I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 226071 relating to not holding a second referendum on EU membership.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As of about an hour ago, the petition had 122,320 signatures. It follows a number of petitions that we have considered on Brexit over the last couple of years. Recently, we debated having a second referendum—I cannot remember how many signatures that got. For the purpose of Hansard, I will read the full wording of the petition:
“Stop possible second referendum on E.U. membership. There is a growing band of people that want to reverse the result of the democratic vote of this country to leave the European Union and are calling for a second referendum. This is mainly by the people that lost the vote two years ago and cannot accept the democratic vote of the majority decision. Although not legally binding the referendum on whether we stay or leave the EU carried out on the 23rd June 2016 was the clearest indication of the will of the electorate. At that time our Prime Minister David Cameron assured us that the result of the referendum would be carried out. We must ensure the democracy rules”.
I could sit down, having said that I agree with every word and that that is the Government’s policy, but you will rely on me, as a Member of Parliament, to expand a little, Mr Hollobone. In the Petitions Committee we bring petitions to debate to allow people to have their voice, and the debate is part of the campaign—it is not the end result. Having this debate will not end the debate about Brexit, not least given that we are about to embark on a large exercise in the main Chamber as of tomorrow.
I appreciate that there is strong feeling on either side. Some people are passionate about pretending that the referendum never happened—they wish that they could wake up with Brexit having gone away. Other people just want to leave tomorrow, perhaps because they are ambitious for this country and want to look for global trade; there could be any number of reasons why they wanted to leave. But there is a great chunk of people in this country who are sitting in the middle.
I had a moment of clarity this time last week while I was chatting to a couple of friends. One said, “Can we please just get Brexit done? I’m so bored with it!” The other chap looked up from his phone and said, “Would you like to see a video of my dog singing with a tennis ball in its mouth?” Brexit sits firmly behind the love of his dog, the trivial stuff on the internet, “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here” and “The X Factor” final. All those things divert people’s attention away from the wall-to-wall noise about Brexit.
Next week, we will take one of the most important decisions—if not the most important decision—in this place. Over the next few months we will steer this country out of the European Union in an orderly way, to ensure we have a bright future and our best years over the next 40 or 50 years. That is why that decision was taken. The choice was clear. It was an unambiguous vote: do we want to stay part of the European Union, or do we want to leave the European Union?
I remember leading a petition debate when the Government spent £9.4 million on a leaflet that said that they would adhere to the result of the vote. The leaflet laid out clearly the Government’s position on Brexit, and 17.4 million people voted to leave. After that, 499 Members of Parliament voted in favour of invoking article 50, and 122 voted against. A clear majority legitimised that referendum. People say the referendum was advisory, but we took the decision in this place to abide by the result and to invoke article 50.
I have been lobbied by many constituents who are in favour of a people’s vote or second referendum. However, the number of people who want out remains high. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the will of the people in high leave areas such as Hartlepool has changed, but not enough to support the call for a second referendum?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. People speculate either way about polls they have read. There are studies dressed up as polls about what would happen now if there was a second referendum, predominantly because a lot of money is funding the campaign for the so-called people’s vote and that money has to be justified somehow. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that people had their voice heard and want us to get on with the job they tasked us to do—they gave us that mandate. That is really important.
I campaigned to leave and voted to leave, and I take my responsibility seriously, to ensure that we get out in the best way possible and in as orderly a way as possible. I understand that 48% of people did not want to go and that we want to be able to trade with European Union partners beyond Brexit. That is why we need the whole gamut, rather than me sitting in my corner saying, “Yay, I won—fantastic! I’m off now.” That is not realistic. Inevitably, there will be complexities and compromises. We have to factor all that in, but that is what we are put in this place to do. It will test the mettle of many of us over the next week and a half, as we wrestle with some very complicated and important decisions that will have an impact on this nation for many years to come.
On the mandate, both the main parties pledged in their 2017 election manifestos to respect the result of the referendum. Eighty per cent. of the electorate voted for one of those two parties. That shows that the two parties have taken people with us as best we can, and that people want us to get on with the job—they have tasked us with the responsibility.
The draft withdrawal agreement and the political declaration will allow us to respect the referendum result and get out of the EU in an orderly manner. The choppy times we have had over the last couple of years and that undoubtedly are coming up are not due to a lack of mandate. Largely it is remainers who are trying to wish away the result. After the referendum, many people said, “Crikey, the debate was poor quality and really divisive.” Now they are saying, “I’ll tell you what—let’s just do it again.” That makes no sense. We have a responsibility. Many of us may have gone to a family gathering and seen a new baby or young child, played with it and got it excited, and then handed it back crying to its angry parents. I will not hand back this Brexit baby to its parents, because we have a responsibility.
Even if we choose a second referendum, we have run out of time to have one. Trying to get the legislation through would be an absolute nightmare. We would have to do it within a month or six weeks, but with Christmas coming up that would take us well into the new year. Can we even imagine what the referendum question would be? People would say that remain should not even be an option on the ballot paper because we have had that discussion and leave won. They might say, “Why don’t we choose whether to have the deal as proposed, or no deal and leave on World Trade Organisation terms?” Other people would say, “Let’s have a three-way choice of the deal on the table, no deal or remain.” That would be so complex.
Let us say that the remain option got 40% of the vote, the Government deal got 30% and the leave with no deal option got 30%. Clearly, remain would win and we would stay in the EU—if that was even possible—but 60% of people would have voted for one of the leave options. That would cause a huge democratic deficit: a constitutional crisis. That is why the question itself would be a problem if we went down that road. Who is to say that the debate would be of any better quality? Frankly, I suspect we would have one group shouting, “Vassal state!” and another shouting, “Cliff edge!” back. There would be a lot of heat, but I do not think much light would be shed on the issue. Clearly, we need to move on and bring ourselves together. Let us not ask again, but understand why people voted the way they voted in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman is making a significant point. The question in the 2016 referendum was very simple—“Do you want to be in the EU or out of the EU?” The deal, which is 575 pages and an addendum—I tried to read it, without success—is a much more complex item to put to the electorate. Given that remainers say voters did not understand the original proposition, does he agree that the argument that the question in a second referendum would be simple and the electorate would understand it is ridiculous?
The hon. Gentleman makes some very important points. There are complexities that we need to debate in this place. I suspect that boiling 575 pages down to a relatively simple question on a ballot paper would be difficult. We need to understand and put across to people what the withdrawal agreement actually does.
There are many reasons why people voted to leave, but they relate predominantly to sovereignty, immigration, and trade and future prosperity. Clearly, lots of people do not think the withdrawal agreement is perfect. I certainly do not, but I can deal with it, because it means that we will leave the EU’s political institutions, which is fundamental to our leaving the EU, and we will stop paying huge membership fees. That is all in there. It will be up to us, as a sovereign state, to opt back into things and accept joint sovereignty.
Anyone who was driven to vote to leave by immigration will see that ending free movement of people is in the agreement, and those who were motivated by our future prosperity will see that it means we will be able to start negotiating our own trade deals. That is a work in progress—the second bit of the negotiation will determine when we can crack on and implement those trade deals, but we will be able to start negotiating them right from the off. I have to say to the friend I referred to, who is bored of Brexit, that we are only halfway through the process, so he has another couple of years to go while we agree our future relationship.
Let us not be distracted by a people’s vote—a second referendum. Let us concentrate on what is in front of us: on getting the best deal possible in an incredibly complex set of negotiations, which have to satisfy different people. There is no perfect Brexit, so we need to chart our way carefully through choppy waters, take our responsibilities seriously, get rid of the egos and the ideological positions, and work out what is best for the country. Let us not be distracted by a second referendum.
I am disappointed by the number of people who have turned up to the debate. I came to listen to it because I spoke in the debate on the counter-proposition—that there should be a second referendum—two weeks ago. This is one of the most important constitutional issues of our time, so I expected more right hon. and hon. Members to be present. However, I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to contribute. I will not repeat the arguments of the previous debate but, I hope, make one or two new points.
I am sure you remember, Mr Hollobone, as a learned person, that in 1953, after the uprising in East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht said ironically that the regime should dismiss the people and appoint a new one. It seems to me that those people who now argue for a second referendum are saying that in 2016 the electorate got it wrong. They make a number of supporting statements, such as, “The electorate didn’t understand.” I think the electorate did understand what was a very simple proposition. Worse than that to my mind is the statement that the electorate were motivated by anger, disillusionment and alienation because they live in poorer regions of the country. That all boils down to the same point: that people in Hartlepool, Wales, the north of England, the south-west of England, the midlands—all the areas that voted to leave—dealt not with the question before them but with their own internal situation.
My experience was quite the reverse. I talked to people while I was out and about on the day of the referendum, and they had a very simple and direct definition of democracy and sovereignty. A couple of them said something like, “We should make our own laws, shouldn’t we?” That is a pretty simple question and a pretty fundamental way of defining democracy and sovereignty, which are at the core of this issue. I therefore dismiss that suggestion by people who argue for a second referendum.
The establishment took one in the guts on this. They did not expect to lose the referendum, so they denigrated people who voted to leave as a way of not dealing with the fundamental arguments. Those arguments were about democracy and sovereignty—the right of an electorate to dismiss the people who raise taxes and make laws. The EU, since its inception, has been a challenge to that process.
I do not really want to repeat the arguments that have been made, but some are worth addressing in detail. There are practical problems. If there were agreement in both Houses that there should be a second referendum—I do not think there is—how long would it take to pass the necessary law? It is not obvious what the question, or questions, would be. Would it be about the 575-page document we have been presented with, which I suspect even lawyers would find difficult to decipher? Would we have another in/out vote? Or would we vote on all three things? I have heard hon. Friends argue on television and radio that there should be a three-point question. They never seem to have the answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully): what happens if the electorate vote a third, a third and a third, or if there are other contradictions in the result?
It seems to me that because of those complicated issues, the timetable for getting a second referendum through both Houses would be long. It is not obvious what the decision would be, and interpreting it would be difficult. I am sure the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), will correct me if I am wrong, but the debate on the Scottish referendum took more than two years. He will not have been happy with the result, but a thoroughgoing debate was had in Scotland on its future.
We had just over a year to debate the 2016 referendum, which came after the 2015 general election when a significant majority of people voted to have a referendum, and still people claimed that there was not sufficient time to hold a referendum. There would be the time taken on the complicated issues of what questions the referendum would ask and what it would be about, and then there would be the time to have a thorough debate. If one of the problems with the first referendum was that the debate was not thorough and detailed enough, one would want at least as long to debate a more complicated question.
Those are practical problems, but there is a deep problem of principle with the belief—this applies to Plaid Cymru, the SNP and others—that referendums are the solution to a problem. If this referendum result is not honoured, what will happen with the honouring of any future referendum results? It calls into question whether Parliament means it when it says, “This is for the people to decide, even by a majority of one.” I can give quotes from Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem spokespeople who said that. That was the decision of the House of Commons and it was passed by a large majority.
I want to go back to what the hon. Gentleman talked about earlier, given the points he is making now. He said that the initial vote was not driven by anger or alienation. Will he comment on the consequences of shoehorning in a second referendum? Would it not incite greater anger and alienation of the kind that we did not necessarily see in the first referendum?
There has been an outpouring of anger by the establishment—those whom we on the left used to call the ruling class—who suddenly found that they were not ruling anymore. They have gone from being completely nonplussed and surprised, to being angry. The electorate were told that they had a decision to make, but they are now being told, “We didn’t like the decision you made; think again and do as you’re told this time.” I realise that that is what the EU has done on a number of occasions. The EU has ignored referendums in Greece and France, and it has made the Irish vote on two occasions on different treaties. That fits in with the EU, but I think people in this country would be angry if that happened.
Opinion polls are all over the place; until there is a campaign on whatever the question is, nobody knows what decision will be made. I think the people of the United Kingdom in total are a rather cussed lot and would not like to be told that they have got it wrong and to do it again. Their initial response would be anger and it would not resolve anything. Fundamentally, those people who say that holding a second referendum is a solution are wrong. It would not solve bitterness and it would not necessarily solve the constitutional problems faced by the Government. It really would not solve anything.
Importantly, we should not follow Brecht’s ironic suggestion, which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, to change the electorate or tell them to do it again. This is the responsibility of Government. The Government said that they would implement the result. They have come back with a deal, about which there are different views. I find the backstop, which I believe our civil service would like us to be locked into forever because it effectively locks us into the customs union, is anathema. It means that we cannot do our own trade deals. Nobody can tell me what we would be getting for £39 billion. I know what the Minister’s position has been over the years, but it is not clear that the £39 billion is anything but a blackmail payment to the EU. It is about the same amount as we would have paid had we had a seat around the table and had we still been a member of the EU. I have been told by Ministers on a number of occasions that there is no legal basis and it is not an obligation to pay that money. There are some smaller obligations. Not only is there a backstop and a lack of trade deals, but we will also be paying a fortune.
I was a member of the board of Vote Leave and one of the biggest criticisms of the leave campaign was that the amount on the side of the bus was exaggerated and was a distortion, because it used the gross payment to the EU and not the net. The figure that the Government are suggesting that we pay for nothing, which will not go into children’s services, social services, protection of the elderly or the NHS, is £60 million per constituency. For what? £60 million per constituency is £1,100 per individual member of the electorate in this country.
I am grateful for the opportunity to talk on this matter again. I do not believe that a second referendum would resolve anything. It is impractical, it is not principled, and I do not think it should be given the time of day to be debated. It should be thrown out.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). Like him, I came here expecting to listen and learn, rather than contribute. I am a Bradford City supporter—they are in the second division at the moment. It feels like a night when we are playing at home and Manchester United are also playing at home in the premier league, not too far away. To continue the football analogy, sometimes the chance arises to come off the bench when all the stars are elsewhere. I feel that it is right that a slightly different view be given during this debate.
I want to say why the Labour party is right not to rule out a second referendum; I hope we will go further than that in coming days. I hope our leader will come back energised from Mexico, where he has been at the very important inauguration of the new President over the weekend, and that he will then join our deputy leader and our shadow Chancellor in beginning to talk up the prospects of a second referendum.
I am not one of those who has ever said that people did not understand what they were voting for. I was a remainer, but it is ridiculous to say that people did not understand what they voted for in the referendum. Generally, they thought long and hard about it. Rather unfashionably, I also think that in 40 or 50 years’ time we may look back at this time in British history—in a short period, we have had two referendums, on Scotland and the European Union, that challenged the whole nature of the British state—and find that, although families and communities were riven, it all showed the strength of British democracy. There was high turnout in both referendums and they have energised a whole new generation into politics.
Obviously, the story is not yet finished and we all have a responsibility over the coming months to make sure that the outcome is good for our nation. I do not believe that our greatness depends on whether we are in or out of the European Union; I believe that we are a great country in any regard and a strong enough democracy. Should this House decide to go down the lines of a second referendum, I do not think there would be riots in the street—we would take it in our stride in a phlegmatic, British way, and there would be strong debates.
I was at the Unison political conference in the great county of Yorkshire on Saturday, and a couple of delegates were pointing out that it is quite common in trade union practice to decide on a course of action, go and negotiate with the employer and then come back to the membership and ask whether they support the precise deal that has been agreed or not. I think that is the stage we are at now.
I want briefly to say why I cannot support the deal that is before Parliament. It creates too much uncertainty for businesses and unions on jobs, and so on, and it kicks into the long grass all the difficult problems about the precise nature of our relationship to the customs union and single market. I hope we would be close to both those institutions, but the issue is left in doubt, and uncertain, which means the nation will have a weak negotiating hand. Once we are out, any trade agreement that we reach with the European nations depends on unanimity, whereas at the moment that is not the case. Once we are out, anything we agree depends on every nation agreeing the precise details. We would be far better off coming to agreement before we are out on important issues such as the single market and the customs union. Uncertainty on the economy and a weak negotiating hand in the future are the reasons why I shall vote against the deal.
If the deal goes down—and it looks very much as if it will—someone will have to do something. There will be a plan B. I suspect that the shadow Minister will know what is going on in the Government—
I am not the shadow Minister.
I am sorry. I meant the Minister—I was looking at him. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), probably does not know precisely what is going on in the Government, but I am sure the Minister, to whom I apologise, will be in the know; the shadow Minister is nodding his head.
I have great respect for the Minister. He will be one of the few people who know exactly what plan B is—among a number of possible ones. I understand that the Trade Bill is coming back the day after the meaningful vote and some people say the Government will adopt the Labour party policy of pretty well staying in the customs union, and possibly a close relationship with the single market. If not, a referendum is one of the only options open to Her Majesty’s Government. There are practical difficulties, of course, but if there was a request to the European Union from Her Majesty’s Ministers to hold a further referendum and remain was to be one of the options, I think we would undoubtedly get the time necessary.
Incidentally, unlike some, I think that if there was a second referendum there would have to be three main options. One would have to be no deal. My constituency was split, as many were—about 53% to come out and roughly 47% to stay in; the different wards ranged from 63% to 32% for those who wanted to stay in, so it is a split constituency. People should be able to say, “No deal”. It would be a disaster for our nation and economy, but it should be one option. How do we do it? We ask two questions.
There is a precedent in Scotland. I understand that the Scottish referendum had two questions—about whether people wanted devolution, and about whether they wanted the Parliament to have tax-raising powers. The second Brexit referendum would obviously be a two-question referendum—possibly, “Do you want to stay in or come out?” and, if people wanted to come out, “Is it the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister or not?”—the deal or no deal, in effect. It could be done and would be a way to bring things to a conclusion if there were a complete impasse in Parliament.
We have asked the people once. If Parliament cannot come to a clear conclusion, the second referendum must be something we consider. Mr Speaker will, I think, ensure that there is a vote on it, if the deal goes down. The crucial vote will not be on the amendments to the meaningful vote, but afterwards. If Her Majesty’s Government do not agree that that is their plan B, they will quickly have to come back with proposals on the customs union and single market, to try to get on side a broad range of people in this Parliament who would favour a close relationship with both those institutions.
The one thing that could persuade me to vote for the deal is the situation in Ireland. I shall not vote for the deal next Tuesday, but the one thing I am torn about is the fact that many people—other than the Democratic Unionist party—are writing to me. The Labour party’s sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, and business and trade unions in Northern Ireland, say that they want to support the deal because of the consequences in Ireland.
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton on the issue. The Prime Minister is to be commended on the backstop arrangements. Ironically, they would put Northern Ireland in the best position economically of any part of the United Kingdom, because it would be linked to the single markets of the United Kingdom and of the European Union.
Whatever decision we take, we must be cognisant of the fact that possibly the greatest political achievement of my lifetime, which I have observed and in which I was a bit-part player, is peace in Ireland. Whatever the House does in the coming weeks, it must not by any decision jeopardise that.
I, too, was just going to come and listen to the debate this afternoon, but I find I have the opportunity to speak for two and a half hours. I have a couple of points to make, given that some I would have made have already been covered.
As to what my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) said about favouring a second referendum including no Brexit, I cast my mind back to a conversation I had with a leading member of my party over lunch last week. I asked him how a second referendum would work, and he said it would be pretty simple. We would have the deal and the case for staying in—the default prior to the last referendum. I simply said, “Okay, I can see where you are coming from. What would be the consequences in terms of the levels of social disquiet and anger that would develop?”
It seems to me that anyone who argues for a second referendum on the basis of the deal versus staying in has a responsibility to provide a risk assessment of the consequences of that argument—because there would be many, in communities such as mine. People would feel they had, in a sense, been humiliated, if their contribution in an earlier referendum, and the passion and energy released in that process, could be parked. I fear how that would play out, and how it would affect the texture of the country.
I will lay my cards on the table. My constituency voted 70:30 to leave, although it is quite complicated to ascertain the precise figures, as we straddle two different authorities. I voted remain, so my powers of persuasion were very effective in that debate. What has worried me throughout is the fact that the conversation so far has been dominated by technical issues about our departure—the 530-page document, and so on—at the expense of the sentiments, concerns and views of the people, often quite viscerally presented in the course of the referendum. They seem to have been marginal in the conversation since then. To date, the righteous anger has appeared to be primarily on the hard Brexit side of the debate, but a bit more righteous anger now seems to be developing on the hard-line remainer side—those who simply want to rewind the result.
I am a passionate remainer, not least because of the Irish issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley mentioned. I think that partly relates to our historic origins. However, the situation means we can play fast and loose with some big issues and, arguably, the great hallmarks and legacies of the previous Labour Administration. We should be careful what we wish for.
My point is simple. I can see how things could move quickly in the next few weeks. As someone said in the papers, we could move through the gears pretty quickly, and we have to game out what the consequences will be, after next Tuesday. One of those, which is appearing front and centre now, is the question of the second referendum. I simply say that anyone who is going to be vociferous in an argument for a second referendum must be clear about what they view as the consequences of that.
It seems to me that the key task of the political class should be national reconciliation in the months and years ahead. There is a danger that we could build and cement a canyon down the centre of the country. With that notion of caution, I simply say that I worry about the speed at which this second referendum is moving front and centre in the debate. I fear we could trip into positions that we should be wary of, unless we have done the preparatory work of fully understanding the consequences of them, which could shape the country for years ahead.
Like other hon. Members, I am a little surprised at the level of attendance at this afternoon’s debate. I can never tell with these things whether it is a lack of empathy across the House for the sentiments behind the petition or whether it is just that the Attorney General is bigger box office than this discussion, but we are where we are.
The way I see it is this: I do not think that in a free, open and democratic society we can say that people do not have the right to change their minds. Of course they do. A group of people voting in a referendum one day in history cannot forever bind people for the future. Any of us would be on very thin ice if we were to get into a situation of saying, “You can never have a second referendum on this question.” On the other hand, we have to accept that with big questions of governance and constitutional politics, we cannot go changing our mind every day, or every month, or even every year.
Therefore, we have to ask ourselves in what circumstances it is legitimate to consider a second referendum, a so-called people’s vote. There are three tests that need to be applied before the legitimacy test is passed. First, it must be demonstrated that the information on which people made their original decision is in some way compromised, either because it was wrong or because it is now obsolete and has been superseded by further developments. With regard to the Brexit referendum, I do not think anyone can argue other than that the information on which people based their decision was fatally flawed.
In response to the statement by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), I am not one of those who blame the electorate; I do not say that people were stupid or did not understand the question. I say they that were deliberately misled by people. I say that they were given information that was false, and deliberately so. In many ways the mendacity in that campaign was on an industrial scale. That is why people were conned in many ways into making the decision they did in June 2016.
Now we have an awful lot more information about what is at stake and what the consequences are, so we move on to the second test: have a significant number of people changed their minds on the question? By “significant”, I mean enough to produce a different result, were the question put again. Again, that test is met. It is consistently clear from opinion polls over three or four months—the latest one only today—that a large number of people have changed their mind on the question, sufficient to produce a different result were the question put again. The Prime Minister and the Government are fond of saying that 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, the biggest number in our history that have ever voted for anything. That is true, but here is the inconvenient truth: at least 2 million of them have now changed their minds. I think it is disrespectful to those people not at least to consider whether the circumstances are such that they should be consulted again.
The third test is that the Parliament or legislature charged with discharging the mandate from the referendum is either unwilling to do so, or incapable of doing so. We are not at that point yet, but I am fairly certain, and I have no reason to change my view from the speeches so far today, that next Tuesday evening Parliament will reject the withdrawal agreement that has been put before it by the Government. In those circumstances, we will be entering a period of unknown chaos, where the Parliament may well be incapable of making any decision. That political gridlock or stasis can perhaps only be resolved by putting the question back to the people who started the process in the first place—all the citizens of the country. I say therefore that a people’s vote should not be regarded as an alternative way of agreeing the withdrawal deal. It is going to happen, if it does, as a consequence of the failure of the Parliament and the Government to prepare a withdrawal deal.
I speak for the Scottish National party, the third party in the United Kingdom Parliament, so it would be remiss of me not to try to give some sort of perspective from north of the border. Scotland, as colleagues know, took a different view from the rest of Britain.
I am following but do not agree with many of the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. On his final point, that there is a failure of Parliament, is it not primarily a failure of the Government? If the Government fail, should not the Government go back to the electorate?
The hon. Gentleman predicts my next point, but let me first say something about the situation in Scotland, where 62% of the people voted to remain in the European Union. By all polling evidence, if that question were asked again it would be more like 68% to 70%, so the opinion is quite different in Scotland from in England and Wales.
The attitude of the minority SNP Government in Scotland, when faced with a question of what to do with this result, where Scotland had voted one way and the rest of the United Kingdom had voted another way, is interesting. We had tried, as colleagues will remember, in the debate on the European Union Referendum Act 2015 to get some provisions in the Act itself that would recognise the different nations within the United Kingdom, but we failed in that endeavour.
The Scottish Government did not say, “Oh well, we don’t recognise the result in the UK because we are against Brexit and this is the Scottish position.” Quite the contrary: a Government that believed in and aspired to an independent Scotland and membership of the European Union produced a detailed document that advocated neither of those things. “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, published in December 2016, was a detailed and comprehensive policy analysis of how Brexit could take place in a way that would not have such effects on the Scottish economy and would better respect public opinion in Scotland. We were basically arguing, as we still argue to this day, for a compromise on what has become known as a Norway-plus position, where we aim to stay in the single market and the customs union. We have not yet been successful in that endeavour, but it is interesting that for 24 months the Scottish Government have been trying to offer this compromise and to get a discussion going about it, and for 24 months they have effectively been ignored.
That brings me to the point about how the Government have managed this process. Here we are, 30 months after the original referendum result, a result that was, by any observation, a narrow and divided one, with the country clearly split. A better Government would have taken that result and tried to steer a course that respected the majority of public opinion to leave the European Union and no longer formally be a member of it, but also recognised that almost half the country valued their European citizenship and tried to find some compromise that would allow Brexit to take place in a way that minimised the depression of their European identity.
The Government did not do that—not at all. The Government took an absolute position and said, “This is clearcut, it is black and white; the 52% won and we are now no longer going to talk about the 48%.” They were written out of history as if their opinions did not matter. That is one of the things that has caused so much resentment and anger and is now fuelling the demand for a people’s vote. In fact, it is even worse than that, because the 52% were disrespected as well; we had every right-wing cause in the country trying to tack its ideas on to the 52% as if that was a mandate for what they wanted. Many people in the 52% were misrepresented as well.
If we had had a Government that could have been more inclusive in their approach and had a dialogue with people, with Opposition parties, with local government and with the national Governments in the devolved legislatures, we might be in a slightly better position. We might have had more of a consensual approach that could possibly command support on the Floor of the House next Tuesday. But we are where we are; we do not have that, and we have a Prime Minister who, Canute-like, seems to be just ignoring wave after wave of concern and opposition that is expressed.
Over the next five days we will spend a lot of time talking about the detail of the 585-page withdrawal agreement and the 24-page framework document, so I will not go into that here. However, the Government getting themselves into this position is calamitous. It did not need to happen. Even at this eleventh hour they could pull back. They need to understand that, by setting their impossible red lines in the first place, they put themselves on a course to deliver a product that was never going to command the support of the House and, worse, does not really seem to satisfy anyone in the country, never mind the 52% who voted to leave in June 2016.
In many ways, the Government have to think again. It seems to me that, once we get past next Tuesday, giving people the opportunity to vote again on this question may provide the Government with a lifeline to try to get out of the mess they have created for themselves. If they do not do that, I certainly agree that the time has come for this Government to get out of the road and be replaced by a Government that will do a better job.
As ever, it is a pleasure to speak for the Opposition under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), to his place in the Department for Exiting the European Union team. Taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), I shall be impressed if the Minister knows the Government’s plan B; he will be the first Minister to have achieved that objective if he does. I look forward to hearing from him later.
I thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for opening the debate. He made an important point on public polling reflecting his friend’s opinion that everybody is fed up with hearing about Brexit. There is almost a momentum behind the current process of people looking forward to 29 March, because then it will all be over. However, as he rightly pointed out, it will not be. We are certainly not nearing the end, and we are not really nearing the end of the beginning. The biggest discussion is yet to be had, because the declaration on our future relationship is so lacking in detail. He also made the important point that this is a critical moment in our history. The decisions that we take over the next few days will shape our country for generations. The situation could not be more serious.
The Labour party campaigned in the referendum to remain, because we believed that it was right, economically and politically, for our country and for the continent that we share, but we accepted that we lost, which is why we voted to trigger article 50, to begin the negotiations to leave. However, the last two years have been largely squandered, with negotiations within the Conservative party taking precedence over the negotiations that needed to take place with the EU27. I understand the predicament of the Government and the warring factions within the Conservative party, but it has left us in a difficult position, and the country is paying the price.
It did not have to be like this, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) indicated. The Opposition urged the Prime Minister to reach out two years ago to the majority in Parliament in favour of a sensible Brexit and, in the spirit of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), to look towards national reconciliation by saying that, yes, people voted to leave the European Union, but by the closest of margins. The referendum gave a mandate that we should no longer be members of the EU, but not that we should rupture that relationship, which was built over 45 years.
If the Prime Minister had said then that she would seek a deal that was right for the people of this country and their livelihoods, she could have begun to pull together the 48% and the 52%. If she had said that that would have involved a customs union, a close relationship with the single market and continued participation in the agencies and partnerships we built together with the EU, I think she could have achieved that. She would have had a clear majority in Parliament and united the country, and the Northern Ireland border, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley, would certainly not have been an issue.
However, the Prime Minister instead let the Brexit extremists within the European Research Group shape the agenda. She set her red lines and boxed herself in, and the result is this doomed deal that satisfies nobody. We face a vote next Tuesday in which the Government are likely to be defeated, and we will then move into uncertain territory. It appears that a clear majority in Parliament will reject the deal and, while there is also certainly a majority in Parliament that will ensure that we do not leave without a deal, it is not clear whether there is a majority for any other outcome. Parliament, like the people we represent, is conflicted.
When the deal is voted down, we will need maximum flexibility. The Opposition will demand a general election, as we have made clear. I hope that, despite their experience in the general election last year, Conservative Members may yet come to recognise that an election to break this deadlock would be in the interests of the country. If they do not, other options must be kept open, including a public vote.
I understand the concerns of the petitioners who made the case against a public vote, which have been reflected by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). However, it is interesting that, as we move towards the Brexit endgame, the debate is changing fundamentally. Some honesty is finally beginning to break out. Those who spent the last two years endlessly repeating the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal have been hitting the TV studios over the last couple of weeks to urge MPs to back the Prime Minister’s deal because, they argue, the alternative is no deal, which they rightly say would be a catastrophe.
Even more significantly, claims that the country will be more prosperous have been abandoned, including by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Instead they argue for the Prime Minister’s deal on the basis that failing to deliver on the 2016 referendum would have serious social and political consequences. That serious point has been made in the debate and it should not be lightly dismissed. However, we should also recognise that there will potentially be even more serious social and political consequences if Parliament votes for a damaging Brexit on a false prospectus.
The Government have confirmed that we will be economically worse off, to varying degrees, under every Brexit option. Instead they say that the Prime Minister’s deal deserves support because it delivers on other pledges, with a particular focus on taking back control of our borders. On the Government’s website, “40 reasons to back the Brexit deal”, the top reason is on migration, with a promise that free movement will come to an end once and for all.
However, the expectations unleashed by the rhetoric of taking back control are a long way from the reality. The Government have had complete control of non-EU migration for the last eight years. In every one of those years, net migration from outside the EU was higher than from within it, and it has stayed at a steady level. As last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show, the recent decline we have seen in EU migration has simply been replaced by rising numbers from beyond the EU, with non-EU migration hitting a 14-year high. But on that central issue, the Home Secretary has said this morning that we are unlikely to see the Government’s plans before next Tuesday’s vote; the much-promised White Paper on immigration has apparently been delayed again—and beyond next Tuesday.
We potentially face a future that is poorer, with less money for public services, and with migration numbers changing little. That is a long way short of the wild promises made during the Brexit campaign, and potentially the social and political consequences of people being in that position five years down the road are very serious.
Therefore, when the Prime Minister’s deal is inevitably voted down, all options have to remain open. As I said, that includes a further public vote. That is not something on which there are divisions between Opposition and Government Members. The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) made the case for a public vote when he resigned as Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation on Friday. His predecessor as Universities Minister, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), has also made the case, as have former Conservative Cabinet members and the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, saying that a public vote may be the only way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves.
A public vote would not be without difficulties, and nobody could predict the outcome. However, the public do have information that was not available two years ago. They can see now, in contrast with then, what Brexit looks like, so there is a case for giving them a chance to reject Brexit or give informed consent to the Prime Minister’s deal. We will explore all the options available, but we believe that we should not rule out the chance to give the people the final say.
I am delighted to stand here, on my first outing as a Minister to represent the Government and make the Government’s case, under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone; I am very pleased about that. This has been a very interesting debate. As has been observed, more right hon. and hon. Members could have participated, but I think that quality is better than quantity. That has always been a principle of mine, and I was delighted to hear as many speeches as I did.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I also thank all those who participated in the debate. The petition brings up a very important question—the idea that we should have a second referendum. I want to make it as categorically clear as possible that this Government will respect the result of the referendum and we will not—I repeat, we will not—hold a second referendum. Let me go into some of the reasons why we do not want to do that.
The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made a very good point when he referred to the levels of condescension and the idea that people were too stupid to understand what membership of the EU meant and what leaving it would mean. It is ridiculous to assume or to think that people in this country, who have been debating this issue for 45 years—it has been an issue ever since we joined the EU—were too stupid to understand the question on the ballot paper. It is also offensive—it is ridiculous and offensive.
Then we heard the other idea. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said, “Well, people weren’t stupid, but they were conned.” That is like me saying to a friend, “When you lost your money, you weren’t stupid, but you were conned.” Essentially, it is saying that, for whatever reason, people were misled; they were gulled into making a choice, which they actually knew perfectly well about. They simply did not want, as an electorate, to stay in the EU, and it is the job of the Government, as it always has been, to deliver on the vote.
Let me give my personal point of view. I was in the Vote Leave campaign. I represent a constituency that voted 60% to leave the EU. My sense, as a constituency MP talking to people, is this. A large number of remainers are very quiet. They voted remain for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps some of them believed that the fear and uncertainty were too great. But now that the electorate as a whole have embarked on this course, many of those remainers want to see it through.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East suggested, “Oh, the polls have changed wildly.” They have not. If we look at the polls a week before the campaign started in 2016, we see that they were exactly where they are now. Remain, as I recall, had a 10-point lead and, in the course of the campaign, its lead was reversed.
I take the Minister’s point, but does he not accept that there is a considerable difference between the result in June 2016 of 52:48 and the average of polls now, which is 55:45 against?
My very point was that the hon. Gentleman should not place too much credence in the polls. If the polls had been right, this would never have happened. If the polls four months before the actual result had been right, remain would have won by a huge margin. I question the notion that because the polls are essentially saying exactly the same thing as they did four months before the last referendum, that means that the public have changed their mind; I dispute that. The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to suggest that we cannot simply relitigate this issue year after year. The previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, made it very clear that the result would be respected. It was a close result, but a clear and authoritative one.
I was musing on this question during the hon. Gentleman’s speech. If, by some misfortune, the Scottish National party had got its wish and won the independence referendum in 2014, how enthusiastic would it be about another referendum on that question? It would simply have shut down the issue.
That is a good debating point, but let us be clear: the 2014 Scottish referendum was conducted, as has been said, on the basis of a campaign and discussion that lasted more than two years, a vast debate and a 670-page White Paper that spelled out exactly what the proposition was. Surely the Minister is not drawing a comparison between that and something that was based on a slogan on the side of a bus?
I will absolutely make the comparison and I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Economic Community and now the EU had been a top-line issue for 45 years. If it had not been, why was there a referendum in 1975, the year I was born? This issue has gone on for two generations, so I suggest respectfully to the hon. Gentleman that the electorate did have a sense of what they wanted.
We cannot go down the route of simply relitigating referendums when we do not like the result, because that essentially is what this boils down to. That is essentially what is driving the call for a second vote—the so-called people’s vote. Former Prime Minister Mr Blair has said as much. He makes no bones about the fact that he thinks that Brexit is a disaster and the way to reverse Brexit is by means of a second referendum. It is an instrument by which one can reject the will of the people as expressed in June 2016. Let us not be fastidious or naive about this. The people who generally are driving for a people’s vote and a second referendum want to reverse the result. They think—mistakenly, in my view—that the way to reverse the result is to get a second referendum, which will confirm or reconfirm our membership of the EU. I think they are wrong and, as I have said, the Government have made a clear undertaking that we will not have a second referendum.
The question on 23 June 2016 was clear; it was absolutely unequivocal. The question was simply:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Many of us in the Chamber took part in the referendum campaign—some with Vote Leave and some with the Stronger In or remain campaign. It was a very hard-fought and widely trailed discussion. Some people have said that the quality of the debate was not good enough or that some pieces of information were withheld, but generally it was an extraordinary exercise in democracy. As has been said many times, it was the single biggest vote that this country had ever seen in a general election or any other kind of election. And as we all know, 17.4 million votes were cast to leave the EU. That was the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history.
What those calling for a second vote—the so-called people’s vote—are saying is that the people should think again. Essentially, they are saying, metaphorically, to the electorate, “Your homework was not good enough. Please do it again.” As the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton suggested, the electorate—certainly in my constituency—are quite a cussed lot. I do not see the floods of support for remain described by others. I strongly suspect—this is my personal view—that a second referendum would not deliver a different result.
That is irrelevant, however, because the Government are tasked to enact the will of the majority of the people, as expressed in the 2016 referendum. All major political parties were committed to respect the outcome. We fought a general election on the basis that we would leave the EU. As has been said, 499 Members of this House voted to invoke article 50, which we all knew would involve a two-year process, at the end of which we would leave the EU. All of that is in the public record and everyone understood the consequences of it. Furthermore, the Labour party committed in its 2017 manifesto to leave the EU and the customs union. More than 80% of the British people voted either Conservative or Labour in the general election. They voted for parties that were absolutely committed to respect the 2016 referendum result. That is exactly what the British people expect us to do.
I fully understand the emotional impetus behind the call for a second referendum, but I think it is a ruse by which people seek to stay in the EU. We are pledged to leave the EU. The full democratic process of the referendum delivered a clear directive, which this Government hope to deliver. The call for a second referendum opens up a huge question about the levels of trust in our Government and our democracy. We have to respect the will of the people. To do otherwise and say, “We will have a second referendum and try to reverse the result of the first referendum, because you got the wrong answer first time,” is not only an abnegation of democracy, but profoundly disrespectful of the electorate. As a Minister, I would not want to see that.
We have to look at the nature of the referendum itself. It was a long, four-month campaign, but we cannot just think of the referendum as those four months in 2016, because this debate had been going on for decades, not only in my party but in the Labour party. I am old enough—just—to remember the 1983 general election, in which the Labour party was pledged to leave the EEC. That created great divisions and caused great debate within the Labour party. My own party has been a scene of great discussion and lively debate on this issue. It is not right to say that those four months of the referendum campaign in 2016 encapsulated the whole debate, because it has been ongoing for 45 years and more.
I sense that I am in a room of clairvoyants, because everyone has told me that the Government will lose the vote on Tuesday. I have been in the House long enough—let us see what happens. People have asked, “What about plan B?” If I knew plan B, I would not divulge it in this Chamber—I assure hon. Members of that—so the question is redundant. I remind hon. Members that the choice is between a deal and no deal, because, as others have suggested, the hourglass is running quickly. We are running out of time. Article 50 was invoked on 29 March 2017. It does not take a mathematician to work out that 29 March 2019 will be the end of our formal membership of the EU. Nor does one have to be mathematically gifted to work out that there are fewer than four months between today and exit day. In that timeframe, the notion that the Government will throw off their policy of the last two and half years and then bring in some parliamentary device for a second referendum to take place before the exit day is, frankly, ridiculous. We do not have the time to do it and people would feel that it would be extremely irresponsible to do so.
I could spend the next hour and three quarters trying to convince hon. Members of the merits of the deal. I do not want to do that, because they probably want to do other things. However, I will say that the deal does precisely what the electorate voted for. On immigration, we have heard about restrictions to freedom of movement.
Given that the Minister has raised the question of immigration, does he agree that it is incumbent on the Government to do as they previously promised and publish the immigration White Paper before we vote on the deal?
The shadow Minister is trying to tempt me down paths I do not want to go down. We will have a plan. At the moment, the Government are focused on winning the vote on Tuesday and getting on with Brexit, as so many of our constituents want them to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said that someone was bored of Brexit. I have used that phrase myself—not of me: I love Brexit and am fascinated by it, but a lot of my constituents want to get the ball rolling. They want to get on with wider political debate and to get on with their lives. They see that the deal is a way of getting to the finishing post of 29 March. Anything we do to jeopardise that would not only frustrate Brexit, but be a great abnegation of democracy.
The debate about our relationship with Europe will not end with our formal exit from the EU. There will be all sorts of ongoing discussions and debates about bits of the EU that we might want to pay into and others that we might not. That is the nature of democracy: we can debate it. It will not be set in stone, but we will have an evolving and, I hope, co-operative and fruitful relationship with the EU. However, we seek to close the question of membership of the EU and we will formally end it on 29 March.
People have talked about the money—the £39 billion. The figure of £35 billion to £39 billion has been quoted as a divorce payment. That is actually a small fraction of the £100 billion that we saw in the newspapers and the other huge amounts that were trailed across the media. Looking at our 46-year commitment to the EU, we see that £39 billion works out as four years of net payments to the EU—what I call the annual subscription.
The annual subscription in the 2014 to 2020 budget period was about £10 billion a year net, depending on how it is calculated. After the payment and the implementation period, we will not have to pay a penny piece. The golf club subscription, as one of my constituents once referred to it, will be over. We will not be paying into the common kitty to the tune of £10 billion a year. We will secure—we hope and confidently expect—a free trade deal. We will be able to co-operate with the EU, but our formal membership and the annual tribute or payment that we used to make will be over.
My last point is about sovereignty, which was raised by the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton. People wanted to have a sense that they were electing to this Parliament Members who would exercise the sovereign will of the British people and make our own laws. That is a fundamental point that cannot be captured in trade deals, money or economics; it is about fundamental independence and sovereignty. That was a big driver of the vote and this deal delivers it. I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Government in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam on introducing it and I look forward to his concluding remarks.
I thank the Minister for his reassuring remarks. It was remiss of me not to have welcomed him to his place for his first Westminster Hall debate. He gave a good amount of reassurance that we will not get distracted from our important task by the so-called people’s vote. We need to concentrate on making sure that we deliver for the people of this country.
In the last couple of years, the Government and the Prime Minister have had the incredibly difficult job of squaring seemingly impossible circles. It is impossible to find a solution to the Labour party’s six tests when the last one says that leaving must deliver the exact same benefits as membership. Clearly, at the golf club that the Minister referred to, pay-as-you-play is not the same as membership.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Prime Minister said that she was determined to meet the six tests set by the Labour party?
The Prime Minister will go as close as she can, but that last one is clearly impossible. She is working to satisfy as many people as she can in incredibly difficult times.
We then have the Liberal Democrats, who want to have their Bobby Ewing moment and pretend this all away, frankly. Those are the dynamics that we have been working on.
We are now at the dénouement—the end of the first part of the process. Let us try to get through this week and a half, get the vote next Tuesday, and move on to the exciting, optimistic global Britain thing that we can do—trade with the rest of the world and with our European partners. I look forward to the fact that our 40 or 50-year decision will allow us to make sure that our best days are still ahead of us.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 226071 relating to not holding a second referendum on EU membership.