Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Prime Minister’s unprecedented decision not to proceed with the final two days of debate and the meaningful vote, despite the House’s Order of Tuesday 4 December 2018, and her failure to allow this House to express its view on the Government’s deal or her proposed negotiating objectives, without the agreement of this House.
I have had the privilege of serving this House for 35 years, and I have had strong disagreements with every Prime Minister who has served in that time—it is all there on the record—but I have never, in all those years, witnessed such an abject mess as this Prime Minister is making of these crucial Brexit negotiations and in presenting her deal to the House. Most Prime Ministers lose votes and get things wrong, but yesterday she demeaned her office by unilaterally taking her discredited deal off the table and running away, rather than facing the verdict of this House. We should have been voting on it today. There is nothing wrong with standing by your principles, but this deal is not one of principle—or apparently not one that she is prepared to stand by, anyway. Yesterday the Government did not even have the decency to allow a vote on withdrawing the business. The Prime Minister let down all MPs and the people we represent, on both sides of this House, the overwhelming majority of whom know that this deal is dead and want to get on with putting a realistic solution in place.
I want to thank my colleagues in the Labour party who supported the application for the debate yesterday, and colleagues in all the other opposition parties who supported it, and indeed Conservative Members, on both sides of the debate, in order to ensure that a vote could take place.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the frequency with which the Government hold this Parliament in contempt, and the ease with which they mislead the British public, is frankly appalling and pathetic? [Interruption.] It is true. It is now alleged on BuzzFeed that the Prime Minister told top EU officials that she intended to pull the Brexit vote 24 hours before she told senior Cabinet members. Does my right hon. Friend agree—
Order. I had wanted the hon. Gentleman to complete his intervention. I remind the House that interventions should be brief, not mini speeches, because there is a lot to get through and 32 Members want to contribute after the principal speakers.
That news is very disturbing indeed. The House should be told first—not the media, not anybody else.
It is not just BuzzFeed that reported that, but the Daily Mirror. I myself have been told that the Prime Minister spoke to a number of EU member states and officials before she spoke to the Cabinet and the House to say that the vote would be cancelled. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what I have been told is shocking: that apparently the addendum the Prime Minister is now seeking was drafted weeks ago, before we even started the debate in this House?
The whole process gets curiouser and curiouser, Mr Speaker. This is no longer a functioning Government and the Prime Minister must admit her deal is dead. Her shambolic negotiations have ended in failure and she no longer has the authority to negotiate for this country when she does not even have the authority of her own party.
Does the Leader of the Opposition not accept that it is rather strange for the Opposition to criticise the Prime Minister for not seeking clarity on the backstop but then, when she does go to Brussels to do just that, criticise her for that very action?
I am absolutely full of admiration for the hon. Member’s ability to keep a straight face while she asked that question.
Parliament may not have had the chance to vote down the Prime Minister’s deal, but if she had put it before the House I think we all know it would have been defeated by a very significant margin indeed.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just that the Prime Minister let down the House and our constituents? Taxpayers have been paying the price, with reports that £100,000 was spent in the past week on Facebook advertisements supporting her deal. Her Ministers were sent around the country, and all of us have spent time and resources consulting our constituents. We have all been let down. We have not been able to express our view and their view in a vote in this House.
The Prime Minister has indeed wasted £100,000 of public money in just seven days on Facebook adverts trying, and failing, to sell this dog’s dinner of a Brexit deal. There were days when both the Prime Minister and I served as local councillors. Had we spent public money in that way, we would have been surcharged for a waste of public money without proper approval.
The right hon. Gentleman is of course right: the Government are an absolute shambles. They have failed the country and they are in contempt of Parliament. Will he not do the right thing now and table a motion of no confidence in the Government, so that we can be shot of them?
I have tabled this motion today, which the hon. Gentleman supported. We have no confidence in the Government. We need to do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time—have a motion of no confidence to get rid of this Government.
The Prime Minister not only failed to convince the public; she now seems unable to convince the European Union to accept any meaningful changes to her proposals.
If the right hon. Gentleman followed the debate, he will have noticed that he had complaints about the backstop, as did most of the 164 speakers. Is it therefore not right for the Prime Minister to go and see if she can mend it? If he disagrees with that, why?
I thought that was a really valiant attempt to defend the indefensible. It is utterly ludicrous. Everyone knew the date the vote was going to be put. The whole world knew about it. We now hear that apparently the Prime Minister was trying to arrange some backroom deal ahead of it and then pulled the vote, but she did not bother to tell an awful lot of other people that she was doing so. I do admire the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s attempts at defending what is completely indefensible.
Last week the Government were found to be in contempt of Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the media were briefed before this House, that is further contempt for this Parliament?
The Prime Minister cancelled the Cabinet meeting this morning—presumably she is worried about whether she has a majority there or not—and apparently many of her Ministers are very upset. I cannot say I blame them. At least a dozen were sent into TV and radio stations yesterday morning to deny the Prime Minister would pull the vote, before somebody helpfully phoned from Downing Street to pull them out of the studios to say the line had changed. That is an extraordinary way of not running a Government. The Northern Ireland Secretary was quoted as saying that the UK must move on with Brexit or risk being riven with division, shortly before the Prime Minister decided not to move on with Brexit. This is the same Prime Minister who said hers was the best deal and the only deal. If that is the case, what is she doing today in Europe?
This runaway Prime Minister is not even seeking to negotiate. She confirmed that she is only seeking reassurances. Our Prime Minister is traipsing around the continent in pursuit and search of warm words—when she can get out of the car to hear them. It really is, if I may say so, Mr Speaker, the unspeakable in pursuit of the unwritten—a waste of time and a waste of public money. Because of her own unworkable red lines, the European Commission says it will not renegotiate with her. The Prime Minister also concedes that she is not negotiating either, so what on earth is she doing travelling from capital to capital in Europe? I am sure it cannot be Christmas shopping, so what on earth is she doing in Europe? Worse than that, it shows that once again she is simply not listening.
In ensuring the integrity of our Union, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the only way we can deal with the backstop is to amend the legally binding text of an international agreement?
The red lines the Prime Minister set out on the backstop became impossible. Because of her bungled negotiations, there is a greater chance of entering into an indefinite backstop. That is one of the reasons why we would vote against it, as I believe the hon. Gentleman would.
There are legitimate concerns about the Northern Ireland backstop, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not only the backstop that is a problem with this deal? Can he remember a time in British history when the Prime Minister and the Chancellor recommended a course of action that, like their deal, would make people worse off according to their own analysis?
I cannot recall a time when any Government have come to the House to promise something that will make people worse off and then blindly continue to go ahead with it. It is not only the backstop that is a problem. Many will not vote for a blindfold Brexit on the basis of a 26-page wish list attached to it. It fails to guarantee the frictionless trade that the Prime Minister promised. It fails to maintain our membership of vital agencies and programmes. It fails to ensure that our rights and protections will be kept in place. It fails to provide a comprehensive customs union with a UK say. On the latter point, I welcome the endorsement of a permanent customs union by former Brexit Minister Lord Bridges, who said that it could be the basis for a parliamentary consensus.
Yesterday, following her statement, the Prime Minister failed to answer a single one of my questions, so last night I wrote to her, together with the leaders of the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. We set out five questions to the Prime Minister. Sadly, she is not here to answer them. Therefore, Mr Speaker, when she returns from her strange stage-managed foray to Europe, I hope she will reply promptly to the five Opposition parties who wrote to her.
While the Prime Minister sends our country into Brexit-induced paralysis, the coming winter threatens the deepest crisis in our NHS. Homelessness and rough sleeping continue their unrelenting rise. The local government funding settlement is delayed yet again, meaning our very hard-hit councils cannot start budgeting for next year and neither can the police—facing rising violent crime because their funding settlement is delayed, too. Another Government contractor, we learn, is at risk, and thousands of jobs, too, as Interserve teeters on the brink of collapse; and all the while, the economy is slowing—high streets in crisis, shares tumbling, the pound plummeting. This is not strong and stable government—it is weak leadership from a weak Prime Minister.
Some people say that talk of poverty and food banks is a distraction from Brexit. Given the impact on food prices, does not my right hon. Friend think that actually, it is the central issue?
Poverty is the central issue in this country. As the UN report pointed out, 14 million of our fellow citizens are living in poverty. More will be rough sleepers than for many, many years over this Christmas, and we have hundreds of thousands of children living in insecure, temporary accommodation, many of them very hungry over this Christmas. That is not a good look and we should be having a Government who are concentrated on reducing the levels of poverty in this country.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the £100,000 given to Facebook—spent on Brexit advertising—by the Government could have been given to all our constituencies to alleviate food poverty?
Indeed; £100,000 would help a lot of food banks get more food in order that the hungry can get something to eat.
If the Prime Minister comes back with nothing more than warm words, then she must immediately put her deal to the House—no more delays, no more tricks; let Parliament take control. If not, then frankly she must go. We cannot tolerate delay any longer. With a legally enshrined exit date of 29 March 2019, just over 100 days away, we cannot allow this shambles to endure, and neither can we risk falling into a no deal.
In addition to the farce that was facing the country yesterday, one of the biggest consequences will be the impact that this has on the 22,000 EU nationals living in my constituency. The settled scheme status is still being developed. The Home Office app for registration has been branded absolutely “useless” by academics. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the limbo facing this House will have great, distressing consequences for our EU nationals in our constituencies?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and compliment her on the work that she does on behalf of her constituents. All of us represent EU nationals, some in greater numbers than others. We all know the horror and stress that they have been through over the past two and a half years—the stress where one partner comes from one part of Europe and the other from Britain, and the stress on those children is huge—which is why, straight after the referendum, on our behalf, Andy Burnham moved from this Dispatch Box a motion guaranteeing permanent rights of residence for all EU nationals. That was agreed on a non-binding motion. Two and a half years later, we still have not had the absolute legal certainty from this Government on the protection of those EU nationals. They deserve it, and we also need to recognise that they have made a massive contribution to our economy, to our way of life, to our health service and to all our public services. We should thank them for it and assure them that they have a permanent place in this country, whatever the outcome of these particular rounds of talks.
We will work across this House to prevent any further damage to our economy, to our international standing and to our democracy, so I say to the limited number of Government Back Benchers opposite: let Parliament have a say on this shabby deal. Let Parliament take back control of it, because this Government have lost the ability to lead, the ability to negotiate and the ability to speak for this House in those negotiations.
The Leader of the Opposition spent most of his speech attacking my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I think it is perhaps worth reminding him and the House that in the last two months alone, my right hon. Friend has spent more than 22 hours at this Dispatch Box making statements and answering questions from right hon. and hon. Members in every corner of this House, predominantly about the question of EU exit—[Interruption.]—and the deal that she negotiated. She has made, in that time alone, six full oral statements dedicated to that subject and opened the debate in this House on 4 December—[Interruption.]
Order. There will be plenty of opportunity for other hon. and right hon. Members to speak in the debate, and indeed, to seek to intervene, but the Minister for the Cabinet Office must be heard.
I think anybody who has observed my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in action, both in her current office and in the other offices she has held over the years, will be in no doubt about her commitment to parliamentary accountability, whatever the cost to her in terms of the time that you, Mr Speaker, rightly say that she should be spending—and she accepts that she should spend—in answering questions from colleagues in every party in every corner of this House.
I think that nobody doubts how much effort the Prime Minister has put into the entire process of Brexit, but in the end, what matters to people outside here is not effort but results. This House ought to have the chance to vote on those results.
As I shall say shortly, this House will indeed have that opportunity.
After all the debate, what the businesses, farmers and consumers—all the people in my constituency—want to know is when this matter is going to be resolved. It would have been resolved tonight had we had that vote. What date will we have this vote?
What the businesses and farmers whom I have talked to in Wales, and in my constituency and many other parts of the country, have said is that they want hon. Members from every political party to get behind the deal and get it in place as rapidly as possible, so that they can have the certainty and clarity of the transitional period and can plan investment and job creation decisions that are currently being held while that uncertainty prevails.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, while the Prime Minister may have had plenty of time to speak about this, we have not? We did have 15 hours of debate in which we could have presented the case for our constituents—for me, that includes the university sector, the automobile sector and the science sector. Two Ministers have gone who used to cover those portfolios because they can now see the effect that this is going to have. Does he not understand the intense frustration on the Opposition side with this Government, who will not let us speak up for our constituents?
For the reasons that I have already set out, there have been many hours already, including the three days so far of debate on the meaningful vote, in which Members of Parliament from all parts of the House have been able to express those views.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), from the Scottish National party, then I will make progress.
It is always good to see the right hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box, but perhaps he can explain exactly what the Prime Minister is doing. She has heard what the EU leaders have told us; they are not prepared to negotiate this deal. Should not this Prime Minister, the worst dancing queen in history, come back here and face her Waterloo?
Ah, the hon. Gentleman has been crafting that one for quite a time, I can see. He asked what my right hon. Friend is doing. The answer is that she is responding to the points made to her again and again by Members of this House, because in the statements and the exchanges that followed, and in the debates that we have had so far, hon. Members have expressed criticisms, usually focused—not exclusively, but for the most part—on one issue: the so-called backstop on the Irish border. Again and again, right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House have asked her to go back to EU member states and the Commission to seek changes, and in particular, to provide assurances that the backstop would only be temporary. That is exactly what my right hon. Friend has done.
It was very clear from the first three days of debate—colleagues have not been backwards in making themselves available to the media as well to say how much they disagree with the deal—that the House was not going to pass it, so surely the Prime Minister has done exactly the right thing in going back to Europe to get a better deal to put to the House in due course.
My hon. Friend puts it well. As I have said, the Prime Minister is responding to the wish expressed by many Members of the House.
The right hon. Gentleman and I both entered the House at the same time, and I doubt that either of us has been in a situation quite as dangerous and fraught as this. Surely he will agree that, after yesterday, the Prime Minister has shredded her credibility and that many people on both sides of the House now find it almost impossible to believe a word she says. She asserts one thing one day and the opposite the day after. She sends her Cabinet out to assert that the vote is going ahead even as she is planning to pull it. Surely he must understand that we cannot go on with this Prime Minister at the helm.
No, I reject that completely. Let us look back over the last week. My right hon. Friend returned from the G20 in Argentina the Sunday before last; she gave a statement to the House on the Monday; then she both led the debate on the meaningful vote and listened to the many interventions made; and then, as well as paying attention to what was said in the House on subsequent days, she talked to a number of Members from different political parties and came to the decision over the weekend that she announced to the House yesterday.
Is the problem not now that Ministers do not know themselves whether they are telling the truth to the House of Commons because they are not being told the truth by the Prime Minister? This is now a question of trust, and that is why the DUP is not supporting the Government. It is not just a question of policy detail; it is a question of breaking trust. Ministers do not even know any more when they are telling the truth.
My right hon. Friend convened the Cabinet by telephone conference yesterday morning to tell all members of the Cabinet about the decision she had come to, and the Cabinet agreed to support and endorse that decision.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that Members had asked for assurances about the backstop. Will he accept, even at this late stage, that assurances will not suffice? Unless there is a fundamental alteration to the text of the withdrawal agreement and to the advice given by the Attorney General himself, it simply will not suffice.
I am in no doubt about the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman and his DUP colleagues. He will understand that I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the conversations the Prime Minister is having with other European leaders, but she made it clear yesterday that nothing was ruled out in those conversations.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that had we had the vote today, he would have known the views not of a few Members but of the House? Would that not have strengthened the Prime Minister’s negotiating position, as she could have gone back and said that the House had rejected the proposal?
As she said yesterday, the Prime Minister was in no doubt, having listened to the debate, read Hansard and held direct conversations with Members of Parliament across the House, as to what the outcome was going to be.
It seems to me that we have two options—either a Parliament like the European Parliament, where everything is agreed in advance and what someone says in the Chamber does not affect anybody’s opinion or change anything, or a Parliament like this Parliament, where debate is dynamic and Ministers listen to what is said. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a better place to be?
The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) reminded us that she and I had been here for a few years now. I have sat through exchange after exchange in this Chamber—with each main party, at different times, in opposition or in government—where the demand has been that Ministers respond to the debate in the House and the calls made upon them, yet when my right hon. Friend does that, the clamour of criticism increases further.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
No, I will not give way. [Hon. Members: “Give way!”]
Order. An enormous amount of noisy burbling is being directed at the Minister by right hon. and hon. Members. I have known him for 21 years in the House, and for a decade or so before that, and in my experience he is an unfailingly courteous Minister, and he must be heard.
I have given way a fair number of times. I am conscious that many of my hon. Friends, and many hon. Members opposite, are seeking to intervene, and I will try to give way further, but I am conscious, Mr Speaker, that you told us that more than 30 Members wanted to take part in this debate. I will therefore make some progress, and then I will look for an opportunity to give way again.
The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and many other Members on both sides of the House have made the point that the House wishes to bring this matter to a head and to have a definitive vote, and of course it is a requirement under the EU withdrawal Act that a meaningful vote take place before the Government are able to ratify any deal with the EU—a deal in the form of a withdrawal agreement under article 50 of the treaty on European Union.
I want to reiterate what I think the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), made clear earlier this afternoon: the remaining stages of this debate and the votes have not been cancelled; they have been deferred. The business of the House motion that governs the debate, including the amendment successfully moved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), also remains in force. The terms of that business of the House motion could be changed only if the House itself either amended the motion or passed a new motion to supersede the one currently in place.
My procedure is a bit rusty, but am I right in saying that the motion as drafted can be amended only by a Minister of the Crown. If the Government wanted to put back the vote because the Prime Minister wanted more time to go to Europe—admittedly, she has only had two years—the honourable thing the Government should have done yesterday was come to the House, table a revised business motion to put the vote back, say, one week, argue to the House why they needed that extra time, and then put the motion to the vote. That would have been the honourable way to proceed. Why did the Government not do that?
While it might be for the Government to table any amendment to the business of the House motion, of course such an amendment would carry only if the House as a whole voted to approve it.
Will my right hon. Friend give way again?
If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will try to answer his question.
We cannot vote on it if you don’t bring it forward.
I am trying to answer my right hon. Friend’s question. Just as the business of the House motion that currently governs the debate was open for debate and was then approved by the House in order for it to take effect, those provisions would also apply to any subsequent change in the terms of that motion, so it would be a matter for the House as a whole.
As for my right hon. Friend’s second point, we do not know for certain at this stage what the outcome of the talks that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is having today with other European leaders will be, or what the discussions and conclusions may be of the European Council that is scheduled to take place later this week. The judgment that we have made as a Government is that in those circumstances, it would be right to come to the House as soon as we have that certainty.
I want to make it clear that, as the Prime Minister said yesterday and as the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), said earlier today in response to the urgent question, the Government will bring the debate and vote back to the House by 21 January at the very latest. As my hon. Friend said during the exchanges that followed his response to the urgent question, we see that date as a deadline and not as a target.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), because he has been trying to intervene for a long time.
I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for giving way. As he knows, I have a lot of respect for him, and he has a tough gig today.
The reason for this postponement and delay is, of course, so that the Prime Minister can go away and negotiate some magic piece of paper. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether any member of the Cabinet had seen or discussed a draft of the addendum or codicil that the Prime Minister is seeking at any point in the last few weeks before she decided to postpone the debate?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words, but, as he will understand, I am certainly not going to talk about the discussions that take place during Cabinet meetings.
I am slightly confused by what the deputy Prime Minister is saying. He seems to be suggesting that we will be restarting the old debate. Presumably that means that none of the Members who have already spoken will speak again and that all the elements of the business of the House motion that we have already carried will continue; but surely to God, we must do that before Christmas. We cannot let this roll on and on while businesses are wasting time, money and energy making plans for something that may not come to pass.
I will go this far with the hon. Gentleman: my view, and the Government’s view, is that we need to push on with this sooner rather than later, but that we need to know the outcome of the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is having before we determine the exact timing of those future days of debate. Let me also reiterate that, as both the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester have said to the House, the Government regard the obligation, in the event of no deal being agreed, to make a statement in line with section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act as a solemn commitment that still stands.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that greater than the political crisis that has been created is the economic crisis? Already, in the last 24 hours, 2% has been knocked off the value of the pound. Is that not a reason to press ahead with the vote?
I am second to no one in wanting this issue to be resolved as rapidly as possible.
Why will the Government not rule out no deal, given the catastrophic impact that it would have on businesses, jobs and people’s livelihoods? If he will not rule it out, will he tell us how much more taxpayers’ money is going into planning for no deal because of the delay that has been caused by the Government and the lack of a vote today?
It cannot be ruled out, because the removal of no deal from the table requires the ratification of a deal of some kind at Westminster, and it requires ratification by the European Parliament as well. Just as any business would expect to maintain contingency plans for all eventualities, even unwelcome and unlikely ones, the Government have a responsibility to maintain their contingency planning against that eventuality.
The truth is that this is not an isolated incident but a pattern of behaviour. Parliament has been frustrated and blocked at every turn. Whether the issue was the role that Parliament would take in the debate and deliberations, the legal advice that we consider in making that decision or our having a vote at all, Parliament has been frustrated at every step. If there is to be a continuation of the debate that has already taken place, it will mean that whatever change is made and whatever format is adopted, I will not be able to debate it on behalf of my constituents, because I took part in the debate last week. How can that be right and fair?
As I have said, the Government, and the Prime Minister personally, have been extremely committed to this, which can be demonstrated by the number of hours that have been spent in Parliament discussing these issues and responding to questions.
We have heard a lot from Opposition Members about the value of the pound. Some of them are becoming quite interested in economics all of a sudden. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that one reason why the value of the pound has been falling is the sniff of a Labour Government, which would see capital flight from this country as we have never seen it before? Even the sniff of it is a foretaste of what would happen if the Leader of the Opposition ever got his hands on No. 10.
My hon. Friend is right, and he is not the only one to express that fear. It is an opinion voiced strongly by businesses large and small in every part of the United Kingdom. The thought of a Labour Government who saw the economic policies of Cuba and Venezuela as models to follow should scare anyone who is interested in jobs and investment in this country.
The right hon. Gentleman has been asked this question twice, but he has not answered it. I will give him a third chance. Is the Government’s proposition that when we return to this, the previous debate will continue—in other words, there will be two more days and then we will have a vote—or is there to be a fresh debate? Which is it going to be?
It is a fair question, and while I am not able to give the right hon. Gentleman an absolutely clear answer, I genuinely want to be as helpful as I can on this point. The default position is that the current arrangements, including the business of the House motion, remain in place. One of the things that the Government will have to determine, depending on the outcome of the European Council and the discussions that the Prime Minister is having, is whether, in the context of the statutory requirement for the Government to hold a meaningful vote under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, any changes that may have been made are of a character that requires the debate to be started from scratch rather than continued. Until we know the outcome of those talks, it is impossible for me to provide greater clarity, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will accept from me that that is the best answer I can give in trying to be straight with him.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He is being extremely generous with his time. Can he confirm that, because the vote has now been deferred, the immigration White Paper, which we have been promised since the summer, will be in front of Members before we vote on this matter?
Obviously it will depend to a considerable extent on when the debate and vote on Europe come back to the House, but I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary about this again today, and he says that he expects to be in a position to publish the White Paper very soon.
I will give way to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), but then I will make some progress
I thank the right hon. Gentleman—he is being very generous. A moment ago, he said that the only way to take the risk of no deal off the table was to ratify the deal. I know that he is a very honest man. Surely he must acknowledge that there is a third way as a result of yesterday’s decision by the European Court of Justice, namely to revoke the article 50 notice. He may not wish to do that, but surely he will acknowledge that theoretically it is a third way to avoid the possibility of no deal.
The hon. and learned Lady is right: in the wake of the court’s decision, that is a legal and constitutional possibility. But the Prime Minister made it clear again yesterday that it is not the Government’s policy, and indeed not just my party but the Labour party committed last year to respect the result of the 2016 referendum.
While this debate is interesting, it is ultimately futile in having an impact on public policy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Leader of the Opposition really believes things to be as bad and rotten as Labour says they are, it is surprising that we are not here today debating a vote of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, rather than faffing around with a Standing Order No. 24 debates?
That is a very reasonable question, but it is not for me to answer it; as I understand it, the Leader of the Opposition has the right to respond briefly at the conclusion of this debate, and he might well seize the opportunity to give my hon. Friend the answer he seeks.
When the debate and vote come back to this House, the whole House will have to face up to some choices, because the decision in 2016 that this country should leave the EU has consequences. The idea, which still persists in some circles, that we can have all of the benefits of EU membership without accepting the obligations that go with it is a fantasy. Hon. Members in all parts of the House need to face up to that, and I suggest that it is a truth known to any Opposition Member who has either negotiated within the EU while serving as a Minister or worked for one of the European institutions.
When the Leader of the Opposition responds to this debate, I hope he will use the opportunity to explain in greater detail something about his own position. At the moment he asserts that he wishes for a comprehensive and permanent customs union between this country and the EU, with a British say in future trade deals—a wish that, however desirable, cuts across central elements of the European treaties, most notably the common commercial policy. He asserts that we should use the transitional period to renegotiate the deal, dismissing the reality that the transitional period does not exist unless and until the deal has been ratified.
The right hon. Gentleman says he would solve the issue of the backstop with a customs union for the whole of the United Kingdom, disregarding the fact that that would not solve it because the need for common regulatory standards would remain. He argues that we should have a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU without any commitment to EU state aid rules, but member states and the Commission could not have been clearer that that runs contrary to the most fundamental principles of the European treaties and of the practice and policy of successive Councils and Commissions over the years.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I think it needs to be recorded that if any Member of this House deserves the highest recognition, it has to be him, because he has consistently come to the Dispatch Box and made his case eloquently and powerfully. I gently say to him, however, that he is right that we need to be honest about the choices our country faces, but the problem is that we are only having that debate now, at the end of the process, instead of at the beginning. I remind him of the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who said from the Dispatch Box two years ago when he was Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union that he was confident he would negotiate a deal that would convey the “exact same benefits” that we currently enjoy as a member of the single market and customs union. That is the problem: too many broken promises, too many promises that cannot be delivered.
That is why, when the House comes to debate these matters again and vote on them, every Member, whichever side of the House they sit on and whichever party or part of the country they represent, must be aware that if they vote to reject the deal the Prime Minister has negotiated, they will also need to judge what alternative would both be negotiable with the EU and command a majority here.
I have to say that colleagues of mine and Opposition Members who have expressed strong views on European matters need to understand some home truths. Some have urged that we should simply press ahead, leave without any deal and move straight away to WTO terms. Hon. Members attracted by that option, perhaps on grounds of sovereignty, need to weigh the political attractiveness to them of that option against the fact that trade on WTO terms would do serious harm to our automotive, aerospace and agricultural sectors among others, and that at worst a sudden severing of preferential trade access in less than four months’ time would be hugely disruptive and harmful to our economy, with a direct cost in jobs and investment.
Those who advocate, by contrast, a different model for our future relations, whether Norway and the customs union or a Canada-style classic free trade agreement with the EU, have to address the reality that a withdrawal agreement covering citizens’ rights, a financial settlement and the question of the Irish border is an unavoidable gateway to negotiations on any of those outcomes. Because there will be a risk, whether large or small, of a gap between the end of the transitional period and the new partnership coming into effect, a backstop—an insurance policy of some kind for the Irish border—will also be an unavoidable part of such a withdrawal agreement.
Then there are those who urge a second referendum in the hope of reversing the decision of 2016. I have come to terms with the decision the people took, although I think the whole House knows that I hugely regretted it at the time. Those who champion a second referendum have to confront the fact that such an outcome would certainly be divisive but could not guarantee to be decisive in ending this debate. Further still, colleagues who champion that approach should not underestimate the damage that would be done to what is already fragile public confidence in our democratic institutions.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is determined to do everything in her power to secure the safeguards and assurances for which so many right hon. and hon. Members have called, and, as at every step in these negotiations, she is motivated by the national interest and by nothing else.
When we know the outcome of the talks now under way, the Government will bring the debate and the decision back to Parliament. At that point not only the Government but the House—every Member here—will have to confront the hard but inescapable choices that face our country today.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington). Those 35 minutes were a valiant attempt to defend the indefensible. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this necessary debate. What we witnessed yesterday was an act of pathetic cowardice by the Prime Minister. She is more focused on saving her own job and her own party than on doing what is right for Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She is a Prime Minister who is intent on railroading through a deal that will make people poorer. She promised that she would take back control, but this is a Government who are out of control. They are out of their depth and increasingly running out of time.
Back in 2014, Scotland was promised the strength and security of the United Kingdom, but instead we have been treated with contempt and left with a Westminster Government in chaos and crisis. The Prime Minister promised an equal partnership, but instead she has silenced and sidelined the will of the Scottish people, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. Last week, this Government were found to be in contempt of Parliament. Yesterday, the Prime Minister proved that her Government had no respect for Members of this place and continued to show her utter contempt for Parliament as she pulled the meaningful vote from beneath our feet. Why did she do this?
This Prime Minister has denied Parliament the right to debate and vote on her deal because she knows something that we knew weeks ago—namely, that her deal is dead in the water. It is a non-starter. She has lost the confidence of those on her own Benches. Today, we should have voted on the Government’s motion, voting down the Prime Minister’s deal and signalling that this House had no appetite for it. That would have allowed Parliament to move on, and to make the point that there are alternatives to the Prime Minister’s plans and that we could stay in the European Union, particularly given the fact that all the scenarios in the UK Government’s own analysis show that we will always be worse off with Brexit. Instead, we have a Prime Minister who has shown her contempt of Parliament. Our right to vote down her plans have been removed on the whim of the Prime Minister. Where is the parliamentary democracy that we hear about? The decision that Parliament voted for to have a meaningful vote has been withdrawn on the say-so of the Prime Minister, but we do not live in a dictatorship.
The right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, like mine, view these proceedings with amazed misunderstanding and shock. Does he agree that the failure to hold the vote today, and the continuing delay in getting a vote, are dangerous for this institution and its standing? Let me go slightly further and suggest that this is also dangerous for the proper working of democracy in the UK.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I know that many businesses throughout the highlands and islands are saying that they are particularly worried about their ability to attract labour. We benefit from the free movement of people, and the economic prosperity of the highlands of Scotland has been endangered by the wilful actions of this Government.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that yesterday’s decision by the Prime Minister impacted not only on this House but on the markets and our economy? Investors have said that the pound experienced its worst day since the 2016 referendum, and that the Government had
“left investors completely in the dark about what happens next”.
Others went on to say that the delay was
“kicking the can further down the road”,
“we would not be surprised if Brexit uncertainty—which we estimate has knocked 0.5 percentage points off growth since the referendum—starts to weigh more heavily on the economy.”
We can take this directly to the Prime Minister’s door.
I have to say to the hon. Lady that we should reflect carefully on what has happened over the past two and a half years. The pound fell right after the Brexit referendum, and it has been under pressure ever since. We know that the UK has fallen to the bottom of the G7 growth league over the course of the last couple of years, and that inflation has been higher. We also know that there has been an impact on people’s pockets, and that households are already an average of £600 worse off as a consequence. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to take the right actions to deliver sustainable economic growth. When the Government know, from each piece of analysis that they have conducted for all the scenarios, that people are going to be poorer under Brexit, they have a responsibility to be honest with people about the risks involved.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his powerful speech. Does he agree that the most disgraceful and despicable thing about what the Prime Minister has done by interrupting our consideration of her plans is that yet again she has not taken the opportunity to reach out across the House to listen to people and to revise those plans, and that she has instead engaged in a sordid exercise to placate the ultra-right wing of her own party?
My hon. Friend is spot on. The Prime Minister has missed opportunity after opportunity to take on the extreme Brexiteers in her own party. Let us go back to the time when she called the general election and came back with a minority Administration. She had a responsibility at that time to seek to work across the House and to work with the devolved institutions. At no point has she sought to do those things. The reason that we are in this situation, and that the Government are facing such a heavy defeat, is that they have placated nobody, and that is because of a lack of leadership on the part of the Prime Minister.
I want to make some progress, because I am aware that many people want to speak.
The Prime Minister should not have the ability simply to halt proceedings in the middle of a five-day debate. Our constituents and the rest of the world must be looking on aghast at what took place here yesterday. We now know that we might not get to vote on these substantive matters until 21 January—the last conceivable date for such a vote. The Prime Minister is trying to make this a binary choice between her deal and no deal. That is unacceptable and this House cannot let that happen. The Prime Minister cannot succeed. This is a complete dereliction of duty. Running scared from the truth, this Government have backed themselves into a corner and are refusing to take a road out. The Scottish National party has been firm: our position is that we want to remain in the European Union. We want to continue to enjoy the socio-economic benefits of working in partnership with nations right across the continent. We respect the fact that England and Wales voted to leave the European Union, but we ask the Government to respect the fact that Scotland did not.
It is now more notable than ever that this Government do not care about respecting the will of the people of Scotland. They do not care that £1,600 will be lost from the pockets of people across our country, that 80,000 jobs will be put at risk, or that our businesses, farmers and fishermen will be put at a differential disadvantage. The Tories think they can do whatever they want with Scotland and get away with it. Had the SNP been able to vote on the Prime Minister’s deal today, we would have voted it down. This deal will rob our country not just of economic opportunity but of stability. We in the SNP cannot countenance that. I want to put the Prime Minister on notice that the SNP will not, today or any other day, back her deal or any other deal that makes Scotland poorer.
While the Prime Minister travels around Europe today, she will be scrambling for fluff, for padding and for eloquent phrasing to appease those in her own party who are anxious about parliamentary sovereignty. They are not anxious about the economic future of the nations and regions of the UK. This is still a Tory battle of ideological motivations. Two years down the road, the Tories are sleepwalking into the abyss. They are fighting among themselves, distracted by rhetoric and avoiding reality. Fuelled by a desire to win the hearts and minds of her colleagues, the Prime Minister focuses her efforts on uniting her divided party rather than on protecting the rights and livelihoods of citizens across the country. This is an absolute mess, and the stakes are high.
Let us not lose sight of what is at risk. The eyes of the world are on this place. World leaders, our constituents, businesses and others watch on, holding their heads in their hands. It is incumbent on us all—each Member of Parliament here today—to recognise the severity of what has taken place over the past few weeks. We have a Prime Minister who inadvertently misled Parliament, who has been found in contempt of Parliament and who has snatched away Parliament’s right to vote, silencing our voices to save herself from the shackles of defeat.
The right hon. Gentleman accuses the Prime Minister of ignoring Parliament. Yet has not she done the opposite? She has listened to the views expressed across the House, heard that there is disagreement with the proposed deal and therefore gone away to try to change it. She has listened to and respected, not ignored the House.
I am almost lost for words. The hon. Gentleman does not accept that the House voted for a meaningful vote, the Government introduced the timetable for it, yet the Prime Minister disrespected Parliament.
We have reached a critical point. It is crystal clear that the Prime Minister is focused on running down the clock. Rather than buying time, she wants to run out of time. Her strategy now seems to be to present a binary option—her deal or no deal. That is not the case before us. Let me be clear: the Prime Minister has options, but she will not take them. She has checked out of listening mode. Despite facing resounding defeat, she is burying her head in the sand. We cannot let her. We cannot stand for this treatment. The Government cannot be allowed to treat this place with contempt.
That is why I wrote to the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), alongside Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrat and Green colleagues, to urge him to table a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister. I say respectfully to the right hon. Gentleman that he will have our support if he tables a vote of no confidence. It is time for this Prime Minister to go. This is a time not for floundering, but for leadership. The Prime Minister has shown nothing but contempt.
We need answers. When will the House get to vote on the deal? Yesterday, the Prime Minister offered no assurances on the timeline. If her plan is to run this to the wire, to take all other options off the table and rob Parliament of its say, she should be ashamed of herself.
Today’s Treasury Committee report expressed disappointment that the Government's analysis did not model the deal. It also affirms that UK firms have no sympathy for a Government too frightened to put their deal to a vote, despite the fact that UK firms lost 2% of their value yesterday with the pound’s fall. Business is losing faith. The Prime Minister has put us in an economically and constitutionally unsustainable position. The SNP will not stand by while the clock ticks down. We will not allow the Prime Minister a free hand to reduce our options to a binary choice. Parliament cannot allow that. We must now take back control. It is time for the Prime Minister to move aside and let Parliament lead or let the people decide.
I say respectfully to the Leader of the Opposition that we want to work with him. We have a choice to put this matter above party politics, bring it to an end and bring this shambolic Government to an end with a motion of no confidence.
Order. I must advise the House that no fewer than 31 hon. Members have indicated a wish to catch my eye in this relatively short debate. In consequence of that level of demand, there will have to be a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches with immediate effect. I am sorry, but that is the way it is.
It is a measure of a person, a Government, or a Parliament how they deal with a crisis. I will leave the Government to one side. Parliament needs to think carefully about how we are seen in the midst of this serious situation. As I said two weeks ago, it is easy to criticise somebody else’s deal and stay entrenched in the positions that we have held over the past two years. I heard what the Minister for the Cabinet Office said about moving his position and I have done the same: I wanted to remain in the EU, but that was not the result of the vote; it was not how people in this country voted in 2016. We can carry on rerunning the same debates or work out how to build a consensus, move forward as a Parliament and set an example to the country.
We should be clear about how this House is seen. I cannot be the only Member who has had said to them in the past 24 to 48 hours, “If you lot can’t sort this out, you have no right to be there at all.” That will come back to bite us all at the next general election, regardless of the positions we have taken on the matter. It is easy to say, as the motion does, that this House wants a vote, but we need to be clear about what we would do with it.
It is obvious that the main position in the House is that we do not want no deal. However, for that to happen, we need something else to put on the table for this House to approve. I am glad that the Treasury Committee report, which was published today, has been mentioned. There is no time to go into it, but the economic damage that no deal would cause is clear.
It is also obvious that parliamentary opinion must be tested sooner rather than later. The main frustration to Members of all parties with yesterday’s decision is that that test has been put off. Members of Parliament have to be more aware of the broader views than our constituents. It is inevitable that those who voted in 2016 or in a general election vote according to what is right for them and their families. Why would they do anything else? However, Members of Parliament cannot vote in Divisions solely on the basis of what we think. We have to think as representatives of our constituents.
Clearly, there are three main views, at least in my constituency: reject the deal and have a second vote; reject the deal and either renegotiate or accept no deal; or support the Prime Minister’s draft agreement. The Leader of the Opposition said, “We will work across the House.” What does that mean? The leader of the SNP has basically just said the same thing. What does he mean by that? The time for talking is over; the time for action by Members to avoid no deal is here.
I do not know how we test parliamentary opinion if we do not have a vote. Perhaps we need to set up a special Select Committee of senior Members of Parliament to hammer out what we mean. Perhaps it is time for some sort of Government of national unity. Perhaps it is time for a free vote on the deal, avoiding the usual party political constraints.
However, I do know that with 108 days to go until this country leaves the EU, if the Government cannot sort out this matter of great national importance, Parliament must step in, stop posturing and get down to work to hammer out a deal.
Yesterday was undoubtedly a day of humiliation for the Government, but from today, we have a different task, which is to avoid humiliation for the nation. We will have to see what the Prime Minister brings back from her talks, but I doubt whether any piece of paper, any codicil or any exchange of letters will save the current withdrawal agreement and political declaration from defeat here. In those circumstances—the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) drew attention to this—there are broadly two choices. The first is that the Government abandon their red lines and apply to join the European economic area and a customs union. That would solve the problem with Northern Ireland, ensure the continuation of friction-free trade, give us many things that are mere aspirations in the political declaration and provide reassurance to businesses, but there would be consequences, including in relation to free movement.
The second option is to put the question back to the people. That could include the Prime Minister putting her withdrawal agreement to the people in a vote. We would need legislation for that and therefore Parliament would have to decide what the questions are. Let us be frank: that is not without difficulty or risk. What would the question or questions be? If there were more than two, what voting method would be used? How could another referendum command legitimacy? It seems clear that we would get to that point only if all other options had been tried and exhausted.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whichever path we end up going down, the first stage should be to rule out no deal, which would be deeply damaging to manufacturing industries, to exports and to our police and security co-operation?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I was just coming to that point. There are two other tasks that we now have to face. One is that we will have to apply for an extension of article 50, because if either of those two courses of action is pursued by the Government, or by the House in the absence of Government leadership, we will require more time.
Secondly, we must address, as the very first thing, the point my right hon. Friend has just raised, which is to make it clear that we will not leave the European Union without an agreement, because the Government say it would be chaotic and damaging. I do not believe that any Government would be so irresponsible as to take us out of the EU without an agreement, and I do not think Parliament would allow it to happen, so why should we carry on pretending that it might happen? The sooner we take it off the table, the better it will be, above all, for businesses that watch this mess and say, “We would just like to get on with selling things, making things and exporting things. Can you please give us some clarity and certainty about what is going to happen?”
The right hon. Gentleman is making a passionate plea to buy more time for negotiations. Does he not agree that there is a huge risk, because the European elections mean that everybody on the other side of the negotiating table is likely to change in the European Parliament and the European Commission? It is therefore important to finalise these negotiations before the European Parliament breaks for its elections.
I do understand the risks that the hon. Lady raises, but the Government should have thought much earlier about what they were doing. She knows, and she cannot deny the fact, that for two years Ministers have bickered and argued, which is part of the reason we are running out of time. It was not until July 2018 that the Government finally came forward and said what they wanted to ask of the European Union after two years. We cannot undo that, and I am trying to focus on the future and on what we will have to do next.
There are those in this House who will object to either of those courses of action because they believe that we should leave without a deal, but they need to make up their mind. I am not sure whether they want a Canada-style Brexit, as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office said. Is it an orderly WTO Brexit? But he drew attention to the damage that would do, such as to our manufacturing industry and our car industry. What kind of side deals? How will the Government agree them? Or is it the rush out, slam the door and shout over our shoulder as we depart, “You can forget about the money!” kind of Brexit that we have heard advocated by certain Conservative Members?
My final point is that we are running out of time. That is why the Prime Minister needs to come back here next week and give us a chance to vote on her deal, because the sooner the House can pass judgment on it—and if it is defeated—the sooner we can get on to the task we will then face. Only when we have done that can we face up to the hard choices. As I have told the House before, all of us in this Chamber will have to compromise if we are to find a way through the mess that our country is now in.
I will return to one or two of the points raised by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).
To overcome the present paralysis, we must all face some truths that perhaps even a majority of the House are finding difficult to face. I would have voted against the withdrawal treaty, because it is the very antithesis of taking back control, but the truth we have to face is that the result of this referendum was not some “exotic spresm,” as expressed by the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), or any other kind of freak accident. It was the logical expression of the accumulation of decades of resentment about how this country has become subject to an out-of-touch political elite who have become happy to subjugate national democratic accountability to an unelected, unaccountable group of commissioners and judges in the EU. That is what the referendum was about.
Now I hear some Members, like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), openly arguing for remaining in the EU, as though the referendum could somehow be ignored. That way madness lies for our country. It would be a final vindication of those who would argue that votes never count and democracy can change nothing.
If my hon. Friend listened to what I am arguing, he would realise that I have said repeatedly that I think we are embarked on an exercise in self-mutilation, but that I recognise that, if that is what people want now that the self-mutilation is so apparent, then that is what they will indeed have. What I am not prepared to do, as a Member of this House, is to carry it out myself without going back and asking them if that is what they really want.
Let us now dispose of the dangerous idea that there can be some disingenuous second people’s vote to try to force remain back on to the agenda. Who with any authority suggested in 2016 that the question would be only a dry run?
No, he did not.
The House of Commons voted by 544 votes to 53 to give a clear choice of remain or leave to the voters. The 2016 referendum was the people’s choice. Before there is a fresh motion, I gently remind the House, as one who campaigned for and voted leave and on behalf of the majority who voted in the referendum, that we voted leave and we want leave. Despite all the false warnings that a leave vote would wreak havoc on the economy, a majority of us voted to leave. We represent at least 400 of the constituencies represented in this House. We also represent a broad cross-section of society.
Is part of the problem not that a lot of the people in charge of these negotiations do not accept the result of the referendum? Michel Barnier has been heard recently to say that negotiating with the British is like negotiating not with a country that is trying to leave the EU but with one that is applying to join it. I wonder why he feels like that.
Because too many people leading these negotiations do not have sufficient faith in the people, economy and future of this country. Who gave a mandate to this House to set itself above the people? Nothing could be better calculated to sow despair and cynicism about politics and politicians, or about this House, or about the credibility of our democracy, than for this House to fail to understand what the word “leave” means; to argue that leave voters must have their motives dissected and psychoanalysed; or to try to prove that we really did not mean leave, that we were voting about something else or that it was all too complicated for the little minds of the voters. There is no ambiguity in the word “leave” which this House placed on the ballot paper.
When we resume the debate, let us share ideas about what kind of relationship the UK might have with the EU after we have left, but leaving the EU means, at the end of it, becoming once again an independent sovereign state. “Leave” does not mean bringing back the same treaty, costing billions for nothing in return, that installs the EU Court of Justice in some superior position over the agreement or that holds the UK hostage to what the EU might decide about our future; or remaining in a single customs territory or subject to an EU rulebook.
The prospect of bringing an acceptable withdrawal treaty to this House is also about making it clear that the UK is preparing and will be prepared to leave the EU on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement, to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. The only alternative is to lie down and submit to the will of the EU, which seems to be the policy of an increasing number of people in this House
I am not giving way. Everyone can see that most countries are outside the EU and, do you know what, they are absolutely fine. Our overriding duty should be to work together to implement the decision and to forge a new consensus about the future of this great nation which reflects the way in which the vast majority of the constituencies in this House voted. The UK is a resilient nation, which has faced far greater challenges to our survival, prosperity and independence than the short-term practical and administrative challenges of leaving the EU. This is not an economic crisis like the 1970s oil shock or the 2008 banking crisis. This will not cause rampant inflation or leave people wondering whether the ATM will deliver their cash. This is not a decision to go to war. It is not a terrorist attack. What this House needs to show is more faith in the people and the way they voted, and more faith in the future of this country. If we sell ourselves short in this House, we are selling the British people short.
I am grateful for your patience, Mr Speaker, as yesterday I had no voice. But today I do have a voice and I am going to use it. I was a proud Member of the European Parliament between 1979 and 1984. I am an internationalist. I believe that countries can achieve more by working together and trying to understand each other than by arguing and fighting each other. As an MEP, I became acutely aware of the importance of human rights and of countries that had fought each other in two world wars sitting together to bring about a lasting peace for Europe, of which the UK is a part and will always be a part. The EU has been a vital instrument in maintaining that peace, protecting our fundamental rights and rule of law, and increasing our national security and prosperity.
The Prime Minister has argued ceaselessly in the past few weeks that she has negotiated a withdrawal agreement that will allow us more control over issues such as immigration, while maintaining close ties with the EU, particularly in the economic sphere. Yet the leader of the Labour group in the European Parliament, Richard Corbett, points out that the political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and EU—rather crucial, one would have thought—cobbled together almost as an afterthought, sets out a 26-page to-do list, settling very little.
In essence, this Parliament is being asked to support a blindfold Brexit. Let us be clear that the Prime Minister’s deal means that most crucial issues would be settled only after Brexit, when the UK’s negotiating position is weaker and when we are no longer a member state, and in the context of an agreement that will need the ratification of every national Parliament of the 27, making it even more vulnerable. Our Parliament is invited to take part in a lucky dip—to give the go-ahead to Brexit without knowing what it means for key issues such as the final customs and single market arrangements, cross-border law enforcement mechanisms, participation in European research programmes, access to funding from the European Investment Bank, regulations for cross-border transport, data sharing, student exchanges, defence and security co-operation, and much else. The deal is a sham, and this whole procedure has been a farce. The Prime Minister is trying to sell her deal as better than no deal. She is delaying this vote in the hope that Parliament will run out of time and be forced into backing it. But Parliament now needs to make it clear that the choice is not just between no deal and the Prime Minister’s woeful deal, which she has herself now acknowledged as such, having gone to European capitals not only with her handbag but cap in hand.
Like all hon. Members, I have received a lot of correspondence asking me to support this deal and other correspondence asking me to support other things. But the vast majority are asking me to vote against this deal and support a people’s vote, with the latest polls putting Wales at more than 50% in favour of remain. The two leave options on the table are dangerous, and people need to be given a choice, now that they see what options are available, between no deal, the Prime Minister’s deal, or remaining. The only viable way ahead is a people’s vote. I want to stay in the EU, but it must be for the country to decide.
The Prime Minister has now reached the cliff-edge of resignation. I believe that she may well have to resign. Yesterday’s events—running away from the vote and then off to Germany, Holland and the EU—was yet another humiliation for the United Kingdom. She is clinging to the wreckage. She has reached the point of no return. The pulling of the vote yesterday was an insult to the House of Commons and an admission of the failure of the withdrawal agreement itself. It has magnified the contempt of the House displayed in respect of the Attorney General’s opinion, and that issue itself remains incomplete, because we have not had answers that we have asked for. We have not had answers from the Prime Minister to the questions I have asked her in Committee and on the Floor of the House. The agreement has all the characteristics of a dead parrot.
The Prime Minister’s reply to me yesterday about breaches of the ministerial code simply did not begin to answer my complaint about whether the Law Officers’ opinion was fully and properly sought in good time in relation to the fundamental issues that lie at the heart of the withdrawal agreement, our relationship with the European Union and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. These issues go beyond the backstop. The withdrawal agreement fails on every fundamental test. The vote is needed now. There is also the question of the incompatibility of the Act with the mere treaty itself, which is the withdrawal agreement, and of the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom itself.
Public trust in our democracy has been shattered. On Sunday, a poll of 10,000 people showed that 63% of all those who took part had no faith or trust in the Government’s withdrawal agreement. There have been broken promises and misleading statements, breaches of Cabinet collective responsibility, and failures to comply with the ministerial code and the Cabinet manual, not to mention the Commons resolution on the publication of the Attorney General’s full and final legal advice.
There are a vast range of unresolved matters for which it was necessary to have the meaningful vote today, including the question of the transitional arrangements; the indefinite nature of any such extension; the financial framework after 31 December 2020, including the manner in which our own resources would be dealt with and the loss of the rebate itself; the question whether or not we can implement trade deals after the end of the transitional period; and the extent to which we cannot control our laws. All are as important, in their own way, as the backstop. The sovereignty of this House and our control over our laws is fundamental. It is what this Parliament is all about. It is how it has evolved to its greatness. This is the issue. Further discussion of the backstop in the secret rooms of Holland, Germany and Brussels will not resolve these questions.
As I conclude, I call to mind John of Gaunt’s famous speech in which he declared that with “rotten parchment bonds” this country:
“Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”
This withdrawal agreement does just that: it is a breach of trust and a betrayal. This clutching of straws and running away from the vote is contemptible.
Yesterday’s shameful episode has left many in this House and outside in bewilderment, scratching their heads and virtually at a loss for words as a result of the pulling of the vote. None the less, from the rubble of yesterday there is still the possibility, slim as it may be, that something can emerge. If I work out from today to the date that is currently being touted, 21 January, it seems to me that there are 40 days and 40 nights to lose oneself in the wilderness. I do not know what will emerge at the end of that, but I do know that the prophet Moses delivered something—I would not wish to liken the Prime Minister to the prophet Moses, but we will wait and see.
The problem with the 40 days is the temptations that come to individual Members when they are given assurances and then do not see solid real change to the withdrawal agreement that is legally binding.
Yes, indeed. That is a very good point.
I want briefly to go through what we have been left with at the moment. It would appear that there are still those who want to try to align the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, with the euro state—that cabal that still rules in Brussels. Who knows what will happen? I know that, some time ago, there was mention of the European parliamentary elections. We do not know what will happen, but we know that they will take place two months after we are scheduled to leave. We know that, over the past 18 months, the direction of travel in many of the countries involved has been a lurch to the far right, and we wait to see what next June will bring. I am not sure whether people will want us to be aligned with those countries—to Poland, to Hungary, to Wilders in the Netherlands, to France, to Germany and to Italy—when we see what comes from those elections.
In the closing moments of my speech, I want to address the issue of the backstop. Much has been made of it. One year ago our Prime Minister made a fundamental mistake, which was to accept that a deal could be done only with a backstop that had to be incorporated as part of the deal. Unfortunately, the EU and the Irish Government have sold our Government the line that the backstop is necessary to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. I have stated this on numerous occasions in this House: there are 643 Members who take their seats in this House, 642 of whom live further away from the border than me. This is about not what I think about the border, but what I and others know about the border and its historical significance.
Does the accept that current opinion polling in Northern Ireland indicates that the backstop may well be irrelevant in due course, because people are moving towards the idea of a united Ireland in the face of Brexit?
The hon. Lady should not pay too much attention to opinion polls. The one she should pay attention to is the one that took place two years ago. I would be happy to face any vote in Northern Ireland about where our future lies.
It does not matter whether a backstop comes under WTO rules, under the guidance of the EU or under the insistence of the United Kingdom Government, because no infrastructure established at the border can work. A backstop is totally and utterly unnecessary, because it cannot work. There are 290 crossing points on under 300 miles of land border in Northern Ireland, so no structure of any kind, anywhere, can work. That is why we do not need a backstop. People would treat the infrastructure with disdain and contempt, because they could avoid it so easily. If we had six, 16 or 26 manned roads across the border—forgetting about the possibility of threats to the people who would man those roads—all of those who lived there, worked there and traded there would know 100 ways to get round the infrastructure without having to go through any customs checkpoints, so there is no point to any backstop. We have been led into a trap. A backstop created by the EU that is null and void and that cannot exist will not prevent any border from coming about.
The only border that exists is a land border between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, which will endure long after we have left the EU, long after WTO rules come in—if they ever come in—and long after the United Kingdom has eventually worked out the way for our country to be an extraneous independent nation state that trades and has good, friendly relationships with those inside and outside the EU. That is our future. We need a better deal, and the Prime Minister needs to bring that back from Brussels if she can do a magic trick that I believe is beyond her.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), but I shall try to confine my remarks to the issue on the Order Paper, rather than the more general debate on the merit of the Government’s deal.
I supported this debate because I happen to agree that what happened yesterday was essentially pretty unprecedented. We have a deal before this House, and this House was in the middle of considering it. The terms under which the EU withdrawal Act passed through the House were an absolute and clear undertaking by the Government that Parliament would be involved at every stage, and that as soon as the deal had been reached it would be brought expeditiously to us—indeed, so much so that some people wondered if it might not appear in the House almost too early, before we had the opportunity to consider it properly. We were in the middle of that consideration.
I fully appreciate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s difficulty. If by going away and speaking to our European partners she will be a position to achieve some change to the deal that she can properly bring before the House, I can understand why she may have wished to interrupt its consideration. But I really do worry about the implications, because although I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Government appear to have given themselves very considerable latitude as to when this business might return to us. If it is clear by Monday of next week that the Prime Minister has not changed the terms of the treaty, I would expect that this House’s consideration of the business ought to resume at once, because it is not in the national interest that we should be prevented from expressing our view on the deal as soon as possible. That is my principal concern.
I was reassured by some of the things I heard this afternoon about the Government’s intentions, but it would simply not be acceptable for the debate to resume on 19 January. I just wanted to make that point, because it seems to be key.
I wonder whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman has heard the view expressed by some Government Whips that if the Prime Minister has not really got anything out of this week, there would be no point in Parliament sitting next week at all, and that the Government would therefore announce on Thursday that we were not going to sit next week. He will of course be aware that we would have to have a vote on that.
I am quite clear that the urgency of the situation that we face, and the divisions both in the country and within this House make it imperative that this House should be able to pronounce on the deal that the Government bring forward.
My right hon. and learned Friend makes eloquent points, as ever, but is not the fundamental issue here that we have a Brexit nation and a remain Parliament? However eloquent his points are, there is an emotional desire on the part of him and other Members not to respect the mandate of the British people, and that mandate is a critical one if we live in a democracy.
For two and a half years now, we have watched the process of trying to implement the result of the 2016 referendum, and if there is one thing on which I hope we might be able to agree, it is that it is perfectly plain that it is proving extraordinarily difficult to do. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, mindful of the risks of economic damage and damage to our national security and wellbeing, has laboured long and hard to try to get a deal. Yet the reality, which has become quite clear in the last week, is that when that deal is examined, it contains numerous flaws and places us in a new and complex legal relationship with the EU, which in many ways, on any objective analysis, appears to be rather less desirable than remaining in it.
I appreciate that there are hon. Members, including some of my hon. Friends, who believe that there is some clean and easy way through this process. I simply make the point that each of us as Members of this House has a responsibility to our constituents, but also to ourselves, to make judgments on what is for the best for our country. That is what I will continue to try to do, while respecting, or doing my best to give effect to and think through the consequence of, the referendum.
But I say to my hon. Friends that at, the end of the day, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that it is unlikely that there is going to be agreement in this House on the model that we want, because of the inherent difficulties that flow from Brexit itself. In those circumstances, I can only repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) about why I support a referendum. It is not because that presupposes a single outcome—after all, it might go against my own arguments—but because at least it provides a way of resolving this that I happen to think would be rather less divisive than the interminable debate that is going to beset us here, even if we leave on 29 March, for the next two and half to five years.
No, I will not give way again.
That is the true problem that we face. The alternative, I suppose, is that this Government may collapse and we may have a general election, but I have to say to my hon. Friends—indeed, even to Opposition Members—that I am not sure that in itself will solve the conundrum that we face.
As I say, what I would ask of the Government at the moment—I do not wish to labour these points—is that we are given the necessary space to debate this rationally, because one thing that has worried me in the past 12 months has been repeated attempts to close down opportunities for debate in this House by short-circuiting the process, and that has done us no good at all. Some of us have had to fight really hard to make sure that the process has been followed properly, and have been reviled at times for doing so—yet the evidence shows, I am afraid, that we were right. For that reason, I will try to continue in the same fashion. If we have the right process, we will come up with the right answers.
Unlike most of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches and, indeed, some on the other side, I did not view our vote to leave the European Union as a national shame. I did not view it as an embarrassment, I did not apologise for it, I did not hide from it, and I did not ultimately try to reverse it. I was very proud that it was the greatest exercise in democracy of my lifetime. I was so proud that 70% of constituencies with a Labour MP voted leave, and that even in London the leave vote was greater than the vote given to Sadiq Khan when elected as Mayor.
I felt humbled by all those who had never voted before but came out because this time they knew their vote really would count. People had been told that if they voted leave they were stupid, they did not understand, they were racist—
I agree with my hon. Friend that people being called stupid was completely wrong. Does she agree that people in North Tyneside, although I did not agree with the way they voted, were right when they made a decision against unscrupulous work practices and foreign agencies bringing in European workers denied a proper rate of pay and denying local people jobs?
My hon. Friend is quite right. It was quite shocking just how those people were ridiculed by so many people on the remain side. They voted to leave and they showed their confidence in the future of our country.
Two days after the referendum, my 95-year-old mother, who was desperately keen to get us out of the EU, said to me, “Catharine”—because that is what I am called by the family—“you know, dear, they will never let us leave.” I said, “No, Mum—we live in a democracy.” How wrong I was. If only, on 24 June 2016, we had all come together determined to make the most of our new opportunities, we may not have found ourselves in this position. Too many people continued to find every legal impediment to delay and try to thwart the decision of the British people.
I am very sorry that, as it turns out, it almost seems as though the Prime Minister has acted like she is one of those people. I believed her when she said that Brexit meant Brexit, but I was wrong. I believed her when she set out her red lines in her Lancaster House speech, but I was wrong. I believed her when she said that no deal was better than a bad deal, but I was wrong. Most of all, as a strong supporter of our United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place within it, I believed her when she said that there would never be a border down the Irish sea, but I was wrong.
When it comes to caving into the EU, it seems that our Prime Minister went wanting to be nice and did not stand up for our country. When histories are written of this period, as they will be, they will revolve around the question of whether the border in Northern Ireland was a true stumbling block or just a convenient excuse. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) gave very clear evidence of why everything that has been said about the border was wrong.
Is the hon. Lady aware that when the Prime Minister came before the Liaison Committee a few days ago, I asked her nine times in seven minutes who would actually erect a border—whether the Irish would, whether the British would or whether the EU would send in its army to do it? She refused and declined to answer that question every time, because the answer is that no one would ever put it there.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. The EU has said clearly that even in a no-deal situation and under WTO rules, there would not need to be a hard border, and therefore there is no need for a backstop. Anything that the Prime Minister comes back with—more reassurance, more letters and more white bits of paper—will not be accepted unless it is in a legally binding agreement. The political choice was taken by the Government to treat the border as an insoluble problem.
A majority in my constituency voted to remain—not everybody, but I acknowledge that. I always say that the third of my constituents who voted to leave in London were in a minority, but they have a right to be represented. It was a national referendum with a national decision to be implemented. I can now say with certainty that virtually none of my constituents in Vauxhall, whether leavers or remainers, has asked me to support this deal.
Whatever is said about the political declaration and all its fine words about intentions for the future, it is not a legal document, and it is therefore meaningless. How could we, as a United Kingdom, have got into a situation where our Prime Minister wants to sign a legally binding agreement giving away £39 billion in advance of any trade negotiations? It will be seen by most members of the public as mind-blowingly stupid.
We hear so much about how clever our civil servants are and how wonderful their advice must be. Frankly, I think they are very clever. They have helped to do what the EU wished and supported a deal that is more in line with the view of the elite—that we never should have left. They have worked so hard to keep us as closely aligned to the EU as possible and then sell it as the best deal we can get. As a remainer herself, the Prime Minister has never really understood why people voted to leave. I am afraid that the EU has seemed to run rings around her.
It is hardly surprising that, after 40 years, we are now so intertwined with the EU that it is difficult to untangle. Those calling for a second referendum when the first has not been implemented should remember that during all those years—I have been here for nearly 30 of them —Parliament signed up to one treaty after another, without ever asking the people of our great country whether they wanted to sign away their sovereignty. Millions of Labour voters will feel utterly betrayed if Labour now backs a second referendum, and certainly one with “Remain” on the ballot paper.
I cannot vote for this deal. There are lots of things in it, as well as the backstop, that I cannot support. I expect the Prime Minister or another leader of the Government, if we cannot get a general election, to go and ask for something much better. If we cannot get that, I do not fear World Trade Organisation rules. There is hysterical fear-mongering going on about how we cannot leave on WTO terms. I would support that, and I think that that is what we will end up doing.
Order. On account of the level of demand and because I am keen to accommodate as many remaining would-be contributors as possible, I am sorry to announce that the time limit must be reduced with immediate effect to three minutes. I call Nadine Dorries.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I cannot boil an egg in that time.
I was struck on my train journey this morning at how everybody in my carriage was talking about Brexit. It was the first time that had happened. One woman announced that she had watched the BBC Parliament channel for the first time ever yesterday and expressed her amazement that she had not even known it existed. I was absolutely struck by how well informed my fellow passengers were, and the main thread of their conversation was to keep asking questions why. I lifted my copy of The Times newspaper up over my face—I could feel myself burning with embarrassment—just in case I was recognised. The questions were: why did the Prime Minister think she could get a better deal on a flying visit than the one she had been able to get over the past two years; if a better deal was available, why had it not been reached already; and why had the Prime Minister insisted all along that this was a great deal until yesterday? They were confused. The most pointed question of all was: why did the Prime Minister stop the vote yesterday, and what was that all about? If the outcome of the vote was absolutely known, why was it stopped? Of course, we know the answers to those questions, but it struck me how the general public would not understand why that happened.
I am also struck by the fact that the Prime Minister has gone to the EU—this is a mild humiliation for her and I think she has been badly advised to do so, but I will say more about that in a moment—to get reassurance about the backstop. She is not going to be given reassurance about the backstop. At the moment, she is going to be given a letter of intent about the interpretation of the withdrawal agreement. That is going to make no difference to anybody in this place whose main concern is the backstop. In fact, Juncker has said this morning that he is going to give no concessions whatsoever. The withdrawal agreement will not be looked at and will not be reopened. Even the Moldovans have an exit clause in their trade agreement. We need to get the Moldovan negotiators over here, because they seem to have done a much better job.
In my last few seconds, I want to say that I think the Prime Minister is being very badly advised by third-rate advisers in No. 10. I saw our Whips Office criticised in the papers today, but it is nothing to do with the Whips, who are also having to deal with the same third-rate advisers. The Prime Minister is deploying all sorts of tactics, such as sending Ministers out and spending lots of money—and I would not be surprised if Parliament does rise this week—but it appears to me that the Prime Minister is in a bunker: she is starring in her own episode of “Downfall”, and we all know how that story ends.
I have had my opportunity to speak in the five-day debate, but many Members have not, and the position they have been put in is unclear and, indeed, entirely unacceptable. Democracy delayed is democracy denied. The Prime Minister is playing a potentially catastrophic hand by delaying the vote on her deal, as has been outlined repeatedly during this debate. It is abundantly clear that her tactic is, yet again, to delay and delay until, at the very last chance, we are railroaded into accepting her deal—reducing the meaningful vote into this meaningless mess.
Today, the Prime Minister is hawking her views around the 27 again, which is futile. The deal itself is not negotiable, as we have heard. The Prime Minister may get the appearance of a clarification on the political statement, but despite all its fine words, the political statement is just a statement of intent. She will satisfy no one.
I believe a motion of no confidence should be brought forward at the earliest possible opportunity to provide enough time to pursue another course. For us in Plaid Cymru, the Prime Minister’s actions make the case for a people’s vote all the stronger. That vote must be a choice between the deal that is on the table and to remain. There is no majority in this place for anything else, such as the fantasy of our leaving with no deal at all. Significantly, the Prime Minister’s deal has been decisively rejected by both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. It must be put to the people.
The no deal option is not acceptable to this House, and from his words earlier, neither is it acceptable to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. We would not be at liberty to do as we please in the world, as some suppose, and it would be disastrous for the people of the United Kingdom, particularly poorer people and those in areas seen as peripheral. As an example, I am thinking in particular of farming in Wales. Tariffs against our farming interests would devastate the industry both in Wales and through much of upland Britain.
Finally, we must not be satisfied just to remain. Wales and other parts of the UK have suffered enough from poverty, and from the austerity that has provided advantages for the few and fundamental economic injustice. This crisis must be a turning point. A vote to remain has to be a vote to reform, to renew and to regenerate; it cannot be a vote simply for the Europe that is, but for the Europe that can be—social, democratic, decentralised and diverse.
I left work last night embarrassed to call myself a Member of Parliament. The Government are not without blame—the deal is far from perfect and our Brexit journey could have been managed better—but yesterday evening, footage was being shown all around the world of the Mace being taken, apparently because MPs, although legions of them have been on TV to say that they could not vote for the deal and the Prime Minister needed to do better, were outraged that she wanted to go off and do exactly as we had instructed.
It turns out that, for too many of us in this place, the politics matters more than the reality. Very few of those who intended to vote against the deal really wanted the Prime Minister to go off and do any better; they wanted no deal, or no Brexit, or a second referendum, or a general election, or a new Prime Minister. The divisiveness of no deal or no Brexit seems to matter not one bit. The mockery that a second referendum would make of our democracy seems to matter not one bit. The reality that a change of Prime Minister would still mean that someone had to captain the same ship through the same storm seems to matter not one bit, and the fact that the Labour party says it wants a general election, but still has no idea what its Brexit policy is, let alone how it would negotiate it, seems to matter not one bit either.
So here we are, angry that we did not get a vote on whether we should have a vote, having a debate about not having a debate. There is no majority for anything and, as far as I can tell, there is little desire to find a majority either. At the most important parliamentary moment in decades, we are digging our trenches deeper and refusing to find compromise. In the past few weeks the Prime Minister has travelled around the country, trying to sell her plan. She has spent hours in this place doing the same. Now she is travelling around Europe, trying to articulate Parliament’s requirement that we get something different.
Despondent, last night I read an early draft of my maiden speech, written just three and a half years ago. It was filled with hope: hope for what our Government could do, and hope for what this Parliament can do. We have all agreed that this is not how it should be. Deep down, we all know that we can do better, but only if we climb out of our trenches and reconsider all options, especially the Prime Minister’s deal. The Christmas present that the nation seems to want above any other is for us in this place to rediscover the art of the pragmatic compromise. That is not weakness; it is leadership.
The Minister today, and the Prime Minister yesterday, talked about the importance of honesty in the debate. I agree, but my contention is that a lack of honesty and candour about the reality of what the Government are trying to do has been largely responsible for their ending up in this position.
Let us take the issue of the backstop. The backstop is only there if a treaty is not agreed that does the same job as the backstop, which is to ensure such a degree of customs and regulatory alignment that there is no need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Have the Government really been honest about what that means for any treaty that is agreed instead of the backstop? Have they been candid about that? I do not think so. Do we really think that the Government have been candid and honest with themselves, their own Back Benchers or the country about the implications of what they agreed to this time last year, when they agreed that the backstop or something like it would be there? I do not think so.
What the Government agreed was such a degree of alignment, which is now beginning to be reflected in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, that instead of taking back control as the referendum was supposed to do, people can now see that this is an enormous transfer of sovereignty from the UK to the European Union. It sets a future for us as huge European rule takers. I agree with the Minister about honesty and candour, but I do not think it has been there.
The second point is about process and trust. I do not want to repeat the exchanges during the urgent question earlier, but there is now a real suspicion that what the Government will try to do is not bring forward an early resumption of the debate, but instead run down the clock, so that this decision is not made on the basis of the merits of the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, but rather set against the disaster of no deal. To do that is simply to hold a gun to Parliament’s head. Are the Government really going to say, “If you don’t vote for what we propose, we are due to start stockpiling food”? That is hugely irresponsible with the public, industry and business.
The final point about honesty is this: the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) says we have to face up to the implications of the alternatives. The challenge I put to him and to his fellow Ministers is to ensure that Parliament can vote on those alternatives. I agree with him: we should be responsible for the consequences of them.
This is an extraordinary use of parliamentary time. After having called for more consideration of the content of the withdrawal agreement, voices from both sides of the House are now asserting that a pause in proceedings is wholly unacceptable. If Members really want to get to an agreement, then this pause in proceedings could be exactly what we need to resolve some of the issues that have already come out in the debate, however inconvenient that may be to Members.
The factions in this place really need to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror: the Brexiteers, the no dealers, the ones who want to reverse article 50, the ones who want a second referendum, the ones on the Labour Front Bench who want a general election, and the ones who fancy their chances as Prime Minister. Members need to grow up collectively and realise that any agreement requires compromise. That is what the Prime Minister is seeking to achieve.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I will not give way to the hon. Lady, because there are lots of Members who want to take part in the debate.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington) was absolutely right when he said that we have to face some home truths, particularly those who are intent on rejecting this deal. Home truth No. 1 is that no deal is still on the table and no Government can take it off. EU citizens here and UK citizens abroad are at risk of having no support—none of the support all of us have been calling for over the past two years—and we risk the worst damage to our economy. A second referendum would not only split our country down the middle; I believe it is an abrogation of our responsibility when we were elected last year on a mandate of implementing Brexit.
The withdrawal agreement is, like it or not, what Brexit looks like in reality—backstop and all. To get an agreement, the Prime Minister is entirely right to pause the debate. It is our job to minimise the risk of the UK leaving the EU, and the Government owe it to the House to have the best deal to put to a vote. Rather than focusing on the sensibilities of the House of Commons, I will focus on what is best for our country. The Government are clear that there will be a meaningful vote and debate, and that they will try to resolve some of the issues around the backstop. As Members it is our duty to come to an agreement—not to pass the buck and certainly not to duck our responsibility—to get a way to leave the EU that is acceptable to both sides of the House.
I want to start by recognising the amount of time you have spent patiently and diligently in the Chair, Mr Speaker, doing your best to defend the integrity of this place. It would appear, however, that the Government could not care less about the integrity of this place.
Some 97% of all constituents who contacted me about Brexit were against it. Scotland as a whole voted to remain. That was ignored. The Scottish Government then produced a sensible plan with a reasonable compromise. That was ignored. This UK Government have been held in contempt of Parliament for deliberately trying to conceal facts, yet there is not a hint of embarrassment on the Government Benches. There is not a hint of regret or even of awareness of the damage they are doing.
For the Government to set a date for this meaningful vote and say that they would not pull the vote, only then to pull the vote and use the archaic processes of this place to prevent a vote on whether to have the original vote pulled, shows just how much of a fankle this Government have got themselves in. To top it all off, the day finished with a woman with a sword chasing after a guy stealing a big stick. Is it any wonder that the rest of the world are looking at this and laughing? They are looking at this and wondering what could be going on, and is it any wonder—I will say it again—that Scotland has the option to get better than this? We have another option on the table.
My friend and former colleague, Miriam Brett, summed this up perfectly:
“This entire farce is emblematic of Britain’s broken democracy. A referendum held to appease an Etonian boys club was won on the back of financial corruption of elites, and when half of the countries involved vote remain, it makes sod all difference.”
I join the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford)—otherwise known as Ian—in calling on the Leader of the Opposition to bring forward a no-confidence motion at the earliest opportunity, because if we are genuinely to look at ourselves and say that this display that we have seen for the last two years, never mind the last week, is the best that we can do, then by God, I cannot blame Scotland for taking the opportunity of independence.
It has been suggested today, particularly by the Opposition, that the decision yesterday to postpone the vote showed a disrespect for the House and showed that the Prime Minister was not listening. I respectfully disagree with that analysis. It became very apparent in the three days of debate that we had that there were very grave concerns on both sides of the House that the withdrawal agreement, as drafted, not only would not pass, but would not pass by a very large majority. Given the gravity of the matter before us and the desire to get on with this quickly, it seemed to me the right thing to do to pause the process while the Prime Minister attempts to remedy the defects that hon. and right hon. Members had identified. In doing so, she had listened to the concerns that were being raised, and I hope that she will be able to address them.
There will, of course, be a vote. No one is attempting to duck a vote—a vote will come and Parliament’s voice will be heard—but I agree with the points made by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) a few moments ago regarding the timing, because 29 March will be upon us pretty quickly, and it would not be responsible of the Government to take an unduly long time to come back to the House. If they do—and in my view, 21 January would be an unduly long time—we as a Parliament, and indeed, as a country, will not have the time to prepare ourselves for whatever the future may hold. So I say to Government Front Benchers: please bring this matter back before the House extremely quickly, so that we have the time to deal with this with as much notice as we can possibly manage.
I also say to Government Front Benchers that, in order to address the concerns that colleagues have been raising, particularly in relation to the backstop, whatever assurances the Prime Minister is able to obtain will have to be legally binding. I very much hope, as she speaks to other European leaders today, tomorrow and at the European Council on Thursday, that such assurances can be found in a legally binding form.
The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) mentioned some of the ways forward, such as the Norway option. Let me put it on record that I think the Norway option is a terrible option, in that it entails all the obligations of European Union membership—unlimited free movement, full budget contributions and being rule takers across the entire economy—without any say at all. There is no question whatsoever that I would ever contemplate voting for such an option.
We live in unprecedented times. There have been 20 ministerial resignations and many, many more at Parliamentary Private Secretary level, and the Government have been found to be in contempt of Parliament—the first Government ever to be. No one even seems to bat an eyelid any more. Then, we had the events of yesterday. Yes, the Prime Minister may have spent 22 hours on her feet answering questions on all this, but we are still none the wiser. We have no concrete date for when that meaningful vote will ever come to fruition. Every time legitimate scrutiny is performed by Opposition Members, we are shut down and told that it is political point scoring.
I will not give way because a lot of people want to speak.
The Government are crippled by indecision and paralysed by Brexit. Labour was accused of constructive ambiguity when trying to steer a course for both the 48% and the 52%, but now the Government have adopted the same strategy, trying to scare people into supporting their deal by invoking either no deal or no Brexit, depending on who they are talking to—they cannot both be right. Or are they trying to bore us into accepting their deal by saying that the British public are bored of this, even while refusing to make a fresh assessment of what the British public think now?
Of the 164 hon. Members who spoke in the debate, 122 were against the deal. This is a decision bigger than on any piece of legislation, any Budget, anything that any of us has voted for, but it seems that the Government do not want to play ball and follow the parliamentary rules. Every time I have raised the question of a people’s vote with the Prime Minister, she has told me that it would corrode trust in politics and politicians, but can she not see that she is doing just that—corroding faith in democracy? She has whipped MPs to abstain on Opposition day motions—I think it all started with Andy Burnham’s motion on how people are not pawns and should not be used as such in the negotiations. The Government have been forced to publish legal and economic advice. We now know why, having seen that advice. They have been found in contempt of Parliament. And all that before yesterday marching us all to the top of the hill and then pulling the vote at the last minute.
Democracy is not just about turnouts at general elections; it is about votes in this House, and we surely cannot have a Government who decide not to take part when they see that they cannot win. Our unwritten constitution may not have formal checks and balances, but it relies on trust, and that is slipping away from the Government. They are clocking up air miles rather than votes and ditching openness and transparency. Any decision should be taken only when people are in full command of the facts, but this Government believe the opposite. The only way to resolve this is by holding a people’s vote to see if the will of the people in 2016 is still the will of the people now.
As you will recall, Mr Speaker, there have been many debates and statements in this House—there is no debate about that—but Parliament has never been fully involved in trying to build a compromise and find a way of delivering on Brexit. That involvement should have come at the beginning of the process, but ironically is taking place now. Unfortunately, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) are no longer in their places, but for them to speak about compromise at this late stage—perhaps they do not know or have failed to understand all that has taken place in the last two and a half years—was at best unfortunate.
It gives me no pleasure to say this, but the fault lies fairly and squarely in the leadership—or lack of—at the highest levels of Government, in the Cabinet and in my party. In numerous conversations and meetings, Members of this place who supported remain went to the Prime Minister and spoke at length about how she could deliver the result of the referendum while keeping this place together, building a consensus and doing the right thing by seeing off those who were never going to be bought off or satisfied and who only wanted their hard Brexit.
Some of us begged the Prime Minister to her face to reach over the top of the Labour Front Bench, who have been pitiful in their supposed role as Her Majesty’s Opposition, and form that consensus, which undoubtedly existed not just among Labour’s Back Benchers but down there with the SNP, whose Members have always said they would vote for and support staying in the single market and customs union. We tried to establish that very early on, but instead, like the 48%, we were cast aside and the Prime Minister made the terrible mistake of always trying to appease the members of the ERG, who now act as a party within a party.
I will not repeat the wise words of my friend the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), but to make matters worse, instead of candour and honesty, we got stupid, irresponsible slogans such as “Brexit means Brexit”, when nobody knew what on earth it meant. Worst of all, we were told that no deal was better than a bad deal, and now we are surprised that we are trying to persuade people that no deal would be the very worst outcome. It was only in the last moments, having exhausted all other alternatives, that we landed on a people’s vote. It is now the only way out of this mess.
Well, Mr Speaker, what a day!
Since 1992, when I first entered politics on the old Clydebank District Council, I never thought for a moment not only that I would sit here representing one of the greatest constituencies in these islands, but that I would listen to Members on the Government Benches—with the exception of the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), I must admit—threaten the Democratic Unionist party with a united Ireland. That is a way to win friends and influence people. Then there was the position yesterday on the Floor of the House of Commons when the vote was pulled. Parliamentary democracy might as well have ended with a coup d'état by the Government of the United Kingdom. It is an extraordinary position when the Executive fundamentally undermine the authority of the legislator. Anyone here who has not read a single book on political theory might as well go and read one now, because that is where we are in terms of the democratic deficit in this political state.
It may come as no surprise that Scottish National party Members have been consistent in our support for the single market and the customs union, rather than making back-door deals like others. I think that even the official Opposition have approached members of the DUP, who do seem to be winning friends and influencing people. Good luck to them. They at least received the offer of a backstop; we did not, although we voted overwhelmingly to remain, and not only in my own constituency. I have no doubt about supporting remain, given that the industrial working class of West Dunbartonshire voted overwhelmingly for it, but they also voted for their country to be an independent sovereign nation with a family of European nations.
Then there is the very idea that we should be joining the European economic area— the Norway plus plus plus plus/TK Maxx model. I was reading Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times this morning. He explained that the EEA is not just about Norway, and told us that we must not forget the Grand Duchy of Liechtenstein. He wrote that
“the Liechtenstein constitution… grants a veto over all laws to His Serene Highness Hans-Adam II, Prince of Liechtenstein”.
There may be some in this place who would want to hand it over to him—an unelected, unaccountable hereditary absolute monarch—but I do not.
I say to the Leader of the Opposition, “Do us all a favour and table a motion of no confidence”, because I have every confidence that my constituency will not only vote for the Scottish National party but vote to remain in the European Union—and the time may come for my nation to take its place once again as an independent sovereign country.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes). I am not sure that I can quite follow his passion, but I will do my best.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me five minutes outside the Chamber. I was very embarrassed to have to go very late to an Anglo-French meeting. A number of French people, including mayors from the north of France, were attending the event along with others from the south of England, and we were working together to try and re-energise our respective coasts. I tried to explain to those people why I was late; that we were having a debate about why we had not had a debate yesterday, and we were going to have a vote on why we had not had a vote last night. Luckily, a French translator was on hand, but I said, “Don’t worry about that”, because none of the English audience would really understand it either.
I was particularly keen to speak this afternoon. I have been blessed in a way, because I have heard from other Conservative Members who have very different views on how we should be leaving the European Union, or whether we should be leaving at all. I respect those views, but I am also reminded that we need to find a way through this. My great concern is that, as Parliament takes control, it is quite clear that Parliament cannot find its own consensual voice when it comes to what that control should be. It is all well and good for my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) to say that leave means leave—that was effectively in our manifesto, and that is where we should be going—and it is all well and good for my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) to say that we should look towards a second referendum. It is also all well and good for my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry)—my great friend—to say that we should remain in the single market and the customs union. But I am also reminded that 83% of voters in the election voted for the Labour party or Conservative party manifestos that said that we would not be doing those things. So there is a mandate to leave on the terms I would advocate.
“Compromise” is not a sexy word, but we all need to embrace it as we proceed through this very difficult situation, because 52% of the country voted to leave, and of course they wanted to go, but 48% did not. What this agreement gives to those 48% is a relationship with the EU that will last: it will go deeper in some terms, but in other terms will recognise the referendum result. That is what I told the French delegation today. I said, “We want to continue to work with you, and work deeper.” But for those 52% who wanted to us to exit, the democratic right was exercised and that means leaving, but it does not mean leaving with no deal at all.
So I ask right hon. and hon. Members, if they are concerned about business uncertainty, about jobs, about security and about their constituents’ livelihoods, please embrace compromise and find a way through.
I have had the honour and pleasure of serving Battersea for little more than 18 months, but it is clear to me, as it is to Members across the House, that the behaviour of this Government is unprecedented—unprecedented in their chaotic approach to managing Brexit, unprecedented in their contempt and disregard for Members of this House and the people we represent, unprecedented in their Ministers saying one thing and then going on to do another. At each stage of their handling of Brexit, the Government have attempted to avoid scrutiny and duck responsibility. They have tried to deny us a meaningful vote on the deal, they have tried to withhold legal advice, and they have tried to keep the economic impact assessments out of the public domain, and now the Prime Minister has pulled the meaningful vote just days after promising she would not do that, and just hours after her Government Ministers said she would not do it. It is a shameful record for any Government, but especially for this dysfunctional Government confronted with the magnitude of the political issue of Brexit.
I am angry not just because the Government are undermining parliamentary procedure, but because I know that my constituents are both angry and alarmed at what they see happening. I have received thousands of pieces of correspondence from constituents calling on me to reject the Prime Minister’s deal, and I have written back to each and every one of them saying I will vote against it; what do I tell them now? We are told that the vote will come before 21 January 2019, but that will only heighten fears of a no-deal scenario. My constituents need reassurance, but with this Government and this Prime Minister that is not something I can give.
My constituents need a Government who will not only sort out this Brexit mess but solve the other crises facing our country: the housing crisis, the crisis in social security, the crisis in our NHS.
In pulling this vote, the Government continue to betray our children, our hospital patients and our much valued NHS workforce. The Prime Minister is running scared, unable to face a debate either in this House or on the television. Does my hon. Friend agree—
Order. I am sorry to be unkind to the hon. Lady, but a large number of colleagues want to speak, so interventions should be brief.
My hon. Friend makes a good point.
Yesterday the Prime Minister again said that she wants to tackle social injustices, so may I recommend that she begins by reading and then accepting the conclusions of the UN report on extreme poverty? Eight years of her Government’s austerity policies have devastated our communities and devastated disabled people.
This Government have no answers to the challenges we face on Brexit or anything else. Their only achievement is to unite people in opposition to them. It is downright shameful that they have pulled the meaningful vote. Parliament must be given a meaningful vote on the deal. The Government must provide that guarantee. I know that many Members on the Conservative Benches share that view, so when the Prime Minister returns with no significant changes—as Jean-Claude Juncker said this morning, there is “no room whatsoever” for the Prime Minister to renegotiate her deal, and I understand that Angela Merkel has said almost the same thing—if this House finally gets the right to reject the deal, given the chance I urge Conservative Members to support a no confidence motion.
My constituency voted to leave the European Union, and I also voted to leave. I was elected as an MP almost exactly two years ago, shortly after the referendum, and I gave my maiden speech in the article 50 debate. I have consistently believed that, as the representative of my constituents, I must ensure that the Sleaford and North Hykeham voice on this matter is heard in this Chamber and that Brexit is delivered. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) that there is a significant challenge for the Government in delivering Brexit within a remain Parliament.
I have done a lot of listening to those local voices since the details of the deal first broke last month, and I have engaged with members of my association, with local residents, and with the hundreds of constituents who have got in touch with my office. Across all those conversations, there has been a common thread of concern. Whether they voted to remain or to leave in 2016, my constituents are concerned about the risk of entering into a backstop arrangement that could last indefinitely and that could not be left unilaterally. As my right hon. Friend the Attorney General said, that is too great a risk to bear.
Many have asked the Prime Minister to listen to these concerns, which have been expressed privately and publicly, including in this Chamber. Members on both sides of the House have talked about the pressure of time and the need to ensure a good deal before 29 March 2019, and I agree with that. We have had three days of debate on this issue, and the will of the House is clear to everyone. I do not believe that having a vote would tell us anything we do not already know. Common sense recognises that the Government were faced with two options. They could continue to listen to the debate for two more days and then have a vote, the result of which was already known, or they could use that time to go back to the EU and change the offer to reflect the concerns. Clearly, improving the deal has to be the priority for all of us.
Opposition Members might prioritise a vote so that they can point and jeer and score political points, but the people of this country want us to get on with delivering the Brexit that they voted for. In my view, the right attitude is not to play politics but to consider what is best for this country and for our constituents, and to wish the Prime Minister and the Government good fortune in their negotiations with Brussels. I hope that she can come forward with a better deal from the EU, and I hope that other right hon. and hon. Members will wish her the best as well.
I agree with the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), on one thing, which is that this is an abject mess. A rather unattractive feature of the Brexiters in this debate is that they tend to blame everyone but themselves for the mess. They are seeking to blame the civil servants, the professional advisers and indeed the remainers for the mess that they themselves have created. We saw the Prime Minister’s spin operation over the weekend, when she said that she would press her deal to a vote. She marched all her second lieutenants up the hill but then left them stranded under fire while she slipped back down the hill under the cover of darkness.
I am pleased that the deputy Prime Minister is in his place. He has talked about the Prime Minister’s Stakhanovite work ethic, but people who know their history will know that the production figures did not quite represent the large figures that were put forward under that regime. I am sorry to say that her productivity has been rather less than her air miles would suggest.
I must point out to the Leader of the Opposition that I am rather perplexed. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) said, we are having a debate about not having a debate, but many Opposition Members—certainly those in the Scottish National party—were rather expecting the Leader of the Opposition to initiate a no-confidence debate today. He has been in the House even longer than I have, and I am sure that he would agree, after the past week in which the Government have been defeated three times, found to be in contempt of Parliament for the first time in history and pulled the vote at very short notice yesterday, that he has never seen a Government quite so rudderless, ill-disciplined and leaderless as this one. I say to the Leader of the Opposition that it is time to stop hiding behind process, to discover his inner lion, to throw down the gauntlet and to table a motion of no confidence. Many Opposition Members would back him.
I hope that the deputy Prime Minister will guarantee that we will vote on the Prime Minister’s deal next week, and that a legislative means of ruling out no deal will be provided because of the damage that it would cause business, and to prevent us from descending further into the vortex of disarray and disillusionment.
William Butler Yeats wrote poetry about not being able to write poetry. Today, I am debating not having a debate yesterday, but I will take my three minutes where I find them.
The country is tired of politicians wasting time bickering. People want us to get on with delivering a practical Brexit that protects our interests and honours the vote. The House has made clear its deep concerns about the proposed withdrawal agreement, most of all the Northern Irish backstop. Having taken that on board, rightly but late in the day, the Prime Minister was correct to pause the parliamentary process and go back to Brussels. If opponents of the deal had been arguing in good faith, surely they should welcome that effort, wish her every success and reserve judgment until we see what changes can be negotiated in Brussels.
Opponents of the deal need to be honest with us and the voters about the options if the deal is rejected. As I see it, they would be no deal, Norway forever or a second referendum. Supporters of the first course of action should recognise that the House does not support no deal. I understand that some of the direst predictions could be averted through careful management and negotiated bilateral agreements with the EU, but none the less, I share the view that that represents an unacceptable risk to our economy and to British employers. I still believe in experts, although some seem not to.
The only realistic alternatives to the Prime Minister’s deal at this stage are a softer Brexit or no Brexit. As for the so-called Norway option, it is a bad fit for a country such as ours. For starters, what began as “Norway for now” has become “Norway forever” as the EEA nations have made it clear that we will not be welcome to use their arrangements as a stepping stone to the bespoke deal we need. In fact, because it will still need to include the backstop, the Norway plan is in many senses much worse than the withdrawal agreement, not least because it involves continuing payments into the EU budget and abandoning any attempt to control freedom of movement.
Finally, a word to those pushing for a second referendum: in the previous Parliament, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass the decision on our EU membership to the British people. The Government made explicit promises to honour the result. Conservative and Labour manifestos said the same. The push for a so-called people’s vote stands in a long and dishonourable traditional of electorates who disappoint Brussels being told to vote again. I strongly believe that a second vote would deliver the same result as the first at the price of further dividing our country and our society.
We are in a painfully predictable situation. We all knew, when article 50 was triggered, that there was a time limit. That is why I voted against it. We all knew that there would be French and German elections that would get in the way of negotiations, and then the Prime Minister called her own election, so there was less and less time. The then Brexit Secretary said that everything would be fine and that we would easily negotiate a deal that would give us exactly the same benefits as we have.
Here we are, two and a half years after the referendum and the deal is not yet cooked, so we are putting it back in the oven for a few more days, with a bit of salt and sugar, hoping it will come out and everyone will eat it. However, the reality is that some people want more salt and others want more sugar. The deal, whatever it is, will not be agreed in this place. The hard Brexiters—the loony-tunes, let’s-Brexit-without-a-deal people—will never agree it. The hardcore remainers will not agree it, saying that we are better off with what we have.
I believe that Brexit is a betrayal of Conservatism because it gets rid of the best trading model in the world. It also gets rid of the United Kingdom Union because if we exit without a deal, there will necessarily be a hard border, otherwise there will be nothing to prevent migration. It will simply not work.
Brexit is a betrayal of socialism because, inherently, it will mean a smaller economy—a smaller cake to be divided more equally by a future Labour Government. It will mean that a subsequent Tory Government could reduce workers’ rights and environmental rights beneath EU standards, and socialists should oppose it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not. Other people want to speak.
The Prime Minister is trying to kick this into the long grass, but the area of long grass is getting smaller and smaller because the lawn mower of article 50 means there are only a few weeks left. The reality is that any Brexit will mean we have less money. We will not have the £350 million a week. We will have to pay the divorce bill. We will have less trade. We will have fewer jobs. We will have less control because of Henry VIII powers and because we will have to obey EU rules. There will be just as much immigration but from different places.
The ECJ has decided that we can now revoke article 50. If we do not have a deal by 21 January and we face no deal, we should revoke article 50 and stay in the EU. If we have a deal, any sort of deal, we should put it to the people by deferring article 50 so that they can decide whether they want the deal on the table that the EU will accept, because we will not agree it here. If they do not want it, and if they find it better to stay in the EU, we should stay in the EU. I very much hope we stay in the EU, as we would be stronger, fairer and more united, and there would be a better future for all our children.
During the 2016 referendum many Members of this House on the leave side told leave voters that, if we left, we would be voting to leave the EU, not voting to leave Europe, and they promised that co-operation on trade and in areas like science, student exchanges and security would all continue. It is precisely that deal that the Prime Minister has sought to negotiate, but when she brought the deal to this House, many colleagues raised the issue of the backstop. It was not just the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) who raised the issue of the backstop; it was also raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), the former Chief Whip, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), the esteemed former Defence Secretary. They all raised the issue of the backstop. [Interruption.]
Hello, Father Christmas. [Laughter.] Actually this is not a time for laughter. [Interruption.] Mr Speaker, Father Christmas was behind you. [Interruption.]
Order. I understand the merriment, but I want to hear the hon. Lady.
If possible, I would like a little extra time for that.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I hope it is a genuine point of order, and not a point of frustration.
Is it in order for Father Christmas to save Brexit?
During this debate, even my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), the chair of the 1922 committee, urged the Brexit Secretary and the Prime Minister, in the strongest possible terms, to redouble their efforts to get reassurance on the backstop. Our Prime Minister has gone back to ask EU leaders to work again on the backstop, because Members of this Parliament instructed her to do so. Hard Brexit brings real risk, and rejecting the referendum result also brings real risk.
The proposals from the Labour Front Bench promising the exact same benefits as the single market without the obligations are fantasy fiction. This is not a game. The risks faced by our constituents are real. I urge Members on both sides of the Chamber to stop criticising our country’s negotiators. Members should roll up their sleeves, wrap a cold towel around their head and work out what sort of deal they can support, because unless we find support for a deal, our constituents and our neighbours across Europe will never forgive us.
I made it clear to my constituents that I would not be supporting the Prime Minister’s deal. The deal locks us into purgatory, and a few added pages in the appendix will not change that. Whether we said yes or no to Brexit, nobody voted for this.
How can we believe anything this Government say? Yesterday played out the Prime Minister’s contempt for Parliament and for the people we represent. It is their Parliament she smothers and ignores. Her humiliation now risks becoming the country’s humiliation. In what possible scenario do her latest actions help us negotiate a better deal, as we step closer to a no deal? But I fear a more cynical move in the Government’s motives. After running the clock down, and two years of excluding the country from making a deal together, the Prime Minister refuses to express the realities of Brexit compared with its rhetoric and will not say when the meaningful vote will be—or, indeed, whether it will be either meaningful or a vote. Threatening no deal if it is not her deal is a confection. Such an approach is straight out of a mis-selling scandal; it is, “Take this now or lose everything. Now or nothing. No other choice”, but it will not wash.
Far from taking back control, the Prime Minister stands in the way of control. Britain said yes and no to Brexit. Some 3,000 leavers and remainers in my constituency have taken my Brexit survey, with an 80% combined view that the public or Parliament should have a final say on the deal, compared with just 11% for the Prime Minister. I understand sentiments such as, “Why aren’t we there yet?” or, “Get on with it”, but this is too important to lose patience with. It is too important to be told, “Time’s up, everyone out.” The Prime Minister has not united the country because she cannot unite it with the approach she has taken on the one job she had. She should bring her deal back to Parliament next week, conclude the vote and have Parliament decide what is next, including whether we should ask for further instruction from the people. If she cannot sell her deal, it is not worth buying, but all efforts now must be to activate this place, our Parliament, to protect against a no deal.
After the referendum, I had several public meetings with my constituents and they told me that they thought we should have a cross-party negotiating team. The Prime Minister’s strategic process error has been the failure to build consensus across party, across the House and across the country, culminating yesterday in pulling the vote. It is simply wrong for her to threaten us with a catastrophic no-deal exit if we do not accept her approach. Constantly prioritising the unity of the Tory party and pandering to the European Research Group was doomed to fail; they are happy with no deal—they have already stashed their cash overseas.
So what should we do now? I am not going to say that everything in the Prime Minister’s deal is bad. Some colleagues say that it is too late for a renegotiation, but I am not sure about that. We should take a leaf out of Leo Varadkar’s book and change the red lines, most obviously the obsession with the ECJ. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that those of who us who wanted to stay in the customs union, which is very popular with the public, needed to be honest that that would mean common regulation. Quite honestly, I am happy to stay in the social chapter, with the environmental standards, and the industrialists in my constituency tell me that they want the European Medicines Agency and the European customs agency. Furthermore, this would make a significant difference to our European partners, because they are worried about regulatory arbitrage: that we are going to compete with them unfairly by cutting regulations and red tape.
I must confess that I am nervous of the Norway option, because it means free movement without getting a seat at the table. We must avoid a catastrophic no deal. If that means we need to have a people’s vote in the end, so be it. I do not believe it is undemocratic to vote again. The truth of the matter is that we all know more than we did two and a half years ago. But I have a warning to the super-remainers as well: staying in the EU will not mean everything in the economic garden is lovely. We must do more for people on low pay. For example, we need to strengthen the trade unions.
I was one of the MPs down to speak yesterday, on what should have been the fourth day of the debate on the withdrawal agreement. Hundreds of constituents have contacted me about the agreement, with the vast majority —some 81%—urging me to vote against it. I wanted to articulate in my speech in that debate the reasons why the people I represent are so worried. They are concerned about jobs, the economy, security and our international reputation. I did not get my chance, though, and my constituents were denied a voice because, as we all know, yesterday’s debate just did not happen. I represent a constituency in which the majority—60%—voted to leave the EU in the referendum, yet the Prime Minister has achieved what seemed impossible two and a half years ago: she has united both sides of the referendum debate in Heywood and Middleton in opposition to her deal.
We have a Government in chaos. Last week, they were found to be in contempt of Parliament, but it seems that that means nothing. The Government have just carried on regardless. There is no clarity about when the debate will be resumed and the meaningful vote held. In a letter to her MPs on 25 November, the Prime Minister said that she had
“negotiated the best possible Brexit deal for the whole United Kingdom. It is now for MPs to decide: back this deal and honour the referendum result…or vote against it and take us back to square one”.
She also said:
“EU leaders have made it clear today that this is the only deal on the table.”
That was two weeks ago, so what has changed? How has the “best possible Brexit deal” and the “only deal” morphed into something over which the Prime Minister is now trailing around Europe seeking reassurances?
The Prime Minister said that to vote against the deal would take us back to square one. Well, square one seems a better place to be than where we are now. Right now, we are not even on the board.
Seventy years ago, at the beginning of 1948, Czechoslovakia stood as the only democracy in eastern Europe. By the end of that 12-month period, it had slipped into becoming a totalitarian satellite state of the Soviet Union—not by force, but instead by political actors who casually discarded democracy as the days turned by. All of which was, of course, egged on by the power of a foreign nation. That is not to say that we face the same dark fate that Czechoslovakia faced, but the background music does not bode well. Indeed, it raises significant alarm bells.
We have had, up to now, Government-supporting newspapers calling judges enemies of the people; Conservative Members using the language of treachery and some even casting doubt on your neutrality, Mr Speaker; and MPs accusing sitting judges of political activism. This is the language of a despot, whether they like it or not. Not once have the Government lifted a single finger to come to the defence of the right of judges or Members of Parliament to go about their business freely, in the way the public rightly expect them to do so.
The truth is that Parliament has become an irritant to this Government. They behave like a tin-pot republic with a Queen on the throne. They have tried to frustrate Parliament here in this House using arcane procedures or, indeed, in the courts. We even had the extraordinary scenes of the UK Government taking the Scottish Parliament to court over the passing of their own Brexit continuity legislation. We now have a Government who hobble from Division to Division, wondering every day whether it might well be their last—and so they should.
I welcome any opportunity to highlight the Government’s failings—
I thought my hon. Friend might welcome that opportunity! Is not the irony in all this that the Brexit referendum was supposed to be about taking back control, but in fact power has been seized by Whitehall?
Parliament is finally starting to assert itself, and rightly so.
I welcome any opportunity to highlight the miserable failings of this Government, but this debate today is no substitute for a vote of no confidence. We have a Government who have gone from dying on their feet to quite literally dying on their knees by the hour. This is not the time for pusillanimous opposition from the Opposition Front Bench. What is needed is real leadership. What is needed is a motion of no confidence. The right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) can grin and stare over his glasses all he likes, but he should bring that no confidence vote forward and the SNP Members will see him in the Lobby.
The Leader of the Opposition will be called no later than 5.3 pm.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald). I strongly agree with him that, often, we recognise democracy only in its breach.
The Government’s decision to prevent this House from voting on and debating their deal is reckless and ideological. It is reckless because it pushes that vote closer towards the no-deal deadline, and it is ideological because the Government have chosen to focus on criticism from just one perspective—those who dislike the backstop—not least the ERG group on their own Back Benches. Yet there are far more significant problems with this deal—problems that hundreds of my constituents have contacted me about and that I would have had the chance to articulate had the Government not pulled the debate and vote on these measures.
First, the deal guarantees no long-term certainty for customs arrangements, which is so important for firms such as BMW at Cowley in my constituency with a highly complex supply chain. Secondly, it fails to secure processes for regulatory alignment in the future, so no block on our country becoming the polluted, precariously employed, deregulated man of Europe. Finally, we still have no certainty for our EU friends and neighbours. I have still had no response from the Prime Minister about whether failure to exercise EEA treaty rights could be used to deny settled status, and we still have no certainty over immigration procedures for the scientists, researchers, doctors, nurses and other workers who are so desperately needed in my constituency and, indeed, across our country.
The Government should be seeking to build consensus on these and other issues, not tacking to the political right. If this Government cannot or will not renegotiate the deal in a sensible rather than ideological direction and they are not willing to stand aside then they should not rule out any option to inject democracy into this process.
I counsel Members in this House to exercise caution. I have heard some Members, and even some Ministers, describe another referendum as “a politicians’ vote” even though they know that it may turn out to be the only route to take to resolve an otherwise irresolvable impasse. I have heard others castigate what they call an elite establishment that they form part of themselves.
Last week, we saw the Leave. EU campaign present George Soros, of all people, as part of an imaginary conspiracy to thwart Brexit. The unpleasant insinuation was very clear. Members in this place must not allow themselves to become carriers for those seeking to stoke division among the British people. The rise in hate crime that has scarred our communities must be stemmed and we, with our privilege of political power, must never shirk our responsibility to reject that hate.
I called this debate because we should be having the proper vote this evening at 7 o’clock. Instead, the Prime Minister has disappeared, allegedly looking for assurances somewhere, and all of her Ministers here are incapable of telling us when the actual vote will be. Is it to be next week? Is it to be 21 January? When will it be?
What we have had over the past two and a half years is a Government exercising their contempt for Parliament by the legislation that they have brought forward, with its proliferation of Henry VIII clauses, culminating, historically, in a vote by this House finding them to be in contempt of Parliament itself.
The purpose of this motion today was to allow this House to express its anger at the way in which the Government have treated it. It has also provided a way for many Members on both sides of the House to express their concerns. There is not much support for the Government’s strategy here, not much support for the way that the Prime Minister has run away from this particular issue. Parliament needs to assert itself. This Government are in contempt of Parliament. They are not taking Parliament seriously and are in danger of leading us into a no-deal cliff-edge Brexit, which will be incredibly damaging for the whole country. Today Parliament needs to assert itself. Tomorrow the Government need either to bring a vote here, or to get out of the way and let somebody else take this issue seriously and negotiate properly on behalf of this country.
11 December 2018
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am reluctant to raise this point of order, having spoken to you about it at the side of the Chair earlier. I should say that I have given the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), who is the subject of the point of order, advance notice of it by email and, a few minutes ago, in person.
During proceedings earlier, when the Leader of the Opposition was opening his emergency debate, he took an intervention from a Democratic Unionist party Member, the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and during the response of the Leader of the Opposition, I said to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), that I wished the Leader of the Opposition would answer a question. That prompted the hon. Member for Bolsover to turn around to me and call me “a piece of shit”. He then went on to defend that, telling a journalist that he was just putting me in my place.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I had no desire to raise this formally with you—[Interruption.] If Members will listen, they will learn something. I had hoped to deal with it informally, as you suggested. However, given that the hon. Gentleman shows no sign of having any regret about it, will you reaffirm that it is wrong? Will you reaffirm that Members on both sides should be able to go about this place without being at the tail end of that kind of abuse?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I did counsel that this matter should best be addressed outside the Chamber, perhaps through the usual channels. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is twofold. First, I hope he will understand that, although I am not in any sense arguing the toss with him or disputing the veracity of what he has said, I was not there and I do not know. I would not presume to comment on a conversation that I did not hear. That is the first point.
The second point is really underscored—over decades, if not centuries—by successive editions of “Erskine May”. In essence, it is this: at this place’s best, moderation and good humour are the defining features of parliamentary conduct. We should be able to disagree with each other agreeably or reasonably agreeably. I do not favour anybody being abused.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand if I say that I have a very high regard for him, but I have known the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) for 21 years and I hold him in the highest esteem. I am not going to stand here and criticise a Member from the Chair for conduct that I did not witness. I have made the overall point, and I think it would be best if I leave it there. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) has raised his concern, if that was what he felt he had to do. May we leave it there for today? Thank you.
If there are no further points of order, we come now to the Ivory Bill (Programme) (No. 3) motion—[Interruption.] Order. I am sure the House is extremely interested in this motion, as of course it should be.
Ivory Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Ivory Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 4 June 2018 (Ivory Bill (Programme)) and 4 July 2018 (Ivory Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at today’s sitting.
(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
Question agreed to.