I inform the House that I have selected amendment (h), in the name of the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), and amendment (i), in the name of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), to which a manuscript amendment—
“Line 2, at beginning insert ‘for a period ending on 30 June 2019’”—
has been submitted, in the name of the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), which I have selected; it will be distributed shortly. I have selected amendment (e), in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, and amendment (j)—J for Jemima—in the name of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). If amendment (h) were to be agreed to, amendments (i) and (e) would fall. If amendment (i) were to be agreed to, amendment (e) would fall.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I express some disappointment that you have chosen not to select amendment (b), which has the support of 127 Members of the House, including the entire Democratic Unionist party, 13 Labour Members and one independent to boot, the rest being Conservative Members. It therefore has far more signatories than any other amendment on the Order Paper, and the support of three different parties.
Mr Speaker, when you have given guidance on how you select amendments—we accept that the final decision is yours; you are the referee—you have often said that you look at whether the House wants to decide a question, then you look at the number of colleagues who have signed an amendment, and then you look at the breadth. Amendment (b) has the support of 127 Members, that support is cross-party and the House clearly wants to decide on it. May I therefore ask for clarification?
You made a decision, Sir, and we must abide by it. But you have selected amendment (h), to
“leave out from ‘House’ to end and add ‘instructs the Prime Minister to request an extension to the Article 50 period at the European Council in March 2019 sufficient for the purposes of legislating for and conducting a public vote’.”
We thought that our amendment was even clearer, but in effect amendment (h) does represent a vote in this House this evening, in principle, on whether or not to have a second referendum. Is that interpretation correct?
I am very happy to respond to the right hon. Gentleman. First, let me thank him for his courtesy in raising the matter in the way he has done. Secondly, what I say to the right hon. Gentleman, whom, as I reminded him recently, I first came to know 35 years and six months ago, is that it is not uncommon for a Member of the House to be mightily pleased when his or her amendment is selected, and notably displeased when it is not.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely experienced Member of the House, and whom I greatly respect, will understand when I say that Members do have to take the rough with the smooth. He was much exercised yesterday about the prospect of an amendment dear to him being able to be voted upon by the House. I selected that amendment, and although there was scope for different interpretations as to whether it conflicted and was incompatible with the verdict on an earlier amendment, I exercised my discretion and allowed it to be put to the House so that the House’s will could be tested. That brought a smile to the face of the right hon. Gentleman. Today he is disappointed that the amendment that he supports has not been chosen.
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to say that numbers are a factor, and he simply repeats what is a matter of fact: the range of parties from which the amendment’s signatories are drawn. The Chair has to make a judgment on a variety of criteria. Numbers are not the only factor; breadth of support is a factor. This place works on the assumption that the Chair does his or her best to facilitate debate and allow the House to speak. I have tried to make a fair judgment, with a range of different points being canvassed and the opportunity for the House to decide upon them.
Finally, I say to the right hon. Gentleman—I do so with the utmost courtesy, as he has treated me in the same way—that, in respect of his last point, it is not for the Chair to seek to interpret what the purpose or effect of a particular amendment is. I am not, if I may put it this way, going to put a spin on the matter. The hon. Member for Totnes can speak to her amendment and others can make their own assessment. Ultimately, if those matters are put to a vote, the House will decide. I have done, I am doing and I will always do my best to be fair to the miscellany of different points of view represented in this House. I think that we should leave it there for now.
Order. Resume your seats. Order. I have given a ruling on the matter which seems to me to be entirely reasonable. The right hon. Gentleman made it clear that although he was seeking clarification he was not presuming to argue the toss with the Chair, and I think it reasonable in the circumstances, with very significant numbers of Members wishing to speak in the debate, that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), should be called to move the motion that stands in his name.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
There might be some concern, Mr Speaker, that the selection of amendments does not reflect the will of the House, because the will of the House cannot be expressed on an amendment, as you have said previously, until there has been a vote on that amendment. Therefore, given that amendment (b) expresses different matters that you have chosen not to select, what are we to conclude from your own views on these matters?
The hon. Gentleman is not to conclude anything in respect of my views; the hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member of this House and what he can conclude from the selection is that key propositions will be put to the House. If people agree with those propositions they will presumably vote in support of those amendments, and if they disagree with those propositions they will presumably vote against those amendments. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, I think that point is pretty clear.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Now that there has been clarity on which amendments have been selected, I am somewhat concerned about amendment (h), because it does seem to imply a certain heavy cost to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in having to fund all this. Can we have some figures associated with what the cost of conducting a public vote would be? I simply ask for clarity on that matter.
That is not a matter for me. The reality is that that amendment is perfectly orderly. If the hon. Lady disapproves of that amendment, and, more specifically and narrowly, if she wishes to ascertain further and better particulars either about the meaning of the amendment in terms of words or in terms of the mindset of the mover, that is a matter that will be extracted in the course of debate.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I welcome your selection today, because although I was disappointed that amendment (b), which I did not put my name to, was not selected, I am delighted that you have selected an amendment that will allow this House for the first time to vote on whether it supports a second referendum or not. So I thank you, Mr Speaker, for that. Nobody in this House should be under any illusion—this vote today on amendment (h) is about saying whether we do or do not support a second referendum, and I urge the House to oppose a second referendum.
I am sure the whole House is immensely obliged to the right hon. Lady for offering it her opinion on what the meaning or implications might be. If she feels better as a result then I am deeply grateful to the right hon. Lady, but it is purely her view; it does not mean anything more than anybody else’s view—or indeed, for that matter, anything less.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think it would be helpful to have some clarification, because “Erskine May” says that selection is made by the Chair
“in such a way as to bring out the salient points of criticism, to prevent repetition and overlapping….and where several amendments deal with the same point, to choose the more effective and the better drafted.”
I understand that your predecessor gave a memorandum to the Select Committee on Procedure in 1966-67 on how amendments were selected, and I wondered if it might be helpful if you were to update your advice so that in future we would be clearer as to how these decisions are made.
I do not think there has been any notable complaint of ambiguity thus far. I confess, I say to colleagues and those attendant to our proceedings, that I have been accused of many things over the years, but ambiguity and unspecificity and lack of clarity in saying what I mean has not been one of them. If the hon. Gentleman thinks I need to speak a little more clearly and to enunciate more satisfactorily I am always happy to benefit from his wise counsel in these matters; however, as far as procedure is concerned I am comfortable that a perfectly proper decision has been made after due reflection—considerable reflection—this morning and consultation with my professional advisers. The hon. Gentleman’s view as to which amendment is better worded or likely to be more effective is a view, and I treat it with respect, but I do not think it is definitive so far as the choice today is concerned. If more widely he thinks that a manual on this matter for the future would be of use, that is a matter I will be happy to discuss with him over a cup, or mug, of traditional tea.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As a point of detail and to contextualise the situation, I am interested as a relatively junior Member of this House to understand further how these decisions are made. There are, according to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), 127 Members who have signed amendment (b), whereas a quick count shows that there are fewer names between all the other amendments tabled, and many are repetitions. How, Mr Speaker, do we determine what represents the will of the House when more Members have signed one unselected amendment than all the others?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but I do not think there is an ambiguity on this matter. First, I have already made the point, which I think she heard me make, that numbers are a factor but they are not the only factor: breadth is important, too. I have selected an amendment on this subject to which there is breadth, and that seems to me to be a valid choice. So far as the wider policy position is concerned, as the hon. Lady will be well aware that her own party—the Government she supports—has a clear view on this matter. I think it is evident that she shares that view, and if she disapproves of the amendment she will be able to register her view, quite possibly in the debate, but if it is put to the House, in the Division Lobby. If it were not put to the House, she would in any case not be disquieted. I think the position is clear.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I welcome your selection of amendment (i), which the whole House will be under no illusion is in fact a disguised amendment aimed at securing a second referendum. May I seek your guidance on this one point, Mr Speaker? The amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), which you have not selected, has twice as many signatures, is cross-party and is also very clear in its intent, so in relation to the memorandum that your predecessor submitted in times past, which my hon. Friend referred to, will you update the House on the guidance and the basis on which selections are made?
I have already explained those matters. I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known well for many years, but I think he is misleading himself and I would not want him to be afflicted by that curse. I think when he refers to the failed—as in non-selected—amendment of the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) he is referring to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley). That is quite important—Somerset and Derbyshire are quite a long way apart from each other, but there you go.
I have already explained the basis on which the Chair tries to make a judgment to facilitate the key issues being debated in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman might not like my answer, but that is my honest answer, which I would defend to this House and indeed to the world. More widely I say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely assiduous Member, that I am not sure the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who is a great gentleman in this House, will take particularly kindly to his characterisation of amendment (i). I very much doubt that the right hon. Gentleman would accept that characterisation, so it is the hon. Gentleman’s opinion. If he is called to speak in the debate he will have an opportunity to express his opinion, and I hope that will satisfy him, at least for now.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand from the Vote Office that one of the amendments—I believe it is amendment (i) —has subsequently been amended from what is on the list of manuscript amendments currently available at the Vote Office, and that there is an intention to distribute the revised amendment in due course. Can you confirm whether that is correct?
I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, but I am not quite sure at what point in the proceedings he graced us with his presence. It is a great pleasure to welcome him—[Interruption.] If he is signalling that he was in the Chamber at the time I referred to the selection of amendments, he will have heard what I said on that matter, and therefore it requires no repetition. If he was not here, I can refer back to what I said when I made the announcement of the selection, about which he is most welcome to consult colleagues. I have just heard one right hon. Member say, “Well, the selection has already been announced”, and that Member was a little quizzical as to why the hon. Gentleman is rather belatedly raising the matter. I have already announced the selection. I said that an amendment to an amendment had been submitted and that copies thereof would shortly be distributed. I hope that that is now clear and satisfactory to him. The fact that he has broken out in into a smile warms the cockles of my heart and no doubt the cockles of other parliamentary hearts to boot.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For the assistance of the House, given that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Meridian chose not to press her amendment but other colleagues chose to do so, can you advise the House as to what would happen at the end of proceedings were proposers of amendments who are called to speak to choose not to press their amendments? Who would be entitled to press an amendment if the proposer chose not to do so?
The convention, I think, would be that another signatory to the amendment would be entitled to test the will of the House. I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Gentleman, who is a doughty parliamentarian, but I think the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) might be getting a little fed up with people referring to her constituency as “Meridian”. I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is a place called “Meriden”, which is in the west midlands. It has nothing to do with “Meridian”. The right hon. Lady did not wish to submit her amendment to a Division of the House, but, as I advised her, other key signatories to it did wish to do so. I therefore allowed it to be put to the House and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, that amendment was passed. The general principle is that someone who has tabled or co-tabled such an amendment would be presumed to have a right to test the will of the House. I hope that is helpful.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I just get clarification on that? My understanding is that once the amendment is accepted by you, it is the property not of the signatories but of the House. Therefore any Member, not just those who have signed it, could force a Division.
I think that is true in relation to Orders of the Day. As far as today is concerned, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, who is very experienced in these matters, will be satisfied with the explanation—or, indeed, description of circumstance—that I have offered to the House. It does seem to me that it is not something that need vex us any further today. It is quite clear that if somebody has an amendment and wishes to put it to the vote, it can be put to the vote. If the lead sponsor does not wish to do that but others do, it can be put to the vote. I hope that that is helpful to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House.
Now, out of respect for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, I invite him to open the debate and to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House:
(1) notes the resolutions of the House of 12 and 13 March, and accordingly agrees that the Government will seek to agree with the European Union an extension of the period specified in Article 50(3);
(2) agrees that, if the House has passed a resolution approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship for the purposes of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 by 20 March 2019, then the Government will seek to agree with the European Union a one-off extension of the period specified in Article 50(3) for a period ending on 30 June 2019 for the purpose of passing the necessary EU exit legislation; and
(3) notes that, if the House has not passed a resolution approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship for the purposes of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 by 20 March 2019, then it is highly likely that the European Council at its meeting the following day would require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length, and that any extension beyond 30 June 2019 would require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019.
This motion arises because last night this House voted to reject the UK leaving the EU without a deal. So, in line with the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and in line then with the motion that this House subsequently passed last Thursday, the House today must consider the issue of extending article 50.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but before I do so I want to say to hon. Members on both sides of the House that my intention is to set out, first, the Government’s case for the motion that we have tabled today and the nature of the decision that we believe faces all of us, as Members of this House. I will then come on to address the various amendments that you have selected for debate today, Mr Speaker. I hope that colleagues will therefore contain any impatience, as I will come on to speak about the amendments, but I want to set out the Government’s case first.
The Minister mentioned today’s motion, so I wonder whether early in his remarks he could clear up the confusion about paragraph (2) of the motion. It suggests that “the”—not “an”—EU withdrawal agreement and political declaration that are currently on the table, and they are only ones on the table, will have to be voted on again by 20 March. Will he be bringing meaningful vote 3 forward before 20 March?
This intervention provides an early opportunity for the Minister, in setting out the Government’s case, to clarify something for us. He will know that yesterday a Cabinet Minister, from that Dispatch Box, basically said that more powers would be given to Dublin to be exercised over Northern Ireland. The Minister for the Cabinet Office will know how insulting that is to Members who sit on this Bench. He will also know that it is the Members who sit on this Bench who keep his party in power. Would he now care to clarify that the Secretary of State involved misspoke from that Dispatch Box and that there will be no involvement in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland and its governance?
I wish to say two things to the hon. Gentleman in response. First, the Government’s position has been absolutely consistent on this, from the Prime Minister down: we stand by every aspect of the three-stranded process embodied in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the peace-building process in Northern Ireland. I can put on the record that there are absolutely no plans at all to transfer additional powers or rights to the Government of Ireland. There are certain rights of consultation that flow from the three-stranded process, and those, clearly, we need to observe. On the specific comments that the hon. Gentleman attributed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he will recall that I was not in my place yesterday, because I was attending a family funeral. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will hear of his intervention. I will make sure that he does, so that he consider whether he needs to make any further comment on that subject.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, as he can help the House here. I am not arguing with the referee—I have accepted the referee’s decision. We now have amendment (h) before us and it seeks a vote, in principle, on whether or not to have a second referendum, because it calls for the time to legislate for it and for it to take place. So it is clear what the amendment is asking for. That being the case, as it has been the Government’s long-standing policy to oppose a second referendum, will my right hon. Friend confirm now at the Dispatch Box that the Government will oppose amendment (h) and will whip their MPs accordingly? And Ministers!
As I indicated earlier, I plan to address amendment (h) later in my speech, along with the other amendments that you have selected, Mr Speaker. I hope it will provide some reassurance to my right hon. Friend if I say that the Government’s collectively agreed policy as regards a second referendum has not changed.
I should be clear that seeking an extension to article 50 is not something that the Government ever wanted to have to do. We believe that we negotiated a good deal for this country, and one that also respected the result of the referendum and would have allowed the United Kingdom to leave the European Union on 29 March this year. By rejecting that deal, the decisions of the House have brought us to this point today. It is important for all Members, from whichever political party they come, to acknowledge that the path ahead and the choices that confront us as a House are far from straightforward. We need to decide how long an extension to propose and we need to put that proposal to the European Council before it meets next week, in order to seek agreement from the 27 member states.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make some progress.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to the House last night, this situation means facing up to some difficult choices. In particular, it means understanding the interaction of the article 50 process with the European Parliament elections that are scheduled for May this year, which is why this morning the Government published a short factual document that explains the parameters of any extension, and why the motion tabled for today’s debate is a stark one—basically, we have two options before us.
I am sure the Minister will be aware that this morning Donald Tusk tweeted:
“During my consultations ahead of”—
the European Council to which the Minister just referred—
“I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its #Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”
What is the Minister’s reaction to that? The SNP is clear that that long extension is definitely required.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I will not support the motion this evening. What message does he think it would send to those we represent if, nearly three years after voting to leave the European Union, we held elections to the European Parliament?
I think that a great many people would feel that that act set aside the decision they took in a democratic referendum three years ago. That was part of the case that Government Members put to the House in advocating endorsement of the deal which, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) said earlier, is the only one currently on the table.
I apologise if the Minister is going to answer this point later. The Government motion talks about an extension till 30 June to allow the progression of legislation, but the letter exchanged between Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker says that we would have to be out by 22 May in order not to trigger the obligation to take part in European elections. Will the Minister please explain the difference in those dates?
In terms of what people were expecting during the referendum, the Minister will be aware that the Vote Leave campaign made it clear that leaving the EU would be “a careful change” and that we would not leave until our future relationship was resolved. Even now, the Vote Leave website says:
“There is no need to rush. We must take our time and get it right.”
Did not people who voted leave absolutely understand that we would take our time to get it right before we made any rash decisions?
With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am perhaps responsible for many things as a member of the Government, but I suspect not one of my right hon. and hon. Friends would want me to assert responsibility for what the Vote Leave campaign has said at any stage in the past or the present.
I am most grateful. In relation to this pamphlet, or whatever it is my right hon. Friend is producing today, will he confirm now, on the Floor of the House, that the fact that exit day may or may not be extended does not affect the fact that under section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which received Royal Assent on 26 June last year, the repeal of the European Communities Act takes effect, notwithstanding any extension of time, as prescribed by the 2018 Act?
The Government have given a commitment that in the event of the House voting in favour of extension and—this is not a given—the European Council agreeing to an extension, we will bring forward the necessary legislation, in line with the expressed wishes of the House.
The right hon. Gentleman said a few moments ago that there is just one deal available, but that is not the full picture. The other deal available is the deal that is enjoyed by the 27 other members of the European Union, and that is full membership. Article 50 could be revoked and we could go back to that. Full membership is the best deal that anybody can have. This entire Parliament knows that it is the best deal, so when he talks of deals, will the Minister please remember that the best deal is still available? Up until 29 March we can revoke article 50 and cancel the Prime Minister’s letter, and this will be over in an afternoon.
As a matter of law, the hon. Gentleman is correct. Following the judgment of the European Court it is clear that the United Kingdom does have the power unilaterally to revoke its article 50 notification before exit day. It is not a legal argument but a political one as to whether it can possibly be right for this House to determine to set aside a decision that was taken democratically in the referendum in 2016, which produced a higher turnout than any recent general election and which at the time almost every political party said we would treat as decisive. It is a political judgment.
No, I am not going to give way again for the moment.
As I said, the motion that the Government have tabled for today’s debate is a start. We basically have two options. First, if the House has approved a meaningful vote by 20 March and agreed a timetable for the EU withdrawal agreement Bill, we can expect the European Union to agree to a short technical extension to allow the necessary legislation to be carried through. If for whatever reason that proves not to be possible, we would be faced with the prospect of choosing only a long extension, during which the House would need to face up to the choices in front of it and the consequences of the decisions it has taken.
The Government recognise that the House would require time to consider the potential ways forward in such a scenario, so I can confirm today that in such a scenario the Government, having consulted the usual channels at that time, would facilitate a process in the two weeks after the March European Council to allow the House to seek a majority on the way forward. We should be clear about the consequences if that were to happen. If we are in the world of a longer extension so that this House can come to a decision, we will be required, as a condition, to hold European parliamentary elections in May. As the note on this issue published by the Government today sets out, we would need to begin to prepare for those elections in early April. In other words, we either deliver on the result of the referendum, giving people and businesses throughout the country the certainty that they are calling for, and move on as a nation, or we enter into a sustained period of uncertainty, during which time the Government would work with this House to find a way through, but which I fear would do real damage to the public’s faith in politics and trust in our democracy.
On the possibility of having to conduct European elections if the extension went past 23 May, can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the Cabinet Office is prepared for that? On what date would such elections take place and how much would it cost?
I do not have the figures on cost to hand; they would be a matter of record available on the Electoral Commission’s website. However, we would have to make those elections possible—not something that the Government wishes to do at all—and that would require secondary legislation to be laid before the House in mid-April.
For the reasons that my right hon. Friend the Minister has given, it is obvious that we have to try to get through a deal that the Attorney General can sign off. I am not asking the Minister to give a detailed legal opinion, but will he note that the unilateral declaration, which we have now lodged, gives us an opportunity to beef up the declaration and to make it clear that we do have a unilateral right of exit from the backstop? If we could do that, I am sure that we could reassure colleagues, particularly those in the Democratic Unionist party, and make progress.
I think my right hon. Friend agrees with me that no Government in the 28 member states wishes to have a British election to the European Parliament in the course of any process, but the obligation that he refers to is, I think, based on the treaty. It would take a comparatively minor amendment to the treaty to make the obligation not apply to a country that has submitted an article 50 application. I see no reason at all why rapid unanimity could not be achieved in the Council of Ministers to agree to that, so that the treaty could be amended and the problem that he is warning us of easily averted.
I am second to none in my admiration and acknowledgment of my right hon. and learned Friend’s experience in this House, but I say to him, having served six years as Minister for Europe, that there is no such thing as a simple and easy change to the EU treaties. I was present in the United Kingdom seat when a very minor change of about half a sentence was made to the treaties to accommodate the needs of eurozone countries and ensure that what they wanted to do had an effective treaty basis. The process took roughly 13 months or so from the time that it was initiated until the time that it took effect. That is because not only do the treaties require a process of treaty change to go through a particular and detailed EU primary legislative process, but a change to the treaties also involves national ratification by the member states concerned. Indeed, I remember having to take a short Bill through this House, even though the treaty change that was at stake applied only to the member states of the eurozone, not to the United Kingdom. For that reason, I do not think that the sort of rapid treaty change that he would hope for actually exists in practice.
Paragraph 12 of the document that the Government placed in the Library this morning addresses the question of the possibility of a second extension after a first, stating that
“a second extension is not considered to be viable”.
Not considered to be viable by whom?
But paragraph 12 explains why, because it describes a scenario in which the United Kingdom had not participated in European Parliament elections and did not have any duly elected MEPs. In that case, we believe from all the feedback that we have had from the European Union that a second extension is not considered to be viable, because without UK MEPs being present from the date at which the newly constituted European Parliament met—namely, in a plenary on 2 July —the European Parliament would be improperly constituted. It is for that reason that we do not see any willingness, or, indeed, any legal power under the treaties, for the European Union to agree to a second extension if we were in those circumstances at that date.
Further to the intervention of the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), will the Minister confirm that the Electoral Commission, which I believe comes under his responsibilities, is contacting returning officers to tell them to advance their preparations to hold European Parliament elections?
The hon. Gentleman asks a perfectly fair question, but he will also know that the Electoral Commission is a statutorily independent body—it does not fall under ministerial direction, but reports to a Committee chaired by Mr Speaker—so it is for the commission to say what, if anything, it has been doing.
It is clear that, if we seek an extension, we will need to give a specified purpose, and members of the European Council have already been clear that holding a people’s vote would fulfil that requirement. At the very least, however, this House needs to come to a decision on where the majority view lies. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying that, if we passed this motion tonight, the Government would seek to provide time for us to come to that view by having a series of indicative votes. Am I right? If I am, by what time does he envisage those indicative votes being held? There is no time to waste and there is no reason why we should not hold those votes in the next few sitting days.
I did explain this earlier in my remarks. What the Government have expressed in our motion and what I am trying to put before the House is that there is basically a choice of two options before the House. The first is that a decision is taken to agree the deal that has been negotiated and is on the table—which we know the European Council is willing to accept and believe the European Parliament would be willing to accept—and get on with things. In that case, we may need a short technical extension just to permit the necessary implemented legislation to pass here. Or—[Interruption.] I am trying to respond to the question of the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), and I hope that the House will allow me to do so.
The second option is that we would face the prospect of having to seek a longer extension. As I said earlier, in such a scenario, where we would be going into the European Council without approval for the deal on the table, the Government’s commitment is that we would, in the two weeks following the European Council, consult through the usual channels with other parties and work to provide a process by which the House could form a majority on how to take things forward.
I am not going to give way again for a while, Mr Speaker, because when I spoke in the Chamber about a week ago, you gently chided me for having gone on for too long, and when I looked at Hansard it was because I had perhaps taken too many interventions. I think I have given way a fair number of times already today.
I want to put on the record—because I think this will help to clarify the nature of the choice for hon. Members on all sides of the debate—that article 50 of the European treaties does say, in terms, that the treaties “cease to apply” to the departing member state
“from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification”
of triggering article 50. In other words, it is the sooner of the conclusion and entering into force of the withdrawal agreement, and the two-year deadline. Logically it therefore follows that, were an extension of any length to be negotiated and agreed, it would always be possible for the House and the other place to bring about an earlier conclusion to that extension than the specified deadline by agreeing to a withdrawal agreement at that earlier date.
No, I am not giving way again for a while.
I hope that the factual document that the Government published this morning, coupled with the latest statement from the President of the European Council, Mr Tusk, will have convinced right hon. and hon. Members that the choice I have described is not one that has somehow been invented for political ends but rather one that this House must face up to and confront.
I want to take a moment to set out to the House the reasons why the choice is so binary. That means explaining in a bit of detail the interaction with the European Parliament elections. Those elections will take place across the EU on 23 to 26 May, and the new European Parliament will meet for the first time on 2 July. As the Father of the House said, it is a fundamental requirement under the EU treaties that EU citizens are represented in the European Parliament. That derives from article 9, which says,
“Every national of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union. Citizenship of the Union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship”,
and from paragraph 2 of article 10, which says:
“Citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament.”
The subsequent legislation that the European Union has passed is founded on those key principles set out in the treaties—the primary law that every member state of the European Union has to comply with and which has primacy over any domestic law to the contrary.
It flows from that that the new European Parliament would not be properly constituted if any member state did not have MEPs, and that for it to be improperly constituted would put all that Parliament’s actions, and the proper functioning of the EU’s institutions and its legislative process, at risk. There is no legal mechanism by which the UK could return MEPs to the new European Parliament other than by participating in the elections. The upshot is that the longest extension that we could propose without holding the elections is until the end of June, and if we did that, it would not be possible to extend again, because, as I said in response to an earlier intervention, to do so without having elected MEPs would compromise the proper functioning of the EU’s institutions and its legal process. In the absence of a deal, seeking such a short and, critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless and completely at odds with the position that this House adopted only last night, making a no-deal scenario far more, rather than less, likely. Not only that, but from everything we have heard from the EU, both in public and in private, it is a proposal it would not accept.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has had an opportunity to read the advice given by George Peretz QC on the example of Croatia, where special arrangements were made. It is possible for there to be an agreement between the EU and the UK as to a mechanism that may not involve elections but would still involve representation in the European Parliament.
I have not had the pleasure of reading that legal opinion. However, there is a critical difference between the scenario that we are describing in respect of the United Kingdom and that of Croatia in the case that my hon. Friend describes. In that case, Croatia was a third country in the process of joining the European Union, and the treaties allow accession states to go through a transition process. What she has described was part of that transition process embodied in the accession treaty negotiated by Croatia with the existing states of the European Union. In the case of the United Kingdom, we are talking about us beginning to move from being a full member of the European Union with both the rights for citizens and the obligations that go with that full European Union membership. Without treaty change, there is not a legal mechanism that simply allows those rights for EU citizens to be set aside. That is the brutal truth that this House needs to recognise.
If the Government were, for the first time, to be prepared to support and to facilitate some processes for indicative votes and so on, I think it would actually be possible to take some decisions quite quickly. The Minister will understand that his credibility in making these arguments about the timescale needed is rather undermined by the fact that, as of a couple of weeks ago, he was saying that we were going to be able to get everything through, including all the legislation, by 29 March, but now we apparently need three months in order to do so.
Specifically on the European parliamentary elections, I wonder whether the Minister has seen the comments by Eleanor Sharpston, an advocate general of the European Court of Justice, who has said, in response to the arguments that he is making,
“This is an oversimplified and ultimately fallacious presentation of the situation”,
and sets out a range of ways in which this issue could be resolved, saying that
“if the political will…is there, a legal mechanism can be found”.
The Minister may be aware of the legal advice from the legal service of the European Parliament issued on 1 February 2019, which states very clearly:
“Even in the case that the UK would not hold elections, the new European Parliament could validly be constituted.”
Does he disagree with that?
I have not seen that particular item, but my understanding is that the legal service of the European Parliament has made it very clear that it does not see that an extension is possible beyond the date of the first plenary meeting of the new Parliament on 2 July, in the absence of treaty change.
Can I take the deputy Prime Minister back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) when he said that it was a matter of law that the UK can revoke article 50 in its entirety? Should there be a member state that does not agree to an extension—for example, Hungary or Italy—would it not therefore be a matter of political reality that the revocation of article 50 should be exactly what the Government do? If that happens, will they revoke article 50?
The 2014 Euro elections cost £100 million, which seems like a lot of money, but the Transport Secretary could spend it in a morning, so I would not worry too much about that. The real issue today, though, and it continues to be the issue, is that unless we can secure an agreement that gets majority support in this House, we are going to continually go round in circles on this. So surely the Minister must agree that the only way to move forward and unite people is for compromise from the Government to actually get a deal that we can support.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent: the only way we can move forward, whether we are looking at the immediate future or the longer term, is for this House to come behind an actual deal embodied in text which the European Union is also willing to accept.
My right hon. Friend is right about the chaos that would be caused. The Legal Service has also made it clear that, if we extended and thus had to fight the elections and we subsequently left, the European Parliament would be left unconstituted, because there would be no mechanism to change the numbers that had been set. The EU does not want to go down that road so my right hon. Friend is quite right.
I do not doubt, and I think it is true that the whole House does not doubt, that the right hon. Gentleman is a man of his word, and when he gives a commitment at the Dispatch Box we all absolutely have confidence that it will be delivered. Can he help us, though? At column 167 of Hansard on Tuesday 26 February the Prime Minister set out her plan, all of which is unfolding. So today we are having the debate, and we will have the votes on the Government motion and the amendment. If either of the amendments are successful or the motion prevails in the end, we know that there will be an extension. The Prime Minister undertook in that event to
“bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension.”—[Official Report, 26 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 167.]
Will that legislation be brought forward to the House next week, and if not when?
From memory, I think that my right hon. Friend repeated this from the Dispatch Box last night, so I am happy to record again that undertaking by the Prime Minister and the Government. The exact timing for the introduction of legislation will have to await a decision by the European Council. If we are talking about an extension for a specific time period, the Government’s commitment was to do that once this had been agreed not just by the House but by the Council. There is little point in our introducing legislation for a particular duration only to find that that does not fly at European Union level.
A while ago, before my right hon. Friend got drawn into this arcane debate about the minutiae of the European Union’s peculiar practices, he fleetingly mentioned the public. Our legitimacy is built on public faith and bolstered by public trust. The Government chose to specify a date in the legislation and thereby created an expectation. Frustrating that expectation would be seen by the public as a breach of faith, which might not worry unreconstructed remainers who regard the public not, as I do, with reverence, but with disdain. Such a breach would do the Government and the House immense damage.
My right hon. Friend is making his case with his customary acuity and good manners. I agree with him that the essence here is not all these arcano imperii about the European elections but rather the fact that this House has to come to a decision and agree on a way of leaving this institution in an orderly fashion if it is to prevent a no-deal exit. That is clear to almost everyone in this House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while it is obviously appropriate for the Prime Minister to continue to do whatever she feels she needs to do to promote the deal that she is promoting, and for which I have voted and will continue to vote until the very end, it would also be appropriate for her to enter, after an extension has been agreed, into immediate discussions across the House to ensure that, in a parallel process, a cross-party view of a deal that could obtain a majority could be settled by the House? We could then find out which of the two alternatives permits a majority to be found and a deal to be enacted.
As I said earlier, the Government are giving a commitment that, if it is not possible to secure support ahead of the European Council for our withdrawal under the negotiated deal, we would have to come back to the House in the two weeks following the Council to consult through the usual channels the political parties across the House to agree on the process by which the House could then seek to find a majority.
For reasons that I will come on to—if I ever get to address the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and other hon. Members—this is far from uncomplicated, but I think I gave that commitment earlier in my speech.
The right hon. Gentleman is very generous in giving way, and I accept that I have the benefit of Hansard. The Prime Minister was clear that the Government would,
“if the House votes for an extension, seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension.”—[Official Report, 26 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 167.]
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, it was not “or”, it was “and”. So it is both—seek a date with the approval of the EU, and bring forward the legislation.
I really do not think that there is a big difference between what the right hon. Lady quotes and what I said earlier. The commitment is there, in Hansard, as she says, from the Prime Minister to seek to agree in those circumstances an extension with the European Council and to introduce the necessary legislation, but the legislation would have to provide for the duration, purpose and condition of any extension that had been agreed with the Council. We cannot operate in a vacuum here. We are dealing with a process that flows from article 50 of the treaty. It is not something that the House can simply resolve on its own. The job of the House is to come to agreement on a deal.
For over two years now, since we invoked article 50, we have been absolutely incapable as a party, a Government or a Parliament of reaching a decision on a withdrawal agreement. Why would my right hon. Friend ask me to vote for an extension of article 50 so that we can just argue for another couple of months? We have to have a withdrawal agreement before we extend anything.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Members of this House, whichever side they have taken in the numerous debates that we have had on European matters, should not underestimate the exasperation not just in the EU institutions but in the democratic Governments of the EU member states at the inability of the House to decide what it is prepared to get behind.
I will not give way. I am conscious that I have been speaking for a long time. Other Members wish to speak, so I am going to make progress now. I want to finish what I am saying about the Government’s case and then move on to the amendment that you have selected, Mr Speaker.
We do not want to be in a situation where the only certainty would be more uncertainty, but if the House has not come together around a deal by Thursday next week, the only viable extension would be a long one. We would have to hold the European Parliament elections, and the Government would facilitate a process with the House to consider the potential ways forward to reach a majority. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week, that delay would ensure that the only certainty would be greater uncertainty for businesses and for the constituents whom we represent. That is the choice that we face and the responsibility that we must now shoulder.
If I may, Mr Speaker, I will turn to the amendments that you have selected for debate.
No. I apologise to hon. Friends and Opposition Members who wish to intervene, but I have given way many times, and I have tried to be fair to Members of all political parties represented in this House. I want to speak on the amendments, conclude my remarks and let other right hon. and hon. Members speak.
If I may, I will turn first to amendment (h) in the name of the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). It requests an extension of article 50 for the defined purpose of holding another referendum on whether to remain in the European Union. I do not think it will come as a surprise to the hon. Lady if I say that the Government’s position is well rehearsed. I respect the persistence of her and others who have tabled similar amendments putting forward this proposition, but I do not believe another referendum offers the solution that we need. Rather, it would reopen the divisions established in the 2016 campaign, and would damage what is already a pretty fragile trust between the British public and Members of this House. Our obligation, first and foremost, is to honour the mandate given to us in that first vote, which was to leave the European Union, and that is why the Government are focused on honouring that mandate in a smooth, orderly way.
No. I am not giving way; I am sorry. I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon, but I have given way many times. I hope she will have the opportunity to catch your eye later, Mr Speaker.
If I may, I will now turn to amendment (i) in the name of the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central, and others. The amendment proposes a particular process to enable the House to find a way forward that commands majority support through an extension period. Paragraph 2 of the amendment would suspend Government control of the Order Paper on Wednesday 20 March to give priority to a cross-party business motion tabled by 25 Members from at least five different political parties. It seems that this motion would be used further to direct the business of the House on a future day or days to allow further debates on matters relating to EU exit.
The Government have previously set out to the House our case that this amendment or others similar to it seek to create and exploit mechanisms that would allow Parliament to usurp the proper role of the Executive. It would be unprecedented action, and it could have far-reaching and long-term implications for the way in which the United Kingdom is governed and for the balance of powers and responsibilities in our democratic institutions. I am sure that the majority of Members—whether they are hon. Friends who are supporting the current Government, or perhaps people who aspire to support and serve in a future Government of some political stripe or other—must recognise that fact. While I do not question the sincerity with which the amendment has been tabled, to seek to achieve that desired outcome through such means is, I think, a misguided and not a responsible course of action.
I think that is equally true of paragraph 3 of the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment. Frankly, it is an extraordinary requirement and, I suggest, an undemocratic one. It means that if 100 Members from the Conservative Benches moved a motion under the terms of the amendment, that motion could not be called. It means that if 100 Members from the Labour party Benches moved such a motion, that could not be called. It means that if 400 Members from both the Government and the principal Opposition Benches moved such a motion, it could not be called.
That paragraph would hand the power over whether a motion could be called—in effect, a power of veto—to the smallest parties in the House, if such a motion had their support. Let us assume that the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment was accepted by the House. That would mean that a motion brought forward under paragraph 3 of the amendment, if that motion had the support of Members from the Scottish National party, from Plaid Cymru, from the Liberal Democrats, the lone Member from the Green party and—if they constitute themselves a political party in time—from Members of the Independent Group, could be moved. However, if it had the support of every single Conservative, Labour and Democratic Unionist party Member, it could not be moved. I do not doubt the right hon. Gentleman’s sincerity, but I have to say to him that that strikes me as absurd in democratic terms.
The right hon. Gentleman’s argument that contrary views could not be heard is defective, as he will see if he goes back to paragraph 2 of the amendment. Sub-paragraph (d) says that
“debate on that motion may continue until 7.00 pm at which time the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on that motion including the questions on amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved”.
In other words, the motion provided for in paragraph 3 starts the debate, and any Member can move an amendment, which, if you select it, Mr Speaker, will be voted on at the end of the day. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman’s argument that the views of others—of 300 Conservatives—would not be heard is not correct.
While I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s defence of his amendment, my objection still stands. In the scenario that he has described, a motion in the names of very large numbers of Members of Parliament—not just from my party, but from his as well, or a very large number of some hundreds of people on a cross-party basis—could be moved only if it were in the form of a motion that had previously been tabled and accepted for debate, under the limited terms specified in his amendment.
It is of course for you, Mr Speaker, to make a ruling on which amendments to select and which not to select, but as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, there are practices, traditions and precedents of the House—about, for example, the material of an amendment needing to be pertinent to the motion to which it has been tabled—so, flowing from his amendment, there would be a potentially very severe restriction on the rights of many hundreds of Members of this House to come forward and table motions that raise subjects they want to be debated.
My right hon. Friend is making a very powerful argument, but the position is in fact worse than he says. Paragraph 3 of the amendment mentions
“at least five Members elected to the House”—
elected to the House—
“as members of at least five different parties”.
It is carefully crafted to exclude the TIGgers, meaning that we will have tyranny by a minority, because either Plaid Cymru or the Greens will need to be included in such a motion. In other words, four Members of this House could hold the entire House to ransom.
My point is very similar to the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke). What is the position, based on the wording of this amendment, of Members of this House who are not in receipt of a Whip, as happens from time to time? Indeed, there are Members of this House who are currently not in receipt of a Whip or who are not a member of a political party. It seems to me that this form of discrimination against independent Members of this House is quite unacceptable.
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting question that I confess I had not considered in detail. A number of Members of the House sit as independent Members of various kinds, and they may or may not be registered as a political party with the Electoral Commission under the terms of the relevant legislation. Again, it seems wrong in principle for those Members to be denied the right to at least put forward for consideration a motion that embodies their wishes.
My right hon. Friend is an old friend, and I admire the ingenuity of his logic. Will he return for a moment to an issue that concerns the fate of more than 60 million of our fellow citizens—namely whether this country will leave the EU without a deal because the House has failed to reach an agreement? The amendment seeks to facilitate, within a short three-month extension—not a long one—the House’s ability, through some mechanism, to debate and resolve the question of a deal across the parties. Perhaps my right hon. Friend would like to make a statement now from the Dispatch Box to state that on the day in question the Government will bring forward their own motion, describing exactly the process we are seeking, and allowing the House, by express votes, to arrive at a sensible compromise solution. None of those who have tabled this amendment prefer to grab the Order Paper or to use these elaborate devices to achieve that. We seek, above all and only, to ensure that the House has the opportunity to rescue our fellow citizens from a fate that both my right hon. Friend and I wish to avoid.
I completely accept the sincerity and good intentions of the approach taken by my right hon. Friend and the other signatories to the amendment, but I still believe it has the deficiencies to which I referred. In this scenario we need a process that ensures that the House faces up to decisions. Therefore, on behalf of the Government, I have proposed that in the two weeks following the European Council—were we to be in the position by then that no withdrawal agreement has been approved by the House to allow for a technical extension only of article 50—we should hold consultations with other parties, through the usual channels, to try to find a process that enables the House to find its majority.
For the reasons that I set out earlier at some length, I simply do not think that the European Council would think it plausible to agree a three-month extension to article 50 without much greater clarity about the process and outcome of that hypothetical scenario. As he says, my right hon. Friend has always supported the deal that the Prime Minister negotiated and is on the table, but he puts forward a scenario in which the House might agree on something that required significant changes to the current text of the agreement. We do not know that, but we could then face a considerable exercise at EU level, with textual amendments and the process of going through different EU institutions.
No, I will not give way further. I have been on my feet for more than an hour, and it is fair that other Members have the opportunity to catch your eye, Mr Speaker.
Finally, amendment (e) is tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. It requests an extension of article 50, and for time to be provided for the House to find a majority for a different approach. On the first point, I am sure the official Opposition will be pleased to see that the motion under discussion concerns whether to extend article 50, so an amendment is hardly required on that point. As ever, however, the Opposition amendment is all about ruling things out, and never about proposing anything in their stead. I note that once again the Leader of the Opposition does not advocate a second referendum, and although that position accords with Government policy, I did not think it was also Labour policy. In truth, the right hon. Gentleman’s alternative Brexit plan—itself of questionable feasibility—was decisively rejected by 323 votes to 240 in the debate on 27 February, and I do not see the need to provide further time to discuss it.
In my opening remarks I said that seeking an extension to article 50 is not something that the Government ever wanted to do, but we have arrived at this point because that has been the will of this House. Now the House has to decide between the two courses of action that are realistically available. Either we approve a deal before the March European Council, legislating for it and ratifying it during a short technical extension until 30 June, or we fail in our duty to deliver on the result of the referendum and, if we are to comply with what the House voted for last night, we will be required to hold elections to the European Parliament, two months after the British people expected us to have left the EU, thereby prolonging the uncertainty that will do severe damage to this country. We face a stark and serious choice, and I commend the motion to the House.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is observing—some would say bleating; I would say observing—from a sedentary position that his amendment was not referred to by the Minister. I am sure his tender sensibilities will recover from the assault to which they have been subjected.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. If it helps the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I am conscious that I omitted to refer to his amendment, but I shall draw that to the attention of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union so that, if time permits, he can respond to it during his concluding remarks. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Government will be supporting his amendment, but I urge him to contain his excitement on that matter.
I rise to support amendment (e) tabled in my name and that of the Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister announced two weeks ago that she would hold a second meaningful vote on 12 March; and that if that failed she would enable a vote on 13 March to rule out leaving the European Union on 29 March without a deal; and that if that succeeded, she would enable a vote on the extension of article 50 on 14 March, which is today. She was taken at her word. Had she simply done that yesterday, and tabled a simple motion to seek agreement that the UK would not leave the EU on 29 March without an agreement, she would have succeeded with a hefty majority. However, for reasons best known to herself and her advisers, she tagged unnecessary words on to her motion, causing splits, divisions and chaos on her own side, and putting further into question the ability of the Government to govern.
Today, it seems that the lessons of yesterday have not been learnt. A simple motion today seeking a mandate from this House to ask for an extension of article 50 for a length and purpose to be negotiated with the EU would pass by a hefty majority, but again the Prime Minister risks splits, divisions and chaos by tabling a motion that wraps the question of whether there should be a third meaningful vote into what should be a simple question of extension. The idea of bringing back the deal for a third time without even the pretence that anything has changed—other than, of course, using up more time—is an act of desperation.
Mr Speaker, yesterday I was offered a £50 bet on the third meaningful vote by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), which would go to Help for Heroes. I should have taken up that bet. Perhaps he and I should now both offer £50 to Help for Heroes, because, in all seriousness, it looks as though the Government are adopting the absurd and irresponsible approach of simply putting before us the same deal again a week later, but now not even pretending that anything has changed other than that another week has been used up.
I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Has he, like me, read the rumours in the newspaper that the Government might try to argue that there has been a material change in circumstances by changing their legal advice to take into account article 62 of the Vienna convention? Does he, like me, agree with the weight of legal opinion that they are on a hiding to nothing with that argument?
We wait to see what further advice the Attorney General gives, if any. I have to say, however, that the suggested nuclear option of crashing the treaty completely—bringing down citizens’ rights, the financial arrangements, the customs arrangements, the trading arrangements and so on—as the way forward came as rather a surprise. That is the reason I thought the Attorney General left it out of the advice he gave last week. To burn the whole house down to try to suspend or stop the backstop, is so extreme that I would be extremely surprised if the Government rest their case next week on that basis.
I have no idea what the Attorney General is going to say next week, but I say politely to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that in paragraph 19 he clearly makes reference to a fundamental change of circumstances. That would indicate to me that article 62 was in his mind.
I accept that, and it is there in that paragraph. What I am saying is this: it is a nuclear option to crash a whole treaty, including everything in it. That has consequences in international law. If you crash a treaty, you can be taken to court and challenged on it. Everything would be crashed. All the citizens’ rights that have been agreed—crashed; all the trading arrangements—crashed; the transition period—crashed. Are we really suggesting that that is the credible basis for a further meaningful vote?
I agree with every word the right hon. and learned Gentleman says. This is a unicorn; it cannot happen unless so seismic a failure were to take place with the other party that it could be justified. The idea that, simply because the backstop is still in place, it could justify bringing down the whole treaty under article 62 is so far fetched that there can be no doubt, if it was ever contemplated, that that is why it was left out, because it is an unsustainable argument.
I could not agree more. I suspect that that is why it was left out, in any meaningful sense, from the advice last week. We will wait to see what the Attorney General says if there is a meaningful vote next week. If the idea is to bring back the meaningful vote with the suggestion that what has changed in a week is that we now know we can crash the entire treaty, we will wait for that argument to be presented, but I am not sure it will be persuasive to those whom the Government hope to get back on board with their deal.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) indicated that she thinks that the article 62 option was already foreshadowed in the existing legal opinion. If she is right about that, then it will not be a change in circumstances justifying meaningful vote 3, will it? It was there already.
I did say very clearly that I have no idea what is in the Attorney General’s mind at this moment, but that it seemed to me that the use of those words meant that he had at least considered article 62. He may of course wish to develop that argument much further and I look forward to hearing from him.
What I am trying to say is this: with the meaningful vote having been put once and lost heavily, and having been put again and lost heavily, I think the yearning across the House, the majority view, is that what we really need to do now, and what we are trying to do this week, is simply decide that no deal on 29 March should be ruled out. A simple proposition would have done that without all the fallout. A simple proposition today to extend article 50 would have allowed us then to press on in some form that we could agree to find a purpose and a majority.
Not just at the moment, but I will in a minute.
Across the House, precisely what that model is and how we do it is secondary to the fact that we have to find a way to find a majority, otherwise the whole discussion about lengths of extension is an argument in a vacuum. If you do not know what you are doing then you do not know how long you need.
My hon. Friends have told me that the right hon. and learned Gentleman very kindly referred to me. I apologise; I had popped to the gents and that is why I missed that. I am very sorry. Mr Speaker, I do not share your iron bladder. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. I bet him £50 for Help for Heroes that meaningful vote 3 would be on 26 March. It is now perfectly clear from the Government’s motion that it will be before 20 March and I would now guess on 19 March —so, next Tuesday—in which case I will definitely give him £50 for Help for Heroes, a brilliant charity. For the avoidance of doubt, will he take a cheque?
Despite the seriousness of the situation, we should not altogether lose our senses of humour. I think the observations of the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and those of the shadow Secretary of State should be taken in that vein.
I think the moment has passed, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] I am going to dispense with the gambling theme.
My right hon. and learned Friend will have heard the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office try to answer the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on facilitating discussions across the House. Did my right hon. and learned Friend, like me, expect the Government to come here this morning, following their defeats last night, to talk about how they can facilitate those discussions, rather than come up with technical points to defeat an amendment that is trying to achieve that aim?
I am grateful for that intervention, because it follows up on a theme I was trying to advance yesterday: how we go forward from here depends on the attitude of the Prime Minister and of the Government. At this stage, what I think a majority in the House want is a Prime Minister who says, “I now recognise that my deal has been heavily defeated twice, and in the spirit of finding a way forward I will drop my red lines and come up with a process by which the House can express views as to an alternative way forward.” If we cannot do that—this is the point I was trying to make yesterday—and if the Prime Minister does not facilitate that and put that process forward, the only thing that the House can do is try to force it on her, and that has constitutional ramifications.
I am not saying that that cannot be done, and I am not saying that it should not be done. It may have to be done, but—and this is a serious point for the Government —I think it would be better if the Prime Minister were to say today that she would in fact play her part in whatever the process needs to be to find a majority. I think that would be the first step forward. I said yesterday and I say it again: I actually think that should have happened two years ago, but that is as may be. Otherwise, we risk simply setting another clock ticking that then dictates in exactly the same way what happens—whether it is months or weeks, or however long it is. If we just do this all by a clock and without a purpose, we will not get anywhere.
I am listening to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying with great care. It seems that the Opposition’s policy has now changed again. As I understood it from his party’s conference, having failed to get its own version of Brexit through, it would then seek a general election. If that failed, it would then back a people’s vote. Now it seems that his party’s policy is to compromise with the Government to facilitate Brexit. On that basis, could he confirm whether tonight, when the vote on amendment (h) is called, Labour will be voting for a people’s vote, abstaining, or voting against?
I am grateful for that intervention. I have said on a number of occasions that the Labour party supports a public vote and I played a very large part in the conference motion, but today is about the question of whether article 50 should be extended and whether we can find a purpose. [Interruption.] Hear me out, it is a very serious question and a very serious challenge, and I need to answer it. The right hon. Lady will know that many colleagues, in and out of this place, absolutely supportive of the cause that she supports—namely, a people’s vote—vehemently disagree with this amendment being tabled and voted on today.
The People’s Vote campaign—it is pretty clear where it stands—has issued a formal statement of its position, today, in response to amendment (h). It says that it has made it clear that it does not regard today as “the right time” to press the case for the public to be given a final say—[Interruption.] I am just answering the question—I am answering it fully and I want to do it properly. This is the People’s Vote campaign issuing a statement in response to this amendment:
“Instead, this is the time for parliament to declare it wants an extension of”—
the “article 50” Brexit deadline—
“so that, after two-and-a-half years of vexed negotiations, our political leaders can finally decide on what Brexit means.”
That is the official position of the People’s Vote campaign.
In addition, this will be the first time—[Interruption.] I am going to complete this answer. This will be the first time, I think, that I have quoted Alastair Campbell from the Dispatch Box. Whatever we could or could not say about Alastair Campbell, we cannot doubt where he stands on a people’s vote. He said today that it is:
“Wrong to press @peoplesvote_uk amendment…when the issue is”—
essentially about “extension. I think” it is the
“wrong time and I fear the wrong reasons”—
[Interruption.] I am going to complete the answer. [Interruption.] I am going to complete the answer. Those pressing this amendment seem to be out of step with the vast majority of co-campaigners who are campaigning for exactly the same point. They may genuinely have a difference of opinion, but we will not be supporting amendment (h) tonight.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. We are two weeks away from leaving the European Union, as things stand. We are where we are in terms of the amendments that are in front of us today. I would not necessarily have chosen to put down the amendment in the way that it has come forward, but I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman—our friend and colleague on the Benches beside us—that we have the opportunity with the amendment today to express the views of people in the House of Commons that we must have a people’s vote. I implore him not to stand against the amendment today, or I am afraid that Labour will be found out for what they are: a fraud. They are participating in Brexit happening if they fail to back the people’s vote this afternoon.
Great rhetoric, no substance. [Interruption.] Just to be clear, the amendment that the Labour party has put down today is clear that we seek an extension of article 50 and that we want to find a process to decide where the majority is and how we go forward. Our position has been clear about what we support and I have said it from this Dispatch Box many, many times—a close economic relationship based on a customs union and single market alignment and a public vote on any deal the Prime Minister gets through. That has been our position. I have said it so many times from this Dispatch Box. We want to have those options decided upon but, as the vast majority of people and Members in the House think, today is about extending article 50 and finding a way to that process. It does not rule out those amendments. It does not rule out support for those amendments and to suggest that it does is disingenuous. It is simply saying that today is about extending article 50 and moving on from there.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is great concern that elected Members of Parliament who represent the interests of their constituents have not had an opportunity to vote on a wide range of options that may lead to consensus in this House about a way forward? In fact, the Prime Minister never put her negotiating red lines to this House. It is therefore very difficult to see, without that process, how we can properly examine all the compromises that the Prime Minister keeps urging us to unite around.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, because that encapsulates the problem that we have been living with for the last two years. The referendum answered the question, “Would you rather be in or out of the EU?” It did not answer the question, “If out, what sort of future relationship do you want?”, on which there are many views, ranging from a very remote relationship, looking elsewhere for trade and so on, to essentially keeping within the models that have worked reasonably well in the last half century or so. They are massively different—ideologically different—views. That is the reason why the Prime Minister should have put her red lines to Parliament. The original red lines that came out in the autumn of 2016 were not even put to the Cabinet before the Prime Minister announced them. On a question of this importance, whether someone is the Prime Minister or not, it is not good enough to shrink that decision to such a small group of people, not to open it out to the Cabinet in the first instance, and never to open it out to Parliament. That is a central point.
As always, I am extremely grateful for the words that my right hon. and learned Friend has to say on another referendum, but does he understand that many Opposition Members are very strongly tempted to vote for the amendment that is on the Order Paper today, partly because not all the shadow Cabinet, and sometimes, official spokespeople for the Leader of the Opposition, speak with the clarity that my right hon. and learned Friend speaks with, and people are very unsettled about that? We accept that there may be more and probably better opportunities to vote for an amendment on another referendum, such as the one in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Hove (Peter Kyle) and for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson). Nevertheless, we have to ensure that the Labour party speaks with one clear voice on this—no more mixed messages.
I am grateful for that intervention. I have always tried to speak about this issue in a clear voice and I have spoken for the Labour party on it. As my right hon. Friend will know, I have had many and ongoing discussions with my hon. Friends the Members for Hove and for Sedgefield about the amendment on which they have been working. Today is not about the Labour party saying that it would not support such an amendment; today is about extension and about the process.
Let me just restate this. The Labour party is supporting a public vote on any deal from the Prime Minister that gets through—there is a lock on that—but today is about a different issue. I hope that that is clear, and gives some reassurance to my right hon. Friend.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that important assurance, which is what I want to hear said consistently from the Front Bench. He always says it with great clarity, as does the shadow Chancellor. I want to hear the same from all Labour Members, because we need that public vote, for which I have campaigned repeatedly from the start.
Let me ask my right hon. and learned Friend about a different issue. He has talked about the Cabinet, and about advice and discussions. Is he aware of reports that the Attorney General has been sharing new draft legal advice, allegedly with members of the European Research Group? It is not clear that it is being shared with the Cabinet or, indeed, Members of the House. Does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that such a situation would be legal, given that such people normally say that they do not share any draft legal advice, or does he believe that the advice should be made available to all of us in the House?
The short answer is that I do not know whether the advice has been shared, although I remember the Attorney General asserting very strongly from the Dispatch Box that it would be quite improper to share any advice with any Member of the House unless, of course, it is shared with all Members.
I have given way many times and I will now make some progress.
This debate is absolutely necessary, but it is not welcome. Applying for an extension of article 50 with 15 days to go is a hopeless end to two years of negotiation. The fault lies squarely at the Government’s door, not with civil servants and not with the House.
I touched on this point yesterday, but I want to repeat it, because it is extremely important. It is no good the Prime Minister and the Government blaming everyone but themselves for the position in which we find ourselves. To be in government is to govern, to lead, to think through what deal might secure majority support, to realise that consensus will be needed, to have a two-year strategy to ensure that that consensus is reached, and to understand that, given the deep divisions on the Government side, meaningful engagement with the Opposition from the start would have been better than blinkered intransigence. All that has been missing. I have lost track of the number of times I have complained that the Prime Minister and the Government have pushed Parliament to one side, and this week is the culmination of that failed strategy.
May I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman, ever so gently, to reflect on the fact that what he and the Labour party are proposing to do today is causing considerable anxiety among many businesses in Northern Ireland, because they want certainty? It is also, I believe, causing considerable anxiety among the border communities. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman cares about that. How can he offer reassurance to businesses in Northern Ireland, and to the border communities, about what the Labour party is proposing in its amendment?
I am grateful, as ever, for the hon. Lady’s intervention. There is great anxiety about uncertainty, and the uncertainty exists because the Government, after two years, have come back with a deal that they cannot get through Parliament. I think that that is because the red lines were wrong in the first place, because the Prime Minister never engaged Parliament in the negotiating objectives so that she could have the majority, and because of her blinkered approach, which says, “I am going to keep ramming my deal time and again without listening to other people.” We have reached an impasse. That does create uncertainty, and it is causing anxiety both in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.
The question was, what is the Labour party trying to do? This is what we are trying to do, and we are not alone: our aim is clearly shared across the House. Given the current impasse—and there is no point in anyone pretending that it is not an impasse; once you have lost by 230 votes and 149 votes, you cannot pretend that you are not facing an impasse—we are asking the Government to say, “We realise that this is an impasse, and we will now find a way in which to establish what the majority view is, so that we can move forward.” But they will not do it, so what we are proposing—
No, I will not give way. I am going to finish my answer.
What we are proposing is that we extend article 50 and, as soon as we can, identify a mechanism or process—and we should be open-minded about what it will be—that will enable us to find out what the majority in the House want, because otherwise we will not find that majority. We have repeated time and again the two proposals for which we have always argued, the proposals for a close economic relationship and a public vote, but we have to listen to Parliament.
I am going to make some progress.
Here we are, with 15 days to go, and the extension of article 50 is a necessity, not a choice. It is the only way in which we can try to prevent ourselves from leaving without a deal on 29 March, and that is what our amendment seeks to achieve.
It is important for us to identify a purpose, and the first purpose is to remove the 29 March cliff edge. We cannot simply vote against no deal, as we did last night, and then take no further action. I have said repeatedly that this should have been done weeks ago rather than being left to the last minute, and that the sooner it is done, the better. Parliament must act today, and instruct the Government to seek an extension of article 50. However, we do need to begin the debate about the wider issues. The extension should be as short as possible, but it needs to be long enough to achieve the agreed purpose.
I listened to the earlier exchanges about EU elections. Let me make it clear that the Labour party does not want to be involved in those elections. There are at least three different views, both here and in Brussels: I know that, because I have been discussing this issue in Brussels for six months. One view is that we cannot get past May without participating in the elections. Another is that we cannot get past June without doing so. Another is that it might be possible to add a protocol or agreement to the treaty that would allow a long extension without EU elections. All three opinions are circulating here and in Brussels, and lawyers are putting their names to them.
We must decide, as a House, what we are requesting extra time for. The Government must then go to Brussels and seek an extension for the agreed purpose, and engage in discussion and negotiation about how long it should be. The one thing that we should not do is just set the clock running and say that that will dictate everything that happens from here on.
I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman wholeheartedly. Is not the whole experience of dealing with the EU—not just on these matters, but for many years—that because it is a treaty-based organisation, politics and law are much more closely aligned than they are in this country, for example? It is perfectly possible for the members of the European Council, acting as member states, to make decisions that actually become effective. Even if some set of lawyers within the apparatus happen to think it rather odd at first, they adapt themselves to it with heroic adaptability.
I absolutely agree. The right hon. Gentleman has probably—like me—been having those conversations with lawyers, officials and politicians across the 27 EU countries. All three of those views have been expressed to me by officials and politicians, including the view that, if it were necessary to go beyond June for an agreed purpose, that could be possible without our being involved in EU elections. I do not pretend for a moment that there are not legal implications, and I do not pretend for a moment that it would be easy, but I do know that this is a discussion that could be had.
I strongly agree with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying. Does this not underline the fact that continuing to delay a decision because the Government are not getting the answer that they want, and their own delay of crucial votes, means that we have a tendency to be overtaken by events? We clearly do not like the prospect of European Union elections, but other events may intervene to complicate the House’s ability to make decisions. We should get on with the process that will unblock the gridlock, so that we can move things forward and move our country forward.
I agree with the right hon. Lady. One of the frustrations is that we are now faced with arguments from the Government that the period of time for an extension must be really short for various reasons, yet they ran away from the vote on 10 December. We could have known on 11 December that this deal was never going to go through. We would then have had three and a half months left on the clock before we even got to any question of an extension, and then another three months, even on the Government’s own analysis, to try to sort the problem out. Yet here we are, with 15 days to go, having this discussion about an extension in the worst of circumstances, and we are doing it for one reason. That is that the deal that was signed on 25 November and that could have been put to the vote on 11 December was pulled. Not one word of that agreement has ever changed. All that has happened is that we have been waiting for three-plus months to vote again on the same proposition. We cannot waste another week doing the same thing next week.
I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be opposing amendment (h) tonight, and I will join him and the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) in doing so. It is right that the House should send a clear message on the matter of the people’s vote. The question should be put to the House tonight, and I hope that it will be defeated so that we can move on.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that people have to be clear before the last minute, so I want to ask him a question in the interests of clarity. If other member states of the European Union were to veto an extension of article 50, what would his position be? Would he be for a no deal, or would he be for the sensible option of revocation?
One of the advantages of having this debate for four days running is that most of the questions and answers have been well rehearsed. I shall give the hon. Gentleman the same answer that I gave yesterday, which is that we will cross that bridge when we get to it.
On the subject of amendment (h), may I say, through my right hon. and learned Friend, that he has nothing to be ashamed of in how he has led our party’s position on Brexit? Yelling “Shame on you” across the Chamber does not inspire a great deal of support among Labour Members; I did not think that that was the way to build the new politics. Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), there is a considerable degree of discomfort among Labour Members who support the principle of allowing the people to decide, not because of anything that my right hon. and learned Friend or the shadow Chancellor, or other leading figures, have said, but because there is not a uniform position on this on the Front Bench. In the event that a proposal on this comes forward from my hon. Friends the Members for Hove (Peter Kyle) and for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson), as I hope it will, will he clarify that this principle—which I believe is the only way to break the deadlock Brexit—will be wholeheartedly supported by the Labour leadership?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The point I was trying to make about amendment (h) is this. In the circumstances where the vast majority of those who are campaigning for exactly the same end think that this is not the time for that amendment, is it the case that those who are pushing the amendment genuinely disagree with their co-campaigners, or are they pushing it for another reason?
Given the record-breaking defeats suffered by the Government, and their abysmal failure to get a consensus, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that amendment (e), tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, and amendment (i) tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), merely provide a vehicle to arrive at consensus? Given that the Government have failed, surely that is the only way in which we can move forward.
I agree with that. In the end, stripping away all the amendments, the simple proposition is whether we can vote to extend article 50 today and then, between us, come up with a vehicle or model to help us to break the impasse. That is why we crafted our amendment. We have been clear that we support a close economic relationship, and we also support a public vote. We have offered, as of yesterday, to talk to people across the House to discuss those approaches. That will take time—it is not a silver bullet—but it is the responsible thing to do. It is the way out of the mess that the Government have made. The Government should listen, even at this late stage, and facilitate that process. I urge the House to support our amendment tonight.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Alarmingly, during his speech, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did not answer when I asked him for confirmation that the express repeal of the 1972 Act under section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 would be continued. This includes the time and date of our leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019. This is the law of the land, which, despite any motions that might be passed, precludes not only an extension of time but the revocation of article 50. This is what the voters voted for in the referendum.
Moreover, the shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), in his exchanges with me last week, asserted that he wanted the repeal of the 1972 Act itself to be repealed. I would be grateful to hear whether he wishes to contradict that.
I am sorry—I only caught the second half of the hon. Gentleman’s point; there is no discourtesy intended. If this is the point that is being put to me, I have always said that fixing a date to repeal the Act on 29 March was a mistake, because we would always need transition, and that we would need the Act to run during that transition. I have always thought that putting a date on the statute was a big mistake, for many reasons, and now we are going to have to put it right before 29 March.
I understand that point, but that was not the point on which we had an exchange last week. I am sorry if the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not catch what I was saying. It was asking him whether he wanted a repeal of the repeal of the 1972 Act that is contained in section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. He indicated to me last week that he did want that. After all, the Labour party itself voted against the withdrawal Act on Second Reading and indeed on Third Reading, so we can assume that it did not want the repeal of the 1972 Act and that it is therefore committed to a course that is inconsistent with what the voters decided in the referendum. In respect of the position on both sides of the House, the United Kingdom is therefore at a dangerous crossroads in the middle of a fog.
I have done my best over the past 30 years to be consistent and to address the principles that underlie the sovereignty of this Parliament in delivering the democratic wishes of the British people through parliamentary Government, and not through government by Parliament, as is being proposed by certain Members of this House in respect of giving priority to private Members’ Bills, despite the Standing Order No. 14 requirement that Government business takes precedence. I for one believe that this Parliament can deliver the referendum vote; ensure the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland; fully comply with the vote to leave following the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which was passed by a 6:1 majority in this House; comply in full with the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, which so many Members who are now turning into rejoiners, let alone reversers, actually voted for; and comply in full with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which received Royal Assent on 26 June last year and which itself includes the provision for exit day to be on 29 March. I say with great respect to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) that, as I am sure he will recall, he voted for the Third Reading of the Act.
We have had substantial debates about the backstop and, of course, the most recent advice of the Attorney General. My European Scrutiny Committee has issued a critical report of the withdrawal agreement. It came out only last week and I urge the House to read it. We have asked for, but have not yet received, a draft of the withdrawal and implementation Bill, and I say that because that Bill, if passed, would enact the withdrawal agreement in our domestic law—the law of the land. I seek to make some proposals for what would be needed in any such Bill, as enacted, in order to satisfy the fundamental issues, bearing in mind that we have only a few days to go, and to ensure that we actually leave the European Union on 29 March. Given the timescale available for the withdrawal and implementation Bill to be enacted, we can assume that it will be rammed through with virtually no time to discuss proposals that could be made by way of amendments to it. There will be no proper debate. The law of the land relating to the withdrawal agreement will be rammed through this House.
What do I have in mind? First, we must protect Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in the United Kingdom. Discussions have continued since the Attorney General’s recent advice and will continue on matters relating both to the backstop and to issues arising in international law, including article 62 of the Vienna convention, that are being further analysed by distinguished lawyers. Such matters are important and remain unresolved. I was extremely glad to hear Arlene Foster confirm this morning that that was the current position, and when that further analysis becomes available, I trust that the Attorney General will take serious note of the points made by that panel of distinguished lawyers.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for all his work as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee. He mentioned Northern Ireland. Is he still concerned by what the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said yesterday about more power being given to the Irish Government? People sometimes say, particularly in Northern Ireland, that there is no smoke without fire.
I entirely agree. I was concerned by what I heard, and I will add that I have always believed, since the backstop’s origin on 8 December 2017, that the bottom line here was that the door would be opened to the prospect of the Taoiseach being able to hold a border poll and to maintain the aspiration for a united Ireland.
Secondly, the Prime Minister has assured me on the Floor of the House that the express repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 contained in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 would be restated in the withdrawal and implementation Bill, as enacted, including therefore the exit date of 29 March. In respect of any disapplication by the courts under article 4 of the withdrawal agreement, combined with sections 5 and 6 of the 2018 Act, the Bill would need to contain an express exclusion of the power of the courts to disapply the repeal of the 1972 Act and other related Acts. It is dangerous that, according to article 4 of the withdrawal agreement, we have been given an arrangement under the withdrawal and implementation Bill whereby the courts would be able to disapply enactments, even potentially including the 2018 Act itself or aspects of it. The repeal of the 1972 Act is the statutory anchor of the referendum vote.
There are also issues of international law with respect to the compliance of international obligations arising from the withdrawal agreement, which includes the fact in international law that the agreement, as yet unsigned even now, was negotiated in the certain and understood knowledge in the European Union that we had enacted the repeal of the 1972 Act, subject only to the question of exit day, which we are now considering. The repeal itself is paramount, and it also applies to the backstop and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom. It is essential that the repeal is maintained within the framework of the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, as I have repeatedly stated with respect to the question of control over laws. To repeat what I said to the Prime Minister two days ago, she said at Lancaster House—this is a fact and it is law—that we will not have truly left the European Union if we are not in control of our own laws.
May I correct the record? I want to make it absolutely clear that the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister has signed actually protects the Good Friday/Belfast agreement on page 307, and it protects the consent principle. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland remains unchanged by the Brexit deal and the political declaration, and it would remain in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a border poll.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that point, but I will say in addition that we do not know what the withdrawal and implementation Bill will contain. That is the problem. That is why my European Scrutiny Committee insisted on seeing a draft of it. It is one thing to have a treaty arrangement that is still uncompleted and unsigned, but it is another thing then to know how the draftsman will attempt to implement it in a Bill that we have not even seen. That is a serious problem, and we have almost no time, as the hon. Lady will understand as a lawyer herself, to examine the significant provisions that will be in that Bill.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking a second intervention so promptly. I just want to repeat to him that the political declaration on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU says in black and white—I have not invented this—that it protects the Good Friday Belfast agreement in all its parts. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Prime Minister and this Government do not mean and will not keep their word? I will be very concerned if that is what he is suggesting.
Well, I have to say that on the Chequers deal, for example, we went through the whole ramifications of enacting the 2018 Act including the date of 29 March, but then, on 6 July, we had it completely overturned. That is why I said in a previous debate I had lost trust in the Government and the Prime Minister. That is my point. I am asking a lot of big questions simply because I have grave doubts as to what we will be confronted with. The Bill that will enact into domestic law the arrangements that are supposed to be included in the withdrawal agreement, to which I have been so vehemently opposed because it undermines the sovereignty of the United Kingdom, Parliament and the vote, is my reason for stating now that I retain my concern and my distrust.
We need to call out the idea that the Irish Government are trying to deliberately cause problems to push for a referendum to try to get a united Ireland. The Irish government have been trying desperately to make sense of the confusing negotiations led by this Parliament and by this Government, making sure that their own interests of course are aligned. However, it is not the case that the backstop does not provide a problem for the Good Friday agreement and for Northern Ireland, because it does, and that has been the lion’s share of the debate here. If we are not part of the customs union and the single market, we must have a border somewhere. Whether on the island of Ireland or in the Irish sea, it has to be somewhere, and the idea that that can be cast aside as if it is not important is negligent. We cannot continue to have that kind of vacuous debate in here. Let us talk substance.
I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that, having been involved in these European issues for about 34 years and having some knowledge of constitutional law and the way in which these things operate in practice, I am not going to trust anybody or anything until I see a copy of the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, which will be rammed through this House. If we do not have a chance to look at it beforehand, it would put us at considerable risk. That is my point, and I think we need to take it into account.
I now turn to the framework for our leaving the EU lawfully under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. Subject only to the extension of time, this is the law of the land and it is how we assert our sovereign constitutional right not merely to reaffirm but to guarantee in law that we control our own laws in this Parliament as a sovereign nation, in line with the democratic wishes of the British electorate in general elections.
The European Communities Act itself was passed on the basis of the White Paper that preceded it. In that White Paper there was an unequivocal statement that we would retain a veto on matters affecting our vital national interests. Gradually over time, since 1973, there has been a continuing reduction, a whittling away, of that veto to virtual extinction.
Leaving the EU, however, in the context of article 4 of the withdrawal agreement raises this question again as an issue of fundamental importance. We are no longer living in the legal world of Factortame—that was when we were in the European Union. When we leave, the circumstances change. We simply cannot have laws passed and imposed upon us, against our vital national interests, by the Council of Ministers behind closed doors during the transition period, or at any time. That would be done by qualified majority voting or consensus and, as I said to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in my first intervention in the previous debate, it would subjugate this Parliament for the first time in our entire history, as we would have left the European Union. It would therefore be a radical invasion of the powers and privileges of this House, which I believe would effectively be castrated during that period of time. We would be subjected to total humiliation.
I therefore regard it as axiomatic that, in the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, we must include a parliamentary veto over any such law within the entire range of European treaties and laws. As Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I know that we currently have about 200 uncleared European provisions and, in my 34 years on the Committee, we have never once overturned a European law imposed on us through the Council of Ministers.
Just think about it. This House will accept laws by qualified majority vote without our being there and with no transcript. Where we were once in the EU, we will now have left. Leaving totally changes the basis on which we conduct our business. Under our Standing Orders, my Committee has the task, in respect of European Union documents, of evaluating what is of legal and political importance, and it has the right to refer matters to European Standing Committees or to the Floor of the House, particularly where the Government accept the latter.
We can impose a scrutiny reserve, which means that Ministers cannot, except in exceptional circumstances, agree to any proposed law passed in the Council of Ministers in defiance of our scrutiny reserve. However, that is not a veto. Once a matter has been debated, or once the scrutiny reserve has been removed, any such law becomes the law of the United Kingdom and is thereby imposed on our constituents.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that, after we leave at the end of March, there will be a transition period in which we will have no veto over European laws, which is true. Is he therefore arguing that it would be better to crash out? Does he accept there is a risk that we will not agree anything by the end of March, that we will not have an extended date, that we will crash out and that, under the Good Friday agreement, Ireland could vote to reunify? That would be a complete disaster.
The hon. Gentleman is a member of my Committee, so he knows exactly what I am saying, and he understands perfectly well that when we leave we leave. When we do leave, the circumstances under which we currently operate, under our Standing Orders, will change.
When we leave the EU, the situation becomes radically different. I therefore propose—in line with the Prime Minister’s own suggestions as set out in a carefully crafted pamphlet published in 2007 by Politeia, a think-tank—that the European Scrutiny Committee should, upon our leaving the European Union, be able to make recommendations as to how and when our veto should be invoked, as justified by our national interest.
The alternative is that we will just have laws imposed upon us. That will include, for example—I invite the hon. Gentleman and the House to listen to this—matters relating to tax policy. There are now proposals on the table to change tax policy from national unanimity to majority vote. Defence and defence procurement are also included, as is state aid. The list is endless.
Contrary to some assertions that the EU law-making process takes so long that there would be no problem, the European Union is quite capable of accelerating its procedures, and I believe it would do so by putting us at the mercy of our competitors. One recent well-known example is ports regulation. We fought that in the European Standing Committee and, despite the fact that port employers and trade unions were against it, it went through. This would happen in respect of almost any proposed EU law within the vast swathe of competences in the entire corpus of the European treaties. If that happened, we would have no redress. We would not be able to veto it if we do not get a veto, and we would not be able to affect it properly under our current scrutiny arrangements. Furthermore, the British people would be the ones to suffer, and that would include people in Scotland, too. Do not get the idea that this is a free zone situation for Scotland. SNP Members will also be affected, and they better start taking it seriously.
My hon. Friend will know that, as shipping Minister, I fought the port services regulation tooth and nail but, because of the limits on my competence, I could not stop it happening. He is making an interesting suggestion about the role of his Committee during the transition period. Would the Committee be recommending to the Executive that they implement the veto? He would not expect his Committee to assume the role of the Government.
That is absolutely right, and I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend, because he was the Minister responsible for ports regulation, and he has just reconfirmed that there was nothing he could do about it. It will be even worse during the transition period and thereafter. The reality therefore is that, as set out in the proposals I have discussed, the manner in which the veto would be expressed is perhaps on a recommendation by my Committee, because it would be of such legal and political importance, but obviously it would then have to go to the Government and to the Floor of the House to decide. The exact mechanism would have to be worked out, but to suggest that it would not be a matter of immense and urgent importance to the House is to assume that we in this House are a bunch of fools. It is unthinkable that the EU could impose laws on us by qualified majority voting on any matter within the corpus and range of the European treaties without our having some means of blocking it.
Having repealed the 1972 Act, we must not find ourselves in a customs union or single market, which are themselves within the framework of the Act, not only because our manifesto is the basis on which we were elected, but because leaving the EU includes the repeal of the Act. We must therefore also protect Northern Ireland within the constitutional framework of the UK, whose Parliament—some may find this surprising in the light of what we hear from other sources—includes Northern Ireland. It is represented here as a member of the UK and helps to pass the laws repealing the Act, including section 1 of the EU withdrawal Act.
In conclusion, I can say, without prejudice to any further discussions, that we might shortly be in a position not merely to check out of the Hotel California, but to take the bus to the airport and fly out of the EU altogether.
The UK Government have descended into total farce. The Prime Minister has lost control of her Cabinet, her party and her Parliament. What we witnessed in the House last night was nothing short of absolute chaos. Mr Speaker, have you ever witnessed a Prime Minister whip her own party against her own motion? The Tory party truly is a shambles: more Ministers resigning, a Prime Minister with no authority, a Government incapable of governing. She has lost all control.
The Prime Minister lost a vote on her deal by the largest margin in parliamentary history, lost a second by a near historic margin, and lost a vote on taking no deal off the table, yet she tries to carry on as if nothing has happened. Apparently, we are to vote on her deal again next week. For her, nothing has changed. She does not want a second EU referendum, yet we are offered multiple votes on her deal. We are now on to the third—not the best of three, under her rules, because she only has to win once; we have to win every time to stop her Brexit madness. If she loses next week, do we get a fourth, fifth or even more meaningful votes, until Parliament does what she wants? She has to accept that she is out of time. She has to accept reality. Her deal is a bad deal; no deal is a calamity.
This week, the House of Lords placed an amendment in the Trade Bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit. That is a legislative instrument. The Government must now bring back the Trade Bill before 29 March. This is crucial, and I expect the Brexit Secretary to respond when he sums up. The Prime Minister cannot stifle the legislative process to meet her party political interests. She must accept the will of the House. So much for parliamentary democracy—she ignores what she calls the sovereignty of Parliament. Her actions underline that this truly is a constitutional crisis.
The only way out of this disaster is to put the decision on our EU membership back to the people. The people must take back control. We have an amendment before us on a people’s vote. It is not our amendment; it has come from others. I did not choose the timing, but the fact is, it is in front of us today. The House has its first opportunity—perhaps its only opportunity—to say, on the basis of what we know, on the basis of what has changed since the referendum in 2016, that the people of the United Kingdom deserve to have a people’s vote. We must all reflect on the reality that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. People will lose their jobs.
On a day like today, we expect the so-called official Opposition to get behind that amendment, but you know what’s happened? A shiver has run along the Front Bench of the Labour party looking for a spine to crawl up, but it has not found one. I will say this: the Labour party will pay a price. It is little wonder that in Scotland it has been found out for its behaviour over the past few years, having worked hand in glove with the Conservatives and Better Together to frustrate independence for Scotland. Today, we find again that it is not prepared to stand up with the young people throughout the United Kingdom who are going to lose their rights to work and travel in 28 EU member states.
I reflected a couple of days ago on how the Prime Minister sat and laughed as we talked about that, but then there is a man I have had some respect for, the Labour party Brexit spokesperson, and he has simply flunked this opportunity. The Labour party truly is a disgrace. It is little surprise that it has fallen to third place in Scottish politics. My goodness, it is going to stay there for a considerable time to come.
I will do my best not to embarrass myself, speaking as a young person from Scotland. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s support for a public vote, but it is critical that we maximise a majority in the House to secure it, and that will not happen today, because there will not be sufficient numbers. Furthermore, if it were to pass, it would bomb out amendment (i), in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), which I support and which would extend article 50 and secure control of the Order Paper. That is the risk associated with this vexatious amendment tabled today. We must wait until a time when it could be won.
Well, well, well; there we have it—weasel words from the hon. Gentleman. I hope that people in Glasgow see that. He has the opportunity today to stand with the rest of us who want a people’s vote, and what does he do? He does what the Labour party has done year after year; he sells out the people of Scotland. The people of Glasgow North East will extract a price from the hon. Gentleman when at the next election the SNP wins back that seat for the people of Scotland.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), whom I disagree with, is a friend of mine. However, it is a bit rich for Labour Members—and I include the hon. Gentleman in this—who have spent two years in a period of Herculean self-flagellation over a people’s vote, to come to the House today as though they are some kind of voice of authority on the matter and seek to lecture those of us on the SNP Benches, or indeed the TIGs up at the back, on a people’s vote. I only wish that they were as eloquent on their feet as they sometimes think they are. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
Absolutely. I appeal to Labour Members—and I am looking at them now—to show some responsibility. [Interruption.] Yes, they can wave, but this is serious. They should come through the Lobby with us tonight, or be exposed, frankly, for exactly what they are. They have failed at this time of crisis to stand up for the people of Scotland.
I am going to make some progress.
Parliament has repeatedly rejected the Prime Minister’s deal and leaving with no deal. Both those points must be respected. When we said no to her deal, we meant it. Only a fresh referendum can now unblock things. The UK Government must now extend article 50 and set in motion plans to hold a second EU referendum, with remain on the ballot paper. Staying in the European Union is the best deal of all. It is what Scotland voted for. It is the only way to protect jobs, living standards, our public services and the economy. Holding a second EU referendum is the best and most democratic way out of the impasse at Westminster. Westminster has failed, and the people must now have, and will have, their say.
The SNP tabled an amendment that would have got us out of this mess. Our amendment would have seen the Government move to agree an extension to article 50 with the European Union, to provide time to hold a second EU referendum. We know that the EU would consider an extension. Only this morning, Donald Tusk tweeted:
“I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”
That is the way out for everyone in this Parliament. Our amendment would have ensured that any second EU referendum would include an option to remain in the European Union. That is what is required.
Members must recall the resolutions of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on 5 March 2019, which opposed the UK Government’s exit deal and agreed that a no-deal outcome to the current negotiations on EU withdrawal would be completely unacceptable. This House must wake up to that reality, and to the democratic votes of the institutions of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Members must recognise that democracy means respecting the will of the people, but that means all the people. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain. On that point, I will give way.
I am puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman’s desire for a third referendum. In 2014 he disrespected the outcome. In 2016 he disrespected the outcome. If we had a third referendum, would he respect the outcome then? Would there be a change?
It is quite remarkable. I always love to hear from the Scottish Conservatives, who have been sent here temporarily to represent some constituents in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that in 2014 we were told that if Scotland stayed in the United Kingdom, our rights as EU citizens would be respected—
Indeed, they were guaranteed by many Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant) must reflect on the fact that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union, yet we are being dragged out by this House. He and his friends have not stood up for their constituents in Scotland, in every single local authority area. The have been tin-eared to the interests of the Scottish people. [Interruption.] Yes, he can sit and laugh, but they have failed to stand up for their constituents. That has been the case with every single Conservative Member of Parliament.
We in the Scottish National party are not prepared to sit back and see ourselves dragged out of the European Union against our will. The people of Scotland are sovereign, and this House respected that sovereignty when it passed a resolution on the Claim of Right last July. If the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock believes in democracy, he should reflect on the fact that in the Scottish Parliament there is a majority for a referendum on Scottish independence—it resolved by 69 votes to 59 to allow the Scottish Parliament to have a referendum. I say to all hon. Members that if the First Minister of Scotland, with the backing of the Scottish Parliament, does decide to give the people of Scotland that opportunity to secure our future as a European nation, I would expect this House to recognise democracy and the position of the Scottish people, and to recognise that an independence referendum should, must and will take place.