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European Union (Requirements Relating to Withdrawal)

Volume 653: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2019

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish requirements in connection to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.

We do not have the luxury of time. Unless an alternative is in place, in 58 days—just 29 sitting days—we will leave the EU with no deal. My Bill looks ahead to what happens if, as looks likely, the Prime Minister returns empty-handed from her mission impossible to Brussels, and is based on the recommendations of the 11th report of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, so I start by paying tribute to its Chair, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), and all its members for that excellent report.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly commented that, while the House has said what it does not want, it needs to decide what it does. In the event of there being no agreement to change the backstop, we will be back to square one, but with one important difference: we will be much nearer the no-deal cliff edge. In a nutshell, my Bill would allow the House to express its view on what could command the support of the House through a serious of indicative votes on free-standing motions, and the Committee recommended that those be taken in order.

The motions would give the House an opportunity to vote first on the Prime Minister’s negotiated withdrawal agreement and framework for the future relationship; secondly, on the option of leaving with no deal; thirdly, to instruct the Government to seek changes to the backstop—although I think by then we would have tested that to destruction; fourthly, to instruct the Government to seek a Canada-style deal, as set out in the report; fifthly, on seeking to join the European economic area through the pillar of the European Free Trade Association and remain in a customs union with the EU, or a variation of it; and finally, to return the decision to the British people by giving them the opportunity to decide in a public vote what kind of Brexit deal they want or whether they wish to remain in the EU on the current deal.

Last night, the House gave two instructions to the Government. Not for the first time, it rejected leaving the EU with no deal, but it also passed an amendment unilaterally requiring that the Northern Ireland backstop be replaced by unspecified “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border. It adds up, essentially, to tearing up the withdrawal agreement. Donald Tusk in his statement following the vote has made it clear that the backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement and that the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation. Most people do not seriously feel that the EU will be prepared to renegotiate.

In the absence of meaningful changes to the withdrawal agreement, it is hard to see how the Government will secure support for a deal that we rejected so comprehensively, by a margin of 230 votes. If my Bill went ahead, the House would have the opportunity to express its view on where the Prime Minister should go from here by giving it the opportunity not only to reject no deal but to consider other alternatives.

I want to be clear about why the House rejected no deal. No Government could seriously, knowingly and deliberately inflict such pain on their people. We are talking about changes not just to the economy but to livelihoods and jobs. It is the real world crashing into Brexit fantasy. It would affect not only our economy but many other sectors, including health, transport links, security, food and farming—the list is very long. No responsible Government could inflict that kind of pain, but unfortunately, up until now, the Prime Minister has given the House a binary choice: “My deal or no deal.” My Bill would allow the House to say there are other routes forward.

Some colleagues want to press forward with an EEA-EFTA arrangement and a customs union, while others would prefer a Canada-style arrangement. We should all have the opportunity to vote on the way forward. I and many of my colleagues have made it clear we favour returning the decision to the British people to give them the final say. The problem with the original referendum was that it did not set out which of these many options the public were voting for. Once we know that decision, we will see that it is far removed from the sunlit uplands promised during the referendum campaign.

We need to seek the informed, valid consent of the British people; otherwise, we are pressing forward with a deal that commands the respect of neither leavers nor remainers. Nobody could realistically claim it is the will of the people, but if we give it back to the people and tell them exactly what is involved, so that they can weigh up the risks and benefits themselves, we will get that informed, valid consent, and then we could proceed together.

It is quite possible that the British people would decide to proceed with Brexit—I accept that—and they would need the absolute guarantee that it would then be acted on as quickly as possible, but a second vote would also allow them to change their minds. Everybody deserves the opportunity to change their mind. Even our first Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has famously commented that if people cannot change their minds in a democracy, it ceases to be a democracy.

I reject the notion sometimes put forward that it would be a betrayal of democracy to ask people again, and I particularly object to the assertion that it would cause civil unrest. We need to stop talking that up. Since when did this House bow or cave in to the concerns and demands of the far right? We should be standing up to them and making it absolutely clear that democracy does not stand still, and should never stand still, and that this House has a duty to give the public the right to vote and have the final say.

We must recognise that this call comes not from the EU but from the people—the hundreds of thousands of people who marched through the streets of London in the summer and the many hundreds of thousands beyond that who did not make it here but who have written to us and campaigned for the right to have the final say in a people’s vote. The House owes it to them to debate and vote on that as part of a series of indicative votes, and I commend the Bill to the House.

I rise to oppose the Bill.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) —for whom I have the deepest respect—I voted in the referendum to remain, but in my constituency, as in hers, a majority voted to leave. It seemed to me, as a democrat and as one who had voted for a referendum to be held in 2016, that as 17.5 million people—a majority—had voted in the referendum to leave the European Union, we must respect that result. And so, from that day onwards, I made it plain that I would do everything I could to ensure that the people’s vote was respected and that we executed the instructions that we had been given.

We need to be clear: the people of this country did not vote to remain. They voted to leave, which is why we must take “no Brexit” off the table. A second referendum asking people to choose between the Prime Minister’s deal and remaining would load the question in a way that would be entirely wrong and entirely unacceptable, and I think that it would be a travesty of our democracy.

Let me explain why I originally backed remain. I did so because I thought that a big project like Brexit would be very difficult for Britain. If we could not manage a basic patient record system in the NHS, what hope did we have with a really huge project like Brexit? I feared that Members of Parliament would think that their constituents might have been very clever to elect them but were not so able to make a big decision like the decision to leave the European Union. I also feared that they might not accept that decision but fight it all the way. I worried that our civil society was not strong enough. I worried that our machinery of government would blow a fuse in trying to manage a project of this sort, and in that I have not been disappointed.

The vote having taken place, however, I thought that we must respect the result. I put my shoulder to the wheel and thought about how we could be ready on day one, deal or no deal. I thought about how we could make sure that this was a success. I thought about how we did not have to hand over all the money that the EU wanted, and the EU had no legal right to demand it. I thought about how to make the best negotiating case for our country. The worst negotiating case for our country is to rule out no deal. If the other side knows that you will not get up and walk away from the table, they know that they have got you, and if they have got you, they are going to give you a really rubbish deal, so the best way in which we can get a good deal is to be prepared and ready on day one not to do a deal.

Now, what have we seen? We have seen the people who do not want us to leave the European Union finance their campaign for a second referendum with foreign money. We have seen their spokesman from Davos telling us how we should lead our lives, and how we should not leave at all. They want a loaded question, and—this is what I think is really wrong—they try to frighten people by telling them that they will die of thirst because our water will be poisoned, that they will die of starvation because no food will arrive, that our pets will die in quarantine and that our planes will never take off. That kind of irresponsible talk is what makes people so angry. They say that the establishment should be working to solve those problems and to ensure that we are thoroughly ready—not trying to scare us, not trying to tell us how bad the economy will be, but trying to make this work and to make a success of it.

So often, these “Project Fear” stories lose credibility. In my constituency, people shake their heads and say, “This is not credible.” I do not think that “Project Fear” is right, and I think it irresponsible. However, I do not subscribe to “Project Pangloss”, according to which it will all be a walk in the park. I think that if we left without a deal, there would be bumps in the road and that some of those bumps could be quite jarring, and we should be honest and open about that. However, I do not think we should try to frighten people. I do not think we should try to tell people that they were stupid. I do not think we should try to tell them that they did not know what they were doing. I do not think we should try to tell them that they did not have informed consent, or that they were too stupid in 2016 to know which way to vote.

I think that people had made up their minds about the European Union over many years and that they knew exactly what they were concerned about. When the question was put to them, they made their decision, and I strongly suspect that if they were asked again, they would make the same decision. They would say, “The establishment are not listening to us, so we will tell them again”—and they would. Worse than that, they would say, “To reverse the decision and turn our country around by 180 degrees would make our country a laughing stock across the world.” That is why I think that in a second referendum people would vote to leave by an even greater majority.

The real travesty is this. Were we to hold a second referendum, we would have endless Brexit, endless uncertainty. The key message that my constituents convey to me every day is, “Look, deal or no deal, let us just get on with it, put it in place, move on to the other things that concern us—jobs, money, schools, hospitals, and how we can build a better Britain for the future—and stop banging on about Brexit.”

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to. [Interruption.]

I wish the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) well in recovering from his indisposition.


That Dr Sarah Wollaston, Mr Kenneth Clarke, Hilary Benn, Joanna Cherry, Mr Dominic Grieve, Luciana Berger, Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna, Dr Philip Lee, Heidi Allen, Mr Ben Bradshaw and Guto Bebb present the Bill.

Dr Sarah Wollaston accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 328).