[Relevant documents: Eleventh Report from the Exiting the European Union Committee, Response to the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration: Options for Parliament, HC 1902; and Twelfth Report from the Exiting the European Union Committee, Response to the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration: Assessing the Options, HC 1908.]
I have provisionally selected the following amendments in the following order: (a) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn; (o) in the name of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, Mr Ian Blackford; (g) in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, Dominic Grieve; (b) in the name of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, Yvette Cooper; (j) in the name of the hon. Member for Leeds West, Rachel Reeves; (i) in the name of the right hon. Member for Meriden, Dame Caroline Spelman; and (n) in the name of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West, Sir Graham Brady. Reference may be made in debate to any of the amendments on the Order Paper, including those I have not selected.
For the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members, and of those observing our proceedings, I will set out concisely what will happen at the end of today’s debate. At 7 o’clock, I will first invite the Leader of the Opposition to move his amendment. If his amendment (a) is agreed to, amendment (o) falls, and I will invite the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield to move his amendment (g), and so on down the list. If amendment (a) is disagreed to, I will invite the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber to move his amendment (o). When amendment (o) has been decided, we will move to amendment (g), and so on down the list. If amendment (b) is agreed to, amendment (j) falls. At the end, I will put to the House the original question in the name of the Prime Minister, as amended, if amendments have been made, or in its original form, if no amendments have been agreed. To move the main motion, I call the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House, in accordance with the provisions of section 13(6)(a) and 13(11)(b)(i) and 13(13)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, has considered the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018” and made on 21 January 2019, and the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(11)(a) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018”and made on 24 January 2019.
Over the past few weeks, this House has left no one in any doubt about what it does not want. It does not want to leave the EU without a deal, because that would hurt our economy and disrupt people’s lives. It does not want to hold a general election, because it would waste time, increase division and solve none of the problems we face. Indeed, this House renewed its confidence in Her Majesty’s Government a fortnight ago. Neither do I see anything approaching a majority across the House to hold a second referendum. Indeed, the leaders of the so-called “People’s Vote” campaign obviously agree with me, because they declined even to table an amendment to put that into effect. I also accept, however, that this House does not want the deal I put before it in the form it currently exists. The vote was decisive, and I listened.
The world knows what this House does not want. Today, we need to send an emphatic message about what we do want. I believe that that must include honouring the votes of our fellow citizens and completing the democratic process that began when this House voted overwhelmingly to hold the referendum and then voted to trigger article 50 and that saw the vast majority of us elected on manifestos pledging to see Brexit through.
At the November European Council, the Prime Minister pleaded with other European leaders, telling them that her deal was not only the best deal but the only possible deal—a statement she repeated time and again, including in this House. We now hear from her spokespeople at No. 10 that she wants to rip up the withdrawal agreement and open up the whole process again. Why would other European leaders agree to that?
I gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman listen to my speech before asking questions of that sort.
Seeing Brexit through means reaching an agreement that works for this country and our people and for the other 27 nations of the European Union, including our nearest neighbour, Ireland. It means listening to the message being sent by the great manufacturing firms that employ millions of our constituents that they need an implementation period and a free trade area with our nearest market. It means protecting the security partnerships that keep us safe. It means caring about every part of this United Kingdom, including the people of Northern Ireland, who should be just as much the concern of each one of us in this Union Parliament as their fellow citizens in England, Scotland and Wales. We need a good deal that sets us on course for a bright future.
That is what I believe this House wants. It is what this Government want; it is what I want; and it is what the British people want. Today, we have the chance to show the European Union what it will take to get a deal through this House of Commons and to move beyond the confusion, division and uncertainty that now hangs over us and on to the bright, new, close, open relationship we want to build and can build with our European friends in the years ahead.
We published an economic analysis, along with other analyses, and they showed that the Government’s proposal was the best deal for honouring the referendum and providing protection for jobs and the economy in this country. I know the hon. Gentleman does not agree, because he does not want to honour the referendum result, but I think it is our duty to honour it.
The Prime Minister has had some strong words for the House for not forming an alternative consensus to her deal, but she is now supporting the Brady amendment, and so will be voting against her own deal. How does she expect the House to provide an alternative when she is voting against her own deal?
Time and again, Opposition Members have stood up and asked me to listen to the House. Now I come to the House having listened to the House, and Members say I should not have.
The way to make clear what it will take to agree a deal is to reject the amendments that state and restate once again what we do not want and back instead the amendment that shows what this House needs in order to agree a deal.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right about honouring the referendum result. Millions of people across the north of England voted in huge numbers to leave the EU, and many of them went out and re-elected Labour MPs who stood on a solemn commitment to make good on the referendum result. Is it not the case that if any Member of Parliament representing a northern leave constituency votes for amendment (b) this evening, they will be voting to dishonour the referendum result?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is up to every Member to remember the manifesto on which they were elected. Some 80% of the votes cast at the general election were cast for parties that said they would honour the referendum result, and that is what we need to do, and we can honour it by showing tonight what it will take to enable this House to agree a deal on the basis of which we can leave the EU.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to alternative arrangements as if it is a phrase that has suddenly come into use. As I will mention later, the deal we negotiated allows for alternative arrangements.
I would like to turn to the amendments. I appreciate the spirit of the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman). I, too, want to avoid leaving without a deal. I have heard the concerns and anxieties of businesses and families around the country who worry about what would happen if we left without a deal, and I do not want to put at risk all the hard work that has seen this Government deliver record high employment; the joint lowest unemployment in 45 years and wages growing at their fastest rate in a decade.
That said, my right hon. Friend’s amendment is missing the other half of the equation, for unless we are to end up with no Brexit at all, the only way to avoid no deal is to agree a deal. That is why I want to go back to Brussels with the clearest possible mandate to secure a deal that this House can support. That means sending the clearest possible message not about what the House does not want, but about what we do want.
I am just going to make a little more progress. I am always generous in taking interventions, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
I know that some Members have been concerned that this debate could be the last chance to vote on their desire to avoid a no deal, so I want to reassure the House that it is not. We will bring a revised deal back to the House for a second meaningful vote as soon as we possibly can.
Order. Let me very gently say to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and his hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) that both of them are very senior figures in the land, as Chairs of important Select Committees of the House, and they should behave with the decorum that befits their high status.
First of all, as I have said, we will bring a revised deal back to this House for a second meaningful vote as soon as we possibly can. While we will want the House to support that deal, if it did not, we would—just as before—table an amendable motion for debate the next day. Furthermore, if we have not brought a revised deal back to this House by Wednesday 13 February, we will make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day. So the House will have a further opportunity to revisit this question of leaving without a deal. Today, we can and must instead focus all our efforts on securing a good deal with the EU that enables us to leave in a smooth and orderly way on 29 March.
The Prime Minister is, of course, right that there is more clarity about what the House does not want than about what it does want, but to get that clarity about what the House wants, why will she not agree to a series of indicative votes on all the substantive options before us—not the process but the substance, including a comprehensive customs union?
The hon. Lady and others—indeed, Members on her party’s Front Bench—had the opportunity to table indicative votes. Did they do so? No. They tabled something that said, “Well, what’s the answer? Let’s have a few more votes in the future, possibly, maybe, if we think that it might be useful at some stage.”
This morning, there was some kite-flying about a so-called Tory Brexit compromise that would still take Scotland out of the EU, would probably require an extension of article 50, and proposes what has already been ruled out. Does that not further emphasise the fact that this Prime Minister’s Brexit policy has been about the Tory party, first, last and always?
Does the Prime Minister agree that it is important for us to honour the referendum and the vote of 2016? Will she rule out any extension of article 50 and any wrecking tactics from the Labour party and make sure that we leave on 29 March?
I absolutely agree that we need to deliver on the result of the referendum. Let me add that when people talk about things such as delaying article 50, that does not resolve the issue of what deal we should have in leaving the European Union. What we can do today is send a clear message to Brussels about what the House wants to see changing in the withdrawal agreement in order to be able to support it.
I want to find out what has changed since the Prime Minister said to the House just a fortnight ago:
“some…wanted to see changes to the withdrawal agreement, a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop, an end date or rejecting the backstop…The simple truth is that the EU was not prepared to agree to this and rejecting the backstop…means no deal.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 826.]
Does she still agree with herself?
If the hon. Gentleman will wait, I shall come on to talk about the issue of the backstop. We retain absolutely our commitment to a way of ensuring that we deliver on the commitment to no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. However, the hon. Gentleman may have noticed that actually we lost a vote, and we have been listening to Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends say to me that I must recognise that we lost a vote. Yes, that is why we are here, looking at what it will take to ensure that we get a deal through the House.
I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for relenting. She is just about to rip up her backstop, and we are all wishing that she would get on with it and tell the House exactly what she plans to do. That involves an agreement—[Interruption.] Hold on a minute. That involves an agreement—[Interruption.]
The first step in all this is for the House to make clear what it wants to see in relation to changes. The hon. Gentleman says that he wants me to get on with it and actually talk about what I want to talk about. If he were not jumping up and down all the time, I might be able to get on with it.
Let me now turn to the amendments from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). I understand the concerns that led to the tabling of the amendments, but I have the most profound doubts about the consequences to which they would lead.
Both amendments seek to create and exploit mechanisms that would allow Parliament to usurp the proper role of the Executive. Such actions would be unprecedented and could have far-reaching and long-term implications for the way in which the United Kingdom is governed and the balance of powers and responsibilities in our democratic institutions. I am sure that, as former Ministers of the Crown, both Members must know that. So, while I do not question their sincerity in trying to avoid a no-deal Brexit, to seek to achieve that through such means is, I believe, deeply misguided and not a responsible course of action.
Furthermore, neither amendment actually delivers on the best way of avoiding no deal, which is, as I have said, for the House to approve a deal with the European Union. The amendment tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend would see six full days given over to debates and votes on alternative plans, on which we could have voted today. With just 59 days left before we are due to leave the European Union, the way in which to deliver Brexit and avoid a no deal is to focus all our energies and time on getting a revised deal that both the House and the European Union can agree to support.
Does the Prime Minister not understand that the reason we are in this mess is that she chose to go and negotiate without first commanding the support of a majority in the House? Does she also not understand that, whether we are talking about the option that has been put forward by her Back Benchers or other options, she will need two things for that to succeed—time, and the opportunity for the House to agree on the negotiating mandate? The amendments provide that time and that opportunity. Why is the Prime Minister opposing them?
My right hon. Friend will have seen that the amendment that I tabled goes solely to process, not to outcome. But is it not the case that the House has never had a proper opportunity to debate options, and to do it in a reasoned way? What the Prime Minister is asking the House to do again today is to suddenly adopt a measure that the Government have signed up to at the last moment and to say that that should be the route we should take. Surely that illustrates the precise problem that the House has had throughout. Let me make it clear to my right hon. Friend that the purpose of my amendment is to give the House the space in which to find where the majority lies, and I commend it to her.
Let me say first that we have that opportunity today. I, and others, have been listening and talking to Members on both sides of the House about the issues that they have raised—apart from the Leader of the Opposition, who did not want to come and talk to me. I shall mention a number of those issues later in my speech, but one of them, which has been raised consistently by Members, is the backstop. We have an opportunity to give a clear message to the European Union on this matter today, and I also say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I am sure he has thought through very carefully the longer-term implications of the moves proposed tonight in the amendments that he and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford have put forward and the implications they have for the relationship between the Executive and Parliament in the future.
Does the Prime Minister also get the idea that the European Union too wants to do a deal with the United Kingdom? We have a £95 billion deficit with it; the Germans sell us 850,000 cars every year; we buy 20% of all the prosecco produced in Italy: does she agree with me that the European Union wishes to carry on trading with the United Kingdom in the way it currently does?
I am going to reference this later on, and I think there is a willingness on the other side—the European Union—to agree a deal with the UK, but what it clearly said when the meaningful vote was lost was that it wanted to know what the UK wanted to see happening in relation to the deal, and that is an opportunity that we have today.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for allowing me to intervene at this early stage.
The Prime Minister is trying to encourage this House to vote for an amendment that uses the words
“alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”
on the island of Ireland. Forgive me, Prime Minister, if I say that those words are nebulous. They are nebulous; the Prime Minister has a duty to spell out to this House before we vote what those alternative arrangements are, and how on earth the other 27 EU member states are expected to agree to this revised arrangement before Brexit date on 29 March.
The amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West and other right hon. and hon. Members does indeed reference the issue of “alternative arrangements”. That term is recognised in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration in terms of the deal, and I am going on to reference a number of options that have been brought forward in relation to that particular term.
I am going to make some progress.
The amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford does not rule out no deal; it simply delays the point of decision, and the policy dilemmas, the choices, the trade-offs that we face as a Parliament will not go away if we postpone exit day. Her amendment offers absolutely no positive suggestions to address them. Furthermore, I believe that the EU is very unlikely to agree to extend article 50 without a credible plan for how we are going to approve a deal. So whatever the right hon. Lady’s intention, I think the practical consequences of her amendment would be not to rule out no deal, but to delay Brexit, and that is not a course of action that this House should support.
I have been very clear, as I said earlier, about the process we will follow: if we get a deal we will bring it back to this House, or if we have not got a deal we will give this House opportunities through amendable motions to state its view as to what should happen at that point in time.
It is really important that the House has some clarity on this. If the Prime Minister is saying that there will be future votes in which Parliament can make some decisions about no deal or not, she will know that her credibility is very limited because she said there would be a vote in December and then pulled it at the last minute. We therefore need some clarity from her now: is she saying that if Parliament votes for an extension of article 50 to avoid no deal on 29 March she will respect that?
There is a very simple point: extending article 50 does not rule out no deal. [Interruption.] No, I am sorry; I have said this before, but I apologise to the House as I am going to repeat it again. There are two ways in which it is possible to rule out no deal. One is by revoking article 50 and not leaving. That is the SNP’s view, but it is not my view, it is not the Government’s view, and I believe that it is not the view of the British people and is not the view of the majority of Members of this House. The other way to ensure we do not leave with no deal is to agree a deal. The stage we are at at the moment is that the House of Commons has rejected the deal that the Government agreed with the European Union when we brought that back, and it rejected it with our having achieved further reassurances; I am going to go on to say what I believe is now required by this House, from the conversations and discussions I have had with right hon. and hon. Members of this House. As I have set out—
I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way again, but I am simply trying to understand what she is saying. She cannot have it both ways: she cannot be saying that she absolutely will leave on 29 March in all circumstances, whatever happens, and then simultaneously say that there will be an opportunity for Parliament to have some future votes and decide what happens next if there is no deal. The question here is whether or not she would ever contemplate any extension of article 50 to get a bit more time to sort things out to avoid no deal—yes or no.
As I said earlier in my speech, we will bring a revised deal back to this House for a second meaningful vote as soon as we possibly can. If it were not supported by the House, we would table an amendable motion for debate the next day, and if we have not brought a revised deal back to this House by Wednesday 13 February we will make a statement and again table an amendable motion for debate the next day. The right hon. Lady references the timetable up to 29 March; actually this House voted for that timetable when it voted to trigger article 50.
I would like to move on to the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
We should not indulge the amendment from the Leader of the Opposition. First he wanted a comprehensive customs union, then it was a new customs union and now it is a permanent customs union. Last week, I asked him whether he means accepting the common external tariff, accepting the common commercial policy, accepting the Union customs code, or accepting EU state aid rules: he had no answers then; he has no answers now; he hasn’t got a clue. He is still facing both ways on whether Labour would keep freedom of movement, and last night he whipped his MPs to oppose the Bill that would end free movement and introduce a skills-based system. And he is still facing both ways on a second referendum: his amendment calls for legislation for a public vote, but we still do not know whether he would use it or what the question would be.
I know that many Labour voters and MPs, and others in the Labour movement, are frustrated by the Leader of the Opposition’s approach. It is surely time for him to step up to the responsibility of being Leader of the Opposition and finally sit down with me and talk about how we can secure support in this House for a deal. As I said last week, he has been willing to sit down with Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA without preconditions; it is time he did something in our national interest, not against it.
No, I am going to make some progress.
None of the amendments I have addressed so far will ensure that we deliver Brexit. Instead, they simply provide more arguments against action and more reasons to stand still. Rather than setting out a plan to make Brexit work, they create further delay. And delay without a plan is not a solution; it is a road to nowhere.
No. I have said to the hon. Lady that I am going to make progress.
I am not prepared to stand still and put at risk either the Brexit that the people of this country voted for or the economic success they have worked so hard to secure. After this House gave its verdict on the withdrawal agreement, I stood at this Dispatch Box and pledged to work with the House to determine what steps to take next, and in the two weeks since, I have done just that. [Interruption.] Labour Front Benchers say that I have not done that. Actually, the only people I have not been able to talk to about this are the Labour party’s Front Benchers, because they decided not to come.
I have listened to the House, met MPs from all parties and spoken with and listened to Members of the European Parliament, Heads of the devolved Administrations, senior trade unionists and the leaders of Britain’s biggest businesses. From those conversations, it is obvious that three key changes are needed.
First, we must be more flexible, open and inclusive in how we engage this House in our approach to negotiating our future partnership with the European Union. Secondly, we must and will embed the strongest possible protections for workers’ rights and the environment. The Government will not allow the UK leaving the EU to result in any lowering of standards in relation to employment, environmental protection or health and safety. Furthermore, we will ensure that, after exit day, the House has the opportunity to consider any measure approved by EU institutions that strengthens any of those protections. As I have set out before, we will consider legislation where necessary to ensure that those commitments are binding. To that end, in the coming days, we will have further talks with the trade unions and MPs across the House to flesh out exactly how we can ensure that their concerns on those fronts are met. My message to Britain’s workers, in factories, offices, warehouses and right across our country, is that you can rest assured that the Government will deliver for you.
A clear and concise message needs to be given to the EU and to our nation. The Prime Minister does not want no deal, business in Slough and in the rest of the country do not want no deal, and the unions, which she has just mentioned, do not want no deal, so what is the problem in putting that down in black and white?
In order to deliver what the hon. Gentleman wants and ensure that we do not leave with no deal, we need to agree a deal. What we are doing today is looking at a series of amendments. I will come on shortly to an amendment that actually sets out a clear view from this House that we can take to the European Union and work to ensure that we can leave with a deal.
The third point that has become clear from discussions is that we must address the concerns of this House over the nature of the Northern Ireland backstop. The fundamental concern is that what is supposed to be a temporary arrangement could in fact become permanent. The message has been unequivocal: this House wants changes to the backstop before it will back a deal.
No, I am going to explain the position. That message has come from Conservative Back Benchers, Opposition Members and our confidence and supply partners in the DUP. That is why I believe it is in all our interests for the House to back the amendment tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale West and for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and others.
No, I am going to explain. This amendment will give the mandate I need to negotiate with Brussels an arrangement that commands a majority in this House—one that ensures we leave with a deal and addresses the House’s concerns, while guaranteeing no return to the hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
What I am talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement. Negotiating such a change will not be easy. It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement—a move for which I know there is limited appetite among our European partners. But I believe that with a mandate from this House, and supported by the Attorney General, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, I can secure such a change in advance of our departure from the EU.
I welcome what the Prime Minister has said about the need to address the issue of the Northern Ireland backstop, which she is quite right to emphasise as the primary problem. I also welcome the fact that she has said in terms that she will go back and seek the reopening of the withdrawal agreement. She can be assured of our support in trying to find a solution that avoids any hard border on the island of Ireland as well as any borders within the United Kingdom.
I am grateful for the clarity with which the right hon. Gentleman has set out that position. We remain absolutely committed as a Government to ensuring that we have no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and that any proposals accepted and put forward by this House maintain our precious Union.
I agree with the Prime Minister that the best way to avoid no deal is to put an agreement in place. She will be aware that a surprising combination of Members with very different Brexit views have been coming together to come up with some proposals. We are very grateful to her for the time she has given to engage with us. Will she undertake to ask her officials to consider those proposals seriously and to put them on the table as a possible way of fleshing out the alternative arrangements?
My right hon. Friend anticipates what I was going to say. We will be focusing on delivering specific changes that will address the concerns of the House, and I am looking at a range of ways to achieve that. As my right hon. Friend has just said, she and my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and others have worked to bring forward a serious proposal that we are engaging with sincerely and positively.
Some 17.4 million people voted for Brexit. The idea that they were duped into doing so is absolute nonsense, so Brexit must be delivered. But it must be a Brexit that protects jobs in my constituency and beyond. Unions and bosses tell me that that requires a permanent customs union or arrangement. Why will the Prime Minister not listen to them?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about ensuring that we deliver on the vote of those 17.4 million people, and I want to deliver on that with a deal that does protect jobs. What we need to ensure is that, as we look to the future relationship, in the free trade area and in the customs arrangements, we remember the necessity of protecting those jobs. What I have also heard very clearly from hon. Members on both sides of the House and, of course, from the trade union leaders I have spoken to is the issue of ensuring that we protect workers’ rights. As I have just indicated, we are committed to doing so.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and thank her for her very clear assurances that the withdrawal agreement text will be reopened and that she will consider what has been called the Malthouse compromise. May I ask for one more promise, namely that any further detailed agreement will come back and will not be deemed to have been ratified by the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady)?
I give my hon. Friend that assurance: it has to and will come back to this House. Legally speaking, ratification of the agreement can take place only in the act of passing the WAB—the withdrawal agreement Bill. That will be the ratification moment for any arrangements.
The Prime Minister has referred repeatedly to protecting workers’ rights post Brexit, but may I take her back to 2017 and my Bill, which was specifically about protecting workers’ rights when we leave the European Union on 29 March? Why was that measure not adopted at the time, and if she is so committed to it, will she meet me to discuss those elements of the Bill that she is prepared to adopt?
We are looking at ways in which we can give that assurance in relation to workers’ rights. As I said, we are looking at when legislation would be appropriate and where it would be necessary. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to go through that issue.
I want to complete what I was saying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). We will indeed engage seriously and positively with the proposals that she has put forward, which were also referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. The crucial concept that we see within this amendment is the concept of alternative arrangements. As I have already said in this speech, that has already been accepted by the EU as a way out of the backstop. I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends for their willingness to find a solution and I look forward to working with them over the coming days. A number of other colleagues have also suggested ways to achieve that aim, such as securing a time limit to the backstop, or a unilateral exit clause, which we will of course study closely as well. While there are obviously details that need to be worked through, the fact that leading figures from different sides of the argument are coming together to develop proposals shows how much progress has been made over the past few weeks.
Does the Prime Minister recognise that there is no solution in chasing fantasies? The EU has ruled this kind of option out many times. We cannot have an insurance policy based on a technology that does not exist. Will she not recognise that what she is chasing here are heated-up fantasies that have already been rejected by the EU and depend on technologies that do not exist?
On the question of our control over our laws, to honour the referendum, will my right hon. Friend give instructions to make certain that in any future withdrawal and implementation Bill, there will be an express repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, so as to dovetail with section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which we have passed?
As my hon. Friend knows, in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, we repealed the 1972 Act. It would be necessary to replicate the impact of some aspects of that Act for the purposes of the implementation period, but I certainly take what my hon. Friend has said. Within the withdrawal agreement Bill that we will need to bring before the House, we will make absolutely clear the arrangements for ensuring that the European Communities Act, and its impacts, do not go beyond the end of the implementation period.
I will take more interventions in a little while, but I want to make the point that the essence of any negotiation is to find a mutually acceptable solution. That is the spirit in which both sides have consistently approached these negotiations and that is the spirit in which I will engage with our partners, if this amendment passes.
Some say that there is no point even trying to achieve any change—I am hearing that from some interventions from sedentary positions, and from elsewhere—and that the EU simply will not budge under any circumstances, but in the two years since this House voted to trigger article 50, the EU has made concessions in many areas of the negotiations where people said no ground would ever be given. Today, neither side in this negotiation wants to see the UK leave without a deal. The simple fact is that the deal I reached with the EU has been rejected by this House. In response, the EU has asked us what we want and what this Parliament will accept, and this is Parliament’s opportunity to tell them.
Does the Prime Minister agree that, rather than chasing a fantasy, there is now an opportunity, which Michel Barnier himself presented when he told the Irish Government that the EU would look for ways of ensuring that checks could take place without any infrastructure along the border? He even talked about paperless and decentralised arrangements. That is what the EU is saying, so it is obviously not a fantasy, but something we have in common.
Those are exactly the issues that we want to work on, and several proposals have been put forward. However, what matters today is that Parliament makes it clear to the EU that the backstop is the issue that needs to be dealt with. This is Parliament’s opportunity to respond to the EU, which has said that it wants us to tell it what we want. This is our opportunity to do that. This is not the second meaningful vote. As I have said and repeated, we will bring a revised deal back to the House for just such a vote as soon as possible.
A vote for amendment (n) is a vote to tell Brussels that the current nature of the backstop is the key reason the House cannot support this deal, as many hon. Members have said to me, the media and their constituents over the past few weeks. A vote against that amendment does the opposite. It tells the EU that, despite what people may have said in speeches, tweets and newspaper columns, the backstop is not the problem. It risks sending a message that we are not serious about delivering a Brexit that works for Britain.
The right hon. Lady is not the first Prime Minister to discover that the Conservative party is un-uniteable and unleadable on Europe. Many others have learnt that lesson. However, as she celebrates having people on different sides of the argument coming together to support an amendment, does she not realise that she has been able to get them to agree to it only because it is so nebulous as to be meaningless?
I think that Conservative Members are all trying to find a way of getting a deal, and I have been impressed with what the Prime Minister has said today. We will send her back to Brussels to reopen the withdrawal agreement, but will she assure the House that, if we do not agree with what she comes back with, we will still have the right to vote against it?
Yes, of course the House will have the right to decide whether it agrees with the agreement that emerges. However, I hope that, when we bring a revised agreement to the House—as I am sure that we will be able to—my hon. Friend will look at it carefully before he determines how to vote.
I am conscious of the length of time I have been at the Dispatch Box. Hon. Members want to speak and I will now conclude.
Since the draft withdrawal agreement was published, I have come to the House to discuss it more than half a dozen times. I have been on the Front Bench for many hours of debate, taking hundreds of questions and interventions from hon. Members, and I have been listening.
I indicated that I would not take any more interventions and that I was completing my speech. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have an opportunity, if she catches the Speaker’s eye, to speak later.
I have witnessed division and discord, and I have seen passion and anger on all sides, but in the two weeks since the House rejected the withdrawal agreement, I have sensed a growing recognition of the task that has been entrusted to us. Members on all sides have begun to focus on what really matters: delivering the Brexit that Britain voted for while protecting our economy and our people.
We can increasingly see where this consensus lies, and I believe that we are within reach of a deal that this House can stand behind, but the days ahead are crucial. When I go back to Brussels to seek the changes this House demands, I need the strongest possible support behind me. Most of the amendments before us do not provide that. They create a cacophony of voices when this House needs to speak as one. I will never stop battling for Britain, but the odds of success become far longer if this House ties one hand behind my back. I call on the House to give me the mandate I need to deliver a deal this House can support. Do that, and I can work to reopen the withdrawal agreement. Do that, and I can fight for a backstop that honours our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland in a way this House can support. Do that, and we can leave the EU with a deal that honours the result of the referendum.
The time has come for words to be matched by deeds: if you want to tell Brussels what this House will accept, you have to vote for it; if you want to leave with a deal, you have to vote for it; if you want Brexit, you have to vote for Brexit.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and it is important to start by reminding us all that this whole process was secured only in the teeth of Government opposition, so I start by paying tribute to those MPs who voted with us for Parliament to have a full democratic role in the Brexit process and especially to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) for his work in the earlier debates.
Labour has been absolutely clear from the start that there must be a meaningful vote on any negotiated deal. That was raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) at the very beginning of this whole Brexit process. Should a deal be defeated in Parliament, as it was decisively, Parliament must have a say on how the Government proceed.
This is a vital issue that affects the future direction of our country and the future facing all of our constituents. It determines the jobs and living standards of our people, the rights of European Union citizens living in Britain who have been deeply stressed by this situation—as have British citizens living across the continent of Europe—our place in the world and our participation and co-operation in Europe-wide projects on issues as vital as security, counter-terrorism and climate change.
Our job must be to bring people together. No matter how anyone in this House campaigned in the referendum, we cannot wish away the votes of 17 million people who voted to leave, any more than we can ignore the concerns of the 16 million who voted to remain. We must have in our minds the views right across the country.
It is therefore right that Members represent their constituents in deciding the way forward on implementing the result of the referendum, but in delivering the result, we have to unite people so as not to create further divisions, stoke xenophobia or allow racism to rear its ugly head in our society. Many communities across this country have been neglected for far too long, lacking decent investment and with too few—
I will give way later to a small number of people. [Interruption.] Listen, the reason why this debate is so short is that the Government decided to take an hour out of it to make a statement that could have been made on any other day, not to mention the fact that the vote was delayed on 11 December, which wound down the clock still further.
Many communities across this country have been neglected for far too long, lacking decent investment and with too few secure and well-paid jobs and too little new industrial development. These are not issues that face Britain alone; they would be recognisable in communities all across Europe, where many people face exactly the same problems.
This is a serious debate, and I do not think the hon. Gentleman’s intervention has done anything to raise the standard of debate.
It is quite clear to me that our first duty is to block a disastrous no deal, and I hope amendments to that effect will be carried by the House this evening. Labour’s amendment (a), which stands in my name and in the name of my colleagues, starts by calling for sufficient time for Parliament to vote on options that prevent leaving with no deal, but whatever happens in the votes that follow, it has now become inevitable that the Government will have to extend article 50 in any scenario. If amendments intended to rule out no deal are defeated, and if this Government are serious about keeping the threat of no deal on the table, they are not even close—not even close—to being prepared, and the exit date would have to be extended.
Even if the Prime Minister’s deal were somehow to achieve a majority in this House next month, there is no chance that the necessary primary legislation and an extensive catalogue of secondary legislation—I believe there are over 600 statutory instruments—could clear this place between now and 29 March.
I can see that I am very well liked here. Does my right hon. Friend agree that clear, close and collaborative describes the relationship proposed by his amendment? That is why we need a customs union. The unions, Labour members and others are telling us that we need a customs union with our neighbours.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has just reiterated, as his amendment references, the need for a customs union. Will he now tell the House whether he means accepting the common commercial policy, accepting the common external tariffs, accepting the Union customs code—it is no use asking the shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union—and accepting the EU’s state aid rules?
Obviously a customs union would be negotiated, would be inclusive and would be designed to ensure that our jobs and investment are protected, that there is frictionless and seamless trade with the European Union and that we have a say in future trade arrangements—something the Prime Minister has absolutely failed to achieve. The fault for not achieving it lies absolutely with the Prime Minister. She claimed she would have a deal agreed by October, then she delayed the vote by a month, and she still suffered the worst—
Order. The former Foreign Secretary does not seem to be very well versed in the traditions of the House of Commons and debate. [Interruption.] Order. I am telling the right hon. Gentleman what the position is, and he will learn from me. When he seeks to intervene, he waits to hear whether the person on his or her feet is giving way, and the Leader of the Opposition is not giving way. In that case, with the very greatest of respect, it is for the right hon. Gentleman to know his place, which is in his seat.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. [Interruption.] I am not sure how people in this House believe this will be received by the public watching on TV, but I have to say that the public are sick of the childish antics of people in this House and they want us to come together to find a way through this mess. There are thousands of different views on, and variations of, what people felt and thought they voted for in that referendum, but the one thing we can be certain of is that the referendum leaflet that went to every household in this country did not make any mention of leaving the customs union. Why can we not find agreement on that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The point he makes about the way in which this House debates these matters is important. He has led a local authority, Oldham, brought people together and brought communities together, and achieved things—that is something this Government have lamentably failed to do. If the—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) may have inadvertently misled the House. He claimed that no one had said during the EU referendum that we would be leaving the customs union. In fact, the former Prime Minister said that—
Order. Resume your seat, Mr Fabricant. I know you are trying to help the House and I appreciate that—your public spiritedness is well known throughout the House and across the nation—but the hon. Gentleman referred to a leaflet and the contents thereof. Whatever the merits or demerits of that argument, it is not a matter of order for the Chair. It is a matter of political debate, as your grinning countenance suggests you are well aware.
Order. Resume your seat. [Interruption.] With no disrespect to the hon. Lady, I am not interested in observations. [Interruption.] Order. I am not debating it. I am telling you what the situation is. [Interruption.] It is no good laughing, chuckling away as though it is a matter of great amusement. It is a matter of fact: points of order, yes; observations, no. [Interruption.] No, the hon. Lady has helpfully explained that she had an observation to make. We are very grateful.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a genuine point of order. I wonder whether you could guide the House on how Members refuse interventions, because I think the reason there is so much noise is that it is not clear whether the right hon. Gentleman has heard the request for an intervention or not. Your guidance would be extraordinarily helpful.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If I understand his point of order correctly, the answer to it is that the customary method of acknowledging the intention of another Member to intervene, and perhaps the acceptance of that intervention, is a gesticulation with the hand, at which, among other things, the hon. Gentleman excels. [Interruption.] No, no, I think the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) is a bit confused; it is not about the fact that someone seeking to intervene gesticulates, but the fact that the Member on his or her feet signals acceptance. That has not happened and therefore the Leader of the Opposition has the Floor. The position is extraordinarily straightforward.
I cannot claim to have known that, but I think now that the hon. Lady has issued what might be called a public information notice. We are aware of it, but it is a matter for the Leader of the Opposition to decide. I hope the hon. Lady is satisfied with her efforts.
Order. Many people have talked in recent times about the importance of respect in the Chamber. [Interruption.] No, no, no, I do not require any help from the Government Chief Whip. Let me gently say to him that he has a challenging task, which he discharges to the best of his capabilities, and the House and the nation are grateful to him. The idea that he needs to advise the Leader of the Opposition or the Speaker on how to discharge their responsibilities is, frankly, beyond credulity. He has got one job to do. People will make their assessment of whether and how well he does it. Don’t try doing somebody else’s job. With respect, sir, it is way beyond you.
The answer is that there is no breach of rules whatsoever. The hon. Lady has made her own point, in her own way, and I acknowledge it. No breach of rules has taken place. Order has been maintained. That is clear to me and to the professional advisers to the Chair as well, and I think the hon. Lady knows it. However, she has made her own point, in her own inimitable way.
I did take an intervention from the Prime Minister, Mr Speaker. Perhaps the hon. Lady had not noticed that.
Is the Prime Minister seriously telling the House to wait until 13 February and put its faith in her doing negotiations in a couple of weeks that she has failed to do in the past two years? One really wonders how many more ceremonial baubles and promises of ermine will be handed out in vain in an attempt to cajole Conservative MPs to vote for a deal that has been overwhelmingly rejected by this House. The Prime Minister says that a second referendum would be like asking the public to vote again until they give the right answer, but so far that is precisely what she is asking this House to do.
Labour will today back amendments that attempt to rule out this Government’s reckless option of allowing the UK to crash out without a deal. Everyone bar the Prime Minister accepts this would be disastrous. The CBI says:
“The projected impact”—
of no deal
“on the UK economy would be devastating”.
Just yesterday, the Federation of Small Businesses called on Members of this House to block no deal. The TUC, representing millions of workers, is also opposed to no deal, as its general secretary, Frances O’Grady, reiterated to me last week. Every Opposition party in this House is opposed to no deal. Many Conservative Members, even Front-Bench and Cabinet Conservative Members, are opposed to no deal. Let me quote the Chancellor, who said recently:
“I clearly do not believe that making a choice to leave without a deal would be a responsible thing to do”.
So, presumably, he too wants no deal ruled out.
I am making progress. The Home Secretary has gone further and called for a free vote on the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). The Labour party will back that amendment tonight, because to crash out without a deal would be deeply damaging for industry and the economy—that is why the Chancellor says it would be irresponsible. I say to my right hon. Friend now that in backing her amendment, we are backing a short window of three months to allow time for renegotiation.
I want to address the point that my right hon. Friend has raised about my amendment and I do not want to cut across a very difficult wider issue. On his point about the amendment, I reassure my right hon. Friend that the purpose of the amendment and the Bill is not to fix any particular time for any extension, or even to decide now what an extension of article 50 should be; it is simply to give the House the ability to do so at the end of February. I agree that nobody wants to see any unnecessary delays.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those remarks and the spirit in which she made them. Her amendment quite clearly has the effect of ruling out no deal on 29 March. Surely that should be good and important for this House. It will not be any comfort, after 29 March, to say, “I told you so,” when the lorries are backing up on the M20, cancer patients cannot get medicines and prices are rising in our shops. Tonight, we have the opportunity to take no deal off the table.
When the Prime Minister invited party leaders for talks, I said to her that she must first remove the threat of no deal. If the House today votes to remove the immediate threat of crashing out without a deal on 29 March, as I fervently hope it does and will, I will be happy to meet the Prime Minister to discuss a sensible solution that works for the whole country—which is what the Labour party wants to achieve.
Many of the amendments tabled, including those in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), advocate delaying article 50 to give Parliament more time to break the impasse and avoid the dangers of no deal. If the House votes for any of those amendments, the Prime Minister must accept that an extension to article 50 is a responsible measure to allow time for real renegotiation and to find a deal that can win the support of this House. It will mean that no deal is off the table and that the red lines must change.
I am making progress, if I may.
The primary part of Labour’s amendment is about finding a workable solution. That means a new customs union, a strong single market deal and no race to the bottom on workers’ rights, on environmental protections and standards or on consumer standards. The EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has been clear that
“unanimously the European Council…have always said that if the UK chooses to shift its red lines in future…and go beyond a simple free trade agreement…then the European Union will be immediately ready to…give a favourable response.”
We understand that just this weekend the EU Commission President told the Prime Minister that accepting the case for a permanent customs union would help to solve the issue of the backstop arrangement. Indeed, Ireland’s Europe Minister made exactly that point at the weekend, saying:
“The backstop is there because of the red lines that the UK put down”
at the beginning of this process.
We understand that today the Government will back the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady)—the Prime Minister said as much—which will require changes to the backstop, but still we have no clarity on what changes they are or which red lines will change to allow that to happen. On the other side, we see that there is flexibility—an apparent willingness now to renegotiate—but only if the red lines change.
Does my right hon. Friend share my puzzlement, after listening to the Prime Minister for close to an hour and with many people having asked the question, that we are still no nearer to knowing any detail on what the phrase “alternative arrangements” means, except that the Prime Minister said they were arrangements that were alternative?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We are witnessing the long, slow decline of this Government as they run down the clock. They put off the vote then lost the vote. They came to the House today and are now offering more votes next week, then a week later and a week later. They are running down the clock, using the fear of no deal as opposed to the Prime Minister’s deal. Her deal was defeated two weeks ago, but the Prime Minister is still to answer the question on which of her red lines she is prepared to change, or even just be flexible on. It is clear that the obstacle to a solution is the Prime Minister. She is refusing to accept the clearly stated will of this House, which has decisively—in record numbers for a parliamentary vote—defeated her deal and which is equally clear in its opposition to a disastrous no deal, which I hope and expect will be reiterated tonight.
I am going to make progress.
In the absence of any leadership from the Prime Minister, solutions are being put forward from across the House. Those advocating Norway plus or common market 2.0 have worked on a cross-party basis. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). They are clear that not only do we need full access to the single market but we need a customs union, too. That is why a new comprehensive and permanent customs union has long been Labour’s policy. It is a pragmatic solution that would help to deliver the Brexit that people voted for and the frictionless trade that the Prime Minister once promised, that would help to deliver a solution to the Irish backstop and that would help to deliver a majority across the House for a deal.
So far, the Prime Minister has only doubled down on her own defeated deal, saying at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time that her deal delivers
“the benefits of a customs union and the benefits of our own trade policy.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 237.]
It does no such thing. The political declaration fails to deliver on the Chequers promise of frictionless trade—it does not even guarantee tariff-free trade. It means that we lose the 40 to 50 trade agreements we have through the EU.
Why is the right hon. Gentleman scared to take an intervention from the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), a member of the Labour party for 37 years?
He is not giving way. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Order. The House must behave with decorum. Senior Front-Bench Members, who I know would proclaim their commitment to, and I am sure genuinely believe in, courtesy in the Chamber, are witness to deliberate attempts to shout down the Leader of the Opposition. [Interruption.] Order. It will not happen. [Interruption.] Order. The rules of this House are clear. If the Leader of the Opposition wishes to give way, he does so; if he does not wish to do so, he does not have to do so. He will not be shouted down and no amount of inspired and orchestrated attempts to shout him down will work—not today, not tomorrow, not at any time. Drop it. It is not worth it and, actually, you are not very good at it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There may be quite a few people in the country watching this debate. They will not understand that our shouting is one way of seeing whether somebody can maintain a line of argument to his and her colleagues here. Given the damage that this debate is already doing to our standing with the nation, might not you consider taking all the amendments that you did not call, and closing the proceedings early so that we can actually vote on those amendments. The country will understand that, whereas they do not understand this behaviour.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he is well-intentioned, but the short answer is no. The timescale for the debate has been set and agreed by the House, and the selection by the Chair has been appropriately made in accordance with the conventions of this House and without demur from colleagues, and it is best that we proceed.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. Earlier in this debate, you rightly referred to the expectations of this place of respect and politeness to colleagues. That is a perfectly sensible benchmark to set. In your judgment, Sir, and I seek your ruling on this, has the behaviour of the Leader of the Opposition to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) lived up to your expectations of respect to colleagues?
The answer is very simple. Good order has been preserved; nothing disorderly has taken place. I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman because I know that he is trying to be an apprentice parliamentary expert, but I am afraid that he has quite a few steps on the ladder still to climb.
The point that I was making is that we could lose 40 to 50 trade agreements that we have through the European Union, which the International Trade Secretary has so far failed to replicate at all, despite the extraordinary and very bold claims that he made at the beginning of this whole Brexit process.
This is a Government in denial, split from top to bottom, and incapable of uniting themselves, let alone the country.
No, I am making progress; I will not give way any more.
The Government are in denial about the majority view of this House, which I believe exists to rule out no deal and to get a workable deal that includes a customs union. That is why, tonight, Labour will back amendments that give this House the opportunity to recognise the reality that this Government have so far failed to recognise. This Government’s shambolic handling of Brexit negotiations is fast becoming a crisis. It is worrying to businesses and it is worrying to people in work who are concerned about their futures. Everyone who is worried is worried because they have no leadership on this process from their Government. They have no leadership from a Government who have demonstrated that they have no ability to negotiate a good deal, no willingness to listen to Parliament—hence we are back here again despite the biggest ever defeat in parliamentary history—and, crucially, no acceptance that they must change course. The Government have spent most of the past two years arguing among themselves rather than negotiating with the European Union. And they are still arguing among themselves and failing to come up with a workable solution. Tonight, I hope that this House does its job and leads where this Government have failed.
None of us taking part in this debate is in any doubt that we are actually discussing an almost unique political crisis—one of a kind that has not happened for very many years. The crisis takes two forms: one is that we are trying to break a political deadlock over exactly what changes we will make to the great bulk of our political, security, intelligence, crime-fighting, trade and investment, and environmental relationships with the rest of the world, having turned away from the ones that we have put together over the past 47 years; the second is that we are also facing a constitutional crisis over the credibility of the Government and Parliament in their ability to resolve these matters. I rather agree with what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) said. I enjoy as much as any veteran parliamentarian the rowdiness of the House of Commons; it is a way of testing the arguments. However, we should also be aware that, at the moment, the public are looking on our political system with something rather near to contempt, as it seems to them that neither the Government nor the political parties, parliamentarians and politicians in general seem able to resolve a question that was first raised by a referendum. Referendums are designed by those who support them to bypass parliamentary decision making, parliamentary majorities and political parties deciding things. We really do need to settle down, and, perhaps if the Government get their way, we can do that in the next few weeks. We have fewer than 60 days to decide how we will come to conclusions about the way forward.
I want to concentrate on just a few issues. I have put forward most of my views on these amendments in the many debates that we have had already, and many other people want to speak. I suspect that a high proportion of this House can guess which way I will vote on the amendments that Mr Speaker has chosen. Probably far too many of them have had to listen to my arguments. To take some encouragement from this debate—
I will in a second.
I wish to take up this question of the relationship between Parliament and the Government, because I took some encouragement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who did seem to accept that the Government should give opportunities to the House to debate things that each Member regards as key matters of policy. Under our constitution, the Government have to pay regard to the views expressed by this House.
I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. He and I tabled an amendment that was not called. It was to give this House the chance to vote on the various options. The Prime Minister, when she was speaking, talked of taking other amendments away and working on them with the hope of bringing them back to act upon. Might I, through this intervention, ask him to push on his own side that she does precisely that with our amendment?
Let me just deal with this question and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if his point is relevant.
The question is, what is the role of this House vis-à-vis the Government and what are our procedures? I must admit that, in the past month or two, I have listened to what I, as a fairly experienced Member here now, have regarded as the most extraordinary nonsense about sweeping away centuries of tradition and distorting our procedures because people have objected to the Speaker selecting amendments where they think they might not be on the winning side. There is a rather fundamental, underlying problem here. This Government did not start this, but Brexit brought it to its head. I think that it started with the Blair Government, because Tony Blair, with the greatest respect, never could quite understand why he had to submit to Parliament so often. He started timetabling all our business and so on, but that is now water under the bridge. I say with respect that, mistakenly, this Government began by saying that they were going to invoke the royal prerogative, and, as it was a treaty, they felt that Parliament would not be involved in invoking article 50 or any of the consequences because the monarch would act solely on the advice of her Prime Minister, trying to take us back several hundred years. That was swept away. Then we had to have defeats inflicted on the Government last summer in order to get a meaningful vote on the outcome of any negotiations. This has gone on all the way through the process. Today’s debate and the votes that we are having tonight are only taking place because the Government actually resisted the whole idea of coming back here with any alternative to the deal that they were telling us was done and fixed and the only way of going forward. That has worried me all the way through.
Now, I did take the Prime Minister today to be taking a totally different approach, and I hope that she will confirm that. It does now seem that, whatever course we decide on today, things are going to come back to this House. No deal of any kind is going to be ratified until we have had a vote in this House, approving whatever we are presented with. One problem is that we have not yet produced a consensus or a majority for any option, but if this House expresses a clear wish about the nature of the deal that it wants to see negotiated, the Government will consider—indeed, I believe that under our constitution, they are bound to follow—the wishes of the House of Commons, because British Governments have never been able to pursue these matters without the consent and support of a majority of the House of Commons.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the House must test the various options. Will he “join the (q)”, as it were? Amendment (q) aims to revoke article 50. Is that one of the ideas that he thinks should be tested in this House—even for nothing other than that the people of Scotland would at least know the folly of sticking with Westminster, which is taking them out of Europe against their will?
I do not wish to revoke article 50 for the same reasons as the hon. Gentleman, although I do share some of his views. If I was trying to exercise unfettered autocratic power in the government of the country, I would of course still believe that the best interests of the United Kingdom lie in remaining a member of the European Union. I do not share enthusiasm, however, for what the hon. Gentleman wants. After the pleasure of the first referendum and all that it has caused, he now thinks that we will automatically resolve things by having a second referendum, which could be even more chaotic in its effects than that the one we have had.
As I have said, the Government of the day have got to give this House a far bigger role, which therefore means a much bigger responsibility on this House to create the intraparty, cross-party majority that is the only majority of any kind that might be available here for any sensible way forward.
Let me just finish my point. I will give way in a minute.
I heard all the stuff when the Clerks were invoked—the advice of the Clerks to the Government to resist this approach. Of course it is true that the law can only be changed by legislation. That is a perfectly straightforward legal point. But in our constitution, in my opinion, the Government are accountable politically to the non-legislative votes of Parliament. It is utterly absurd to say that Opposition Supply days and amendments to motions of the kind we are addressing today are just the resolutions of a debating society that have no effect upon the conduct of daily government. If we concede that point in the middle of this shambles of Brexit, with all the other things we have to resolve, we will have done great harm to future generations because it is difficult to see how the concept of parliamentary sovereignty will survive such an extraordinary definition.
May I humbly suggest that the Prime Minister is actually following the will of Parliament, because she is remembering that, two years ago, two thirds of MPs in this Parliament voted to trigger article 50, which leads to the unconditional leaving of the European Union on 29 March? That was the instruction that she was given by Parliament that she is trying to deliver, and our duty is to assist her.
With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, I think that my approach throughout the last two years has demonstrated that I am prepared to be pragmatic in response to these things. I did not regard myself as bound by a referendum. In the British constitution, referendums are advisory—they are described as such in official pronunciations—but politically most Members of this House bound themselves to obeying the result. That was brought home to me in a parliamentary way, consistent with what I have just been saying, by the massive majority of votes cast for invoking article 50. I opposed the invocation of article 50, but since that time I accept—I have to accept—that this House has willed that we are leaving the European Union.
With respect to my right hon. Friend, I do not concur that we agreed to leave unconditionally, whatever the circumstances, at a then arbitrary date two years ahead. We then wasted at least the first 18 months of the time, because nobody here had really thought through in any detailed way exactly what we were now going to seek as an alternative to our membership of the European Union, to safeguard our political and economic relationships with the world in the future. And we still have not decided that. It looks as though I am going to be remarkably brief by my own standards, but that is probably only by contrast with the frequently interrupted Front-Bench speeches, to which I have mercifully been only mildly, and perfectly pleasantly, exposed.
Where does this leave me, given that I believe I have a duty to make my mind up on the votes that we are going to have today? I am one of those who voted for withdrawal on the withdrawal agreement. That was the first time in my life that I have ever cast any kind of vote contemplating Britain leaving the European project and the European Union. I thought that the agreement was perfectly harmless and perfectly obvious, and could have been negotiated years before, with citizenship rights, legally owed debts that we are obviously going to honour and an arrangement that protected the Irish border—the treaty commitment to a permanently open border.
The independent hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is the only Irish Member we have who agrees with the majority of the Irish population, who would prefer to remain. Like me, I think that she accepts the reality, but I know that she thinks the backstop is an important defence of the interests of Ireland with an open border. It is quite absurd to reopen that question. I am glad to say that the Prime Minister is still very firmly committed to a permanent open border, and I congratulate her on that. She is not going to break our solemn treaty commitments and set back our relationship with the Republic of Ireland for another generation. I realise that the Prime Minister has been driven to this by the attitudes of quite a number of Government Members, but I personally cannot see what the vague alternative to a perfectly harmless backstop that we are now going to explore is; nor do I see what the outcome is going to be. Our partners—or previous partners—in the European Union cannot understand quite what we are arguing for either, so we move from having a deal to not having a deal.
Let me just say what I will vote for. I am not going to go through it amendment by amendment, because Members are waiting to move those amendments. I shall vote for anything that avoids leaving with no deal on 29 March. It is perfectly obvious that we are in a state of such chaos that we are not remotely going to answer these questions in the 60-odd—fewer than 60—days before then. We need more time. The Prime Minister says that there are only two alternatives: the deal we have got, which she is now wanting to alter and go back and reopen; or no deal on 29 March. That is not true. A further option—and my guess is that the other members of the European Union would be only too ready to hear it opened up as a possibility—is that we extend article 50 to give us time to actually reach some consensus. I think that it would create quite some time, and there are problems over the European Parliament and so on. I have always said that we can revoke it, while making it clear to the angry majority in the House of Commons that they can invoke it again, with their majorities, once we are in a position to settle these outstanding issues, which, as we sit here at the moment, we are nowhere near to resolving, and we are right at the end of the timetable. The alternative to no deal is to stay in the Union for as long as it takes to get near to a deal that we are likely all to be able to agree on and that the majority of us think is in the national interest.
I think that my right hon. and learned Friend will therefore be joining me in the Lobby in support of what is known as the Cooper amendment. Does he agree that in changing Standing Orders, the House of Commons, if it has a majority to do so, is doing something that the House of Commons has done since Standing Orders were created, and did before the Government took control of the Order Paper in 1906?
Absolutely. We will not debate the constitutional history, but people are trying to invoke the strictest interpretation of Standing Orders going back to attempts in the late 19th century to stop the Irish nationalists filibustering, which brought the whole thing grinding to a halt. Now we are saying that as this Parliament has the temerity to have a range of views, some of which are not acceptable to the Government, Standing Orders should be invoked against us to discipline us. Anyway, I will not go back to that, but I agree with my right hon. Friend.
The other thing that I shall vote for is another thing that supports the Prime Minister’s stated ambition for the long-term future of the country: open borders and free trade between ourselves and our markets in the EU, as demanded by our business leaders, our trade union leaders, and, I think, most people who have the economic wellbeing of future generations at heart. I think the only known way in the world in which we can do that is to stay in a customs union, and also to have sufficient regulatory alignment to eliminate the need for border barriers. I do not mind if some of my right hon. and hon. Friends prefer to call the customs union a “customs arrangement” or if they care to call the single market “regulatory alignment”. I do not feel any great distress at their use of gentler language to describe these things. Nevertheless, something very near to that is required to deliver our economic and political ambitions.
It is also the obvious and only way to protect the permanent open border in Ireland. We do not need to invent this ridiculous Irish backstop if the whole United Kingdom is going into a situation where it has an open border with the whole European Union in any event. The Irish backstop was only invented to appease those people who envisaged the rest of the British Isles suddenly deciding to leave with no deal before we had finished the negotiations in Europe. Well, let us forget that. Let us make it our aim—it will not be easy but it is perfectly possible—to negotiate, probably successfully, with the other 27 an open trading economic and investment relationship through the single market and the customs union.
I am very grateful to the Father of the House for allowing me to intervene. I just want to say ever so gently that in his very nice tribute to the hon. Member for North Down, I think he might have accidentally referred to the lady as an Irish Member of this House. No, I am very much a British Member of this House. However, he is absolutely right that I feel passionate about protecting the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—and the peace that it has delivered in the past 20 years across Northern Ireland and across the whole United Kingdom. The backstop was there to protect that peace, and I am very sorry that the Prime Minister has moved away from that today.
I apologise to the hon. Lady, but I must explain to her that I refer to her and her colleagues as Irish Members of Parliament in the same way that I would refer to myself as an English Member of Parliament, or perhaps to a colleague as a Welsh or Scottish Member of Parliament. [Hon. Members: “Northern Irish.”] She is Northern Irish. I can assure her that not only do I agree entirely with the views she just expressed about what we are seeking here, but I am as keen a Unionist as she is, and I do not wish to see the break-up of the present United Kingdom. I think that she and I are in total agreement.
The other thing I would support, which arises in the context of one of the amendments we are talking about, is that the Government obviously should no longer resist this House having indicative votes. It is absurd that we have been trying to get a debate and a vote on some of the more obvious things for months now, and as time goes on, the Government are still trying to make it difficult to have a vote on them. When we have the votes, no doubt the Government and the Opposition will start imposing three-line Whips on everybody to take a narrow focus, trying to take us all back towards the failed withdrawal agreement or the rather confused Labour party policy and ensuring that we shoot down every other sensible proposition. There are quite a lot of sensible propositions flying around the House that are superior to the policy of the Government so far and certainly superior to the policy of the Leader of the Opposition. Indicative votes enable us in the time available—to shorten delay further—to give an expression of will and an instruction to the Government about the nature of the long-term arrangements that we want.
To go back to where I started, the circumstances at the moment mean that we have to strive to restore confidence in our political system, our political institutions and, above all, this House of Commons and ensure that an outcome of that kind emerges, because if this shambles goes on much longer, I hate to think where populism and extremism will take us next in British democracy.
As always, it is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). I look forward to spending a considerable time with him in the Lobby this evening as we vote for amendments that offer hope to the people of all these islands.
I want to impress upon the Prime Minister the decision of the people of Scotland in the 2016 referendum and what she must now do to respect their wishes. During the Scottish independence referendum campaign in 2014, the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson promised that voting no meant that Scotland would remain in the EU. Scotland did not vote for a Tory Brexit, but we are being dragged out of the European Union by Westminster against our will. The Prime Minister talks about this being a family of nations and says that Scotland’s voice will be respected. Where is the respect for the views and wishes of the people of Scotland, who have demonstrably said that they wish to remain EU citizens?
Is it not the reality that polling in Scotland shows that the European Union remains more popular with the Scottish people than the United Kingdom? That should be heard loud and clear in this place—the European Union is more popular with Scots than the United Kingdom.
That is correct, and it is little surprise, because the European institutions show respect to the people of Scotland, which this Government do not.
The Prime Minister promised that a no vote would see Scotland’s future as an equal partner, but we now see Westminster taking powers off the Scottish Parliament against the wishes of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people. [Interruption.] I should not do this, but I will. I hear from a sedentary position the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) saying, “What powers?” Obviously, he has forgotten that he voted for the withdrawal Act, which interfered with the powers of the Scottish Parliament laid down in the Scotland Act—powers over fishing, powers over the environment and powers over agriculture. The Tories sat back and allowed the Scottish Parliament to be emasculated. The 13 Scottish Tories acted against the interests of the people of Scotland, as they have done time and again.
The Westminster campaign against Scottish independence said that high street banks were making plans to leave Scotland, yet now, because of this Government’s Brexit, Standard Life Aberdeen is setting up a hub in Dublin, and Lloyds Bank is looking at a Berlin base.
Even last week during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister tried to tell me to drop the SNP policy of independence, yet in June 2017 the leader of the Scottish Tories, Ruth Davidson, said:
“Let me be clear: nobody, not me, not anyone, is expecting the SNP to give up on independence. That’s what it believes in & it’s a perfectly honourable position to take.”
It is a perfectly honourable position to take.
Let me be very clear: Scotland must no longer be left at the mercy of events. Whatever happens here, the SNP will not be dropping its policy of independence. Whatever turmoil and hardship this Tory Government try to drag our nation through, Scotland will and must have the right to determine its own future and to choose to be an independent nation within the European Union. I can see Members shaking their heads. They are shaking their heads because they are running scared. Like the Prime Minister, they fear they would lose an independence referendum. The Scottish people are sick and tired of being told what the Prime Minister wants them to do. Scotland’s needs are much more important than what the Prime Minister wants. Scotland needs the power to take its own decisions. That is the only way we can stop the Tories driving us off the cliff edge and into disaster.
The right hon. Gentleman made the point that the Scottish people should have what the Scottish people want. Did the Scottish people not indicate their wish to remain part of the United Kingdom?
I can only assume that the hon. Lady was not listening to what I said, because the fundamental fact is that we were promised that we would stay in the European Union.
What the Tories find very difficult to accept is that when the Scottish National party went to the people of Scotland, we asked in our manifesto for the right to go back to the people of Scotland if there was a material change of circumstances, and that is exactly the position we are in today. There is a majority in the Scottish Parliament for a referendum on Scottish independence, yet what we hear from the Conservatives is, “Now is not the time,” disrespecting the mandate that the people of Scotland gave to their elected parliamentarians. I will say this to Conservative Members: if our First Minister calls for a section 30 authority, based on democracy, then this House must respect the will of the Scottish people through their elected parliamentarians.
That is the only way to stop the punitive cuts from universal credit and amend the hostile environment that sends talented workers away from our shores. The vote on the immigration Bill is just the latest indication of Westminster voting against Scotland’s national interest. We embrace free movement of people. We welcome those who choose to make a future for themselves in Scotland. We thank those who wish to add to our cultural diversity. This place wants to slam the door shut, pull up the drawbridge and retreat into isolation.
We watch the official Opposition go through trials and tribulations about whether they should oppose a narrow-minded immigration policy from this Government. Labour has lost its moral compass. Then we have the Scots Tory MPs meekly going through the Lobbies. Theresa’s Lobby fodder are supporting legislation that will damage Scottish industries and our public services, and damage Scotland’s ability to attract labour and to grow our economy. The Scottish Tories are acting against our national interest, and Labour is stuck on the sidelines.
A majority of MSPs and Scottish MPs returned at the last two elections support holding an independence referendum in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Scotland will not be ignored. The UK Government have ignored the views of the people of Scotland. Our Parliament—our Scottish Parliament—has already overwhelmingly rejected the Prime Minister’s deal. Today, SNP MPs will vote in support of that mandate from Scotland’s Parliament, and we will continue to vote down the blindfold Brexit deal that will drive our economy off the cliff edge.
There are just 59 days to go until Brexit day, and the deal on the table is done; it has been dead in the water for months, yet the Prime Minister is still seeking to run down the clock and push that deal through this House. That is incredibly reckless and risky. How can she be allowed to behave in such a manner? She has no hope of controlling this House; she cannot even control her disunited party. If anyone is still in any doubt about it, we are in this mess today because Conservative Members gambled our economic future over a decade-long internal feud in the Tory party. They should all hang their heads in shame. Quite simply, that party is not fit to govern, because it has a track record of putting its fractured party interests before the national interest—not what the Prime Minister calls the national interest, but the interest of all the nations that make up the UK.
On the Scottish national interest, I totally respect the Scottish National party’s position: it has always campaigned for independence, because that is what the SNP does. However, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that in the 2017 general election, the majority—56%—of voters in Scotland voted for parties that were committed to delivering on Brexit? The percentage of the vote for parties against Brexit actually reduced. [Interruption.]
Order. That is extraordinary behaviour from the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who is an illustrious doctor. She is ranting from a sedentary position; I cannot believe that she rants in that way in the middle of her surgeries. It is unbecoming of somebody of her status and high esteem in the House of Commons.
Of course, we come to this place under the rules that have been laid down, and under the rules of elections in this country, the SNP won 35 of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. That is a majority for the Scottish National party in this Parliament. The Conservatives can only dream of having a majority. The Prime Minister went to the country on the basis that she would come back with an overwhelming majority; she came back with a bloody nose and a minority Administration who rely on the votes of the Democratic Unionist party, having handed over vast sums of money to keep themselves in any kind of power.
Today, as the Prime Minister faces a vote on her motion, the threat of resignations overshadows the debate. We know that senior Ministers have refused to rule out resigning if no deal is not taken off the table. Politicians play a slow game, and time is running out for businesses. The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) said that the Prime Minister’s attempt to put pressure on moderate MPs to back her deal to avoid a disorderly Brexit was “a disaster for business”.
The chief executive of Airbus, Tom Enders, said the business
“could be forced to redirect future investments”
in the event of no deal. The chief executive of Siemens, Jürgen Maier, said:
“The thing all of us won’t be able to manage is a no-deal”
and now the British Retail Consortium warns of food shortages and empty shelves.
Just dwell on this: Sainsbury’s, Asda, Marks and Spencer, the Co-op, Waitrose and Costcutter all warn of not having sufficient supplies and of shelves lying empty. We are used to seeing images of empty shelves in war-torn or failing states, but there is a real threat of empty shelves in the United Kingdom in less than two months. Still the Prime Minister refuses to take no deal off the table. I point the finger of blame at the Prime Minister and her Government. The primary responsibility of any Government is to protect their citizens. We have a massive failure of leadership. If there are shortages of food and medicine, that will be a response to the failures of this Government. There is genuine, heartfelt fear and alarm from some of our biggest businesses.
What is the right hon. Gentleman’s objection to enabling the Prime Minister to probe the EU on what it is prepared to give way on, to help to deliver the deal that he would like? What is so objectionable in new amendment (n)? Can he give any reason for not supporting it?
This is a complete fantasy. All of us play with the Good Friday agreement at our peril. The peace in Ireland has been hard won. The European Union has reached agreement with the UK on the Prime Minister’s draft deal on the basis of making sure that we enshrine the Good Friday agreement. None of us should be playing with fire and seeking to unwind the Good Friday agreement. That is the effect of what would happen. It is the height of irresponsibility to go down that road. [Interruption.] I am going to come on to the backstop in more detail later.
The Prime Minister could make it clear today that she will bring measures before Parliament to rule out no deal. Prime Minister, it is in all our national interests to remove the threat of supply shortages that is a threat to food safety—remove it today.
Is it not also a fact that in addition to the companies who issued those warnings, the Road Haulage Association has been saying for over a year that it is madness to consider a no-deal situation? What will happen is that those people at the furthest reaches of the supply chain—my constituents and my right hon. Friend’s constituents—will be those worst affected by the no-deal scenario that the Government are hanging over the heads of this Parliament and the people of all the nations of the UK.