I have provisionally selected the following amendments in the following order: (a) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn); (i) in the name of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford); and (e) in the name of the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry).
I remind the House that, under the terms of the business motion just agreed to, the debate may continue until 5 pm, at which time the question shall be put on any amendments that may then be moved. To open the debate, I call the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
I beg to move,
That this House welcomes the Prime Minister’s statement of 12 February 2019; reiterates its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January 2019 and notes that discussions between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop are ongoing.
On 29 January, a majority of right hon. and hon. Members told this House and our country that they would support a deal, but that this support was conditional. Members were prepared to compromise on issues, but not on the overriding issue of the backstop. The Government’s motion today references and confirms this House’s support for the motion passed on 29 January, as amended by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady). His amendment in effect gave this Government an instruction, which we have taken to our European partners.
This Parliament’s mandate must now be the given the opportunity to achieve its end, and the Prime Minister must be given the chance to ensure that. It is clear that the Government’s priority is to address the indefinite nature of the backstop, which, under article 50, is legally required to be temporary. Today I will address issues raised by a certain number of my hon. and right hon. Friends who are concerned about whether this motion gives credence to the idea that the Government are taking no deal off the table.
Given the debate and dispute about the meaning of the Government’s motion, will my right hon. Friend be clear with the House that if the European Union does not agree to a deal that is acceptable to this House and the Government, we will still be leaving on 29 March?
I am very happy to give my right hon. Friend and predecessor in this role that assurance. The Cabinet’s position on no deal has been agreed; it was agreed in response to the Cabinet paper that I presented on 18 December. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has repeated her commitment to the timescale on numerous occasions, including again in her statement this week.
The short answer is that the House has said two different things. It passed by a big majority legislation on article 50, which many Members on both sides of the House voted for. It passed by a large margin legislation to say we are leaving the EU on 29 March, and put that date on the face of the withdrawal Bill. The House also voted by a large margin to give the people the decision through the referendum. Frankly, the legislation takes precedence over the motion to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. In essence, this issue was raised earlier in a point of order. I appreciate that he is making this point as an intervention, but it is the same point.
I encourage the Government to keep their nerve during these negotiations. I accept that the vast majority in this place would favour a good deal over no deal, but will the Government confirm for absolute clarity that if we are not able to secure a good deal—probably courtesy of intransigence by the EU—we will not only leave on 29 March, but will leave on no-deal/World Trade Organisation terms?
My hon. Friend, as a former member of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, knows all about holding his nerve. He is correct that Parliament needs to hold its nerve. We need to send a clear signal to those in the European Union with whom we are discussing these issues, who share our desire to have a deal and to deliver on our shared values, and who respect the fact that we are trading partners, and wish to get on with the future economic partnership and work together.
I think we all agree about the importance of keeping our nerve, and keeping no deal on the table actually makes a good deal more likely, but will the Secretary of State answer my specific question and confirm that if we do not achieve a good deal on 29 March, we will not just leave the EU, but will leave on no-deal terms?
For the avoidance of doubt, I am happy to confirm that, because that is what the legislation says. The only way to avoid no deal—as the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, and as is backed up in legislation—is either to secure a deal on the terms that the Prime Minister has set out, with the mandate that the House gave her in response to the earlier motion, or to revoke article 50. The court case says that the only alternative would be to revoke, and revoking would be unconditional and unequivocal.
My right hon. Friend was just moving on to an alternative, but it seems to me that he has just given the starkest expression of policy that I have heard the Government give so far on what will happen if the present negotiations fail; these are alarming possibilities. He says that we are bound by the legislation relating to article 50, which indeed we are, but when the House agreed to use article 50, it was on the assumption that a negotiated deal would be arrived at. [Interruption.] Well, of course it was. Indeed, at one point the Prime Minister presented to this House what she said was the ideal deal with which to go on to the full negotiations towards meeting the Government’s declared aim of having a proper, permanent relationship with the EU in due course. The idea of going for the catastrophe of no deal on the arbitrary date of 29 March, simply because the Prime Minister will probably fail to persuade the other member states to put a time limit on a permanent open border in Europe, is ridiculous. The Government could have a policy of coming back here to defer or revoke article 50 to put the situation in some order.
Although I obviously respect the considerable experience of the Father of the House, I frankly do not accept that merely restating the legislative position is presenting issues in a stark way; nor do I accept that the Prime Minister will fail. The Prime Minister is working in the national interest, is seeking to bring our country together, and is seeking a deal for our country. A short extension of article 50 does not take no deal off the table. It simply prolongs that uncertainty; it leaves in place the risk of no deal in a few months’ time.
The Prime Minister met hon. Members in the Boothroyd Room before the first vote, which she lost by 230, and said that if her deal was not accepted, it was either no deal or no Brexit. An amendment could have been moved to revoke article 50 today, but should not the Government be moving towards that point? We should put it to the House: we either have the Brexit that is going to crash the economy, or, with one letter from the Prime Minister to the European Union, we forget this silly game and revoke this nonsense. It could be over in an afternoon. Get on with it.
I very much want to see a deal done. It is in the interests of the country, and it is definitely in the interests of industry. The European Union has a wide history of changing its mind and coming through with fresh negotiations, perhaps at the very last minute. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how his talks have been going, and does he think that we should allow the Government to do exactly what they are doing?
As is so often the case, my right hon. Friend reflects a sentiment that one hears expressed in the country at large, which is the desire for a deal. As he says, that desire is shared by many people we have been speaking to in the European Union. They recognise that no deal is in the interest of neither side, and that it is disruptive. Later, I will come to what Chancellor Merkel said about seeking a constructive solution. The political situation in many European countries, and the coalition that is in place, again shows that this is in the interests of both sides.
Of course we want to get a deal with the European Union, but is not taking no deal off the table the surest way of ensuring that the other side dig in on their current position? That is just a fact of life. Those who call for no deal to be taken off the table are playing into the hands of the possibility of no deal. Will the Secretary of State update the House on his discussions with his Irish counterparts, given that they play a crucial role? They cannot hide behind Brussels; likewise, Brussels cannot hide behind Dublin on these issues.
If I can make some progress, I will come on to the discussions the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, which include the discussion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had with the Taoiseach last week, and also her visit to Northern Ireland, where there is a shared desire on this, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows. Indeed, in the House yesterday, in his evidence to the Exiting the European Union Committee, the highly respected former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, talked about the impact of no deal from an Irish perspective, and the common desire to seek agreement.
I will make some progress, and then will happily take further interventions. A number of interventions have sought to represent the position of the Prime Minister, so it is worth reminding the House of what the Prime Minister said:
“the Government’s position remains the same: the House voted to trigger article 50; that had a two-year timeline that ends on 29 March; we want to leave with a deal, and that is what we are working for.”—[Official Report, 13 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 881.]
I am going to make a little progress, and then I will happily take further interventions.
This is also an important issue for European leaders’ positions on whether, if the EU were to make changes to the backstop, that would enable a deal to pass. That is why it is important to the negotiations that a clear message be sent from this House. Colleagues should be in no doubt that the EU will be watching our votes tonight carefully for any sign that our resolve is weakening. We shall not give it that excuse not to engage. Indeed, in the discussions we have been having with European leaders, there is recognition, as reflected by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), of the shared desire to secure a deal, because the impact of no deal is asymmetric within the EU27. Indeed, that is a part of the discussions that member states are having with the European Commission.
Given that the European Union is saying that it will not entertain any legal changes to the withdrawal agreement—I share the Secretary of State’s desire to get a deal and have made it very clear that if it came to it I would consider supporting the Government in a future vote—what I need to know from the Secretary of State is what compromise he is going to give to this House that better reflects the will of this House rather than simply putting a deal back to us that has already been comprehensively rejected.
I am going to come on to that exact issue. The hon. Gentleman cited at the start of his intervention the premise that the European position, as stated, is that there will be no movement. Well, actually, the European Union has also stated that it wants to avoid no deal, which is hugely damaging. The European Union has also stated that it wants to be clear what the will of this House is and what is required in order to secure a deal. It is self-evident that there is a degree of ambiguity between those positions. Indeed—I will come on to this—the discussions we have been having with European leaders are absolutely on that issue. That is why we need some time, in terms of the vote this evening, to continue with those discussions.
Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), is he really saying that if the Government have no deal in place by the end of March—if they have run out of time—then they would go ahead with no deal on 29 March even when top police chiefs are saying that it will make the country less safe and NHS leaders are saying that there will be shortages of medicines? Is he 100% committed to no deal on 29 March in those circumstances, or are there any circumstances in which he would extend article 50?
Again, what I set out was that we are 100% committed to the position set out and agreed by the Cabinet. That position was agreed on 18 December. I was drawing the House’s attention to the fact that the motion today does not change that position, and that position is that it is our priority to secure a deal. I have stated at the Dispatch Box previously that the best way to mitigate the risk of no deal is to secure a deal. I will come on to some of the issues in respect of the consequences of no deal. I have been quite clear with some of my colleagues on my own Benches that I do view no deal as disruptive—much more so than some of my hon. and right hon. Friends. Our priority is to secure a deal, but the principal operational focus if not is to prepare for what is the legal position.
The reality is that the vote against no deal in this House was more convincingly passed, including with cross-party support, than the vote to have the Prime Minister go back and negotiate on alternative arrangements. The Government cannot simply just pick and choose which votes they will support. That is fundamentally wrong and anti-democratic, and it is the totally wrong way to handle such an important issue for this country as Brexit. Does the Secretary of State not see that? Can he not listen to the representatives of communities around this country who are deeply concerned about a no-deal exit and want this House’s will to be respected?
Again, I very much respect the position of my right hon. Friend. I suspect that, on this, we will agree to disagree. I have set out, first, the position as agreed by the Cabinet; secondly, what is the legislative position; and thirdly, what is the interplay in terms of the motion before the House this evening. I absolutely respect her in terms of how she cast her vote in that Division, but the point is that it does not change the stated position of the Government, and that is what I was setting out.
I support the Prime Minister’s deal. I want us to get a deal. But I am looking very closely at this motion, which includes the words:
“support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January”.
Two motions were carried that night, both of which I supported. I would like to hear from my right hon. Friend that he gives equal respect to the opinions expressed by the House, for if he fails to do that, it is contemptuous of this House.
We can’t hear you.
Order. Can I just appeal to the Secretary of State? He is, in my experience, a most courteous individual, and I understand the natural temptation to look in the direction of the person questioning him, but the House wants to be hearing what he says. Please face the House.
I absolutely accept your direction on that point, Mr Speaker. I was seeking to engage with my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on the point she is making about respecting the House. Of course we do. That also applied, for example, in votes such as that on the Attorney General’s legal advice, which was disclosed following a Humble Address, notwithstanding the precedent that creates for a future Government.
The point I was merely stating, which I thought was a point of fact, is that the legislative position as it currently stands is as set out following the vote to trigger article 50. That is the position.
I have taken quite a few interventions and I will make a bit of progress, not least because I am conscious that many others will wish to speak.
One part of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West was to explore whether technology offered a solution to the backstop. I am grateful to my hon. and right hon. Friends who have engaged with this work. Following the support of the House for the amendment, including that approach, the Prime Minister gave a commitment to engage seriously with the ideas put forward, and I have held a series of detailed meetings doing just that. The political declaration makes it explicit that both the EU and the UK agree to exploring alternative arrangements. I am happy to commit to my hon. and right hon. Friends that the Government will take that forward, including both investing civil service resource in exploring its viability and considering its acceptability to the community as a whole.
The possibility of alternative arrangements, as envisaged by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, has been reflected in the wording of the political declaration. The document notes that the UK and the EU
“envisage making use of all available facilitative arrangements and technologies”.
It goes further, noting that such technology should
“be considered in developing any alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing.”
I agree. That is already agreed by the European Union and the United Kingdom in its reflection in the political declaration. I have been discussing that issue with hon. and right hon. Friends in the alternative arrangements working group. I also raised it in my discussions earlier in the week with Monsieur Barnier, as I committed to do. I must be frank with the House that he was sceptical about the timescale, but we are actively discussing it. I simply point out that that is already accepted in the political declaration, and following the working group, we are exploring what can be done in terms of the timescale of that work.
I can confirm that we have taken it forward to the European Union, in that I have raised it with Monsieur Barnier. I will be discussing it again with him. He has raised some initial concerns, but we are making that case and discussing it with him. It is already accepted by the European Union in terms of the political declaration and the workstream that will flow from that.
The Secretary of State just told the House that he has put proposals to Michel Barnier. Can he therefore explain why Donald Tusk said yesterday that the EU27 are
“still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break #Brexit impasse”?
One should always be slightly cautious about what is said on Twitter, and that applies even to someone as esteemed as President Tusk. I was simply updating the House on the discussions I have had with Michel Barnier, my opposite number in the European Commission, to follow up on what this House agreed, which was that we should explore that. We have engaged seriously with colleagues on it and raised it with the European Commission.
The task that the Secretary of State has set out in terms of the alternatives is large, and the window to deliver it is getting smaller. I appreciate that we are not going to extend article 50 for no purpose, but in the interests of pragmatism, if all it requires is another three or four weeks’ work just to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, surely to goodness we are not going to bite off our nose to spite our face.
I respect my hon. Friend’s point, but what I hear from many, particularly in the business community, is that they do not want more uncertainty. They want to see this move forward, and they want to see a deal secured.
In terms of the next steps, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will meet President Juncker next week, and today she is holding conversations with other European leaders. In parallel, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General is pursuing other avenues for a possible legal challenge to the agreement. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made the wider Government position clear to many in the EU, as I have to the leader of the European People’s party, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator and the EU’s chief negotiator. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I have met a wide range of key European stakeholders.
While the EU’s public statements have said that there will be no reopening of the withdrawal agreement, it has also said, as I pointed out to the right hon. Member for Belfast North, that it wants to avoid no deal and wants to reach an agreement that will be supported by this House. Members will have seen the comments from leading European figures such as the German Chancellor, who spoke of her desire for a “constructive solution”. The House needs to give the Prime Minister time to explore that.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, although he may not be so grateful for this intervention. Will he confirm that the British Government have absolutely no intention of replacing the backstop, which is essential for maintaining peace on the island of Ireland—a hard-won peace that we value in Northern Ireland?
I looked with interest at the hon. Lady’s reference in the Brexit Select Committee to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and in particular her point about mutual consent and bringing the community with her. That point is particularly well made, and it is at the forefront of the discussions that the Prime Minister is having with the Taoiseach and European leaders in the context of the backstop.
The amendment that the House passed, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West, clearly stated that the intention was to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border. We have had constructive meetings with the Secretary of State. Can he confirm that the Malthouse compromise is stated Government policy, has been put to Monsieur Barnier and now has the full force of the civil service to work it up into legally binding text?
I have already confirmed to the House that this issue has been raised with Michel Barnier. I have given a commitment that it will be raised again in our next exchange. I have given a commitment that civil servants are engaging on this issue. I have also communicated the fact that the initial response from Michel Barnier was to raise concerns about the extent of concessions that would be required, but that is part of the discussion we are having.
I have taken a lot of interventions. I am conscious that many other Members wish to speak, including the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), so I will make some progress.
It is clear that a workable compromise with the EU on the backstop can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this House and give the Prime Minister a clear and irrefutable mandate to get her deal over the line. In supporting the Government’s motion today, this House can do exactly that. Getting to a compromise is a challenge, but it is not an insurmountable one. It requires the EU and the UK to come together and find a solution, and it calls for both sides of the House to continue to work hard to find and grow the common ground, which is in the interests of many watching these proceedings.
As we prepare to exit the European Union, this Government are focused on their most pressing task—to deliver a legally binding change to the backstop—and committed to delivering on that key demand. I am meeting European ambassadors tomorrow to continue making that case, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is speaking today with a series of European leaders. We are also engaging widely across the House, be that with the alternative arrangements working group, yesterday with the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras or in the 30 January meeting between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
We have a clear outcome: a programme of engagement with European leaders and engagement across this House. Tonight Members need to give the Government time to make good on this work and, as a House, to hold our nerve, to deliver a deal that addresses the twin risks of no deal or no Brexit and to respect the biggest vote in our democratic history and deliver what people voted for.
I rise to support amendment (a) in my name and that of the Leader of the Opposition. The Secretary of State ended by saying that we have to “hold our nerve”, but he was all over the place this afternoon on all the important issues.
It is obvious—obvious—what the Prime Minister is up to. She is pretending to make progress while running down the clock: a non-update every other week to buy another two weeks of process, and inching ever closer to the 29 March deadline in 43 days’ time. We should not be fooled. Let us look at the history of recent months and set it against the exchanges today. The Prime Minister pulled the meaningful vote on 10 December, promising to seek further reassurances on the backstop. She feared a significant defeat, and it was obvious that the backstop was the problem way back then, as it had been through the autumn. That was 66 days ago, and there were then 109 days until 29 March.
I will in a minute.
And the Prime Minister returned with nothing—warm words in the margins of the EU summit in December, and a letter, coupled with a statement about Northern Ireland, that simply repeated already existing commitments. That is what she came back with. The meaningful vote was then put on 15 January, and it was lost heavily. That evening, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and promised to explore ideas with the European Union, following cross-party talks on how to proceed. That was 30 days ago, and there were then 75 days until 29 March.
I will give way in just a minute.
The amendment called for the backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements. It was extraordinary: a Prime Minister voting to support her own deal only on condition that it is changed—conditional support for her own deal. Nobody prepared the business community for that, and nobody prepared Northern Ireland or EU leaders for that. Anybody who has spoken to businesses, been to Northern Ireland or spoken to political leaders in the EU in recent days knows that, by three-line whipping her own MPs to vote against the deal she negotiated, the Prime Minister has lost a good deal of trust in the process.
Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman not understand the nonsense of his own argument? He suggests on the one hand that the Prime Minister is trying to run down the clock, and then he lists the various occasions when she has attempted to stop the clock, get a deal and exit the European Union.
I am grateful for that intervention: I think the hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The Prime Minister has spent weeks—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman wants an answer and then interrupts while I am trying to speak. The Prime Minister has spent weeks and weeks trying to negotiate changes to the backstop—it started way before the vote was pulled on 10 December, and it has gone on ever since—and she has got absolutely nowhere.
I will just make the next point and then I will give way.
The idea that the vote on 29 January for the Brady amendment gave clarity is for the birds. The Government united around a proposition that they want an alternative to the backstop, but uniting around an alternative that means different things to different people does not get anybody anywhere, and that is the central problem.
I will in just one minute.
On Tuesday, in another non-update from the Prime Minister, she said what she wanted on the backstop and listed three things: a time-limited backstop; an ability unilaterally to end the backstop; or alternative arrangements. That is how she put it. The first two of those have been repeatedly ruled out by the EU for months, and there is no sign of any movement. The Secretary of State, from his discussions in Brussels in recent days, knows that very well—there is no room for a move on those two fronts.
I will in just a second.
The third option—alternative arrangements—remains undefined, and when the Prime Minister is pressed, either here or in Brussels, about exactly what she means, she does not say. The Malthouse compromise and the answer the Secretary of State gave about it give the game away. If that was a serious proposition and the Government were engaging with it, they would adopt it as policy and put resource into it, but they are not doing so. What signal does that send to Brussels about what the Government really think about the Malthouse compromise?
May I commend the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his courage and bravery in standing up for his own alternative arrangements, which of course include a second referendum? I just wonder how he is getting on with that in his own party. More importantly, does he believe a second referendum would increase or decrease investor and business confidence in the United Kingdom?
I am grateful for the concern, and I am getting on fine, thanks very much. I will tell the hon. Gentleman and the House one thing on business certainty. I have been talking to hundreds of businesses across the country. Even in the last 10 days, I have been in Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham and Dublin talking to businesses. What they are most concerned about is the uncertainty of the situation that we are in now, and all of them would welcome anything that prevents a no-deal Brexit.
Are not all these meetings and activity that my right hon. and learned Friend is outlining, when it comes to these alternative arrangements, really just a repetition of the Brexit unicorns on no hard border that we have heard time and again? The reality is that the Government’s strategy on this is the same as it has always been, which is the desperate hope that Chancellor Merkel will come to the rescue and the European Union will throw Ireland under the bus.
My right hon. and learned Friend has been talking to businesses, as I have. Does he agree that the issue of no deal is a matter not simply for 28 March, but for now? Exports can take six weeks and companies need to make decisions now about how they are planning to trade.
I do agree with that. One of the things that saddens me most from the discussions I have had in the last two or three weeks—the Secretary of State and others who have had such discussions know exactly what is being said—is that decisions are having to be made because of the fear of no deal. Such decisions are being triggered, but the chilling bit from the discussions I have had is that some of those steps are now irreversible. This is the first time we have come to that point.
Is not the thing this House has to understand that the backstop is there in case the Malthouse compromise turns into the Malthouse fantasy—if all the technologies are technological fantasies —and that Europe cannot give up on the backstop just because of all the wishy-washy promises from the UK Government? The EU has to stick with it, and Conservative Members just do not understand that.
I will just make a bit of progress on this point.
So it goes on, and so it will go on. The simple and painful truth is this: if there had been a viable alternative to the backstop, there would never have been a backstop. The negotiating parties, as everybody knows, searched for months for that elusive alternative. If there had been an alternative, the Prime Minister would never have signed up to the backstop and neither would the EU. They searched and they searched, and they did not find it, and everybody who has observed the negotiations knows that. The chances of a breakthrough now, in 43 days, seem to me to be slim.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making a powerful point, as always, about the ineptitude of this Government. We know that there is not a whole lot of love, even on St Valentine’s Day, for the Government’s deal—we know that—and we know that we are in danger of crashing off the cliff edge, with the damage that that will cause, and he is right to highlight it. Will he back our amendment (i), which very simply asks for an extension of no less than three months to ensure that we can avoid such a no-deal Brexit?
I have sympathy with the point that we will need an extension to article 50 sooner or later, whether a deal goes through or not, and that the question is what is the right binding mechanism for doing that. We will support measures proposed by others on that issue in due course, and I will return to that point.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is being generous with his time. In contrast to what he just claimed, the Secretary of State’s point was admirably clear. A good deal is preferable to no deal, but if there is no deal we will leave the EU on 29 March on those terms. Labour Members have an unfortunate habit of taking everything that the EU says as gospel, which is clearly not the case, and they ignore the fact that the EU could write the textbook on 11th-hour deals. Have some optimism in the ability to achieve a deal.
As for the Prime Minister taking us out of the EU on 29 March this year without a deal—we’ll see about that. I do not think that the majority in this House will countenance that; I think the majority in this House will do everything they can to prevent it. Having worked with the Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary and I was Director of Public Prosecutions, I know that she has a deep sense of duty. Deep down, I do not think that this Prime Minister will take us out of the EU without a deal on 29 March, and that is the basis on which we should be having this discussion.
My right hon. and learned Friend is right in what he says about business and the need for clarity, and it is clear for all to see that the Government will need to apply for an extension to article 50 to avoid no deal, or even if there is a deal. The reason they are not doing so, and the reason why the Brexit Secretary is not saying what he should to give certainty to business, is that the Conservative party will not face down the party within a party that is the European Research Group. Face those people down!
I will make some progress. I have taken a lot of interventions, and I will take some more in a minute. My simple point, which I stand by, is that both sides have been searching for this alternative for most of the negotiations, and certainly since the phase 1 agreement in December a year ago. People have been searching for an alternative and they have not found it. If they had found it, we would not have a backstop. The likelihood of them finding that alternative in the next few weeks seems to me very slim, and even if they do, the chances of the deal getting through, with everything that has to follow by 29 March, are even slimmer. So many pieces of legislation and statutory instruments still need to be resolved.
That exposes what is really going on—this has come out in comments from across the House—which is a Prime Minister who is running down the clock and hoping to get to March, or even the end of March. The House should remember that the next EU summit is on 21 March, and if we get real changes to the deal, that is when they are likely to be signed off. At that late stage, the plan is essentially to send the same deal back to this House as a binary choice: my deal or no deal. There might be additional words that the Attorney General can say have real significance, but it will essentially be the same deal. That is not holding our nerve; that is playing recklessly, and we must say no.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is being extraordinarily generous in giving way. No self-respecting businessman or woman would walk into negotiations on a deal and take no deal off the table. The United Kingdom is negotiating the biggest business deal in its history. It therefore makes sense to keep no deal on the table, because we know from the history of the EU that it makes concessions at the last minute. We need to hold our nerve. If we do, then at the wire we will get a good deal in the interests of both the EU and the United Kingdom.
I do not know how to let the hon. Gentleman down gently, but let me try this: we are so patently unprepared for no deal that it is not credible. Let me give an example. There are very serious allegations against people in custody across the EU under the European arrest warrant, which goes between our country and the EU27, and vice versa. If we leave without a deal, no arrangements are in place to deal with that. The idea that we will leave in such a way is simply not credible.
I have heard the argument that if we face the truth and say that no deal is not credible, that somehow plays into the EU’s hands. We have heard that for the past two years. I stood here and said that the Government needed to publish a plan of their objectives—remember the days when they said that they could not even do that because it would give the game away and the negotiations would be over? Then they published a plan. I stood here and argued that we needed an impact assessment. What was the response? They said, “If we publish impact assessments, the show will be over. Nobody in a negotiation would do that.” I stood here and said that we needed legal advice, and we got the same argument: “If we do that, the show will be over. We will give into the EU.” Now we have the same thing with a no-deal scenario. It is not credible, and it is not going to work.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman so much for giving way—I was beginning to think I had an invisibility cloak on. Just over a week ago there was a debate on a petition about extending article 50, which was signed by more than 100,000 members of the public. I spoke in that debate, which was sparsely attended, but I did not hear from the shadow Front Bencher that Labour policy is to extend article 50. Indeed, some speakers made it sound as if Labour policy was to have a people’s vote. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm what Labour is arguing for?
I am sure the question of policy is important, but I am facing the practical reality. We are 43 days away from 29 March, and no credible alternative is in sight. Either we accept that or we do not. The Prime Minister keeps coming back and giving a non-update: “I’m meeting people”—she does not say she has agreed anything—“can I have another two weeks?” We have been going on like that for weeks, and it must stop.
I am going to make some progress. Labour’s amendment is intended to put a hard stop to running down the clock. It states that on 27 February the Government must put a deal to the House for its approval, or table an amendable motion so that the House can take control of what happens next. It is essential that we do so. Businesses are saying that they cannot wait any longer. They are putting off investment decisions, and they cannot tolerate the threat of no deal. They are making and implementing contingency plans, some of which are irreversible.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making a strong point about the perils of no deal. Does he agree that the Government’s position on no deal is not just criminally reckless, it is also plain stupid? The EU knows as well as we do that a no-deal scenario would hurt us an awful lot more than it would hurt it. Threatening to put a gun to our own head is not a clever negotiating strategy.
I agree and I am grateful for that intervention. That is really the point. If it is not credible that we can leave on 29 March without a deal, and it is not, it is actually not a negotiating stance at all. It has never been seen in that way and it does not work. It is just farcical to suggest that we have to keep up the pretence that we are ready because then the EU will back down. It is ridiculous.
Let us put some detail on this. We have heard the warnings from Airbus and Nissan about future jobs and investment in the UK. Yesterday, Ford, another huge UK employer, said that no deal would be
“catastrophic for the UK auto industry and Ford’s manufacturing operations in the country”,
and that it will
“take whatever action is necessary to preserve the competitiveness of our European business.”
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that business wants certainty—he has made big play of that—but it was the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and GE Aviation in my constituency that said, “For goodness’ sake, back the Prime Minister’s deal.” He did not do that. He must understand that in failing to do so he and the Labour party become complicit in a crash-out.
Well, I am not going to take that lying down for this reason: on the Government Benches, did they vote for the deal on 29 January? [Interruption.] Hang on, hear me out. The answer to that is no. Anybody who voted for the Brady amendment was saying that it is conditional on change, so do not lecture anybody else about voting for the deal. Even the Prime Minister says, “On reflection, I’m not voting for my deal unless there are changes.” The hon. Gentleman really cannot throw the challenge across the House and say that the Opposition have to support the unchanged deal but the Prime Minister wants it changed.
Some on the Government Benches will casually dismiss the threat of job losses as “Project Fear.” It is not “Project Fear”—it is “Project Reality.” It is the jobs and livelihoods of those we represent that are at stake.
I am going to make some progress and then I will give way again.
Therefore, we need to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent a no-deal exit. Two weeks ago, this House voted to approve the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman). That was hugely welcome and it is just as binding on the Government as what else was passed that evening—you can’t choose one part and not the other. It showed what the Opposition have always said: there is no majority in this House for a no deal.
I have listened carefully today. In defence of the Secretary of State, he has made it quite clear that the Government’s policy, if it comes to it and the deal does not pass in the week beginning 25 March, is to leave with no deal. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman clear in his mind what his party’s position will be in the same circumstances?
I am. Happily, we discussed that at our party conference and agreed unanimously—something I do not think happened at the hon. Gentleman’s party conference—[Interruption.] He knows very well what it is. It is to vote on the deal; if the deal does not go through, to call for a general election; and if that does not happen, there are two options: a close economic relationship and a public vote. We committed at our party conference to ensure we take whatever steps are necessary to avoid a no-deal exit and we will do so.
Excuse me, I have a bit of a head cold. The amount of white flags being thrown would give anyone a head cold. Can the shadow Brexit Secretary confirm that the Labour party’s position is that there must be legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement on the backstop? That is the same position as that of DUP Members.
The position of the Labour party is that we have concerns about the backstop. [Interruption.] This is a very serious point and I intend to answer it. I have not yet met anybody who does not have concerns about the backstop, both here and in Brussels, but we also recognise that, at this stage, with the article 50 window all but closed, we need a backstop, and it is inevitable that we need a backstop. That is our position.
I thank the shadow Brexit Secretary for allowing me to intervene on that very important point. He is very knowledgeable about Northern Ireland and is a great friend to Northern Ireland. He will recognise the importance of the backstop to the people of Northern Ireland and indeed across the United Kingdom. There seems to be some confusion about what the leader of the Labour party says about the backstop and what he, the shadow Brexit Secretary, says. I think the people of Northern Ireland—indeed, this House—are entitled to clarification from the right hon. and learned Gentleman about what exactly the position of the Labour party is on the backstop.
I am grateful for that intervention. As the hon. Lady knows, I worked in Northern Ireland for five years with the Northern Ireland Policing Board. I know how deeply this is felt in Northern Ireland across all communities. I was there for two days last week. I made the point there that, although we have concerns about the backstop, we do accept that there must be a backstop, it is inevitable and that, therefore, notwithstanding those concerns, we support a backstop. That is very important.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way because I actually find that I agree with a great deal of what he is saying. He is saying that leaving with no deal would bring huge consequences for our economy and we should not countenance it. He is also saying that within the withdrawal agreement he sees the need for a backstop. I have listened closely to what he said before: that he also agrees on the elements about needing a transition period and certainty on citizens’ rights. Given that he now appears to agree with everything that is in the withdrawal agreement, why will he not vote for it and what more does he need?
I am not sure the hon. Lady carefully read the proposition we were voting for on the meaningful vote. It was the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration taken together. The statute requires them to be taken together, because we cannot read the withdrawal agreement without reference to the political declaration and vice versa. What I have said about the backstop is important and it is important I say it for the whole of the United Kingdom, but particularly for people in Northern Ireland, and I stand by it.
The policy we have adopted is clear about what the options are. What we are trying to do today is to put a hard stop to the running down of the clock. That will enable options to be considered in due course. I hope that will happen. When they are considered, we will take our position and we will see where the majority is in the House.
The backstop is taking up a lot of the discussion today because it is incredibly important. May I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that, in the debates leading up to the meaningful vote, concerns about trade were mentioned three times more than the backstop? Can I encourage him to move on now from the backstop and talk about all the other problems that Members across the House have with the deal?
I am grateful for that intervention. One of the central problems in all this is that the political declaration is 26 pages long, it is vague in the extreme and simply talks about a “spectrum” of outcomes. The main theme of the political declaration is that the extent of any checks at borders will depend on the degree of alignment; therefore, there is a spectrum of outcomes. I think that we all understood that within hours of the referendum. That is why there is all this pressure on the backstop—because the political declaration is so ill-defined.
Following my right hon. and learned Friend’s replies to the hon. Members for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), does he agree that the Government have clearly rejected Labour’s offer of a less damaging Brexit, and that to wait until the end of March to activate our unanimously agreed conference policy in favour of a public vote would be far, far too late?
Just as I am about to give the answer I am asked from a sedentary position what the answer is. Perhaps those on the Government Front Bench should just listen. The position is this. As the House knows, we set out the Labour party’s position in a letter to the Prime Minister. We set out in clear terms what a close economic relationship would look like. What was written in that letter has been well received, not only in the United Kingdom, by businesses and trade unions, but by the EU and EU leaders. It is a credible proposition.
I just want to complete this point, because it is important. The Prime Minister has replied in non-committal terms—one could say that that was inevitable—and we are having discussions, as the Secretary of State says. I am not going to disclose at this stage what those discussions are about because they are, by their nature, confidential. They are ongoing, I think the Secretary of State would want them to be kept confidential—that is the only way in which they can properly be held—and there are plans for further meetings. To go back to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), there must come a point at which the options are clarified, reduced and voted on—I agree with that proposition—and it needs to be done before the end of March.
My right hon. and learned Friend is making some important and good points about the Prime Minister’s running down the clock, but he took that round of applause—that standing ovation—at the Labour party conference when he talked about a people’s vote with a remain option, so I have been waiting patiently for the section of his remarks in which he will perhaps dissociate himself from the remarks of the general secretary of Unite, who said yesterday that it would not be in the country’s interests to have remain on the ballot paper in a public vote. We are aware that sections in letters and remarks sometimes have a habit of being redacted by others, perhaps further up the pay chain. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure us that at the next available opportunity we will be voting in favour of a people’s vote?
I am going to make some progress and then I will take more interventions. I have taken a lot of interventions and I am conscious that a lot of people want to speak in this debate.
Let me go back to the amendment that was passed in respect of no deal, because it was passed by a majority in this House and is just as important as the other amendment that was passed. Let us make no mistake, though: on its own it is not enough. If Parliament wants to prevent no deal, it has to take further action. We cannot be bystanders; we have to act. The simple truth of it is that we cannot declare that we are against no deal and then do nothing. The Government are failing to act, so we must act. Hence, the next step is to ensure that there is a hard stop to running down the clock.
Not at the moment.
The hard stop would ensure that on 27 February the Prime Minister must either put her deal to a vote or allow Parliament to decide what happens next. Let us be clear, though: other steps need to be taken, beyond today’s amendment. They will include the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), which would provide a further safeguard against no deal and allow the House to decide whether the Government should seek an extension of article 50 if no deal has been agreed by 13 March. I hope that anyone who genuinely opposes no deal would see that by that date, 13 March, an extension would be unavoidable.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend clarify something for me? I am sympathetic to and almost supportive of the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and her Bill, which was introduced with good sincerity. What is the Labour party Front-Bench position, though? Were we to have an extension that went further than the three months, would my right hon. and learned Friend intend that we would participate in European Union parliamentary elections? Those of us going on the knocker this weekend ought to know.
As I have said from this Dispatch Box, so far as the extension is concerned, it obviously depends on the period and the period the EU has indicated might be available is the period till 1 July, because that would avoid involvement in the parliamentary elections. It is not our policy to participate in the parliamentary elections——[Interruption.] For obvious reasons, we will not be—[Interruption.] This is a really serious point. There is this casualness about no deal—that we can somehow, in a macho way, march off the cliff and it will all be fine; it will be so good for the country. The point is that if, by 13 March—just over two weeks before the potential for no deal—there is no deal, we have to take action if we are serious about avoiding the calamity and catastrophe of no deal. I do not mind standing up here and saying that I will take whatever steps are necessary to avoid no deal, because I will never be persuaded—never—that it is a good negotiating tactic or could possibly be good for our country.
The House will then need to debate and vote on credible options to prevent no deal. We have been clear that those options are either the close economic relationship that includes a customs union and close alignment to the single market that we set out in the letter to the Prime Minister, or a public vote on a deal or proposition that can command the support of the House. There are no other credible options remaining, and those options are miles away from the approach that the Government are currently taking. First, though, we need to stop the Government further running down the clock, put in a hard stop and allow this House to take control of the process. That is what today is about and I urge all Members to support our amendment.
We have moved to yet another of these almost weekly engagements, at which we are told that historic decisions are about to be taken, a meaningful vote is on the verge of emerging and all is going to be clear. Every time we do that, one immediately encounters an appalling shambles—that is the only way to describe the position of the Government and of this Parliament, and I am sure that is the way it is seen by an overwhelming majority of the citizens of this country, regardless of what side of the argument they are on. So far, the debate today is following precisely that pattern.
I have not been lucky enough to have my amendment (c) selected, which is also in the name of, and was tabled at the behest of, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman). An amendment has been selected—the one in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—that addresses the same problem, which is that, so far as I can see, in these debates we have not yet identified, and certainly not demonstrated, a clear majority for any particular course. We are not being given many opportunities to do so, and we keep retreating when we get given them. We have to decide—cross-party, obviously, given the divisions—how a majority will be established to pass motions, which in my opinion, under our constitution, will bind a Government, so that we can move policy towards something that resolves this situation satisfactorily.
I agree with everything that my right hon. and learned Friend has said. Does he agree that a very important discussion that preceded this business—and, indeed, questions and answers during the Secretary of State’s speech—indicated that the only way that what he and I seek to achieve, namely consensus across the House if the Prime Minister’s deal does not succeed, will be implementable is if we legislate for it, and thereby legally bind the Government? The Government have made it perfectly clear—I think the Speaker has ruled in this direction—that they will not be bound by anything short of legislation. That means that we have a rather elaborate process ahead of us as we come to a conclusion over the next few months.
I think I agree with that; I cannot give an off-the-cuff response to my right hon. Friend’s detailed procedural point. Eventually, yes, we will have to legislate, first to gain time, and secondly, to get the necessary resolution of these problems in the long-term interests of this country.
My right hon. and learned Friend referred to legislation. Of course, he voted for the Third Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which expressly states that the European Communities Act 1972 will be repealed on exit day. Is that not sufficient proof of the need for the kind of legislation to which he referred? We do not need to have all these mysterious differences, because the anchor to the referendum is the repeal of that Act. Does my right hon. and learned Friend not agree? He voted for it.
Government and Parliament can at any time produce legislation to reform previous legislation because the circumstances have changed. The idea put forward by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that the Government are now bound by what they passed on article 50 and by the withdrawal Act, and cannot possibly contemplate amending that Act or asking us to vote again on article 50, is, with great respect to him, one of the most preposterous propositions that I have ever heard anybody put before this House. The Government have every possible power in their hands to decide to avoid the calamity of leaving on 29 March with no deal whatever—leaving not with any long-term prospect of pursuing the national interest, but simply because nobody here is able to agree in sufficient numbers on what on earth they want to do. All we are doing is vetoing each other’s propositions on what should go forward.
This all started when the Government’s policy went completely off the rails after they were defeated by a record-breaking majority on an agreement that they had taken two years negotiating in pursuit of what was a clear strategy. It is obvious that we need a preliminary agreement—a withdrawal agreement—on three issues before we leave politically, if we are going to, on 29 March. On leaving, we will spend years negotiating long-term arrangements, not only on trade and investment, but in the many, many areas of activity in which we have based all our arrangements with the outside world on EU membership for almost half a century. It will take a very long time to sort out sensible arrangements.
We all know that the Government’s agreement was rejected. I voted for it; I am in favour of the Government’s withdrawal agreement. Nobody in this House wishes more than I do to see us remain in the united European Union; that would be in this Government’s interests. However, in this House, the majority for leaving is overwhelming. Let us come face to face with reality: there is nothing wrong with the withdrawal agreement; it is perfectly harmless. It gets us into a transition period; then we can negotiate. I will not go on about my views; I have given them before. There is nothing wrong with the Irish backstop at all. To say otherwise is complete invention for the sake of finding things wrong with the deal.
That put us in a dilemma. The agreement was defeated by a variety of people with totally conflicting objectives. The biggest vote against it was from the Labour party, officially. As interventions have shown, it is rather puzzling to say quite what the Labour party had against the withdrawal agreement. I have just heard the Irish backstop accepted by its Front-Bench spokesman—quite rightly; it is necessary, unfortunately. The money has been settled, and nobody is arguing about EU citizens’ rights. Labour voted against the agreement because it was a divided party, and it decided that the only thing on which it could keep itself together was on all voting against the Government. That was all.
Both the big parties are shattered now; there were large rebellions on both sides. The biggest group of people who joined in the defeat were ardent remainers who, unlike me, are firm believers in the people’s vote. They are still facing difficulties, because they do not want us to leave on any terms, so they are going to keep—
I will give way to my right hon. Friend—my best friend among all these arch-remainers, who are otherwise my political allies in the House, day in, day out, though they all voted against the agreement. They are still threatening to do so, because they do not want to leave. They think there should be a people’s vote.
Then there was a faction of people who were not content to vote for the political agreement, because it will take years to negotiate and is rather general, and who wished to be reassured on the record, before we started negotiations, that we would establish basic and sensible points, such as our staying in a customs union and having some regulatory alignment. If that was established, all the arguments about the Irish border would go completely out of the window, because we would have an open border in Ireland and an open border in England. I would like to see that. I would vote for that—and I have, several times; I voted with the official Opposition once or twice on a customs union—but it is not necessary, because everything is up for grabs after we leave. There will be wide-ranging negotiation. I think the pressure from business interests, economies and people of common sense on both sides of the channel will drive us towards something like that in some years.
Meanwhile—this is where we are now—the Government have pursued one of the factions on the Conservative side of the House. We have a kind of breakaway party within a party—a bit like Momentum, really—with a leader and a chief whip. They are ardent right wingers. The Government have set off in pursuit of these bizarre—as some Government members say—negotiating tactics; some of them, though, seem positively to want to leave with no deal, because any agreement with foreigners from the continent is a threat to our sovereignty.
I will not give way any more. I have great respect for my hon. Friend, so I hope that I will not be too disparaging of his views—he and I fundamentally disagree—but lots of people want to speak, and I cannot give way as if I were a Front-Bench spokesman. That is not possible.
That is the wrong group to pursue. The Brady amendment, which I voted against, is meaningless; it rejects the agreement that the Prime Minister has spent two years getting and has commended in warm terms to the House. We can see from interventions that a lot of the people in the European Research Group will reject anything she comes back with, because they want—some of them—to leave with no deal. That is where we and the House must start from, and we have very little time within which to do something.
We must get past these procedural obstacles that the Government keep putting in place about what we can and cannot do, and get some binding policy that the Government have to follow. In the end, some of us—even remainers, divided over referendums—will have to back down once a sensible majority is established, and will have to compromise. That was the aim of the amendment that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland and I tabled. I hope that method will still be considered—a single transferrable vote, a ballot—because we will get nowhere until we have some idea of what can command a majority here.
I think there is a majority in favour of a customs union. I do not know whether there is a majority in favour of a referendum—there might be, I do not know. I am certain that there is an overwhelming majority flatly against allowing us to leave with no deal. My guess is that there are about 20 or 30 Members of this House who actually want to leave with no deal, and they should be rejected; I very much hope that they will be.
We will need more time to do this. I am quite happy to revoke article 50, and then invoke it again, if the House wants, when we have some idea of where we want to go. If we do get through this immediate crisis without a calamity, there will be four or five years of negotiations, on any sensible estimate, on what kind of arrangements we will have. That will be based on the political declaration. We cannot allow this kind of calamitous debate and constant crisis to continue throughout those five years.
Before we even start those negotiations—this is why I would revoke or extend article 50—we need a British consensus, a clear parliamentary majority, a path established that the British Government can go to Brussels with, knowing that it commands a majority. Our partners must see that we can command a majority for it. We must get through these daft days and eventually have a debate that produces a majority for something sensible.
At the moment, I think Brussels has given up on us. It does not think that the British Government even agree with themselves on what they are trying to pursue, and they have no idea what the British Government are asking now. It requires great faith on Brussels’ part to believe that the British Government can get a majority for anything that they will produce in the next two or three weeks, if they get some form of words amending what we have. It is time that this House found some method—I have advocated some approaches that we might take—of taking command of the situation. That would have the support of the vast majority of members of the Government; it would make their position easier. The vast majority of Members, I suspect on both sides of House, are looking for such an eventuality to emerge very soon indeed.
I rise to speak to our amendment (i), standing in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) and other right hon. and hon. Members—I am grateful for the support that we have received from the Liberal Democrats today. It is a much shorter and simpler amendment than the one we tabled two weeks ago, because above all else we need to get the House, as I hope the whole House will agree, to halt, at least temporarily, the headlong rush towards the cliff edge of no deal. Indeed, I find the degree of consensus developing between the Secretary of State and the no-deal brigade on his own Back Benches to be extremely alarming. I hope that is not an indication of where the Government’s thinking is leading.
Our amendment asks the Prime Minister to seek an extension of at least three months. That is important, because it takes us past the European Parliament elections, which could otherwise cause a significant difficulty, certainly for the European Union.
I think that option has to be open, but it will be very difficult, because the Europeans have already carved up our democratic representation in Europe. I keep an open mind. I want us to continue to be part of the European Parliament and other European institutions. It looks as if, at least in the short term, Scotland will lose that benefit, but I look forward to us getting back in as quickly as possible.
The other amendments that have been selected have a lot of merit to them. I do not think there is anything in them that I would oppose or that is incompatible with our amendment. I would ask the supporters of those amendments to look at our amendment, because extending article 50 has become an urgent prerequisite for anything else. We do not have time to spend tabling motions, having debates or developing substantial legislation, whether on a customs union, a people’s vote or anything else, unless we stop the clock. Contrary to what the Secretary of State said, the Prime Minister has not been trying to stop the clock. She has been trying to let it keep ticking down, while nothing but nothing was happening to prepare us for Brexit.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Speaker has ruled that all these motions are advisory, including the motion rejecting no deal, and that the referendum itself was also advisory? Why are we hurtling over the cliff on an advisory referendum and not accepting the will of this House that it would be calamitous?
I do not accept the argument that says, “Because the vote was close,” or, “Because the legislation did not say it was binding.” I think we have to accept the results of the referendum in each of the four nations of the United Kingdom. That is why, although I sympathise with where my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is coming from, I have some difficulty with his amendment, because I do not think we can permanently revoke article 50 unless we have a revised decision in another referendum.
When I say that we have to respect the result of the referendum, we have to respect the results in the four nations. It would be unacceptable for us to permanently revoke article 50 for England and Wales without asking the people of those nations what they thought. It is equally unacceptable and unconstitutional to ignore the express will of the people of Scotland or indeed Northern Ireland. We have the ridiculous situation where Northern Ireland cannot be made to stay in the United Kingdom against the will of its people and cannot be taken out of the United Kingdom against the will of its people, but can be taken out of the European Union against the will of its people. How does that work?
I cannot see any prospect of the Prime Minister’s deal being accepted by Parliament either before or after 29 March. I cannot see any prospect of the European Union agreeing any significant changes in the next month to a deal that it has spent two years with the Government agreeing to, so we are not going to leave with a deal on 29 March. As the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), the Father of the House, has said, there are barely 25 people in this place who would countenance leaving with no deal on 29 March, so surely the only credible, tenable and defensible solution is not to leave on 29 March, but to put back the leaving day until we can sort things out and at least engage in some kind of damage limitation.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is quite right that the vast majority of people in this House want a deal that we can leave the European Union with in an orderly way. On that basis, and given the urgency of the situation, why did the First Minister of Scotland, our country, refuse to turn up for a high-level meeting involving the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Home Secretary and the First Minister of Wales to avoid a no-deal Brexit?
It really is a bit cheeky to criticise the First Minister of Scotland for missing one meeting when she has been available to meet every day since the Brexit referendum. She and other Ministers of the devolved nations have attended meeting after meeting. They have been invited to express their views and then been told that their views counted for nothing.
Any Prime Minister who was putting the best interests of the people before the narrow, short-term interests of herself and her party would have asked for an extension by now. I want Parliament to say to the Prime Minister, bindingly or non-bindingly, “Ask for an extension.” I also want Parliament to be respected when it said, “Get no deal off the table.”
I do not know whether Members will recognise these words:
“We must reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right”.
Those words are from the Conservative party manifesto of 2017. Those were the promises on which every single Conservative Member of Parliament stood and was elected. If no-deal Brexit is not an ideological template provided by the libertarian right, I do not know what is. Those Members have been elected on a promise not to go with the disaster of no deal, so if the Government cannot prevent a no deal, they will have to go, because they will be in flagrant breach of one of the most fundamental promises of the Conservative manifesto.
I thank my hon. Friend for making such a powerful case. Colleagues on the Government Benches have made the point about not wanting a no-deal Brexit. Regardless of what anybody wants—I would like a people’s vote and for us to remain in the EU; others take a different view—all that our amendment does is give us an extension, so that we are not rushing this when time is fast running out. I therefore look forward to welcoming the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) in the Lobby with us later.
The hon. Gentleman has reminded me of the party manifesto, on which I apparently stood at the last election, and which is binding on me, I have never seen this document. It was produced some time during the campaign, rather obscurely, and I read about it in the newspapers. No copy was ever sent to me and I have never met a constituent who bothered to get a copy or read it. It had one rather startling policy in it, which was abandoned within about a day and played no further role. There is another myth growing: a new constitutional convention that says that anyone who stands for a party and gets elected here is bound by some rubbishy document that somebody unknown in central office, not the Cabinet, has produced and that is meant to bind them for the next Parliament.
That is certainly an interesting proposal. Let me say that each and every time I have stood for election I have read, and often contributed to, the manifesto on which I have stood, and I will always honour my manifesto commitments to the best of my ability. I would expect my party colleagues in the Scottish Government to honour the manifesto on which they were elected as well.
The backstop is not the problem for me; in fact, I do not think it is really the problem for more than a tiny minority here. The reason I reject the deal—and the reason it is rejected by the Scottish National party and the overwhelming majority of Scotland’s parliamentarians, both here and at Holyrood—is that it is a rotten deal for Scotland, and changing the backstop will not fix that. It will seriously damage our economy, it will place unsustainable strain on the public services that are so dear to our hearts, and it will cause wholly unacceptable pain to tens of thousands of citizens who have chosen to give Scotland the benefit of their talents.
Let me give just one example of what this means to real people. In November last year I had the privilege of visiting Glenrothes’s twin town, Boeblingen in southern Germany. The occasion was the town’s award of its highest civic honour to my good friend John Vaughan—a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) across the border—in recognition of the decades of voluntary service that John and his wife Karen had given, and their contribution to the bonds of friendship between our two towns. I later submitted an early-day motion to mark John’s achievement, and I am grateful to all who signed it.
On Tuesday, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife told the House that Karen Vaughan had been told that she must travel to Edinburgh and ask permission to register as a foreigner in her own country. Karen has lived in the United Kingdom for longer than the vast majority of people whom I can see in the Chamber. She has been here for 74 years. Someone whose contribution to these nations cannot be measured—someone who came here as a babe in arms three quarters of a century ago, after the defeat of Nazism in Europe—is now being told by this Parliament that she must make a round trip of nearly 100 miles to ask permission to be registered as a foreigner in the only land that she has ever known, and probably the only land that she will ever know. What have we become, Mr Speaker? And, much more frighteningly, if this is what we have become before Brexit, where in the name of God will we be heading after it if we have a Government who see that as an acceptable way to treat any human being?
Of course, the Government will do as they always do, and say that it is just an isolated case. Everything about Brexit involves “isolated cases”, such as Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Ford and Airbus. But those are not isolated cases. The heavy engineering manufacturing industry is not an isolated industry. There have been warnings for years from every sector of the economy and every area of our public and civic life that Brexit would not work, and every one of them has been ignored for years.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I really must make progress, because other Members want to speak. [Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stirling for pointing out, from a sedentary position, that all those people have said that they will support the Prime Minister’s deal. In fact, they were all approached by the Prime Minister and told, “It is my deal or no deal: ask your MPs to support my deal.”
I was contacted by a number of businesses in my constituency, and I also went to see a number of businesses and civic organisations that were brought over at the request of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Yes, they all wanted us to avoid no deal, but when they were asked what they really wanted, none of them said, “The Prime Minister’s deal, as I read it in Hansard.” All of them—with one minor exception—said that if they could have what they wanted, we would not be leaving the European Union. If the Government were listening to the concerns of business, we would not be leaving the EU, and if we had to leave the EU, we would not be leaving the customs union and we would not be leaving the single market.
Let me make it clear, incidentally, that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has explained to me why he has to leave. I accept that, and I take no offence from the fact that he is not able to stay until the end of my speech.
I want to refer briefly to the backstop, but only briefly. The backstop is there because the Government have not yet fulfilled the obligation to which they willingly signed up in December 2017 to come up with a solution to the border question that would honour the Belfast agreement while also meeting their own unilateral red lines. It is no surprise that the Government have not yet come up with that solution, because it does not exist. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), admitted that from the Dispatch Box just over two weeks ago.
What everyone is calling the backstop would be better described, as it was yesterday by the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, as a safety net. It is there to make sure that whatever else gets dropped in the chaos of Brexit, the Belfast agreement will not, in any circumstances, be allowed to fall and smash on the floor. It is not a backstop; it is a peace process guarantee. I defy anyone to say that they want the peace process guarantee to be time-limited, or to suggest that any party to the peace process would ever want to walk away from it unilaterally.
The hon. Gentleman has cited the Belfast agreement, and has talked of its falling and smashing on the floor. Will he at least do us the courtesy of reading it? There is no suggestion that, deal or no deal, the institutions contained in that agreement will be broken. There is no suggestion that the ability of Northern Ireland citizens also to have Irish citizenship will be taken away from them. If the hon. Gentleman is going to make claims, he should at least get them right.
Yes, I have read the Belfast agreement, and with all due respect, if it comes to any arguments about interpretation I would sooner take the interpretation of the former Taoiseach who helped to write it than that of someone who fought tooth and nail for it to be rejected.
I asked Mr Ahern a question that was designed to show the idiocy of some of the suggestions from Conservative Members about how Ireland should be responsible for sorting out Britain’s mess. Many people in Ireland seemed to think I was being serious, which I think is an indication that our friends in Ireland, and even people in the United Kingdom, are so flummoxed by this shambles that they cannot tell the difference between the truth—the reality—and complete parody. It is no wonder, because the reality is that we have had a Brexit Secretary who did not know that lots of boats were going in and out of Dover, a Northern Ireland Secretary who did not know that people in Northern Ireland vote along traditional Unionist/Nationalist lines, a Trade Secretary who cannot name a single country that will give us a better trade deal outside the EU than we have inside it, a Transport Secretary who could not organise a traffic jam, and a Prime Minister who— well, where do we begin? We could begin with “a Prime Minister who ran away from Parliament on 10 December, and then came back and told us that we must hold our nerve.” Mr Speaker, Scotland is holding its nerve.
I really must wind up my speech.
We are nowhere near ready to leave on 29 March without a deal, and we are nowhere near ready to get a deal before 29 March. The deal that is on offer does not give certainty; it gives another 18 months of fudge and uncertainty, and during that time we shall need to sort out all the hard bits that we have not even started to talk about. The withdrawal agreement was the easy bit; the future relationship is the difficult bit that we must still look forward to.
I welcome the fact that, two years too late, the Prime Minister and her colleagues have started talking to Opposition parties, although the Secretary of State has still not replied to the request that I sent, just after his appointment, to meet me in my capacity as Brexit spokesperson for the third party in the House. He has written to all the members of the Select Committee asking to meet us, but he has not replied to my specific request.
So the Government have started talking to other people, but they must start listening as well. Their disruptive and unworkable red lines must be taken off the table, because they are getting in the way of any kind of workable deal. We need to ask the European Union for more time so that everyone in this Parliament and the devolved Parliaments and Governments, with their collective skills and talents, can get around the table, without preconditions—and that means no preconditions for the Prime Minister either—to work out a solution and get us out of this mess before it is too late.
It is, as always, a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant).
I believe that the Prime Minister and the Government deserve the time and the space in which to meet the assurances that they gave the House on 29 January to deliver a legally binding change to the backstop, and to press the Malthouse compromise as an alternative in Brussels. I want the Prime Minister to be able to deliver Brexit, and I want the Government to be able to deliver and make a success of Brexit. I also want it to be crystal clear that the only way we will leave on WTO terms is by the choice of the EU through the intransigence of its approach.
I turn first to today’s amendments. It is telling that all of them are process amendments. None of them stipulates a specific alternative strategic objective of their supporters; none say anything at all about the substance, notwithstanding their criticism of the Government. As a result none offers a credible alternative to the path set out by the Prime Minister, which of course is both written in UK law and reflects international law under the Lisbon treaty, namely that we will leave the EU on 29 March either with a deal, as is being negotiated and as I believe is still possible, or on WTO terms.
We need to make sure we leave the EU on 29 March. We need it for the certainty and clarity businesses require, and we need it for the finality that the public want: an end to the tortuous haggle with Brussels, an end to the distraction and the displacement of all the other activity in this place and in government at large that has inevitably followed Brexit. It seems to me that extending article 50 cannot make any of the problems or challenges that we face easier; it can only make them worse. It is also clear that the EU will not agree unless there is a clear alternative model on the table that is reasonably deliverable within a finite period of time. Of course, some of the objections that have been made—it requires legislation, or it requires the Norway model, or some other whizzy idea that is no doubt being conjured up by thoughtful minds on the Opposition side of the House, and indeed on mine—would require time both to legislate and negotiate. We do not have that time, and the EU would not accept it.
The right hon. Gentleman says that a deal can still be negotiated. Given that one of the reasons for the backstop is the admission that at the moment there is no off-the-shelf technological solution that can provide a working mechanism to have no border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, how is a solution going to be found over the next 40-odd days that would allow the backstop to be removed? It is impossible, is it not?
The hon. Gentleman raises a perfectly respectable point, but the head of HMRC has said there would not need to be any extra infrastructure at the border under any circumstances, and on the hon. Gentleman’s point about time, while I do not accept his point about the absence of technological solutions, we will have the implementation period to work closely with our partners in Dublin and the EU to make sure they can be put in place.
Of all the question-begging amendments, the one in the name of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) is the most devoid of credibility for three reasons. On the one hand the leader of the Labour party wants to be a member of a customs union—the customs union—but at the same time he boasts of his plans to nationalise half the country, which would immediately and directly conflict with those rules. On the one hand he personally is widely regarded, although he does not say so explicitly, as being a proponent of Brexit—he wants to leave the EU, along with many on his side and on his Benches, and of course it is a requirement of the 2017 Labour manifesto—but on the other hand he is willing to trade free movement to allow open access to our borders in order to get a deal, again despite the pledges to exit the single market made in the Labour party manifesto. Finally, while he pledged in his 2017 election manifesto to leave the EU and the single market, he is flirting with a second referendum, yet without any indication of what the question might be or indeed which side he would be on. His Members in this House, the members and supporters in the various Labour party associations and indeed the public at large are entitled to question that and come to the conclusion that it is nothing but a fraud or a con; it is not a serious position.
That was affirmed by the shadow Brexit Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer): he talked of the hundreds of businesses he has met that have raised uncertainty as the No. 1 issue. I can imagine that as we have all heard businesses talk about uncertainty, and the public want some finality too, but that is why, if he and his party were genuinely serious, they would rule out extending article 50 and holding a second referendum. But the shadow Brexit Secretary did neither; he said he was sympathetic to the extension of article 50. So he and the Labour party are fuelling precisely the uncertainty they then criticise. I am afraid it is the usual forked-tongue, flip-flopping nonsense from the Labour party, impossible to square with the clear promises it made in its manifesto.
No, as I have undertaken to proceed swiftly to the end so that other Members can speak.
I will support the Government on all this evening’s amendments, but I have some concerns about the motion because it adopts as Government policy the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and passed on 29 January, which risks implying that we cannot leave on WTO terms on 29 March. That would be the wrong message as a matter of policy to send to the EU at this crunch moment in the talks, not least given some of the unfortunate remarks reported by ITV by the leader of the civil service delegation in Brussels. It also begs the question of how that marries with the position under UK law, which is our default position: that we would leave on 29 March, which I had understood was specifically Government policy. I listened very carefully to the Secretary of State’s assurances, but they in turn seem to conflict with the motion itself, which I am afraid is the problem we still need some clarity on.
The Government motion also makes no mention of the so-called Malthouse compromise proposal, and we have heard nothing about whether it has been formally tabled with our EU friends and partners. I understand that it has been raised and discussed with Michel Barnier, but has a written version of it actually been shared? We are seven weeks on from 29 January. This was the basis on which the Brady amendment was adopted, and it is a legitimate question to ask.
On that basis I will vote against the amendments, but I am, at the moment at least, struggling with the idea of voting for the principal motion. However, I will listen very carefully to the further assurances Ministers will give in winding up, because I would rather be in the position of supporting the Government, as I think the Government need the time and space to go in to bat in Brussels and to deliver the best deal for this country. We have a reasonable, modest set of demands to get a deal over the line and we want the Government to go in with the strongest hand possible.
My fear is that we are just drifting—that we are stuck in limbo on something that is going to have consequences for our country for generations. We know not what the alternative arrangements are going to be, and we know not when the Government are going to bring anything back and what it will be, and there are only six weeks to go. Businesses have no idea what to do about their April orders, because they do not know what the terms of trade will be. It is not just that they do not know whether there will be a deal or no deal; they do not even know, if there is no deal, what the basic arrangements are going to be. The British Chambers of Commerce has put questions to the Government and still not had any answers about what tariffs would apply and in which circumstances, and when rules of origin checks need to be done. The police do not know whether European arrest warrants that they have out at the moment on wanted criminals are going to just be ripped up overnight. The NHS does not know what its supplies of medicines are going to be in just six weeks’ time.
A local manufacturing business that exports about 80% of its products contacted me today saying that European suppliers are refusing to agree terms for continued supply; they are now establishing alternative suppliers. That is happening already, because there are only six weeks to go. The business says:
“We are rapidly becoming the laughing stock of the world.”
The Secretary of State, faced with what is effectively this growing chaos, responded today by hardening his position, I thought, in response to the question from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). I assume that that was an arranged response as a result of the threats from the European Research Group again today. The position used to be that the Government were embracing the prospect of no deal if the Prime Minister’s deal is not passed. I have heard people, including in this House, advocate no deal, and I would just say that they are not the people who are going to be overstretched if the prices of their food go up because of WTO tariffs and shortages at the border. They are not the people who will be hit if manufacturing jobs are lost, as so many manufacturers across the country have warned. But all of us will be affected if our border security is undermined because the Border Force cannot do basic criminal records checks on people coming into this country to see whether they are wanted criminals, having lost overnight the basic information from databases that they rely on.
The right hon. Lady might recall that in November, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warned that Brexit could actually cause a huge amount of cheap food imports to flood into the UK. Which particular scare story does she side with: the one that says there will be cheap food imports or the one that says that we are going to run out of fruit and veg?
We should take very seriously the warnings about a reduction of up to 80% in the volume of goods passing through the border and the preparations that Border Force is making for that, as well as the warnings from major supermarkets including Lidl, Asda and Tesco about the potential restrictions on the food that they will be able to get into the shops and the warnings from the Environment Secretary—a strong leave campaigner himself—about tariffs on beef and lamb.
That is really troubling, and it is now happening right across industry and across every sector. We heard this week from manufacturers in the car industry that they are putting tens of millions of pounds into preparations for no deal. It shows the scale of their concern about no deal that they are actually hoping that that money is going to be wasted. They hope that it will not be needed, but they are having to put that money in in the first place.
Some people have said that having no deal on the table is really important as part of a negotiating ploy, but that is just nonsense. The fact that no deal would hit us more than it would hit the other 27 means that this is not like negotiating a business deal, as one hon. Member has suggested. I am afraid that this is much more like negotiating a divorce. You do not just walk out and say goodbye to the home and all the assets without any clue of where you going to sleep that night, while at the same time thinking that this is going to persuade your ex to give you half their pension. It just does not work like that, yet we are taking all these risks.
I would like to believe that the Prime Minister is heading for a workable deal and that she can build a consensus. I have called many times for cross-party consensus and for a cross-party commission to oversee negotiations. I have called many times for a customs union to support Yorkshire manufacturing, for a security backstop—not just for Northern Ireland—and for clarity about the future arrangements. My biggest concern is that we are facing a blindfold Brexit with no idea of what kind of arrangements we face. I would like to see indicative votes on the kinds of approach that hon. Members have suggested.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister has to change her red lines, particularly around the customs union but in other areas as well, because they are preventing any change and any proper debate on the way forward. Instead, she appears to be trying to create a sense of crisis and chaos in the final two weeks, during which Parliament and the EU will be locked in a game of chicken in which we will be forced to choose between the huge damage of no deal and a deal that has already been strongly rejected by this Parliament. That is not a responsible way to make decisions. It is not a responsible way for any Parliament to operate, and it is certainly not a responsible way for this Government to operate. They have a responsibility to keep us safe, to make sure that the sick can get their medicines and to make sure that the poorest people in this country can afford the price of food. The Government have a responsibility to do things in an effective way, not to create chaos because they cannot get a bad deal through.
We have put forward a revised Bill. Under the proposals, if we get to the middle of March and we still have no deal in place, the Prime Minister will have to choose whether she wants the default to be no deal or an extension of article 50 to give her more time to sort this out. That would have to be put to Parliament, giving Parliament the opportunity to avert no deal on 29 March and the chance to say that the Government’s approach is just not working. It will not have worked if we reach that date without a deal in place. The problem is that if we do not do something sensible like this, we will be living in a fantasy world in which people talk about alternative arrangements and say that everything will be fine and someone will come along and sort it all out, even though none of that will happen.
I will not; I need to conclude my remarks.
It is as though we are all just standing around admiring the finery of the emperor’s new clothes when actually the emperor is running around stark naked, and everyone is laughing at us—or at least they would be if it were not so sad. So I really hope that the Government will show some responsibility and that they will end up supporting this Bill. Frankly, I hope that they will sort this out before we get to that point–before it is too late.
I rise to support the amendment in my name and those of many hon. and right hon. Members from all parties across the House. In simple terms, it calls for the publishing of papers that I know have been placed before the Cabinet, that the Cabinet has looked at and debated, and that in stark terms identify the very real dangers to our economy, to trade and to business of a no-deal Brexit.
I had the great honour to serve in Cabinet and to attend Cabinet. You may call me old-fashioned, Mr Speaker, but I am firmly of the view that there are times when the advice given to Ministers by their officials should remain confidential and should not be shared beyond the confines of that particular discussion. There are very good reasons for that, in my view. As a Minister, I made decisions not to share things. I take the firm view that advice given by, for example, the Attorney General to the Government should be subject to legal privilege. In those circumstances, it must be right that civil servants should be able to give advice without any fear that it might be made public. They should have no fear about giving such advice robustly and honestly.
The difference in this instance is that these papers that the Cabinet has debated contain important information that I believe my constituents and those of all other Members should have. It is also the view of a number of Cabinet members that those papers should be published. The fact—which nobody has denied—that members of the Cabinet take the view that those papers should be made public is the reason that I have tabled my amendment today and seek to persuade hon. and right hon. Members to support it.
These are not papers in the normal sense; they are papers of national importance. I am told that they make it very clear what the effects of a no-deal Brexit would be. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has said that a no-deal Brexit would be “ruinous”, and he has no doubt come to that conclusion not only because he speaks to business, as he undoubtedly does, but because he has had sight of those papers and formed that sound opinion based on their contents.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. I hope that she will take me at my word. Although the things I say in this place are often not agreed with, I do not make things up. I have asked both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about the papers, and it has never been denied that they exist, that they have been debated in Cabinet or that some Cabinet members believe that they should be published.
I gently suggest to my hon. Friend that the papers might assist her. I believe that she asked a question of a Minister about the need for us to get on with Brexit—I do not demur from her point on that—and get on with the trade deals so that businesses in her constituency can get on and trade with other countries. Perhaps if she saw the papers, she might know that businesses the length and breadth of our country already trade across the world. Businesses do not need a trade deal to do business and to trade. A deal enables us to do that business and that trade all the better. Perhaps it really is a very good idea that this place sees these papers, so that those hon. Members who are actually saying, as members of the Conservative party—the party of business—that it would be the right and responsible thing for this country to leave the European Union without a deal might be better informed as to the consequences.
My right hon. Friend is being generous with her time. I do not agree with her, although I do respect her opinion, but does she accept that she may be asking for another precedent to be set? She sat in Cabinet and will know that documents can be sensitive, official, secret or top secret. Might this amendment not open the Pandora’s box for every Cabinet paper marked from sensitive to top secret to be leaked or let out?
I would not disagree with my hon. Friend at all. I have indeed seen those very same papers myself. When I was a Health Minister, I saw the risk assessment documents that took the firm view that it would not be in the public interest at all for some documents to be disclosed, for the very reasons that I have outlined. These papers are different, however, because members of the Cabinet who have seen them have unsuccessfully made arguments in Cabinet that they should be made public. That is the profound distinction in this case.
It really would be to the eternal shame of the Conservative party if it were to continue to support a no-deal Brexit. As ever, I make my views with perhaps too much robustness and sometimes with some passion, but I am one of the founding members of the people’s vote movement—I am very proud of that—and I believe that the only way through this impasse and mess is for this matter to go back to the country. However, I have now taken the view that the bigger national interest—I say this without any fear—is that I am no longer prepared not to vote in the interests of my country and my constituents and in accordance with my conscience. I am now of the view that ensuring that we do not crash out without a deal is my absolute priority and that is why I tabled amendment (e). I make that clear to my right hon. and very dear learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). We disagree on the people’s vote, but on this we are absolutely—probably as ever—as one.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I will not, just because I am running out of time and I want to make several important points.
The Conservative party is the party of business. This party is the party of competence when it comes to the economy—[Interruption.] Oh yes, and history shows that a Conservative Government always leave office with the economy in a better state than when they inherited it, because we always have to clear up the mess made by a Labour Government. That is the simple fact and reality of history. However, will this great party be so reckless and go against all that we value in our principles by actually suggesting that we should leave without a deal in the face of overwhelming evidence? How many more car manufacturers—Ford, Toyota, Nissan—have to make it clear that if we leave without a deal, that will seriously impact the way that they do business? In the real world, that means our constituents will risk losing their jobs. Over 800,000 people work in just the automotive sector, never mind all the other millions who work in our manufacturing sector. Everybody with a scintilla of knowledge of the real world and of business and trade knows that the worst thing that could happen to our country is to leave without a deal. That is the view of the majority of Members of this place.
I gently say to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, who is a thoroughly good and decent man, that his speech chilled me to the bone. He is a Conservative, yet he stood at that Dispatch Box ignoring the amendment that was passed that was tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman)—a former chairman of the Conservative Party—and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) for which 318 Members voted. The other amendment that was passed, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), was passed with 317 votes in favour. It is therefore shameful that the Secretary of State spent almost the entirety of his speech addressing the latter, not the former, even though the former had won cross-party support and the support of more hon. Members.
However, my party is in hock to the party within the party: the ERG. As others have said, it is funded by the taxpayer and others, with its own leader and its own Whip. The Secretary of State stood up and tossed out red meat to keep the ERG on board, instead of doing what each and every one of us must do, which is to do what is right for our country. The right thing for our country is to be as one in rejecting no deal and standing by, as this party once did, the people of this country, their jobs, their futures and the prosperity of business and trade.
What a mess. What a complete and utter mess our country is in. There are just 43 days to go before we leave the European Union and, as we currently do not have an agreement, we are staring down the barrel of leaving with no agreement at all. I urge the House to lift up its eyes from the Order Paper, the amendments, the whispered conversations, the scurrying of the Whips, and the scripted exchanges that we saw earlier, which I have to say reminded me at times of a badly written play in which some of the actors did not seem to know their lines, and actually look around at what we can see. We know that companies that export to Europe and companies that provide services to Europe are in a state of despair. Some of them are spending millions of pounds on preparing for the worst, including moving their operations across the channel. Official figures from the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency showed this week that 42 companies relocated to the Netherlands last year citing Brexit as the reason.
Other firms have no idea what to prepare for. Last week, I was on a train and the man opposite me leaned over and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Of course.” He runs a small firm that makes products, and he sends his fitters out across Europe to fit them for their suppliers. He told me that his largest customer had rung him up and said, “Can you promise me that if there is a no-deal Brexit, you will be able to continue to fulfil my orders?” He looked at me and said, “What am I meant to say to him, because I don’t know the answer?” I had to look at him and say, “Well, I don’t know the answer either.” I wonder whether the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), will be able to tell him what the answer is, because that man’s fear—we heard this from my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)—is that his big customers will say, “We’re not taking the risk anymore. We’re taking our business somewhere else.”
Look at the companies that manufacture in Britain. We have heard about Airbus, Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover and, most recently, Ford. Look at those that export from Britain. We have spent much of this week debating the fact that the trade deals we were promised would be rolled over by now are not all going to be rolled over. The truth is that we are not ready and we are not prepared. Most Members know that no deal cannot possibly be allowed to happen, yet it remains—we heard it again from the Dispatch Box today—the official policy of Her Majesty’s Government that they will allow it to happen.
I was genuinely puzzled when the Secretary of State said that he respects the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) two weeks ago, and which was passed, but that his hands are tied by legislation. Well, I have a message for him: untie your hands and change that legislation.
It is no wonder that the rest of the world looks at this country with utter astonishment and amazement at what we are doing to our economy, our country and our future, and it should not need to be said in this House that our economy, the investment that goes into it and the jobs we hope our children will get depend entirely on the decisions that thousands of businesses make about their future. What are we offering them? The Prime Minister said this week, “Hold your nerve.” I am entitled to ask, hold our nerve for what?
It is now more than two weeks since the Brady amendment was passed, more than two weeks since the Malthouse compromise was seized upon like a thirsty man grabs at a drink in the desert, yet I fear it is a mirage. We all know that the search for alternative arrangements to keep an open border in Northern Ireland did not start two weeks ago; it has been going on for about two years. The best minds, the best negotiators and the best brains have searched, but they have not found. Those arrangements do not currently exist, a point made forcefully by the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in his evidence to the Exiting the European Union Committee yesterday, and it is why Donald Tusk said yesterday that he is still waiting for proposals from the Government.
Further to the point my right hon. Friend is making, last year there was all this discussion of the so-called “max fac” option and the European Union rejected that option, which was based on technology that is now being put forward again.
My hon. Friend is, of course, entirely right. Nothing I heard from the Prime Minister on Tuesday and nothing I heard from the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box today persuades me, or anyone else, that those alternative arrangements will miraculously appear in the 43 days that remain.
Just a slight nuance on the earlier debate. The European Union is not so rude as to say that it has rejected this, but it is saying, “If your fantasies don’t come through, let us have the security policy of a backstop. We don’t say your fantasies are wrong, but we are taking our insurance policy just in case.”
The backstop is, indeed, an insurance policy, and we cannot put a time limit on it, because it would not be an insurance policy if it is not there when it is needed. We cannot allow one side to withdraw unilaterally. The tragedy that the backstop illustrates is that we are spending all this time on something that is necessary because the Prime Minister created the problem in the first place when she casually announced that we are leaving the single market and the customs union, probably not thinking through the consequences that have brought her to this point.
We have these debates every two weeks, but we are spending barely any time focusing on the real problem. As the Father of the House pointed out in his wonderfully eloquent speech, we have no idea what Brexit actually, finally, means, because the Government have refused to make the choices that confront them and have failed genuinely to reach out across the House.
Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the example of a customs union. In her heart, the Prime Minister knows that, if we want to keep an open border in Northern Ireland and if we want to keep friction-free trade, we will have to remain in a customs union with the European Union, yet she cannot bring herself to confirm that fact, not because it would be economically damaging—it would be quite the opposite—but because it would be politically damaging to the party she leads.
I suspect the Prime Minister knows that the advice from the Law Officers is that to create a hard border, which follows axiomatically from the policy wanted by my colleagues in the ERG, would be a breach of our international legal obligations under the Good Friday agreement. As we are a rule of law state, we do not do that sort of thing, which is why it is a complete fantasy to try to pursue it.
I can only bow in admiration to the clarity with which the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes that point.
We know that is where we will have to end up, and humouring those who refuse to recognise it is where we will end up, while the national interest is being threatened, is not what I regard as the leadership that we have a right to expect from any Government in this country.
If the Prime Minister were genuinely to reach out, even at this late stage, I would welcome it, but we are careering towards a cliff. She is at the wheel and the Cabinet are sitting on the back seat. At some point, they will have to decide to lean over and take the steering wheel off her. If that does not happen, a no-deal Brexit might come to pass.
We know that today is not the day when we will take that decision, but in two weeks’ time we will. Two weeks’ time will be decision day on whether Parliament is going to take for itself the means to prevent a no-deal exit from the European Union, so long as the Government continue to stand at the Dispatch Box and refuse to give the House the assurance it is entitled to receive, especially given the amendment passed two weeks ago.
I am one of the proud sponsors of the Bill, in its new and improved form, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and I will enthusiastically support it in the Division Lobby if the amendment is chosen. Whatever our different views about where we should go afterwards, I hope the one thing that will unite the House is that almost everyone—not everyone, but almost everyone—agrees that we cannot leave with no deal.
In most of my previous speeches I talked about where I would like to go, but the fundamental problem is that we have not debated what we want Brexit to look like. Future generations will look in puzzlement at the way in which the negotiations have been structured. One day I will see the Prime Minister stand at the Dispatch Box and say, “I am applying for an extension to article 50,” and at that moment the stranglehold of 29 March will be broken, the Members who have been humoured will discover that they were led a merry dance in their belief that we would, in fact, leave with no deal on 29 March and the question will then be asked: what do we use the extension for? At that moment, we will no longer be able to hide from the choices that need to be made, and I, for one, look forward to that happening.
It is traditional in this House to say it is a pleasure to follow the previous speaker; it really is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), with whose speech I thoroughly agree. I did not think that today’s event, unlike the one two weeks from now, would be of any real interest. I was wrong, but in a very bad way.
There was a fascinating, and rather horrifying, series of exchanges before this debate began and during its opening, and those exchanges have driven me, finally, to the conclusion that I admit I have gradually been forming over the last few weeks and months.
First, when the chips are down, this Government—my Government—and this Prime Minister, for whom I, unlike many colleagues, voted when she came for re-election, would prefer to do what some of my esteemed colleagues would prefer to do: head for the exit door without a deal. The Secretary of State informed us that that is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government if the Prime Minister’s deal does not succeed. That is a terrifying fact.
Secondly, I fear I have been driven to the final conclusion that it is only by legislation that we will resolve this problem, because it is only by legislation that the Government will feel compelled to act. They do not accept any motion in this House as binding on them—but they do accept orders that order you, Mr Speaker, to take certain actions, or that order the House to follow certain procedures, the Standing Orders having been changed, as happened successfully in the past weeks and months. When it comes to governmental action, it is abundantly clear that only legislation will compel.
The third conclusion I am driven to is that the Bill that the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I, and others, have put forward, which is a successor Bill to the previous Bill, is a necessary instrument. It commands the Prime Minister to take a series of actions that will enable her to find out what delay the House commands and what delay the EU is willing to accept, and then to follow that course if she has not achieved a deal by 13 March. Beyond that, I am driven to the conclusion—this came out in the brief conversation I had with the Father of the House—that we will then have to do what the Opposition shadow Secretary of State and many other hon. Members have suggested: find a consensus across this House for a positive alternative, also, alas, by legislation.
This is a remarkable condition for Parliament, the Government and this country to find themselves in. The structure of our affairs, almost throughout our history, since this House first established its rights over and against the Crown, has been that the Government—Her Majesty’s Ministers—put forward policy and carry it out, subject only to the ability to maintain the confidence of the House, and to legislate in it. To my knowledge, it has never previously been the practice for this House to have to take control and direct Government policy by legislation. That is an astonishing turn of events.
The right hon. Gentleman, who was a colleague of mine in the coalition Government, and to whom I pay tribute for his part in taking forward this Bill and other measures in which we are jointly engaged, is absolutely right about that. On 27 February, there is no place to hide. On that date, this House will make a decision that will lead either to this country leaving the EU without a deal, or to delaying the UK’s exit, thereby giving us a chance, if many other things follow, to find an alternative deal that can be agreed by this House, that can be legislated through, that can be mandated for the Government, and that can give this country a secure and prosperous future outside the EU. It is on 27 February that we will have to make that decision.
My final point is that in these circumstances, being an ordinary Member of Parliament, as opposed to a member of the Cabinet—many of us have been in previous Cabinets—is no longer the kind of task that many of us have always assumed it would be. Mostly, our country has operated on the principle that its great work is done by Governments, and that we in this House have the extraordinary privilege of observing, informing, scrutinising and checking, but do not have to take the ultimate responsibility for those crucial decisions that those of us who have served in Cabinets and in National Security Councils have, from time to time, had to take about what this country does. On 27 and 28 February, if we come to debate that Bill, and in succeeding weeks and months, as we have to legislate for the policy of this country in relation to the EU, all of us in this House will suddenly have to take the awesome responsibility of playing our part in trying to find a way through that enables our fellow citizens to have a secure and prosperous future.
As ever, my right hon. Friend is giving a passionate and brilliant speech and statement of the situation we are in. I wonder whether he could help us in one respect: does he believe that the papers I mentioned in my amendment (e) should be published? Would that assist?
I most fervently believe that they should be published; much more information on the no-deal exit should be available. I would vote for my right hon. Friend’s amendment, were it not for the infelicity of the fact that it would knock out the Government’s motion, which I am committed to voting for, having consistently maintained the position in this House that I will always back the Government in their endeavour to get their deal through until that is no longer possible. Perhaps I am a romantic, but I have always thought that my task was to try to assist a Conservative Government in coming to a solution. Although many of my hon. Friends do not find themselves able to do that, I will continue to do it. It is only for that reason that I shall not back her amendment; I shall abstain on the matter.
My right hon. Friend is of course right in substance: those papers should be out, because when this House comes to legislate, as I hope it will and fear it must, it will be, so to speak, a Cabinet. We will be making real-life decisions about what happens to our fellow countrymen—not just legislating in the hope that many years later, subject to further jots and tittles, the law, as administered by the system of justice, will work better. We will be making a decision about the future of this country. How can we possibly make those decisions unless we are properly informed? The process of which we are now at the start will require the fundamental realignment of the relationship between the civil service, Government and Parliament. There is no way we can continue to act as though we were merely a body to which the Government were accountable; for a period, for this purpose, we will have to take on the government of our country.
I applaud the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) for seeking leadership and decisiveness at this moment. It makes me ask: who should be held responsible for the groundhog day moment we find ourselves in? It is no secret that I regard Brexit as an unmitigated disaster, particularly for the most vulnerable and least well-off of my constituents, whose jobs and livelihoods are threatened. I also hold the Prime Minister responsible for the conduct of the negotiations, accepting as she did this ridiculous arrangement whereby the divorce arrangements are separated from the future relationship. That should never have been allowed to happen. She then negotiated a deal that nobody really wanted, but which she is absolutely determined to prosecute at almost any cost. We are now in this ridiculous situation of the Prime Minister saying, “Back me or we all hold hands and jump off the cliff together.”
Brexit is not just a disaster; it is also a tragedy because of the economic consequences. We have been talking about the trade deals that we were promised would all be ready one second after midnight on 29 March. We discovered this week that only four or five of the 40 free trade agreements will be ready.
We do have the Faroe Islands, but the deals with Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Canada will not be ready. As well as the breach with our largest trading partner, the European Union, we must add a breach and fracture in our trade arrangements with all those other countries.
Brexit is not just an economic tragedy, because there are other tragedies. My heart breaks when I think about the history of our country leading up to this moment: working in alliances with our European allies; those citizens’ rights that have accrued; and the ability not just of generations of people to come, work, live and study here, but of our children to do the same reciprocally.
We talk about the backstop as though that nomenclature somehow describes what we are talking about. Let us be plain about what we are hearing. Some hon. Members do not want a time limit to the backstop. Essentially, they are arguing for a time limit on open borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—a time limit on the Good Friday agreement. When we put it in those terms, it is preposterous that we should be in this situation at all.
I hold the Government responsible for getting us into this run-the-clock-down strategy, but we should be completely honest about why we are in this situation. I wanted action today. Earlier this week, I said that we needed to snap out of this delusion now, because I worry about the time that we have in which to legislate on these things. I will have to cling to the hope of 27 February, but why are we waiting until then? It is because, in order to get the votes for a majority, we have to work cross-party. The truth is that an increasing number of Labour Members—even some on the Front Bench—are abstaining on votes, so we have to wait for Members on the payroll, Government Ministers, to do the brave thing and resign to counteract the loss of numbers on the Labour Benches. We should have a solid Labour move against this outrageous situation. The idea that the Labour party is not together in arguing against this tragedy—this disaster—is, for me, entirely heartbreaking.
In the amendment tabled by the Labour Front-Bench team, I no longer see the words, “option of a public vote”, which were in the Labour Front-Bench amendment of 29 January. I ask myself why are we regressing when it comes to our party’s policy, as passed at the September conference. Other Members have tabled amendments; I applaud my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and other hon. Members, who have tried to put this matter of Labour party policy on the Order Paper today.
We have this new euphemism of “options on the table.” How long is this table, and when will we ever get to those options? It is absolutely not acceptable. On this particular issue, we are being played for fools by the leadership of the Labour party. By now, we should have reached the stage of a public vote on the option of remaining in the European Union. Nobody can explain to me seriously, without being lawyered, why we are not at that stage right now.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) was correct when he talked about the underlying reasons for this mess. Why are we at this groundhog day right now? The truth is that our party political system is shattered. It is broken, and it is letting this country down at a crucial time. This is the moment when we need leadership, but tragically, party political calculations and advantage are being put ahead of the national interest.
I have been sounding the alarm for the car industry for some time. Of course, its challenges are not just about Brexit, but Brexit has made things worse. Many of my constituents have lost their jobs. The claimant count has shot up on my council estate, and, given the lag in statistics, I fear that things will only get worse. Unemployment is now at 7.4% compared with the national average of 2.3%.
As 29 March approaches, it is paramount that we leave the EU with a deal—I have voted for the Prime Minister’s deal. Leaving without a deal would be catastrophic. This is not project fear; this is reality. These are real people’s lives that I am talking about. On Tuesday evening, I co-chaired a meeting with my friend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) of a wide range of organisations: Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, Airbus, Siemens, the CBI, the EEF, the NFU, the British Ceramic Confederation, the Association of British Insurers and so on. The damage of continued uncertainty and the lingering prospect of no deal was made perfectly clear. A total of 80% of CBI members have stopped investing in their businesses. The political uncertainty has damaged the UK’s credibility as a safe place for investment. One of the large US investors now describes the UK as the “problem child” of Europe. Against that backdrop, companies of all sizes are finding it increasingly difficult to justify doing business here.
When I was growing up, this country was often described as the “sick man of Europe”, and I really do not want us to become that again. Manufacturers are now spending tens of millions on no-deal preparations, as we heard earlier. It is extraordinary to think that they hope that that money will be wasted.
The manufacturing industry is not in decline. It accounts for 10% of the UK’s economic output. The UK is the ninth biggest manufacturer in the world, and manufacturing is not an industry that this country can afford to lose; it employs thousands of people and it pays well. However, for this success to continue, companies need to be certain that the UK is a reliable place to invest in and commit to. Unfortunately, as indicated by Ford’s recent announcements, this is now in doubt.