, it is a bad deal, so where next? We expect the PM’s deal to be defeated later, no deal has been rejected by Parliament, and a fresh round of negotiations with the EU is unlikely to be sanctioned by the EU. The Prime Minister is left with one option: put the deal to the people in a people’s vote and offer them the choice to stay in the EU.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). He touched upon the fact that David Cameron introduced the referendum, but he forgot to mention that it was a Liberal Democrat idea to have an in/out referendum when the Conservatives opposed the Lisbon treaty.
We are facing a constitutional conundrum. The right hon. Gentleman quite rightly said that the Conservatives promised an in/out referendum if we won the 2015 election, and we then had a long parliamentary process to guarantee that we would give the people the power to decide. We then had the referendum, and the people decided overwhelmingly to leave—17.4 million people in the biggest vote in British history and the biggest majority on any one subject. Everyone then said, “What does leave mean?” and the Conservative party helpfully interpreted leave to mean leaving the single market, the customs union and the remit of the European Court of Justice. Sadly, however, what we have come up with here does not deliver that. The withdrawal agreement is a betrayal of what the people voted for.
In my previous speech, I touched on the impact on our laws. It is ludicrous that laws will be made by the 27 nations and then imposed upon us so that we cannot query them. On agriculture, an area which is totally dominated by the EU, it is extraordinary that our agricultural sector will be held back to 2019 levels of support throughout the whole transition period. Our competitors on the continent will be better funded and will have free access to our market, so agriculture will be a particularly badly penalised sector. We have to consider state aid; Sir Richard Dearlove and Lord Guthrie’s letter this week showed the horrors of the impact upon defence; and there will be no exit from the deal, which has been confirmed by the Attorney General.
All that will cost us £39 billion with nothing promised in return. We will be paying £39 billion to have the right to keep talking and talking. There is no incentive for the EU to end the talks. They have us trapped. They will be imposing laws upon us, they will have access to our market, they could clobber us through the ECJ when we do not obey those laws and we will be paying. What is not to like? We saw it from Herr Selmayr, who unwisely blurted out to Passauer Neue Presse that he had got everything, including the cost of losing Northern Ireland. That is the real horror for me in this withdrawal agreement, which carves out something called “UK(NI)”, a new political entity in which not a single elected representative from Northern Ireland will have any impact on the law, which is shameful. It is a complete breach of the principle of consent, which is embedded in the Belfast agreement. As Lord Trimble has said, it is a breach of the demand for the Assembly to be consulted.
I will not be voting for this withdrawal agreement. Thankfully, a very large number of other Members also will not be voting for it. What should we do? I went to see Monsieur Barnier with Lord Trimble to discuss the problem of the Irish border, which can be solved with current techniques and processes. We had an incredibly instructive and constructive discussion. What we need to do is to go back to President Tusk’s free trade offer of 7 March 2018. We should go back on Thursday morning and say, “Yes, we will engage in very serious discussions on your free trade agreement. In parallel, we will immediately go on to World Trade Organisation terms.” WTO terms have come under the most ludicrous caricatured attack, because they are synonymous with leaving. WTO terms are not as good as a free trade agreement, but they do mean that we are leaving. That will galvanise the European Union into coming back to us.
Only today Heiko Maas, the German Foreign Minister, has said that he would come back to the talks. We will do the country a service tonight if we overwhelmingly vote down this completely unacceptable agreement, which will push the EU to go back to its generous offer of a free trade agreement. We will not get it through in time, so we should trigger article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade, which means zero tariffs and zero quotas can continue during the discussions, possibly for up to five years.
For all the division in this House, I have not met a single Member, privately or publicly, who believes this motion has a chance of being passed tonight. For many Opposition Members, that is not because of the withdrawal agreement itself but because of the complete absence of clarity about what is to come next. Almost three years after one of the most divisive episodes in British history, it beggars belief that the Government are asking for our votes while being unable to tell us even the broad direction of travel.
I represent a constituency with a huge number of food manufacturing jobs, which are at stake. Two visions of the future are on offer, one in which we retain close economic ties with the EU, with the rights, working protections and living standards that go with them, and another in which we follow the US and China in a race-to-the-bottom, zero-hours, no-hope economy, which would have profound implications for my constituency and many others. I have discussed it with the Prime Minister, and I am grateful for her time but, with hours to go until the vote, there is no clarity about what comes next.
I have also been honest with the Prime Minister about the fact that Members of Parliament like me, who from the beginning have sought a way through this and who have looked for reasons to vote for the withdrawal agreement, need confidence that there is a role for Parliament in what comes next. We are a deeply divided country, and we represent a range of views in this House. All parts must be heard, but I say to my friends and colleagues that we, collectively, have not risen to the challenge. I have heard Members on both sides of the House pretend that no deal is a political hoax, not a legal reality. I have heard Members pretend that we can resolve no deal and avoid that catastrophic scenario simply by wishing or voting it so, but we cannot. We cannot continue to grandstand, to remain in our entrenched positions and to call one another “traitor,” as I have heard again in today’s debate, despite death threats, abuse and the murder of one of my colleagues in recent years. It will not do.
I say to both the Government Front Bench and the Labour Front Bench that none of us will hang on to power, or the prospect of power, by a sleight of hand. We are here to lead, and to lead in the country’s interest, not in our own interest. I have not seen this level of anger directed towards MPs since I was first elected nearly 10 years ago during the expenses scandal.
We are playing with fire, we are breaking our democracy, but there is the hope: the public are better than we are. For all that the extremes have tried to drown it out, there is a decent, sensible, pragmatic majority in this country that wants a way through. We cannot go on arguing about the will of the people or dividing people with our binary choices. Let’s ask them to help us to resolve it, as they did in Ireland, Canada, Australia and this week in France with President Macron responding to widespread unrest. In just seven weeks, a citizens’ assembly could make recommendations to this Parliament to help us to break the deadlock.
That said, a citizens’ assembly would not offer us an escape from hard choices, or respite from them. Choices have to be made. Every option facing the country has costs. There is a clear trade-off between democratic harm and economic harm and we have to be honest with people. Nearly three years after the referendum, we cannot continue to lie to the people. When this deal is voted down, it will be time to begin to work together and tell the truth.
I agree with the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) that it is imperative, as we face this the most important decision the House has made in generations, that we be honest with our constituents, tell them the truth and act in the national interest, not just for our constituents but for the generations to come.
In that spirit, I do not hesitate to say that our great nation has made a terrible mistake in deciding to leave the EU. Notwithstanding that, I voted to honour the referendum result and to trigger article 50. Then I reached out to my Government across these Benches to find a consensus that would deliver on the referendum result while doing the least possible damage to our economy and avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. As you know, Mr Speaker, and as others know who follow this debate, it was all in vain, and so it was with a heavy heart that I and many others came to the conclusion that the only way out of the impasse was to take it back to the British people. As we have thought about it and talked to people, it has become absolutely clear that that is the right thing to do: it is right for those who are entitled, now they know what Brexit looks like, to change their minds; it is right for older leave voters, as they consider their children and grandchildren, to put their interests first and change their minds; of course, it is also right, two and a half years on, for the young people who did not have the opportunity to vote, because of their age, to have a say in their future, because they will bear the burden of it all.
I agree with so much of what has been said by so many right hon. and hon. Members. If anybody in the Conservative party is still not sure how to vote tonight, I do not ask them to agree with me and my analysis. I come at this from a very different perspective from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who beautifully unpicked the whole deal and explained, in good, solid, careful terms, why it is such a bad deal and must be voted against. I would not for one moment say to him or anyone else in the Conservative party with whom I am in such huge disagreement that anybody is being undemocratic in voting against the deal. I do not agree with many of their reasons, but they are voting that way because they believe it to be right and in the national interest. That must be right.
It must also be wrong for anybody to vote in favour of this deal because they have in effect been blackmailed into thinking that the alternative is no deal; that is simply not the case. We have heard the alternatives available, whether a people’s vote or the Bill that has been proposed. I gently say to dear friends in the Conservative party that it also cannot be right to vote for this deal on the basis that it is a terrible deal. How on earth does that make sense? How does one explain that to one’s constituents? It cannot be right to vote for this deal on the basis that it is so bad that one has a cunning plan to put forward an alternative when it fails. I gently say to dear friends in the Conservative party that it cannot be right either to vote for the deal on the basis that, as one said to me, “My association would tear me to pieces if I didn’t”.
This is a bad deal and we must vote against it. Nobody voted to be poorer. It is also a terrible leap in the dark. I say with great respect to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) that it absolutely does not provide the certainty that British business is crying out for. The deal must be rejected. We are meant to be the party of business, and it is bad for business, and we are meant to be the party of the future, and it is bad for young people. Let’s all come together and vote against the deal.
Over last weekend, as the way in which the political traffic was moving became clearer and clearer, I changed my mind about how to vote tonight. I had been going to vote against the Government’s motion; I will now vote for it, and I wish to explain that. For all the problems that we have had, the nastiness in the debate, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend—my very honourable friend—the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), has come because we indulged in a referendum. We thought that the people would agree with us, and we found it impossible to incorporate in a representative system of government a delegate system of government operating from referendums. The idea that we want more of that poison by organising another vote is the last idea to which I would move.
I changed my mind because, for all the weaknesses of the agreement that the Government have presented to us, for all its failings, I believe that we now risk losing Brexit. That does not excuse the Government for their incredible incompetence. It does not mean that some of us, when this stage is over, will not push for a Dardanelles-type inquiry to find out why we landed in this desperate position at this late hour. I do not wish to live my time as Member of Parliament for Birkenhead aiding and abetting those whose real aim is to destroy Brexit.
The agreement gives us five advantages for which I campaigned in supporting Brexit. First, it fulfils the promise that we will control our borders. Secondly, after the transition zone we will be free from paying cash—any cash—to the European Union. Thirdly, it will give us British laws for British people. Fourthly, it will allow us to negotiate new trade agreements. Fifthly, as the Prime Minister has told me on three occasions when answering my questions in the House, it will offer us frictionless trade for our manufacturing industry. We have some manufacturing industry left in Birkenhead: we have Vauxhall’s manufacturing down in the Wirral, towards what I call the mainland. I take heart from the statement by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders that this was the best deal it could accept and that, as far as Brexit went, the car industry would be safeguarded.
Let me end on a similar note to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan. It is not just one person who has been roughed up. We are all pushed and poked by enthusiasts, let us call them, on the outside, who wish to prevent the views that they do not want to hear from being heard. One of the things that representative government—as opposed to delegate, referendum government—has done is this: it has always given us a Chamber in which people can listen to views without being held to account, as we are, by a group outside who have given us instructions. We may not like that in the House. We may have misjudged our electorate. We may think that they were foolish to give us those instructions. But we asked for instructions, and they gave us instructions to leave.
You have selected amendment (b) to be voted on tonight, Mr Speaker. It is obvious that one of the problems with this agreement is the Northern Ireland backstop. We have no ability to end it unilaterally, and no end date has been set. My amendment addresses that problem by proposing that
“if it becomes clear by the end of 2021 that the European Union will not agree to remove the Northern Ireland backstop, the United Kingdom will treat the indefinite continuation of the backstop as a fundamental change of circumstances”,
and will therefore abrogate those parts of the withdrawal agreement. This is a vital point because, under international law, if you sign a treaty saying that under the treaty something will be temporary and it turns out to be permanent, or semi-permanent, you surely have the right to abrogate those parts of the treaty. I ask those who say that amendment (b) is defective in law to look at my amendment (r), which sets out international law in this regard and it would be perfectly possible, allowable and in accordance with precedent under international law for the Government when they sign this treaty to issue what is called a letter of reservation making it clear.
Will the hon. and learned Lady allow me to continue, as so many Members wish to speak? [Interruption.] Yes, fewer Members get in if there are interventions.
My amendment is trying to achieve a compromise. It tries to unite as many people as possible around a deal. I must say that having done my level best to help the Government to achieve this compromise I am somewhat disappointed that the Attorney General appears to have slapped it down, following my intervention on him, and therefore I reserve the right, if the Government are not prepared to support this amendment, to vote against the main motion. Why? Because I believe the fundamental problem with this withdrawal agreement is the fear that the Northern Ireland backstop will become permanent; I think I speak for many Conservative Members in saying that. Therefore, we have to find a way of solving this problem. I have no doubt that, if the main motion is lost tonight, the Government will go back to Brussels and try to get some movement on this issue. But, actually, you do not need to unpick the withdrawal agreement; you can do this unilaterally under international law. It is perfectly possible and feasible for the Government to go back to Brussels and inform the EU of their right to issue a letter of reservation making it clear that we cannot allow this backstop to be permanent, and I do not believe that that would destroy the whole deal.
I agree that we have to try to get a deal. I want there to be a deal with the EU. That is what I have been arguing for. I do not want to risk Brexit. I follow the words of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). I am aware that this might be in many respects the best deal we are going to get. I do not want to walk through the same Lobby as Members of the Opposition. I do not want to please Tony Blair, who wants chaos so he can argue for a second referendum. I want to bind this party together and find a compromise, and the compromise is staring us in the face. This one last issue needs to be resolved. Then we can unite, get a deal and move things forward.
Order. After the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who is the next speaker to be called, the time limit will have to be reduced to three minutes on account of the level of demand. It is a pleasure to welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the House: Mr Derek Twigg.
Over 57% of voters in Halton voted to leave the EU, and it is condescending and disrespectful to say that they did not know what they were doing. It was very clear: the overriding message I had from my constituents who voted to come out of the EU was that they wanted to end free movement of labour and take back control and have more control over our laws. Whether rightly or wrongly, people genuinely feel that is the right thing to do, and that to leave would lead to a better future for us out there. I also recognise that a large number of my constituents wanted to stay in, and like me, believe passionately that Brexit is not in the UK’s best interests, and we must also listen to their concerns. However, I made it clear at the 2017 general election that we must get on with Brexit and come up with the best possible deal.
It should surprise nobody to learn that this has proved difficult. The Prime Minister could have reached out to Parliament and the Opposition from an early stage but chose not to. She could also have reached out more to the country as a whole—to the public. She cannot command a majority, but acts as if she has one. She wanted to keep MPs at arm’s length. The Prime Minister must take a great deal of responsibility for the mess we are now in. I should add that I have had constituents, including those who voted to remain, complain to me about the arrogance and behaviour of the EU in the negotiations, so it is not just the Prime Minister who has a share of the blame. However, it is only now that the deal is in trouble that the Prime Minister has wanted to have discussions with a wider set of MPs, including Opposition MPs. The idea that we should just accept the first deal she puts to this House and not challenge it just smacks of the arrogance I referred to earlier. She expects that Parliament should just roll over and accept it, and then to try to use the threat of a no-deal Brexit just insults our intelligence, as we know there is not a majority for that in this House. I might add that the leave campaign said it wanted to see a negotiated settlement, so I do not believe there is a majority in this country for leaving the EU without an agreement.
With this deal we are neither fully in, nor fully out. We would have to abide by rules but with no say in what others will be making decisions on; while we look on, we would be rule takers. We would be a in weaker position than we are now. There are too many unresolved issues of great importance to our national interest here; the Prime Minster is asking us to take a big leap into the dark. Some 90% of constituents who have written to me or whom I have spoken to in recent weeks believe this is a bad deal—that is coming from both leavers and remainers. If this deal is rejected, it will send a strong message back to Brussels that we must find a better way forward and a better agreement, and that this Parliament will not be deterred from demanding a better deal. I will be voting against this deal, because it is bad for my constituents in Halton and bad for the UK as a whole. We have got to find a way forward. We have got to co-operate and work together in the national interest to find a solution that the people want. That means talking more to people, and getting across the issues and difficulties that we envisage, but we must have that co-operation in order that we can move this forward. There may be a number of ways of doing that, and having indicative votes is one thing that has been talked about during this debate. The fact is that we have to listen, co-operate and find a better way of moving this forward, because it cannot continue the way it is.
It is a pleasure to be called in this important debate, Mr Speaker. We are being told that the defeat of the withdrawal agreement is a near certainty tonight as a result of the entirely predictable coming together of the no dealers and the no Brexiteers, and, crucially, the Government’s failure to build a critical mass of centre ground support for the deal. Given the overwhelming numbers, voting against this deal almost feels like the easier thing to do. But what should someone who genuinely believes in respecting and implementing the outcome of the referendum result do? What happens if they also believe that Brexit was always going to be a process, rather than a one-off event? What happens if they believe that leaving the EU should be done in a way that is responsible and orderly, that certain vital economic and constituency interests should be taken into account, that squaring off Brexit against the Northern Ireland peace process was always going to require incredibly sensitive handling and that compromises were always going to be inevitable because the theory of a perfect Brexit was always just that—a theory? What is the right approach to be taken then? I am talking not about the easy approach, but the right approach. As someone who believes all those things, I am clear that voting for the deal tonight is the right thing to do.
We have a serious responsibility in this House today and it weighs most heavily on those on my side of the Chamber. We, as the party in government, made this referendum happen and we triggered article 50. We are responsible for the timetable and we helped to shape the Prime Minister’s red lines in negotiation. So it is not the Prime Minister’s deal on the table for discussion but our deal—it has all of our names already attached to it. The question for us tonight is whether we are responsible enough to come together to pragmatically support it in order to provide a way forward and direction for the country, or whether we abdicate our responsibility and disown the very deal that our party in government helped to shape. Let me say something respectfully to those colleagues of mine who for a long time have fought the battle for Brexit and were there at the very beginning. We have heard a number of good speeches from them this afternoon. The question I put to them is: is Brexit always going to be some sort of oppositional insurgency that is forever saying no to things—a vehicle for permanent discontent—or can Brexit be seriously implemented as a programme for government? I was serious when I promised my constituents that I would implement Brexit as a programme of government, which is why I am voting for the deal this evening. I do so because I believed what I said and took seriously the promises that I made to my constituents. It is too easy now to walk away, and the responsible thing to do is back this deal tonight.
It is six long weeks since this process began on 4 December, and I would just like to start with a book recommendation that I hope you will find very good reading, Mr Speaker. Fintan O’Toole’s “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain” is a great read that explains the psychology behind Brexit and exactly why the colonialists in there got themselves in this situation—will we be a colony—and explores the juxtaposition of every emotion, but it is really the madness of Brexit that is well captured by the Irishman Fintan O’Toole. The book starts off with a great Turkish proverb:
“An Englishman will burn his bed to catch a flea”.
That is exactly what Brexit feels like, so I appeal to you: please do not burn your beds; revoke article 50 for your own good. You probably will not listen, but anyway I have said it.
How did we get here? Well, the Prime Minister went and triggered article 50 on 29 March 2017, without much of a thought. I remember that I was fencing my potatoes a few weeks later when around came the news that she was now holding a general election. I was a bit surprised. I had thought maybe the Prime Minister had a plan, but from that moment on—when I was fencing my potatoes—it was very obvious that she did not have a plan.
Six months later, she went to Florence of all places—no idea why—to beg the European Union for two more years. The EU gave her 21 months, and this is what she is now fighting about. Her whole strategy was without any foresight whatever. It was only beaten by the Leader of the Opposition, who wanted to trigger article 50 immediat