I beg to move,
That this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship on 29 March 2019; and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.
Let me begin by paying tribute to our Prime Minister. She may have temporarily lost her voice, but what she has never lost, and will never lose, is a focus on the national interest and a full-hearted desire to do what is right for our country.
Since the withdrawal agreement was concluded, the Prime Minister has stood at the Dispatch Box for more than 19 hours. She has answered many questions, and made compelling arguments. Throughout this process she has shown fortitude, tenacity, thoughtfulness, diligence and, above all, an unselfish and unstinting patriotism. I think it only appropriate that in all parts of the House, whatever political differences we have, we recognise that the Prime Minister always, always puts country first, and that we are fortunate to have her in that position.
Not at this stage.
The House voted to give the people of this country a choice as to whether we were to remain in the European Union or leave it, and 17.4 million people—a clear majority—voted to leave. That is a mandate that we must respect, and an instruction that we must deliver. It is also the case that at the last general election, both principal parties stood on manifestos that pledged them to deliver our departure from the European Union. It is vital that we honour that manifesto promise, those instructions, and our democracy. Those outside the House who sent us here to act on their will and deliver that mandate will take a very, very dim view of those who seek to frustrate, deny or dilute the mandate that we were given.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let me also take this opportunity to pay tribute to his consistent championing of the rights of EU citizens in this country: we admire his commitment to principle. The Vote Leave campaign did indeed make clear that it was seeking a mandate to leave the European Union, and to conclude a free trade deal with the EU. That was the explicit aim of the campaign, and it is the policy of this Government.
Might I suggest that if we do want an orderly Brexit involving the Prime Minister’s deal, one way of securing it would be to invite the Secretary of State and his colleagues to vote for the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman)? It would take crashing out of the European Union off the table, which might convince some of the Secretary of State’s friends that that is no longer an option, and that if we are to deliver on our promise, the only way in which we can do so is the Prime Minister’s deal. Might the Secretary of State also consider when we can have an opportunity—when we are not going to crash out—to vote on the Prime Minister’s deal again?
Like me, the right hon. Gentleman argued that we should leave the European Union, and I take seriously the case that he makes. I shall go on to say a little about the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), but we should all be clear about one thing: the only way in which to ensure that we take no deal off the table is either to revoke article 50, which would dishonour the mandate, or to deliver a deal. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the deal that the Prime Minister put before the House last night, which sadly did not command a majority, allows us to leave the European Union in an orderly fashion, and in a way that honours our democratic mandate while also preserving our economic advantages. It is much to the regret of people outside the House that we were not able to command a consensus for it then.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. He seems to be making a speech about last night’s debate rather than today’s. The debate that we are having today is about no deal. Can the Secretary of State imagine being the Prime Minister—I am sure he spends a lot of time imagining that—and coming to the House for a vote of this importance, and the Government’s not having an opinion on whether their own members should vote for or against it?
Sadly, in his undoubted wisdom the Speaker did not select amendment (g) in my name, which instructs the Government to keep no deal on the table during negotiations with the EU. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to keep no deal on the table, as otherwise how will we get a better deal?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The motion which stands in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and which I will vote for this evening makes it clear that we do not believe we should leave on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement, but it does not take the option of no deal off the table because, as I underlined earlier, the only way in which that can be done comprehensively is either through revocation or agreement to a deal.
I voted leave in the referendum, and my right hon. Friend led the campaign. There is going to be a choice in the end for this House between the Prime Minister’s vision for Brexit, which I support, and the Leader of the Opposition’s vision. The Leader of the Opposition’s vision is to stay in the customs union, remain in the single market and continue to have free movement of people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that in no sense honours the spirit of the referendum vote to leave the European Union?
My hon. Friend makes an admirable point, and I note that the Leader of the Opposition is not in his place today. I note also that in the point of order he made last night he did not refer to the newly adopted policy of embracing a second referendum, which is now Labour’s position. To add to the incoherence of the Labour party’s position in saying that it wants to be in a customs union and a single market and indeed to accept free movement, it wants to overturn the promise it has made to honour the referendum mandate, and not to bring forward a second referendum. In their naked pursuit of political advantage I am afraid that the Labour Front Bench are letting this country down, and more importantly letting their voters down.
I want to make a little progress but will accept more interventions in due course.
As a result of the House’s failure to agree to the deal the Prime Minister presented last night we now face a number of unattractive choices, and it is important that the House realises that all of these choices are less attractive than support for the deal the Prime Minister negotiated. We can choose as a House to leave without a deal, but there are significant economic, political and constitutional challenges if we embark on that course which I will go into in just a second. We could accept a deal less attractive than that which the Prime Minister secured, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien) has pointed out, there are many in this House who would have us leave the EU in a way that does not honour the referendum mandate and does not honour the manifesto promises at the last general election. Doing that would not only circumscribe this country’s sovereign right to make decisions in its own interests, but undermine and further erode faith in democracy. But if we are talking about faith in democracy, either frustrating the vote altogether by revoking article 50 or seeking to overturn it with a second referendum would be choices of far greater magnitude, and to my mind be far more damaging.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The cat is out of the bag: on his own admission this motion does not take no deal off the table. I will be guided by you, Mr Speaker, but my understanding was that at the Dispatch Box this House was given a guarantee that today we would have the opportunity to take no deal off the table. Will the right hon. Gentleman not only confirm that, Mr Speaker, but also inform us of the following? Is it the case that the Government are offering a free vote on amendment (f) in the name of the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), which Mr Speaker has selected, yet they are whipping against amendment (a) in the name of the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman)? [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not want to hear it, but it is a shameful carry-on when a former chairman of the Conservative party is whipped against to the extent that she will not press that amendment to the vote. This House will be denied the chance to take no deal off the table; that is the truth of it, isn’t it?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Whether I was ever a distinguished member of the Bar is debatable, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman as a member of the criminal Bar that we were never paid by the hour when I was at the Bar; in fact repeatedly I worked pro bono, as many criminal barristers have to do under his cuts.
The right hon. Lady has put the facts on the record. I do not think we should get into the subject of who has been remunerated by how much, whether for legal work or penning articles in newspapers or whatever. Instead let us focus on the terms of the debate. I say to the Secretary of State that, in his own interests, the less said about that matter the better.
On the point that was concerning the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), can the Secretary of State confirm that it is the Government’s position that we are ruling out leaving on 29 March with absolutely no arrangements at all—that we are ruling out the complete collapse of all our legal and trading arrangements with the continent that we have built up over the last 50 years?
Yes, I would not use exactly the same language as the Father of the House, but his point is correct. The motion commits the Government not to leave on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement; I hope that is clear and unambiguous. But the motion also makes clear that the default position in law is that we do leave the EU unless we can secure assent to a withdrawal agreement, which is why, as I mentioned earlier, it was so disappointing that we did not secure a mandate last night.
Will the right hon. Gentleman now attempt to answer the question asked by the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and explain the media reports? Given that the Prime Minister last night promised free votes—[Interruption.] Yes she did, at the Dispatch Box; the right hon. Gentleman should not shake his head. Can he therefore explain the reports that the right hon. Member for Broxtowe has pointed to that the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) will be a free vote on the Conservative Benches but the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) will be whipped against? That is an absolute disgrace and bad faith to this House.
It seems to me that the difficulty that might be arising across the House is as follows. If the House passes this motion this evening, and I have no reason not to support the motion in the terms of its ruling out no deal, in order to achieve that two things have to happen: first, we need to get an extension to article 50; and secondly, we are going to have to make a change to primary legislation in the withdrawal agreement Act. I assume the Government are undertaking, if this motion is passed in its own terms, to do exactly that?
I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention, because it allows me to underline and further elucidate the point. It is absolutely correct that tomorrow the House will have an opportunity, if the motion passes tonight, to decide how to seek an extension. Obviously an extension is not something we can insist upon and automatically see delivered; it is in the gift of the EU and requires the assent of all 27 other EU members. But of course there will be an opportunity further to debate that tomorrow.
Just to remind the Secretary of State: there was a second part to the question, which is equally critical. It is that the Government will have to bring a statutory instrument to the House to alter the departure date set out in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. In those circumstances, I assume that the Government are undertaking to do exactly that.
Forty Members. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I stressed earlier that if we choose to leave without a deal on 29 March, this country will face economic, political and constitutional challenges. We are a great country, and we would get through it. We would in due course ensure that this country was more prosperous, freer and successful, and of course the Government have been working hard to ensure that we can be prepared for any eventuality and that we can mitigate the risks of leaving without a deal. At this stage, I should like to pay particular tribute to the civil servants across the Government who have been working exceptionally hard and with great skill to ensure that we are ready for any eventuality. We do not pay tribute to civil servants often enough, and I am sure that everyone across the House will recognise how important their work is. However, I stress that that work is work to mitigate the challenges.
If we were to leave on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement, we would be treated as a third country by the European Union. That would mean that we would face tariffs on many of our products. I am acutely aware that some of the highest and most severe tariffs would be imposed on food. Our sheep farmers and beef farmers would face the instant imposition of tariffs of at least 40% and in some cases more than 100%. Their livelihoods, and indeed the economic and social health of our countryside, would face very challenging circumstances. None of us can be blithe or blasé about those challenges.
We also know that there are at least 145,000 businesses in this country that trade with the EU—and of course do commerce in the UK—but do not trade outside the EU. As soon as we become a third country, they will need to register with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in order to ensure that their trade can continue. Those businesses will need to secure their economic operator registration and identification—EORI—numbers and the other documentation necessary to trade. At the time of speaking, only about 50,000 of those 145,000 businesses have made those preparations. That means that, just over a fortnight away from the prospect of leaving without a deal, a significant number of businesses in this country do not have the wherewithal, the means, or the appropriate documentation to carry on trading.
On top of that, products of animal origin being exported to the European Union will need to undergo sanitary and phytosanitary checks—in addition to customs and other checks—at a border inspection post. A significant amount of our food produce crosses the narrow strait from Dover to Calais or goes through Eurotunnel. At the time of speaking, there is no border inspection post at either of those ports. Of course, there are many things that this Government can do to mitigate the consequences of no deal, but we cannot dictate what the EU’s tariffs will be, we cannot instruct the port authorities in France on how to order their affairs, and we cannot compel businesses to acquire the means necessary to continue to trade in the way that they have been doing. These all represent cumulative costs that businesses would face in the event of a no-deal exit on 29 March.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. He is right to say that the European Union does not have border infrastructure in place to carry out the border inspection checks that he mentions. Is that perhaps why the EU has asked us to dynamically align our regulations for a period of nine months so that it would not have to carry out such checks during that period?
My hon. Friend is right, but dynamic alignment during those nine months would mean our being a rule-taker during that period. Dynamic alignment would allow us to be registered as a third country, but there would also be sanitary and phytosanitary—SPS—checks on a variety of products.
The Secretary of State speaks as though there is some distance between him and the tragedy that he has just outlined, but is it not the case that he is a senior author of that tragedy? Does he feel no sense of shame or responsibility? Should he not apologise for the mess that we are facing?
It is the responsibility of those who voted against the withdrawal agreement last night—[Interruption.] If Scottish National party Members had a care for Scotland’s industry, Scotland’s prosperity and Scotland’s farmers, they would have voted for the withdrawal agreement last night, but I am afraid that when it comes to political positioning and separatist posturing, rather than serious politics, there is no equal to the ranks of the Scottish National party.
My right hon. Friend might not be aware that the authorities in Calais have said to me that they will have a border inspection post open at the end of the month. I urge his Department to work with my port and with the community in Dover on this, because they want us to have a border inspection post just outside the port—just as they do in places like Rotterdam—but the unfortunately restrictive position of DEFRA means that it is trying to say that it has to be inside the port, which it does not. Can my right hon. Friend get his Department to be more flexible?
My Department has been flexible, and will continue to be flexible. We will continue to do everything possible in order to facilitate trade, but as my hon. Friend points out, although that border inspection post could be in place by the end of the month—and we hope it will be—it is not in place now.
My right hon. Friend knows, as I do, just how important agriculture is to this country through the jobs that it creates and through all that it adds to biodiversity and the environment. Does he agree with my assessment that no right hon. or hon. Member who purports to understand and support farming in their constituency can support leaving the European Union without a deal?
Obviously there is a diversity of views in this House, but I agree with my hon. Friend that it is in the interests of British farming, and indeed our broader environment, that we do not leave on 29 March without a deal. This is one of the reasons why I am making these arguments at the Dispatch Box now.
There are also political challenges in leaving on 29 March without a deal. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) pointed out, during the referendum campaign we argued that we should leave with a deal. I am also conscious that, while our mandate was clear, it is also the case that with a 52:48 result, we need to take into account the hopes and concerns of those people who did not vote to leave the European Union. The Prime Minister’s deal does that; it does more than that. Many people who voted to remain—including Members of this House in my party and in others—have accepted the result and wish us to leave in order to honour that mandate. However, they do not want us to leave on 29 March without a deal. There would inevitably be political strains and pressures consequent on leaving without a deal on 29 March that no Minister can afford to ignore.
More than that, it is important to stress that there are also significant constitutional challenges. It is the case, as several hon. Members have pointed out, that a majority of voters in Scotland and in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but we voted as one United Kingdom, and we voted to leave. It is striking that support for the Union in Scotland has risen since the vote—[Hon. Members: “It’s gone down!”] Well, we only need look at the ranks of Scottish Conservative MPs, who turfed out the partitionist part-timers of the SNP, to see which way the tide was flowing—[Interruption.] They don’t like it up ’em.
The Secretary of State will be well aware, as will other Members, that Northern Ireland has not had a functioning Assembly for over two years. We have had no Ministers in Northern Ireland for over two years. This House, including the Members of the Democratic Unionist party, must therefore give due weight to the serious warning issued last week by the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Stirling, about the grave consequences for Northern Ireland of a no-deal Brexit.
The hon. Lady, for whom I have enormous respect, is absolutely, 100%, totally right. Of course, it is up to this House to take that decision, but it is the case, whatever the position in Scotland—there can be no doubt that leaving without a deal would impose additional pressures on our precious Union—that there would be particular pressures on Northern Ireland if we leave without a deal on 29 March. As the hon. Lady points out, Northern Ireland has been without a devolved Government for two years and, in the absence of the Stormont institutions, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has introduced legislation and guidance to empower Northern Ireland’s civil servants, including the wholly estimable David Stirling, to continue to take decisions that are in the public interest. That arrangement is sustainable at the moment, but it is the sincere hope of myself, my colleagues in Government and, I believe, almost everyone across the House that we can restore the Northern Ireland Executive.
However, it is also clear that the current situation, with no Executive, would be difficult to sustain in the uniquely challenging context of a no-deal exit. If the House voted for no deal, we would have to start formal engagement with the Irish Government about further arrangements for providing strengthened decision making in the event of that outcome. That would include the real possibility of imposing a form of direct rule. That is a grave step, and experience shows us that it is hard to return from that step, and it would be especially difficult in the context of no deal.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s written statement today, which affords frictionless trade to the Republic of Ireland in terms of tariffs and there being no checks. If that can be the basis of no deal, why can it not be the basis of a deal?
It is the case that my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has issued a written statement, and it is the case that those provisions seek to minimise the consequences of no deal, but that is a temporary arrangement that could be open to legal challenge. To put it at its highest, it is a sub-optimal arrangement. It is a reflection of the hard work of the Northern Ireland civil service and my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary that we will do everything we can to minimise frictions and checks at the border in order to underpin the importance of both commerce and peace on the island of Ireland. However, it is emphatically not an arrangement that any of us can regard as genuinely sustainable or ideal.
It would be for the House to decide tomorrow what type of extension it believes is appropriate. The most important thing that we could do is to rally behind a withdrawal agreement that ensures that we can preserve not just the strength of our economy, but the gains from leaving the EU. It is also the case, as I indicated earlier, that civil servants are working incredibly hard to ensure that we can mitigate all consequences.
I will give way to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) in a second, but I will not give way to the hon. Gentlemen from the SNP. First, however, I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison).
This morning’s written statement’s bearing on tariffs is welcome, particularly the zero tariffs on goods travelling north to south on the island of Ireland, but what discussion has he had with Dublin about tariffs on goods travelling south to north? Given the importance of agrifood in Northern Ireland, he will appreciate the potential grave disadvantages for agriculture in Northern Ireland in the event of no deal.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have spoken to Michael Creed, who is the responsible Minister, but there are additional challenges that agriculture and food processing in Northern Ireland would face in the event of a no-deal scenario on 29 March.
My right hon. Friend is being incredibly generous with his time. The overwhelming view of business is that no deal should be taken off the table. Given that those of us on the Government Benches know that the success of our party and our country is based on backing the job creators and the wealth creators, how does he think the Conservative party of the 1980s would look at our response to business at the moment?
I am fortunate to speak after the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a spring statement in which he underlined the fact that this country has had the longest period of uninterrupted growth of any G20 economy and that we have a faster-growing economy—and are predicted to have a faster-growing economy—than Italy, Germany and Japan. It is also the case that we have a record number of people in work and real wages are rising. Under his leadership and that of the Prime Minister, anyone nostalgic for the ’80s would say that, actually, what we have once more is economic success delivered by a Conservative Government putting the national interest first.
The Secretary of State is making a very strong argument against no deal and the damage that it would cause. The purpose of the votes today and tomorrow is to establish the default position. If we do not have a deal in place—and we do not have a deal in place with the majority behind it in the House—what will the default position be on 29 March? Will he clarify his position on this, as it is not clear in the motion? If there is no deal in place by 29 March, does he agree that the default position cannot be simply to leave without a deal?
No. I wanted to stress that in underlining all these challenges and by emphasising that we are doing everything that we can to mitigate them, it is not the case—I made this point earlier, and I want to underline it for the benefit of all—that we are taking no deal off the table. The only way that that can be done is either to revoke article 50 and decide to stay in the European Union, or to conclude an agreement. That is an inescapable fact, and that is why we face a series of unattractive choices. Many of the alternatives that have been put forward would undoubtedly be worse.
Order. The Secretary of State has made the position clear. Let me conduct the very briefest tutorial for the benefit of the illustrious Chair of the International Trade Committee of the House of Commons. It is unseemly, to the point of being disorderly, to try to speak one’s intervention by mouthing it before permission has been given to undertake it. It is a point that is so blindingly obvious that, as I often observe, only an extraordinarily sophisticated person, possibly from Na h-Eileanan an Iar, could fail to grasp it. Secretary of State.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Once again, I am grateful that you are in the Chair.
The Labour party is now committed to a second referendum, but many of its leading spokespeople have made clear what they thought of a second referendum in the past. The shadow Education Secretary said that it would be a mistake and would show disdain for democracy. Indeed, the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), when asked about a second referendum, said, “No, we don’t think that’s right. If we went for a second referendum we would be saying to people, ‘We think you’re stupid. We think you made the wrong decision. We’re going to do something else.’” Now that she embraces a second referendum, I am afraid that having once sneered at the flag of St George, she now confirms that she wants to tell the British people that they are, in her view, wrong and stupid. That may be a view popular in Islington South, but it is not the view of the Government, who are determined to honour the votes of the British people and who will not dismiss their sovereign decision as either wrong or stupid.
I take compliments wherever I can find them. The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have said at the Dispatch Box, previously and today, that the House is very good at striking down things that are on the table but very bad at putting forward alternatives. I have noticed in recent days that both of them have been doing exactly the same thing; they spend a lot of time striking down any other proposition that is mentioned from across the House, but the one they are sticking to has also been decisively struck down more than any other—twice, in historic proportions. If we carry on doing the same thing, we are going to get the same result. Is he suggesting that he will bring the deal back again and again and again, or will he show the leadership expected of somebody in his position and someone in the Prime Minister’s position and change course, listen to other propositions and engage with people who are trying to compromise?
I said before the hon. Gentleman was better than Jeremy Corbyn and he proved by his intervention that he is much, much better than Jeremy Corbyn. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on everything, but I do think it is right that we have dialogue across this House. We are in an uncomfortable position. I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Prime Minister’s deal. It commanded more votes last night than it did at the first time of presentation, but it did not command a majority in this House. That is why it is the responsibility of us all not only to listen and reflect, but to recognise that none of us can dodge choices. The choices before this House as a result—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State has just made it clear that the Government’s intention is to keep putting the same deal back to the House over and again, even though it has been decisively defeated twice, possibly ad infinitum. Is that not out of order?
There are historical precedents for the way in such matters are regarded. I do not need to treat of them now and no ruling is required now. There may be people who have an opinion about it. I am not really preoccupied with that, but a ruling would be made about that matter at the appropriate time, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me that such a ruling might at some point in the future be required.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. For the benefit of the hon. Lady, let me say that I am simply making it clear that as a result of last night’s vote we face a series of unpalatable choices. The Government have put forward a motion tonight that I hope right hon. and hon. Members will support. It would ensure that we do not leave on 29 March without a deal, but this House has to decide—it has to decide what it wants—and that is why I agreed with the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle). This House has been very good at saying no and insufficiently statesmanlike in supporting the Prime Minister in her efforts. It is now make your mind up time for this House. It is crucial that Members on all sides respond appropriately.
Can the Secretary of State explain to the House why it is democratic to keep bringing back to the House a proposition that has been overwhelmingly defeated on two occasions, but it is somehow undemocratic to suggest that the British people should be asked whether they want to change their minds?
The hon. Gentleman taxes me about stupidity. I will return to his comments in just a second. The key thing is that the proposition was different, but of course we did not secure support for it and the House now has to decide. I respect the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) very much, as he knows, but it was the official position of his Front-Bench team not to endorse a second referendum and they have done what might inelegantly be called a flip-flop or U-turn. I was merely pointing out to the House the nature of that flip-flop and U-turn.
My right hon. Friend keeps saying that when we reach 29 March, we will not leave unless we have a deal, and he has been considering the alternatives, because currently doing nothing means that, by law, we will leave with no deal. He keeps suggesting revoking article 50. Is that because we could seek an extension, if by then the House has some idea of what it is seeking an extension for, but the EU might then refuse it? Is he prepared to contemplate and is it the Government’s position that if the EU refuses an extension, we will revoke article 50, no doubt with the intention of invoking it later, once Parliament and the Government have decided what it is we are seeking for our future?
If the Government are serious about engaging with alternatives to the deal that we voted on last night and serious about listening, why will they not grant a series of indicative votes, as recommended by the Exiting the European Union Committee, on which I serve and which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), to determine the will of the House?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think the Secretary of State has got confused between the ruling of the Court of Justice and the preliminary opinion of the advocate-general. It was the preliminary opinion of the advocate-general that suggested that once article 50 was revoked, it could not be implemented again, whereas the opinion of the Court of Justice does not say that. Given that it is a judgment of the highest court in Europe, how can I put the record straight? The Secretary of State seems to have misunderstood the judgment.
That attempted point of order suffered from the material disadvantage of not being a point of order. The hon. and learned Lady has made her point. Legal exegesis as between a court and an advocate-general is not a matter for the Chair. I would go so far as to say that it is well beyond my limited capabilities. I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for elevating me to a level of prowess that I cannot profess.
That was revealing of the Scottish National party’s position: it wants to be in and then out, in the same way as it wants to be in the European Union but out of the common fisheries policy. We now know that the SNP is the hokey-cokey party—in, out, shake it all about.
It is as authentic as almost every else’s. Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State just said that we know what the SNP is, what it believes and what its positions are; how can he know that if he refuses to engage in debate, and instead simply behaves like a little primary school bully, refusing to take proper engagement and hiding behind the big boys who are sitting behind him?
Perhaps the Secretary of State is invested with psychic powers—I have no way of knowing—but I am bound to say to the hon. Gentleman that in my dealings with the Secretary of State, I have never regarded him in any way as a bully. He is sometimes insistent upon his point of view, but I must say that I have never found him remotely pressurising. Dealing with him is not difficult at all.
What I am not happy to do is to allow the time of this House, when there are so many other serious speakers who want to make their points, to be absorbed by repetitious and self-serving chicanery from the representatives on the SNP Benches.
I wish to turn to one other proposition that has been put forward as an alternative, and that is the position of the official Opposition, which, while not shaped by an amendment today, is their policy, which is that we should be members of a customs union. What is striking about the position that they put forward for the customs union is that they say that, in that customs union, we should be able to offer businesses state aid, which we are not able to offer in the EU. Well, that would be illegal. They also say that we should have a voice in that customs union in the EU’s negotiation of trade deals. Well, no such voice for any member of the customs union who is not a member of the EU exists. They also say that we should have independent trade remedies separate from those that the EU provides.
I will take the point of order in a minute.
I was very generous to the Secretary of State. We all enjoy his rhetorical flourishes and I will not repeat the precise words, but he used a little formulation a moment ago that was very, very borderline as far as the procedures of this House are concerned. I very gently say to him that what passes muster at the Oxford Union might not be acceptable in the Chamber of the House.
My point of order very much follows on from that. This debate is about whether this House believes that we should leave with no deal, yet the Secretary of State has spent quite some time discussing anything apart from that. I just wondered whether we could get your advice, Mr Speaker, about when this debate is actually going to go back to the terms on the Order Paper.
Those addressing the House from the Treasury Bench get a degree of latitude, but I do note what the right hon. Lady says and I hope that contributions will focus on what the debate is supposed to be about, for if that were not to happen, there would have to be another debate on the matter in order to meet the terms of the commitment that has been given. That might be inconvenient for some people, but that debate on that matter will take place, and about that there need be no doubt on any Bench—Back or Front.
No, no, no.
I hope that people recognise that I have tried to take as many interventions as possible, but we must now move on to hear from the principal Opposition spokesman and, of course, to make sure that as many Back Benchers as possible have their voices heard.
It is important that all of us in this House recognise that, as a result of the vote last night, there are no easy options, no attractive choices, left. I hope in the debate today and, inevitably, in the debate that follows tomorrow, we all take the responsibilities of representing our constituents as seriously as possible. We all need to recognise that leaving on 29 March without a deal would impose economic, political and constitutional challenges and risks for this country that I do not believe that we should undertake. I therefore think that it is important that we all work across this House, and across old divisions, to try to seek a consensus—a consensus that could unite all four nations of the United Kingdom and could unite all our citizens in making sure that we honour the referendum mandate and we leave the European Union in a way that is economically sensible and democratically legitimate. That is why I commend this motion to the House.
Order. Just before I call the shadow Secretary of State, I have now to announce the results of today’s deferred Divisions. In respect of the question relating to environmental protection, the Ayes were 315 and the Noes were 235, so the Ayes have it. In respect of the question relating to immigration, the Ayes were 314 and the Noes were 276, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division list is published at the end of today’s debates.]
I welcome today’s debate. The Prime Minister is leaving; I know she wanted to open this debate and we understand why she cannot; I send our best wishes for her speedy recovery. I am sure that goes for the whole House.
If the Prime Minister had opened the debate, I think she would have engaged seriously with the points being made by others, rather than hurling easy insults and not engaging with the points. This is a serious debate about a very serious matter, and it needs to be conducted in the right way. The debate is long overdue. On this side of the House, we have never accepted that there should be a binary choice between the Prime Minister’s deal or no deal—“very bad” or “even worse” is not a meaningful choice and would be a very sorry end to the negotiations. Yesterday, the House overwhelmingly voted to reject the Prime Minister’s deal, which is the first of those options. Today, we have the chance to reject the second, and we should do so with as big a majority as possible. The mantra of “My deal or no deal” needs to be dead and buried tonight.
I will in just a moment. Labour has always opposed a no-deal outcome. We have repeatedly warned that it would be catastrophic for jobs, for the economy, for security, and for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and I will come to those points later.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way, but I implore him to use the language of moderation when talking about no deal. He will remember the dire economic warnings during the referendum campaign of, for example, 500,000 extra people unemployed by Christmas 2016. Those things did not come about. So bad were the predictions that the Bank of England had to publicly apologise afterwards. He should not rest his case on predictions. Economic reality is dictated by comparative advantage, such as lower tax rates and more flexible labour markets. That is why the economy is doing so well, despite the prospect of no deal.
One of the things that was said time after time was that there would be no consequences for peace on the island of Ireland. We have heard today from the Dispatch Box—the Secretary of State may want to come back on this—that a consequence of the Government not ruling out no deal tonight is, potentially, direct rule. That is a major shift in the Government’s position. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those are not fears, but the actualities we are dealing with?
I will come to the position in Ireland, because it was and has been treated casually, as if it is all a technical question of a line in the road. Anyone who has spent any time in Ireland in the past two years will realise the impact that Brexit is having on the politics of Ireland, which go well beyond the technicalities of the customs union and the single market.
I was going to complete my answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, because I accept that we have to deal with the facts as they are. One of my concerns is that because so many things were said in the referendum, there is now a licence to pretend that real risks and outcomes will not happen by simply saying that other things did not happen. That is a real cause for concern.
I am very grateful. Following on from the point that the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), made to the Secretary of State and the legal correction that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) made, we are in a situation where the European Union will not give any other deal. There are 16 days to go. There will be no extension beyond the end of May. The question that the Secretary of State and a lot of other MPs need to answer is whether they are going to go for no deal or for revoking article 50. That is what it will come down to in the end. I was in Brussels last week, and the European Union is fed up with the childish antics of the UK Government. The choice is between those two things. I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is there yet, but he and everyone else really need to choose between no deal and revocation. That is the game. Brexit is a busted flush.
I have spent a lot of time talking to officials in Brussels over the past two years, and I have been discussing the question of an extension for six months, because it occurred to me back then that we would be in this position. We will need to address that in tomorrow’s debate, but, for my part, I have not received the message from Brussels that there is no prospect of an extension—quite the contrary.
I will just make some progress and give way again in a minute.
The Prime Minister used to tell us that no deal would not be the end of the world. Past Brexit Secretaries even talked up the merits of leaving on WTO terms or told us how crucial threatening no deal was to the negotiations. But Labour Members have been steadfast in insisting that no deal is not a viable option. Why? It is hard to know where to begin. First, there is the economy. On this, the vast majority of businesses and the trade union movement speak with one voice—and that does not happen very often. I have been to meetings with businesses all over the country, and I have spoken to trade unions in those businesses, and I have taken notes of what they tell me. At the end of those meetings, one could almost rub out the identity of who was in the meeting and have the same read-out of their level of concerns. That persuades me that they have a very good point and a very strong case.
Only today, Carolyn Fairbairn from the CBI said that no deal would be
“a sledgehammer to the economy.”
Frances O’Grady from the TUC said that a no-deal Brexit
“would be a hammer blow to our manufacturing industries and the communities they support.”
A no-deal Brexit could be terminal for Britain’s manufacturing and the thousands of skilled jobs it provides. As the son of a toolmaker, I remember when manufacturing was in the doldrums, but now there has been a revival. Manufacturers operate a just-in-time regime that relies on open borders, and they do so successfully. No deal poses a huge risk to them.
The shadow Secretary of State has been talking about what may happen. It is very obvious to me, following his hon. Friends’ exchanges with the Secretary of State, that the Government are intent on bringing the withdrawal agreement back for yet another go. May I make a small prediction? They will go to the European Council on 20/21 March and plead for some additional concession, however small. They will come back to the UK; rerun Maastricht; declare game, set and match; and then try to persuade the House to vote for it. For 50 quid for Help for Heroes, I bet that the third meaningful vote will be on Tuesday 26 March. Will he take my bet?
Earlier the Secretary of State referred to the 140,000 or so companies that trade exclusively with Europe, only about 40,000 of which have registered and got their EORI numbers, which is necessary in order to do so. The business community has pointed out that there is no reason why HMRC could not give companies an automatic EORI number if they are VAT-registered, as most of them are. It is very worried that the Government are trying to shift the blame for a chaotic no-deal Brexit from their own lack of support and on to business.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is a real cause for concern. In all my discussions with businesses in the past two years, but particularly in the past three to six months, I have detected that while some of the bigger businesses have had the resource to do some planning for no deal, most of the small and medium-sized businesses have not. They have said to me, “We simply do not have the resource to do it, and therefore we haven’t done it.” That is among the reasons why I have always said that a no-deal Brexit is not a viable option.
My right hon. and learned Friend has said that he is not a gambling man, but it seems that the Secretary of State for Wales might be, because he is refusing to rule out supporting no deal. If one considers Wales’s agriculture, manufacturing industry and so much more, that is absolute madness, in my view. Does the Secretary of State—not quite the Secretary of State yet, but the shadow Secretary of State—agree?
I will give way in a moment, but I have given way a lot, and I need to make progress. I am aware that others want to contribute to the debate.
I was dealing with the impact on manufacturing. Some of the large manufacturers have told us what the impact of no deal will be on them. Ford was clear that it
“would be catastrophic for the UK auto industry and Ford’s manufacturing operations in the country”.
Airbus used similar language, saying that it would be “absolutely catastrophic for us”. More recently, Honda said:
“If we end up with WTO tariffs, we’d have something like 10% of costs in addition on products shipped back into Europe”,
which would impact its “productivity” and “competitiveness”. This is not exaggeration. These are companies speaking about their businesses. This will impact on their businesses, and real people’s livelihoods will be at stake.
We do not have to only take the word of businesses and the trade unions, though it is a powerful voice. We can also look at the Government Benches. The hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks), who I believe is still a Business Minister in the Government, said that no deal
“would be completely disastrous for business in this country”—
no doubt because, like me, he has been talking to those businesses. He then took a novel approach to collective responsibility by saying:
“I am very happy to be public about”
the dangers of no deal
“and very happy if the Prime Minister decides I am not the right person to do the business industry job.”
He was backed up by the Business Secretary, who said
“no deal is fully acknowledged—certainly by me and the industry—as being ruinous for our prospects”—[Official Report, 4 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 68.]
The Government’s own figures show that no deal would mean a reduction in the economy of between 6.3% and 9% over 15 years, and every region would be poorer—Wales by 8.1%, Scotland by 8% and the north-east of England by 10.5%. Anybody who votes tonight to keep no deal on the table needs to explain to their constituents why they are taking that risk with jobs and our economy.
I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman has mistaken my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) with my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It is important to make that correction.
What businesses are saying to me is that their key enemy is uncertainty. If they do not have certainty over the future terms of trade, investment decisions will continue to be postponed. There is certainty over those terms of trade if we leave the European Union on 29 March either with the Prime Minister’s agreement or moving to World Trade Organisation terms.
As for the anxiety of businesses over uncertainty, and their yearning for certainty and the impact it is having on their decision making and investment, that is absolutely true. It should be a cause of great concern to all of us. None of the businesses I have spoken to—I have spoken to thousands in the last two years—has suggested that the certainty they want is no deal. They all say to me that they do not want no deal, and they normally point out the consequences of no deal.
My right hon. and learned Friend is making the point that the worst deal is no deal. He has talked about manufacturing, and this issue has been raised with me by GMB, Unite and other unions. Does he agree that the uncertainty over the trade agreements between other countries and with the EU, which we trade under and which account for about 12% of our imports and exports, is already causing great problems for manufacturing, imports and exports and jobs in our constituencies?
I have great confidence in my right hon. and learned Friend, and he is making a very good speech. When this all started, those in my manufacturing sector were saying, “Surely, intelligent people on the Benches across the House could come to a solution.” They have now changed, and they are calling for me to push here for a second vote or a people’s vote.
I am grateful for that intervention, because it takes me to a point that was repeatedly made by the Secretary of State, which is that it is somehow somebody else’s fault that the deal is not going through and that the Government do not bear any responsibility for failing to bring the House with them.
No. I want to make this point because it is a really important point. The Prime Minister and the Government had a choice two years ago. They could have invited this House to express a view on the type of deal this House would accept, and they refused to do so—repeatedly refused to do so. Anybody in the Government must have been able to foresee the divisions on their own side. They must have been able to foresee that. In those circumstances, they would have been much wiser to seek the consensus two years ago that they may look for now. Having been blinkered, and having red lines that never came about, for the Government to come here now and say that it is other people’s fault for rejecting the very thing they said for two years that they would reject is not to take responsibility for their own actions.
I am going to make some progress.
I have been concentrating on the economic issues, but there are wider issues in relation to no deal. There is Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State spoke about Northern Ireland, and we all know how serious the implications are for Northern Ireland. No deal is a risk to the Good Friday agreement. The Government’s own EU exit paper makes that clear.
No! [Interruption.] I did not mean that rudely; it is just that I do need to make some progress.
The “EU Exit” paper from the Government last year said that
“WTO terms would not meet the Government’s commitments to ensure no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
A hard border cannot be allowed to happen, and I do not think this Prime Minister or the Government would countenance that happening.
On security and counter-terrorism, as hon. Members know, intelligence and evidence passes across EU borders in real time every day and it saves real lives. That can only happen subject to agreements with the EU27—that is the basis for passing such information and intelligence—but we also need agreements to decide to what use we can put that evidence and intelligence and, crucially, to plan joint operations. I know that because for five years, as the Director of Public Prosecutions, I was part of that exercise in Eurojust. I know how seriously the Prime Minister takes this because I worked with her when she was Home Secretary, and she knows full well how that such provisions save real lives. A no-deal puts that at risk. No responsible Government would take that risk, and if they did take such a risk, they would not remain in government for long.
Given what my right hon. and learned Friend said a moment or two ago, which was absolutely right, about the Government’s repeated failure to seek consensus to get us out of this Brexit mess, will he please reaffirm Labour’s firm commitment to our policy of supporting a public vote, with remain being an option on the ballot paper?
I will. Back in 2017, we made it clear that we would respect the outcome of the referendum, and we set out in our manifesto what we would seek to negotiate if we were elected into government, which was an agreement that would have the benefits of the customs union and the single market. However, in that manifesto, we also said as a party that we would reject the Government’s red lines, rip up the White Paper and reject no deal. We lost that election, and because we lost we voted to trigger article 50, notwithstanding how we had voted in the referendum, and we allowed the Prime Minister to start the negotiations. Consistent with our manifesto, we conditionally said what deal we would accept when it came back.
We have now got to a hopeless end, and it is a hopeless end. To lose by 230 votes eight weeks ago and then to lose by 149 votes is a hopeless end. The Government cannot just blame others for that; they need to look at themselves and ask why it happened. In those circumstances, both the things that we ruled out in our manifesto—the Prime Minister’s red lines and no deal—are the only things on the table, which is why we support a public vote, to protect against those outcomes. I am proud that we are doing that at this stage in the exercise, and it is obvious why we need to do so.
All of us who believe in a people’s vote are grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend—he is my friend, in a legal sense—for what he has said. Were such an amendment to be tabled, would he and his party now support it and get a people’s vote up and running?
Two weeks ago on Monday, the Leader of the Opposition made it clear that we would support an amendment to that end or put one forward ourselves. Obviously, the timing depends on discussions across the House and with others, but that is the clear position that we have put down.
That is very gracious of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and no surprise; it is characteristic of him. He has been a great friend to Northern Ireland. He mentioned Northern Ireland earlier in his comments, but he did not spend enough time talking about his assessment of the constitutional risk faced by Northern Ireland if—heaven forbid—the United Kingdom were to leave the European Union without a deal. Will he reflect upon his assessment of that risk?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the opportunity to do so, because there is high anxiety in Northern Ireland, and indeed across Ireland as a whole—across all different communities—about the prospect of no deal. The people of Northern Ireland know that the open border is a manifestation of peace, and there is great concern that if anything happens at the border, that could put back the good work that has been done over the past 20 years. That anxiety is being debated while some of those elected to this House are not here to make known the views of those whom they were elected to represent. I do not say one way or another whether that voice should be here, but it is not in this debate. The Northern Ireland Executive are not functioning, so the constitutional circumstances that prevail in Northern Ireland, for a variety of reasons—I am casting no judgment—are such that there could hardly be a worse time to have this discussion. It has turned into a discussion about the very future of the island of Ireland. That is why I am impatient with those who think that we could somehow deal with the issue with a drone and a camera, because we could not.
I am grateful for that opportunity to speak about Northern Ireland, but I must now press on and talk about the impact on health matters.
A no-deal would have a huge impact on our health service. It would put real strain on an already underfunded NHS, by disrupting medical supplies, access to medicines and the ability of hospitals to hire staff. Niall Dixon, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, has said:
“A ‘no-deal’ without alternative arrangements to protect patients is simply not acceptable and could put lives at risk.”
No, I am going to make progress.
Farming would also be badly hit. The National Farmers Union has been clear—I think it set this out this morning—that the proposed tariff regime would be a disaster for UK agriculture, stating that
“everything must to be done to avoid a no deal Brexit, and the catastrophic impact this could have on British farming.”
I am not quoting the voices of politicians here; I am quoting the voices of those in the field in each of these areas.
Finally, as if the Transport Secretary has not struggled enough already, imagine how he would deal with a no-deal scenario, which would bring chaos to transport. Hauliers would face hours of delay as new checks would be put in place at borders, and family holidays could be jeopardised by a no-deal Brexit as British travel companies lose their current access and rights.
I am going to make some progress.
For all those reasons and more, Labour will act tonight and oppose no deal. We support amendment (a), tabled by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), because we believe that it is the cleanest and clearest way for the House to express its opposition to no deal.
We recognise, however, that simply opposing no deal is not the end of the story. It is necessary but it is not sufficient. The House needs to have a chance to debate the steps necessary to move forward, and I think there is growing consensus that that needs to happen. The Labour party supports a close economic relationship with the EU and, as I have just said, we also support a public vote.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the difficulty with the Government’s motion is that it is in fact inaccurate? The fact is that the default position, indeed, applies only if we do not ratify or choose to revoke, which one could do either by our own motion or after a referendum, for example. That is why—he may agree with me—suspicions have been raised in the House that the motion is slanted. That may be unintentional, but of course it is within the power of the Government potentially to remedy that with a manuscript amendment to their own motion before this debate is over.
I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s intervention and agree with his interpretation. I think it would be helpful to have the motion amended. One thing that has not helped is the House making a decision only to find weeks later that the decision we thought we had made is called into question. I invite clarity on that, so that we can express a clear view.
Further to the intervention by my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and with a view to trying to avoid the no deal that the majority of this House want to avoid, when the Government enter into discussions about the extension of article 50, the other side will want to seek a purpose. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if this House expressed a view, subject to the Labour party’s public support for a public vote, in advance of the European Council on 21 March?
If the vote tonight is to reject no deal, and I think it will be, and the vote tomorrow is to seek an extension of article 50, and I think it will be, but it is only to seek an extension of article 50, the question of purpose will be absolutely central. That will be a test for the Prime Minister in the first instance, because she will have to make a decision whether that is the point at which she drops her red lines and her blinkers and opens up the debate to other options.
I want to finish this point because it is very important. The Prime Minister needs to decide, if it goes that way tomorrow, whether she is a Prime Minister who is willing and able to do that and to embrace other options, or whether she will press on only with her own deal. If she presses on with her own deal, I think we will still have to go on and look at other options and get a common purpose. If the Prime Minister forces us down that road, she will be forcing us down the road where the majority will be forcing a view on the Executive, and there are constitutional implications for that.
I accept the force of the point. The test will be tomorrow night, if it gets that far, when we hear from the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box as to what her attitude will be. If it changes from the attitude of the past two years, we might be able to proceed more quickly to find that common purpose. We need to find that purpose, we need to find a majority for it, and it needs to be a sustainable majority, not just for one night or one week. That is what we should have done two years ago.
I do not mean to pause the right hon. and learned Gentleman for too long, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) specifically asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who opened the debate, whether he would agree to revoke article 50. His answer was clear: it is not the Government’s policy to revoke. On the logic of voting to take no deal off the table and the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s policy of a referendum, if the other side—an EU country or countries or the Parliament—rejected a proposal to delay, would Labour’s policy, in extremis, then be to revoke article 50, in the sense of the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend?
I believe in addressing each problem as it arises, but let me deal with the question of policy. The right hon. Gentleman makes it sound as if extension is a policy choice of the Labour party. It is not a policy choice of the Labour party. It is driven by necessity because of the situation we find ourselves in. We need to deal with no deal today, and with extension tomorrow.
I am going to make some progress.
No deal should never have been an option. It is the worst possible outcome. Businesses know that, unions know that, and I suspect most of the Cabinet know that. It is extraordinary that the Government have acceded to a free vote on a matter of such importance today, and for them not to have a position on whether this country should exit the EU without a deal. It is the latest evidence of the Government not governing and that they cannot act in the national interest. I urge colleagues to support amendment (a). We can speak clearly and with one voice that this House will not accept leaving the EU without a deal, and we can bury that so deep that I hope it never resurfaces.
It is almost three years since we had the referendum, and we have reached this extraordinary moment. Effectively, we are back to square one. There is absolutely no consensus within the Government, within the main Opposition party, within this Parliament or among the public on exactly what leave means. We are having to have a debate today on the question whether, after three years of futility, in 16 days’ time we just give up and leave and see what happens, although many of us know and fear the combination of things that are likely to happen if we do so.
This is bizarre because it is also still not totally clear how, if the House votes as I think it will by a large majority to rule out no deal tonight, we propose to guarantee that we deliver that conclusion. It sounds as though more attempts will be made to reach an agreement. I have voted for it twice, but the Government’s withdrawal agreement is dead in the water. Any kind of agreement must now find alternative routes.
We will get there somehow in 16 days. Tomorrow, we will probably vote for an extension, but we have to be clear: extension for how long, and extension what for? The whole thing is dependent on 27 other Governments, all of whom are fed up to the back teeth with the state of British politics, and with trying to negotiate with a British Government who cannot say what they want because they cannot even agree internally on what they want. We depend on the approval of those 27 countries to avoid this disaster, so as we debate no deal, we must consider further things.
The Father of the House signed amendment (b) with me. Is not the reality of the situation that the only two choices in the hands of this Parliament are no deal—walking over the cliff—or revocation, a luxury that exists for only another 16 days because after 29 March it is gone too? The only certain choices are those two choices.
We have 16 days left. The hon. Gentleman and I have tabled an amendment that faces up to something that I think very few Members are facing up to. I have discovered in a fortnight that things change very rapidly—I did not anticipate 16 days ago that we would be in this debate—and anybody who forecasts with confidence the state of British politics in 14 or 16 days is being a little reckless. Unless somebody has an alternative, the only way of guaranteeing not leaving with no deal is to revoke article 50, as our amendment suggests.
We will have no other method to follow. I will not go back into the legalisms. I had this discussion with the Attorney General, who kindly sent me his opinion. He is a much superior lawyer to me—I am a very out-of-date criminal lawyer—but I do not altogether agree with him. It is the advocate-general who has expressed doubt about whether we could be said to be acting in good faith if we revoked and then invoked again. I think that is very arguable. I think we would be acting in extremely good faith if we made it clear that we were in no state to leave and would invoke again if and when we decided what we were pursuing.
I really should get on. I am not a Front-Bench spokesman, and lots of people want to speak. I am tempted to give way and debate—I would like to— but, knowing myself, I know I would take too long if I did.
I do not wish to intrude on tomorrow’s debate, but we need to agree as quickly as possible what we are now seeking and the reason for the delay that I think the majority of the House is going to seek. It is important that we do that. Not only is opinion polarised here—lots of factions are pursuing their own preferred ways—but the public are even more polarised than at the time of the referendum. They hold the House in near contempt for the confusion they see, and the sooner we decide what the majority here wish to pursue as an alternative to leaving without a deal, the better, and to do that we may need some time. I have been calling for indicative votes for a very long time, and the Government have been resisting and avoiding them. The only way to proceed now is to explore and demonstrate the view of the House.
I have a suggestion for what might placate the public, satisfy a lot of leavers and remainers and command majority support across the House. If I was outside speaking on a public platform to a less well-informed audience, I would suggest reverting to leaving the political European Union and staying in the common market, which nowadays means the customs union and the single market, or something very much like it. I think that quite a lot of the public thought that that was what they were voting for when they voted leave. If we put that proposition to the public now, it certainly would not be as polarising as some of the arguments we are having inside and outside this House, which are having such a dramatic and catastrophic effect on the nation’s political dialogue.
The Father of the House is making the case for membership of the customs union and single market while being outside the EU. Isn’t the problem with that approach that we would have no decision-making rights over any trade deals that the customs union might agree or over single market regulations to which we might be subject?
I am being drawn outside this debate. The best deals with other countries are achieved through the EU—that is the basis on which British Government have proceeded for years—and it is a disaster that we are in danger in 16 days of falling out of some of the most favourable trade deals, which the British Government have played a part in negotiating. I think that if we insist on that proviso, and if we insist on tackling the problem of our no longer being directly part of a regulation-making power, we are powerful enough to be allowed more consultation than countries that are outside the EU and are part of, say, the European Free Trade Association or European economic area arrangements. We have to tackle the problems that arise from the fact that we are giving in to the idea of leaving the European Union politically, and leaving its institutions.
I think that these problems are grossly exaggerated. I have never heard anyone argue against the EU trade deals that we have with other countries. The Japanese deal was a tremendous stride forward. It is the biggest free trade agreement in the world, and we are about to fall out of it after only a month or so. We talk about losing our powers, and about the threat posed to our sovereignty by the fact that we are not allowed to pass our own different laws on product quality, consumer protection, health and safety, animal welfare and the licensing of products, but I have yet to hear a Brexiteer advocate the reversal of any European regulation that we have passed so far. Members of the public tend to demand higher regulatory standards, and I am lobbied for new regulation more than I ever am for sweeping away what we have.
If the virtue of no deal is meant to be leaving to have a trade agreement with, say, the United States, I can tell the House that I have been involved in trade negotiations with the United States under President Obama, and it is protectionist. The Americans are not dying to open up any of their market to us; they will want us to open up our food market to them. We will not be making regulations here. The Americans will not let the House of Commons decide on animal welfare or food standards. Those are nothing to do with us. We made an agreement. The House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the powerful American food lobby, will decide what the welfare standards for animals and the standards for food should be. We will not get a trade deal with the United States unless we agree to that.
I am being drawn into the merits of the basic argument, but I think it should be underlined that we must look at realistic alternatives to no deal. No deal was not being advocated by anyone at the time of the referendum. I do not think that it was being advocated by more than a handful of people until a month or two ago. Most Brexiteers were not in favour of it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is nodding. Even those who campaigned for us to leave were not campaigning for us to leave with no trade arrangement with our greatest partner. This is just an accident that has loomed because the House of Commons is not able, and the Government are not able, to solve problems in a way that we can agree with the other 27. We are drifting into it, which will be a catastrophe.