(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make an urgent statement to the House setting out the Government’s plans in relation to the article 50 period extension procedure that the Government will follow, following on from their written ministerial statement to that effect on Friday 15 March.
[Interruption.] Thank you very much. That is good advice—always gratefully received.
As set out in a written ministerial statement, and in accordance with the motion approved by this House on Thursday 14 March, the Government will now seek to agree an extension with the European Union. The extension process has been set out in a Government paper published last Thursday. While article 50 does not set out how either party should request an extension, the Government believe it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister to write to the President of the European Council.
It is highly likely and expected that the European Council will require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length. The European Council has to approve an extension by unanimity. With this in mind, we will look to request any extension in advance of the March European Council. It is the Government’s expectation that the European Council will decide whether to agree any UK request at this meeting.
As soon as possible following agreement at the EU level, we will bring forward the necessary domestic legislation to amend the definition of exit day. That legislation will take the form of a statutory instrument. If agreement is reached at the European Council, the statutory instrument will be laid before Parliament next week. The draft will be subject to the affirmative procedure, and will need to be approved by each House. I hope this reassures hon. and right hon. Members about the procedure that will be followed this week and next.
There are still many questions that the Minister has to answer in relation to how we will use our time productively over the remaining two weeks. As we have heard today, it is now not clear whether the Government will be able to bring a third meaningful vote before the House; indeed, one reason why I tabled this urgent question was that it was not clear to me whether that vote, if it were held, would even be held this week, before the March EU Council.
It is imperative that the Government set out clear proposals for three scenarios that Britain now faces. The first is that the meaningful vote is held, and the deal passes. However, that does not look likely in the next few days. How will the Government approach that, with the EU Council taking place later this week?
The second scenario is that there is no meaningful vote, but Parliament has the chance to express its will, as the Minister says, on what the clear purpose of any extension should be. That will also take time to negotiate. What will the Government’s approach be to ensure that they do not go against the will of the House, which has consistently—twice—voted to avoid a no-deal exit from the European Union?
The third scenario is that we have no meaningful vote, and Parliament does not have the chance to discuss and agree a clear purpose for an extension. This place has been frustrated time and again by the Government, who have been wasting time and bringing back a deal that has still not passed, instead of allowing this place, through free votes, to reach a consensus on what we feel would be an appropriate way forward. That takes time, and we do not have much time. What approach will the Government take to allow us to ensure that we do not inadvertently crash out at the end of next week and go against the House’s clear no-deal vote? Will the Government propose a provisional extension that can be updated if the House needs more time than the following two weeks to determine a clear purpose for any extension? Will they accept votes in the House that define that clear purpose, and understand that those are binding when negotiating an extension mandate via the EU?
I question the appropriateness of the Secretary of State’s role in negotiating an extension. We had a free vote in the House last week, and I respect that. I also respect the way he chose to cast his vote; he was absolutely within his rights. However, he voted to leave come what may on 29 March. I take a different view from him, as does the House. It is simply not appropriate or credible for him to be the lead person negotiating on this country’s behalf with the European Union. I say that with some regret, but that is nevertheless the position we find ourselves in.
It is absolutely crucial and urgent that the Government chart this country a way through the next vital 11 days. The House has had a series of votes to express its will. The Government have consistently—I really regret this—tried to frustrate that will by ignoring it. In doing so, they have wound down the clock to leave very little time for Parliament to do its duty by our country, which is what it wants to do. We need clear answers, a clear process and contingency plans, and those need to be set out today, so that the House has a chance to debate whether they are adequate and, if they are not, the direction we want to give the Government to make sure we protect our country.
There were lots of questions from my right hon. Friend. She made some remarks about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s votes last week. I voted exactly the same way as he did—I voted against an extension in the free vote.
One of the points about the votes on Thursday was that it was absolutely vital that the House voted against the Benn amendment, which, if it had been successful, would have bound the hands of not just this Government but future Governments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did exactly the right thing by voting to reject the amendment—and, as I remember, it was rejected by three votes. That is exactly what I did, and that is exactly why he voted the way he did.
With regard to the last vote, it was a free vote. My right hon. Friend said, as I did, that we would not seek to extend article 50. However, as Members of the House know, the House did vote to extend article 50. As a consequence, I set out clearly in my statement the process that will be followed. As I said, we will, as soon as possible following agreement at EU level, bring forward the necessary domestic legislation to amend the definition of exit day. That legislation will take the form of an affirmative statutory instrument, which will be laid before the House after the agreement with the EU, next week.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on securing it. It is particularly interesting that the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has been given the task of responding. As he rightly admitted, he, like the Secretary of State, voted against the Government’s motion on Thursday. He has not reconsidered over the weekend, and he comes before us glorying in the fact that he opposes the Government’s stated policy, which is to seek an extension to article 50. Can he tell us whether he even agrees with what he has just read out from the Dispatch Box?
However, in all seriousness, the written ministerial statement made on Friday throws up a series of important questions. First, given that it appears there is now little chance that the House can approve the deal before tomorrow, for what purpose will the Government seek an extension to the article 50 process, and how long do they propose it lasts? The written ministerial statement is clear that the EU would require a clear purpose for anything longer than a technical extension; it cannot be just the principle that is put to the EU.
Secondly, leaving aside the SI dealing with the domestic legislation, is it the Government’s intention to bring back the terms of any extension that might be agreed, so that the House can debate and vote on them, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office indicated in response to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) in the debate on 27 February? Finally, have the Government sought or received any legal advice relating to the requirement to participate in the European elections, given that, as the Minister will know, there is a range of views not only inside this place but outside?
The fact that we need to extend the article 50 process is a mark of this Government’s abject failure. For weeks, the Opposition have argued that an extension to the article 50 process is inevitable; on Thursday, the House, if not the Minister and his colleagues, finally accepted that. We need clarity from the Department on precisely how this process will unfold.
Let me respond very briefly to the hon. Gentleman. He suggested that I did not agree with the statement; I fully agreed with everything in it. That is just for the hon. Gentleman’s—[Interruption]—instruction.
A very amusing interjection.
The Government have made clear, and the Prime Minister made clear a couple of weeks ago, that in the event of the meaningful vote not getting through, there would be a number of votes on consecutive days outlining what the process would be. [Interruption.] Members say that they have heard that before. That is because of the process that is unfolding. What we will do now is seek an extension of article 50. [Interruption.] That has been very clearly expressed.
As for the meaningful vote, Mr Speaker, you made your opinion clear in your statement, but I do not want to prejudge whether any meaningful vote will come to the House, or to prejudge its success or otherwise. We have made it very plain that if we are given the meaningful vote, we will seek a short extension, if we get that through the House, and if we do not, we will seek a longer extension. I am pleased to be able to inform the House exactly what the position is.
May I urge the Government not to seek any extension in the event that their agreement is not successfully put through the House? The Government’s long-term, consistently stated policy has been that we will leave on 29 March 2019, and that is what those who voted for both main parties will expect following the clear statements that were made at the time of the 2017 election. Will the Minister persuade the Government to go to the important meeting with our European partners this week and to table a fully comprehensive free trade agreement? I think that they would be willing to discuss that if the alternative were leaving without such an agreement, and then we would not need to impose new barriers. What’s not to like? Will the Government get on with it?
I am delighted, and not wholly unsurprised, by my right hon. Friend’s intervention. I have followed his speeches and declarations in the House with interest for many years.
The referendum happened, but we must also get legislation through Parliament. We live in a parliamentary democracy, and last week the House made very clear its view that we should take no deal off the table and seek an extension of article 50. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister outlined a series of measures whereby she and her Government would try to follow the directions of the House in respect of the extension and in respect of taking no deal off the table.
I commend the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) for submitting the urgent question, and I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting it.
Last week, the House voted by a sizeable majority to rule out any possibility of our leaving the EU without a deal. If the Government, by prevarication or otherwise, cause us to crash out without a deal, that will surely be the greatest case of contempt of Parliament in the history of not just this but any Parliament. The Government have 11 days left in which to take the action that they must take to prevent that from happening. When no deal was ruled out last Tuesday, there were 17 days left, so the Government have used more than a third of their time doing precisely nothing. The Minister was full of promises about what they intended to do, but could give no answers about what they had done to seek and secure that extension.
Let us consider the options that we now have. The Minister must accept—I hope that he will accept—that the Prime Minister’s current deal is not coming back. It is finished, and the Government must come forward with another solution. If they do not—given that the House has clearly rejected the threat of being forced out without a deal—and if they cannot sort this out within 11 days, the only option is for them to revoke article 50.
In a written statement on 15 March, the Prime Minister said:
“In accordance with the motion the House approved on Thursday 14 March 2019 the Government will now seek to agree an extension with the EU.”
Why did the Government not start to do that when the Prime Minister made her statement? What was the purpose of delaying for the best part of a week, a third of the available time for the disaster to be averted? Will the Minister vote for the statutory instrument that he mentioned to extend article 50—given that he has already voted against it—or will he follow the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State into the book of shame that lists the names of those who speak in favour of a measure at the Dispatch Box and then vote against it?
Last Tuesday, the Attorney General published his legal opinion, and within hours we were being told by an hon. Member that the Attorney General had extended that advice. Can the Minister tell us whether the Attorney General has amended, extended, reviewed, revised or in any way changed the legal opinion that he published last week? If so, why has Parliament not been notified—or is all the talk about the Vienna convention just a fantasy, an attempt to bring on board reluctant Members to vote for a deal that we now know is dead in the water?
Yesterday, the Prime Minister tweeted that we should all be
“pragmatically making the honourable compromises necessary to heal division and move forward”.
Does the Minister recall that the Scottish Government put forward an honourable compromise in December 2016 that would have prevented this mess and that his Government rejected it out of hand? Why does the Prime Minister not practise what she preached in her tweet yesterday? Why do the Government not now accept that they cannot give the answer themselves and that they must talk to other parties to get us out of this disastrous mess?
Order. I have the greatest possible fondness for the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he will not take it amiss if I say that while I greatly enjoyed listening to his dulcet tones, he did exceed his allotted time: indeed, he took three times his allotted time. I savoured every word, but he did exceed it. It was supposed to be a minute, and he took three.
The hon. Gentleman produced a whole battery of questions. He asked why we had not sought an extension. The European Council will start on Thursday; at that point a letter will be sent, and we will seek an extension. He also asked about the statutory instrument and what my vote would be. Perhaps I am part of a tiny minority in the House, but I still think that there is room for a vote on the deal. I think that that may happen, and I do not want to prejudge the situation.
Given that the European Council is only three days away, may I ask the Minister three questions? First, how long an extension will we ask for, or has Olly Robbins not yet told the Cabinet? Secondly, what is the purpose of the extension? Thirdly, will the statutory instrument be debated on the Floor of the House, rather than upstairs in Committee, and will the Government allocate a whole day for the debate?
You chair the House of Commons Commission, Mr Speaker, and today is D minus 11. If, as a result of these historic events, we do leave the European Union at 11 pm on 29 March, will you, Sir, use your influence with the House of Commons authorities to ensure that Big Ben chimes at 11 pm, so that we can celebrate our freedom?
I shall take the last part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question as rhetorical. I do not want to rehearse that particular matter. Suffice it to say that—as the right hon. Gentleman may know, but may not—the idea was canvassed in the House of Commons Commission, but did not enjoy support beyond, if memory serves me, one person, who was perfectly entitled to that view. I am not knocking the person who expressed it, but it was not more widely shared. I absolutely admit that if the right hon. Gentleman were himself a member of the Commission, the support for it would obviously have doubled.
My right hon. Friend asked, essentially, two questions. He asked how long the extension would be. That depends on whether the meaningful vote goes through. If we have a deal and if the deal goes through, we will ask for a short extension. If, for whatever reason, the vote does not happen, or is frustrated, or the deal is voted down, we will probably ask for a long extension. [Hon. Members: “How long?”] That would be a matter for the EU, and for our Government, to decide.
My right hon. Friend’s second question was about the statutory instrument. As a former Whip, he will know that such matters are for the usual channels—for the business managers in the House. I am sure that we will have further clarification later in the week.
The Minister’s assertion that my amendment of last Thursday would have bound future Governments comes as a great surprise to me because, as I recall, it asked for a motion to be prioritised on 20 March. But leaving that aside, can the Minister confirm that the Government intend to agree to the extension at the meeting of the European Council later this week, however long that extension is, and do not intend to bring back the length of that extension to the House for endorsement?
On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, I am not here to wrangle with him about the meaning of his amendment; all we know is that the amendment was rejected so what its force would have been is of academic concern. It was rejected, thankfully, and we can move on.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s comments on the extension, I said—very clearly I hoped—in my opening statement that the Prime Minister would write a letter and the length of the extension would be agreed between the EU and the UK Government.
The motion debated by the House last week envisaged a short extension, and as my hon. Friend pointed out there has to be a purpose to a short extension. Given the absence of a withdrawal agreement will the Government look again at the potential of using such a short extension to apply to join the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement to which we are a party, and thereby rely on our existing legal rights under that treaty?
As my hon. Friend will remember, there were two options. If the deal is adopted by the House, the Government will apply for a short extension of the article 50 period. If it is not—if the deal is voted down or for whatever reason is frustrated—we would have to seek a longer extension. It is not currently the Government’s intention to seek to join EFTA or any other of those organisations. We made it very clear that this was a binary choice: we would have the deal, in which case we would ask for a short extension, or we would have to ask, regrettably perhaps, for a longer one.
The Minister seems to be the only person in this House who thinks the deal can be agreed before this week’s European Council meeting. It is not going to be; let us get real about this. Does he understand something we have been trying to impress on the Prime Minister for some time: the one and possibly the only way she can save her deal now would be to bring it back here and make it conditional on putting it to the British people?
I was very struck during last week’s events about this so-called people’s vote, because my understanding was that the Labour party had suddenly changed its policy in favour of it, but then of course when the amendment came from the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), the Labour party refused to back it, so I and others are in a lot of confusion about the nature of the so-called people’s vote. I am not going to prejudge things; I still think there is a chance that the deal can come back and go through the House, but perhaps I am an eternal optimist.
Given the centrality of Northern Ireland to the Brexit process, does the Minister agree that a solemn and binding change that involved Stormont in the future arrangements in the political declaration or the unilateral declaration would constitute a very significant change to any meaningful vote that was brought before this House?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: Northern Ireland is at the front and centre of this current debate, and the Government’s intention is absolutely that Stormont, if and when it is reconstituted as a Government, will have a complete role in moving forward both the deal and further Brexit discussions.
May I congratulate the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on securing this question? As you know, Mr Speaker, it had widespread cross-party support, and rightly so.
I gently say to the Minister that it might help if he actually were to take a note of questions when they are asked of him, and if he had done that he might have been able to answer the question that I think has been asked by a number of hon. Members. The Minister has told us that he thinks the deal might somehow go through by Thursday and in that event a short extension would be sought to cross the t’s and dot the i’s—those are my words—but in the extremely likely event that it will not go through by Thursday, the Government’s plan is to ask for a longer extension, and the question we are all asking is this: what will the purpose of that extension be? So the Minister understands: we have got to give the EU a reason, so what will the Government’s reason be—the purpose—for the long extension, please?
I must say that, being relatively new to the Government Front Bench, it is a new experience for me to be utterly patronised by a former right hon. Friend, and with respect, Mr Speaker, I will answer the questions in the way I see fit. [Interruption.] If that does not satisfy the right hon. Lady—[Interruption.]
Order. There is a very high octane atmosphere. The right hon. Lady’s question was entirely in order—I would have ruled it out of order if it were not—but equally I say, with great respect to the Minister, that the Minister’s answer must be heard.
As I have said on numerous occasions in response to questions from the right hon. Lady and others, we have a choice: if we accept the deal, we can ask for a short extension to get through—[Interruption.] She perfectly accepts that; I thank the right hon. Lady. With regard to the longer extension, that is something we have not yet asked for, and when we do so, there will be a debate about the SI that will extend it for next week, and there will be—[Interruption.] I refuse to be patronised by the right hon. Lady and say there will be ample opportunity, as she well knows, to debate the extension of the SI next week.
So far the Minister has not explained, to my satisfaction anyway, why we need an extension at all, certainly given the votes last week, and, secondly, why on earth would we want a long extension? What is the rationale behind that? Is the Minister also aware that Mr Guy Verhofstadt has just said that the UK could be refused an extension if the Prime Minister fails to get agreement in the Commons on the meaningful vote, and, secondly, does he know that Elmar Brok is saying that the Italians are almost certainly going to refuse an extension anyway?
I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has asked a question. He is a great parliamentarian: he has ample experience over many years in the House of Commons, and he will have noticed that there was a vote on Thursday in which the House said we should extend the article 50 process. It is on the back of that that I have made this statement relating to extending the article 50 process, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has presented these two choices. I am not prejudging the meaningful vote. Many people in this House have condemned it already; I am not prejudging that, but that is why we are going to extend the period.
My hon. Friend may rely on other Governments vetoing the extension of article 50. That may well be the case; I cannot prejudge that. But what we do know is that many people in Europe have said they would accommodate the United Kingdom if it were the case that the Government should extend the article 50 period.
Two things are very clear today. One is that our country is being humiliated by the European Union—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but the House must try to calm itself. In particular, the hon. Lady must be heard—and however many times her question needs to be put, it will be heard.
I was going to add, Mr Speaker, that that humiliation is being helped by some people in this House.
The second thing that is so true today is that any extension of article 50 will be seen as, and is, a betrayal of the referendum vote. When the Prime Minister goes to the Council this week, will she go cap in hand, as she seems to have done, and ask for more for the agreement—for some changes? Or will she go and say very clearly, “This deal has not been accepted by Parliament, so therefore we are leaving, as Parliament voted, on 29 March”?
The Prime Minister set out a series of votes that took place last week. We all know the results of those votes. At the end of the process, in the final vote on the Thursday, the result was roughly 420 against 202. The House voted by two to one to extend article 50, and that is what the Prime Minister has said she will do. We have a parliamentary democracy, and the Prime Minister very clearly set out what would happen.
Will the Minister rule out the possibility of our taking part in the European elections?
I would love to do that, but my hon. Friend knows that the way to have done so would have been to vote for the deal so that we could have left on the required date. If the extension is two years, of course I cannot rule out the possibility that these elections might be held, because my understanding is that it is a matter of law that we should have representation in that Parliament.
I would never try to patronise anybody, so let me ask a blunt and simple question. If, as it appears will be necessary, we have to ask for a longer extension—what for?
I will give a blunt and simple answer. We will have a debate next week when the SI is determined, then there will be a—[Interruption.] That is exactly what the process will be. The hon. Lady knows that as well as I do.
The hon. Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) wanted to ask a question, but he is now feverishly writing with his pen. I know that he will know in his head exactly what he wants to ask.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. If this agreement is not passed by 29 March, what does the Minister think will be any different on 29 April, 29 May or 29 June? If it cannot be agreed, should we not just simply leave on 29 March?
I know that my hon. Friend is a passionate believer in Brexit, but it has been very clear from the events last week that there is no majority in this House for leaving without a deal. The Prime Minister and her Government believe that we should take some instruction from the House to take no deal off the table, and that is what happened.
The Minister was getting a bit het up earlier about questions being asked—perhaps the Government should come to this place with something to say. There are 11 days before we are due to leave, and the Government have absolutely no plan whatever about how to get the country out of this mess.
Time and again, Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the House cannot agree on what it wants, yet the Government whipped people to vote against the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), which would have set aside a day for us to put those options forward. Opposition Members know how we want to get out of the mess, so why do the Government not give us the chance to do so?
In my brief time as a Minister, I have been very clear about the way to get out of the mess. The obvious way was to vote for the deal—a reasonable deal. The Opposition voted it down and now they turn around and have the effrontery to say, “What shall we do?” They have been totally negative. That is exactly why I have calmly set out the next steps for the extension of article 50.
How onerous would the conditions for granting an extension have to be for the Government to desist from their intention to lay a statutory instrument before the House?
That ball is now rolling, I am afraid. My right hon. Friend is still trying to expand on the fantasy of no deal, but no deal has been taken off the table by this House, and that is why we are talking about extending article 50.
The Minister says that he answers questions in the way he sees fit, but I think the House would say that that is not at all. If he cannot think of a reason for a long extension, who does he expect to come up with one?
As I have said, in a spirit of optimism, I still believe that there is a chance—perhaps a slim chance—that the meaningful vote will go through. People can scoff and laugh, but I still believe that. In the event that it does not go through, we will have to ask for an extension, then the SI will be laid before the House. There will be ample debate next week on what the House might wish to do in that longer extension period.
You correctly said in your statement to the House earlier, Mr Speaker, that in December we had three days of debate on the withdrawal agreement before the Government pulled that vote. I think we had another five days of debate in January before the first meaningful vote. I think I am correct in saying that, at that Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister said 108 times that we would be leaving the European Union on 29 March.
This is a very important matter for the country, and the Minister just said that we would need ample debate on an SI to change the date. May I have assurances that we will have at least a week’s worth of debates in this House to ensure that we discuss it properly?
My hon. Friend knows the procedures of this House as well as I do. As I said in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), that is a matter for the business managers. My right hon. Friend, as a former Whip, knows exactly how time is allocated in this House, and this is not something that I can opine on from the Dispatch Box.
May I return to the issue of process? The Minister said earlier that the Prime Minister will write a letter to the EU Council for the meeting on Thursday and Friday. In that letter, I assume that she will ask for an extension, and if we do not have a meaningful vote and agree the withdrawal agreement this week, she will have to say what the longer extension is for and for how long she wants it to be.
Can the Minister tell us now what extension the Prime Minister will ask for in that letter to the EU Council—how long an extension will be asked for and its purpose? I assume that the idea is that that will be agreed at the European Council. It will not be up to Parliament to decide the length of the extension or its purpose, because the Prime Minister, I assume, intends to agree it with her European counterparts this week. Is that correct, Minister?
The hon. Lady asks me to speculate about the contents of the Prime Minister’s letter, and I am not in a position to do that. That will be revealed in the course of the week, I suppose. As for the debate on the SI, we will have ample opportunity to discuss the purpose of any extension.
Mr Speaker, you and I have been in this House together for nearly 22 years, and I do not think that I have known such grave times as those that we are experiencing at the moment. They require serious questions and serious answers. In the not entirely unreasonable event of the EU Council deciding at the weekend not to grant any extension at all to put us out of our misery, what will the Government’s response be?
It is self-evident: in that case, we would leave on 29 March with no deal, because that is what the EU would have forced us to do.
Businesses and our constituents will be looking on at this farce in horror. The Minister is either unable to answer questions or gives contradictory answers, upsetting everyone on both sides of the House. He referred to Mr Speaker’s statement and said that he still thinks that there is a slim chance that the meaningful vote could go through. Is that because, as the Leader of the House has been muttering in the corridors, the Government intend to try to suspend the Standing Orders to get the vote through, despite what Mr Speaker has said?
That is what the Leader of the House has been muttering in the corridors this afternoon.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster both made it clear that the Government would bring forward legislation to implement any extension to article 50 and that the date would be amendable, so will the Minister explain how it will be amendable?
I am unsure what the hon. Gentleman is referring to as being amendable. The motion will or may well be amendable with respect to—[Interruption.] A motion on 25 March will be amendable if we have another vote, but my understanding is that the SI will not be amendable.
With respect to conversations that the Leader of the House may or may not have had, I have no idea what she has been saying in the corridors. I have been in the Chamber for most of the day.
Will the Government be tabling the memo that was sent to them by the alternative arrangements working group on 13 February in order to try to get changes to the package of documents that might enable the withdrawal agreement to be approved?
My hon. Friend has done good work on that amendment, and we have worked hard to try to incorporate some of that thinking into the withdrawal agreement. That process is ongoing.
It seems as if the Minister’s answers to our likely questions were written before Mr Speaker’s statement at 3.30 pm, so the Minister will probably have to think a little more creatively. What consideration has he given to allowing the House to vote on a variety of different options for the way ahead?
I thank the hon. Lady for her concern about my answers. They were actually produced after Mr Speaker spoke—[Interruption.] Things move very fast in this place, as she knows. It is not currently our intention to have indicative votes, and I cannot be clearer about that. However, we are going to lay an SI to extend the article 50 period, and I have said that many times.
What an unenviable choice between two very fine Members of Parliament! C comes before p in the alphabet; on that basis alone, I call Mr Alex Chalk.
The Minister indicated that the basis for the extension will be determined following a debate in this House next week. That is the week beginning 25 March, and we are leaving on Friday 29 March. How can we be satisfied that there is sufficient time for the debate to take place, the application to be made and for it to be approved or otherwise in that time?
If my hon. Friend is asking me whether the timeframe is short, of course it is short. However, as I have said many times, the House voted last week to extend the article 50 process, and the Government will have to table an SI in order to do that. However, that has to be done after the March EU Council meeting, which takes place on 21 and 22 March. That is the logic behind the timetable.
Every time the Prime Minister or another Minister claims to be being clear on this issue, the Brexit quagmire gets murkier and murkier. This Government have tried to avoid parliamentary scrutiny at every stage, and they are carrying that on today. They think that they can run down the clock without us noticing, but we will. Rather than automatically crashing off a cliff next week after they have run down the clock without properly seeking an extension, will the Minister confirm that the Government have the power to revoke article 50?
As I have repeated many times, we have a process, and this urgent question is all about the process, which I have outlined. I know that people are saying that this is impossible, but if the meaningful vote goes through, we will ask for a short extension to get the necessary legislation through. If it does not go through, we will ask for a longer extension. In both scenarios, we would have to lie—[Hon. Members: “Lie?”] Forgive me, we would have to lay—[Laughter.] Let me rearrange the phrasing: a statutory instrument would have to be laid in order to extend the article 50 process. That is the world in which we live.
I commend the Minister for batting very well on a difficult wicket. I hope that he moves up in the reshuffle batting order after today. He has done very well—[Interruption.] I think my time has passed.
Was it not the Government’s position that if the House agreed to the withdrawal agreement, they would seek a short technical extension? Given that the Prime Minister will probably go to the EU summit without a withdrawal agreement having been passed, is it not likely that the EU, which will then be in the driving seat, will ask for a long extension?
That being the case, would it not be a little premature of the Prime Minister to take a letter ahead of a possible third meaningful vote next week—subject to a change in the motion, as outlined by Mr Speaker earlier? Would it not perhaps be better to wait until next week to see whether we can get the meaningful vote on the Order Paper and voted through and then ask for a short extension, rather than have a long extension dictated to this House and this country by the EU?
I am delighted that my hon. Friend sees the world the way I do. In fact, the Government’s choice would have been to get the withdrawal agreement through the House and then leave on 29 March, but the House had other ideas and the deal was voted down, so we are now seeking to extend the process. I happen to think that the meaningful vote could get through—maybe next week, but who knows? But in the event that it does not, we need a way to extend the article 50 process. That is what I have been outlining this afternoon.
The Prime Minister’s deal has been defeated twice by huge majorities, and Mr Speaker ruled this afternoon that it cannot be brought back without a substantial change. The EU has said that there can be no substantial changes to the deal, so the only remaining course of action short of no deal or revoking article 50 is to seek an extension, but the agreement to that extension has to be unanimous. Will the Minister therefore acknowledge that if the EU does not agree to an extension, the only course of action open to the British Government to avoid the disastrous consequences of a no-deal exit would be to revoke article 50 unilaterally?
We have in fact had many votes on SNP amendments to revoke article 50—
We have not.
Or amendments to have a second referendum and all the rest of it. It is therefore unlikely that such a motion would get through the House, and it is not the Government’s intention to revoke article 50. As I have said, there is the meaningful vote—the deal—and we will then get a short extension, but if we vote it down, it will be a longer extension.
The Government have run down the clock, and they have failed twice. When will Ministers finally set out a realistic plan for an extension of article 50?
I cannot stress enough how interested I am in the fact that the hon. Gentleman does not feel that we have set out a plan for an extension. I mentioned the SI that would be laid next week, and I set out that there would be a debate. The Government listened to the House last week, and we are committed to extending article 50, as I said in my initial answer.
The Minister will know that businesses and people up and down the country are anxious about the prospect of no deal. Does he therefore accept that they need more reassurance than him saying, “We’re going to bring forward an SI and see what happens”? Will he set out what he will do to reassure people that we will not crash out without a deal? Will he also reassure the House that the Government have no intention of proroguing Parliament as a way of getting their deal through?
In respect of no deal, the House has made its voice very clear. In respect of extending article 50, the House, once again, has made its voice very clear and the Government have responded to that. That is why we are going to ask—I could not be clearer—for an extension of article 50. The debate is about how long that will be. I still hope there will be a deal, in which case we will ask for a short extension but, if not, we would have to look at another timeframe.
Time is very short, so how is the Minister going to interact properly with the sidelined Welsh Government? So far, the UK Government’s record is not satisfactory—they have not been competent, from the bungling over legislative competence to the workings of the Joint Ministerial Committee, which has been described by others, not remainers and not nationalists, as not fit for purpose.
Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), has met the Welsh Government many times and has had constructive dialogue with them. It is worth remembering that the Welsh Government gave their legislative consent to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 last summer. So that is something where we worked together admirably and we got a good result.
We are here because the Government have spent the last three years ignoring the political and practical realities of Brexit, and now the Minister is trying to do the same thing with only 11 days to go. The Prime Minister cannot bring her deal back to Parliament. The European Union will not negotiate a new deal unless the red lines change. So could he stop treating Brexit like some internal Conservative party parlour game, take a real-world decision and tell us how long the extension will be and for what?
The idea that I or anyone else is treating this as a parlour game is completely irresponsible. In 2016, 17.4 million people, including many of the hon. Lady’s constituents, voted to leave the EU and we are taking our responsibilities extremely seriously. She may think it is a parlour game, but we do not agree with her. I have stressed many times that we will be seeking an extension, either a short one if the meaningful vote goes through—[Interruption.] People are laughing that out of court. I still have some hope that it will go through. If that is voted down, we will seek a longer extension. In both of those cases we will seek to lay an SI.
Is it true that the Conservative party is seeking an extension to replace the Prime Minister with a new leader who can deliver Brexit and make a better attempt—or at least some attempt—for them at winning a general election? So will the Prime Minister be penning a letter of resignation?
The Minister has stated that there will be time to debate the SI that he is intending to bring before the House. Could he unequivocally state now that it is his intention that the SI will be debated on the Floor of the House and not in a Delegated Legislation Committee? If he cannot do that, will he unequivocally state that, if it is to be debated in a Delegated Legislation Committee, the composition of that Committee will reflect the political make-up of this House and, thus, have no majority for any one party?
Obviously, as I have said in other answers, the nature of the SI debate is something for business questions. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman asks the Leader of the House how that process—[Interruption.] He understands the proceedings of the House and how this House works. That is a matter for the business managers but, having been a Member of this House for nine years, I would be surprised if the SI were not debated on the Floor of this House.
Can the Minister explain the source of the chink of light that seems to be guiding his optimism on a meaningful vote passing this week? If he cannot, can he explain to the House how it would work—how would a debate on an SI next week inform a letter to be written this week?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is an acute observer of debate and language, but let me assure him that the debate on the SI will be a full and ample one, as to the reasons at the time. The Prime Minister has made it clear—[Interruption.] It may just be a quirk of my nature, but I am still optimistic that we may well get a meaningful vote through. If we do, we will apply for a short, technical extension.
We are days away from our planned exit day and the European Council is even sooner. With respect to the Minister, because I do not think this is his fault, let me say that it is completely unacceptable that the Government, at this stage, are not able to say to the House in simple terms the basis on which the Prime Minister will ask for an extension to article 50 later this week. May I help the Minister out of this hole by reminding him of a commitment made by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, from the Dispatch Box, that this House would be given, by the Government, an opportunity for a series of indicative votes to see whether a consensus can be built involving a majority of Members? Does that commitment still hold?
My understanding was that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s commitment related to the period after we had decided to extend the article 50 period—that was when potential votes of the nature the hon. Gentleman describes would take place. I cannot stress more passionately to him that I still believe there is a binary choice: we still have the prospect of a deal or not. I still believe that that is an option. He has ruled it out, as have many others, but I still believe there is an option—[Interruption.] The Speaker did not rule it out.
The Minister keeps saying he is an optimist, but it seems to me, from the answers he is giving us, that he is living in a parallel universe when it comes to timescales and managing this process. Let us try again. He says that, if the withdrawal agreement does not go through this week, the Prime Minister will ask for an extension on Thursday. What we have been trying to tell him is that debating the SI next week is after Thursday and therefore pointless. So what reasons will the Prime Minister give for a long extension on Thursday?
The SI is not pointless at all because, as a matter of law, in the withdrawal Act, the exit day is 29 March. The hon. Gentleman will understand that, if we are going to extend the article 50 period, we have to amend the exit day as described in that Act, so the SI is absolutely necessary.
Can the Minister finally give the House the details of his spirit-of-optimism deal?
This is a quirk of my personality. I am an optimist by nature and I still believe that, until the end of the game, we cannot decide who the winner is going to be. I still believe there is a possibility that we will have a meaningful vote and it will get through this House.
There are real-world consequences from the Government running down the clock. One of my constituents, Stephanie, has just had to pay £157 for a one-week fast-tracking of her passport in order to be able to travel on 24 March; people need a passport that has at least six months before its expiry. If the date is going to change, that expense will have been for nothing. So what will the Government do to compensate constituents such as mine who have been affected by that, if the Brexit date does change?
I reject the assertion that we are going to run down the clock. We have made it explicit that we will seek an extension. I do not see what could be less running down the clock than seeking an extension to article 50.
This has been a mildly amusing but not particularly illuminating session. Clearly, the Minister has been dealt a rum hand today. He goes on about a debate on an SI to potentially extend the article 50 process, but for the love of God can he please give us the Government’s reason for extending article 50 for a long period of time?
The Prime Minister has set out a reason as to what we were going to do in the event of her deal being voted down, and that is exactly what I have spent an hour in this House trying to explain.
The Minister has made it clear that his understanding is that the House has voted that we will not leave with no deal. We are in this situation because of the mess the Government have made of the negotiations. So does it not follow that, if we do not get an extension from the EU this week, the Government have to bring a vote before this House to revoke article 50?
The best way to exit the EU is, dare I say it, to get a deal and to vote for that deal. In the event that does not happen, the SI is the means to enact what the House has voted for. The House has been clear that it does not want a no deal, and the way to avoid a no deal is to table an SI. That is as simple as it can be.
The excellent new Clerk of the House has been very clear that the way in which we extend article 50 is by the unanimous agreement of the EU27—we assume that will take place at the Council meeting this weekend—and that the EU27 have to agree with us the purposes of the extension before they will agree to it. I assume I am correct, but will the Minister please correct me if I am wrong? The House would then have to vote on a statutory instrument next week.
I gently say to the Minister that I believe he may be wrong in saying that we can debate the purposes of the extension. Those purposes will already have been agreed by the Prime Minister and the European Council before the Government can move the statutory instrument—the Government cannot move the statutory instrument unilaterally.
The hon. Lady gently reminds me of a couple of facts, and I will gently remind her of a couple of facts. We still face a choice. I do not share the assumption that the meaningful vote will not come back and that the deal is dead. I think we can command a majority for the deal in this House. Until the meaningful vote has passed, or until the deal is completely impossible, I do not want to prejudge the reasons why we should have a longer extension. That is my view, and the hon. Lady has her view, which I fully understand.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I was only going to take the first one. Points of order should actually come after the final urgent question, but I know it is in relation to this urgent question and the Minister is waiting.
In reply to an earlier question, the Minister stated that, on many occasions, the House has considered and rejected amendments that sought to revoke article 50. As a matter of fact, those amendments have never been selected for debate, and therefore they have never been considered and voted on by the House.
Mr Deputy Speaker, can you advise me, first, on how we can give the Minister a chance to correct his error? It is always better to correct one’s own error. Secondly, and more importantly, can you confirm that, given such amendments have never been selected, there is no impediment in the Standing Orders or in “Erskine May” convention to one being brought forward and considered at a later date?
As we both know, that point of order is about correction, and the hon. Gentleman has put it on the record. I do not think we need to go any further than that.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Does it relate to the previous point of order? If not, I would like to take all the points of order at the end.
During the points of order following the Speaker’s statement, it was said there are rumours that Standing Orders will be suspended to bring forward the Government’s motion again. Mr Deputy Speaker, can you explain how that process would come about and how it could be prevented?
I took the previous point of order because it was a point of correction, but I want to take points of order at the end if they do not relate to this urgent question. If the hon. Lady would like to raise it then, she can do so by all means, but it is not relevant to this urgent question. I am not ruling it out, but I am just suspending it for the moment.