Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the length and purpose of the extension of the Article 50 process requested by the Government.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate, which provides a vital opportunity to scrutinise the Prime Minister’s letter to the President of the EU Council and, of course, the wider Government approach to seeking an extension. An issue of this importance should not have to be dealt with through a debate under Standing Order No. 24. The Prime Minister should be here to answer questions. There should have been a full statement to the House. I appreciate that we had Prime Minister’s questions earlier, but this is a very important decision about the future of the United Kingdom, and the Prime Minister should be here to make a full statement setting out why she has applied for the extension she has applied for, and to answer such questions as there are across the House. It is symptomatic of the way the Prime Minister has approached many Brexit issues, which is to push Parliament as far away from the process as possible.
The House has rejected the Prime Minister’s deal twice, and not by small margins. It has voted to rule out no deal, and it voted to require the Prime Minister to seek an extension of article 50. I appreciate that on Thursday the last words of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union at the Dispatch Box were:
“I commend the Government motion to the House”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 628.]
before he promptly went off to vote against it, which caught me slightly by surprise—he is probably rather hoping that we do not divide this afternoon. However, given where we got to last week, when we ruled out no deal and required the Prime Minister to seek an extension of article 50, one might have expected the Prime Minister, in the intervening days, to reflect on where we are at and to recognise, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) said earlier, that perhaps she is the roadblock to progress. She could, at this stage, act in the national interest and, frankly, show some leadership and take a responsible approach, which I think would be to seek an extension to prevent no deal and to provide time for Parliament to find a majority for a different approach.
I think many Members are yearning for the opportunity to move forward and break the impasse, but the letter to President Tusk makes it clear that that is not the Prime Minister’s intention. It says:
“The UK Government’s policy remains to leave the European Union in an orderly manner on the basis of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration agreed in November”.
The letter continues,
“it remains my intention to bring the deal back to the House”—
not a new deal, a changed deal, or a deal, compromise or position agreed by this House, but
“the deal back to the House.”
It does not speak of seeking time for change or to consider other options that could win support in Parliament. The only mention is of
“domestic proposals that confirm my previous commitments to protect our internal market, given the concerns expressed about the backstop.”
There is nothing new; it is just the same deal, to be brought back as soon as possible.
My right hon. and learned Friend is making a powerful speech about the real predicament and crisis we currently face. There have been indications from the Government of France that they may well not permit an extension to article 50. Faced with that proposition, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Government are in a real fix? Unless they meaningfully change the deal that is on offer to Parliament and bring it back urgently, the Prime Minister will be faced with the difficult choice of whether to revoke article 50 or crash out with no deal.
I do understand the difficulty, but I do not think it is appropriate for me to respond to or comment on what may or may not have been said by Heads of State about what may or may not be agreed tomorrow. The point I am making is about the expectation of this House as to the approach that the Prime Minister would take. There is an even greater expectation—a yearning, which I can feel across the House and which I could feel last week—that this House be given an opportunity to break the impasse for itself by finding a way forward. I am afraid the Prime Minister’s approach is the same old blinkered approach, which is, “All I’m going to do is seek time to put my deal, exactly the same, back before the House for another vote.”
Based on the Prime Minister’s letter, I am not entirely clear why the EU would grant an extension in the first place, but the question for us all is the length of the extension that it would grant, and for what purpose. What is the Labour party’s policy?
I shall come to that later, but I will make this point. The period should of course be as short as possible, but it must be long enough to determine the purpose. In other words, the purpose has to determine the length. One of the mistakes we have made in the past two years, on which we have struggled and challenged the Prime Minister, is that if we let the clock, rather than the purpose, dictate we end up exactly where we have ended up now.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is absolutely ridiculous to suggest the idea of participating in democratic elections this May as the main reason for this House, or this nation, not to do what is in our national interest? It is complete nonsense.
Last week we touched on the difficulty of the EU elections and discussed the legal position and what the political position may be, and we need to bear that in mind. Of greater importance is that, given that we are discussing the future of the United Kingdom and its relationship with the EU, we take time to find the purpose of the extension and a majority that the House can get behind, so that we know why we are seeking the extension. That will begin to answer the question of how long an extension should be for.
I fully agree with my right hon. and learned Friend’s last point. The problem really is that the EU negotiators have said that there would have to be significant changes before they would look at an extension. The problem we have, certainly on the Back Benches and I am sure shared by my right hon. and learned Friend, is that nobody knows what the Prime Minister is going to ask the EU for in relation to that extension. Does he agree that it is disgraceful for the House to be kept in the dark in this way?
The problem with the Prime Minister’s approach is that last week we voted on a motion that said she would seek a short extension if the deal was passed by today—that was in paragraph (2) of the Prime Minister’s motion—and it has not been put before the House today, and that she would seek a longer extension if that was not the case. So, there was an expectation that the Prime Minister would do the opposite of what she has done today. Equally important is that there is a growing expectation that the House needs to have time to decide what happens next. A different Prime Minister might have reflected on what happened last week and come to the House this week to say, “I recognise that my deal is not going to get through as it is and I, the Prime Minister, will provide a process of some sort, or ask the House to help me with a process of some sort, to decide where there is a majority, so that we can move forward.” That is what is being missed in the letter.
As ever, the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a powerful speech. He has given a description of what he would have expected the Prime Minister to do in the circumstances; what explanation does he put forward as to why the Prime Minister has not behaved in that way? Is it because she is stubborn, or is it because she is in the pockets of the European Research Group—the hard Brexiteers who are essentially running this country and this Brexit process? What does he think the explanation is?
The immediate concern is that the Prime Minister does not appear to be acting in accordance with her own motion of last week, but the deeper problem, which is what I am most concerned about, is that the Prime Minister still thinks that the failed strategy of the past two years, “My deal or no deal”—a blinkered approach with no changes and no room for Parliament—should be pursued for another three months. In other words, all she will do is use the three months in exactly the same way to bring back the deal over and over again—or as many times as she can without breaching the rules of the House—and try to force it through. That is the strategy that she has been pursuing throughout these negotiations and it has failed badly. We must not allow another three months to be used up on the same approach.
The letter sent by the Prime Minister this morning makes two requests to the Council—that it approves the documents agreed in Strasbourg on 11 March, and that it allows three months for the Prime Minister to get the same deal through Parliament. If I have read and understood the letter properly, I think the Prime Minister may be planning to bring the deal back on the basis that the documents that were before us last time have now been approved formally at the Council, and that some domestic arrangements have been agreed with possibly other parties, which means that she can then say that the deal can now be put to another vote, notwithstanding the fact that the documents on the table are exactly the same as the ones that we voted on last week. Obviously, that will raise the issue as to whether that is in accordance with the Standing Orders of the House, which will have to be addressed at the time.
The letter continues,
“it remains my intention to bring the deal back to the House.”
That is not a new deal, but the same deal. That is extraordinary, given how the House voted last week. It does not reflect the motion that was passed. Paragraph (2) of the motion clearly mentioned a short technical extension if the deal was passed by today—that was when the Prime Minister had the intention of bringing the deal back for today—or a longer extension if that was not the case.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. He said a few moments ago that there was no point in asking for an extension, particularly a long one, in the absence of a clear purpose. I gather from those remarks that he thinks a long extension is appropriate; can he confirm that? If he does think it is appropriate, will he tell the House what his purpose would be?
I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman can clarify something that he appeared to say just now, which was that the Prime Minister was not following her own motion because she had said in the third part of it that she would seek a longer extension. However, after reading the motion, I can say that it does not appear to say that. The first part says that she will seek an extension. The second part says that if the deal went through by today, she would seek a short extension, and the third part merely notes that if the deal did not go through and a longer extension was sought, it would require participation in the European elections. She did not say that she would seek a longer extension. I should be grateful if he could clarify that for the record.
I am grateful for that intervention because it allows me to read out what the Minister for the Cabinet Office said on this motion from the Dispatch Box. He was promoting the motion, and he actually voted for it, so perhaps what he said can be taken seriously. He said this at that Dispatch Box last week:
“In the absence of a deal”—
what he meant by that was a deal going through by today—
“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.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 566.]
Those are the words spoken from the Government Benches on the interpretation of the Government’s own motion. In other words, if a deal had not gone through by now, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that, in those circumstances, simply to go for a short, one-off extension would be “downright reckless” and would make a no-deal scenario more rather than less likely. Members in this House should be concerned about that.
I am very grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. He is making a powerful case. The motion that the House agreed made it clear that, if there was not a deal by today, the likelihood would be that the European Council would require a longer extension. Is it his view that when the European Council meets tomorrow, they are likely to require that?
We will have to wait until tomorrow to see what the Council’s response is. It may simply say that it will consider any request, but it does need to know what the purpose is. This is where the Prime Minister may get into some difficulty. If she says that the only purpose is to allow her to keep putting her deal for the next three months, that may or may not be seen as realistic with regard to what will happen in the next three months. None the less, it is a question that the Prime Minister will have to answer.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Just going back on his point—and he may agree with this—it is apparent that the remarks of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster were made not just out of the air, but in order to explain and justify the Government’s wording of that motion, which came in for a considerable amount of criticism as appearing to be opaque. He may agree with me that the words uttered at the Dispatch Box could be taken authoritatively as the Government’s assurance about what they intended to do.
I do agree with that. The reputation of the Minister for the Cabinet Office in this House is that he is someone in whom others invest assurance and confidence because of what he says and the way in which he says it. It may also have been some preparation for the meaningful vote to come back this Tuesday with the message, “If you don’t vote for it next Tuesday, then the Government will have to apply for a different extension.” There was at least that dual purpose.
The emphasis on the word “short” is subjective, because for many people short is long and long is short—[Interruption.] It is by definition subjective. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman is comparing one statement of “short” with another statement of “long”, but the matter is purely subjective even in that case.
I suppose that I accept the proposition that one person’s short may be another person’s long, but the words of the Minister for the Cabinet Office did not come in isolation or out of the blue; they came in the middle of a debate, which was quite heated at times, about what the motion meant and how we should interpret it. I do not think that anyone who was in that debate would, in all honesty, doubt what the Minister for the Cabinet Office was saying and what he meant by it, and I took
“a short and, critically, one-off extension”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 566.]
to mean an extension for up to three months with a cliff-edge at the end.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman as confused as I am? Given that we have had assurances from the Prime Minister and other Ministers that they know the will of the people and that the matter has been decided, if they are so sure, why are they so fearful of asking the people again?
That is really a question for the Government. My point is that we have to find a way through this impasse, and that requires us to come together as a House to consider and vote on the options and to provide a process for that. It is not helpful to put the deal, which has already been rejected, over and over with differing threats. Having accepted a motion last week to take no deal off the table, the Prime Minister is now trying to put no deal back on the table within a week by just changing the date of no deal, so that she can again ram the deal up against the deadline with the old “my deal or no deal,” response. I have no doubt that the three months will be run down and that we will get close to the June deadline with exactly the same strategy, which is the great cause for concern.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is absolutely outrageous for the Government to bring back the same deal, just a week later, to see whether MPs have changed their minds, but completely refuse, almost three years later, to give the public the opportunity to say that they have changed their mind?
That is a powerful point. The argument that we were making last week was that, realistically, the deal had not changed since the first time it was put eight weeks earlier. There was obviously the suggestion that the Government would simply bring it back this week, without even pretending that there had been any changes, and just say, “It’s now a week further on. How would you like a different threat?” to see whether they could get it through. That has to stop.
I am unsure whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is aware that today is the International Day of Happiness. Does he agree that one way of making both sides of the Chamber happy might be to have a people’s vote on the Prime Minister’s deal that included the option of staying in the European Union? We can then all be happy, including him.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. I am sure he is aware, though it may have escaped his note, that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made the purpose of the Government’s motion very clear in his opening remarks on Thursday 14 March, and that it is recorded in column 562 of that day’s Hansard. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman has already told us, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made it clear that the motion was to deal with this House approving the withdrawal agreement and a short extension, and he then said:
“If for whatever reason that proves not to be possible, we would be faced with the prospect of choosing only a long extension”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 562.]
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that more than once, and the purpose of the motion was extremely clear to the House.
I really do think it was clear to anybody who was in that debate. The Minister for the Cabinet Office also went on at least to hint that if the deal did not go through this week, he at least would be open to some sort of process by which the House could come to a different agreement and move forward; I think he indicated that that would be next week. Of course, on Monday we are due to vote and possibly amend the section 13 motion that the Government have to table as a result of the last meaningful vote failing.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this is about not the length of the extension but its function? The EU will need to see either a change in the process—that is, a vote of the people of this country—or a very different deal. The Prime Minister’s deal is clearly dead and cannot come back to life.
I agree. Also, it is not very seemly for the United Kingdom to be in a situation in which a deal is simply put and re-put and re-put and re-put. If it eventually got through by just a few votes after many times of trying and with threat levels changing, it would not be a proper basis for the future relationship with the EU because it will have lost all credibility; the meaningfulness is sucked out every time this process is repeated.
No, I am going to make some progress. I will give way in a moment.
We are now acting in the absence of a deal, with the express will of this House to prevent no deal. One of my biggest concerns is that the Prime Minister’s actions make no deal far more likely, not less—and that is the very issue that we were trying to deal with last week. If agreed by the EU, a short extension for the purposes of forcing through this deal would simply push the cliff edge back to 30 June, and we would start down the same track. The Prime Minister is repeating the same flawed strategy that she has been pursuing for two years in order to recreate the binary choice between her deal and no deal that this House rejected last week.
I am just going to make some progress before I take any more interventions.
After voting as we did in last week’s debate, we recognise that an extension to article 50 is now needed, and it is the failure of the Prime Minister’s approach that has caused the requirement for an extension. Of course, any extension should be as short as possible, but it has to allow a solution to the mess that the Prime Minister has got the country into—to provide a route to prevent no deal, not to make it more likely. It also has to provide a way for this House to prevent the Prime Minister from forcing the same deal on us over and over again. That is why we believe that the focus in the coming days and weeks should be on finding a majority for a new direction—to allow the House to consider options that can resolve the current crisis.
For Labour, that centres on two basic propositions: a close economic relationship with permanent customs union and single market alignment; and a public vote with credible leave options and a remain option. Those propositions, and possibly others, need to be discussed and tested, and we need to come to a consensus to see whether we can move forward. That is what extension should be about, not about the narrow interests of the Conservative party and trying to keep the Prime Minister in post.
Thank you again, Mr Speaker, for allowing this debate today. I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State explain the Government’s approach and how they plan to prevent Parliament from going back to the same place in three months’ time.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). He started his remarks by saying that the Prime Minister should be here to answer his SO24 debate, but then, slightly oddly, went immediately on to note that the Prime Minister had been here for just under an hour answering questions on the extension, in particular. Whether that, taken with two urgent questions to my Department this afternoon, an SO24 debate and much of Prime Minister’s questions also being taken up on these matters, constitutes International Day of Happiness, as the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) mentioned, I leave it to others to determine.
The Secretary of State might be wise to be aware of the fact that the Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk was not released until after Prime Minister’s questions had started, and it was not released to this House but to journalists. Is that not the case?
It is always good to take wisdom from all sources. My understanding is that the letter was placed in the House of Commons Library. On the precise timing of that, given the length of time that Prime Minister’s questions ran, I think it was probably in the Library while she was still answering questions.
The Secretary of State has been standing here describing how much time this House has spent talking about Brexit, but that is not the problem. The problem is that we are nine days away from leaving and the Government appear to have no policy. Is that not the case?
There is a famous phrase that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We have kicked the deal out twice and historical precedent in this place says that it cannot come back again. The EU has said that it is not going to accept an extension unless something different comes forward. At what point will we accept that we have got to go back to the people to put an end to this, because we cannot keep going over and over the same thing?
Well, I do wonder whether the hon. Lady is describing her own Front Benchers’ policy, because they have put forward a proposal that the House has rejected and yet seem to be intent on still putting forward the same policy. From speaking to EU leaders, as I know the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras will have done, what consistently comes across from senior figures in the EU is that the proposal put forward by the Leader of the Opposition is simply not credible. For example, he thinks that he can retain control over state aid and that he can have a say on EU trade deals. These are things that are simply not on offer.
The Secretary of State seems somehow to be surprised that the House has been asking urgent questions today, has been seeking this debate, and has been subjecting the Prime Minister to scrutiny. This is the greatest crisis that this country has faced since Suez. Countries around the world are looking at us, our international reputation in tatters. Our businesses are losing jobs and investment day by day, and we are peeing millions of pounds down the drain that could have been spent on our public services. And he wonders why this House is asking questions. It is absurd.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that was not the point I was making. Of course it is quite right that the House asks questions. Mr Speaker, you have always personally championed the House asking questions—indeed, urgent questions are something in which I think, quite rightly, you take much pride. But the point that the hon. Gentleman is not addressing is that people around the world also look to this country to respect its democracy. They say that this House gave the people the decision. Indeed, the Government of the day wrote that we would honour that decision, but—[Interruption.] He chunters from a sedentary position, but what is damaging to our reputation around the world is a sense of our asking the people for a decision and then not acting on it.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Could he give an answer to this simple question? The Prime Minister has revealed today that she has applied for a short one-off extension, and yet her de facto deputy described such an extension as “downright reckless” from the Dispatch Box last week. Could the Secretary of State explain to the House what the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was thinking of when he made that statement?
First, I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the comments that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made on that very issue when she was asked about it more than once at Prime Minister’s questions. It also relates to the point that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras made in his opening remarks. He referred at length to paragraph (2) of the motion last Thursday. The point about that motion was that it was conditional on a meaningful vote taking place, which has not happened.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), as so often, raises a very serious point as Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee, but my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was also talking in the context of what EU leaders would be willing to give. If we look at the public statements of EU leaders, we see that they have said there is very little appetite in Europe for a long extension, particularly when they see the uncertainty that we have had in this House.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way; he is very generous with his time. It was put to him just now that we have no plan, but the plan is the deal. The only plan that Labour has put to us is closer alignment with the customs union, which is basically staying in the EU, and that is not what the people voted for. The people voted to come out, and all this obfuscating is only delaying that. Does he agree that we have to consider business, and the longer we dispute, discuss and debate and the less we come together, the more difficult it is for the economy and our businesses?
My hon. Friend is right to say that businesses in Taunton Deane and, I am sure, elsewhere have made clear their desire to see this deal backed and to address the uncertainty that we face. People have been saying to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that she should compromise. She has compromised—she did not want to have an extension. She has listened and acted on that, but the House has to compromise.
Is not the only way to avoid no deal to vote for the withdrawal agreement, and the only way to vote against a long extension is to vote for the withdrawal agreement? Is there not some intellectual inconsistency in the Opposition’s argument? They say they want to put a vote back to the people based on a deal, but they are suggesting that the Prime Minister does not really want a deal and wants no deal. That is not consistent.
The Secretary of State says that the House is not very good at deciding what it wants, but we are crying out for the opportunity to vote for what we want. He said that countries around the world are looking to us to respect democracy. Will he respect democracy in this House and give us the chance to vote on that now?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about respecting votes and whether the House has had an opportunity to vote on issues. His party wants a second referendum—a people’s vote—yet we had a vote on that issue last Thursday. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras did not vote for a people’s vote. If the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) is going to practise what he preaches, I say with respect that we had a vote on the people’s vote last Thursday, and the House spoke on that.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. The Prime Minister has proved that she is not prepared to give us the opportunity to consider alternative options in the light of the failure of her deal twice. She is putting us in danger of crashing out by the end of next week, which means a real danger of food shortages, medicine shortages and potentially civil unrest. If that is the case, will the Government commit to revoke article 50?
The hon. Lady is usually one of the most forensic questioners in the House, but on this issue I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree. First, the Government have made it very clear that we will not revoke article 50, because we are committed to delivering on the referendum result. Secondly, it is again a slightly illogical charge for the hon. Lady to say that the Prime Minister is seeking to crash out on 29 March when she has today sought an extension to the end of June.
One of the reasons why we wanted the Prime Minister here this afternoon is that, whatever her shortcomings, we can at least trust that when she stands at the Dispatch Box she believes every word she says. That cannot be said for the Secretary of State, who can make an argument in one breath and then vote in the other Division Lobby in the next. [Interruption.] He should not be laughing this afternoon—by the way, people are laughing at him, not with him—because we are nine days away from crashing out with no deal, there is no sign of a plan from the Government and even the extension letter the Prime Minister has submitted fails the basic test of explaining why an extension is required. Is not the simple reason that there is no plan, and if there is a plan, what is it, Stan?
I think the hon. Gentleman is wilfully misrepresenting the way the amendable motion played last Thursday—the fact that amendments were defeated—and we have given a further commitment to an amendable motion on 25 March. Perhaps his frustration is displaced from his frustration with his own Front Bench, because what we have not had from the Leader of the Opposition is clarity about when a second referendum will be put.
I am conscious that this is a time-limited debate, so I should make some progress.
We have requested an extension under article 50(3) of the treaty on the European Union until 30 June, as it is now not possible to ratify the deal before 29 March. The request to the President of the European Council, delivered today by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, gives us a final chance to uphold the democratic responsibility to deliver Brexit in an orderly way. As requested, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out the intentions of this Government, and the letter has been placed in the Library.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we have had plenty of time to consider all the other options? Throughout the proceedings on the EU withdrawal Bill, a lot of options were tabled and vetoed, and again last week, we had a series of indicative votes. I think every option has been looked at, and the truth is that they were voted down.
My right hon. Friend is right in that the suggestion that this House has not had sufficient time—that was one of the points made earlier—self-evidently does not reflect the extensive debates we have held. The idea that the House has not had the opportunity to express its will, when it has done so repeatedly on the issues, including last Thursday, is simply not credible.
The Secretary of State will know that this House has rejected the Prime Minister’s deal twice by historic margins now—it is neither the will of the House nor the will of the public—and it has also rejected very resoundingly leaving with no deal. However, we have not yet had in Government time an opportunity to do just what he asks, which is for the House to give an indication of what it would support. Will he support bringing forward the opportunity to give an opinion on indicative votes in the next week, preferably on Saturday?
I am not sure that Saturday would be the most popular of responses with colleagues across the House, but we have given a commitment, as the hon. Lady knows, to a meaningful vote on Monday and, following that, there will obviously be opportunities for the House to have its say. Let me make some progress.
Any extension is the means, not the end, but any extension of whatever length does not allow this House to escape its responsibilities to decide where it stands: whether to keep its commitment to deliver on the decision it gave to the British people or to walk away from doing so. Nor should an extension mean that a guerrilla campaign can be run to overturn the result of the referendum and frustrate the will of those who voted to leave.
I disagree with the suggestion of the shadow Chancellor, who is not in his place, that any extension should be open ended. I think he said that it should be “as long as necessary”. Indeed, he was at odds with other Labour Front Benchers. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said only the day before that the Labour party would back an extension just to July because
“it would be inappropriate for us to stand for the European Parliament”.
An open-ended delay would be likely to mean no Brexit and disregarding the votes of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave.
We now need to use any additional time to ensure that an orderly Brexit is delivered. The Leader of the Opposition has not said to date how long an extension he seeks. I do not know whether Labour Front Benchers wish to use the opportunity of this emergency debate to put on record exactly how long an extension they support.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
The north-east chamber of commerce has stated that its members do not want a messy and disorderly exit from the EU. They are perplexed by the Government’s allowing a no-deal scenario to be seen as a credible outcome. They have asked for article 50 to be extended for a sufficient time to enable the Government to engage fully with businesses and stakeholders to form a consensus on Brexit. Will the Secretary of State stop ignoring the will of thousands of job creators in the north-east?
What is remarkable about that intervention is that chambers of commerce up and down the country have been saying, “Back the Prime Minister’s deal” because they want the certainty that it offers. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing the House’s attention to the voice of business. It is not a voice that usually gets much of a hearing on the Opposition Benches. I note that the hon. Lady ducked the challenge. I have still not heard anyone on the Opposition Front Bench tell us how long an extension they seek.
Given that it is clear from the historic votes that we cannot agree the deal in this House, and given that the Government confidently say that they are reflecting what the people voted for, surely they have the confidence to put that back to the people, in which case the extension should be longer than the 22 weeks needed for a public vote—that is five months, of course. I therefore suggest that nine months is an appropriate period to keep all our options open.
The hon. Gentleman has not even persuaded Labour Front Benchers of his position. He says that he wants a nine-month extension, yet we have no clarity from the Labour Front Bench. He also says that he wants time for a second referendum, but I have yet to hear clarity about the question. Would there be two questions or three? Would “remain” and “leave” be on the ballot paper?
I have given way to the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) once and I think the Father of the House wants to intervene, so I will obviously let my right hon. and learned Friend intervene in a moment. However, even the question for a second referendum, as well as the length of time it would take, is unclear, and the hon. Gentleman cannot persuade Labour Front Benchers of his policy.
We are sadly wandering around the point of how long and why we are having an extension, with Front Benchers on both sides, with respect, not being altogether clear. Are there not various basic facts? First, if the withdrawal agreement is defeated again, that cannot be the agenda for any further extension. Secondly, useful negotiations in Brussels will be very limited for the next few months because a new Parliament is being elected and a new Commission is being appointed, so we will not be able to get under way till some time in the summer. If we use that time for the British generally—Parliament and Government—to reach some conclusions about what we are pursuing, some time after that will still be needed. I would have thought that until the end of the year is the very minimum time that is needed to sort out this crisis sensibly and constructively from now on. We have not been doing that thus far.
The Father of the House makes a very reasonable and well-made point. Indeed, it is a point I have made to some of my colleagues who voted leave in the referendum—if they continue to fail to support a meaningful vote then the House may opt for a softer form of Brexit. That is a risk that many who campaigned to leave need to be mindful of. The equivalent risk, for those who may cling to that life raft as a preferable option, is that it remains unclear whether the House would then ratify that, given the way the withdrawal agreement Bill would need to be passed. It is a major piece of proposed legislation and the sustainability of that coalition would come under question with the subsequent risk of a no-deal outcome.
The Secretary of State’s favourite outcome is the acceptance of the Prime Minister’s deal. If that cannot happen, what is his second preference? It does not sound like he is very much in favour of extension. The only two sovereign, independent choices to be made are no deal or revocation of article 50. Which one would he go for: over the cliff or turn back?
I forgive the hon. Gentleman for not necessarily having listened to various media rounds where I answered that question on multiple occasions. If we take it to its absolute extreme—I think I have been very clear on what I think about both outcomes—no Brexit is hugely damaging democratically and a no-deal outcome is very damaging economically. Of the two, I think no Brexit is more fundamentally damaging to our country. I have made my view clear. That is notwithstanding —also being clear—that no deal would be economically disruptive, but I think it would also have difficulties for our Union, not least because the hon. Gentleman would seek to exploit a no deal in terms of a future indie referendum. I think both outcomes are undesirable, but, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly set out at the Dispatch Box, there are only three outcomes. However much Parliament might want to kick the can down the road and delay this, there are only three outcomes that we can have: no Brexit, no deal, or to back the Prime Minister’s deal, which the EU itself has made clear is the only option.
Again, I touched on this in various media rounds I did yesterday. The point, looking at the entirety of my speech, is that all of my speech except the final line addressed the substance before the House that day: the amendments, in particular the amendment from the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central, which would have taken control of the Order Paper away from the Government. I happen to feel, and the Government felt, that that was not just damaging to Brexit but constitutionally significant. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Government won that vote by two votes. There were three votes. What was reported was that the conclusion of the speech was quickly followed by a vote. What actually happened was that the three amendments were defeated and it was only at that point, following a commitment to a further amendable motion on 25 March, that the Chief Whip was in a position to change the Whip. So it was not just my view that changed, but the Chief Whip’s and the Government’s. [Interruption.] He chunters away. He asked a question and he is getting a straight answer.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Almost surreptitiously, the Secretary of State announced a couple of sentences ago that we were going to have the next meaningful vote on Monday. That has not been announced in this House. I had no knowledge of it. The Father of the House has been making sensible suggestions for how we can, together, progress what we want to get out of the deliberations. Those will be confounded by the fact that the meaningful vote is being brought forward to Monday.
Order. We will hear from the Secretary of State in a moment, but my understanding was that he had specified a meaningful vote on Monday. I thought that he used the words “meaningful vote”, but I may be incorrect; if so, he can clarify that. [Interruption.] Order. It is certainly the case that there is due to be a motion, pursuant to earlier resolutions of the House, and that it is due by Monday; I believe that it is listed in the remaining orders. My expectation is that there will be such a motion on Monday. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could helpfully clarify to the House precisely what the Government intend for Monday—assuming that they know—and what they do not intend.
I am very happy to clarify: what I was referring to was the amendable motion that the Government have committed to. I refer back to the remarks of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who made that commitment on the record in Hansard.
Three years after the country voted to leave, Parliament continues to debate the manner in which we should leave, while some, having stood on a manifesto to respect the result, work tirelessly to frustrate that decision. The EU has repeatedly made it clear that after two and a half years of negotiation, the Prime Minister’s deal is the only—
I am sorry to interrupt, Mr Speaker, but I am afraid that I am not satisfied with what the Secretary of State says. Given its importance in relation to next week’s business, I wonder whether it is possible to check with the Official Reporters of Hansard what the Secretary of State actually said. He has said lots of different things at the Dispatch Box before and left the House in confusion, and all sorts of rumours are swirling around about what is happening on Monday.
It would be difficult to get it immediately, although those who take down verbatim what is said in this House work extremely skilfully and conscientiously, so it is reasonable to expect that what was said will wing its way to the Chair before very long. Moreover, if the Secretary of State in any sense misspoke, it is open to him to clarify what he meant.
If I did misspeak, of course I will apologise to the House and seek to clarify the record. I think the point being made was about a meaningful vote—sorry, I have just done it again; it was about an amendable motion. That was the point, and I think the shadow Secretary of State accepts it: we were referring to an amendable motion.
The Secretary of State is very kind, but I pulled him up on a point of order because I thought I had heard what he said. Will he address the concern that the Father of the House keeps raising? If we rush into this, we will not have time to do exactly what the Father of the House has been proposing: give ourselves some objectives, so that we know that we are going into Europe to say, “In this extra time we have, this is what we think is achievable.” This House could come together and do that, but if we have too early a vote, we will have no chance to get our house in order and do it.
The hon. Gentleman’s interventions are always very reasonable. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify on the record that I was referring to the amendable motion. On the substance of his point, we will come back on Monday and set out at the Dispatch Box exactly how we will honour the commitment that was given by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
I am very grateful. A few moments ago, the Secretary advocated no deal over no Brexit. That is wholly irresponsible and will cause huge problems in our communities and for our businesses. This short extension only pushes a no-deal brick wall a few months down the line. Will he confirm that he is not advocating no deal over no Brexit? That is not what we want.
What I am advocating is a deal, because I accept that an outcome of either no Brexit or no deal is highly undesirable. Going back on the referendum result and on the hon. Lady’s own manifesto pledge at the last election would be hugely damaging to our democracy and to public trust in this institution.
In seeking a short extension to 30 June, the Government intend to bring the deal back to the House as the best means of ensuring an orderly exit. If, however, the House continues to refuse a deal, and if alternatives through other votes do not provide sufficient numbers for both a deal and ratification, it is clear that the House will need to decide between no deal, a softer Brexit and no Brexit at all. Some Members would prefer a general election to no deal, which is why those of my colleagues counting on a no-deal outcome are set to be frustrated, and others who think that Brexit can be stopped by holding European parliamentary elections and so enabling further long extensions might find that some Members prefer other outcomes. The best way for the House to deliver on the will of the people in the referendum is to support the Prime Minister’s deal. That is the way forward and is how the Government should proceed.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate, and I commend the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) for having secured it.
Despite the Secretary of State’s protestations—I can understand why, out of loyalty to his Prime Minister, he has to make them—the Prime Minister’s deal is finished. She will not get that deal through next week. She will not get any changes to it this week, this month or even this year. She is now acting like a motorist who brings a car back to the garage week after week and then runs to the press expressing her frustration at the mechanic for refusing to take a decision to give an MOT when it is perfectly obvious that she is driving a clapped-out old banger that should have been consigned to the scrapheap weeks before. An extra coat of paint on this deal will not make it road worthy; it should be scrapped, and if there is to be any attempt at a deal, it has to be a deal reached on the basis of consensus and engagement with the whole House, including the 90% who do not agree with the Prime Minister’s vision.
The options are a significant extension, not just for a few weeks or a couple of months; the complete revocation of article 50, which would give a future Government the option of trying again; and crashing out with no deal. It was very noticeable today at Prime Minister’s questions that the Prime Minister repeatedly went through a litany of options that she was refusing to take forward because the House had voted them down. None were voted down by anything like the same calamitous margin as the option she is now determined to bring back for the third time, in flagrant violation of the traditions of the House, which—remember—was supposed to get sovereignty returned to it by this whole Brexit fiasco. Given that the Prime Minister has failed twice to get her deal through the House, surely it is well past time that she and her Government accepted it is not Parliament that is out of step but the Government.
The hon. Gentleman is misinformed. Last week, the House voted down a proposal for a second referendum by 249 votes, which was a crushing defeat for the amendment and demonstrated that there was no support for a second referendum in the House.
One of the Prime Minister’s own allies has just argued very eloquently why the Prime Minister’s deal should also be dead.
With 15 days to go to the cliff edge, Parliament voted to ask for an extension. The Prime Minister quite deliberately used 40% of the available time to do absolutely nothing. Having made a statement on Friday saying she would write this urgently needed letter, it still took her five days. What was she doing? Looking for a pen? A stamp? I could have given her either if she had asked.
We have heard repeatedly from across the Floor that the Government have to follow the democratic will of the people. Does my hon. Friend accept that the 2017 elections to this House and the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament also represented the democratic will of the people, that both the Scottish Parliament and SNP Members in this House have repeatedly and resoundingly called for the Government to listen to Scotland and that time and again they have failed to listen to either the Scottish Parliament or this House?
That is a valid point. It is worth recalling that the only time in 25 years when the Conservatives have had a majority in this place was when they had stood on a manifesto to keep us in the single market and the customs union. As soon as they stood on a manifesto to take us out of the single market and the customs union, their majority vanished like snow off a dyke.
I think it worth ensuring that the House is aware that in the last five minutes Donald Tusk has confirmed that a short extension will be made available only if the House approves the withdrawal agreement next week. That is clearly not going to happen. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be no more smirking at the Dispatch Box, no more playing games and no more poker about no deal? The Government are on the edge of bringing this country down. No more! The Prime Minister must bring indicative votes to the House as a matter of urgency and a national imperative, because the risk that is facing us right now, given that the withdrawal agreement will not succeed next week, is that we are looking at no deal.
The House must be allowed to exercise its democratic mandate on behalf of all our constituents. We must have those indicative votes, unwhipped. Let us not play the game of saying that the House has had the opportunity. We all know how the whipping system works. We need free votes to enable us, as Members of Parliament—representatives of the wellbeing of our constituents—to have our say and to stop this madness now.
I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Lady has said. Perhaps the most telling phrase that she used was “no more playing games”. This is indeed a game to many of these people. Far too often, when we are talking about the most serious threat that these islands have faced during peacetime in recorded history, we see smirks and joking on the Government Front Bench every time an Opposition Member speaks.
I find it incredible that the Secretary of State—perhaps he will now put down his phone—took the best part of half an hour to explain why the Prime Minister was justified in going against the clear will of the House yet again after last Thursday’s vote, and spent about half that time throwing eggs and tomatoes at the Opposition Front Bench. I agree with him to an extent—I do not think that the Labour Opposition’s position has been at all clear, and I do not think that they have been an effective Opposition—but there is no excuse for any Government to say, “We have not caused this disaster by being in government; someone else caused it by not being a good enough Opposition.” If the Government cause a disaster, the Government, and no one else, are responsible for it.
May I pursue the intervention from the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen)? It seems that there are also rumours on Twitter that the Prime Minister is talking about a general election. Surely it would be the height of irresponsibility to leave the United Kingdom in the furnace of economic meltdown to run a general election without first revoking article 50. If the Prime Minister is calling a general election, she must write a letter to Brussels to get article 50 revoked before she can hold any general election. Anything else would be utterly irresponsible. There is no time: a letter must be written first.
It might well be irresponsible, reckless and thoroughly irrational, but that does not mean that this Prime Minister will necessarily rule it out.
Within the last three or four days—the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) made this point very well earlier—we have received a clear message from the Government. They plainly intended the House to believe that we would be voting for a long extension if the agreement were not accepted.
The Prime Minister has whipped herself to vote against a motion that she herself tabled and presumably supported at the time when she tabled it. The Secretary of State—although he tried to say that this was not what he had done—has commended a motion and later voted against it. As two Members have pointed out, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, on behalf of the Government, has said that asking for a short, one-off extension would be reckless, a few days before the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government, went off and asked for a short, one-off, reckless extension.
The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), who is present, told us that there had been many votes in the House against Scottish National party amendments for revocation. There have not; there have not been any. He told us that the presidential rules for the Joint Committee under the withdrawal agreement did not provide for delegations. Rule 3 of annex VIII refers explicitly to delegations, so the Minister was wrong again. The same Minister told my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) that during the transition period we would still be in the European Union. That was a clear statement from the Dispatch Box, and it was absolute nonsense.
We have reached a point at which the House can no longer take at face value anything said by Ministers at that Dispatch Box. One of the most ancient and surely most sacred traditions of this House is that when a Minister speaks at the Dispatch Box, their word can be taken as being correct. That no longer applies, not through any ill will on behalf of individual Ministers but because far too often a Minister says something that was true today and different Ministers say something tomorrow that makes it cease to be true. This is no way to run a Government and no way to run a Parliament.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House on, I think, Monday when the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), who is present now, was answering an urgent question or whatever—there have been so many—stood at the Dispatch Box and said it is
“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.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 818.]
So that is yet another Minister giving a promise—a commitment—at that Dispatch Box which, with respect, has not been worth the paper it has been printed on in Hansard.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving yet another example. It is becoming increasingly clear that when Ministers come to the Dispatch Box to defend their Government’s handling of Brexit, they will say what they think needs to be said, and if it happens to coincide with the truth that is useful, but if it does not, someone has to come back afterwards and correct it. How can we expect European negotiators to have any faith in what British Government representatives are saying when time and again it is abundantly clear that we cannot take at true face value anything Ministers say from the Dispatch Box? We have a system of government and Parliament that depends entirely on being able to trust what Ministers are saying, and Ministers are simply not bothering to check the facts before they declare them in some circumstances.
That is part of the crisis of democracy, but it is certainly not the only part of our democracy that is in crisis.
The Government claim to be working to respect the will of Parliament and the will of the people, although it has been made perfectly clear that the people are not allowed to change their minds. The about-turn from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s speech to the Prime Minister’s actions, both on behalf of the Government, tell us that five days is enough time to allow 100% of the Cabinet to change their minds but almost three years is not enough time to allow 3% of the population of these islands to change their minds, because it only needs 3% of the population to change their minds to get a different result in another referendum. The Government think there has been a significant shift in public opinion; that is why they do not want to allow the public to have another say. If they were confident that leave would win another fair, uncheated referendum they would not be running away from it so quickly.
There is a rumour that the Prime Minister intends to make a statement in No. 10 this afternoon, or this evening possibly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be far more appropriate—in fact, it would be an insult to this House if this was not the case—for her to come here first before making any such statement?
I am not sure that what is appropriate and what is an insult to this House is a consideration for the Prime Minister and indeed the rest of the Government; they will do what they think will get their way through Parliament regardless of whether it upholds the traditions of this House. I find it astonishing that I am defending the traditions of this place to a Bench full of Conservative Ministers. When I first got elected, I never thought I would be doing that, but we have a Government who have been held formally to be in contempt of Parliament and I believe a lot of their actions—certainly in the past couple of weeks, and what they intend to do next Monday by all accounts—demonstrate that that contempt of Parliament has only deepened since the House had to pass that shameful resolution against them last year.
I have given way a good number of times and need to make some progress.
When we see the First Ministers of the national Governments of Scotland and Wales being frozen out almost completely and the leader of a non-governmental party effectively being able to pull the strings of half the Conservative party—the leader of a party whose total election vote in 2017 is smaller than the population of Scotland’s second city, not even our biggest city—we have to wonder where the democratic principle in that is.
It became quite clear last weekend that attempts to persuade DUP Members to back the deal were not about persuading them that it was actually better than they had thought, or that the backstop was not as big a threat to them as they had thought; it was about trying to find out how much money could be dug out of the Treasury to buy their support. What kind of an honourable way is that for a Government to work? We know that DUP Members do not agree with the deal, and that they think it will be damaging to their constituents, but the Government are trying to send in money so that their constituents will not notice how damaging it is. In any other context, that practice would be viewed very differently; it would not be considered an honourable practice at all.
There is an important difference there. The reason that the Scottish Green party was able to have some influence on the Scottish Government’s business is that when it was invited to talks, it accepted the invitation. Other parties with significantly more political clout, and therefore presumably much more opportunity to influence those talks, choose not to accept their invitations. They went away in a huff. They wanted to have something to complain about, but they could not find anything proper to complain about so they invented something. We heard their bogus outrage about a tax that has actually been legalised and is part of the policy of the hon. Gentleman’s own party within this Government. The Conservative party did not take part in discussions with the Government of Scotland because it turned down the invitation to do so. Our party has often not taken part in discussions with the Government of the United Kingdom because we have not even had an invitation, and neither have any of the other parties represented here apart from the DUP—although it has no representatives here today.
The United Kingdom faces a grim choice between two futures. We are now almost hours, rather than days, away from the time when the only option left will be to revoke article 50 or to plunge off the cliff edge without a deal. We are running out of time for anything else. The Prime Minister has taken us 99% of the way from the referendum to cliff edge day, yet she still has no idea how she is going to avoid the cliff edge.
The people of Scotland are facing a choice between two futures as well. It is becoming increasingly and alarmingly clear what our future will be if we remain tied to this failed and dysfunctional Union of so-called equals. Do we want to be part of a Union that treats elected national leaders with contempt and kowtows to the leaders of parties that in the not-too-distant past have invoked homophobia and bigotry as a way to garner electoral support? Do we want to be part of a true partnership of equals in which half a billion people and their Governments will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government of a nation of barely 3 million people to ensure that those 3 million cannot be bullied by a bigger neighbour? Or will we remain part of a Union that has made it perfectly clear that, even though our people rejected this disastrous Brexit by a majority of almost 2:1, we will have to take it because we are part of that Union?
I want to see a long extension to article 50, because I want the people of the United Kingdom to have a chance to say, “We made a mistake.” I do not need to hope, because I know with absolute certainty that, before very much longer, the people of Scotland will be given the chance to say, “In 2014, we made a mistake.” This time, there can be no doubt whatever what the choice of the people of Scotland will be. I look forward to seeing the people of Scotland taking our place beside our Irish neighbours and cousins as full, independent sovereign members of the equal partnership of the European Union.
Like many in the House, I find it impossible to overstate my concern for our country today. We are nine days away from Brexit and, as things stand, we have no agreed strategy for the country to follow. Instead, we have a Government who continue to put their head in the sand about a deal that has simply not been accepted by this Parliament. There will be many books written about why we have ended up in this position, but the reality is that this situation was clear months ago. It was clear from the Chequers agreement and the subsequent White Paper that the strategy would not command consensus in this House, and that has proved the case ever since. I will briefly talk about the damage it has done to his place, before finishing by returning to the fact that, even if the Government were to get a deal through, it would be a pyrrhic victory that serves no one, including themselves.
This Government have delayed. We are debating the extension today because they have not been prepared to confront the fact that their deal has not been accepted by this House. The reality is that, in doing all this, they have undermined the procedures of this House, which are there to help this democracy and those of us privileged enough to be elected to represent our communities. They have damaged the fabric of this place, because Parliament is meant to work by us coming here to represent our communities with our votes and, on the back of our decisions, the House moves on to the consequences. Instead, on Brexit and on this deal, the Government have refused to allow that to happen.
First, the Government refused to have a vote and wasted precious time this country does not have by simply delaying because they did not want to confront the fact that their deal, which had been unpopular in the summer, was still unpopular at Christmas. We finally had a chance to vote before Christmas—I had made my speech—before the vote was cancelled and the debate was suddenly cut short. The deal was not just narrowly defeated; it was significantly defeated. If ever there was a vote that expressed the House’s will, it was that one. If ever there was a time when a Government clearly should have seen the writing on the wall, it was that moment.
The Government could have chosen at that stage to listen to what Members across the House and across parties were saying. Members were representing their communities, and they were not trying to be awkward, which is the impression Ministers have given to Parliament. The simple fact is that very few people were writing to tell us that they wanted their representatives to support the deal. Had the Government recognised that, we could have spent time, even since mid-January, debating, discussing and trying to conclude whether Britain could take another route forward that commands consensus in this House.
I listened to the approach of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to this debate and, yet again, it is about party politics. This could have been a three-hour debate to test the House and see whether there is any consensus on what kind of extension the Government should be seeking. Again, the approach has not been to do that. The approach has simply been to brush off the points raised by other Members and to argue as if this is some kind of debating society, rather than a House in which decisions need to be taken at the 11th hour to save jobs and investment in our country.
That approach has massively undermined this place because, fundamentally, we take decisions by voting on motions and legislation. If our votes do not count, it strikes at the fabric of how this democracy works. I have heard Members say today that the vote against a second referendum was very big, but that is not the point. We all know that we might have another vote on a second referendum. We know that we might have a second vote or a third vote on lots of things, because the Government’s approach to Brexit has undermined the very basis on which this House debates: to have one vote on an issue. If a Member supports the motion, they should vote for it—and they should not expect it to come back to the House for another vote at a later time.
Those rules are there not only to protect Members but to make sure that this democracy works, and we have seen those rules fundamentally undermined when it comes to Brexit. We are not meant to have three votes on a deal, and the rules are meant to protect Members from being bullied by the Whips. They are meant to protect our democracy from becoming a “pork barrel” democracy in which billion-pound funds are launched purely to get Members on side for the next round of voting. That is not how the UK Parliament is meant to run. It is totally unacceptable.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case for parliamentary sovereignty, which is, after all, what the referendum was about in many ways. Does she agree that in trying to ram through a deal by bullying MPs to vote for it, the Government are not building a sustainable majority, which is needed not just for this deal, but in the months ahead, because so much about the Prime Minister’s deal is open-ended and not settled yet?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that, and I will come to it shortly in my closing remarks.
The extension that we require clearly needs to be for a purpose. There are only so many versions of Brexit. We can do a clean-break, hard Brexit, which I know many MPs want, and I respect that. Indeed, the millions of people who voted to leave had that kind of Brexit as their expectation. Alternatively, we can have this soft Brexit that the Government are proposing, but I see very little support for it in this House or among the public more widely. The last opinion poll I saw on this deal showed just 12% of the public supporting it.
My right hon. Friend—she will remain my friend, and she is a great friend of this House, who speaks with great authority and good sense—has, in the past, talked about shabby deals behind doors. Does it concern her to learn, as many of us are learning on Twitter, that the Prime Minister is meeting leaders of parties and groups—I believe this is the first time she will have met all the party leaders, including the Independent Group, in one room at one time—and is then meeting a group of hard Brexiteers, presumably from the Back Benches of the Conservative party? Apparently, at 8 o’clock she is then not coming to this place to make a statement to this Parliament, but making a press announcement of some description in Downing Street. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that that speaks volumes about the entirely inappropriate and shabby way that this entire process has been conducted from the outset?
I agree about that.
In a sense, there are two issues here: the substance of the decision we need to take, which I was just talking about; and the manner in which the decision is taken in a way that makes it a sustainable one. The substance is that there are only so many routes forward on Brexit. This House just needs to decide whether it can find a consensus on any of them. If we cannot, we need to confront what that means for finding a decision for the country as a whole.
I have been clear that I felt back in July that it was obvious that this place was gridlocked. I take no pleasure in the fact that that has been proved absolutely correct. It has not served this country well that the Government have sought simply to avoid that fact, putting their head in the sand, and that therefore we are days away from Brexit with no decisions having been taken. There is no point in saying that a referendum will waste time, given that the Government have wasted far more time than a referendum would have ever taken. For this extension debate to have any quality or meaning, we should be debating whether we want to delay until the end of the calendar year, the end of a fiscal year, or beyond that. We should be talking about the rationale for the different strategies on Brexit—there are only so many. I do not think that the way this debate has been approached or how it reflects the broader Brexit process has served our democracy well—it has been hugely counterproductive.
I wish to finish my comments this afternoon by talking about what happens even if the Government win a vote on their deal next week—if they are allowed to have one; I listened to your ruling and felt you were right to make it, Mr Speaker. Even if somehow a third meaningful vote on a motion not substantially different was allowed to be put to the House and it was won, the Government would not have won the argument. Brexit is not a moment and a vote in this House; it is about a process—a journey on which we will take Britain over the coming years—so just cobbling together a majority at one moment does not fix anything. It does not take the decision for those of my colleagues who genuinely feel that this version of Brexit is not what 17 million people voted for; it does not address their concerns. Quite rightly, they are simply not going to accept this version of Brexit when they feel so passionately that the thing for which they have campaigned for so many years is not being delivered. Such a vote will resolve nothing. It will end up feeling like the Government have simply tried to get something over the line for the sake of ticking a box, when this process should have been about so much more than that. It will not work and it will not be sustainable, so it not only serves our democracy badly but serves our country badly. I predict that we will have to revisit these issues anyway.
I know that what I am saying will not be welcome to Ministers’ ears. They have set their face for years—certainly for months—against listening to comments in this Chamber that are contrary to Government policy, but the time has now come when they need to face facts and face reality. It seems the one thing this House cannot do is take decisions per se for the Prime Minister and make her follow them. We need Government Ministers to wake up, smell the coffee and start acting responsibly on behalf of this country. This House rejects the Government’s deal. We want an alternative. We must allow the House to have the debate that can find the alternative, and if we cannot do that, allow it to take a decision about what we need to do as a Parliament. We cannot just steadily get to the 29 March cliff edge and simply ignore the fact that this is a grave crisis for this country that will affect people’s livelihoods and jobs. Having grown up in a place where there was unemployment, I find that totally unacceptable.
It is a genuine privilege and pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who just made an outstanding speech about the state we are in. Let me just add that for sheer chaos, the past 24 hours will take some beating when the annals of Brexit finally come to be written. Should we be entirely surprised, as a House? I do not think so, because it is consistent with a pattern of behaviour that dates right back to the first days after the referendum result. We know that the House has had to persuade, cajole and push the Government, at every single stage, to listen to our views and votes as Members of the House of Commons. One consequence of their refusal to do so is that there is a terrible lack of trust in the Government and their intentions and processes. We need trust if we are going to make progress, because at the moment we have absolutely no idea where we are heading.
I wish to say three things about the priorities for the House of Commons and for the country. Priority No. 1 is that we must achieve an extension to article 50, which is why we voted against leaving with no deal on Wednesday last week, and why we voted in favour of requiring the Government to make an application for an extension to article 50 on Thursday last week. If we do not get an extension, we will leave with no deal in nine days. We can move whatever statutory instruments we like in this place, but we prevent a no-deal Brexit only if, on the one hand, we have changed the law in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and on the other hand the EU agrees to grant an extension. In other words, the two have to come together at the right moment to guarantee an extension. We will all have paid careful attention to what we have read on our phones about what Donald Tusk had to say about a short extension being dependent on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement next week. I only hope that what he did not say about an alternative extension being available is in his mind if the House decides that it will not vote for the deal if it comes back.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in the light of what President Tusk has just said, it would be remiss of the House not to consider the deal another time next week, given that he has encouraged us to do so and made it clear that an extension is conditional on our having considered it again?
I can only presume that Mr Tusk is trying to encourage Parliament and the country finally to come to a decision. As the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, there is great frustration on the part of the EU. At a recent meeting with members of the Select Committee, Michel Barnier said that what we do not really need now is more time. What we need, he said, were some decisions. I would express that frustration at the Government, because the story of this sorry tale that has brought us to our present condition is one of an unwillingness to take real decisions about the future choices that we face as the fantasies of the leave campaign have collided harshly with the reality of the past two and three quarter years. If the Government had been willing to make those decisions, then perhaps they could have been able to command a majority in the House.
I agree with the hon. Lady. It seems to me that the story of indulgence over the past two and three quarter years is the indulgence of one section of the Conservative party that has held the Prime Minister, and therefore the country, to ransom. That is why it was a bit rich of the Prime Minister to accuse Members on the Opposition Benches of indulgence, when she is the one who has been practising it for two and three quarter years.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the whole language of blame and of trying to assign blame is incredibly juvenile, given what is at stake for the country? We should be talking about what is in the national interest. As the Father of the House argued earlier, we are at an impasse. The Prime Minister’s deal has been rejected heavily twice by this House for a reason. If we want to make progress, we need to be able to discuss the alternatives in a structured and coherent way with the Government’s full support. That is what this House is crying out for, and that is what this Government should support if we are to make progress.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am not terribly interested in blame, but I am interested in analysing how we have come to this point. Some may regard that as apportioning blame; I regard it as a description of what has happened.
The second thing I want to say is that, as a House, we must demonstrate that we intend to use the time, if we get it, for a purpose. We cannot sit here for three months or longer, twiddling our thumbs; the public expect us to try to find a way forward on which we can agree. The Prime Minister has a perfectly fair point with her strictures: we know what we are against, but what are we for? That purpose should be to consider and then vote on a number of different ways forward. I am an advocate of indicative votes. The word “indicative” is used for a really important reason. A sensible place to start is to say to Members, “Look, you can move in the direction of a free trade agreement.” Then Members in the House would argue for that. “You can decide that you want a customs union. You can argue that you want Norway and a customs union, or a customs arrangement. Which of those three would you like us to explore further?” In my case, I would vote for two of those options. I would not vote for the free trade agreement, for the reasons that the Prime Minister has set out as to why it would not work for Northern Ireland; or indeed for friction-free trade, but I would vote for the other two when we got to that moment. That would then give us an indication of where support might lie in the House of Commons.
Monday is our opportunity—I am talking here about the motion that the Secretary of State clarified for us when he said that he was talking about the motion in neutral terms—to start that process, and the House must take it.
Once again, my right hon. Friend is making an outstanding speech on this issue. Is he able to surmise what may happen next week if the Government make a statement on Monday and do not bring a third meaningful vote until perhaps Tuesday or Wednesday? We would be left in a situation where President Tusk has already said that an extension to 30 June would be given only if the deal passed, and we would still have to change primary legislation—the date in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018—by next Friday. What does my right hon. Friend think the Government are trying to do? I suspect that the Prime Minister is trying to bounce us and bribe us into backing her deal.
I think that—not quite in fairness to the Prime Minister—her purpose and her method has been obvious for a long time. To Opposition Members, it has been, “My deal or no deal.” In recent months, there has been a variation for others that she hopes to persuade to get on board with her proposal, which has been, “My deal, no deal, delay or no Brexit.” Ultimately, it falls to us as Members of the House of Commons to determine what happens and, courtesy of the important Wightman judgment, if the worst came to the worst next Friday, revocation is the one other option that we have, because it does not require the approval of the other 27 EU member states. I really hope that we do not get to that point, and I cannot see how it can be in the interests of the European Union to force us out with no deal, because it will get all the blame for all the consequences that would flow from that.
After we have been through the process that I described in answer to the intervention by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), I urge the Government to listen to what Parliament says. It is no good inviting us to say what we are for if the Government say, “We are not prepared to go in that direction. We are not prepared to change.” If we are going to move, the Government will have to move along with everybody else, but the past two and three quarter years have shown that the Government have been unwilling to move one inch. The Government should then come back with a revised plan, because that is their responsibility. We do not want to seize control of the process for the sake of it, but if the Government are not acting, Parliament will have to act in their stead. The Government should bring a plan back, having listened to what the House said, so that we can debate, amend and vote on it.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share the frustration of many of us when more hon. Members voted against no deal—the original Spelman amendment—than voted for the Brady amendment? However, the Prime Minister completely ignored the vote that rejected no deal and, to put it in crude terms, kept banging on about the benefits of Brady.
The right hon. Lady makes a powerful point. There is a certain selectiveness in the Government’s reflection on the decisions that we have made. The public expect us to get on and do our job. If we can agree a deal or if we remain deadlocked, I look forward to the moment when we get the chance to vote in favour of the proposal for a confirmatory referendum proposed by my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for Hove (Peter Kyle), so that the British people can make the final decision.
In conclusion, if it is democratic, as the Government argue, to come back not once but twice and—who knows?—maybe three times to ask us to change our minds on the Government’s deal, why is it undemocratic to ask the British people whether they, on reflection, would like to change theirs?
I have been in this House for long enough—nearly 22 years—to know that Governments face great difficulties and often have to adjust to circumstance, so one should get used to the fact that occasionally Governments say things in this House that they intend to do and then subsequently are unable to do. But I have to say that the process of Brexit has brought me face to face with the fact that the underlying integrity that one hopes one will continue to see from Government, even in difficult circumstances, now seems to be fast running out. That troubles me very much. I have been a member of the Conservative party for over 40 years and find myself in a state of amity with my colleagues, even though Brexit has introduced a revolutionary upheaval into our affairs which means that we have divergent views on a specific issue, which is causing the party great difficulty. Notwithstanding that, we and the Government we are being asked to support have to try to maintain some sustained integrity through that process.
What, therefore, am I to make of a situation in which only a few days ago, in order to avoid something that the Government did not want, which was the possibility of this House taking control of the Order Paper to debate alternatives outside the control of the Government, Ministers of the Crown standing at the Dispatch Box gave a series of plain assurances to the House on what the Government intend to do if their deal cannot go through regarding how they are going to approach the negotiations with the European Union thereafter and the length of extension they are going to seek? That is what happened; and subsequently, today, these assurances have been entirely reneged upon.
Most extraordinary of all, one might have expected the Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the European Union, who is no longer in his place, to come along and provide some coherent explanation for why this had happened, but he did not. Indeed, the only explanation he half advanced was a total irrelevance. It was the suggestion that this situation was due, Mr Speaker, to your ruling that the motion could not be brought forward a third time, which is of course nonsense, because the Government know very well that, had they so wished today, they could have brought forward a motion to disapply our conventions and, had they wished to do so, to move on to a meaningful vote on their motion. It is beyond comprehension and rational analysis how a Minister of the Crown standing at the Dispatch Box this afternoon can say that that is the justification for having changed the position and decided that the extension is going to be extremely short, when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had described such a short extension, on behalf of the Government, as “reckless”.
Now, of course this is part of a wider pattern of the complete disintegration of collective responsibility in Government. We have Ministers coming to the Dispatch Box and saying entirely contradictory things. We have Ministers publicly dissociating themselves from the Government policy and staying in post. We have Ministers who come up to one in the corridors, acknowledge that the situation is very serious and that they disagree with what the Government are doing, continuing to serve in a Cabinet with which they apparently fundamentally disagree.
When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box today at Prime Minister’s questions, I confess that it was the worst moment I have experienced since I came into the House of Commons. I have never felt more ashamed to be a Member of the Conservative party or to be asked to lend her support. She spent most of her time castigating the House for its misconduct. At no stage did she pause to consider whether it is, in fact, the way that she is leading this Government that might be contributing to this situation. I have great sympathy for her. I have known her for many years and we have a personal friendship beyond and outside of this House, but I have to say that I could have wept—wept to see her reduced to these straits and wept to see the extent to which she was now simply zig-zagging all over the place, rather than standing up for what the national interest must be.
Now we are told that there is going to be a short extension. We are told that next week we will have an opportunity, perhaps, for a meaningful vote, which I very much think is going to lead to the Government’s deal being rejected, because, for a whole variety of reasons, Members of this House feel very strongly that it is bad for our country. But, if I may say so to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, that view cannot simply be cast to one side, whether it comes from hon. Members and hon. Friends with whom I disagree or those with whom I agree on the issue of Brexit. It cannot just be lightly dismissed. It comes from their own analysis of what they think the national interest to be.
Of course, that is a huge challenge for the Prime Minister, and I have immense sympathy for her in that regard. But you do not meet that challenge by ducking and diving, and avoiding, and having a galaxy of Ministers appear at the Dispatch Box and say contradictory things; you have got to face up to your responsibility and, rather than coming along and showing contempt for this House, actually try to engage with it and making use of what this House can do pretty well, which is debate issues in a rational way which, in itself, by a process of debate, might lead to a reasonable outcome.
I have come in for quite a lot of flak over the past two years because of my various amendments, but most of them have been designed not to achieve a specific end but to try to facilitate process. Each time I put them up, the Government have tried to prevent them, so my view is bound to be coloured of a Government who seek to close down debate in this irrational fashion.
Next week we are going to face the same challenge again, but in a very concertinaed timeframe. We are in danger of crashing out with no deal. If the rumours are right, we are coming very close to the point where the EU—perfectly reasonably, in my judgment—may well be saying, “We’ve had enough.” Indeed, reading the statement that has recently come out, I think that that is probably what it is saying. What are we going to do next week? What is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister going to do next week? Are we going to extend across the House and try to reach some level of consensus on a way forward? Are we going to try to bring this sorry saga to an end by, for example, going back to the public, as was suggested by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) as a possibility in putting the options to them and asking them, which I would be perfectly prepared to do—and to support my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in doing, if that would help? Are we prepared to look at alternatives when it seems so apparent that the deal itself is going to be rejected?
Just browbeating this House is going to serve no purpose at all. It brings us, undoubtedly, into contempt, but the contempt falls much more on the Government who are doing this than on Members who are voicing their individual views and doing the best they can to represent their constituents’ interests. That is the challenge we now face, and we may face a very short timeframe for doing it—something which, on the whole, I rather hoped we might avoid. It is not perfect in itself, but that was the purpose of a longer extension—to enable the process to happen which has been shut down over past weeks and months.
We may now have to do this very quickly. But I have to say this in conclusion: if we do not do it, one has to ask oneself the question, what is the purpose of this Government? What are they doing? How are they furthering the national interest? How are they contributing to the quiet good governance that I think most people in this country want? We really are—I am sorry to say this—at the 11th hour and 59th minute. The Government’s credibility is running out. Trust in them is running out. Unless my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, by some great exertion of will—and she has plenty of will and plenty of robustness—stands up and starts doing something different, we are going to spiral down into oblivion, and the worst part of it all is that we will deserve it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I will be brief. It has been confirmed in the last few moments that the Prime Minister is to make a statement in Downing Street at 8 pm this evening. Given that this debate can run until just after 6.20 pm, and there are two other items on the Order Paper that could take up to three hours beyond the moment of interruption, does this House have any mechanism to get the Prime Minister to make that statement to the House, rather than to the public via the media in Downing Street?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, of which I did not have advance notice, about which I do not complain; I am simply signalling that my response to what he has put to me is spontaneous. It would certainly be my expectation, if this debate runs its full length, that the House will be sitting at the time of the announced prime ministerial statement. It would certainly be open to the Prime Minister to come to the House to make the statement here. It is a matter for her to judge whether she wishes to do so. My sense is that that would be well received by the hon. Gentleman and quite possibly, in the light of what has been said, by other people. It is not for the Chair to seek to compel or instruct any Minister, including most certainly the Prime Minister, but I have noted what the hon. Gentleman has said. In so far as he is asking, “Can it happen?” the answer is: yes, it can.
I would like to suggest an advisory and voluntary time limit on Back-Bench speeches of six minutes or thereabouts, but I am not at this stage, particularly as I have not given notice, imposing a formal limit. Let us see how we go. It would be helpful, in the name of maximising participation, if people did not speak for too long, but I will leave it to the wise judgment of the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern).
I will take your advice, Mr Speaker. I have no intention of detaining the House any longer than necessary, particularly because this has possibly been the most frustrating debate that I have sat through in nine years in this House. I find myself very angry, which is not to say that it is not an honour and a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). Some people in this House say that lawyers do not make very good politicians. He just proved them wrong. I agree with so much of what he said and his analysis of what the Prime Minister has tried to do to this House.
I saw one of the protesters holding a sign outside this place last week which said, “Parliament versus the people”. Is that not the message that we heard earlier from the Dispatch Box? Is that not what was said? Are we being told that we are frustrating the will of the British people? I say, that way populism lies. If we undermine the ability of Members of this House to deliberate, listen to each other, form a view, vote and take decisions, we open the door to the kind of behaviour that we are seeing right across the developed world, and it is dangerous. We can believe in democracy and letting people have their say at the same time as recognising that this House is entitled to express its view, and when it does so, it should be listened to by the Executive. I will talk more about that later.
Today’s debate has arisen out of frustration because of astounding events overnight. The Government have decided—as they had to, because the House has not supported their proposal for how to deal with Britain’s exiting of the European Union—that now is the time to delay the exit day that they set for us. As Members have said, we received a copy of the Prime Minister’s letter to President Tusk during the House’s proceedings—we find out what is happening from the media, and then we see a copy of the letter during the House’s proceedings.
The hon. Lady will recall that I put that point to the Secretary of State earlier, and he told us that the Prime Minister had put a copy of the letter in the Library at 12.10 pm. However, I have made an inquiry, and it appears that the letter was not published online by the Library until 1.30 pm. Does she agree with me that it is cynical in the extreme to put a copy of the letter in the Library when we are all in here for Prime Minister’s questions, and not to publish it online where we could look at it, until PMQs are over and the Prime Minister has left the House?
I do not say this very often, but thank goodness for Twitter. When we were told that a copy of the letter would be in the Library, my very able assistant, Holly Higgins, ran across to the Library to see if she could get a copy. Meanwhile, I observed on Twitter that journalists had it already. Thankfully, we were able to see it none the less, but it is cynical. It is totally cynical, as the hon. and learned Lady points out.
This is cynical behaviour because, as other Members have said very clearly, the Government are trying to bully us. They are trying to exert their will and to force us to vote for their proposal, and we know this because of what the letter says. The Prime Minister says that she intends
“to put forward a motion as soon as possible…under the Withdrawal Act…and make the argument for the orderly withdrawal and strong future partnership”.
“If the motion is passed, I am confident that Parliament will proceed to ratify the deal constructively.”
However, other Members have already said at length how convincing the vote against the Prime Minister’s proposal has been.
We know that this House does not want that proposal, and following the amendments and statements put forward by other Members of this House, we know that the House of Commons has voted conclusively no to no deal. We do not want the Government’s deal and we do not want no deal, and the Government accept that. Therefore, by definition, the Government have to change course. They need to come to this House with a different proposal. That is also necessary for the Government’s own stated objective of having a delay, because we know that the European Union does not wish to agree to a delay for no apparent purpose; it wants to see a change of course. It is that simple.
I hear what other Members have said about proposals to allow this House to express its view in some way. No doubt, we will do that, because, Lord knows, if we have demonstrated anything over the past two years, it is that this House is capable of passing amendments if it wishes to. We will express our view, but we are the legislature, not the Executive. Therefore, by simple definition, we do not have Executive power, so we need the Government to commit to changing course. We need them to bring forward proposals for how a different path will be taken. Something else that is true is that the Executive are not the legislature. They cannot tell us what to do, and they cannot force our hand simply by fiat. We have to hear from the Government what their proposals are, and then we have to vote on them—either to accept or to refuse.
In the end, we can make the policies for process, discussion and deliberation as complex as we like, but it is as simple as that. We now need a change of course from the Government that we can deliberate on, vote on and decide on. We all have a responsibility here to make our political system function as it should. If we do not, it will not just be the Government who are complicit in opening the door to populism; it will be all of us. I do not say those words lightly.
We all know the consequences of getting this wrong, so I simply beg the Government to have no more bullying of this House and no more trying to bash us into voting for a deal that we have already voted down absolutely conclusively and convincingly. Let us have no more of that, but let us have a change of course and a policy that we can support. My frustration this afternoon—in having a debate that has been dominated by reams of words on process, and has not been about the central issue of if or how we leave the European Union—is nothing in comparison to the decisions that are having to be made now, as the Secretary of State knows because he is in charge of no-deal preparations. Our frustration is nothing compared with that of individuals and businesses up and down this country having to make decisions that they do not want to take because the Government are simply unable to plot a course to help our country move on.
People in our country want us to focus on the things that really bother them, be it the desperate growth of food banks or the need for all young people in this country to have a proper chance in life. That is what they want us to focus on. I ask the Government: please change course, make a proposal, let us vote, and then let us move on.
I will be brief. I have listened carefully to the debate, at the beginning of which I had no intention of speaking. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who touched on several points with which I entirely agreed, but I have reached a totally different conclusion.
Three international events are important. First, President Tusk said that we need to vote on the withdrawal agreement again. Given your stricture, Mr Speaker, which I support, that we cannot vote on the same text again, does that count as changed circumstances? I am very interested in your thoughts on that. You might like to address the matter in answer to a point of order later. Secondly, the Le Point magazine website put out a report at 1.6 pm that President Macron had stated that unless there is “a clear project”—that was the translation—France intends to veto any extension. Thirdly, there have been interesting reports from a respected BBC journalist that the letter from the Prime Minister has gone out too late for some Prime Ministers to consult their legislatures so they may not have the chance to make a decision this week. That is yet another muddle in this saga.
The hon. Member for Wirral South made a point about populism. I have said the following goodness knows how many times inside and outside the Chamber. The conundrum we face is that the House had three democratic mandates around the referendum. David Cameron said, “If you vote Conservative in 2015, I will give you an in/out referendum. It will not be advisory—it will be decisive. If I have a majority, the House of Commons will deliver what the people want.”
Time is short and I would like to press on. Other people want to speak.
David Cameron won the election and then, probably to his horror, he had to deliver the referendum. The then Foreign Secretary made it clear when the referendum Bill was going through the House that MPs were handing back their sovereignty to the people and that the House would honour the people’s decision, whatever it was. The referendum was not advisory, but decisive. It was the biggest vote in British history and 17.4 million people voted for the broad slogan of “take back control”. The immediate question was, “What does that actually mean?” The Conservative party interpreted it as meaning that we would honour leave if people voted for a Conservative Government in the 2017 election. It would mean leaving the single market, the customs union and the remit of the European Court of Justice. The Labour party broadly supported that. So 85% of the votes in 2017 went to the two main parties, which supported that proposition. That means that more than 60% of the seats in this Parliament represent that proposal.
To pick up on the comments made by the hon. Member for Wirral South, I am genuinely worried. This was a huge step by the British people. It was the first time, following a succession of referendums, that they had gone against the wishes of the establishment—the political establishment, the commercial establishment, the media establishment. We had had the 1975 referendum, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland referendums and the alternative vote referendum. Each time, the people had gone along with what the establishment wanted. What we are now wrestling with this afternoon—the hon. Lady raises the question of populism—is how we deliver that.
My contention—I really mean it—is that I am seriously worried about the long-term damage to the integrity of our institutions. People are writing to me and sending emails. I have been mocked for making one particular comment. A guy came up to me on the tube and gave me his visiting card—the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) picked me up on this; she can come to my office and I will give her the visiting card of this guy if she wants to see it—saying, “Please stick to your guns, because we depend on you to see it delivered.” I appeal to Members of both main parties. The position of the Liberal Democrats and the SNP is totally honourable. They have been consistently against leaving the EU and voted against it. Of course, the Liberal Democrats got crushed in the general election as a result, but the two main parties did really well in the general election. The Prime Minister got the second-largest number of votes in history.
Time is really short. I am just going to finish now.
The two main parties need to think about this. If there is any sort of extension beyond next week, it will be disastrous for candidates in the Conservative cause and, I think, disastrous for candidates in the Labour cause. The first 100 seats the Labour party has to win are 78 for leave, 73 strongly for leave.
This is an issue where the integrity of the idea of voting is absolutely at stake. Given that the Labour party is not going to vote for the withdrawal agreement and people like me are not going to vote for it—handing over the power to make law to 27 countries, a position where there is no manner in which a sovereign independent UK could leave, and a proposal that breaks up the United Kingdom and creates something appalling called UK(NI) is not acceptable to me—the only solution is to leave with no deal, which is the law of the land. As Mr Barnier said in his statement last night, the vote has not changed that.
I know this is not a popular view, looking around the Chamber at those who are present today, but talk from Opposition Members about crashing out is, bluntly, lazy. Ask why. I have been to Dover twice in the past three weeks. We have had discussions with those in Calais, including Mr Puissesseau, and they all say that they are prepared. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), answering an urgent question earlier, gave some very confident answers. Numerous statutory instruments, many of which I have sat on, have gone through. We have Mr Barnier saying that there are only two more issues, one of which is the budget which is really not going to touch on Brexit, that have to be sorted. So I appeal to Members that hiding behind the mantra of “crashing out” is lazy.
There may be hiccups. There was a lot of preparation for the millennium bug. We had exactly the same thing: virtually every business was prepared; they just thought that other businesses had not prepared. That may well be the case on this occasion. The damage from a bit of disruption is far less than the huge damage and the risk of populism should we thwart the wishes of the 17.4 million people.
Order. I was reluctant to impose a formal time limit, hoping that we could get by without it, but I am afraid it is necessary because I want to maximise participation. There will be a five-minute limit with immediate effect, of which the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) has been notified and with which she concurred.
Several hon. Members have rightly said that the Prime Minister’s letter requesting an extension to article 50 was not what this House was promised or what this House agreed. I want to make a slightly different argument, which is that a short extension will not solve the huge problems that we face in dealing with Brexit. It is clear that the Prime Minister has refused to change course. She simply wants to run down the clock and blackmail MPs into supporting her withdrawal agreement. If we have another vote on the agreement next week and she loses again, even the EU agreeing to an extension would not solve our problems, because we will simply be back here in two or three months’ time. A cliff edge will have been replaced by a brick wall, and no deal will be back on the agenda, so that will not work.
At Prime Minister’s questions today, I was conscious of how thoroughly disrespectful the Prime Minister was to every Member of this House. She is just being stubborn, and as she carries on with her vanity project, it is our country that will go down. We are very, very concerned.
I completely agree. I will come back at the end of my speech to the Prime Minister’s way of dealing with Parliament.
Even if the Prime Minister succeeds in getting her withdrawal agreement through next week, Brexit will not be sorted, because the withdrawal agreement will not resolve any of the fundamental choices that we face about our future relationship with the EU. We will be leaving without knowing where we are going, which means that we will simply end up back here, time and again. We will be back here at the end of the transition period, and when that, too, is inevitably extended, we will be back here again, grappling with the same problems.
Probably not, because I really want to let others come in. I am so sorry.
Extension has to be for a purpose, so it is about facing up to the choices that Brexit inevitably brings. Either we remain as close to the EU as possible, to protect jobs and prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland, but give up our say over the rules—or we cut all ties, with all the risks and uncertainty that that brings. We have never been straight with the British public about those choices, but doing that will require time. It will take time for this House to agree, if it can, on which option we should look at. It will take time to negotiate any other alternative with the EU, whether that is a customs union, a common market or whatever else. My view is that this must be not simply about what this House decides about our future relationship, but about what the public think. That is the only way to get a sustainable solution.
One reason that many people are concerned about a longer extension is that they are worried that it would mean our having to take part in the European Parliament elections, but I do not think that that is a foregone conclusion. Eleanor Sharpston, an advocate-general of the Court of Justice of the European Union, has called that view
“an oversimplified and ultimately fallacious presentation of the situation.”
She says that, just as the article 49 rules have changed for countries acceding to the EU, the article 50 rules could change for the UK. For example, the mandates of UK MEPs who have already been democratically elected could be extended so that they remain in place for months to come. It is not a foregone conclusion; it is about the political will to find a way forward.
Just as I believe that the Prime Minister should change course, I think that the EU should, too. The EU has insisted that we cannot discuss our future relationship until we have agreed on the withdrawal agreement with respect to money, EU citizens and the border in Northern Ireland, but the truth is that we cannot solve the issue of the border in Northern Ireland unless we know where we are going in the long term. Our very failure to agree how close we will remain to the EU has inevitably led to the requirement for a backstop, so the EU has to change course if we are to solve this.
I conclude by echoing my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). Let me give a warning to the Prime Minister and others about pitting this Parliament against the public and about criticising and castigating us for not bending to the will of the people—as if there were one single will of the people that is clear and always the same. We are representatives, not delegates; we are here to exercise our judgment. It is our job to question, to scrutinise and to stand up for what we believe in. It is dangerous to try to pit this Parliament against the people, instead of defending our parliamentary democracy—one long-term challenge among many others that the Prime Minister has simply failed to live up to.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). I share much of the frustration expressed on both sides of the House. We are all frustrated by the lack of progress. We are all frustrated that we are sat here having another emergency debate about Brexit because we have not got exactly the right outcome we all wanted. We are frustrated that the arguments are not advancing. We are frustrated that in the national press this place is being portrayed with increasing vehemence. We are frustrated that the Government are not saying exactly what we want when we want. I share all those frustrations. Today alone on my Twitter feed, I have been called a traitor by Brexiteers and an absolute idiot and a failure by remainers. That is our world right now, and we all want to get out of it—of course we do.
I understand that I am accountable to my electorate back in Somerset and that the decisions I take here will be judged come the next general election. I understand it is my responsibility to weigh up all the options presented to us in this place and to reconcile them with the interests of my constituency, with what my Government and party advise us to do, with the manifesto I stood on and with how my constituency and the country voted. I understand all those things and I am constantly triangulating to do what I believe to be the right thing. It strikes me, however, that what I think is the right thing is changing all the time, because the circumstances are changing all the time. Our decision-making process on Brexit is iterative. Being asked the same question again and again is not a problem, providing we might be inclined to make a different decision, and the evidence so far is that people are.
I would say exactly the same, by the way, about the questions already put in this place on no deal, a second referendum and a customs union. The Library has been digging out the detail for me this afternoon. All those questions have already been put and decided upon, but it is not a problem that we should want to consider them anew if next week we decide against the deal, although I hope we do not, as I continue to believe it is the pragmatic and sensible way forward. That said, surely nobody in the House can say that as circumstances change we should not reconsider. They have changed significantly this afternoon with President Tusk’s statement that a short delay is only an option if the House decides in favour of the withdrawal agreement. That is a seismic change in circumstances that warrants another meaningful vote next week on the deal. Nobody can say, however, that we should reconsider a second referendum, a customs union or any of the other things on which we have already voted, and then say we should not extend the same right to the deal.
The one thing the House is united on—I suspect you included, Mr Speaker, having seen the clip of you being followed across the road by journalists the other day—is that we are all very bored of being asked the same questions and of being on the receiving end of a very frustrated British public. Next week, we have the opportunity to make a decision at last. I hope that the House has an opportunity to vote on the deal and that we vote for it, but surely we have reached the end of the road. Next week, we must finally decide what we are in favour of and then accept a short delay while the deal is enacted.
I will try to keep my comments short because many others want to speak and I have spoken a lot in the last couple of weeks.
As we all know, it feels like groundhog day, but we have had the privilege this afternoon of hearing some outstanding speeches. It is the content, in particular, of some of those speeches that should concern members of the Government and those who sit behind them. I am thinking, for example, of the comments of the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) and of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who did not hold back in describing his sheer despair, as a long-serving Conservative Member, at our situation—a situation that is of the Government’s and, in particular, the Prime Minister’s own making. It does not give anybody any pleasure to say that.
I listened with great care, as I always do, to the wise words of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who always speaks with dignity, wisdom and experience. In a pragmatic and sensible way, he seeks often to provide the very leadership that has been so desperately lacking in the past three years. He said that he did not like to engage in the blame game, and I agree with him. However, it is absolutely critical, as others have said—including the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), and, indeed, the hon. Member for Leicester East—[Hon. Members: “Leicester West.”] I mean the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). East or west, it is always very good in Leicester—not as good as in Nottingham, but that is by the way.
Let me say this, in all seriousness. Those Members made very important points, as ever, about how the Government are interpreting events and, quite wrongly, trying to set this place up as if it were in opposition to this thing called “the will of the people”. That could not be further from the truth. There are many right hon. and hon. Members who, from the very outset, have spoken without fear or favour on behalf of their constituents, doing the job that we are here to do, which is to represent all our constituents, not just to pander to the members of our political parties.
I would like to think that this was an inaccurate tweeted representation, but what a shameful moment it was when, apparently, one Conservative Member asked another, “Why did you vote in the way that you did?” and received the reply, “Well, it is my association annual general meeting this week.” That is the simple reality—the truth of the situation that we are in.
I have said this before, and others have said it as well. We know of Members, primarily Conservative Members, who regularly vote not in accordance with their consciences or what they believe is in the interests of their constituents, but because they are fearful either of being attacked or assaulted—and as you know, Mr Speaker, that is a very real threat to many—or of being deselected by their Conservative associations. That is a fact. It goes to the very root of democracy, and also, I believe, to the heart of much of what has happened over the past three years: the inability of people to speak with honesty, and to do the right thing by their constituents.
There is a sense of despair in the country, which is reflected in this place. I will not say who it was, but a Member who sits on these Benches, although not in the area where I sit—they know who they are—said to me at about half-past 8 or 9 o’clock this morning, “For goodness sake, will she,” meaning the Prime Minister, “not now listen, and reach out, and try to form some sort of compromise and way forward?” I had to reply, “I am afraid to say, on the basis of my experience, that this Prime Minister will not listen to anyone who does not agree with her, and when she does listen and does change her mind, it is only in response to those on the hard Brexit right of the Conservative party.”
What we should all seek to do is put our country first. Let me echo what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield—and it must have been heavy and difficult for him to say it. I am afraid that time and again, when this Prime Minister should be putting her country first, she is putting her party first, and that cannot be right.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in the debate, although again I have a sense of déjà vu. Here we are again, discussing this issue. It is the most important issue that faces us, but I did not seek election to the House to spend my time talking about just one issue.
I think there is a real sense that next week has to be different. Many people may be thinking that when we have another vote on Monday, it will be the same as those that we have had before. Everyone can vote against what they do not like and put up various ideas, some realistic and some not, and the Whips’ Offices will be telephoning over the weekend. I see some of my favourite Whips in the Chamber now, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). There will be a ring-round, we will come back on Monday, and we will all stand on our pedestals, vote for various options and agree on none.
The comments of Donald Tusk today make very clear what the options actually are. Just kicking the can down the road—a further extension—is not a solution in itself. It is a delay, not a decision. It is a question of what we actually want it for, and which of those options we are actually seeking to implement. For me there remain three clear choices. The first is not one I agree with, as I think the referendum itself has ruled it out, but I accept that some Members—those in the Scottish National party, the Liberal Democrats, probably the Independent Group—would go for it: the revocation of article 50. I do not think that would be the right thing to do—I do not think it would be appropriate—but at least that is a coherent choice.
The second—I listened with interest to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—would be that we chose to leave without a deal either next Friday or at the end of another extension, although I think it is becoming clear that the EU’s patience in us just wanting to carry on debating is understandably coming to an end, as is most of the public’s. I do not think leaving without a deal would be the disaster some make out, but the votes last week show the likelihood of this House agreeing that outcome.
That brings us back to the final unilateral option we can choose: to vote for the proposed withdrawal agreement. We have to be clear that that would not be the end of the process. There are various options, from Canada to Norway to any other idea someone might want to come up with—we might almost think every one of us could put our name to a new Brexit idea for all the ones that have been brought out over the last year—but this is the one option that we can actually agree and take forward knowing that the EU will agree to it and that we can convert it into our own law. I am not going to say that it is perfect or the best thing I have ever read, but then again it was never going to be. There are clearly challenging issues; we are unravelling a 45-year relationship with many other economies. We would probably have ended up doing some of the things anyway as a sovereign state but they have become wrapped up as part of our membership of the EU.
Those are the three realistic and fairly stark choices that now face Members as we consider what will happen and what we do next week. Just saying, “I want no to no-deal” is nonsense. Saying that is a soundbite; it isn’t a solution. We actually have to agree to a solution—to one of the two remaining alternatives. The same applies to just holding out in the hope that we might get no deal, when it is pretty obvious where the votes will go on that. I voted last week against extension; I am happy to have done that as I thought it was the right thing to do, but the way that vote would go again if we had it next week is fairly predictable.
Now is the time for Members; there has been a real and fundamental change with what has been said by the President of the European Council. We need to accept that the idea that there are all sorts of wonderful types of deals that we can do is not there; there are three simple choices available next week. Therefore, Members need to think carefully about which one of them they wish to take, or conversely wish to risk. If people want to revoke article 50, that is a principled position, but it is not one I will be voting for. We could manage no deal, but I do not see it getting through the House. So as I said back in December when I was concluding on why I would be voting for the deal at that time, it is the one way that guarantees that we actually get to Brexit. We can get some of the advantages that people voted for and leave, honour the pledges we made and respect the referendum. That is what I hope this House will do next week.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster).
I was not intending to speak in this debate but now feel compelled to do so. I think the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) said that the outcome of the referendum was not advisory; my understanding from Members who were in this place at that time is that it was advisory and was not a straight decision.
However, we are having this debate today because there has been a catastrophic failure of leadership and management by one person: the Prime Minister. This has been a complex political and economic disengagement from Europe, but it has not been managed well and I am afraid that really has been down to her. I therefore cannot—and I am sure Members across this place cannot —listen to Members or this place being described as a laughing stock or it being said that we are somehow not following the will of the people. That seems so wrong.
Then we hear the Secretary of State in his opening remarks say that we are frustrating the process, when in fact we have been the ones who have been frustrated by the Government all the way through, whether by denying us access to economic impact analyses that we were told did not exist, or pulling the vote that was supposed to take place on 11 December—and so it goes on.
Let us look at the pattern of behaviour from the Government, and particularly at how the Prime Minister acted with her then Brexit Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), over Chequers. She would not share the documents relating to her outline proposal for Chequers with him, and I understand that it was not until the day before that she gave him access to them. So it goes on.
We realise that this is not a leader in the true sense who has chosen to take us with her on this project. She has acted almost in isolation, alienating us from the process. She has sought to plough her own furrow in order to see through some sort of legacy project for which she knew all along there would be no support. As a result, we have seen a divided Cabinet and a divided Government.
The Prime Minister never sought to engage or involve us at the beginning of the process. She never sought to scope out the implications with partner countries, with trade unions or with the devolved Administrations. We are now in the situation where we do not support her. Mr Speaker, I hope you will forgive my using a sporting metaphor when I say that she has lost the dressing room. She often repeats the phrase, as does the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, that we never state what we are for. That is because we have been frustrated by the process and have had no opportunity to say what we would support.
I would like to echo the points made so forcefully and well by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). We would love to have the opportunity to explore what other options could be considered, and that is what I would call for. I believe that that opportunity should be revisited in this place next week, because it is the only way in which we can begin to reunify not only this place but the country. We must explore the options that a majority can support, and then we must work at somehow resolving the crisis that we and the country are facing. If we are to find unity and strength next week, I urge the House to support such a proposition. I believe that that position is supported across the House, and it is the only way in which we will achieve a way through.
At this very point in time, I was meant to be at a reception to thank British MEPs past and present for their contribution to political life. The sad fact is that, during my time in the European Parliament, Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MEPs from this country would often work together to find common solutions.
This is a very challenging time, but the circumstances were predicted. I recall that, in the winter just after the referendum, the then ambassador to Brussels, Ivan Rogers, came to visit me in my office to talk about what the last stages of the negotiation were likely to be. He wanted to decide what date he should recommend to be put on the article 50 letter. We discussed how intense the situation would be in the run-up to the European elections. We also talked about how, in the European Parliament, the first vote in a series of negotiations would often not get through and the matter would need to come back for a few little manoeuvres, and perhaps some side agreements, before getting through on the second or third attempt. We particularly decided on the March date to ensure that if we needed an extension for a second or third vote, there would be time for that before the European elections. This was all predicted. The only thing that Ivan and I got wrong was that we predicted that the challenge would be to get this through the European Parliament, not to get it through here.
Let us look at what is now the real deadline. The real deadline is the European elections. Colleagues, I have fought a lot of European elections. I fought the one in 2009 in the middle of the expenses scandal. There were 58 Westminster MPs in the area that I campaigned in, and less than a handful were even prepared to show their faces on the streets in their own constituencies. The situation was toxic, but nothing like as toxic as it would be if we were to go back to our constituencies to fight another European election. Just think about who the candidates would be in those elections and what they would face. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) is not in her seat, but she has said that she wants a second referendum. She was not even brave enough to attend public meetings in her own constituency during the first referendum—I had to do it. Just think what the next elections would be like.
I do not underestimate how damaging a no deal would be. A no deal is not a good deal. It does not matter as much to people who are not affected by Europe, but for people who have relatives living in Europe, who are married to an EU citizen or who own a business that trades with Europe—like the stallholder at a market in my Essex constituency who told me last Saturday, “Vicky, we need a deal. I will be bust within a week if we do not have a deal”—we must find a deal.
There is only one deal on the table right now, and it is the withdrawal agreement and the future partnership. I have listened over and over again to Labour Members, and the shadow Brexit Secretary has said that, fundamentally, the Opposition do not have a problem with the withdrawal agreement but that they have a problem with the vagueness of the future partnership and the political declaration.
Donald Tusk picked his words carefully in his statement today. He said we can have this extension if we agree the withdrawal agreement. He is not committing us to one route or another on the future partnership. He said we should agree the withdrawal agreement, and we can then take that moment to work out where we need to land for our future relationship, because no deal is not a good place to be. This is too high a risk for our constituents. Even though I would like to have much more clarity on the long-term relationship, I will continue to vote for the withdrawal agreement because I do not condone the damage that crashing out in a no-deal Brexit would do to our country and to our relationship with Europe.
At Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister accused the House of navel-gazing on the subject of Europe, which is rich from a party that, for the past 30 years or more, has spent all its time navel-gazing—some might say digging around in its navel or, indeed, picking the scabs of Europe. That has left us in the current position. It has always been about the Tory interest in relation to Europe and never the interests of the country.
That is best reflected in the fact that it has required a Standing Order No. 24 application to be granted to enable us to debate something that the Prime Minister should have brought to the House, particularly given the de facto deputy Prime Minister’s comments, which many hon. Members have repeated, about how reckless it would be to seek a short extension.
I am afraid to say that the Prime Minister’s letter immediately fails two basic tests. First, it does not explain the purpose of the extension she seeks. Even worse, as we heard from the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), it was not submitted in time. The Government’s incompetence is unparalleled. They did not submit their letter seeking an extension in time for it to be considered at this European Council meeting.
I make it clear to the Minister why the Liberal Democrats and, indeed, other Opposition parties are seeking an extension to article 50. First, the extension should be longer than the three months that the Government are apparently seeking, and it should be for a very simple purpose, which is to allow time for a people’s vote. If that requires European elections to be fought, we will fight them. We could well be, perhaps for the first time in British history, fighting European elections on the values and principles of the EU. We may have Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, funded by who knows whom, from who knows where, fighting that campaign, but the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, the Labour party—one would hope—the Greens and so on may well be fighting the European Parliament elections on the basis of the values of the EU. These are the values that have ensured security and peace, and have ensured that the EU can deal collectively with issues such as climate change in a positive way. If we have those elections, bring them on. We would welcome the opportunity to talk positively about what the EU has done.
There is not very much positive about Brexit, but the one silver lining that I hope Members from nearly all parties—not the Democratic Unionist party but all the other parties in this place—have found is that the issue of Brexit has brought together Members of different parties who often have never worked together before. That has happened in a collegiate way, whereby we are willing to work together. As I understand it, that is how the Danes were able to get themselves out of the hole they had dug for themselves in 1992 with the Maastricht treaty. They resolved that by bringing the parties together and finding a way out of it together. That is not what our Prime Minister has done. Bearing in mind that we are 1,000 days after the vote of 23 June 2016, what she attempted, for a brief flash about 100 days ago, was to organise a series of one-off meetings with party leaders and with other members of those parties. She ticked that box and said, “I have talked to the other parties. It is all dealt with.” I am not sure what is happening today, but I am not sure it will add much to the sum total of her connections with the other parties.
I hear what my right hon. Friend says about the Brexit situation bringing people together from different parties to work together. Does he accept that it has brought people together up and down the country? In this country we now have one of the largest pro-European movements in Europe, and we will see that on the streets of London this Saturday.
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for that. We expect that this Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people will be coming into London on the people’s march. If we are sitting on Saturday, as the Speaker has indicated might be possible if the Government want us to sit then, I am sure we will able to sit here and listen carefully to those people’s chants of, “Stop Brexit.” That is something I will welcome greatly.
Like many people in the country and in my constituency, I am extremely concerned about the situation we are in, but I am also clear that the responsibility for where we are now rests exclusively with one person—the Prime Minister. Brexit was always going to be a challenge and it was always going to be difficult, but she has turned a drama into a crisis—a political crisis and an unprecedented constitutional crisis. My advice to her is simple—you are in a hole; stop digging. We have had two meaningful votes, which have been rejected by this House, by very large majorities. On both occasions they have been absolutely thrown out, with no question about it. As things stand, if a third meaningful vote is allowed by the Speaker, that will be rejected as well. It will be rejected because this House is full of hon. Members who will not be bullied, browbeaten or bribed.
This deal is, in my considered judgment, bad for this country, and on that basis I will not support it. I ask the Prime Minister to listen very carefully, to this House and to the country. The country is divided; on that there is no question, but this House is also divided. What we need is not blind dogma and dogmatism, but an effort by all of us, including, especially, the Prime Minister, to create a consensus for a sensible Brexit—one that puts the people first and does not put the interests of the Conservative party above the national interest.
If that consensus on what might be called a soft Brexit cannot be achieved, we have to go to the people for their vote. There is a lot to be said for a confirmatory referendum, and at this stage and in the very near future, careful consideration must be given to that. On that basis, we could salvage something out of the terrible crisis in which we find ourselves.
I did not think it was possible to feel more outrage at or contempt for the behaviour of this Government and this Prime Minister. The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) said earlier that he had never felt so ashamed to be a Conservative MP; let me reassure him that this is not about party politics. I feel ashamed that we have a Prime Minister who is prepared to behave in this reckless and arrogant way, with total disregard and contempt for Parliament and the views of the majority of people in this country.
At this moment of maximum peril for the United Kingdom, we have a Prime Minister and a Government who resort to trickery, and who say one thing to Parliament and the public one day and do another thing the next. Most Members of this House are prepared to live up to our responsibilities and find a way out of this crisis. If the Government do not allow us to do that, Parliament will have to do it for ourselves.
My message for those Ministers in the Government whom we are told could not under any circumstances contemplate a crash-out no-deal Brexit, some of whom might be prepared to tolerate a less damaging, softer Brexit, or even a public vote, is that the next few days are their chance finally to stand up and be counted and to do what is in the national interest. They have been played. They have been had by this Prime Minister. They have put their trust in her and she has betrayed them. The next few days will be the moment of truth for them: will they finally do what they need to do in the national interest to prevent this kamikaze Prime Minister from driving this country to destruction, for which she and they will never be forgiven?
Without using vocabulary that I think you would find unacceptable, Mr Speaker, I cannot adequately convey the extent of my disgust at how the Prime Minister is treating Parliament. Together, we are the elected representatives of the people of the United Kingdom, yet the Prime Minister has treated us with serial contempt, as have her Executive.
Today’s discussion about the extension of article 50 is the latest in a long line. There can be no doubt that when last Thursday we voted by a big majority to approve the Government’s motion, we were voting to sanction a short extension in circumstances where the withdrawal agreement was approved, and a long extension in circumstances where it was not. There is no ambiguity whatsoever about that point, so for the Prime Minister then to seek a short extension without any approval of the withdrawal agreement is to turn the truth on its head and wilfully misrepresent the opinions of this Parliament. To people who are watching, and in particular to the leaders of the other European countries who will assemble in Brussels tomorrow, I say that when this British Prime Minister speaks tomorrow, she does not do so in our name and she does not represent our views.
We have had a long two and a half years of this Prime Minister refusing to countenance or accept any political view that is not found in the ranks of her own narrow governing party. She has ignored other points of view and tried to appease the unappeasable, and she stands accused of consistently putting her party before her country. By now, any reasonable and rational Prime Minister, having faced the scale of defeat over the length of time that she has, would have concluded either that she should leave the terrain altogether, or that it was time to go back to the drawing board, remove the arbitrary and erroneous red lines that she set at the beginning and reach out and try to build a new political consensus in this Parliament and in this country. The fact that she is unable and unwilling to do so is a matter of considerable regret and the people will judge her for it. It is not too late.
We now need a lengthy extension to this process—for as long as it does indeed take—in order to begin to create that new political consensus. My party stands willing to be part of that discussion, although what we will agree to will be determined by an ability to put whatever finds a route to a majority in this Parliament again before the people of the United Kingdom to allow them the final say. To those who are hiding behind a distant and narrow mandate, I ask: what are they afraid of? If they really believe that this withdrawal deal is what 17 million people voted for, why not put it to them and let them decide?
We have been given these choices: deal or no deal; and then deal or no Brexit. We now face a situation of chaos. One million people or more will probably be marching over the weekend to ask for the right to have a final say. The Government say that they are implementing the will of the people. If their deal is the will of the people, they should put it to the people to decide. We cannot agree in this place. We voted down this deal by 230 and then by149, and often for opposite reasons. One set of people say that we are not aligned enough with the EU, and the other that we are too much aligned with the EU. We cannot agree, so the deal should be put to the people. If this deal represents the will of the people, the people should decide.
This debate is about how long the extension should be. I put it to the Government that we should be requesting at least 22 weeks—five months—to allow time for a referendum. We probably could do with nine months if we are to look at the options. However, there is a real risk that the Government will go forward without a purpose, and we will simply be rejected by the EU, which will then force us into a situation where we will have either to take a no deal or to revoke article 50. In those circumstances, I very much hope that the Government choose to revoke article 50, because the people want to carry on with business as usual and not to have to face chaos.
In Swansea, people who voted leave voted in good faith for more money, more control, more trade, and more jobs. They are telling me now that they did not vote leave to leave their jobs. They can see that they will not get the trade and they can see that they will not get the control. They will not get the money, because there is a divorce bill. It is a complete shambles. People are not getting what they want. The Government are not representing the leave voters in Swansea and those voters now want the final say and they deserve that final say. That is what democracy is all about. Democracy is the right to change one’s mind. People are dying for that. Keynes famously said:
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
The facts have changed. When we had that vote, we did not have Donald Trump running around threatening people and undermining trade deals, environmental deals and world security. We did not have the Chinese getting rid of their democracy. We will be smashed between those two powers when we are trying to secure trade deals. We need to be part of Europe and share the values of Europe—of human rights, the rule of law and democracy. We need to work together in an uncertain world. People have woken up to the fact that that means staying in the EU. It is all very well having these stupid populist sayings, such as “take back control” and all the rest of it. People may have voted for that, but they now realise that they are losing control. There are those who say, “Oh, well, people will be angry.” The fact is that people will be absolutely enraged when they lose their jobs.
We are seeing the outbreak of populism, fascism and violence. The Daily Mail reported a case of a woman who was beaten to a pulp by people who said, “You’re from Poland, go home.” This is what is happening as a result of Brexit. It must be stopped. The people demand a final say and it is our duty to deliver it.
It is our job as MPs to speak the truth as we see it and to defend the interests of our country and of our constituents—in my case the people of Croydon. It is very hard to find the words to express the horror, the incredulity and the fear that those of us on these Opposition Benches and many, many on the Government Benches feel at the situation in which we find ourselves. There are nine days until we are due to leave the EU and we have no plan. The Prime Minister’s deal has been voted down in historic proportions twice, and yet she has written today to the European Council setting out her intention to try to get it through for a third time. We know, of course, that the Prime Minister’s deal was rejected because it is deeply flawed. The Financial Times said yesterday that
“although Ms. May’s package is often called a deal it is little more than a standstill agreement. She has bought 21 months of armistice in return for an indefinite continuation of the conflict.”
And we know that if her deal did pass, she would be replaced, most likely by an even more hard-line leader who would take us even further into isolation and economic decline.
The Prime Minister’s deal is something that this House could not agree to; it has no legitimacy and it does not have our support. Donald Tusk has confirmed this afternoon that, in his view, a short extension should be conditional on the Prime Minister’s deal passing, so it is clear that the Prime Minister will try to run down the clock, and blackmail, cajole and threaten us into voting for her deal in order to avoid no deal. But it is also clear that this House will not be bullied into voting to make our constituents poorer.
In her short time in this post, the Prime Minister has done irrevocable damage: to the basic principles of democracy, trust and integrity in this place; to our reputation around the world, which was so great when we hosted the Olympics in 2010, but is so trashed now; to our economy, as business shies away from investment, fearful of what she will do next; and to our constituents, who suffer from low pay, a cheap state and the politics of cut and care nothing.
This is very much a live situation, with the Leader of the Opposition in talks with the EU, trying to decide the best course of action, and the Prime Minister apparently ready to make a statement tonight. But we have nine days to avoid no deal, and avoid it we must. The Prime Minister must change course, shift her position and work across the House to find a solution; she must listen to the Father of the House and hold a series of indicative votes; and she must consider the best compromise in town, the Kyle-Wilson amendment. The Prime Minister must put country before party and, at this eleventh hour, do the right thing. If she does, we will all thank her for it.
Mr Speaker, thank you again for granting this debate today. The extension of article 50 is an important issue and this has been an important debate, and it would not have happened but for this Standing Order No. 24 application and debate. I thank everybody who has contributed. There have been some very powerful speeches, and I think that there is a clear theme: a deep concern about the course of action that the Government are pursuing. It is reckless to seek just a short extension for the purposes of putting the same deal back up and to introduce a new cliff edge at the end of the exercise, and it does increase the risk of no deal. That has been the constant theme through so many of the speeches this afternoon. It is not what this House voted for last week, both in terms of the motions that were passed or the spirit of those motions; it is clearly not what this House wants.
I hope that the Government have been listening to the debate, and I hope that they will—even at this eleventh hour—reflect on the course of action and take a different course, which is to recognise that this deal is not fit to be put before the House for a third time, and that the alternative course of providing a process so that the House can come together, find a majority, move forward and break the impasse is needed now more than ever. It is my privilege to close this debate on this important issue.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the length and purpose of the extension of the Article 50 process requested by the Government.
I now have to announce the result of today’s deferred Divisions. In respect of the Question relating to consumer protection, the Ayes were 313 and the Noes were 267, so the Question was agreed to. In respect of the Question relating to the annulment of amendments to the Integrated Care Regulations 2019, the Ayes were 216 and the Noes were 317, so the Question was negatived. In respect of the Question relating to organic production and control of imports, the Ayes were 315 and the Noes were 39, so the Question was agreed to. In respect of the Question relating to organic production and control, the Ayes were 315 and the Noes were 38, so the Question was agreed to.
[The Division lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]
Rating and Valuation
Motion made, and Question put,
That the draft Non-Domestic Rating (Rates Retention and Levy and Safety Net) (Amendment) and (Levy Account: Basis of Distribution) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 21 February, be approved.—(Jeremy Quin.)
The House proceeded to a Division.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to make a point of order before the start of the next debate, but during the vote, the Leader of the House walked into the Chamber and shouted angrily at me, jabbing her finger, saying that she deserved an apology from me because I, alongside other Members of all parties, had raised concerns about her comments on LGBT education earlier today. Do you think that it is appropriate for the Leader of the House to shout and jab her finger at another Member rather than raising the matter in private in an appropriate way, given that she is responsible for tackling bullying and for conduct in this House?