I inform the House that I have provisionally selected amendments (d) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition; (a) in the name of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin); and (f) for Freddie in the name of the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). I remind the House that, under the terms of the business motion just agreed to, the debate may continue until 10 pm, at which time the questions shall be put on any amendments which may then be moved. To move the main motion, I call the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.
I beg to move,
That this House, in accordance with the provisions of section 13(6)(a) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, has considered the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018” and made on Friday 15 March 2019.
This debate follows as a result of requirements of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and as a consequence of the decision taken by this House on 12 March. Since that date, the House has spoken on two further occasions: on 13 March, the House expressed its opposition to leaving the European Union without a deal; and on 14 March, the House agreed that the Government should seek an extension to article 50. I might add that, in respect of both those votes in this House, neither was legally binding on the Government, but that in each case the Government have honoured the wishes of the House in response to the resolution. I hope that that might provide at least a modicum of reassurance that in this Government we have not been, and we do not intend to be, dismissive in the least of how this House decides or votes.
I am very grateful to the Prime Minister-elect for giving way. He rightly just said that on 13 March this House agreed not to leave the European Union without a deal. In the statement the Prime Minister has just given the House, she said that, unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen. Could he explain what she meant by that statement?
I thought that what the Prime Minister said was quite clear. The Government believe in the case that we have frequently brought to this House for the deal that we believe is in the interests of the United Kingdom, which both those who supported leave and those who voted remain should be able to rally behind and move forward. We know that the legal default position must remain no deal because, from now on, any decision about this is contingent not only upon the view that this House or the Government might take, but on decisions by the European Council as to whether or not it wishes to extend—
If colleagues will forgive me, I want to reply to one intervention before I move on to others. It was by no means a given that an extension would have been granted at last week’s European Council.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) makes a very important point. As we embark on another very important debate and a number of serious, important debates over the next few days, may I raise with the Minister my concern about the Prime Minister’s speech last Wednesday night? She has apologised—[Interruption.] Well, maybe it was not as clear an apology as we would have liked, but she has given some recognition that perhaps her words were not appropriate. However, I was particularly concerned to see that the clips from her speech were being pumped out across Facebook with targeted advertising, paid for by taxpayers’ money—paid for by the Cabinet Office—into different MPs’ inboxes. Does the Minister agree that, at this time, it is not appropriate to be raising the heat in this debate, and that what we need is an atmosphere of compromise, concern and respect for all the different views across this House, bringing people together, not dividing them further?
I do not think anybody in the House would disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments at the end of his intervention, and certainly not my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We are all deeply aware and, looking up at the memorial shield to our former colleague, Jo Cox, I am very sharply reminded of the fact that many Members of this House have been subjected to the most appalling threats, intimidation and online trolling. Every one of us in our individual or representative capacities has a responsibility to ensure that no encouragement or succour is given to those wicked people who seek to act and intimidate in that way.
I return to the point that was made in the first intervention that the Minister took—that is, the Prime Minister’s categorical statement, which I have to say I welcomed today, that unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen. That could not be clearer. Given what the Minister rightly said about the need for the European Union then to take decisions that facilitate this, is not the inevitable consequence of what the Prime Minister has told the House today that, unless she gets her deal through, she will have to apply for an extension prior to 12 April?
That depends, of course, on what this House decides to do this week. That is the logic, certainly, of the right hon. Gentleman’s argument about my right hon. Friend’s remarks, if we start from the premise that the House were not to approve the withdrawal agreement this week. I hope we will and it is the Government’s intention to persuade the House to approve the withdrawal agreement during this week, in which case the deadline moves forward automatically to 22 May. I repeat the comment that I made earlier in response to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray): the United Kingdom can make a request, but it is not ever a certainty that the European Council will agree to it.
I am very grateful to the putative Prime Minister—I say to him that he could not possibly do a worse job than what we have seen in the past few years. Has the right hon. Gentleman paid attention to the petition that has now been signed by 5.5 million people right across the UK, including over 10% of his constituency? Would he now concur that revocation—just ending this madness once and for all—remains a real-life possibility for this country?
No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. In my constituency, the votes were pretty finely balanced in 2016 between the two sides in the referendum. It would not surprise me that 10% of my constituents felt strongly in favour of revocation in the way that he suggests. Obviously, one takes seriously not only the scale and strength of the opinion expressed in the demonstration at the weekend but the number of signatories attracted to the petition, but that does not mean that one can simply ignore or set aside the fact that 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU in 2016.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will give way to my hon. Friend, but then I will try to make some progress.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has mentioned the 17.4 million people, many of whom had never voted before, who took the trouble to vote leave in the referendum. Given the recent votes in the House—on no deal, the withdrawal agreement and the second vote—and given that the Prime Minister now seems to have taken no deal off the table, for some of us, there are different options to think about. It is vital that the withdrawal agreement comes back before the House because, if no deal is off the table, much worse deals might well be put forward by this remainer House and those of us who do not wish to see those happen will feel we have a very bad situation.
I certainly hope that we have the opportunity to vote again on the withdrawal agreement this week.
The Minister has said very clearly that the Government have responded to and honoured two of the motions passed in the last couple of weeks, but what about that huge majority for the withdrawal legislation and leaving on 29 March, which is still on the statute book? Now, because of some agreement stitched up between the Prime Minister and the EU, we will not have the chance to decide or look at that. Is that not constitutionally incorrect—apart from being legally incorrect?
I will say a bit more about the statutory instrument in a few minutes, if the hon. Lady will bear with me.
I support the Prime Minister’s deal—I think it is a good deal—and I welcome the news that we will be voting on it again, but will my right hon. Friend look closely at the important proposals from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) to amend the unilateral declaration to provide more certainty, clarity and reassurance to those not yet ready to vote for the deal?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have taken very seriously the comments from our right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and continue to have a dialogue with him and others to find the best way forward.
I will give way to my right hon. and learned Friend, then to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and then I will make some progress.
On the Government’s commitment to avoid no deal, in line with the votes, my right hon. Friend has acceded that the Government do accept last week’s votes, which is in line with the constitutional convention that the Government do not proceed with policies that are rejected by this House of Commons. He has agreed that. Then he said that we therefore either pass the withdrawal agreement, which I have voted for, or ask for an extension, that being the only remedy presumably, but, as he rightly says, we cannot guarantee the Europeans would accept that. However, in line with the wishes of the House and what is now Government policy, if we are driven by the more hard-line people in this House to that circumstance, obviously, the Government must revoke, in the hope that we start the whole process again once the House and everybody else has come back to their senses and found a consensus on how to proceed on the question of our future relations with the rest of the world.
With all respect, I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I think he underestimates quite how severe the damage would be to already fragile public confidence in our democratic processes if the House voted to revoke the implementation of a decision that the majority of Members gave to the electorate in 2016, saying they would abide by their decision.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Cardiff West, then the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) and, then, if the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) will forgive me, I will make some progress.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will make some progress, but I will happily give way to my right hon. and learned Friend later.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; he is being extremely generous. I cannot see how any deal can proceed without a public vote at the end of the process, given the circumstances. On the question of today’s business, the Prime Minister said earlier that the Government were prepared to seek to provide time—I think those were her words—to discuss indicative options. Will he clarify what exactly she meant by that? When are the Government prepared to do it and for how long, and can he confirm that what the options are would be in the hands of the House?
I will gladly do so, but I ask colleagues to bear with me and permit me to complete page 1 of my speech and move to subsequent sections. Then I might be able to throw a bit more light on some of the questions being posed to me. I will give way to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, but then I am going to make some progress.
My assessment of where we are is that a majority does exist for the withdrawal agreement—the technical aspect of our leaving the EU—but the differences and difficulty are on the political declaration and where that may take us, where we may end up in that situation and what support and clarity the House will have in that process. Can the Minister give some assurances that the House will have a clear role in the next stage of the negotiations, so that we can avoid this merry-go-round at the next stage?
Yes, indeed. It is something to which the Government have been giving a lot of thought and has featured in conversations that Ministers have been having with Members across the House not just in the last few days but in the last several weeks. Various models could be adopted. In particular, there would be the question of the role of Select Committees—the Brexit Select Committee and other relevant departmental Select Committees—in the different aspects of that very wide-ranging negotiation. One lesson I have drawn from the experience of the last couple of years is that the House will insist on having a say and will find ways to express its view, including some novel initiatives. The reality is that the House is going to have a say and influence as the negotiations proceed, and I would hope that the agreement that I believe the Government will eventually succeed in striking will command widespread public support.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
All right, I will break my rule, but then I hope that the House will allow me to move on.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his characteristic courtesy. May I take him back to his answer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who raised the issue of revocation? I rather share my right hon. Friend’s view that revocation would be a drastic act, but the fact that so many people are signing up to advocate it is probably a reflection of a growing level of exasperation. Is it not the case that the better course of action, rather than unilateral revocation, is to go back and ask the public whether they want the Prime Minister’s deal, with the alternative being remain? That would show respect for the 2016 referendum result. My anxiety is this: the Government boxed themselves in with red lines in their negotiations with the EU; now they are boxing themselves in with red lines in relation to the options available to the House to resolve the current crisis. I also worry, if the stories about the Cabinet minutes are correct, that some of the reasons appear to be very narrow and partisan, at a time when a national crisis should be requiring us to look more widely. Those of us who try to do that get vilified, but I am quite prepared to put up with that because I think it is where the national interest lies.
One thing I can say with great confidence is that, above all, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, according to all my observation of her approach to these negotiations and the subsequent parliamentary proceedings, has been motivated entirely by what is right for the national interest. Judging the national interest certainly involves looking at the content and terms of the arrangements for our departure, but it also means taking account of the fact of the referendum result in 2016, and the political and democratic reality that it represents.
I am going to make some progress.
During its meeting last week, the European Council approved the legally binding assurances in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had negotiated with President Juncker a fortnight ago. As my right hon. Friend has explained, that should give additional assurance to Members that in the unlikely event that the backstop were ever used it would be only temporary, and that the United Kingdom and the European Union would begin work immediately to replace it with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020. The Council also agreed—subject to a vote in this House—to approve the withdrawal agreement this week. The date of our departure from the EU would be extended to 22 May to provide time for the House to agree and ratify a Brexit deal, and to pass the necessary legislation to make that possible.
However, the Council agreed that in the event that the House did not approve the withdrawal agreement this week, article 50 should be extended only until 12 April. At that point, we would have two options: we could leave without a deal, or we would need to have agreed an alternative plan for a longer extension with the European Union, and the EU would have to have accepted that. It is very clear from what EU leaders and the EU institutions have said that such a longer extension would require elections to the European Parliament to be held in the United Kingdom.
On 14 March, I told the House that in the event that Members had not approved a meaningful vote by 20 March and agreed a timetable for the withdrawal agreement Bill, the Government would recognise that the House would require time to consider the potential ways forward. The Government stand by the commitment that I set out that day that in such a scenario, having consulted the usual channels at that time, they would facilitate a process, in the two weeks after the March European Council, to allow the House to seek a majority on the way forward. Since then my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have acted on that commitment, and have engaged constructively with Members on both sides of the House in recent days. Between us we have met leaders of all parties as well as other senior parliamentarians, and that process is ongoing; my right hon. Friend met the Leader of the Opposition earlier today. Those discussions will continue.
There are reports today that, in those discussions with the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister put forward a proposal to decouple the withdrawal agreement from the political declaration as a way of seeking compromise. Are those reports correct, and, if so, what was the response of the Labour Front Bench?
The European Council conclusions specify that it is approval of the withdrawal agreement that counts in respect of whether there is an extension to 22 May. Of course, the requirements in the European Council conclusions are different in scope from what is required under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to constitute a meaningful vote.
My right hon. Friend may know what I am going to ask, because I asked the Prime Minister this question and she suggested that I ask him. I do so as someone who, as he knows, voted to support the agreement last time, and will vote to do so again.
My right hon. Friend has just said that the Government will facilitate the discussion of alternative arrangements in the two weeks following the European Council should the deal not, for whatever reason, succeed. We are already eating into those two weeks. He urges us to resist the so-called Letwin amendment for various reasons, which I understand to some degree, but he has not yet specified a timetable for when the Government will present their own means and terms of facilitation. Let me ask my him what I asked the Prime Minister: when?
As I said a moment ago, the discussions with other parties and Members on both sides of the House will continue, but I can confirm that the Government would seek to provide Government time in order for the process to proceed. If the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is not passed tonight, we will set aside time for a first day of debate later this week, and after that day’s debate has been concluded, we will consider and consult on what further time, if any, might be needed. If, on the other hand, my right hon. Friend’s amendment is carried, the consequence for the control of the Order Paper will be that the decisions will be very much a matter for my right hon. Friend and the House more generally, given the terms in which the amendment has been drafted.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there will be free votes on the Government side of the House if that situation arises?
I think it would be premature to say anything about whipping at this stage, because we do not currently know exactly what the content of any options might be, what amendments to them might conceivably be tabled, or which of those amendments the Chair might be willing to accept. However, I know that my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip will have heard my hon. Friend’s representations.
The reason the Prime Minister’s statement last Wednesday was so disappointing—and we are hearing it today—is that this is not about the 17 million any more than it is about the 16 million; it is about everyone who lives in this country and has a stake in its future. People are looking at what is happening and feeling absolute frustration and despair, because the people whom they elected to make decisions and make this work have not found a way through the difficulties. Now, with the indicative votes that are coming, we have an opportunity to make a breakthrough and find some common ground, but it would require the Prime Minister to depart from the red lines and learn to compromise. What advice would the Minister offer to her in this circumstance?
I am afraid that one thing about which I am very clear indeed is that I am very willing to—and do—offer advice to my right hon. Friend, but I talk about that advice to her in private, not in the House.
Many of my constituents are emailing me asking me to vote for amendment (a) tonight. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that even if that amendment is not passed, if we have not passed the withdrawal agreement, the Government will make time for indicative votes? Will those votes happen this week or next week?
As I said a moment ago, if amendment (a) is not passed, we will make available a first day this week for the process to which we have committed ourselves to proceed. It may be that further time would be needed, but that would be a matter for consideration after the first day had concluded.
I will give way first to the hon. Member for Leicester West and then to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe, but after that—I hope that the House will forgive me—I will try to move on.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way.
If amendment (a) is voted down and the Government do indeed propose their own slot, will they determine the options on which the House will vote, or will Members of Parliament do so?
The hon. Lady has pre-empted my next paragraph. I was about to say that we do not think it is for the Government to tell the House what options it should and should not consider—that should be a matter for the House—but that, in turn, does not mean that the Government will be silent about the options that might be debated. We will certainly continue to be strong advocates for the deal that we have negotiated, and we will continue to urge Members in all parts of the House to be realistic.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time, but can he help us with this? Is it the Government’s plan that those votes will relate to the withdrawal agreement, or will they deal only with the political declaration? As he knows, there is a profound difference between the two: if the former, the withdrawal agreement, passes it will be a treaty and go into international law, but the political declaration is non-binding.
If the right hon. Lady will bear with me, I want to come on to that shortly.
My right hon. Friend has said that the Government are going to reject, or try to reject, the so-called Letwin amendment this evening but will then make Government time available for roughly the same thing. So as far as I can see, the only objection to the amendment is that it has been tabled by a Back Bencher and not by the Government. Would this not all be resolved if my right hon. Friend confirmed that the Government will make this Wednesday available for the purpose, since we do not have much time? It seems to me that we would then all be in total agreement and be able to proceed to the indicative votes.
Until we have had the Division this evening, assuming there is one, on the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), we will not know whether Wednesday is available for the Government’s disposal or whether it will fall to other means of consideration.
I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but this is hopeless: he cannot argue against a perfectly sensible amendment, which is reasonable in the circumstances, in the name of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on the basis that the Government are going to propose something similar without at this stage saying on what day, for how long, on what conditions, and on what range of motions. If he is saying that Parliament should not be in control because the Government ought to be in control, then surely it is reasonable to expect the Government to actually be in control, to have some sense of what the process is, and to provide some clarity now, otherwise we might as well troop through the Lobby to vote for the amendment.
There is a matter of constitutional principle here. We are saying that it is for the Government to control the Order Paper, as is normal, but in this case we would devote our time to consideration of the measures that the House wanted to see debated and decided.
Is it not the case that it is common practice in a debate for the Government to welcome an amendment proposed by Members on the Back Benches or representing Opposition parties? From what I have heard, my right hon. Friend is going to do on Wednesday exactly what amendment (a) says, so would not the easiest thing to do be just to accept amendment (a) tonight?
The difference between myself and my hon. Friend on this occasion is that I take the view, and the Government take the view, that amendment (a) would upset the balance between legislature and Executive in a way that would set an unwelcome precedent, and it is for that reason that we are not supporting it.
I give way to my right hon. Friend.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for your guidance on the whole question of Standing Order No. 14, given that we operate a system of parliamentary Government, not government by Parliament. That is for a good reason: in a nutshell, Government business takes precedence under Standing Order No. 14 because it is the wish of the majority of Members of Parliament, who form the Government, and therefore the wishes of the electorate are at stake. Would you be kind enough to answer my question, Mr Speaker, since I regard this to be a matter of fundamental constitutional importance?
I very much look forward to listening to the speech that the hon. Gentleman might make in the course of the debate, and he knows that he can always look to me and very much expect to catch my eye. So far as the Standing Order is concerned, the fact of its presence is well known to everybody, but the House is the owner of the Standing Orders, and if a proposition is put to the House for a change in those arrangements, including in a particular case the suspension of a Standing Order or more than one Standing Order, it is perfectly credible and reasonable that that should be put to the House. I did announce my provisional selection of amendments earlier, and I do not think—although I accept that the hon. Gentleman objects to this amendment—that it came as any great surprise that the cross-party amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) was selected. As to whether it is acceptable to the House, that remains to be seen. It is obviously not acceptable to the hon. Gentleman, and we will hear further and better particulars of his objection in due course.
I give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I promise him that I had not intended to intervene in his speech, unlike almost everybody else sitting in the Chamber today, but he does force me to do so because I wonder whether he can clarify the following slightly different point. Given that his objection to our amendment is ostensibly simply the constitutional one, and given that that could be entirely resolved by the Government accepting the amendment—or indeed could have been resolved on Thursday or Friday, when it was tabled, by the Government signing it and turning it into a Government amendment, in which case a Minister’s name would have been at the top of the list—could my right hon. Friend simply tell us whether on Wednesday, if our amendment fails, the Government intend to operate exactly the same principles as are contained within that amendment, or whether the Government have some other plan about how to construct the day?
I cannot give a commitment immediately for that or of that level of detail, but I will have further discussions and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union might be able to respond to the point in greater detail in his winding-up speech.
I am always over-tempted to give way to interventions, and I am deeply conscious that on the last two occasions that I came to this Dispatch Box I spoke for over an hour in total because of the number of interventions I permitted, so I will try to make some progress as I am sure many Members in all parts of the House want to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, and contribute to the debate.
Whatever options are put forward—this starts to address the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—will need to be negotiable with the EU, and in particular any deal will require the withdrawal agreement that not only we but the 27 other Governments of the EU member states have negotiated. The conclusions of the European Council last week could not have been clearer: EU member states are not prepared to consider any reopening of the terms of the withdrawal agreement which for them, as well as for us, represented the outcome of a lengthy period of negotiation and compromise on both sides. And this is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was clear earlier this afternoon that the Government cannot simply pre-commit to accepting whatever might come out of this process. It is entirely possible that this House votes for something that is neither realistic nor negotiable; for example, it could vote to seek further changes to the withdrawal agreement, which the EU has been clear is simply not possible. Equally, the House could vote to maintain all the benefits of the single market without agreeing to the obligations, such as alignment with state aid rules or the free movement of people, but the EU has been clear that the four freedoms are indivisible.
Of course we will engage constructively with Members across the House on whatever the outcome of this process is, but we continue to believe that the amendment tabled in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset would be an unwelcome precedent to set, in that it would overturn the balance between Parliament and the Government. In the event that his amendment were carried tonight, we would obviously want to have a dialogue with him and his co-sponsors about how he proposed to take those measures forward.
I want to add a few words to what the Prime Minister said about the statutory instrument that has been published today on the extension of article 50. Now that the United Kingdom and the European Union have agreed an extension to article 50 and it has been embodied in a legal decision of the European Council, the date needs to be amended to reflect in our domestic law the new point at which the EU treaties will cease to apply in the United Kingdom. The Government have therefore tabled today a draft statutory instrument under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 that provides for both of the possible extensions: 12 March and 22 May.
It is 12 April.
Did I misspeak? I meant 12 April. This will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure so that it will be debated in each House, and it must come into force by 11 pm on 29 March. The purpose of this is to ensure that our statute book reflects the extension of article 50, which is legally binding in international law. Without this instrument, there would be a clash in domestic law because contrary provisions would apply both EU rules and new domestic rules simultaneously.
As I said earlier to the Prime Minister, the commencement order has not yet been brought into force, so will my right hon. Friend give me the lawful authority whereby the decision endorsed by the authority of Sir Tim Barrow was consistent the vires of the original enactment under section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018?
I will try to give my hon. Friend a brief answer now, but the best thing would be for me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to write swiftly and formally to him in his capacity as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee to set out the answer for him.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
No, I will not give way, because I want to try to give my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) the short answer that I promised him a second ago.
The purpose of the statutory instrument is to reflect the extension agreed between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The Government will now therefore delay the commencement of the repeal of the European Communities Act. A commencement order is required under section 25(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act to give effect to this repeal. The timing of that commencement order will depend on the date on which we leave the European Union. As a matter of both EU and international law, the effect of the European Council decision is that we are not leaving European Union on 29 March. It would therefore be wrong to commence the repeal contained in section 1 of the withdrawal Act on that date. In making that change, having sought an extension, the Government have acted on the basis of the resolutions that were passed by this House. The House did not want to leave on 29 March without a deal, and it explicitly voted in favour of the Government seeking an extension to article 50.
I am going to make some progress—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Could you rule on what the constitutional position would be if the statutory instrument to change the date that is already in our legislation were not accepted by the House? Does EU law overrule our Parliament?
As a matter of general practice, it is well established that EU law trumps UK national law. I am not saying anything controversial there. As to the particular circumstances here, the answer is that I might well pronounce upon it but I would be extremely foolish to do so off the top of my head. I may be able to sate the curiosity of the hon. Lady, which will be widely shared across the House, but I am afraid that it is not within my gift to do so now. It is better to give a valid and informative answer later than to give an invalid, uninformative and potentially misleading answer now.
Without the statutory instrument, there would be a clash in domestic law because contradictory provisions would apply both EU rules and new domestic rules simultaneously. It is therefore important that the instrument be approved by Parliament so that we can ensure that our statute book accurately reflects the fact that the UK will now remain a member state until at least 11 pm on 12 April.
I should like to turn briefly to the amendments that you have selected, Mr Speaker, other than amendment (a), which we have already debated at some length. Turning to amendment (d), the Prime Minister and I have had constructive meetings with hon. Members from the main Opposition party in recent days, and the Prime Minister met the Leader of the Opposition earlier this afternoon. On that basis, I would say to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) that the amendment is not necessary. I would also say that the official Opposition’s amendment demonstrates one thing very clearly—namely, that none of the changes that it seeks to secure are changes to the withdrawal agreement. The inference I draw from that is that the official Opposition now support the withdrawal agreement, and I hope that when the right hon. and learned Gentleman comes to speak, he will be able to confirm that he and his party accept that all possible deals with the European Union should include this withdrawal agreement and that that is also the clear will of the European Council.
I understand completely the motive behind amendment (f), tabled in the name of the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). It instructs the Government to report by 9 April on how we would ensure that the United Kingdom did not leave without a deal if the deal had not been approved by that point. Consistently throughout this process, the Government have accepted that we would need to come back to the Dispatch Box if the House had not supported the withdrawal agreement by the end of this week.
I recognise that the House has now voted twice against leaving the European Union without a deal. However, I have to say to the right hon. Lady and her co-sponsors there would be only two options before the House in the circumstances envisaged in her amendment. There would be the option, called for earlier by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), of the revocation of article 50, but that is not a temporary measure; it would not result in a mere stay in the proceedings. The Court of Justice of the European Union has made it clear that revocation would have to be permanent and a decision taken in good faith. The other option would be for us to ask for a long extension, but that would mean running elections for the European Parliament nearly three years after the vote of the British public to leave. Of course, it would also rely on the EU agreeing to such a long extension, which would by no means be assured.
Unless the House were prepared to support one of those two options, the legal default under European law would be that the treaties would cease to apply, whatever the right hon. Member for Derby South might wish, and we would have to leave without a deal. The way forward is for the House to accept the deal, particularly this week, to approve the withdrawal agreement and to secure the extension to 22 May.
If Parliament comes together and backs the Brexit deal, we will leave the European Union by 22 May. We can then end three years of divisive debate and uncertainty, allow the country to move on towards a new future outside the European Union and devote ourselves to the important work of negotiating a deep and special partnership with our European friends and neighbours, which the Conservative party promised in our election manifesto. The Government will make every effort to ensure that we are able to leave with a deal and move our country forward to allow those who voted leave and those who voted remain to come together in looking to the future. It is in that spirit that I commend this motion to the House.
The Prime Minister has got herself and the Government into a hopeless position. Having disregarded views from across this House for the best part of two years, the Government now find themselves with a deal that they just cannot get through this House, and time has almost run out. Today, we see that they sort of agree with an initiative to break the impasse, but they also do not agree with it.
All that must be seen in the context of the Prime Minister losing control of the meaningful vote. In truth, we have no idea when or if it will be put again or whether it is winnable. I listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s statement this afternoon, and she said that she had gauged that there was “still not sufficient support” for the deal, but she would continue discussions so that she could bring forward a vote this week. We have been in that loop since 10 December. She says, “I don’t think there’s enough support. I am going to have further discussions, and I am going to put the vote again.” She has lost control of that process.
The Prime Minister has also lost control of the negotiations. That much is clear from the European Council’s decision last Thursday. When the Government were asked, “What happens if the meaningful vote fails?” there was no answer. That created a real anxiety that we could crash out this Friday without a deal. It was in those circumstances that the EU acted as it did in putting forward the dates of 12 April and 22 May, so the Government have lost control of the very negotiations.
The Prime Minister also appears to have lost control of the Conservative party. There have already been too many jokes about whether the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the Deputy Prime Minister or the putative Prime Minister, so I will scratch them from my speech, but it is clear that control of the party is gone. Tonight, it is likely that the Prime Minister and the Government are going to lose control of Parliament and of the process in circumstances in which, arguably, they do not need to, because they could have acted last week. The sense that we have to move forward was in the debate last week. It is not new today, because it was clear that many Members want to find a way forward and feel a duty to break the deadlock. That was the subject matter of last week’s debate, but instead of a constructive discussion about how we do it, we will probably divide on this motion.
On breaking the impasse, the Conservative manifesto has been cited, but is it not the case that manifestos need to win a mandate in order to be implementable? The Conservative party did not win a mandate at the last general election, because a mandate would mean having an overall majority in this House. Contrary to what the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has said, does that not provide room for the Government to be more flexible on this matter?
I agree with that sentiment. I have stood here and been critical of the red lines that the Prime Minister put in place at the beginning of the protest, and I have always seen them as the cause of the problem, but today is not really about an inquisition into that—although there will have to be one—because it is about whether we can find a way forward. I honestly think that many Members want to find a way forward and have been working to that end.
The Prime Minister was rightly questioned by Labour Members earlier as to whether she would honour and be bound by the result if the House were to come together on indicative votes and find a way forward, but the Prime Minister was unwilling to say that she would be. If this House comes forward and finds a majority for a deal that is different from Labour party policy, would we be bound by that and would we whip in favour of it?
I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister said, and I will say something about that in a minute. I think she was saying that she would not say in advance whether she would be bound, and we need to probe that, because it is an important point. However, we are getting slightly ahead of ourselves. The process that is envisaged, in the first instance, is to test whether there is a majority among different propositions, and we need to get to that stage.
I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman understands that although amendment (a) in is in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), in reality there are only 14 or 15 Conservative names on that amendment so, to all intents and purposes, it is the number of Opposition Members who would carry it. How does the right hon. and learned Gentleman answer the charge that that is inconsistent with our constitutionally accountable Government under Standing Order No. 14? How does he answer the point that an attempt to do so would effectively seek to reverse both the referendum result and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 itself?
I honestly cannot see how exploring whether there is a majority for a different approach is inconsistent with anything that we have done so far. It is actually what we should have done two years ago, because the referendum answered just one question, which was whether more people would rather be in or out of the EU. It did not answer the next huge question, which was, “If we vote out, what sort of future relationship should there be?” That required serious and considered discussion, and really should have been discussed in this House to see whether we could reach an agreement.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) asked a serious question a moment ago about whether the Labour party would regard itself as bound to give support to any majority that emerges—the same question that we were putting to the Government. The whole thing is pointless if the Labour party is going to whip on all these indicative votes and then whip against a majority if that is not consistent with its manifesto, which also did not get the majority support of the public at the last election. We resolved all this in 1972—I apologise, because I do not normally go back into the depths of history—by having free votes on each side, because it would have been fatuous for the Front Benches to go as part of the process. Will the Labour party have free votes? Will it be bound by whatever majorities might emerge from the indicative voting?
If amendment (a) is passed tonight there will be an intense discussion about how the process will take place and what the options will be. When we see those options, the Labour party will take decisions about how to whip—[Interruption.] Let me complete the point. If one of the options is no deal, we will of course whip against it. If that is the outcome, we will reject it. Of course, we need to see the options.
I am glad to hear my right hon. and learned Friend that the Labour party will whip against no deal, because we are talking about my constituents’ jobs. Does he agree that these questions about the constitution are not new? By definition under our constitution the thing that wins votes in this House is the Government, and it was hardly Back-Benchers who broke that convention.
I agree with my hon. Friend. In a sense, we are in this place only because there is no other way to break the deadlock or the impasse.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if the Prime Minister had not tried to exclude Parliament completely from having a say—she had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the Supreme Court to allow us to legislate on triggering article 50—and if she had had a proper cross-party process and a national debate with a Green Paper and a proper White Paper, instead of springing things on this House at the last possible minute having already been decided, she would have considerably more good will in this place and there would have been a chance for us to do what should be done to get the withdrawal agreement through Parliament because it would have been done properly? We are now scrambling at the last possible minute simply because she has not done the job properly.
I could not agree more. It is a matter of record that the Prime Minister did not want a vote even on triggering article 50, on which we got a vote only because of a Supreme Court decision. She did not want a meaningful vote, which we got, in the teeth of the Government whipping against it, only because we won a vote. It is true that, every time, the Government have whipped strongly against any amendments about objectives, including a very controversial whipping exercise in the summer that threw up a debate about maternity leave. The idea that the Government have been genuinely open to debate, and have been willing to listen to where the House is, is just not true. We really should have gone through this exercise two years ago, but I understand the argument that we are where we are and we now have to find a way forward, which is why we support amendment (a).
If we are to find a way forward, we need to be clear about what we are not prepared to do. There is no way forward that includes blaming Members of this House for the mess we are in. There is no way forward that includes whipping up a sense of the people versus MPs. There is no way forward based on the notion that Members on either side of the House who persistently and forcefully advance their views, whatever those views may be, are indulging in some kind of illegitimate exercise—they are not. They are making important points on behalf of their constituents and in the national interest. They are doing their job.
I heard the Prime Minister say earlier that she did not intend her comments last week to have that effect, and I am not sure what I am more concerned about: that she made the comments, or that she did not appreciate how they would be heard in the environment in which we live. Nor can we find a way forward based simply on the proposition of putting and reputting the same meaningful vote. The fact that we are even discussing meaningful vote 3, or even meaningful vote 4, only has to be said to be seen to be absurd. The deal has been roundly rejected twice. We now need to move on, and I hope we can begin that process tonight.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have listened with great care to what the Minister for the Cabinet Office said about the Government’s alternative if amendment (a) fails to win a majority. Does he share my concern that the Government would, in effect, only allow indicative votes on the political declaration? The assumption would be that the withdrawal agreement will go through and cannot be touched or amended. In that event, is this nothing more than a Government ruse to get the withdrawal agreement through via some back-door method?
I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s intervention. I listened carefully to what the Minister for the Cabinet Office said in relation to the withdrawal agreement. This is no disrespect to him, because I do respect him, but trust in the Government is not where it should be. This is not to disrespect anyone sitting on the Government Front Bench, but when we voted to take a no deal off the table, and when we voted on an extension, we were voting on the basis of what he said from that Dispatch Box about a short extension, in the event that the meaningful vote failed, being reckless.
When the letter to President Tusk was written last week, some of us were therefore taken aback and did not think it reflected what this House had decided. That is now one of the problems in relation to this exercise, because there is a lack of trust. If amendment (a) is not passed this evening, we may find that we are not where we thought we would be when we get to Wednesday, Thursday and Friday—it would not be the first time.
The decision of the European Council to grant an extension to article 50 was a necessity and, in truth, the only way to prevent our leaving without a deal on 29 March, but, as I have said, any extension must be for a purpose, which is why we need to come together to decide that purpose. The Minister for the Cabinet Office said two weeks ago, and he elaborated on it today, that the Government would consult the other parties through the usual channels and work to provide a process by which the House could form a majority to take things forward. It seems that the Government agree with what amendment (a) intends to achieve. If it is passed, MPs will decide the options, which is right. The Government say that would give too much control to MPs, but then they say, “If it doesn’t go through, we will provide the time. As for the options, that should be for MPs.” If the Government are true to what they say, MPs will decide the options in any event, so the easiest thing would be for the Government simply to signal that they accept the amendment. We could then foreshorten the debate, move forward and start the discussion on how the process will actually work.
Amendment (d), in the name of the Opposition, seeks to achieve that purpose, and amendment (a), in the name of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and others, does so, too. We will be supporting both amendments this evening.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree it is important that MPs should determine not just the options but how those options are voted on? Many hon. Members would be concerned if we voted on one option after another, rather than voting on all at the same time. The benefit of amendment (a) is that it allows precisely that, for MPs to vote on all options at the same time, as well as determining what those options are.
My hon. Friend anticipates my next sentence, which is that we recognise that Members will have different views on how the process should go forward. There will have to be intensive discussions over the next couple of days as to how that operates, but it needs to be a process that allows us to arrive at a sustainable majority view.
My right hon. and learned Friend and his team have done a fantastic job on this issue. Will he try to answer my question, which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster failed to answer twice this afternoon? The Prime Minister said in her statement that, unless this House agrees to it, a no deal will not happen. What does my right hon. and learned Friend surmise that means? What does he think the Government are trying to achieve?
I think it is a version of what has gone before, which is to say that the Government accept there is no majority in this House for a no deal—there certainly is not, and I do not think there ever has been—but, at the same time, to leave the threat of a no deal dangling by some kind of legal default. If the Prime Minister’s comment has meaning, and I hope it does, it ought to commit the Government to take whatever steps are necessary in order to avoid a no deal, otherwise it is meaningless. It is really important that that is established.
Is this not another example of the doublespeak we have come to expect from the Government? Our concern this evening is that we are witnessing another example of doublespeak and, potentially, double dealing. The implication of the Government accepting both the spirit and effect of the Letwin proposal while saying they will not be bound by it and not telling us whether they will do precisely what it says makes us all suspect it is another piece of trickery designed to get this taken off the table tonight, only for us to find that we are no further forward tomorrow.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do think there is a trust issue. I hope that that can improve. The letter to President Tusk was an example of that because, having supposedly taken no deal off the table, the only extension that was asked for was one in the event that the meaningful vote failed, rather than if it went through. That left the prospect, but for what the European Council decided last Thursday, of no deal this Friday going back on the table, just a week after we thought we had taken it off the table.
So we do need to get into Wednesday. We need to have an intense discussion about how the votes on Wednesday are to be taken and see whether we can reach a consensus about that, reach a majority and find where that lies. We need to consider the credible options. Labour has long advocated a close economic relationship, including a customs union and single market alignment, but we have also made clear our support for a public vote as a lock on any deal that the Prime Minister passes. The Leader of the Opposition and I have met colleagues to discuss these proposals and the other ideas that have been put forward by other colleagues. What we need to do now is to agree the process for having a proper debate and to look at those and other credible options.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there is a difference between the people’s vote/public vote option and the others? The others relate to a substantive route forward on Brexit. A public vote is a way of ensuring that there is a broad consensus and the public are behind whatever consensus this House may find favour with.
That is a very important intervention. Obviously, discussions will take place in the next two days, but the basic proposition that the House needs to decide the substance of any deal it might be able to support—and, arguably, to look at the process around it separately—is important, because some of these options are not like-for-like options, in that some are about substance and some are about process. It would be perfectly possible to make the argument that, if there is to be a deal, it ought to be what we consider to be the least damaging deal. We could have an argument about what that looks like. Equally, it would be possible to say that, whatever deal there was at the end of that exercise, it ought to be subject to the lock or safeguard of some sort of confirmation vote. I do not know. I am not anticipating how the votes would go, but I can see that one of those decisions is about the substance of the issue and the second is about the process. We are going to have to grapple with that before Wednesday.
I agree entirely with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said, as indeed I agree with the question to him from my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening). He may also agree that it is going to be important, in the course of this debate and how we structure it, that we make sure we can provide reassurance that Members can vote for what they see as preferred outcomes without in any way having the sense that they might be forfeiting the right also to the insistence that that has to go to the public, whatever it might be.
I agree with that because otherwise we inhibit the likelihood of finding a majority. Therefore, that will require careful thought going into Wednesday.
Let us assume, for the moment, that we can find a process that most Members are content with and that we can then move towards a majority view. It may take some time. I, for one, am troubled by the idea that, in one afternoon, all of this can be solved. It may be that all we can do is start down a process of finding a majority. It would be wrong to rush at this at this stage of the exercise. But assuming that can be done, it raises the million-dollar question: if the House does find a majority, will the Government accept the result?
I understand and respect the position of the Prime Minister, who says, “I need to know what the options are and what the result is before I can answer that question.” I understand the logic of that and it is a fair point, but what I do not want is—wrapped up in that perfectly reasonable, logical answer—to find, in a week or two, or whenever it may be, that whatever outcome is agreed upon by a majority it will never be accepted by the Government and we are back to where we started. That is my concern about the exercise. So when the Government say they will go into it in good faith, that has to mean that, if there is a majority, the Government will look very seriously at supporting where that majority view is and not simply rule it out. The red lines are the very thing we are trying to break. If the Government apply their own red lines to any outcome and say, “It does not fit our red lines”, there is not much point going through the exercise in the first place because it is precisely to remove those red lines that we are going forward.
My right hon. and learned Friend is making a powerful point about the absurdity of an ill-designed referendum that asked for a simplistic answer to a very complex question. Nobody can really understand what that 52% who voted leave wanted because it was so ill-defined and so massive. The Government have arrogantly assumed that they have a monopoly of wisdom on what that leave vote meant and hold Parliament in contempt in pursuit of it. Is it not the reality that, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, something like a confirmatory public vote would be entirely logically coherent and that it is bizarre that the Prime Minister, despite not having a mandate or a majority, seems so pig-headed in not actually reaching out to the House of Commons to pursue that sort of consensus-building approach?
I am grateful for that intervention. On this question of the Government accepting the outcome, if they simply reject whatever is the outcome of this exercise, they will be doubling down on one of the big mistakes of the past two years, which is to push Parliament away and not let Parliament express its view as to where the majority is. That is one reason we are in this mess. For two and a half years the Government have pushed Parliament away at every turn and we need now to find a mechanism, albeit a constitutionally innovative one, to break through that.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend not recognise that, in some areas, there is huge opposition among the electorate to having European elections, but there is the opportunity, through the withdrawal agreement Bill, should it ever be reached, for every single option being potentially proposed on Wednesday to be put as amendments, including the customs union? Has he considered that as an option?
I have, not least because my hon. Friend raised it with me last week. The difficulty is that the EU argues that, once the withdrawal agreement and political declaration are agreed, we cannot, through domestic legislation, change the terms of those documents. Therefore, whatever amendment is put down to the legislation, it could not alter the terms of the political declaration. So it is not accurate to say that all of this could be swept up with the implementation Bill because the words in the document that we are seeking to implement have to be the ones that the House is happy with and thus has agreed before we get to that stage. Some things could be dealt with in the implementation Bill—I do not quarrel with that—but the EU will not countenance this House changing the terms of the EU’s agreement through amendments to the Bill. That was one of the concerns the Government rightly put in relation to the meaningful vote. When we were saying that there should be amendments to the meaningful vote, the Government’s position was that we cannot really have amendments because this House cannot amend the substance of the document.
I will give way, but then I am going to make some progress because I realise how long I have been talking.
Would my right hon. and learned Friend not also accept, on the proposal put to him this afternoon of having separate votes on the political declaration and the withdrawal agreement, that it is the political declaration that is up for steering what happens in the next phase, whereas the EU has made it clear that the withdrawal agreement itself is not for renegotiation with anyone, at any time?
I certainly accept the proposition that the EU has said that the withdrawal agreement is not for reopening at any stage, and it has resisted that for month after month from the Government. But I remind myself and the House that in the letter that Presidents Tusk and Juncker wrote to the Prime Minister in January they were clear that the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration are part of the “same negotiated package”. I believe those were their words. I also remind myself and the House that under section 13 the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration go together. That does not mean that there are not different views on the agreement and on the declaration, but they are part of the same negotiated package.
I am going to make some progress now, because I wish to indicate that we would have supported amendment (c) and that we do support amendment (f), tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). Amendment (f) addresses a different point, which is how to prevent a no-deal outcome and ensure that the House can shape the extension process. We thought we had cleared up those matters some weeks ago, but it is important that we come back to my right hon. Friend’s amendment so that we can reassert the position going forward.
Tonight really is about the opportunity to bring to an end the Government’s failed approach. For two years, they have not put forward a credible plan, or really listened to other alternatives. I used to say that the Prime Minister was surviving by the week, but I changed that to saying she was surviving by the day; now, she appears to be surviving by the hour to get through to Wednesday. Enough is enough. We cannot go on like this. The country deserves better. Parliament must take back control. We have the chance to do that tonight and we should do it.
Amendment (a) has already been much discussed in the course of this debate, and I do not want to detain the House long. First, though, I wish to say what it is trying to do and what it is not trying to do. It is not some kind of massive constitutional revolution, although I know that some of my hon. Friends and others have suggested that it is. The truth is that, as you said yourself earlier in the debate, Mr Speaker, the House has since its inception owned its Standing Orders. In fact, under the principle of comity—one of the most fundamental principles of our constitution—the courts have never sought to intervene in the proceedings of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and have recognised that the House in each case controls its own proceedings.
As a matter of fact, the idea that it is an ancient constitutional principle that the Government should control the Order Paper is slightly anhistorical, if that is the right word, because the practice started in 1906, so it is not, as far as I am aware, part of our ancient constitution. For about 400 or 500 years, things that either were the House of Commons or were very much like it controlled their own Order Papers. That changed at the beginning of the 20th century, but what did not change was the fundamental point that the way that Standing Orders are decided is by a majority vote in the House of Commons, and therefore they can be adjusted by such a vote and, if so adjusted, the adjusted version is what applies.
Every time there is a private Member’s Bill Friday, astonishingly, the Government do something that we are apparently now entreated to regard as utterly revolutionary—they hand over to private Members the opportunity to put forward Bills. According to this soi-disant constitutional theory that has been invented, that must be a kind of revolution, because it is not the Government putting forward a Bill, but in fact we have been doing it perfectly happily for years. So there is no revolutionary intent behind the amendment at all.
The second point I wish to make is about what the amendment does do. It does exactly what has been described in the debate; namely, it provides an opportunity, simply and nothing more, for the House of Commons to begin—I stress, to begin—the process of working its way towards identifying a way forward that can command a majority in this House.
I wish to reflect for a second on my own personal history in this matter. I find sometimes from the communications, not always utterly polite, that I receive from various quarters on my iPhone, that it is supposed that I have from the beginning attempted to destroy the Government’s efforts to carry out an orderly Brexit. That is obviously a more amusing story than the real one, but the real one is very sad and ordinary. I started as an entirely loyal member of the Conservative party. I had never voted against the Conservative Whip in my entire parliamentary career—not once. What is more, although I voted remain in the referendum, I was absolutely determined that we should continue our proceedings by ensuring that we fulfilled the mandate of the British people and left the European Union.
For a long while, although I personally thought from the very beginning that the Prime Minister was unwise to set out her red lines, I swallowed my concerns about them and utterly supported her in her endeavour to get her version of leave across the line. Indeed, on frequent occasions, as several of my right hon. and hon. Friends will recall, I acted as a kind of broker to try to bring together my European Research Group colleagues with other colleagues who now sit in various parts of the House, to produce results—some of which are now encoded, as a matter of fact, in section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. It was my endeavour to make this a process that enabled the Prime Minister to get to the end of the road successfully.
I have fulfilled that endeavour by trying to vote with the Prime Minister on every occasion on which she has brought a section 13 motion to the House. I apologise to Opposition Members for saying that I will do that again if the Prime Minister brings forward a meaningful vote 3, or 4, or infinity. I will go on voting for the Prime Minister’s deal, because I happen to think that it is perfectly okay. I am very conscious that many Members do not agree with me.
The problem we have faced—all 650 of us can agree on this—is that we have not been able to get a majority for the Prime Minister’s deal. That is the fact, and it is a problem, because if there is no majority for that deal and we want to leave the EU, we are forced down only one of two possible tracks, one of which is to find an alternative and the other of which is to have no deal. It was at the point a few months back when I surmised that there was a real possibility that the Prime Minister, I think by mistake rather than on purpose, was going to end up taking us out without a deal and without having adequately prepared for that, that I became so concerned that I started to work on a cross-party basis with many colleagues on both sides of the House to try to find a solution. This modest attempt to provide the House with an opportunity to vote in the majority in favour of an alternative way forward is simply part of that process.
There is a sentiment in the House that we need somehow to compromise. Earlier, I said to the Prime Minister that it was previously unthinkable for me ever to vote for a Brexit deal. Why is it so unthinkable for Government Members to agree to support a people’s vote on whatever Brexit deal we come together for?
If we go through the process that I hope we can inaugurate this evening, one thing we will all have to do is seek compromise. We almost know that if we all vote for our first preference, we will never get to a majority solution. I do not believe there is a majority in favour of the first preferences of any person in this House.
We have heard today from the Prime Minister and from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) that there is no immediate guarantee that whatever majority we find in the House will become the established policy of either of the two main political parties. Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that we may end up in a situation in which we manifest a majority for a deal that is not quite right for the Conservative party and not quite right for the Labour party, and then the Whip system will kick in and there will suddenly be no majority in Parliament at all? In my mind, that makes no deal very dangerous and real.
The danger that the hon. Gentleman speaks of is real—we all face it—but there is a solution to it, which is to ensure that as we approach a majority we sufficiently discuss that issue, not only among Back Benchers but with those on the two Front Benches, to ensure that there is what the shadow Secretary of State rightly referred to a few moments ago as a “sustainable majority”. We need not just a majority for something but a majority for something that will continue to persist as the various stages have to be carried through. That must be our aim.
I have agreed with my right hon. Friend’s every word so far. He has just reached the key moment. As his amendment does not set out precisely the form that the indicative votes will take, there is a real danger that if everybody votes for their first preference, we will not produce a majority for anything. His amendment does not set out the basis on which the indicative vote motions are to be tabled. How are we to resolve the method by which we table them? The opinion of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and myself is that the single transferable vote is the best way to steer people to one conclusion. It will force compromise, except from those who will vote only for their first preference. Unless my right hon. Friend has a better alternative, how does he guard against the danger of nothing getting a majority?
My right hon. and learned Friend is asking what is clearly one of the right questions. I give him two answers. The first is that, if this amendment is passed, we will need to think very seriously over the next 24 hours about the shape of the business of the House motion to determine the process for Wednesday, and indeed about how the process will carry forward beyond that. My own view is that, at least to begin with, it may be wiser simply to disclose where the votes lie on a plain vanilla basis—this point was made very forcefully a few moments ago—with all the voting going on at once, with pink slips in the Lobby at the end of the debate and not sequentially so that we do not have the gaming of sequence. On that basis we could discover which propositions that have been put forward commanded significant support and which did not. We should do so in the hope that, as politicians—we should remind ourselves that we are not just an ordinary electorate, but politicians who have spent our lives in this business—we can, in the succeeding few days, having observed the lie of the land, zero in on a compromise that could get a majority.
My second answer is that I do not at all discount the possibility that, at a later stage—I am sure that there will have to be a later stage, and indeed I hope that the business of the House motion will book a slot for a later stage—we should resort to some other method to crystallise the majority if we find that it is otherwise difficult to do.
I give way first to my right hon. and learned Friend.
Given that the process could take a few days more, as my right hon. Friend clearly explains, does that not underline that we had better crack on with this on Wednesday? If the Government will not, for some peculiar unknown reason, commit to Wednesday in their wind-up tonight, it is absolutely essential that we pass his amendment.
I find myself in the very odd position of being slightly more hard-line than my right hon. and learned Friend on this. I am afraid that we have to press this amendment tonight, because I do not believe that the Government have a clear view of how they would conduct this process. The terms of the amendment, which have been very carefully considered over quite a long time, are structured in a way that maximises our flexibility and our capacity as a House to work together. We should work with Members on both Front Benches on formulating Wednesday in the best possible way and producing a business of the House motion that, if possible, is a matter of consensus. That is best done under the framework of this amendment, and we should press it tonight.
I will support the right hon. Gentleman’s amendment tonight, and I am happy to have put my name to it. What he said about not rushing through this all in one day is a very important point. We need time. There are reasonable concerns that people do not want suddenly to be deciding on the future relationship of the country, potentially for the next 40 years, in a couple of hours in here. I was pleased to hear what he said about this being the start of a process. Does he agree that in getting together and setting that business of the House motion, we must we ensure that it is a fair, balanced process that enjoys the confidence of Members in all parts of the House—all parties and all persuasions—and that it is not seen as loaded in one direction or the other, or indeed in favour of the Government’s policy?
I thoroughly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is possible—and, above all, it should be possible for us at this juncture—to ensure that the neutrality of the process is guaranteed. Of course we will have conflicting views about the ideal outcome, but if we are to come together on an outcome that all of us can tolerate, and that will consequently achieve a sustainable majority, we will have to ensure that everybody recognises the process by which we get to it as being fair and neutral as between the various options.
Of course I shall give way, but if the right hon. Members will allow me, I did indicate earlier that I would give way to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry).
I just wish to confirm everything that the right hon. Gentleman has said about how he started off believing in the delivery of Brexit, and indeed continues to do so. His description of his journey is accurate. My question was whether he would push his amendment to a vote, and if so, why. I think he has made that very clear to the House.
I am delighted to give way next to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper).
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. As he knows, I strongly support his amendment, and he is making an extremely important speech. Does he agree that, as the Government have effectively taken two years to get to this point, it is not unreasonable for the House, in this unusual and difficult situation, to recognise that it is likely to take us more than one day to attempt to do what the Government should have done quite a long time ago? Can I therefore urge him, when he is thinking about further steps, to highlight the importance of our identifying a further day next week when we can have similar debates and discussions if we need to, so that we can come to a conclusion? I also urge the Government to think about what they should be doing to provide for these further votes so that we can come to a consensus, and to recognise that there may need to be further binding votes in this process as well.
Unsurprisingly, given the close co-operation that there has been between us, I entirely agree with everything that the right hon. Lady has just said. It is of the utmost importance that the business of the House motion on Wednesday should also provide for a further day, or days, in which to take forward the process that will begin on Wednesday so that it can reach a successful conclusion. We will also have to attend to the question that has been discussed this evening and that began to be aired when the Prime Minister was answering questions on her statement: what the Government will do if the House reaches a majority—not for some unicorn or some ludicrous proposition that utterly contradicts common sense, but for a sensible way forward—and how we will persuade the Government at that stage to allow that majority view to be implemented. That will be a major issue.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I support his amendment and will vote for it tonight. I am delighted that he has agreed that we need to move to paper ballots and to end some of the gamesmanship that has been going on. The Father of the House raised the issue of the voting system, so I shall not repeat that point, but there are two other points that we need to bear in mind. One is whether the votes are indicative or definitive. Perhaps we will move from one to the other, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said. The other point is how an option gets on to the ballot paper. That is also an extremely tricky, nice issue. What I want to know from the right hon. Gentleman is whether he thinks we might need time to amend the business of the House motion. The way we do that will also be a subject for discussion, as will actually going on to do it.
I was with the hon. Lady nearly to the end, but not quite to the end. I am conscious that although the point that the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) made a minute or two ago is right—we should allow ourselves a couple of days to do what should have been done over a couple of years—we are also under very considerable time pressure. There is a reality in the situation, which is that on 11 April, we will hit the buffers. Therefore, we should not spend too much time debating the process. We should, if possible, move forward on the basis that there is sufficient consensus about the process not to have to debate it, and get on with the substance. To that end, it would be sensible if we began this process by allowing Members who wish to put forward alternatives to do so. There are groups of people who support, for example, a people’s vote as a confirmatory process or otherwise, Norway plus, or the propositions hitherto put forward by the Opposition. We need to let those Members formulate their propositions in their own terms, in the ordinary way.
You have a long record, Mr Speaker—previous Speakers have also had a long record—of finding a way of selecting for debate amendments that carry sufficient weight in terms of numbers, cross-party support and so on. That is a perfectly proper process to use. It does not involve any one of us tilting the playing field, and it enables us to proceed without too much further debate about process.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way, but once I have done so I am going to conclude.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. The Scottish National party will be delighted to support his amendment because if the House controls the process, it is likely that all the options can be considered, including revocation, which is the only thing that we can do unilaterally. I say that publicly now partly as a pitch for revocation to be on the options paper, but mainly to say that I rather lack the trust in the Government that they would include all the valid options if they were in control of the timetable.
I am glad that I did give way to the hon. Gentleman—first, because I am obviously very grateful that he and his colleagues will be supporting the amendment, and secondly, because I wholeheartedly endorse what he says. Personally, I am utterly opposed to revocation and I am also actually wholly unpersuaded of the merits of a people’s vote at the moment, but both are obviously serious options to consider. Incidentally, I am also radically opposed to a no-deal exit, but if some of my colleagues wish to put that forward as a serious proposition, it is a serious proposition that would need to be debated. Yes, it is essential that we should be able to look at all the serious options—not wild unicorns, but things that we could actually do to carry this process forward in one direction or another. I feel confident, Mr Speaker, that when you look at sensibly phrased motions of very different kinds, you will choose for debate all those that are serious possibilities that the House needs to consider; that is in the interests of the House and in the interests of the nation.
I will end my remarks by mentioning something that comes from personal experience. Liberal Democrat colleagues may recall this, as well as some of my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches. There was a time, in 2010, when this nation faced another cliff edge. We were within days of the Bank of England discovering that our creditors would not finance the UK any more. It was just after the 2010 election, which no one had won, and it was clear that nobody could form a Government except by coalition. We were very heavily indebted due to what had happened in 2008, and we were told by the Governor of the Bank of England that if a coalition was not formed pretty quickly, he personally felt that the lenders would go on strike and we would have a meltdown.
Of course, there were then discussions between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, and between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. I was a part of the Conservative party team on that occasion and I was informed, when we had finished those negotiations and had brought them to a successful conclusion, that the cleverest and most experienced people in the civil service—incidentally, I do not wish to demean the civil service, and I hardly can because my wife was a senior civil servant—had put their collective minds to the task and formed teams to find out whether it was possible to have a coalition agreement, either between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats or between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. They had worked the situation through in awesome detail and had convinced themselves that it was absolutely impossible to form a coalition—that it could not be done.
We sat down, and four days later there was a coalition agreement. And why did that come about? It came about because politicians sat down and were not concerned with the kinds of things that people are concerned with when they are very brilliant administrators, but were concerned with trying to find out how to accommodate the essential requirements of the other side. This is, of course, the process that should have happened two years back in this connection—but we have the opportunity to do it now. I hope and pray that if the House does vote for this amendment, it will not see this approach simply as a set of votes in the abstract, but as the beginning of a process in which, by discovery of where the land lies, we can then come together, find a consensus, get a majority and carry on forward in a sensible way.
This morning, I left my home, not far from the town of St Andrews in my constituency, to set off on my regular commute. Like other Members of this House from different parts of the United Kingdom, I travelled quite literally by plane, train and automobile. Like most weeks, I had no idea when I would be going home to my family and my constituents, but unlike most weeks, my family, my constituents and I had no idea whether, by the time I got home, I would still be afforded the rights and privileges that EU citizens take as their own. What a state to be in, all these years on. That is why I thank the right hon. Members for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), and their colleagues, for the work that they have put into their amendments, which the SNP will obviously back this evening.
We are here for no other reason than an attempt to offset a Tory civil war. This disaster is years in the making, and we are only in this situation because once upon a time David Cameron decided to call an EU referendum so that he could avoid a full-blown Tory civil war. There are many people in the House who will disagree with me.
But I am not sure that there are many who will disagree with me when I say that it is not working very well, is it? How is that attempt to avoid a Tory civil war going? Does the Minister want to intervene now? No, I did not think so, because there is a full-blown civil war in his party. And this is a Tory party determined to take the rest of us down as well, but today’s amendments give us the chance—for the moment—to stave off that opportunity that the Tories are trying to give us.
The Prime Minister continues to appeal to the hardliners in her own party, rather than to face up to the reality of minority government, but this is a lost cause. The Brexiteers who campaigned without any sort of plan are the ones who got us into this mess. And, frankly, the message to the Prime Minister must be that they are unlikely to get us out of it. Now, it is not for me to judge Conservative party management—the voters will have their opportunity to do that in due course—but what strikes me is just how in thrall this Conservative Prime Minister is to the extremists in her own party. With that, I want to praise some Conservative Members, because there are Members who I disagree with and who disagree with me, but who have stuck their necks out, and look at the way they have been treated.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is in his place, and I disagree over plenty, including Brexit; he wants us to leave the European Union and I do not. Some Members have tried to make positive proposals, although we do not always agree on them. But even when one of those proposals is accepted by the Government—as was the case with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa)—we are now in a situation whereby the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford finds himself deselected and the hon. Member for South Leicestershire finds himself sacked, yet all along—I disagree with them over this—they have backed the Prime Minister’s deal. What does that tell us about trying to find some kind of consensus or trying to reach across? This is a Government who are in thrall to the very extremes, and this House cannot put up with that for any longer. Just look at the invitation list of those who were treated to lunch at Chequers: the very people voting against the Prime Minister. This tells us everything about a Prime Minister who has lost control of her own party and who has dragged us into this folly.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way to the right hon. Lady because she has some experience in this.
I do indeed. Does it strike the hon. Gentleman as being quite perverse that the very people invited to Chequers were the very people who, in December, sought a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister as leader of the Conservative party and plotted against her? Is he also aware that a lot of Conservative associations hold their annual general meetings at the end of this week, and does he share my concern that too many right hon. and hon. Conservative Members will be more concerned about the outcome of those AGMs than about the effect of a no-deal Brexit—or, indeed, any Brexit—on their constituents?
The right hon. Lady knows the Conservative party much, much better than I do, and it shows. She makes a very valid point. The small, elitist group of Conservative MPs—all men, incidentally—who were invited to Chequers have failed, and failed spectacularly, on their pet, lifelong political project. I would not let that lot anywhere the TV remote in my house, never mind the most important decision that we have had to make for generations.
Would the hon. Gentleman extend that to listening to a mob of people who will apparently rebel if we ever do not deliver on this vote of the people? Nobody listens to the peaceful 1 million people and 5 million people who want to revoke article 50. They are not giving us death threats or mobbing us; they are just peaceful people. Yet we are worried about the keyboard warriors who threaten us from the security of their homes. Is that not also wrong?
The hon. Lady makes a very powerful point about the way that millions protested peacefully on Saturday. I am delighted that our First Minister joined them, as did the leader of the Liberal Democrats, colleagues in the Labour party and even some Conservative colleagues. They were right to have done so.
The Prime Minister is effectively out of power, and we need to move on. Her deal has been rejected twice, overwhelmingly, which means that it becomes more and more pointless to debate it with every passing hour. The Opposition spokesperson was right to point that out. The House of Commons must seize control of this process tonight so that we can hold those indicative votes and start—start—to find a way out of this mess. We know from the UK Government’s own warnings that her deal is not in the best interests of anybody in the UK, and we know that no deal is not in anybody’s best interests either. This Parliament has come together and comprehensively rejected both her deal and no deal. Having wasted almost three years, the Government have run out of options and run out of ideas, and we need to step up.
Where we are today is not a farce: it is a tragedy, and a tragedy that is taking us all down with it. I assure colleagues that, as somebody who fundamentally wants Scotland to be an independent state, it really gives me no pleasure when I speak to colleagues overseas and find that the UK’s international reputation is broken. That hurts us all. When I was working in the European institutions, I saw that overall in the EU, the UK could be a real force for good. Although I did not always agree with everything that it did, I acknowledge many of the positive contributions made by UK citizens to the EU project. It is right that we all acknowledge that.
What was more striking, however, was the way in which the UK and Ireland worked as the closest possible allies and partners in the European Union. For the first time in that troubled history, there was truly a working as a partnership of equals alongside other European states. Now—again, this gives me no pleasure, nor, I suspect, the Irish either—the boot that has historically been on the foot of the UK is now on the other foot. As Robert Cooper wrote in the Financial Times:
“The smallest insiders (Dublin in the case of Brexit) matter more than the biggest outsider (us).”
That tells us everything about solidarity in the workings of the European Union. Yet even on this, the Irish do not crow but have been honest brokers. The best friends any of us can have are our most critical friends—the ones who tell us the truth when we want to see it the least. I have heard, when these matters of truth have come out, Brexiteers getting enraged and annoyed at the truth that people dare speak from Dublin.
Let me remind all Members that Ireland is independent and is not coming back—and it is not difficult to see why. Independent states thrive in the European Union. That is a means of strengthening democracy and sovereignty. The EU is a partnership of equals in a way that the UK simply is not. I want to see Scotland as a full and independent member state of the EU. That would be healthier in our relationship as a modern outward-looking nation in the same way that it has been healthy for the Anglo-Irish relationship.
Here in the UK, people are seeing through this mess. At the weekend, as we have heard, hundreds of thousands of people from the length and breadth of the UK marched for our collective future. Since then, at the last look, the revocation of article 50 petition has been signed by 5.5 million people, including 17% of the electorate in my own constituency—and that is not even the highest figure in Scotland. Millions of people can see what this Government cannot. What this Government clearly cannot see, but these people can, is that when you are careering towards the cliffs you slam on the brakes—that is what they are there for. Let us not forget that Parliament has that power, as was recognised by the courts, because the UK Parliament, throughout this, has retained, and always will retain in these circumstances, sovereignty in a way that the Scottish Parliament does not. Spot the difference, everybody: the UK Parliament, as a member of the EU, retains sovereignty; the Scottish Parliament, as this process has shown us, does not. This may provide a mechanism to stop doing untold damage to those we all represent.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I want to ask him about something that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said earlier—that revoking article 50 could only ever be done once, and it would be permanent and could never be reversed. Has he, like me, read the decision of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Justice? Does he agree that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has got that wrong and that if this House chose to revoke article 50, it would be possible at some point in the future to resubmit the article 50 notice, provided that it was done in good faith?
As usual, my hon. and learned Friend makes a very powerful point. I know that she tried to intervene on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but those on the Treasury Bench will have been listening to and taking note as well.
We are told that the biggest problem with this is the European elections. Let me tell the Government something: the biggest problem is not the European elections—not people taking part in a democratic election to elect parliamentarians—but the jobs that the Government’s plans are going to cost, the public services that will be hit by Brexit and the opportunities that we have all had being denied to future generations. Each and every Member of the European Parliament is elected. That Parliament sits at the heart of the European project. We sit in a Parliament where not even half the parliamentarians who serve here are elected. It is a disgrace—it really is. We will be caused a huge amount of damage just because the Government want to avoid the democracy and scrutiny that comes with a European Parliament election. However, I am not that surprised when we have a Prime Minister who, as we have heard today, not only opposes a referendum and giving people a say in this momentous decision but is even opposed to respecting the will of Parliament.
If the Brexit debate has done anything, it has shown that the UK and the way in which it operates is no longer fit for purpose, as the example of the House of Lords amply illustrates. The EU is not perfect—no union involving 28 sovereign and independent member states ever can be—but, critically, it has the checks and balances to protect the smallest members from the largest. Within the UK, we have a constitutional set-up that is somewhat outdated and has not caught up with the momentous decisions that we are having to make now, but in the EU there is a modern and up-to-date relationship between member states—a true partnership of equals. I say this to a Government who have failed to respect devolution throughout this process: the EU would not be allowed to do that; indeed, it cannot be allowed to do that. To the people of Scotland, our message is this: there is a better way to do this that our friends and neighbours—our nearest neighbours in places like Ireland and Denmark—are pursuing successfully. This is not as good as it gets. In the meantime, and until we reach that point, it is up to each and every one of us to continue to work as constructively as we can.
I do not want to see our friends and neighbours south of the border dragged over a cliff edge by an out of touch and irresponsible group of Tory anti-EU ultras—no country deserves that. The easiest thing for us in Scotland would be to say, “We voted against this. It’s not our problem,” but actually it is our problem. We cannot just say, “The Tories made this mess. It’s for them to clear it up,” because it is clear that they are incapable of clearing up the mess they have made. The damage these plans would do to everyone across these islands would be devastating and felt for decades to come.
I again thank Members who have worked constructively. Today’s motion provides a start, but it is only that—a start on undoing this devastating Brexit, which has been brought to us by a Tory party that is out of control.
Mr Speaker, I will not long delay the House. I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) on making some very interesting points, many of which I find myself in agreement with. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on his absolutely formidable speech, which renders anything I can say in support pretty nugatory.
I will be voting for amendment (a) tonight, but I want to make some general points. It is of the greatest importance for our country that we should now move to a conclusion on what is merely the beginning of a tortuous road that will eventually lead to our departure from the European Union. Like my right hon. Friend, l voted to trigger article 50, despite serious reservations on the timing. I have voted with the Government in every single Division on the withdrawal Act and on every other piece of legislation to advance the delivery of Brexit. I have voted to leave and to honour the referendum many more times than my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and many others. I find it ironic that those who apparently wish most fervently to leave are those who have most consistently voted against the withdrawal agreement and thus inhibited any real progress.
I should make it clear that there are no circumstances in which I will vote for a no deal, and nor will I back what would be a deeply divisive second referendum. Both are a recipe for further chaos and division, which should be unacceptable to those on all sides of this argument, for whom it is surely time for logic and common sense to prevail.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), I still believe in sanity. This is a country with a profound tradition of moderation and common sense. Our democratic institutions are elastic enough to be capable of compromise and of moving from the rhetoric of rejection to the painful necessity of an actual deal. It grieves me very much to see our influence abroad being so degraded, as the hon. Member for North East Fife said, as allies and partners who are close friends watch from afar with dismay as we burn up our reservoirs of good will and our reputation for common sense, most especially in the European Union.
Although it does not feel like it at the moment, this ancient country, in which we are so very privileged to live, is in general marked apart from many others by the tolerance, good nature and generally civilised manner of its democracy and institutions. These qualities are envied the world over; they need careful nurturing, but are currently entirely absent from the field. What on earth has happened to our pragmatism, self-restraint and common sense? It grieves me that our reputation is now under such extreme pressure at home and abroad; indeed, our reputation has been gravely diminished.
I greatly regret having to speak in this way in our Parliament; indeed, I cannot believe that I should need to do so. However, like many others, I find myself truly distraught at the painful, difficult and intractable position in which our country finds itself. What I really want, as, I am sure, do most Members of this House, is that the Government should be able to get on with the work of creating a more confident and hope-filled country that really cares for the weakest among us and for those who find their lives complicated and difficult; that encourages opportunity, enterprise and life chances; and that most especially keeps its vision of global service and influence, as a long-standing force for humanity and the general good.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, if I may, because many others want to speak. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
All of us know that many of our constituents are understandably extremely angry that Brexit has so distracted the Government from the serious issues we face—the NHS, education, crime, the reform of social care, housing, the environment and climate change, and all the other great issues that have inevitably had to be neglected as Brexit has gradually sucked the life blood out of the Government. As you very well know, Mr Speaker, the public believe that we have collectively let them down badly, and this is leading inevitably and very seriously to the fraying of the bonds between Parliament and the nation. The national interest clearly dictates that we have to get this done and that we must get on with the vital work of establishing our future relationships with our most important economic partners and allies.
At the beginning of the business of the House every day, the Speaker’s Chaplain reads the prayer that enjoins Members most especially to
“never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind”.
All of us need to pay a little more attention to those wise, profound and humane words, which have guided and succoured this House through thick and thin down the years and in worse days than these. It is now time that Parliament did its duty by the country, for the national interest and for national unity, and regardless of party or inclination, to bring these matters to a belated conclusion.
It is, as ever, a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), although I should perhaps place on record that I totally disagree with what he and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) said on one issue, because I feel that the only way we will resolve this situation peacefully and in a way that brings people together is by going back to the people for confirmation of whatever decision this House makes. Otherwise, I fear we will be seen as engaging in an establishment stitch-up, thinking of something that we will then foist on the people. It is essential to seek their view.
I am very conscious that today’s is a crowded agenda. Amendment (f), standing in my name and those of others on both sides of the House, is so straightforward that it practically speaks for itself, so I intend to be brief. I am also mindful of how many others want to speak.
I recognise, of course, that the House has voted on more than one occasion against the UK leaving the EU without a deal; indeed, the Prime Minister has acknowledged that. I am also well aware that there are nevertheless Members who feel that, whatever the evidence to the contrary, leaving with no deal would not cause us major problems, and that there even some who actively support our leaving without a deal or at least regard it as a desirable outcome. Surely, however, few if any believe it would be desirable that the UK should not make such a decision but drift or fall into it by inadvertence—almost by accident. That would be the very definition of irresponsibility.
We still have a very tight timetable, which presently encompasses, in addition, a potential recess period. As I said, my amendment is extremely simple and straightforward. It seeks to ensure that the UK can leave the EU without a deal only with the explicit consent of the House of Commons.
My right hon. Friend is making a very important speech about the risks of no deal. The Prime Minister said today:
“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen.”
However, she has not provided for any process to ensure that those safeguards are in place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we therefore need her amendment, otherwise there is a danger that we will drift by accident into the kind of chaotic, damaging no deal that both the CBI and the TUC have warned against?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, in line with the many contributions she has made on this issue. I will come to that in a moment.
The amendment guards against a no-deal withdrawal that lacks the clear and evident consent of the House. It also allows for the possibility of the House being in recess when such a danger arises and provides for the seeking of any necessary extension of the leaving deadline. I was originally very encouraged by the Prime Minister’s statement today, as my right hon. Friend said, that
“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen.”
That is what the amendment says, so my hope was that the Government might be prepared simply to accept it. That would seem the logical thing to do—I am giving the vehicle by which they can give effect to the statement that the Prime Minister made today.
I listened with care to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I think he said that, despite the fact that the Government are not taking any steps, as my right hon. Friend just pointed out, to prevent us from simply running out of time, the amendment was not necessary. He said the problem with my proposal was that there would be only two options left before the House, and the legal default would be that we leave without a deal. That is the point—that is why I tabled the amendment. Although I appreciated the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s explanation, I know that otherwise, we would leave by legal default without a deal. He agreed that the Government will need to come back to the Dispatch Box to deal with these issues. I suggest that the Ministers on the Front Bench pass on to their right hon. Friend that the very simple thing to do—it need take no time at all—is to accept this amendment and ensure that the House does not run the indefensible risk of stumbling out of the EU without a deal.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to follow the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). I can tell her now that I shall be voting for her amendment if it is put to the vote at the end of the evening, as I hope it will be. I shall return to that in a moment.
I am the second signatory to amendment (a), and I want briefly to outline my thoughts on its necessity and why it may help the House. I have obviously approached this in a slightly different way from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). As the House will be perfectly well aware, I continue to believe that Brexit is a historic mistake of very great proportions, and I am afraid that at no time since the referendum took place have I felt, despite efforts on my part to do so, that we are moving towards a position where I could ever take the view that the future outside the EU was going to better than remaining in it.
But I certainly voted to trigger article 50. I did it in deference to the result of the referendum and in the full knowledge that we could not even start negotiations unless we did so. Although I have occasionally been characterised as trying to obstruct Brexit, the truth is that, throughout 2017 and 2018, most of the work I did was to try to improve the process because of the concerns I had that it was being shortcut, thereby making mistaken outcomes all the more likely. I think there were only two occasions when I voted on substantive motions about alternatives, but that was because I was rather worried about the extent to which the Government seemed to be self-imposing red lines, and on neither occasion did it come anywhere close to success. I accepted that, and I accepted also that I should reserve my position on what the Government were negotiating and indicated that on a number of occasions in debates.
Where I disagree or differ from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset is that, when I finally came to look at the Government’s deal as negotiated in December, I thought it was a deal that was going to condemn us to a third-rate future. That is the basis on which I have been unwilling to support it. In saying that, I am entirely mindful of the fact that it has been negotiated in good faith by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I believe that every Member on the Front Bench has exercised as much diligence as possible to get the best possible outcome. Of course, that raises another question. If the outcome secured in December was so unsatisfactory that it was defeated by 220 votes in this House, and defeated because the examination of it from differing directions by Members on both sides of the House found it wanting, that calls into question whether in fact a fundamental error has been made and the entire process has inherent flaws.
A tendency that has crept in ever since the referendum result has been to close down debate on the basis that it is not proper to pursue it, because the referendum result must act as a diktat that prevents such debate from taking place. I have been long enough in this House to have experienced that sort of argument before, sometimes when Governments get very large majorities in general elections. I even remember on one occasion a Member of this House arguing that, because the then Labour Government had such a big majority, there was no real need any more to have the Second Reading debate of Bills, and the matter should be just put through on the nod and we should move on to the detail.
The one thing I am absolutely persuaded about is that we cannot have a working democracy where we close down debates. Democracy is all about the permanent shifting of tectonic plates. It goes on every second of every day, all the time. Just because somebody is defeated on one matter, it does not mean that they have to give up. They can keep going at it—and heaven knows, we have watched Members do just that in this House. In the same way, to argue that the referendum result imposes a permanency that cannot be challenged is, in my judgment, entirely wrong. When I look at the mess into which we have got ourselves, it appears to be at least in part the consequence of pushing that argument and thereby preventing the democratic process from working.
We get criticism that this House is not functioning properly or that democracy is not working. I think that this House has an exceptional capacity to reach sensible outcomes, but, I have to say to my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, it has been consistently prevented from doing its ordinary job by the straitjacket that has been imposed on the extent of what is acceptable to debate.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, just as our activities in this place are a crucial part of democracy, so too are marches on the street with 1 million people, or 5.5 million people signing a petition? They are all part of our democracy and should all be treated with respect.
They should indeed, particularly when anybody who participated in Saturday’s march, as I did, will have seen people who were optimistic, tolerant and filled with good humour and benevolence, even towards those with whom they disagree. It was very noticeable. I contrast that with some of the rabidity of the comments of which I have been on the receiving end from those who write to me and insist that, in some extraordinary way, the referendum has closed down areas of debate and made them illegitimate. My hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench really need to ponder that when they consider why things are not working properly for us at present.
I do not want to take up too much of the House’s time, but it is for that reason that I have supported the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and worked with him and others on amendment (a). Given that the Government have run into the sand and had their deal rejected, we have to find an alternative. I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend and I may differ in part on that alternative, but where we do not differ is in our willingness to have an open debate. I was greatly helped by the way in which he approached, in his characteristic and tolerant fashion, the examination of alternatives, just as I was by what the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), said about the breadth of the approach that might be adopted. It is clear that, if we are going to make progress, there should be nothing that is forbidden to be discussed. It is equally clear that we have to create an environment in which individual Members of this House do not feel that by supporting one option they thereby close the opportunity to express a view on another.
I will say no more about process at the moment, except to point out that I think it most unlikely that, if this motion is passed, we will come to a conclusion on Wednesday. It is part of a process. It certainly must not be dragged out, because we are so short of time. Equally, however, we have to take it at a sensible pace. Given that we have taken two and a half years to get ourselves into a complete dead end, it is worth taking a few weeks to ensure that we can get ourselves out of it, and that is what we ought to do.
I am the first to accept that the outcome may not be my preferred one, which remains the same: whichever option we take, I happen to believe that the evidence is now very clear that the public would like a final say and an opportunity to express a completely alternative view, which might even be to remain in the EU. I think that is their right and that we should be aiming to achieve that. Whatever the outcome may be, amendment (a) offers, for the first time, an opportunity to do it. I entirely disagree with my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that this is some desperate constitutional novelty. It is the House doing its job. I am afraid that the Government have only themselves to blame—through their intransigence over many months of signals being given right across the House—if on this occasion they have lost the leadership to the House itself. They could have had that leadership.
I will finish with a request. The Prime Minister is indeed the leader—the leading Minister—in this country. She is in post. Will she please provide that leadership? If she does that, participates fully in this process and is prepared to open her mind to the variety of options we are going to discuss and debate, and to close her mind to none of them, I believe she will find the solution to this problem and that the House will be able to support her. But that needs a change in mindset, both by her and by some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to get out of this narrow focus.
I said earlier that I would find it disgraceful if the Cabinet minutes reflect putting party political advantage ahead of the national interest. I do not know whether that is true or not, but it has been very widely reported. We have to put the national interest first and listen to what people are saying to us. It seems to me there is a consistent pattern of wanting to bring this unhappy episode to a conclusion and to do so in a way that reflects majority opinion in this country. We can do that by identifying the options and then putting it back to the public.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). The right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) reminded us of the prayers that start each day. I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman set out with a desire to please, but I think his speech certainly did please many of us in the House.
I rise to support amendments (a) and (f), which were moved in compelling speeches by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) and, in this context, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). We need to remember that we have this opportunity to debate those two amendments for two reasons and two reasons only. First, the Government’s deal was defeated for a second time. We are discussing a motion in neutral terms, and we would not have had the chance to do that had it not been for the efforts of the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield and many other people last summer. Secondly, the European Union decided to give us an additional two weeks.
The fundamental problem, however, has not changed, which is the Government’s inability to get their deal through. Indeed, they are so lacking in confidence about their ability to win a third time that we are not entirely sure whether and when they will bring it back before the House. That means that, if nothing changes in 17 days’ time, either we will leave with no deal or the Government will have to apply for—and be granted by the European Union—an extension. The moment of danger has been delayed briefly, but it has not passed.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the moment of danger. Would it not be prudent to put in place steps to revoke so that we do not go headlong over the cliff? The European Union’s deal has been rejected twice. We are now staring down the barrel of no deal, and further extension is probably unlikely. We have to get our heads around it: revoke is coming down the line and we have to make a decision quickly.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but for the reasons I am about to advance I think the Prime Minister made a very significant statement today, to which many others have drawn attention. What she said bears repeating:
“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen.”
I take that to be a solemn and binding commitment from the Prime Minister, and the inevitable consequence, which she did not want to acknowledge in her statement, is that, unless she gets her deal through, she will have to apply for an extension prior to 12 April.
Why has amendment (a) been tabled? We are discussing it because the Government’s deal has been defeated twice, no deal has been defeated twice, and the Prime Minister has said twice and more, “We know what Parliament is against; what is Parliament for?” The purpose of the amendment is extremely simple: it is to give us the chance to show what we might be in favour of. If the Government were doing their job, the amendment would not be necessary; it is because the Government are not doing their job that it is required.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office is a very charming man, but his arguments against the amendment were, frankly, hopelessly confused. I will summarise the Government’s position. They are opposed to the amendment, but they want there to be a process. If the amendment is defeated they promise their own process, but that appears to consist of a debate later in the week and then something later on, the precise form of which we do not yet know. They seem to want Parliament to agree on something, but they cannot promise to accept any consensus that might emerge out of this process. They castigate us for not having reached an agreement, but oppose tonight the very proposal that is intended to enable us to do precisely that. The situation is frankly absurd. If I may say so in his absence, I do not think that the Minister’s heart was really in his argument tonight, because the Government seem to be saying, in effect, “Well, if it passes, we’ll get on with it.” Let us break out of the circular argument—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) expressed it brilliantly—and get on with it.
I simply want to encourage every Member who has a realistic proposition to put it forward on Wednesday if the amendment is carried. In the report that the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union published the very day after the first defeat of the Government’s plan, it set out the broad options. This is not about the withdrawal agreement, because the Prime Minister could not have been clearer today when she said:
“Everyone should be absolutely clear that changing the withdrawal agreement is simply not an option. This is about the political declaration.”
There was an exchange across the Chamber about that, and there is a fundamental flaw in the suggestion that the withdrawal agreement alone—not the political declaration—might somehow be passed this week. If that happened and the EU responded by saying, “Ah! You have passed the withdrawal agreement alone this week. Okay, we will give you till 22 May”, what would happen if we then asked the EU in the week leading up to 22 May whether we could have a bit more time? The EU would say, “No, you can’t, because you didn’t take part in the European elections.” I am afraid that the proposition of a separate vote on the withdrawal agreement as a way out of the crisis falls at the first hurdle.
On Wednesday, when our pink slips are distributed, I am looking forward to voting Aye to remaining in a customs union with the EU; Aye to a Norway plus-type arrangement, which could embrace Common Market 2.0; and Aye to a confirmatory referendum. Other Members may be looking forward to voting for things that they would be prepared to consider.
My final point is that the word “indicative” is important. This Wednesday is about indicating a direction of travel that Members might be prepared to support. It is not definitive. We may well need to get to that point in the next stage of the process. So Wednesday is not the end, merely the beginning. It is long overdue, and I hope that the House will enable it to happen by carrying amendment (a) tonight.
Order. The situation is perfectly manageable, but a significant number of hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye. As a guide, although I am not imposing a time limit, if each Member spoke for approximately seven minutes, everybody would be accommodated. To speak for significantly longer than that would be a notable discourtesy, of which I know that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), for one, would not wish to be guilty.
It is novel for me not to have a time limit, so I am used to those strictures.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the Chairman of the Brexit Committee. He made the clear point that we have shown what we are against, but at some point, we as a House will have to show what we are in favour of. Speaking personally, I still think that the best deal on the table is the Prime Minister’s deal. It respects the referendum result, which is critical, and it deals with the complex problem of how on earth a country that has such integrated supply chains, with thousands of lorries coming through Dover, can maintain frictionless trade as far as possible, yet take back sovereignty in the key areas of the single market and the customs union. It is very difficult, but that circle has been squared in the Prime Minister’s proposal and I would like to vote for it again. However, I have to accept that it may not come back and that so far, it has been defeated very heavily indeed.
Although procedure is important—the amendments before us are about how Parliament brings forward the next stage of the debate—I do not want to focus on it. I believe that we must focus on first principles—the underlying principles of how we will deliver on the referendum result.
The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) said that we should consider a second referendum, a single market plus customs union and so on. However, there is one fundamental problem with all those proposals, which my constituents who voted to leave would raise. It is an issue that we all have to grapple with—free movement. I want to focus on two principles: free movement and free trade. Free movement is not an easy one, because it forces us to discuss immigration, to which we have so far failed to give anything like enough attention.
I feel strongly on the subject. In justifying a second referendum, it has been said that the facts have changed since the 2016 referendum and that therefore there should be another vote. We must consider what has changed, and whether, if it had been known in the referendum campaign of 2016, it would have led to a different result. I suggest that the single fact, if it had been known in advance, that would have had the most impact—whether we like it or not—is that Brexit has directly led to an unprecedented increase in immigration into this country from outside the EU.
Free movement is of course a double-sided coin. The hon. Gentleman mentioned immigration, but there is also emigration. We have seen on the television some people who voted for Brexit and then decided to retire to Spain now ruing the day of their rash action when they followed some of the crasser tabloid newspapers. When we talk about freedom of movement, we must remember that we are talking about rights that the hon. Gentleman enjoys, which he is perhaps trying to take away from everybody else and himself.
It is fair to say that freedom of movement works both ways. Of course, if we end free movement for those coming to this country, there will be an impact on our rights when we go to our nearest neighbours. We must ask ourselves a profound question in the context of the EU debate: would our country still vote to leave on the basis of concerns about immigration if people knew that the result of ending free movement would be that immigration would not decrease, but that we as citizens would face reduced rights in going to other countries in Europe, such as having to pay charges and fill in visa applications, at least for work and reasons other than tourism?
Let us look at the facts. The latest figures show that net migration into this country from the EU is down to 57,000. Net immigration into this country from outside the EU is up to 261,000. A year ago, the two top countries in the list were Poland and Romania, and they are now India and China. We are not talking Liechtenstein in population terms here. That is a serious point.
I remember the referendum campaign, in which I took an active part. I did home and away debates with my neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin). To anyone who claims that immigration was not a reason for the vote, I say that, yes, there are many people who for many years believed in leaving the EU for reasons of sovereignty—I strongly respect that view, which is based on a noble principle of democracy—but I know that what swung many undecided people in my constituency was house building in the countryside. Why? Because they believed that if we left the EU, there would be no immigration and we would not need those houses. It sounds crazy, but I have got the emails to prove it, and colleagues will know it.
Immigration was front and centre of the leave campaign. We remember Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster of the new Untermenschen. Mr Speaker, you know the meaning of that word—it has a very serious meaning. The poster showed a whole column of people and the implication was that if we left, what it depicted would not happen. We know that that campaign played with fire. It opened Pandora’s box, and somehow we have to put the lid back on. When I raise the matter, I do not do it happily. I am personally relaxed about immigration to this country because I recognise the huge contribution immigrants have made and will continue to make.
However, we must now be honest and say to the country that in the coming days, options will come before us in which free movement is back on the table. What if it is the case that keeping free movement will enable us to control immigration in future by having the strictest possible rules on immigration from 90% of the world population?
I come from a nation that is positive about the benefits of immigration. Indeed, my constituents embrace immigrants in their communities. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about immigration about China and India, but he has not mentioned that those people are generally international students, who leave at the end of their degrees. Those students should be taken out of net migration figures.
That is a perfectly fair point, but of course the reason they are in there is that many do choose to remain. [Interruption.] I take the figures as they are. I remember your time strictures, Mr Speaker, so I will move on to my second point, which is on free trade.
The reason we have the situation with immigration is that it is a discriminatory system. We allow free movement from the EU, but not from non-EU countries. The reason it is discriminatory is that we have a trade deal with the EU called the single market. Of course, it was in the Lancaster House speech that the red line on the single market was first stated, but I want to return to a Lancaster House speech in which the Prime Minister was addressing an audience of business leaders. She said:
“Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world's wealthiest and most prosperous people. Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it. It’s not a dream. It’s not a vision. It’s not some bureaucrat’s plan. It’s for real. And it’s only five years away.”
That was the Lancaster House speech of Mrs Thatcher in 1988. There are only three MPs left in the House who voted against the Single European Act. One is the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), one is the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), and the third one is the Leader of the Opposition. The single market is not some socialist conspiracy; it is capitalism and it is free trade, and I believe fundamentally in free trade.
In the days to come, we will have to look at other issues. We will have to be prepared to flex our red lines, to be blunt, to deliver on the referendum result in a way that preserves free trade and gives us the best possible deal for our constituents.
As a member of the Procedure Committee, I have been thinking for about six months about the voting system. In autumn, the then Brexit Secretary came with proposals to change how we were going to run the meaningful vote. Since Christmas, however, it has been evident that we need a new system. The simple binary yes-no choice does not work very well in a situation like Brexit, where there are multiple options. We ran into problems on House of Lords reform, and the Prime Minister has found similar difficulties in the past six months. Partly, that is due to the way she has handled the situation, but it is also partly because it is very easy, with a yes-no approach, to build coalitions against things and quite a lot harder to build consensus and coalitions for options.
A month ago, the Father of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), and I proposed using preference votes as we do for Select Committee Chairs. We were probably a bit premature with that idea, and I am extremely pleased to be able to support the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) tonight. It is clear that the Prime Minister’s brinkmanship has brought us to this self-inflicted crisis. It is now essential that Parliament takes control and uses a new process. I am also pleased that the right hon. Member for West Dorset has agreed that we should be moving to paper ballots, voting on all the options in parallel. That will reduce considerably the scope for the gamesmanship that is bedevilling this process.
The hon. Lady makes a very good argument. We were discussing this earlier. Parliament is quite inefficient at making certain decisions, as we are finding out. Just as an analogy, if we sent Parliament off to buy a gin and tonic the questions would be what sort of gin? What sort of tonic? Would there be ice or no ice? Would there be lemon or lime? The paralysis from that one decision would probably be something akin to what we have with Brexit at the moment. Her suggested approach makes eminent sense in a Parliament that cannot decide any more than yes or no.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I was going to say that the benefit of a new system is that it would enable us to find out where the consensus actually lies. It is absolutely obvious that not everyone in this situation will get their first choice, but we need to make a distinction between those things that Members and the public are very worried about and find totally unacceptable, such as no deal, and those things that, while they may not be a person’s first choice, they can live with and can go along with. The process we need to move into needs to institutionalise that.
It is also obvious that building consensus will be painful, because it inevitably involves compromise. That, however, is essential on a major national project such as Brexit. It is much better for us to acknowledge those difficulties and take a calmer approach to reconcile Parliament and the public than to be driven into a high-conflict situation with the rising tone of anger that we see at the moment.
The one thing that the right hon. Member for West Dorset said that surprised me a bit was that the business motion on how we are going to do this will, in his schema, be on the same day as the first round of indicative votes. I had not planned to speak today, but I thought that I had better set out what factors I would like to be taken into account in the drawing up of the process and the design of the system.
The first issue is the status of the votes: are they indicative or definitive? Indicative is good, because it allows people to feel flexible and more open-minded. However, we will move to definitive at some stage, to bind the Government, because we cannot continue with the situation where the Government defy the will of the House.
The second point we need to be clear about is that this vote may be on paper, but it is not a secret ballot. We want transparency. We want to be accountable to the public and to our constituents. And, of course, the Whips need to be able to do their job as well. That, too, requires some transparency.
The third issue is how to get on the ballot. I was slightly concerned in the middle of the day when I was hearing that the Government were planning to draft up for every Member what their view of other Members’ options would be. That seems to me to be completely inappropriate. Groups of hon. Members must be allowed to say for themselves what their options should be. I appeal to Mr Speaker to allow more, rather than less, on to any ballot paper, if we get to that.
The fourth point we need to think about is how to vote: preferences or standard crosses. I think the right hon. Member for West Dorset is considering a traditional cross by the side of the option or options we like, rather than preferences. I am happy for us to embark on that, but, as he acknowledged, we may need to move to preferences as time goes on.
There are two other points that we need to bear in mind. First, how many votes are we going to have? How many preferences can we expect to be allowed to use—two or three? We need to consider explicitly whether people could use the same number of preferences, or whether that could be something that people would want to flex. My feeling is that everybody probably ought to have the same number of votes. Connected to that is how many voting rounds we go through. We know we have to do this in a fairly speedy way, because of the 11 April deadline. We may need more than one, but we cannot have a completely open-ended process going on ad infinitum. We need to bring it to closure at some point.
If people think that this is highly innovative, they should not be quite so alarmed. We vote on paper regularly. We have done indicative voting before. We have given preferences before. What we are proposing to do on this occasion is bring them all together. [Interruption.] The most important thing, as I can hear the Minister saying, is that we have some speed, not just for the political process but to end the uncertainty facing businesses up and down the country. To be three weeks out and still to have no deal, a soft Brexit or a public vote to remain on the table is shameful.
Our international reputation has taken the worst hammering in living memory. The Confederation of British Industry said that it has lost confidence in the political process. The TUC has specifically asked us to look for a new parliamentary mechanism. MPs are always telling other people to change and adapt. Now, perhaps it is time for us to do the same. Confidence in our parliamentary process will be restored only when we show that we can act constructively and creatively.
I came to this debate as much to listen as to contribute, and I am very glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who, in a very rare way in these debates over the past few years, has set out a way in which we might move forward. That may not be comfortable for her and these may not all be her preferred options, but it shows a willingness to listen, to compromise and to move, which has been pretty absent, if we are honest, from this debate so far.
The attitudes out there in the country are hardening. Constituents of mine who told me three years ago that they voted leave and that they were happy to leave on whatever terms Parliament deemed necessary, as long as we respected the result, are now telling me daily that they want to cut all ties and leave with no deal at all. Constituents who voted to remain and who said that we had had the debate, that the other side had won fair and square and that we just had to get on with it are now telling me that they want to halt the process altogether and remain in the EU. Having spent a lot of time with colleagues trying to find a way through this in here and behind the scenes over the past few weeks, I feel that exactly the same thing is happening in Parliament. If we do not start to move, they will not start to move and there is absolutely no prospect of repairing this country.
That is why I very much welcome what the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) has done with the amendment, particularly the way in which he presented it. He is not seeking to control the outcome of this process. He is not seeking to do what many of his colleagues on each extreme of this debate have done for several years, which is to knock out any preferred option that is not theirs and undermine any of us who are trying to find a solution by questioning our good faith, intentions and motives.
As somebody who represents a constituency where two thirds of people voted to leave—they did so largely in full knowledge of what they were doing and still feel strongly about it—but where a third of people also voted to remain and have every bit as much of a stake in the future of this country as the rest, I have to say that that bad faith is operating on both sides of this debate. Those threats and the abuse are coming from both sides. I and many hon. Members face them daily, and to seek to pretend, as some Members just did in this debate, that it comes only from one side is quite simply not true. It is insulting and it will not stick.
I am very dismayed today about the Government’s position. I do not think that Ministers understand how little trust there is left. As we stand here in this Chamber, right now—according to lobby journalists who are briefing things out over social media—the Government are sitting in closed rooms trying to persuade Members on their own side to vote down this amendment in favour of guarantees. We have been here before. Time and again, they come to the Dispatch Box and they tell us they are serious. They tell us they are listening and that the House must make a decision, and then, when we get up and speak with one voice about what we want, they say, “Okay, we will go away and think about it.” They make some promises and pick off Members on their own side, and then, lo and behold, where are those promises when they most count? They are nowhere to be seen.
Given the mess that has been created in this country, what is wrong, honestly, with giving Parliament the right to consider the options that we want to put forward? We speak for very different communities in this country. When the Government seek to deny us a voice, they are not denying me a voice—who cares whether I have a voice?—they are denying the 75,000 people I represent in Wigan a voice and all the other hon. Members besides.
I say to both Front-Bench teams that if we are to consider the options in good faith, given the very different needs and priorities of constituencies, a free vote has to be offered on those options. I understand the discomfort. I have served in the shadow Cabinet. It is not an easy thing to do, but when we have this strength of feeling and these very divergent views and experiences across the country, all those have to be heard if we are going to find a way through this.
I say to Ministers, too, that almost entirely absent now is not just the trust, but the good will. Last week, I could not believe what I was seeing when the Prime Minister took to the steps of Downing Street and tried to pit the people against Parliament. The public follow our lead. When we stand in here using language such as “betrayal” and “traitors”, is it any surprise that we step outside and find that same language levelled back at us? If she wants to restore good will, the first thing that she must do is apologise to Members of this House, who are all, in our very different ways and positions, trying to find a way through this in good faith. She must rule out no deal.
We will not believe that the Prime Minister is serious about the interests of the country if she is not—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) is asking me why. Last week, I had a constituent on the phone whose son was in line for a clinical trial in the European Union that could save his life. They do not know now whether he will get it. This is a child who has no certainty about what is going to happen next. I have a constituent who is on dialysis, who rang me to say that she has been told to expect some disruption in the event of no deal. When I went to a Minister to ask what the advice was, he said, “We are doing our best, but we cannot make any guarantees.” My sister is diabetic and has not slept for months because she does not know whether she will be able to access insulin. People can accuse me of scaremongering all they like, but the Government’s technical notice cannot tell us what will happen in the event of a no-deal Brexit. What sort of Government cannot guarantee access to medicines in just a week’s time?
I make the point gently that there was a written ministerial statement that did make those guarantees only three weeks ago.
And I can tell the Minister that I was here on Monday when we were debating plans to allow pharmacists to limit access to medication in the event of no deal in just a few weeks’ time. I went to my local pharmacist and had a conversation with him a couple of days later and he had never heard anything about it, so to pretend that this is a responsible course of action is, frankly, a disgrace. The Minister can roll his eyes at me all he likes, but this is an absolute disgrace. The Government have driven this country to the brink and they are not learning. Every Member sitting in this House right now will look at that Minister sitting on that Bench and realise that this is a Government who are not serious about safeguarding the welfare of their citizens.
I will finish with this point, because I know that many Members are desperate to speak. In the next stages, if we get to them—if this shabby Government somehow manage to cobble together a majority for the withdrawal agreement and get us into the next stages—I would just say to hon. Members: look at what we have just witnessed in this House. Do not trust that they are acting with the interests of the whole country in mind. This House has no guaranteed role in those next stages of negotiations. If we do not insist on that right now, we will not get it.
For four months, I have been talking to the Prime Minister and to Government Members about giving Parliament the right to set out the terms of the negotiating mandate in the next stages and to guarantee a vote about the future relationship at the end of that process. They have resisted that. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) and I will be bringing forward an amendment on that when the meaningful vote materialises, because we have to have a reset. If we are going to get to the next stages of those discussions, that discussion has to involve every single part of this House. We cannot allow the Prime Minister, whoever he or she may be by that point, to go off and negotiate away our rights, freedoms and protections that have been hard fought for for 100 years without any say in it.
This has become a tug of war between two groups of people who I know, from speaking to them every day in my constituency, are quite reasonable people who want this resolved. We are breaking our democracy. I commend the right hon. Member for West Dorset for tabling amendment (a) because he is seeking a way to bring the House together, to compromise and to find a way through this impasse. We as a House have to rise to the occasion, because, my God, I have just seen a perfect example from the Government Benches of why they are not capable of doing it.
I also rise to support amendments (a), (d) and (f), and it is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). She spent much of her speech talking about the atmosphere within which this debate is happening, and I, too, would like to spend a few moments on that.
Like others, I have been bombarded in recent weeks with emails and other communications telling me to vote in diametrically opposed directions. Many insist that if I vote differently from the way they wish, I will be acting against the will of the people. I have not had the same level of aggression from all quarters, but some of it has been pretty extreme. I have been compared to a range of bodily parts of both the female and the male variety. Some have called me a traitor. A few have gone further. One email I read yesterday expressed the hope that this place would be burned to the ground with me and other hon. Members in it. I know that several hon. Members have received worse and in far greater quantities. There is no excuse for such threats and abuse. Neither I nor other hon. Members will be intimidated, but we have to face up to what is happening.
This kind of toxic atmosphere in politics is not unique to the UK—it is happening in other countries—but Brexit gives it a focus, and it can lead to violence against people regarded as believing the wrong things or simply because of who they are. My plea is that all of us who have the privilege to speak from public platforms, which can create headlines, think carefully about how we conduct ourselves and the way we frame political debates and take care not to contribute to that atmosphere of toxicity and intolerance, which undermines democracy and can lead to violence.
There is a deeper problem here. All too often people feel the political debate in this place happens at a level that does not speak to them and bypasses their concerns. They look aghast at how we have got stuck in a logjam over Brexit. Yes, the Prime Minister has made that worse, not better—her attempt last Wednesday to shift the blame on to everyone other than herself was unworthy of her office—but we need to look at ourselves too and understand that too often we appear to embody the stereotype of an institution that talks only to itself, not to the outside world. We need to learn from that, not only in relation to Brexit, but more generally.
What does that mean for the decisions we face tonight? The bottom line is that no deal cannot be allowed to happen by accident any more than by design. As chair of the all-party motor group, I know that all the warnings—from BMW, JLR, Nissan, Toyota, Vauxhall, and Aston Martin—could not have been clearer. Investment decisions are on hold now and our reputation in the international community is being trashed before our eyes. A no-deal Brexit would jeopardise the future of the plants of several of those car manufacturers and many thousands of jobs, and similar warnings are coming from other sectors, as others have said.
The priority has to be avoiding the nightmare of no deal, and that means agreeing a procedure that allows us not so much to vote for or against our perfect or worst options, but to do as the right hon. Member for West Dorset has urged and express preferences for ways forward we can live with. The idea of doing that through paper ballots is exactly right because it would allow people to express preferences and vote for several different options. This cannot be a zero-sum game. The objective has to be to find a centre of gravity through which we can move forward.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) are right that, as we move through that process, which may take some time, some kind of preference balloting is likely to be necessary. I suspect that, if we find that centre of gravity, it will involve jettisoning some of the Prime Minister’s red lines, so there is a question for her there, and a decision for her to make. If the centre of gravity in this House becomes a place that is beyond and different from her red lines, she must answer that question. Will she abide by the will of the House, and will she take that forward in negotiations with the European Union? Unless she is prepared to do so, the sustainable majority to which the right hon. Member for West Dorset referred will not be allowed to have its voice, and if it is not allowed to have its voice, democracy will be the poorer, the House will be the poorer, and the debate about Brexit will be set back.
In the few moments that I have left, I want to say a few words about the idea of a second referendum. It seems to me that when a million people take to the streets, that is not something we should ignore. In my view, arguing for a final say on any deal eventually arrived at, or against the possibility that the House is unable to achieve a way forward, has a logic to it, but let us not kid ourselves that the passions aroused in favour of a second referendum—or a people’s vote—are not also aroused in other directions. The risk that a referendum will be conducted in a divisive atmosphere is a real risk, and we must recognise and address it. To me, that does not mean moving away from, or rejecting, the idea of a second referendum, but it does constitute a further indication and a further reminder to us that we must at least approach the coming weeks and months in a way that makes clear the kind of politics that we want to develop in this country. It must be clear that this process is about resolving differences, not about exacerbating them,
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid that I am very short of time.
Our approach must demonstrate our commitment to equal respect for all our citizens, irrespective of their background, and our determination to ensure that whatever else happens, democracy wins through.
I was taken by the speech of the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who talked about the diminished place of the United Kingdom after Brexit and during the Brexit process. When Opposition Members mention that, Conservative Members often say we are talking rubbish, but I think the right hon. Gentleman’s belief has a degree of support from his Government. Today we saw the naval process and the EU military complex and engagement process start to unravel, with the naval piracy taskforce moving from the United Kingdom to Cadiz, so I think the right hon. Gentleman was right about that diminished role.
Earlier today, during defence questions, Ministers could not recognise the element of diminution in defence and security, but I think the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it exists. The Secretary of State for Defence rightly has a lot to say about Russia and China, but seems to have very little to say about our future defence and security engagement with our closest ally, with which we will have a land border: the European Union.
Last week, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who has just left the Chamber, gave a clear analysis of the process so far. I hope he will forgive me for saying that only one slight element was missing from it: history. Another Member on the other side of the House—I believe it was the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), who has also left the Chamber—seemed to exclude history in a more robust fashion, expressing utter disgust at the way in which the Government had brought them to this position.
I think both Members would probably agree, as would many other Members, that that is nothing new in this place. The civil war at the heart of the Conservative party is certainly nothing new, especially when it comes to the last 40 years of membership of the European Economic Community, the European Community or the European Union. In many ways, the discourse at the heart of the Conservative and Unionist party is fundamentally exposed by what it has done in walking through the doors with the Democratic Unionist party. Now of course the DUP are not here to defend themselves, but I think we would all agree that they have played a blinder when it comes to Brexit, because the history of the Conservative party with the ancestors of the DUP more or less has made the Prime Minister a modern-day Pitt the Younger, and we all know what happened in 1800 with Pitt the Younger and the utter disgrace that unfolded in Unionist history. So if the Conservative and Unionist party wishes to pin its hopes on doing deals with the DUP it should learn a lesson from its own political history. It is one it has clearly forgotten; it has no collective or institutional memory of its own history, and it is extraordinary to see it unfold before it.
The two main parties, both the Government and the official Opposition, had a commitment in their manifestos in 2017 to deliver Brexit, and the Prime Minister keeps coming back to that, but what was not in the Prime Minister’s party’s manifesto was giving a £1 billion bung to the DUP. That was hidden; there was nothing about that. No one wanted to talk about it, but that is where they are.
There is another issue that has gone about the nation. As you know, Mr Speaker, when I first stood in this House I made it clear that I was neither a Unionist nor a Home Ruler and I think that is self-explanatory, but I do have regard for both the Unionist Members and the Home Rulers in this Parliament and their position. So when it comes to a people’s vote, for example, I am utterly delighted to support it. My party has been supportive of it, and the First Minister was at the march as well as our leader here in the parliamentary group in Westminster. I hope that when push comes to shove in respect of the mandate that already exists in Scotland in its own Parliament where there is a majority that a section 30 order—of the Scotland Act 1998—is requested, those on all sides recognise any hypocrisy if they would not support a second referendum on Scotland’s constitutional position, whether they agree with that change or not.
Mention has also been made in this debate about the constitution. What constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? There is no constitution of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I have heard about precedent; that precedent comes from the Parliament of England pre-1707. Before 1707 I would be a shire commissioner in the Parliament of Scotland sitting in the ancient Parliament that sits there, probably the oldest parliamentary building in these islands, and a member of the three estates. But I am not; I am here in this place. So although I support the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), who is not in his place, I am hopeful that if there is a second referendum all those calling for it will be supportive of the mandate in the Scottish Parliament, and not just from my own party as there is a wider majority in the Scottish Parliament, for calling if we are dragged against our will out of the EU for a referendum on us being again an independent sovereign nation state within the family of European nations.
May I share with the House a fact that is sometimes overlooked? In the European referendum far more people voted to leave in Scotland than voted for the SNP at the 2017 election. That is a fact that some people do not understand; it is as though the hon. Gentleman thinks he speaks for all of the people of Scotland when he does not.
I am actually quite affronted —to use an old-fashioned term—by that type of question, because I do not stand here to speak for the people of Scotland; I stand here to speak for my constituents, those who voted for me and those who voted for other candidates of other political parties. But I am also mindful that some of the hon. Gentleman’s own fellow Back Benchers have said that a true democracy is based on tectonic plates that shift, and if we cannot change our mind in a modern liberal democracy then we are in no democracy at all.
The hon. Gentleman was also in the House when we had the claim of right debate, and his own Members were cheering on when I was saying that Scotland was a nation. I did not hear him disregard that ability to be an independent sovereign nation. So I find his question bizarre, because I am not standing up to speak for Scotland; I am standing up to speak for my constituents who not only voted for their country to be an independent sovereign nation but also voted for the UK to remain within the EU. We were told by the first Brexit Secretary in his first speech that the industrial working class of this political state voted to leave the European Union. I took great delight in reminding him then, as I remind the House today, that the industrial working class of West Dunbartonshire voted overwhelmingly to remain. They also voted overwhelmingly for their country to be an independent sovereign state.
I hope that Members understand that in a modern democracy, we can change our mind. How can so many people be affronted by the proposition that mature adults who are able to go to a ballot box and vote can change their mind? I know that my country will do so, and that it will be an independent one at that.
Sorry seems to be the hardest word for the Prime Minister. After her Mini-Me Trump act last week, it would have been appropriate for her to come to the House today—or indeed last week—to apologise for the words she used. She has chosen not to do so, however, and I really do regret that. I also regret the fact that clarity does not seem to be her strong point. She said in her statement that, unless this House agreed to it, no deal would not happen. That seemed to be a fairly clear statement, but when I intervened on her to ask her whether she could give us a categorical assurance that we would be allowed to pass a binding motion in this House ruling out no deal, she was unable to answer me positively. I am therefore left none the wiser about whether she has or has not ruled out no deal.
Amendments (g) and (e) have been tabled in support of a people’s vote. Amendment (g) was tabled by the Liberal Democrats with the support of the Independent Group; amendment (e) was tabled by the Independent Group with the support of the Liberal Democrats. It is important to continue to maintain the profile of a people’s vote, if only because absolutely nothing is predictable when it comes to what takes place in this House and whether votes will take place at the agreed time. It is also important because the 1 million people who marched on Saturday will be confused that no amendment relating to a people’s vote has been selected this evening. Others have mentioned the passion, enthusiasm and energy represented on the march, which was attended by people from all over the country and all walks of life. They came from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England and they were really representative of the United Kingdom as a whole. It was a fantastic occasion. I guess we have to apologise for the fact that a few stickers were left on the Cabinet Office front door, but they had been cleared by the time I attended the no-deal briefing there earlier today.
I am happy to support amendment (a), which has been tabled by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) to facilitate indicative votes. I hope that it will enable the House to find a way forward because the Prime Minister and the Government are clearly incapable of doing so. Once the Prime Minister had set out her red lines, it became impossible for her to come up with an outcome that the House could support. That was made even harder when she blamed the House for her failure to find a way forward. It is regrettable that, when the deputy Prime Minister opened the debate today, he did not simply accept amendment (a). From what he said, it seems to represent what the Government want to do. He will know as well as anyone else that it is perfectly in order for the Government to commandeer an amendment put forward by the Opposition if they find it attractive, and that Governments normally do this. Despite opposition from his own Benches, he had the option today to grab that amendment and put his own name to it. Given that it would deliver what he says he wants to do, that would have been in order. I am also happy to support amendment (f), tabled by the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). It would give the House some certainty about what would happen in a no-deal scenario.
On the indicative votes, we need to ensure that the Prime Minister is not able to claim at the end of the process that Parliament has come no closer to securing a way forward than she has. The process must enable a strong option to emerge. The Liberal Democrats, like the SNP, would like not only an option to revoke article 50, but something that would ensure a people’s vote as a lock—something that would apply in relation to any proposals that come forward.
To conclude—hopefully well within your time constraints, Mr Speaker—the Prime Minister has lost not only legitimacy and credibility, but support both within and outside her party. She clearly cannot lead this process, so Parliament must now grasp the reins and lever the UK out of the quagmire into which we are gradually sliding. We are up to our necks and we will be in over our heads in a matter of days. We are very much in the last-chance saloon tonight, and shortly after the votes at 10 pm we will know whether we have come out of it alive.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), and I want to put on the record how impressed I have been with the calibre and quality of the speeches this afternoon and evening. It has been quite overwhelming and they have done this place some credit. At a time when the House is being vilified—even being disrespected and undermined by the Prime Minister—I have heard Members speak with passion and commitment. There have been different views and perspectives, but everyone has tried to navigate their way through things and to do what is best for their constituents and the country.
I rise to support amendments (d), (f) and, in particular, (a). Finally, Parliament is taking control of the process; the Government should have set that in train two years ago. We are finally about to decide what Brexit actually is. The fundamental dilemma of the 2016 referendum was that it allowed everybody to project all their fears, anger, hopes and fantasies on to a simply binary question, and the result has been interpreted by many different people to mean many different things. As a consequence —we will have to get used to this—whatever option the House supports will be met with cries of, “Betrayal” from those who do not get the version of Brexit that was in their mind when they voted, or even the version that they have developed over the past two and a half years.
The narrative of betrayal, which the Prime Minister stoked up last week, is toxic and needs to be confronted with honesty and courage. Whatever version of Brexit comes out the other side of the parliamentary mangle, MPs need to acknowledge that people will be disappointed, upset and even angered. Whatever we do risks losing votes, and possibly even seats, for all parties. That is why we need to be brave and vote in the country’s best interests.
Those who bandy around the word “betrayal” must be honest that the betrayal of the British people has already happened. The betrayal was to ask people to make a vague and over-simplistic decision, with insufficient information that was not honest about the real choices facing our country or the complexity of our economic integration with the European Union. The betrayal was rooted in the lies and fantasy promises that were told without any intention of being kept—like those on the side of the bus. The betrayal was the exploitation for personal and political ends of the justifiable and understandable grievances of left-behind areas and working-class communities such as mine. The betrayal was the legitimatisation of prejudice, hatred and division that we saw during that debate and have seen since. The betrayal was not to be honest that major constitutional changes should not be put forward to the public unless the work had been done to prepare for them. All that comes even before we have a proper inquiry into the potential law breaking.
I am impressed with the hon. Lady’s points. Does she agree that the way to overcome the sense of betrayal that the vote was misleading, or that the work had not been done and the people did not get what they bargained for is to go back to the people once we have decided on something and ask, “Is this what you wanted?”
I concur completely. I was building up to a crescendo, but I agree that being honest and having a conversation with the people about the reality of Brexit is the way forward. This place owes the public an apology for the referendum—not just David Cameron, but all of us—but instead of apologising the betrayal has continued. Rather than being honest with the public, confronting the mistakes and admitting that the referendum was flawed, we have sought to continue it rather than face up to our historic error. The public are wiser than many in this place give them credit for. They can see that the process over the past two and a half years has been an absolute shambles. They can see that Brexit is nothing like what was promised to them. We should all have the humility to say we know much more now than we did then.
Why is the Prime Minister continuing to drive people to a destination that is not where they were told they were going? We do not even know whether many of them still want to go. She continues to talk about the will of the people, but she ignores not just the 48% but those who did not vote because they did not feel strongly enough to want to change the situation. Some 29 million people either voted to remain or did not feel they wanted to change things. None of them asked to get where we are.
No wonder the public call it betrayal when they are not getting the things they were promised, or when responsible politicians step up to try to stop this carnage. This is the ultimate Brexit paradox. The further we are from Europe and the more abrupt our break, the worse it is for our economy, particularly for areas like mine that voted most strongly to leave. Yet the closer we remain to the EU, with Norway-plus or a soft Brexit option, the more we concede British sovereignty and dilute the so-called will of the people, which is now hardening among many leavers for a no deal.
No one will be getting what they were promised and I believe it is a deceit to vote for Brexit in name only in the hope that people will not notice or to try to get them off our backs. All we would be doing is continuing to reinforce the lie to the public and failing to be honest with them about the reality of our situation. Worse, I hear the Prime Minister patronising them and telling them there is nothing that can be done to prevent it because this is what they wanted two and a half years ago. Denying them the right to change their mind or to have their say on the outcome now that the evidence is clearer is a real betrayal, both of them and of future generations.
Record numbers have marched and signed petitions in the past few days. They, too, are the people, and they, too, deserve to have their voice heard. A new referendum or a vote to ratify a deal that comes through our range of options must be put to the people in the cold light of day. We must be brave enough to ignore the calls of betrayal and do the right thing, and not continue the deceit that we will be able to please everyone with our Brexit outcome. We must do what is in the best interest of our constituents’ jobs and livelihoods and in the national interest of our country. Parliament needs to come clean that we have made a catastrophic mess. We must give the public the chance to help us clean it up.
It is a genuine honour to follow the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley). I have previously praised her and many of her Labour colleagues who represent seats that voted leave, yet who, through their leadership in engaging with their constituents, being courageous and forthright in many instances, and listening and engaging in the debate, have now come to the conclusion that the only way through this crisis is for this matter to go back to the British people. It is an unprecedented crisis, and nobody but nobody in Broxtowe or anywhere in our country voted for the incredible and appalling mess we are now in.
I commend the right hon. Lady for the position she has adopted, which I know has come at some personal expense. Equally, I commend the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley).
Is the right hon. Lady as angry as I am that the advocates of hard Brexit—those who led the campaigns that were fined many tens of thousands of pounds for lying and cheating during the referendum—are very rarely here to defend their views but are quite happy to defend their views from the safety of a newspaper column?
I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I observe that many of them held the most senior positions in government but, when the going got tough, found life was much easier by leaving those positions, failing to deliver and failing to live up to the responsibility placed on them by their leadership of the leave campaign.
My constituents who are watching at home, reading the reports or, in any event, aware of the current situation are aghast, and I know I am not alone. Other right hon. and hon. Members have received emails and letters from constituents who are worried, and we have already heard about the availability, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, of medicines or, in one instance, of special food for a child with a particular allergy. Yet there are Conservative Members who actually look forward to and welcome a no-deal Brexit. It has to be said yet again that, in the words of the Business Secretary, that would be the most “ruinous” of outcomes for our country.
On that lack of certainty for businesses, let us consider a pharmaceutical company in Broxtowe. It is just in my constituency, although the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) might want to claim it as well—it is all about a line that goes through a car park. However, I know that she shares my concern for this real-life business that employs real people. At the moment, such is the crisis that it does not know what to print on its boxes, because it does not know what the outcome is going to be. That may sound minor, but it shows the problem, because too many Conservative Members do not understand the real crisis facing businesses. [Interruption.] One Conservative Member seems to find this amusing. I think this is the problem: some hon. Members actually think that a company of that scale, with 850 workers—one can imagine the huge amount of pharmaceutical products that they produce every day—can go down to Prontaprint on a Friday and order all these boxes with all the right markings on, and they will be ready on a Monday. I gently say to Conservative Members—
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I can tell him for a fact that British business will never forgive the Conservative party for what it has done to business throughout the whole of this Brexit process. Many of us have said this all before, but it is absolutely the case that people like me voted to trigger article 50—the majority of us did. The majority of us voted for the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and the majority of us accepted that we were leaving the European Union. As the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) has explained, we then reached out to find a way of reuniting our country and a way in which we could deliver on the result but do the right thing by British business, by minimising the effect on it, and of course avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.
In our efforts, we made direct pleas to the Prime Minister in meetings with her and offered her a solution, knowing, for example, that the Scottish National party would have voted for the single market and the customs union, as would Plaid Cymru and many Labour Back Benchers. We would have won a consensus, but she point-blank refused to engage in that. Instead, this Prime Minister has led us—it is the only thing on which she has led—to this terrible situation. She was dogmatic in laying down her red lines, and at every twist and turn when she had the opportunity to change those red lines or just rub them out a little she refused.
I say to Conservative Members that what almost all of them have also spectacularly forgotten is that when we had the general election in June 2017, more than 30 Conservative Members of Parliament in England and Wales lost their seats. The Conservative party lost its majority; there is no mandate for hard Brexit. That was the perfect opportunity for the Prime Minister to abandon the red lines and seek to form the consensus that the country was crying out for, but, yet again, she absolutely refused to do it. It ended up with people, not just those like me, leaving the Conservative party. I represent many sensible, moderate, pragmatic, one nation Tories who are leaving the Conservative party as they see it moving to the right, no longer the party of business and enterprise, and no longer having the one nation Conservatism that so many of us held so near to us. Having failed to persuade the Prime Minister to reach out and build a consensus, we ended up in a position where the only way out that we could see for our great nation was to have a people’s vote.
Others have spoken about what happened on Saturday. It was a real honour and privilege to be here in London and go on that march with people from all over the UK. These were not, as one Conservative Member described them, just fans of the Glyndebourne opera; they were real people from not only my constituency—and of all backgrounds and all ages—but from, for example, the constituency of the hon. Member for Redcar. I know she was heartbroken that she had another engagement and so she could not be here. We know that workers came down from the north-east. The really striking thing was not only people’s background, but to see children with their parents and grandparents, all of them marching in a spirit of hope and happiness, even though they were upset about the referendum result.
We have to pay attention to the million on the street and the 5.4 million who have signed the petition, but that falls short of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave. That is a simple fact. There are many people in this Chamber today who are here through democracy—a democracy similar to that of the referendum—with wafer-thin margins, and they intend still to sit here.
Yes, but the hon. Gentleman forgets two things. The majority of people in this country did not vote to leave the European Union. As somebody who represents a marginal seat with one of the smallest majorities—I do not know what the hon. Gentleman’s is, but we can have that competition—let me tell him that I am not interested in my majority. I am not interested in just coming back to this place to take the money and sit and enjoy all the privileges of being a Member of Parliament. I will put my country and my constituents first and foremost, and I do not care what that costs me, even if that means that I cannot go home of a weekend because of death threats, that I have to get a taxi instead of doing a 10-minute walk, and that I have to be frightened for my wellbeing and for that of my partner and children, which cannot be right, and I feel sorry for them. This is the biggest decision that this country has made since the second world war. We come to this place to represent our constituents and do the right thing by our country. It is not about us and it is not about the Conservative party; it is about doing the right thing. In this instance, the right thing is to get this decision back to the British people. There is no way out.
I am not taking any more interventions, or you will be even more cross with me, Mr Speaker.
I am going to vote for amendment (f), tabled by the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), and amendment (a), tabled by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin). I gently say to Members how important it is that, here and now, we take control of this process and do the right thing. The other thing we need to do is heal the huge division that this ghastly Brexit has created. That is another huge priority of ours, as well as taking it back to the people, which is the only way forward.
Speeches of six to seven minutes are in order and would be helpful.
I will of course follow your instructions, Mr Speaker.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I agree with everything she said, especially about Saturday’s march. It was a huge privilege for us all to be here in London to march alongside a million people. In our case, there were huge numbers of Labour members and Labour MPs, marching for what we believe is right for our country and our constituents. We have had a great debate this evening, but that has been most missing from today’s speeches, and the debate has been marked by its absence. Perhaps it is a function of the extraordinary times in which we live that there has been so little mention of the fact that a million people, some of whom travelled for many hours to get to London, came from every corner of Great Britain to take part in the march. It ought to have been given much greater attention. I put on record my personal thanks, and the thanks of many of us in the Labour party, to the People’s Vote team who organised the march and who have performed a great service to our country by keeping alive the democratic dream of a people’s vote. I hope they will continue to do so.
I first spoke in favour of a people’s vote two and a half years ago, when I contested the Labour party leadership with the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Unfortunately, he defeated me, but he did not defeat the democratic dream of a second referendum. I am absolutely convinced by the volume of people who turned out on Saturday that all of us who have kept alive that flame of democracy over the past two and a half years have been entirely right. What people were marching for on Saturday—people who voted leave, people who voted remain and people who may not have voted at all—was nothing less than that. It was a chance to exercise their democratic right, having started Brexit, to end Brexit; and having given the Government a mandate to pursue Brexit, to then have a say at the end of the process when we know what the Brexit reality looks like.
I fear that, marching on the streets on Saturday, what I encountered was a huge amount of frustration and a huge amount of anger gently expressed but powerfully felt. There was a massive degree of despair at the dysfunction of our Parliament and our politics and, frankly, at the breakdown that many people see and feel in our very democracy. I fear that they are to be denied a chance to have their say on the outturn of Brexit, as they had their say on the starting of Brexit. If those people—some of those 1 million people on the march or the 5.5 million people who have signed the petition to revoke Brexit—were listening to today’s statement from the Prime Minister, I fear that they will have been doubly disappointed and despairing, because what they would have heard is more doublespeak. I fear that what they are likely to see tonight is more double dealing, with promises being made to Conservative Back Benchers to try to get them to back off supporting amendment (a) in return for a nebulous promise from those on the Government Treasury Bench that they will offer something similar. The truth is that we have been here before. We have seen countless false promises made from the Dispatch Box, but when it comes to the crunch, we see not just hon. Members but the country let down.
I want to say a few things before I close about the process that we are debating in respect of amendment (a)—the idea of indicative votes. The truth is that we have got to this point far too late in the process. It strikes me as extraordinary that the Government are effectively, in a rushed and desperate fashion, seemingly set to concede at the very last minute a demand that has been made by many on these Benches and across the House for several years, let alone months. I suspect, too, that this will be done in a fairly cack-handed and haphazard fashion. We do not know when it will be debated or what the process will be. The Government say that they cannot lose control of the process, but they are going to afford Members the opportunity to determine what that process is and what the options are. It seems to be an utterly shambolic state of affairs and entirely reflects the way in which the Government have handled—or rather mishandled—this for more than two years.
Worst of all, the most likely scenario and outturn will be a lowest common denominator, second-rate proposal that the Government will not even be bound to follow. Earlier on, we had the extraordinary statement that we were going to have these indicative votes, but then we heard that the Prime Minister was not necessarily going to pay any attention to them at the end of it. Again, that strikes me as entirely reflective of the shambolic way in which the Government have managed this process. If we get to the point where we have a second-rate compromise Brexit deal on the table, it will make with absolute eloquence the point of the 1 million people who marched on Saturday—that if there is a poor Brexit arrived at in this House, the only way in which the Government can honour democracy and honour the will of the people is to give them a chance to cast their vote as to its merit. I hope and anticipate that the people, in their wisdom, will reject such a deal, but they do at the very least need to be given a chance to reject it.
I have one final point on the process. One of the ways in which the Government will, I fear, try to bamboozle Members of Parliament in the coming days is to present a smörgåsbord of options: Canada plus; no deal; Norway; and a customs union. All these things will potentially come alongside options such as revoke and a people’s vote. That is no way to honour the will of this House or to properly conduct the democratic business of this House. We need to be absolutely clear that a people’s vote—a vote on the Brexit deal—is entirely separate from any of the options that we might vote on in this series of indicative votes. It would be completely tricksy and deceitful of the Government to try to confuse those two things in the public’s mind or in Parliament’s mind. The democratic, principled thing to do is to afford the people a say on whatever sort of Brexit deal is agreed on by this House, and certainly not to present an alternative between a referendum and one of those Brexit deals. That would be the wrong way to proceed, Mr Speaker, and I am sure that you will make sure that that does not happen.
In opening this debate, the deputy Prime Minister cautioned against voting for amendment (a) because he said that it would alter the relationship between the Executive and the Parliament. That is exactly why we need to vote for amendment (a). We must alter that relationship because we are now in a situation whereby the level of dysfunction and inertia in our political system is without parallel. We are in the midst of a political crisis that is mirrored only by our inability to do anything about it through the normal processes of government, so we must now take back control of the agenda.
We are in a bizarre situation whereby the Government have brought their proposals twice to this Parliament, and twice they have been roundly rejected. Now, not only do the Government say that they will not bring their proposals back for a third time—they are taking their ball home with them, it seems—but they say that they refuse to change their mind and vary those proposals so that there might be a route to a majority. In those circumstances, there is no option left but for people other than those in the Government to take control of the situation.
Make no mistake, if amendment (a) is passed, it will most definitely be an indictment and a censure of this Government and the way in which they have conducted themselves over the last two and a half years. What we need to know from the Government is whether they are prepared to try to win back our trust—whether they will enter into this process with good faith in the attempt to see whether there is a majority in this House that they can be part of, or whether they just want us to exhaust ourselves running around in circles, so that they can come along two weeks later and bring plan A back again to be defeated.
As others have remarked, we should have been engaged in this process two and a half years ago, rather than leaving it to this last moment, but the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) put his finger on the button when he said that the problem is that, from the word go, the result of the 2016 referendum was hijacked by the winning side and used to close down any debate about how the mandate should be interpreted or what it actually meant. Therefore, for the past two years, there has been a dialogue that has involved only the Government, the ERG and the Democratic Unionist party. Thankfully, we are not yet in a situation whereby that political axis commands a majority either in this House or in the country. I appeal to the Government for the umpteenth time to reach out beyond their own narrow political confines and see whether it is possible to build a political consensus in this country that can put our fractured politics back together.
Time and again, we have heard the mantra of 17.4 million, and we really need to confront this point. In a democratic society, people do not just get one vote; they get a series of votes. In a democratic society, each vote qualifies and updates the ones that came before. What we need to know is what the views of the people are now, not what they were three years ago. I firmly believe that, although 17.4 million people voted for us to leave the European Union, they did not vote to endorse the prospectus that the Government have brought to this House, and they did not vote for the Government’s harsh interpretation of that decision. For example, I do not think that 17.4 million people voted to deny themselves and their children the ability to move freely around the European Union. I just do not believe it; I think that was part of the hijack.
Most importantly, however, it is clear to anyone who wants to see that many of those people have changed their minds. In a democratic society, people have the right to do that, so we need to test the decision again, and that means we will have to put this matter back to the people. We do not need a short break in this process—a short extension—to tweak what is already there; we need a fundamental rethink. We need to go back to the drawing board. We need to scrap the phoney red lines that were imposed by this Government and see if it is possible to come up with a new proposal. To do that, and to give time for that to put before the people, we will need a serious extension to this process.
Thankfully, the European Union—President Tusk and others—has indicated that it would be happy to look at a much longer extension and at going back to negotiations if the Government change their red lines: their restrictive insistence on what the agreement had to do. So that option is there, but if there are complications in getting that level of extension, the answer is quite simple, and the power lies with us. All we need to do is to revoke article 50—not as means of getting closure on the whole process but to take back control of it and give ourselves whatever time we need to formulate proposals and to democratically put them before the people.
Of course, we will go beyond 22 May and will therefore get into having the opportunity to elect representatives to represent us in the European Union, of which we are still part. What is wrong with that? How can it be that a bunch of people elected in a democratic election are so scared of having one in two months’ time? Let us put this back to the people in an election. That will give us the opportunity to begin to redefine the narrative in this country—to try to explain to people that we gain most by common endeavour. We need to put hope in front of hate and to put hope back where there is currently despair. We can take a positive message to the people in those elections. My party stands ready to do that, and I do not see why others are not ready to contest them, too.
When we get the opportunity to run these elections in Scotland, you can bet, for sure, that we will also be taking the opportunity to explain to the people of Scotland that this process could have been avoided for them and they did not need to go through this if they had had the confidence to take the power for themselves, take back control and become a normal independent country like the others in this world.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) are two extremely difficult acts to follow, but I will do my best in the limited time that I have.
We are now fractionally under 98 hours away from leaving the European Union without a deal. On Friday night, we are out without a deal unless the Government do something. When the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who is not in her place just now, listed some of the catastrophic impacts of a no-deal Brexit, the Minister, true to form, was sitting there mouthing across to her, “Thanks to you. Thanks to you. Thanks to you.” Even at this late stage, it is the fault of the hon. Lady, the fault of the Opposition, the fault of the Supreme Court: the fault of everybody apart from the Government, who claim that they have a mandate from the people from the referendum in 2016 and who have failed dismally to bring forward a credible, workable, sensible, rational or even sane way to implement that mandate.
Today, I heard an avid Brexiteer describe the withdrawal agreement as a stitch-up between the Prime Minister and the European Union. Well, that may be the case, because from day one she has sought to exclude anybody who might have been able to help in those negotiations who wanted anything different from her calamitous red lines. The Government still try to put forward the line that her deal is the only one the European Union was prepared to offer, but that is not true: it was the only one it could possibly offer within the confines of the red lines that she had used to paint herself and us all into a corner.
It has become quite clear that those red lines stand in the way of any deal being acceptable to anything close to a majority of those in this House and stand in the way of a deal that comes anywhere close to commanding a majority of support among the citizens of these nations. The red lines have to go. If that means the Prime Minister has to go, then she has to go. It is not only the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) who has to be prepared to say that this is much more important than one person’s political career.
The Prime Minister promised herself a free vote, whipped herself to vote against it and then lost. Government Whips have been giving contradictory advice to different Ministers about whether the Whip existed and whether it was one, two or three lines. Good luck to them trying to count whether they have 325 votes for tonight if they sometimes struggle to count up to three.
The Prime Minister cannot control her own party, but she now cannot even control her own Cabinet. She cannot go in one direction, because half the Cabinet will quit, and she cannot go in the other direction, because the other half will quit. Well, perhaps it is time the whole lot of them quit, so that we can take this issue back to the people. In any other democracy, if the Government failed to get their flagship policy through Parliament, the Head of State would have two options: a new Parliament or a new Government. Of course, in this democracy—or supposed democracy—when we have a chance to have a new Parliament, we also have a chance to have a new Government.
I find it astonishing that growing numbers of Conservative Members are saying they should be allowed a third chance at the meaningful vote because they did not understand that no deal might be taken off the table. They say that the circumstances have changed and that if they had known that the second vote was the last chance they would get, they might have voted differently. Is that the case? Is it the case that if people realise that circumstances have changed and that they had not understood what they were voting for, they should be allowed another chance? That is a good idea, and if it is okay for a few hundred Tory MPs, it sure as heck is good enough for the 60 million citizens who put all those MPs in place in the first place.
We hear Members talking about the number of people who took part in the referendum. I remind Members that the referendum did not ask what people wanted. Three years on from the referendum, with fewer than 100 hours left before we crash out without a deal, none of us can claim to know what any of those 17.5 million people were voting for. We know that they were voting to leave, but none of them was asked to vote on where they wanted to go. That is why we have to come up with a solution that commands the respect of the House and then put it to the people. It may not be the solution that I think is preferable—it may not be my first choice—but those who voted to leave, those who voted to remain and those who did not vote at all have to be given a choice.
I finish by saying that I have been reluctant to endorse wholeheartedly the campaign to revoke article 50, but if it becomes a choice between my nation being dragged out against the wishes of 62% of our people, and two other nations having to revoke article 50, with the option of coming back for another go later on, then article 50 has to be revoked. If we do not do this, in future another treaty will be revoked, thanks to the sovereign will of the people of my nation.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). I rise to speak in favour of amendments (f), (a) and (d). This country, and indeed this House, now face a very serious situation and a very substantial challenge. At this crucial time, with just a few days to settle the issue of Brexit—an issue that, as we all know, the Government have been unable to resolve for the last two years—we have to find a way through the impasse.
We have had months of delay, with the Government kicking the can down the road, putting off the inevitable, delaying reality and trying to pretend that their shabby deal was the only way of resolving Brexit. That is even though the proposed deal would have resolved only the withdrawal agreement with the EU and, indeed, offered only 22 pages of non-legally binding text to outline the whole of our future relationship with the EU. In other words, it set up several years—possibly six or even 10 years—of further botched negotiations, when the UK would have been in a very weak negotiating position.
Given the weakness of the Prime Minister’s deal, it was not surprising that it was rejected by both ardent leavers and those with deep concerns about Brexit. I sincerely hope that we have now moved on beyond the charade of this Government trying to put the same deal back to Parliament again and again. That is why it is time for Parliament to take control of this process.
As you know only too well, Mr Speaker, in a parliamentary democracy, when a Government lose the good will and support of a majority in Parliament, they should rethink their approach. That is what I hope will happen tonight. It is my sincere hope and belief that we have a real opportunity to break this dreadful impasse. It is now incumbent on the Government to listen to MPs and the millions of people who marched on Saturday. I urge Ministers to listen and consider the very real merits of thinking again. It is time for indicative votes, including on a confirmatory referendum. We have to put this serious matter back to the people, and the Government have to fundamentally rethink their approach.
It is an honour to close for Her Majesty’s Opposition in such an important debate on our nation’s future and to follow the brilliant speeches made by Members who have risen to the occasion, including my hon. Friends the Members for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and for Reading East (Matt Rodda), the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who made a particularly thoughtful speech, and my good and hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), who spoke with passion and conviction.
Tonight the House must make an important decision: to take the reins from the hands of the Prime Minister and find a way out of this Brexit impasse. I know that that is not an easy decision for many Members, particularly those on the Government Benches, but we have seen how the Prime Minister has responded to losing two meaningful votes by two historic margins. First she hoped to push through the same deal again without meaningful changes, no matter the rules of the House or the obvious hopelessness of her strategy. Next she tried to pitch the people against MPs, with all the consequences that that has for parliamentary democracy. Then she went to the European Council without a viable strategy and had to have a plan to extend article 50 and avert no deal written for her and for the United Kingdom. Finally, when she should have been seeking consensus across the House, she spent the weekend further trying to placate the very people manoeuvring against her. At every turn, she has made a crisis of her own making even worse.
Well, enough is enough. There is a void where coherent leadership ought to be, exemplified by the Prime Minister’s statement earlier today. Tonight Parliament must step into that void to find a consensus on the best way through. That is what amendment (a) from the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and amendment (d) from the Leader of the Opposition seek to achieve. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, if the Government were doing their job, those amendments would not be necessary. The European Council’s decision to grant the UK an extension to the article 50 process was a necessity—it was the only way to prevent leaving without a deal on Friday—but any extension must be for a purpose.
Parliament must rapidly decide how we wish to proceed if we are not going to face the cliff edge again on 12 April. Indicative votes are not ideal, but these are extraordinary circumstances, and indicative votes would allow MPs an opportunity to express their view on a way forward. Labour recognises that Members across the House have different views on how the process for indicative votes should be carried out. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) outlined her view based on her distinguished service on the Procedure Committee. Finding a consensus will not be easy. Different processes have different strengths and weaknesses, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said, a key merit of amendments (a) and (d) is that they do not close off options for how we conduct that process.
Labour will be supporting both amendments, and I encourage Government Members to stop giving the Prime Minister, who is so evidently out of control, the benefit of the doubt. This is a chance to put the country before party.
However any indicative process is conducted, this House must reach a decision on the substance of the matter. What future relationship with the EU do we want, and how do we want to get there? We must start by eliminating the bad options and the unicorns. Labour and the House are clear that we cannot accept the Prime Minister’s blind Brexit. Nor will we sign up to a distant and arm’s-length economic relationship along the lines of Canada. The Brady amendment, which proposed replacing the backstop with alternative arrangements, was an irresponsible, Government-sponsored unicorn. Neither we nor the House will countenance no deal, described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) as the very definition of irresponsibility. How right she is.
As far as Labour can see, that leaves two credible options. The first is a close economic partnership based on a customs union and single market alignment, with dynamic alignment for rights and protections. The second is a public vote between remain and a credible leave option. The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Brexit Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), have met colleagues to discuss those ideas. They are engaged in good-faith discussions to find where a majority lies in this House—a majority that I hope will be expressed through the indicative votes process.
Let me finish by saying this: today the Prime Minister said that even if a majority for a way forward is found through the indicative votes process, she cannot commit to implementing it. How characteristic and typical that is of a Prime Minister who confuses the vices of blinkeredness and intransigence with the virtue of steadfast determination, whose first instinct is to ignore and push away the views of others, and who seems incapable of accepting that in our parliamentary democracy the Prime Minister must bring a majority of the House of Commons with her. It is an approach that has brought about a national crisis and brought us to a point where Parliament must now step in and take control of this process.
The central question before the House this evening, as reflected in amendment (a) in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), is: who controls the Order Paper? Should control be passed to Back-Bench Members in a process that is still to be fully defined and that would have constitutional implications, or do Members across this House accept the assurances given by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when opening this debate that the Government will make time available this week for Members to express their preference on the way forward? That would follow consultation, through the usual channels, to enable the House to come to that view.
Before the Secretary of State proceeds, it might be helpful for the House if he could outline whether he will vote in favour of his argument, or vote differently?
If the hon. Gentleman had kept up with my speech last time, he would realise that I spoke to the three amendments, all of which were defeated last time. I hope that the same will happen tonight and that all the amendments will be defeated. That is the purpose of my speech once again. This is not the first time that SNP Members have not been awake during speeches.
The House has also been asked to consider amendment (f) in the name of the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) regarding the recalling of the House in the event of a no-deal exit being imminent. The House has been further asked to vote on amendment (d) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, which calls on the Government to provide sufficient time this week for a series of votes, including on the Opposition’s plan. The Government have committed to providing that time, but that does not change the fact that the plan from Her Majesty’s Opposition has already been rejected by this House and the EU has suggested that key aspects are not negotiable.
So has yours!
The hon. Gentleman is correct. That is referenced in the amendment tabled by the Leader of the Opposition, but he is silent on the fact that his own proposed deal has also been rejected. That points to the lack of consistency that we see so often in his approach.
Let me turn to amendment (a). My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said that his proposal was little different from established practice on a Friday in respect of private Members’ Bills. I gently suggest to my right hon. Friend, who is an experienced and senior Member of the House, that there is a difference between the Government choosing to make time available to Members for private Members’ Bills and Members taking time from the Government to control the very business of the House.
If that is a problem constitutionally for the Government, what about their simply accepting the amendment, thereby turning it into a Government amendment?
My right hon. Friend had that exchange at the beginning of the debate with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who in his usual skilful way addressed the point by saying that the Government will make time available this week to take the matter forward.
As my right hon. Friend has just indicated that the Government have something different in mind from the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), will he give us a little more detail than just “will make time available”? When will that time be? Will Members be able to table the motions that are intended for an indicative vote? Will the Government take any notice of the majorities that are achieved for any amendments?
We are in danger of rerunning the opening of the debate. Indeed, the shadow Brexit Secretary asked whether the Government would give a binding commitment to respect and adopt whatever was passed, even though the Opposition, who made that request, were not willing to give that commitment. We cannot give a blank cheque when we do not know exactly what those votes will be—I am sure that, when the Father of the House was a Minister, he would have taken the same line.
The real issue is the constitutional significance of amendment (a) because it is unprecedented in its nature. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has already addressed the kernel of the matter, which is whether the Government will make time available this week. Indeed, he set out at the beginning of the debate that, in good faith, we will have discussions with my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, Opposition Front Benchers and Members from across the House on how the process should look. Amendment (a) does not set that out in detail, so the Government have undertaken to have that process and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster addressed that in his opening remarks.
On amendment (f), I reassure the right hon. Member for Derby South that the Government will return to the Dispatch Box in the event that the withdrawal agreement is not approved this week. We will also return to the House to consider plans for the week of 5 April after any indicative voting. As the right hon. Lady will know as a senior Member of the House, the decision on whether to enter recess is in the control of the House. Although we do not think it is sensible to try to set the Order Paper now for a date in two weeks’ time without knowing what will happen in the interim, I hope that she is content that the House will certainly have a say on the matter.
I will not detain the Secretary of State. If what I have suggested is acceptable, why does not he just accept the amendment?
As I said, we cannot anticipate the business in two weeks’ time, but we have given a signal from the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Government about our position.
Let me turn to amendment (d) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. The shadow Brexit Secretary said that many Members want to break the current deadlock, yet his amendment raises no objection to the withdrawal agreement and, as he well knows, it is the withdrawal agreement, not the political declaration, that needs to be approved to meet the tests that the European Council set for an extension to 22 May. He went on to criticise the Government for not giving a commitment to be bound by any indicative votes, yet, as I pointed out earlier, when the Father of the House challenged the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras on that very issue, he was unable to give such a commitment for Her Majesty’s Opposition to be bound in that way. Indeed, despite many of his own Members pressing for free votes from the Government in respect of those votes, he was again unwilling to give such a commitment on behalf of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition’s amendment notes that the Government’s deal has been defeated, but it is silent on the fact that his own deal has also been rejected by the House.
Regardless of any other votes, if the House does not approve the withdrawal agreement this week, it risks a longer extension, potentially resulting in Brexit being revoked, at odds with the Government’s manifesto. The uncertainty of any longer extension would be bad for business confidence and investments. It would also have lasting implications for our democracy, including our reputation around the world as a country that respects the votes of its citizens.
If this House can find the resolve, we could be out of the European Union in a matter of weeks. This is the ultimate mandate: the one handed to us by the British people; the one that reflects the manifestos that the Labour party, as well as the Conservative party, stood on. The Prime Minister’s deal is the way to deliver what the people voted for in 2016 and 2017. That is why it is right that the Government maintain control of the Order Paper, in line with constitutional convention, and why the amendments this evening should be defeated.
I invite the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), to move amendment (d), which stands in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Not moved.
Amendment proposed: (a), At end, add
“and, given the need for the House to debate and vote on alternative ways forward, with a view to the Government putting forward a plan for the House to debate and vote on, orders that –
(a) Standing Order No. 14(1) (which provides that government business shall have precedence at every sitting save as provided in that order) shall not apply on Wednesday 27 March;
(b) precedence on that day shall be given to a motion relating to the Business of the House in connection with matters relating to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union other than any Business of the House motion relating to the consideration by the House of a motion under Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and then to motions relating to that withdrawal and the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union other than any motion moved under Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018;
(c) if more than one motion related to the Business of the House is tabled, the Speaker shall decide which motion shall have precedence;
(d) the Speaker shall interrupt proceedings on any business before the Business of the House motion having precedence at 2.00 pm on Wednesday 27 March and call a Member to move that motion;
(e) debate on that motion may continue until 3.00 pm on Wednesday 27 March at which time the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motion including the questions on amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved;
(f) when those proceedings have been concluded, the Speaker shall call a Member to move one of the other motions having precedence;
(g) any proceedings interrupted or superseded by this order or an order arising from the Business of the House motion may be resumed or (as the case may be) entered upon and proceeded with after the moment of interruption on Wednesday 27 March.”—(Sir Oliver Letwin.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
25 March 2019
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
The Speaker put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, this day).
Amendment proposed: (f), at end, add
“and orders that, in the event that the UK comes within seven calendar days of leaving the European Union without a deal, the Government must make arrangements within two sitting days, or if this House has been adjourned for more than four days to arrange for the House to be recalled under Standing Order No. 13 (Earlier meeting of the House in certain circumstances) for this purpose, for a Minister of the Crown to move a motion on whether this House approves the UK leaving the EU without a deal and on whether the UK Government should be required to request an extension of the period in Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit and to give time for Parliament to determine a different approach.”.—(Margaret Beckett.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
25 March 2019
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
Main Question, as amended, put.
The House proceeded to a Division.
We are waiting for the result of the Division but, in a cordial spirit, I am sure colleagues across the House will want to congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his birthday.
25 March 2019
The House having divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That this House, in accordance with the provisions of section 13(6)(a) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, has considered the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018” and made on Friday 15 March 2019, and, given the need for the House to debate and vote on alternative ways forward, with a view to the Government putting forward a plan for the House to debate and vote on, orders that –
(a) Standing Order No. 14(1) (which provides that government business shall have precedence at every sitting save as provided in that order) shall not apply on Wednesday 27 March;
(b) precedence on that day shall be given to a motion relating to the Business of the House in connection with matters relating to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union other than any Business of the House motion relating to the consideration by the House of a motion under Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and then to motions relating to that withdrawal and the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union other than any motion moved under Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018;
(c) if more than one motion related to the Business of the House is tabled, the Speaker shall decide which motion shall have precedence;
(d) the Speaker shall interrupt proceedings on any business before the Business of the House motion having precedence at 2.00 pm on Wednesday 27 March and call a Member to move that motion;
(e) debate on that motion may continue until 3.00 pm on Wednesday 27 March at which time the Speaker shall put the questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motion including the questions on amendments selected by the Speaker which may then be moved;
(f) when those proceedings have been concluded, the Speaker shall call a Member to move one of the other motions having precedence;
(g) any proceedings interrupted or superseded by this order or an order arising from the Business of the House motion may be resumed or (as the case may be) entered upon and proceeded with after the moment of interruption on Wednesday 27 March.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I wish to congratulate the House on taking control. The Government’s approach has been an abject failure, and this House must now find a solution. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and others who have worked to achieve tonight’s result.
The Government must take this process seriously. We do not know what the House will decide on Wednesday, but I know that there are many Members of this House who have been working on alternative solutions, and we must debate them to find a consensus. This House must also consider whether any deal should be put to the people for a confirmatory vote. Where this Government have failed, this House must—and I believe will—succeed.
No adjudication by the Chair is required.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not wish to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), but since he now seems to have installed himself as a kind of jobbing Prime Minister, could you tell me how we can hold him to account in this House?
I have known the hon. Gentleman for a long time, and he is not disorderly, but there is something to be said for observing the precepts of “Erskine May” in terms of moderation and good humour in parliamentary debate, and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) is always unfailingly courteous in his dealings with others. I think that the question was largely rhetorical, but in so far as the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) is seeking a response, what I would say in all seriousness is that the effect of—[Interruption.] Order. I do not require any help from the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), who would not have the foggiest idea where to start. He was once a Whip; he wasn’t a very good Whip. It would be better if he could keep quiet. That is the reality of the matter. [Interruption.] No, it is not outrageous at all. [Interruption.] Members can shout as much as they like, iut will not make any difference. The right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham is perfectly capable of looking after himself. If he wants to chunter noisily from a sedentary position, he has to expect that there will be a response. I say to the hon. Member for Monmouth that these matters will be aired further in debate on Wednesday, and if he wants to subject the right hon. Member for West Dorset to appropriate scrutiny, the opportunity is there for him to do so.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Tonight’s is an important decision for the House, and let me commend Members from across the House who have given us the opportunity to have indicative votes on Wednesday. This House is seeking a way forward when the Government have failed to provide leadership. In the event that the House does come to a determination on Wednesday evening, what can we do to ensure that the Government and the Prime Minister listen to the determination of this House?
It is for the right hon. Gentleman—I think he knows this—to probe Ministers who will be on the Treasury Bench during the course of the debate, to air the issues and to ask, “If x, y or z happens, what will the Minister do?” These are not matters that can be adjudicated by the Chair, but they are matters of debate that I am sure will be ventilated, and the right hon. Gentleman will be at the forefront of ensuring that that ventilation takes place.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A few weeks ago, you sent out a message and a letter to all Members of Parliament, asking them to treat each other with respect. Do you think that your comments to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) reflected that?
If I have caused offence, I will very happily apologise. I have no difficulty with that. I have no difficulty in apologising to the right hon. Gentleman. I did not think he was a person of tender sensibilities, but if I have caused offence I am very—[Interruption.] If people would let me speak, I will happily do so. I am very happy to apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. It does not cause me a problem. He is normally a most genial character, and most of our exchanges are in that vein. I am very happy to tender that apology. It does not cause me any difficulty whatsoever. [Interruption.] Well, opinions can differ about qualities—[Interruption.] Yes, but I do not need to adjudicate on that. I have said what I have said, and there is nothing that requires to be added.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It may not cause you any great trouble, but it causes us a certain degree of trouble. You, Sir, have just congratulated my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on treating everybody with courtesy. You, Sir, are the invigilator of this place, and if you insult other Members of Parliament, we have no comeback. Is that not—
Order. Resume your seat. What I say to the right hon. Gentleman is this: the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), from a sedentary position, was disorderly. The point was raised by the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin). I have given an apology. I said sorry to the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham and nothing further requires to be added. I thank the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) for underlining his concern, but I said sorry to the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham and it does not need to be said again.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This evening the House has made a major constitutional innovation. In order that it can be a success and that Wednesday is both orderly and meaningful, would you now establish a business committee of the main parties and those who brought forward these proposals in order to organise these events?
I think that everybody would hope, or certainly it is to be reasonably assumed that they do, that the process on Wednesday, in the interests of Parliament, is a success. It is my absolute expectation that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) will communicate with others—and, indeed, quite possibly with the usual channels—about the process to be followed on Wednesday to facilitate the House and try to secure a satisfactory outcome. I do not think in the first instance it is to be expected that I would take the lead on the matter, but the right hon. Gentleman can be expected to do so, and I feel sure that, with others, that is what he will do.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Would be in order to record that the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) was actually a rather good Whip; and, arguably more importantly, as a member of Her Majesty’s Government —as a Minister—resigned on a point of principle?
That is absolutely true. Indeed, if memory serves me correctly, I remember having a conversation with the right hon. Gentleman at the Chair at the time, and more recently. He was an exceptionally capable Minister—I do not doubt that. I cannot comment on how good a Whip he was beyond apologising for the offence that I might have caused. He certainly was an immensely capable Minister at the Dispatch Box. I do not dispute that for one moment. I thank the right hon. Lady for what she has said.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) just said that this was a constitutional innovation. I think he may have rather underestimated the fact that it is in fact a constitutional revolution, and the House will come to regret it.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand if I say that he has made his point and he does not need a response from me. As he knows, I respect his integrity 100%. His view is on the record, and let us see how events play out, but I would always want to acknowledge the force and sincerity of his views.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that the House has now voted to have this process, yet the Government Front Bench was promising it anyway, does it not make sense for both Front Benches to work with those who sponsored the amendment so that we can move forward in an orderly manner on Wednesday with the agreement of the House?
That might seem eminently reasonable. Nothing is to be taken for granted, but I can certainly see, and many Members might note, the force and logic of what the hon. Lady has said.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Tonight’s vote is obviously about the House taking control due to a lack of leadership by the Government. In that vein, we have usually had a point of order or a statement from the Prime Minister after such votes. Have you had any indication of where the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House are hiding and of what the Leader of the House is planning to do about Government business on Wednesday, which needs to be rescheduled? We have not had a statement.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. In fairness, and speaking off the top of my head without the opportunity to consult and without advance knowledge of what the hon. Gentleman would say, I am not sure that that is quite right in procedural terms, because the effect of tonight’s vote on the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for West Dorset and then in support of the main motion, as amended, is that what the right hon. Gentleman has commended to the House will have precedence on Wednesday. It does not, however, knock out other Government business of itself; I think that other Government business would follow. So although the hon. Gentleman might want a business statement by the Leader of the House or a response from the Prime Minister, in procedural terms neither of those things is required tonight—he might want it, but neither is required tonight. Perhaps I can leave it there.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that, these days, extensions are in vogue, if the 24 hours of Wednesday are not enough to sort out what the mind of this House is—work that probably should have happened two and a half years ago—will it be possible to extend the work that should be happening on Wednesday into further days so that we do find out definitively what the heck they think in here?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, but I think the best answer to that is, let us take one step at a time; let us see where things go in the consideration by the House of the business. I think I should leave it there. I thank colleagues for their interest and participation in this series of exchanges.