I beg to move,
That this House has considered negotiations on the UK leaving the EU during the EU extension period.
Although I have contributed to many Westminster Hall debates, it is an honour to lead my first one this morning and to do so under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.
In my maiden speech nearly two years ago, I spoke of the “delicate gift” that is our “parliamentary democracy”, which is
“the sum of the toil”
“sacrifice…that generations before us have made”.
I also said that this “dynamic system” has worked on “trust”, with each cohort of parliamentarians vowing to “fine-tune” and reform our laws and institutions
“to reflect the needs and desires of the citizens they represent.” —[Official Report, 6 July 2017; Vol. 626, c. 1392.]
I made my own vow two years ago, standing on a manifesto to leave the single market and customs union, in an election at which nearly 85% of votes went to parties promising to fulfil the referendum result. I was elected to a House that had already triggered the two-year countdown to our departure from the EU, and I took leadership from a Cabinet that repeated in one voice that no deal was better than a bad deal.
On the eve of European elections, we should all reflect with regret on the fact that this generation of parliamentarians is now on the cusp of losing the trust that is so fundamental to democratic legitimacy. Could there be a more poignant symbol of that devastating loss than the scaffolded shroud that this mother of Parliaments now wears? How disappointing to those who flock to this place in admiration that they find not a confident institution but one where Big Ben—the icon of our democracy—is silent, its clock face peeping on to a Parliament that is being incrementally fortified against rising anger from the streets.
I do not wish to downplay the magnitude of the decision to leave the EU or the complexity of extracting ourselves from the EU some 40 years after entry. However, it should have been our role as parliamentarians to address and manage those complexities. Instead, it is an indictment of this place that, three years on, the question of whether we shall leave the EU at all is not even a settled one. There remains no clear vision of our future relationship with the EU or of our new role in the world to underpin Government strategy. In the absence of that vision, we have become increasingly desperate just to deliver the word Brexit, even if an unholy fudge to obtain our withdrawal binds us into the very systems that the electorate rejected while denying our voice within them.
I sought this debate not to argue about the merits or otherwise of leaving the EU, because that decision has been made, nor to pick over the bones of a withdrawal agreement that has thrice been rejected. Instead, I want us to take stock, ask ourselves how we got here and then—most importantly—ask how we can make use of the period until 31 October to deliver on the referendum and gear our country to its new future.
There are many and varied reasons why people voted to leave, but one of the turning points for me as a floating voter was the conclusion of the attempted renegotiation of our membership. In my opinion, the preference of many swing voters would have been to stay in the EU and reform it from within. However, the renegotiation was the point at which it became clear that British influence, and the threat of the third largest member of the EU walking away from it, was going to be an insufficient driver in making the EU more dynamic and accountable. Instead, the eurozone members were likely to require further political integration, creating a deeper divide with non-eurozone nations and an even more pronounced loss of influence for our nation when it comes to addressing the concerns of our own citizens.
Since then, we have spent three years effectively trying to carve out a bespoke association agreement with the EU, with Chequers being the Prime Minister’s attempt to obtain a half-in, half-out option. The EU dubbed that cherry-picking, and in reading the UK’s political dynamic, it has banked our offers of cash and a comprehensive security partnership, while holding us to a backstop in Northern Ireland that in the next stage of talks will ultimately pull us into a customs union and large parts of the single market. If it does not do that, it risks splitting our country.
I am listening with great interest to the hon. Lady’s comments. She does not want a Northern Ireland backstop. Could she tell us her proposal to respect the Good Friday agreement if we leave the customs union and the single market? Does she accept that the Government’s own view is that such a solution does not yet exist?
I will go on later in my speech to talk about some of the alternative arrangements that are already being worked up. There is a group within Government that actually has the resources now to deal with that issue, and the EU is also looking at alternative arrangements. I think that the question now becomes this: do we make those alternative arrangements now, or after we have signed a withdrawal agreement that is effectively an international treaty that will bind us into a number of things that are not in our country’s interest?
Tied into EU rules on goods, we will find that we have little leverage in negotiating access for our critical services, either with the EU or with new trading partners. However, there is absolutely no point in directing our frustration over this substandard withdrawal agreement at the EU. We have been out-negotiated, hoisted by the petard of an article 50 process that British diplomats designed; this poor outcome has come about through our complicity in its sequencing and design.
However, the withdrawal agreement has been neither signed nor ratified, so there remains a chance for us to pause and read the writing that the British public—if not Britain’s politicians—have seen on the wall for some time, namely that if we go ahead with this agreement, we will give up our ability to secure an attractive future relationship with the EU and instead will find ourselves in an unsustainable, asymmetric relationship with the EU, which will arguably leave us with less say over the rules and regulations that govern us than we have now. The transition period will only extend political uncertainty, and therefore economic uncertainty, because we do not know to what we are transitioning. That will throw a blanket over an economy that desperately wants a sense of direction. Whatever Bill now comes before us in Parliament will not change what has been negotiated in Brussels; we must not waste the next four months attaching funereal adornments to a thoroughly dead horse.
The public also know that the EU is unlikely to reform any time soon because the existing system benefits its most influential members. The EU will not draw up, at least in these current negotiations, a bespoke relationship with the UK, because it has decided that it values the integrity of the single market over frictionless trade with us, and it has also determined—quite correctly—that it has the leverage to reject our overtures regarding special treatment.
Parliament has so far done its job in judging this agreement to be against our interests. However, it has not accepted the consequences of that judgment. Despite attempts by parliamentarians to suggest practical amendments, the Prime Minister and the EU have made it quite clear that no other withdrawal agreement is available. They have also made it clear, through the sequencing of talks, that there can be no negotiations about the future relationship, beyond the broad-brush political declaration, until we have formally left. To put it another way, we will only be permitted to move to stage 2 once we have tied our hands behind our backs in stage 1.
I say with deep regret that we are left to face an unavoidable question: will we leave without a formal withdrawal agreement, with the economic challenges that presents, or will we vote to revoke article 50, and face the democratic consequences of that action? If parliamentarians wish to revoke article 50, let them vote for it and explain to their electorates why they now seek to overturn the inexorable logic of what they themselves put into law. Alternatively, we must face leaving without a withdrawal agreement and use the time before we leave to do our damnedest to make that work, while leaving the door firmly open for discussions with the EU on an alternative withdrawal agreement. Such an outcome, however, will require more than cosmetic preparation and jingoistic mantras about WTO terms. It will need major policy prescriptions, strong Government direction and co-ordination, transparency about the state of our preparedness and potentially even a fresh mandate if Parliament contrives to frustrate this process.
I am grateful to have the Minister for no deal here this morning so that he can set out with honesty and clarity the challenges that we would face in delivery, and how we can best mitigate them, while maximising the leverage of any advantages that this freedom might provide.
The urgent priority for Government in such a scenario would be to address the absence of an underpinning philosophy about Britain’s place in the world. My concern at this absence is reflected in Friday’s National Audit Office report on future trading policy, which effectively said that the UK will not get what it wants if it does not know what it wants.
The Brexit vote has often been misinterpreted as a misty-eyed reflex to return us to Britain past, but I see it instead as a judgment about the future—about where the world is going and whether the trajectory of the EU puts us in the right place to tackle the new challenges ahead. We are moving into an era of substantial regional trading blocs, in the form of China, the US and the EU. However, the UK has ultimately been unable to reconcile itself to Guy Verhofstadt’s vision, which he expressed this week, of an EU empire as the best way to flourish in this era, because we believe that the nation state still has fundamental relevance in maintaining the social and economic pact between Government and citizens that safeguards our cohesion.
Leaving the EU must not mean simply jumping into the arms of an alternative bloc. We must set ourselves up as a dynamic, open trading nation like Australia, Singapore and Canada, with strong links to all major powers and co-operation with the most forward-thinking, mid-tier nations on global standards for new technologies and data, the rule of law, security, and constantly evolving free trade agreements that break new ground on environmental stewardship, sustainable development and people-to-people exchange. Globally, we can be a bridge, a mediator and a thought leader; domestically, we can be a place of safety, liberty, creativity and prosperity, comfortable with the value of our nationhood and proud of our collective, modern identity.
Secondly, we need to move with speed—but not haste—in drawing up a new independent trading policy, ensuring that we avoid entering substandard agreements out of political imperative. We need to quickly establish whether the EU is genuinely interested in rapidly striking a comprehensive FTA along Canada lines, or whether it would seek to drag that process out to stifle talks with other nations. As things stand, it has been difficult for us to roll over existing FTAs, for example, because third countries want to see the shape of the future UK-EU trading relationship: how much flexibility over our own rules we are going to have, and how much access to the EU market.
Before making that approach to the EU, we have to undertake a hard-nosed assessment of our negotiating leverage, be it money, access to goods and financial markets, or co-operation on research and security. We must then answer broad strategic questions such as whether we have the capacity to attempt parallel negotiations with other countries, and whether to roll the Department for Exiting the European Union into the Department for International Trade so that the Government speak with a consistent voice. Immediately after tomorrow’s elections, we will require swift diplomatic analysis of how the new make-up of the European Parliament and Commission has changed the European power dynamic, and the extent to which that alters the landscape of future talks.
Thirdly, we need to accept that future access to the EU market will not be as good as our current arrangements, or is unlikely to be. Trading on WTO terms is not a cure-all, otherwise Governments would never seek to improve those terms via FTAs. We need urgently to identify which businesses will be most affected by that change in access and mitigate its impact, whether through a bold programme of tax cuts, greater regulatory freedoms that can drive competitiveness, or specific short-term support packages from the state. I would be grateful if the Minister explained what cross-departmental work has already been done in this area.
There also needs to be an analysis of long-term impacts. In financial services, for instance, the EU will want to avoid immediate shocks to its own institutions, but will then try to create a medium to long-term drag for firms so that they base themselves in the single market. What is our strategy to provide an even more compelling pull for services firms to retain, or move, bases here? How ready is our trade remedies regime, and are we really prepared for dealing with our own defensive producer interests, which we have hitherto hidden behind the EU to arbitrate?
Fourthly, Northern Ireland will require intensive and sustained focus. All parties, including the EU and Ireland itself, have agreed that there cannot be a hard border, so political impetus and financial resourcing need to be given to the alternative arrangements working group on how existing techniques—not new technologies—to check and clear goods away from the border can be implemented. I would appreciate the Minister’s update on that work, as well as on the state of preparedness at Dover and other major ports; on progress in rolling out authorised economic operator and trusted trader schemes; and on HMRC support for businesses dealing with new paperwork requirements.
If we are to take a tighter approach to immigration from the EU, we will need a major boost to our domestic skills agenda, including the adequate resourcing of our vocational education and college system; intensive investment in recruitment to the health and social care sectors; and incentivisation of businesses to train UK workers. What discussions has the Minister had about the preparedness of the labour market to tackle any impact of no deal?
To make this policy effort work, we will need to rally businesses, citizens and the civil service. Enough of the attacks on one another. Civil servants are just that: dedicated, professional citizens with a desire to serve. However, they cannot compensate for an absence of political direction. Once that has been provided, we must trust them to deliver.
That change of attitude must also translate to our dealings with the EU. Enough of the constant wartime references, and of speeches made in the UK that we think are not being heard in Brussels. The EU is not an enemy, but an organisation comprised of treasured partners; we need a reciprocation of that attitude, while reassuring the EU that it should not fear contagion. For Brits, our membership of the EU has always been more transactional, because as an island nation our borders are comparatively well defined. A desire for political stability, even if at times it comes at the price of economics, takes precedence for many continental European nations.
This new era therefore allows for a renewal of our relationship that will let each party move in a trajectory with which it is more comfortable. That relationship will require the establishment of fresh diplomatic frameworks for dialogue on issues of shared importance, and I would be grateful if the Minister explained what discussions he has had with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about how we are gearing up our presence across the continent. The National Audit Office has also identified that DIT is under-resourced for the new relationships we wish to build. Can the Minister advise us on how quickly we might step up our presence in those countries with which we wish to deepen trading ties?
There are many other areas of no-deal preparations that require intensive focus. However, as other hon. Members wish to contribute, I will conclude by raising a bizarrely under-discussed aspect of Brexit that goes to the heart of this nation’s political malaise. Representative democracy works by citizens effectively subcontracting political decision making to a class of people in a way that gives those citizens the freedom to live their lives and prosper. They then endorse a framework and strategic direction for those decisions via a general election, or—in the case of Brexit—a referendum. In many ways, contempt for the political class has grown over these past few years in line with politicians’ avoidance of the kinds of decisions that they are explicitly elected to make, and their insistence on blaming institutions like the EU for failings.
Brexit was a signal to this place that the public want us to make more of our own decisions and then be accountable for them, but it is astonishing how few parliamentarians welcome the raft of powers that will soon make its way across the channel. We have not even begun to contemplate what that restoration of powers will mean for Parliament, and how it can be used to reinvigorate our pact with the electorate. In that vein, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me what urgent thought is being given to rebalancing with the legislature the power that has been transferred to the Executive from Brussels via Henry VIII clauses in this period as a means of managing short-term Brexit challenges. Such power vested in Government may seem expedient now, but will rapidly seem less attractive under a Corbyn Government.
I fear that for some time, our political class has harboured a simultaneous inferiority and superiority complex about this nation’s abilities. One group of politicians consistently talks down our country’s inherent strength and resilience, while another parrots slogans of exceptionalism that diminish the practical challenges ahead. The public believe in this nation’s future beyond the EU, but expect us to be clear-eyed in its delivery. The Prime Minister has indicated that she will not take us forward in such an endeavour should her withdrawal agreement fail again, so the duty will fall upon any leadership contender to set out with resolve, and in forensic detail, their response to some of the issues I have highlighted. In doing so, I hope they will place service to nation, rather than personal ambition, at the heart of their task.
Regarding the latest EU extension period, EU President Donald Tusk warned
“do not waste this time”,
but it is not his wrath about which we should be worried. If on the road to 31 October, we do not employ the lessons we have learned over these past three years, the electorate may well indicate tomorrow that they are more than willing to bestow democracy legitimacy on another group of people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), who has eloquently opened this debate and set out some pertinent questions that I hope the Minister will try to answer—probably with limited time.
The referendum was a vast vote of confidence by our people in the future of our country—a vote of confidence not entirely shared by the political class, who seem to suffer from a collective Stockholm syndrome: they cannot see a way forward without trying to hold on to nurse for fear of something worse. A lot of the problems we face in our democracy at the moment have arisen because although Parliament’s role is different from that of a referendum, we have to facilitate the decision, and I do not think Parliament has done the job that the people expected it to do when they elected it in 2017. Somehow, those of us who wish to enact the referendum have to try to find a way through.
A lot of the deal that the Prime Minister has agreed with the EU is not controversial; it is quite sensible, and is eminently voteable for. However, there is a big problem with that deal. There were no conterminous trade talks, so where we are going to land becomes a vacuum, into which the EU has very helpfully placed the backstop. That backstop should not be in the withdrawal agreement; it should be part of the trade talks. Nearly three years after the referendum, we are still arguing about whether we are going to be in the single market and what the relationships are going to be. That problem arises first from the EU’s response, but secondly from the Government’s response in accepting the EU response.
It is manifestly clear to me that 12 to 18 months ago, we should have walked out of the talks and gone for no deal, because the agreement is not fair and equitable. The fundamental problem in getting the deal through the House of Commons is the backstop and the fact that there is still great doubt about where we are going to land. Most of us want a good relationship with the Irish Republic and most of us want an open border. Had there been coterminous trade talks, we probably would not be very far away from having that as part of the agreement. Not doing coterminous trade talks was a monumental mistake, but it was made in the EU and in Downing Street. There were times in the negotiations where we needed a bit of handbagging, and we did not get it.
That leaves a problem. The one proposition that would go through the House is the deal without the backstop. If the backstop is taken out of the withdrawal Bill on Second Reading, I will vote for it, and I think the House will vote for it, but I suspect that the backstop will still be there, and that fundamentally is a problem. We have properly to prepare for no deal, because there are not many options if Parliament does not support the Prime Minister’s deal. As always, the people walking through the Lobby to vote against are those who do not like the deal, but they are also those who want to revoke or overturn the referendum. It is no doubt an unenviable and difficult task for the Prime Minister, because there are many swirling tensions and arguments over Europe that have been in the House for 20 years, and they are bedevilling the chances of our getting a deal and getting on to trade talks.
Moving on to no deal, a lot of preparation has been undertaken. Every time I used to read in the Sunday papers that some disaster would befall us, I would ask the then no-deal Minister, of which the current Minister is one of a succession, “Is this true and what we have done about it?” The no-deal Ministers have been doing a massive risk assessment of what could go wrong and what we should do about it. One Minister mentioned to me one day that a lot of British information was kept in southern Ireland, and they would have to repatriate it to British servers otherwise we could not access some of the things to do with pensions, benefits and everything else. I think we can all reassure ourselves that the civil service and the no-deal Ministers have done a pretty good job.
Pertinently, one of the no-deal Ministers said to me, “You can make lots of preparations. Clearly, if you go on to WTO terms overnight, there will be problems for exporters and businesses. That requires the Treasury effectively to underwrite some of our businesses for a period of months.” We did that with the banking collapse, and we have done that at certain times in our history. For example, in the second world war when ships were being torpedoed, the British taxpayer paid for merchant shipping. We need to underwrite any kind of change with the resources of the UK Treasury. The problem many of us face is that people in the Treasury spend most of their time worrying about no deal and saying it will be a disaster, rather than preparing for it and backing what the British people want to do.
I am confident that a lot of things have been done by the Government. I am a little less confident that preparations for no deal have been undertaken by many private businesses, but the problem many of them have is that they prepared for no deal at the end of March. They are now left with large inventories. They have expended millions of pounds, and they do not know whether we will have no deal in October or maybe later. We may have a worse scenario with no deal because we put it off in March when people were preparing for it, because businesses now have to take some hard political decisions. If we look at the banks’ reports, they have all been lending money to their customers so that they can make preparations. There is of course a limit to what the banks will put forward and what companies will do.
There have been good preparations by no-deal Ministers. A no deal needs to be planned, organised and underwritten by the billions of the UK Treasury. I do not think it is a question of costing lots of money. The wheels of business turn, and if people find that a ship going to South Korea suddenly gets landed with tariffs or turned around, that will drive British exports to bust.
We need vision in British politics. Not only is there a vacuum in our future trade arrangements, but British politicians should be looking ahead with an optimistic view of how we are going to put our place in the world. There is an awful lot for us to do, but we desperately need to fulfil the terms of the referendum. The only way we will be able to do that, if things continue as they are, will be in a prepared, organised, and packed no deal where we get where we want to get. My view is that if the Prime Minister had stuck to the end of March, we would now be getting through the problems, rather than being up to our neck in them, but the fact that we are having an unwanted, uncalled-for European election is probably an awful indictment of where we are.
I am confident in the Minister, but it boils down to a question of trust. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues do not trust the EU, looking at the track record, but there are severe concerns and question marks over the Prime Minister, and we see that, even when her own Cabinet have arguments. Sometimes people can vote for a deal they do not feel comfortable with if they feel that the person in charge is going to bat for them. Too many of my colleagues feel that that is not taking place. I am looking forward to the Minister’s response. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster for securing the debate. Many of us think we have to proceed, if necessary with a no-deal scenario that is well-organised, well-funded and successfully undertaken.
That could be difficult, Mr Robertson. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) for securing this debate. Little did she know that it would serve as an opportunity to release some of the anger I feel following the announcement last night, but more of that later, perhaps.
As is often the case when I get to my feet here or in the Chamber, my audience first and foremost is the good people of Walsall North, because I am here to speak on their behalf and also to speak to them. They will be slightly perplexed, because tomorrow, we will take part in the European elections. That might sound like a fairly uneventful thing, but let us go over it again: tomorrow, we will take part in the European elections. Some 1,062 days ago, 17,410,742 people voted to leave the European Union, yet this Government have so far, after 1,062 days, been unable to deliver that. How do we think the people of Willenhall, Bloxwich and Walsall North are feeling? Not too good, I would say, and that was 24 hours ago. I am not sure how they are feeling after they heard from the Prime Minister yesterday.
Let us talk, however, about why my constituents might have voted to leave in the first place and how optimistic they might have felt. What grounds did those people have for their optimism, which we seem to have misplaced on their behalf? First, let us think about what was happening in 2010. In 2010, Merkel, the German Chancellor, was talking to Sarkozy, the French President, about reform of the Lisbon treaty. They wanted a little photo opportunity, so they took a walk along the beach in Deauville. They were able to do that without their advisers present. Why was that? We know that Merkel does not speak French and Sarkozy does not speak German, but they both spoke English. It is the universal language of business. What a great opportunity we have, because we speak a lot of English in this country. It is a handy place for people to locate their business.
Hiroshi Mikitani, the chief exec of Rakuten, certainly thinks that. He runs a business in Japan that employs 7,500 people. There must have been something in the air in 2010, because he told his business that from then on, it would conduct all its business transactions in—you guessed it—English, because he understood that it was the language of business across the world. The people of Walsall North understand that, too, which is why they believe that people come to locate their businesses in the great United Kingdom.
People right across the globe know where Liverpool, Manchester and London are. We know that because the premier league is broadcast in 221 areas across the world. It is the most successful football league anywhere on the planet. It is broadcast to 640 million houses, with a possible viewership of 4 billion. People right across the planet know where England is. They know where the constituent cities of our great country are because we have great advertising through the premier league.
If those people come here, will they be studying in great universities? According to the Centre for World University Rankings, they damn well will be. Those rankings put two of our universities in the top 10. Unfortunately, they did not have any room for any other European universities in the top 10. QS, on the other hand, put four of our universities in the top 20, and, once again, it did not have any room in the top 20 for other European universities. We have the best universities in Europe as well as having the premiership, and, conveniently for my speech today, the two teams contesting the final of the champions league happen to be from England.
A great nation has a fantastic opportunity and great optimism. People went to the polls and voted to leave because they damn well knew that the UK could make its own way in the world. They also knew that we were leaving the European Union, but not leaving Europe. They knew that nine out of 10 of our holiday destinations were to Europe. They will continue to take their holidays there and they expect us to continue to trade. We will still be friends and will still need each other’s products.
I do not know the answer to that. I am not aware of the story, but I do know that a couple of weeks ago Which? magazine published an article that said that TUI should not describe hotels that are not on the beach as being on the beach, so perhaps there are some other practices going on. I am not sure what the reasons are, but I am damn sure that we will continue to holiday in Europe: mostly in Spain, as it turns out. Perhaps the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) will share his travel plans for the summer with us later. I am going off course—we are a great nation with a great opportunity that has not been delivered by the Government so far.
So what happened? I came to Parliament and went along with my dear friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), to see the then Immigration Minister. We said, “We don’t think you are making good enough preparations for no deal, because those pesky people from mainland Europe will spot that, although we are telling them we are preparing for no deal, the fact that we have not submitted a single planning application to build any new infrastructure at our ports will probably give the game away that we are not actually committed to it.” It was like playing cards with somebody who had a mirror behind them. They were looking at our hands and saying, “We know you do not have aces. You are not building anything, and that puts us in a great position to negotiate a very weak deal for you and a very strong deal for us.”
Margaret Thatcher said she had the patriotic belief that the British people could achieve anything. If only our Prime Minister had that same belief in our great nation, we might not be in the position that we are in today. When we look forward to any future negotiations, let us believe in this great country, let us understand the reasons why 17,410,742 people voted to leave, and let us deliver on what they voted for because they deserve better.
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez). If we were allowed standing ovations, I would give one to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes).
Most frustratingly, the Prime Minister had it all together in her Lancaster House speech in 2017 when she talked about negotiating a “bold and ambitious” free trade deal with Europe that would give us the ability to strike out around the world. She did not pretend it would have all the same benefits of membership, because we were going to leave, but we would have a different and positive relationship. She was going to take back control of our money, borders and laws. She was quite right when she said that those things were highly important to people’s decision to vote leave in the referendum. Importantly, one of the few messages that really struck a chord with people out there in the country—a message that they heard and believed—was that
“No deal is better than a bad deal.”
If the EU would not give us something that worked for the United Kingdom, we would walk away and succeed on our own merits. There is no point now in wishing that things were different, but it is heartbreaking that we have ended up here, when the Government had the right approach two and a half years ago—an approach that has long since been abandoned.
The referendum vote was a massive vote of confidence in the United Kingdom and in the Government. The people of Britain said, “We do not want people in Europe telling us what to do. We know and we believe that our Government in the United Kingdom has the strength and the power to deliver this difficult decision and to get it right for us as the population of the UK.” That huge trust is a burden that we should bear here in Parliament. We should have delivered. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms) is absolutely right when he says that politicians have not shared that optimism and confidence, and have eroded that trust over the past three years.
The Brexit party seems likely to wipe the floor with us in the European elections tomorrow, because the promises have been broken. The deal was not good enough. We should have stuck to the words in the Lancaster House speech and left on 29 March. That is what I voted for in this House, and it was perfectly within the Prime Minister’s power to do it if she genuinely believed her own words in 2017.
I will not go into great detail on the new deal—it seems almost irrelevant. I cannot for the life of me understand how anybody in Government can think that slight variations on a theme, and the increasingly muddled and contradictory plan that we are now presented with, are the answer.
It is time for change, as my hon. Friend says from a sedentary position. There are two ways we can proceed: either we revoke article 50, which is totally unacceptable, or we stand firm in our commitment to leave on 31 October, come what may. A good deal would be great; no deal would be okay. Either way, we have to leave and we have to honour the promise that we made to the public.
It is clear that the Prime Minister cannot get a better deal, as she has shown that she will not leave without the EU’s agreement. A new leader might be able to do something different, but the vital thing is that there can be no more delay and no more trying to fudge the withdrawal agreement into something acceptable, because it will not happen and is wasting time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster is absolutely right about what needs to happen now. She went into great detail about plans that need to be put in place for our exit on 31 October. We should keep trying to agree something; we have time, so we should keep trying. However, if the European Union sticks to its word, at the end of October we will probably be faced with the decision to leave without an agreement, or to stay in the EU. I will certainly not be a part of any party or group that tries to block or overturn Brexit at that point. We have to leave.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reassure me on the points raised by our hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster. Will he assure us all that we are planning properly for our departure; that we will lay out our plans for the UK’s key priorities for trade and future relationships if we leave on WTO terms; that we have put in motion plans to mitigate the short-term adverse impacts; that we will ensure we have the necessary agreements in place to keep things moving; that we are looking at the practical delivery, not just the theory, of alternative proposals for the Irish border; and that the attitude of the Government and the civil service will be one of steely determination to deliver the smoothest possible exit on those terms, as it now seems the most likely outcome? It should be perfectly possible, as we will have had six months more to prepare than we had expected. The Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), was adamant at the time of his resignation that we are as prepared as we could be, and I trust that that remains true.
We cannot start to heal the divisions that exist in this country until we have left the European Union. We cannot seek to restore trust and reaffirm democracy in this country until we have left the European Union. Anybody who wishes to lead this country and start to implement the positive, small “c” conservative agenda that those of us on the Government side of the House crave must first get their hands dirty with Brexit solutions, not just soundbites. They need to deliver and get us out on 31 October at the very latest, or we can be sure that, come the next election, no Conservative leader will deliver anything for a very long time. I know the Minister understands that.
It is not only faith in the Prime Minister and the Conservative party that has been shaken by broken Brexit promises; it is faith in our entire political system and its institutions, and in politics as a whole. That faith is not lost forever, but every day that we drift on without showing clear determination to honour the referendum result makes it harder to recover that trust. I hope the Minister can assure me that in his role with responsibility for preparing our leaving without an agreement, and in the absence of a deal that works for the UK, he is confident that everything is being done to ensure that we are in a position to leave on 31 October.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) not only on securing this timely debate, but on her extremely thoughtful and persuasive opening speech. That wonderful speech illustrates why she is one of the rising stars of the Conservative party.
I am honoured to stand alongside the exceptionally talented 2017 intake of Members of Parliament. It is particularly fitting because we are all dealing with the consequences of decisions that were taken, in many cases, before we were born, and certainly many years ago. Those of us who speak from the back row in this debate are all post-referendum MPs. I was the first of them, so I take a slightly different attitude from many Members. My role is not to fight old battles or to justify why I took a particular position at the time, because I was elected, as all Conservative MPs were in 2017, on a manifesto committed to implementing the referendum result, that in/out referendum having being called on the back of a clear promise in 2015. That is the historic charge that we have been given, and it is an enormous honour for us to do it.
Fundamentally, Brexit is not a policy; it is a constitutional question. It is the fundamental issue of how this country is governed and by whom—whether it is by elected politicians in this place, whom the people can judge, and hire and fire as they desire, or by a supranational layer of government in Brussels. We will start to bring the country back together only by understanding that we were going to have to deal with that question, or one like it, at some point.
Anybody who voted at the time of our entry to the then Common Market in the early 1970s will say, “I thought I was joining a trading arrangement. I thought I was joining a common market.” Nobody thinks that now. Everybody now accepts that the European Union is a political union. People may have different views about how far it should stretch, but clearly it is no longer a trading organisation; we need only to look at the recent comments, which I do not need to repeat, by Guy Verhofstadt about a European empire, and President Macron’s calls for further integration and a European army.
At some point, Britain had to deal with the logical consequences of joining a political union while trying to persuade itself, even to this day, that it is only a trading bloc. It is not a trading bloc, and we had to deal with that. We could not forever have remained reluctant passengers in a car going in a direction that we do not want to go in, constantly asking the driver to slow down or change direction. We had to decide whether we were going to be passengers or get off.
The issue was thrown into stark relief when Britain decided not to join the euro. From that point, some major, fundamental parting of the ways was going to happen, because a monetary union cannot exist without fiscal and political union. The European Union will have to integrate or accept that the euro will not survive. We wish them well with their project, but nobody in Britain wants to be part of a United States of Europe—or, at least, nobody who does want that has ever had the courage to make that argument.
A fundamental reassessment of our relationship was therefore going to have to happen, but that did not have to mean leaving. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster said, I was a firm supporter of David Cameron’s policy of remaining in a renegotiated European Union—one in which we could remain at the table but outside the political structures, in a second tier of membership. However, that question was settled when David Cameron’s renegotiation could not produce enough to persuade the British people to remain.
It would do all of us in this House, and the country, a lot of good to take some of the heat out of the issue, and accept that we were always going to have to renegotiate in some way our relationship with the European Union; and that once it became clear that the European Union would not budge and allow us to be part of a looser outer tier, we were probably going to have to leave. However, that does not mean that we raise the drawbridge, that we are not friends with our European neighbours, that we do not co-operate, or that we do not trade.
I take the slightly controversial view that the two sides of the argument are not as far apart as they think. Whenever I speak to someone in my constituency who wants to remain, I ask them why. They say, “Because I want to work with our European neighbours. I want us to trade closely with them. I want us to co-operate.” When I speak to somebody who voted to leave, I ask them what they want. They say, “I want to trade closely. I want to be part of a co-operative relationship. I want to be friends with our closest neighbours. I simply don’t want to be part of a political union. I’m comfortable with the concept of the nation state, and I want our decisions to be made here by our politicians—people we not only elect but can get rid of.” If people cannot dispense with those who govern them, they are not living in a proper democracy.
Let us now accept all that; let us accept that we have a historic charge that we have to carry out. It was not of our making; it was probably preordained to some extent, in many cases before we were born, and certainly before we became MPs. It would do us a lot of good to understand that and to ensure we have a close relationship, but that close relationship must have democratic accountability. If MPs exist to do one thing it is to defend our democracy. People want to see a direct link between their vote, their constituency MP and the rules that govern them.
I am conscious that I have run out of time; there is much more that I would love to say. My final point is simply that we can establish that relationship in a number of ways, but let us please have a spirit of optimism. We have to stop looking at Brexit as a damage limitation exercise. We are recovering full democratic self-government. That is something to be proud of—now let us get together and shape it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) on securing the debate, not least because it really has lived up to the quality that we hoped for. The debate has showcased voices from across our country—London, the midlands, the south and, now, the north-east—talking about the issues that matter to our constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) referred to his constituents. When I was talking to mine on the 2017 election trail, I was able to make three firm promises to them: first, that we would leave the single market and the customs union; secondly, that we would leave the European Union at the end of the two-year period under article 50, which turned out to be until 29 March; and thirdly, that we would not, under any circumstances, allow a second referendum. Those three promises all seem, in different ways, to be in jeopardy today, which is a source of grave concern. Most of my constituents have been left somewhere between bemusement and anger that we are in this situation.
On 12 February, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) asked the Prime Minister whether we were “sufficiently prepared” to leave the EU on 29 March with no deal. The Prime Minister responded unequivocally, “We are indeed.” Given that colleagues had been calling for no-deal preparations from day one, and the Government had 9,000 civil servants with an extra £4.2 billion of funding working on those preparations, that answer was no less than we should have expected.
It was therefore both surprising and disappointing that on 13 March the Government supported a motion in the name of the Prime Minister to delay our exit from the EU on the ostensible grounds that we were not yet prepared. They argued that we were not ready to leave because approximately one third of UK businesses that trade with the EU had not yet registered with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. They also claimed that the border inspection posts for agricultural goods at Dover and Calais were not yet operational.
Despite repeated promises that the UK would leave the EU on 29 March, we now find ourselves in a six-month extension period. Although it is deeply regrettable that the promise was broken, the unexpected extra time affords us an opportunity to address those issues, as there must be no further delay beyond 31 October. However, one of the first actions the Government took after delaying our departure was to stand down
“no-deal operational planning with immediate effect”.
Brilliant. At the same time, the Government have wasted lots more valuable time in predictably futile negotiations with Labour MPs, too many of whom take the view that the same people who elected them are, in fact, stupid and should be ignored. The complete absence of those MPs today speaks volumes.
Those few in the Labour party who still notionally claim to respect the referendum mandate have decided, for reasons not well understood, to advocate the worst-of-all-worlds position of staying in the customs union. Entering into a customs union would hand Brussels total control of our trade and customs policy, and preclude our right to sign trade deals with the rest of the world. Worse, when the EU signed a trade agreement with another country—for example, China—we would be compelled to make all the concessions agreed to by the EU.
Indeed it does not. It has become a holy grail—a totemic example of our determination somehow to be in and half-out at the same time. As other hon. Members have pointed out, that is a fundamentally untenable position. Making the decision to leave the European Union means embracing the choices, challenges and opportunities that come with that; the same would be true of the decision to be part of the European Union. There are trade-offs to be made in either position. In that respect, there has been a fundamental lack of honesty throughout the entire debate.
The European Commission’s own website states:
“The Customs Union is a foundation of the European Union”.
I am clear that continued membership of the customs union would be not only a serious misjudgment, but a breach of faith with the referendum result. It was therefore with absolute incredulity that I watched the Prime Minister yesterday promising to adopt both the customs union and a second referendum as official Government policy if Parliament votes for them. Frankly, that position represents a devastating failure of politics, leadership and statecraft. Indeed, the only redeeming feature of the situation is that this desperate attempt to win the Labour party’s support must be the final one.
Many of us have advocated a Canada-style trading relationship with the EU, with frictionless trade and a high level of customs facilitation. In such an arrangement, we would be fundamentally responsible for controlling our internal affairs. Regrettably, we have encountered the twin misfortune of having a leader who never asked for it and an European Union that would rather turn us into a colony. Unless and until both those facts change, it is incumbent on us all to prepare for no deal. Indeed, on the very same day in March that Ministers stood at the Dispatch Box warning of the lack of preparedness for no deal, the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted through no-deal measures on, among other things, social security, road freight connectivity, basic air connectivity, the fishing fund, fishing vessels authorisation, railway safety and connectivity, and road haulage. There is no reason why there should be any interruption to or shortage of goods coming into the UK in a no-deal scenario.
There is a bitter irony in that, as my hon. Friend rightly says. It speaks to the choices that we have made, but choices they were—it needs to be recognised and understood that there is nothing inevitable about the situation in which we have placed ourselves.
It is entirely up to us what barriers to impose on imported goods in any scenario. The Government have already said, quite rightly, that in the event that we leave with no deal, we will prioritise maintaining the flow of goods—even at the risk of losing some customs revenue—until long-term arrangements are in place.
Foreign countries and ports have also demonstrated their keenness to co-operate in a no-deal scenario. For example, Xavier Bertrand, president of the Hauts-de-France region, said in January that
“the ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk, as well as the Eurotunnel and airports,”
“have 100 per cent fluidity on day one in the event of a no-deal Brexit.”
We need to intensify our preparations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster said, and look at dynamic policy responses. People on Teesside are intrigued and excited by the possibility of a free port, which would really boost our connectivity in the event of our actually getting free of the European Union. These are the things that we need to be doing. These are the choices that we need to be taking. That is the leadership that we need to be showing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) on securing this timely and important debate. I would particularly congratulate her on the timing if I thought that she had had any knowledge of what would happen yesterday, but given that I do not think that my Government had any knowledge of it, I am not sure that I can accord her that credit.
I welcome the Minister to his place. I have a huge amount of time for him; he is an amazing man who has done great things in our party, and I am sorry for him, because he is a good man about to defend a bad deal. None of my remarks will be directed against him personally.
Here we go again. Twenty-four hours after the latest catastrophe—the latest stupidity—we are being asked to manage down, mitigate away, split the difference and trample over our manifestos yet again, as if that has worked so well over the past year or so. It is absolutely outrageous that we are even having this conversation, and it is inappropriate that we are not out of the European Union. I am tired of standing up and expressing the frustration of my constituents in North East Derbyshire about the abject failure of this Government to do anything about their core manifesto commitment. We should not be here.
Two years ago, I made a series of commitments to my constituents, and I will not break those commitments even if the Prime Minister breaks hers. I said that we would leave on 29 March; I voted to leave on 29 March. It was because of the Prime Minister’s choice, not the highly inappropriate meaningful vote 3 that was scheduled for that date to embarrass people like me, that we did not leave on 29 March. I said that I would not support a customs union; now my own Government seek to put a customs union to the country. I said that I would not support a European election; tomorrow there will be a European election that should not happen. I said that no deal was better than a bad deal; I will continue to believe that, even if my Prime Minister no longer does. Fundamentally, I said “No second referendum”—and what did I see yesterday? I saw a Prime Minister who is willing to chuck every single principle out of the window to push forward a deal that just will not get the support of this place and, more important, that does not have support outside it.
Every single principle is being put on the fire to get the deal through. It is absolutely outrageous—it is a fundamental misreading of what the people think. The Government are paralysed by inaction, every principle is being shredded, trust is shattered, and what is the apparent answer? Some kind of pick-and-mix, choose-your-own, go-your-own-way Brexit? Some kind of smorgasbord of stupidity? Some kind of Brexit of the shadows, where we push anything through and then let it get amended in Committee, where we think our constituents will not see it, will not comprehend that it is not Brexit, or will not understand that they have been lied to?
I am being asked to endorse something—anything, whatever—as Brexit, simply becomes somebody stands in front of a lectern and tells me it is so. I am being asked to coalesce—to unify—around a cult of stamina that goes nowhere and uses that Protestant work ethic to drive us off a cliff. I am being asked to look a fourth time at a deal that I have already rejected three times, when it has absolutely no coherence, absolutely no understanding and does not respect the will of the people.
We are not a parish council. We are not arguing for 20 years about where a bench should go in the local park. We have a unique responsibility to deliver what people have told us to deliver. I will keep that deal. I will ensure that the residents of North East Derbyshire understand that I am going to deliver my promises even if the leader of my party has decided to break hers. Where do we go from here? The deal will not pass—that is blatantly obvious. The frustration will not go away. The difference will not be split.
Each of us is charged with a unique responsibility as an elected official to ask ourselves a series of deeply personal questions. How long will we allow this tragedy to persist in our name? How long can we look at a wreckage of a Government decaying before our eyes, when the principles that I came into politics for—those good Conservative principles—need to be used to make the constituency of North East Derbyshire and my country better? What will we say in a few years’ time, when it becomes painfully obvious that the abject failure of leadership over the past year was never going to get us anywhere?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster highlighted a statement that Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, made a few months ago. He said to us:
“Please do not waste this time.”
I agree with him. It is a Conservative Government—a Conservative Government!—who are wasting this time, failing to demonstrate leadership on the most important thing that we promised the people, and allowing trust in the entire democratic system to be shredded.
There is no dignity in this impasse. There is no honour in the abdication of this responsibility. There is no thanks for what we are doing. Wake up! Wake up before it is too late, and deliver what our country told us to do three years ago.
Thank you, Mr Robertson. I am pleased to begin summing up.
I do not think anyone will be surprised that I disagree with quite a lot of what I have heard in the last 59 and a half minutes. In fact, most people in here, and a lot of people back home, would be extremely disappointed if I did not.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) on securing the debate. She spoke very passionately and I have no doubt whatsoever that she spoke with complete sincerity, but I have to say that, far too often, she just does not get it. There was no recognition at all in her outline of how we got here that it was her party and her Government that put us here. Her party called a referendum to solve the endemic infighting within its ranks. We can see from this morning’s debate what a complete and abject failure that has been. Her party unilaterally changed its own manifesto mid-term, from one that gave it a majority Government and said we would stay in the single market and the customs union, to one that lost it that majority and said we are going to come out.
When I asked the hon. Lady what alternative she suggests to the Northern Ireland backstop, she promised to come back to it later. She then referred to the need—I think it is correct; I wrote it down—to “check and clear goods away from the border”. That would be a violation of the Good Friday agreement and incompatible with the Northern Ireland peace process.
How can it be that three years after the referendum and more than 20 years since the peace process was secured —a process that is still happening; it is not an event that is finished and done and dusted—we still have people leading debates in this Parliament, and speaking knowledgeably about other aspects of the relationship with the European Union, but not understanding what a catastrophic mistake it would be to think that border checks carried out somewhere away from the border would be good enough? They will not be. Nobody but nobody has suggested a solution that comes anywhere close to answering that contradiction. We cannot avoid a customs border between two countries if one is in a customs union and one is not. When the Government set out something that has been tested, and works, that will allow that to happen, then they can credibly say they will come out of the customs union and respect the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday agreement. I do not think it is possible and I have seen no credible suggestion that it is.
It is not good enough to continually make the European Union out as the villain. The European Union did not force anybody to call a referendum. The European Union did not force anybody to trigger article 50 before anyone in the UK Government had a clue how they were going to deal with it. The European Union did not force the Prime Minister to unilaterally paint herself into a corner with red lines. The European Union did not force the Prime Minister to call an unnecessary election to enhance her majority and end up throwing it away. Those have all been mistakes that have been made by this and the previous Prime Minister. It is high time that the Conservative party accepted its collective responsibility for putting those Prime Ministers into power and supporting them through all those catastrophic mistakes, simply because it thought it might enhance the party’s chances of holding on to power for a wee bit longer.
Given that the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) was so glowing about trade and tourism between the UK and the European Union, I asked him why Thomas Cook was in trouble. He suggested it was because TUI had been criticised by Which? magazine. TUI is Thomas Cook’s biggest competitor in the United Kingdom. We might have thought that if TUI was being criticised and getting bad publicity that would help its biggest rival, rather than push it further into difficulty.
There are many reasons that a business can go bad. It can be down to management or other changing circumstances. The idea that anyone could solely identify anything relating to Brexit as the reason for business failure seems—I don’t know—imaginative, at best.
Sadly, it is not imaginative that British Steel has cited Brexit-related issues as one of the reasons why, as of about half an hour ago, it is now in insolvency and 25,000 direct and indirect jobs are under threat. That is not something anyone can celebrate or be happy about. Surely it is time for everyone who continues to push us towards the possibility of a no-deal Brexit to stop and ask the question: would the 66% of people in and around Scunthorpe who voted to leave in 2016 have done so if they had understood what it might mean for their town’s biggest employer? I do not know the answer to whether they would have voted the same way, but I would like to give them the chance to answer the question again.
Comments have been made in this debate and others about the 80%-plus of the electorate who voted for pro-Brexit parties in 2017. Some 80%-plus of the electorate voted for pro-remain parties in 2015, because Labour and the Tories were both remain parties in 2015. We are saying that in the space of two years, 60% of the electorate changed from voting for remain to voting for Brexit, but three years after the referendum, we are not allowed to consider the possibility that 5% of the electorate might have changed their minds between remain and leave. It simply does not add up.
The hon. Gentleman has said that surely it is time for us to understand the consequences of the issue. Surely it is also time for him to acknowledge that he should not use business examples to extrapolate, as he did with Thomas Cook. He will know as well as I do that it has had a massive debt pile for a number of years, that most of its operations are external, that it was previously a German company and that it is seeking to sell off its German airline as much as its British one. These are wide trends and it is just not correct to use these debates to try to extrapolate things that are not directly linked.
Again, I hope that nobody would suggest that the problems in the UK travel industry are completely unrelated to Brexit or that the problems in the British steel industry are completely unrelated to Brexit. It is not the only problem—in manufacturing, we have not kept up with the advances in productivity of our European neighbours, for example—but anyone who would suggest that this catalogue of company failures is not in any way related to the damaging Brexit that the Conservatives are leading us through really needs to face up to reality.
I understand the desire to respect the result of the referendum. I want the 62% result in my country to be respected as well. My national Government put forward a compromise as long ago as December 2016, which was laughed out of court at the time—to the extent that the Prime Minister has actually forgotten that it ever existed. When we are talking about negotiations that might happen now, after the March deadline, is it not a pity that there was not proper negotiation before the red lines were painted?
We have an electoral system in these islands that is deliberately rigged to turn minority popular support into majority Government. When the people choose not to give a big majority Government, the system cannot cope. The Prime Minister came back in 2017 and acted as if she had a huge majority in Parliament, when most of the time she has struggled to maintain a majority within her own party, and that is why she has never been able to get any kind of deal through.
It is not just about trade. Most of the contributions we have heard today have been about trade deals. World Trade Organisation terms—assuming we are allowed in to the WTO, which is not automatic—do nothing about Horizon, Erasmus, the European Medicines Agency, security co-operation, the rights of 4.5 million citizens, the ability to share data to cloud storage in the European Union, or about a million and one other things that the European Union brings us as benefits that have hardly, if at all, been mentioned in the debate this morning. The European Union is not simply a trading organisation. Membership has brought massive economic, social, cultural and educational benefits to our people and it is a tragedy that in the lead-up to the referendum, so few politicians in this place had the courage to stand up and say that.
I was asked about my holiday plans. I will be holidaying in the country that, according to “Rough Guides”, is the most beautiful country in the world, and I would encourage lots of other people to do the same.
As far as what will happen if and when the withdrawal agreement Bill comes back, the position of the Scottish National party is as it has always been. We will oppose any Brexit that takes away the rights of our citizens. We will oppose any Brexit that makes our people poorer. We will oppose any Brexit that takes us further away from the Scotland that we want to be and that our people have told us they want us to help to build.
While tomorrow it is quite possible that the far-right Brexit party will secure a significant victory in other parts of the United Kingdom, the polls suggest that even after 12 years in Government, the Scottish National party will have its most successful European election ever. That is what happens if a party of Government is prepared to show leadership and to face up to the myths, lies and misinformation that Mr Farage and his party and his previous parties have spread for so long.
If tomorrow the results in the rest of the United Kingdom are taken as a message about discontentment with the European Union among the population of some partners in this Union, the results north of the border will give a clear statement about the dissatisfaction of the citizens of my country with the Union that we have been part of for 300 years too long.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate, although I feel that it has been something of an internal Conservative party discussion. To sum up for the Minister, I do not think his colleagues are very happy. It is a pleasure, too, to follow the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). I have a great deal of time for many things he said. Perhaps with the exception of the Minister, most hon. Members here in Westminster Hall agree that the Government have mishandled negotiations and served up a deal that is unsupportable by a majority in the House.
The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) used some memorable phrases. He talked about the situation being a “catastrophe” and “stupidity”, and said “the Government are tired”. He said that it is a “Brexit of the shadows,” that there is a “cult of stamina,” and that we have a “wreckage of a Government decaying before our eyes”. That is pretty damning from a fairly new MP about the one job on which the Prime Minister said she should be supported: delivering Brexit. That is what Conservative MPs think about it. It is a pretty incredible situation for us to have reached.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez). Although I did not agree with everything she said, I found the manner in which she said it, the tone she used and the considered way she formed her argument quite refreshing. It is not the way these discussions have often been carried out in this place and outside. If we could have had a bit more of that kind of discussion, perhaps we would have avoided getting to where we are, three years after the referendum.
The hon. Lady spoke of her maiden speech, which I do not think I caught. She made me think of my maiden speech nearly 10 years ago, in 2010. I remember speaking about cuts to education and about serious crime, and I promised that I would always put my constituents first, which is something that is felt by everybody who gets elected to this place.
I regret some of the comments that have been made. I think the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) said—I wish I had written it down, because I cannot remember the exact words he used—that we despise our constituents if we do not happen to agree with some of them on Brexit. I find that unhelpful, and it misrepresents the relationship we have with our constituents, which is absolutely one of respect and understanding. We attempt to represent the whole of our constituencies, even though they are inevitably divided on this issue at the moment.
This is really important. Every constituency in the Tees valley voted to leave by more than 60%. In some cases, it was nearer 70%. That was a very clear mandate to leave. Of the six Tees valley MPs, I am the only one who is voting to leave the European Union and trying to deliver on the referendum mandate. Can the hon. Lady inform the House what she is doing to support any meaningful exit, or is she in fact determined to prevent it?
Fifty-six. My constituency boundary is different from the borough boundary, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows. Nobody really knows what percentage of my constituents voted to leave, but that is not really the point. The fact is that, like all hon. Members present, a large number of my constituents wished to leave the European Union, which is why I voted to trigger article 50. I campaigned to remain. I believed that being part of the European Union would serve this country better in the future than leaving it, but I promised—as did many of my colleagues—to respect the outcome of the referendum. I have done that, and I voted to trigger article 50. I did not agonise about it; I saw it as my job and duty, and I did it with a clear heart. I then stood to be re-elected in 2017, as did we all, and I said that the kind of Brexit I wanted was something that at the time we all referred to as a soft deal. I would have voted for that. We would have left the European Union had that been on offer, but it never has been.
There was no deal until very recently, and we now find ourselves with something that the hon. Gentleman will not support, so I do not quite understand how he can have a go at me for not supporting it. It seems that no hon. Members present, apart from the Minister, want to support the existing deal.
We are saying that following the referendum and the general election, we need to have a close, collaborative relationship with the European Union. We want the benefits—as were promised by the then Secretary of State—of a customs union and the single market. I do not know—perhaps the Minister can tell us—how we achieve such benefits, particularly of a customs union, without being in a customs union. How do we get frictionless trade? The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster is completely right to say that we will not get frictionless trade via a customs union alone, but we sure as hell cannot have such trade without one.
There is not a customs border between two different jurisdictions anywhere on the planet that does not have infrastructure. That really gets to the heart of this issue. Despite all this stuff about alternative arrangements, no one has been able to tell me what alternative arrangements we could put in place that would avoid infrastructure. We talk about Northern Ireland, because there are very obvious reasons why we want to maintain an infra- structure-free border there, but the same problems would arise at other ports of entry.
Alternative arrangements just do not exist. If somebody could persuade me that alternative arrangements could be put in place that would mean we do not need a border, it would be a really interesting conversation. If we could leave a customs union without infrastructure, and Ministers showed how that could be done, I would be obliged to seriously consider voting for that. However, that case has never been made, and alternative arrangements have never been outlined. We have never seen an example of how they would work. Nobody is persuaded, which is one of the reasons why we find ourselves where we are.
It struck me that hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire, object to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should have a customs union or another vote. I understand where he is coming from—he is being completely consistent. He thinks we are being offered a customs union and a confirmatory vote, but one of the problems that the Opposition have with the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday is that but we do not think that is what is being offered. The lack of clarity and the attempt somehow to speak slightly differently to people who have different perspectives is one of the reasons we find ourselves in this position. There is a lack of trust, a lack of faith and a lack of confidence that this Prime Minister will be able to see the deal through. I find myself wondering—I am sure I am not alone—whether we will hold a vote on the Bill in the first week of June. It would be true to form to get quite close and then for the Government think better of it and withdraw the proposal—in the end, we would not get to vote on it.
I want to give the Minister sufficient time to respond to questions, particularly those from the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster on our preparedness for a no-deal Brexit. Given everything we have learned from listening to industry, I venture to guess that we are nowhere near ready to leave without a deal. We do not have the infrastructure, IT or staff, and we do not have the procedures or any of the things that we will need in place to leave without a deal, certainly not by the end of October. I will be fascinated to hear how the Minister thinks we will leave.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster said one thing that really struck me: she pleaded that service to nation, not political ambition, should drive decision making as we go forward towards the end of October. I worry about that a great deal. Looking at the people who are putting themselves forward from the Conservative party to be Prime Minister, it strikes me that its members might prefer the candidate who takes the hardest position, is the most enthusiastic about leaving the EU without a deal, and promises that we will prorogue Parliament until the end of October to ensure that we get to leave without a deal.
I caution the Conservatives that that would be a disaster for the country and my constituents. I know what industrial decline looks like, and what being cavalier about these things can do to communities. They do not recover for decades, if ever. I worry about that for the country, and for the health of our democracy, too. Our democracy needs a well-functioning multiplicity of parties competing and holding each other to account. If the Tory party did that to itself, satisfied as I would be that it would be out of power for a generation, I do not think it would be the healthiest thing for our democracy. I am surprised to hear myself saying those things, but I really hope it does not elect an extreme no-deal Brexiteer to be the Prime Minister of this country. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) for securing this very important debate at such an interesting point on the road to delivering Brexit. She raised a number of interesting and important issues. I will attempt to address them in the limited time that we have, but I also want to give her time to respond to the debate that she initiated.
I remind hon. Members that the Government, much like the majority of MPs, want to deliver on the result of the referendum and leave the European Union promptly and in good order. The British public are justifiably frustrated—that is an understatement—and the tone and passion of this debate is reflective of the public mood. They want us to act together in the national interest, end this impasse and deliver Brexit. Delivering Brexit was never going to be simple or straightforward, but the Government firmly believe that the best way to leave the European Union is with a good deal.
At the most recent European Council, the UK and the EU agreed an extension to article 50 until 31 October. It was also agreed that if we successfully brought forward a withdrawal agreement, we would be able to leave earlier. That is why the Prime Minister put forward a range of options hopefully to build a consensus that can secure a vote for the withdrawal agreement so the UK can leave the EU promptly.
The Prime Minister has worked hard to find a way forward that accommodates concerns from across the political spectrum, and yesterday she presented a new deal to MPs to settle the core issues of the debate. MPs must now work together to deliver the result of the 2016 referendum.
A number of hon. Members cited the Prime Minister’s words,
“No deal is better than a bad deal.”
The Government’s position is that the deal that has been negotiated over the past few years is a good deal, but hon. Members have criticised it. If you will forgive me, Mr Robertson, I will dwell briefly on why it is viewed as a good deal. It protects citizens’ rights for UK nationals living in the EU and EU nationals living here. It delivers an implementation period until 2020 to allow businesses to adjust to the new situation. It ensures a fair financial settlement of less than half of what was initially expected and demanded, which reinforces our global reputation as an honourable and honest international player. It ensures that Gibraltar is covered by the withdrawal agreement. It guarantees that geographical indications such as Scotch whisky and Welsh lamb will be protected until a future economic partnership is put in place. It allows the UK to negotiate, sign and ratify new trade deals during the implementation period, to be brought into force once it ends.
Alongside that, the accompanying political declaration sets out the scope for a bold and ambitious future trade relationship between the UK and the EU, to be built on for the next stage of negotiations. Hon. Members reminded us that there was a commitment to take back control of money, borders and laws. The agreement allows the Government to introduce a new fair skills-based immigration system, taking back control of our borders and ending free movement. It ends the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice UK and means that our laws will be made in Parliament and enforced by our courts. It also protects security and sets out a close relationship on defence and tackling crime and terrorism. It ensures that we will leave the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, delivering a good deal for farmers and fishermen up and down the UK.
I will address some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster made. She asked about border preparation work. My officials and I have regular meetings to ensure that the UK border is operational and in good order, and that trade flows can continue with the minimum amount of friction in the event of a no-deal Brexit, with a cross-Government borders programme. All Departments will be able to set up fully and partially operated systems, processes and resources to ensure disruption is minimised as far as possible.
My hon. Friend asked about labour market preparations. We are in the enviable position of having incredibly low levels of unemployment. The Government will ensure that any changes in the labour market are reflected in Government policy.
My hon. Friend asked about the use of Henry VIII powers. The use of statutory instruments came after a decision by Parliament during the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Every SI using those powers is scrutinised by Parliament in the usual way, and there is a new sifting mechanism.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to answer all the questions I was asked, because I want to address the broader point about no-deal preparations. Although Parliament has rejected the UK leaving the EU without a deal multiple times, that remains the legal default position if a deal is not agreed. As a responsible Government, we have been preparing for more than two years to mitigate any negative effects and any disruption as far as possible in the event of no deal. Those preparations are well developed and ongoing. We continue to prepare for all Brexit scenarios. Some £4.2 billion of funding has been allocated to help the UK prepare for all eventualities. It is only sensible that we do that.
Although the Government’s preparations continue, many of the most important mitigations require businesses and citizens, not just the Government, to act. There are also consequences that are simply not within the Government’s direct control, such as the actions of third countries. We should be under absolutely no illusion that not leaving the European Union would have a significant negative social, political and economic impact. That is another reason why leaving with a deal is the best option.
People want politicians to act together and honour the result of the 2016 referendum so we leave the European Union in good time and good order. The hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) highlighted the fact that Labour is uncomfortable with elements of the deal. The only way it could have influence on the future deal is to vote on Second Reading for the withdrawal agreement Bill. I therefore encourage all hon. Members to do what the people of Britain demanded of us, ensure we leave the European Union in the national interest, and back the deal.
I am incredibly grateful for the thoughtful contributions from Members across the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Sir Robert Syms) talked about the need for handbagging during negotiations, and said that our leadership has too often been for turning. He also highlighted how hamstrung the no-deal preparations have been by the Treasury’s reticence.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) released a lot of tension this morning. It was a wonder to behold. He is an eternally optimistic champion of an eternally optimistic constituency. Hearing that optimism being misplaced is a matter of profound regret.
The description of Government’s negotiating style as being like playing cards with a mirror behind us was painfully accurate. My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) talked of broken promises and the increasingly muddled and contradictory withdrawal agreement, which he doubts has any life left in it. He is right that we have no further time for delay.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) highlighted the different perspective of the 2017 intake. He is absolutely right that how we dealt with the challenge of the EU’s political ambitions was always going to lead to a fissure. He said that the two sides of the divide in our country are not so far apart, and that we can heal.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) talked of our collective shame that we have not delivered on the promises we made to our voters, and said that too much time has been wasted. We all want to leave the European Union in an orderly way, but that option has been closed off by ineptitude.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) has been in a perpetual state of outrage since Chequers in July. We have had many quiet moments to share that. I appreciate his support. I thank everybody for a very good debate.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).