I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 224908 relating to leaving the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. This is certainly not the first petition that relates to leaving the European Union; it is not even the first this month, and nor is this the first debate on such a petition that I have led.
Exactly: we return to it. I will read the petition, entitled “Brexit re article 50 it must not be suspended/stopped under any circumstances”, into Hansard so that it can have its full say:
“The full details are well known to everyone the media has covered it fully, the British people MUST be given the Brexit they voted for anything else is not acceptable to the British public ARTICLE 50 must not under any circumstances be hindered/suspended/stopped for any reason whatsoever the time is here to take action as there has been excessive feet dragging/delaying tactics by those opposed to Brexit.”
The petition ran for six months and received 116,470 signatures.
Obviously this issue continues to exercise members of the public, just as it exercises Members of this House, and it will continue to do so. In recent debates, we have seen that passions run high and that there are different opinions in the House. Similarly, I am sure, colleagues’ inboxes will reflect the number of people saying a variety of things. Although I am a London MP and my situation will be different from that of MPs for other parts of the country, the number of my constituents who want to have a second referendum or stop Brexit entirely is probably equal to the number of people who do not want to go through the process and who want to leave tomorrow with no deal. A whole load of people are in the middle, including myself. I voted leave and campaigned for Vote Leave.
I was happy to support the Prime Minister’s original deal because it did most of the things that I required, although clearly not all of them. It allowed us to leave the EU’s political institutions, to stop paying the huge membership fees to the EU each year, to end freedom of movement—not so we can stop immigration, but so we can have a controlled, better managed immigration system—and to start the process of striking trade deals with countries around the world, and even to ratify them The deal was imperfect because we would not have been able to get started on putting those deals into place until after the implementation period and we had that future relationship agreed with the EU.
The main sticking point that seemed to trouble a number of colleagues was the Irish backstop. Other issues concern some people but, as we saw in recent votes, the Irish backstop seems to be the main sticking point. Having questioned the Prime Minister, Ministers and civil servants, I concluded that I was a bit more relaxed about the backstop than other Members were, because I believe it is not comfortable for the EU to have it, any more than it is for the UK. I do not buy the line that the EU would want to keep us in the backstop forever, through a pseudo-permanent customs union, because if the backstop were ever to come into force, Northern Ireland would suddenly become the most competitive region of the European Union. It would have full access to both the UK market and the EU single market. Economically, that would be very uncomfortable for the EU because it would allow us to cherry-pick. The EU said, right at the beginning of the negotiations, that we would not be able to cherry-pick and break down any of the pillars, but actually the backstop would allow us to do it, because it would allow us to have access to the single market and customs union, without freedom of movement. Imagine a member state such as Hungary allowing that arrangement to stand for any length of time.
The backstop would allow us to have access to the single market and customs union without paying the membership fees. Imagine France, who would bankroll us, allowing that to stand for any length of time. Looking at new trade deals that the EU would want to happen, those countries looking in would say, “Well, hold on a sec. What is happening with the UK?” It would suddenly become Europe’s backstop, because those countries would not be sure about the relationship they had with the UK for any length of time.
That was my thought process, but unfortunately not enough colleagues agreed. The one good thing about that evening’s vote was that it did not take me long to vote and get through the Lobby—there were not enough colleagues with me. Clearly, the House has had its say. Following the second set of votes, including on the so-called Brady amendment, I am pleased that we now have a clear signal to send the Prime Minister back and say, “Okay, fine. I know we spent a long time negotiating this, but if you”—the EU—“just shift a little bit we can get this done.”
At the time, she was not wrong. We will have to wait and see whether there is a backstop or an amended backstop, which is the whole point of negotiation. As we speak, Members are meeting to discuss alternative arrangements. The key thing about the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) is that it seeks discussion of alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop, which might include the ability to leave unilaterally, a time limit or sunset clause, or what has become known as the Malthouse compromise, proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse).
All those sorts of thing need to be discussed over the next couple of days, so that we can go to Brussels with a clear ask. However, as I was saying, the amendment stating that we need to investigate alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop, and that the chances are that it would then go through, passed the House and has now given the Prime Minister a strong hand to be able to say to Brussels, “If we can get this right, we can do what I hope both sides want: enable the UK to leave in an orderly fashion as possible.” It would be of benefit to the UK to respect the referendum and the will of the 17.4 million people who voted leave while taking on board as many people from the UK who did not vote leave but who acknowledge the result of the referendum, and to ensure that the EU can continue to trade seamlessly with the UK. We can discuss ad infinitum the importance of UK markets to the EU, just as many EU markets are important to the UK. All these things are important.
The vast majority of us who campaigned to leave simply want to be friendly neighbours with the EU rather than its awkward tenants. This is not just a power struggle. The vast majority of people, including me—my main motivation was to leave the EU’s political institutions—wanted to tell Brussels, “You are going in a direction that we do not want to go as a country. Let’s step aside and allow you to develop in the way you want in terms of an ever-closer political union, but let us go in our own direction. We still need to co-operate and collaborate.”
That is why a deal is so important. We can talk about whether a no-deal scenario is a World Trade Organisation scenario, but I am sure the shadow Minister will make the same point that he made last time. He is correct to say that a no-deal scenario covers just trade, which is the whole point of WTO. It does not cover security, education, medical research and so on, which is why a sensible, collaborative deal would be so much better for this country and would allow us to continue relatively seamlessly in the coming months.
Given that the Prime Minister’s hand has been strengthened, I believe that if we develop a clear ask over the next few days, Brussels will give us a bit of flexibility. We are not saying to Brussels, “We’re going to go toe to toe with you.” I still believe that, with a reasonable amount of flexibility, we can get this deal done within the timeframe and will not need to extend article 50.
It would be a democratic travesty were we to follow the line of some of the amendments proposed recently and extend article 50 for months and months. That would let people down. If there is a deal on the table and we just need to dot a couple of i’s and cross a few t’s, I could see it being extended for a week or two, but some people are saying that it should be extended for nine months.
It has already been two and a half years since the people instructed us to leave. Does my hon. Friend agree that extending article 50 any further would be treating them with contempt and would be a slap in the face for democracy? People expect us to get on with the job now.
I absolutely agree. All I am saying is that if we had a deal and just needed to dot the i’s and cross the t’s—if there were a technical reason to extend article 50 for just a week or two—it would be churlish not to do that. I and a number of my hon. Friend’s constituents have taken this decision for 40 or 50 years, not for the short term, so let us get it right. I do not mind an extension of a few weeks, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would be a travesty to say, “Let’s extend article 50 so we can start the discussion again. Let’s have a second referendum and extend the uncertainty and division that this country finds itself in.” People expect much more of us.
I always welcome people trying to come together to discuss things openly and honestly, and perhaps come to an agreement. I only regret that the other parties are not involved in this coming together; it seems to be something that is done just within the Conservative party. I am a member of the Brexit Committee, and the proposals that seem to be on the table, such as trusted trader schemes or equivalences, have been looked at over the past two and a half years. The Committee has listened to many experts who have ruled them out, and the European Union negotiators have done so, too. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that something that has not been agreed in the past two and a half years can suddenly be agreed with the European Union in the next two and a half days or the next week?
There is a good reason why I believe it can happen: Michel Barnier himself said recently,
“My team and I have done a lot of work on virtual, decentralised controls, which will be useful in all hypotheses…Even in the absence of an agreement, we will do our utmost not to create a hard border in Ireland”.
If it is good enough to use decentralised border checks that do not require a hard border in a no-deal scenario, why is it not good enough to use them in a deal scenario? Michel Barnier is trying his best to use the existing processes to avoid putting in a hard border in the event of no deal. It will be the EU’s responsibility to do that, because the Government have said clearly that we will not put in a hard border, and so have the Irish Government. It will have to come from Brussels. The EU will be the final arbiter if it insists on a hard border. Michel Barnier is clearly saying that he will do everything he can, should we leave with no deal, to ensure that does not happen. Let us hope he can give us a bit of flexibility and does everything he can to make that happen if there were a deal. That would help us with so many other issues.
There is more to be done. We just require more flexibility, not wholesale change. When the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, went to the EU to negotiate ahead of the referendum, he did not get a lot to bring back; in my view, he did not ask for enough, but if he had got a bit more from the EU—if the EU had showed a bit more flexibility at that time—I believe that the referendum result would have been very different. We would almost certainly have voted to remain. I hope the EU will look back at that, reflect on it and say, “Let’s not make the same mistake again. Let’s not dig in our heels in at the end of the process.” As my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) says, this has taken two and a half years. We have come all this way, so let us not trip up at the last step.
The EU just needs to show flexibility. We are not asking for wholesale change. I know that, in all negotiations, people need to save face. There is always a dance at this point in negotiations. We will dance around a bit so the Taoiseach can appeal to his domestic audience; I know he has a difficult balance to strike. I am sure our Prime Minister wants to be able to say that she has delivered on the promise of the referendum, and all parties in this House will want to say that they have done their best for their constituents and their country. Germany, France, Belgium, Hungary, Spain and Greece—all the member states and the negotiating team in the middle of Brussels—all want to take the credit for it. Frankly, I do not care who takes the credit for it. Some of us have been working on this for 20 or 25 years. We just want to leave the EU now. If we all keep our heads and use the right language, I see no reason why we cannot do this within the timescale.
On the point that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) made about collaboration in this place, people—the media, especially—often say that the Conservatives are arguing among themselves. There is a simple reason why there are often two Conservatives on panels. The Labour party leadership effectively wants a general election. I have made the point several times that if the Leader of the Opposition wrote a deal, gave it to the Prime Minister and had it presented back to him, he would vote against it because he wants a general election. There are many in his party who have a different view. The Lib Dems want a second referendum, and SNP Members have made the honest point that they do not want to leave. Fine—that is probably the most straightforward and honest point. I fundamentally disagree, but that that is nature of debate. Effectively, the Conservative party is the only party saying, “Yes, we want to leave, but how do we do that? Is it with a deal? What kind of deal is it? Or is it with no deal?” That is the vibrant—often tense—discussion that we are having within our party.
I will finish where I started: we must get together and keep our heads. Another reason why we need to keep no deal on the table is so that we have all the options. If Brussels thinks that the options are that we accept the deal or do not leave at all, it will obviously want to keep us in the EU. Imagine someone going to an estate agent and saying, “I don’t want to pay full price for the house. I want at least £20,000 discount, please.” If the estate agent looks over the person’s shoulder and sees their spouse measuring the curtains, that somewhat undermines their negotiating position. That is why keeping no deal on the table is really important. If we just have a bit of flexibility and allow people to pivot and reflect on the alternatives, I truly believe we can do what the petitioners want. We can get a decent deal that allows us to leave in as orderly fashion as possible within the article 50 timescale. We will not have to suspend article 50, and we can leave on 29 March.
It is a real honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Hanson. You will not be surprised to hear that I am going to put forward the opposite view to that of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully).
We are seven weeks away from Brexit and we have no agreement. There is no agreement in Parliament or, as I can see from my mailbox, among the people.
Brexit supporters, including the Prime Minister, say that 17.4 million people—a small majority—voted for it. So why do we not have an agreement? Why was the Prime Minister’s deal not voted through? If Brexit means Brexit, if 17.4 million people voted for it, and if the Government and the two main parties are committed to it, why are we still arguing? Why has everybody not voted for the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister brought to Parliament? It is because the fundamental flaw of the referendum was that “Brexit” was not defined. Some who voted for it wanted or had no deal in mind; some wanted something like the Prime Minister’s deal. Some wanted to be a lot closer to the European Union—staying in the customs union, for example.
In a minute.
Brexit was not defined, so how many of the 17.4 million voted for the deal that is now on the table? How many voted for a no-deal Brexit? Six million? Eight million? Never as many as the 16 million who voted to stay in the European Union, which was a defined proposal.
I thank the hon. Lady for generously giving way. Does she accept that members of her party voted to have a referendum? Indeed, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats was the first person to say that he was going to give the British people a say on whether to remain in or leave the European Union. He did not say anything about there being different choices. Can she explain that, please?
I am a new Member of Parliament. Obviously, I followed the discussions about the referendum for many years. Yes, we are a party of democracy—I always believe that we should give people a say. Since the vote was so narrow and we are still arguing about what Brexit should look like and how we should leave the European Union, what is the problem with saying, “Now we have a defined Brexit proposal in the Prime Minister’s deal or we have a no-deal proposal, but we also still have the option of staying in the European Union”? That is the most democratic way of dealing with the issue.
I cannot for the life of me understand why more democracy should mean less democracy. Why can we not honestly put that to the people, now that we have so much more information about what leaving the European Union would actually mean? People can continue to vote for what they voted for in 2016. I do not mind that—I am just looking for some clarification.
I think I answered that question before. We—myself included—honour the referendum result in saying that Parliament cannot cancel Brexit: we had a referendum and we, as parliamentarians, cannot just stand here in Parliament and say, “Let’s not do Brexit.” That is why I believe that we need to put it back to the people. That is most democratic way of going about this. I cannot see a reason why putting something back to the people and letting them have the final say is less democratic; I believe that to be democracy in its full sense.
I do not agree. In the 2017 general election, many other elements played their part. For the people, it was not clear what leaving the European Union would mean or what the Brexit deal on the table would be, and we knew nothing about the backstop. We now know what that all looks like.
I truly trust in people and I believe that when I put things in front of them, with the honest options on the table—outside the heat of the media and the competition of political parties—they will make good decisions. That is why, by the way, I am very much in favour of citizens’ assemblies. If we get to the point of extending article 50—I believe that we must because we are simply running out of time—we should precede that with several citizens’ assemblies where we put the options to focus groups and where people can discuss them honestly.
I have said time and again that I believe that people will make very good decisions. I trust in them and, if they confirm their former opinions—whether that is a no-deal Brexit or the Prime Minister’s Brexit—and there is a majority of more than 50% for a specific Brexit deal, I will accept it. That is a final say. We have always said that the people must have the final say and that we must give it to them.
I note that the hon. Lady said that the people should be asked whether they want a no-deal Brexit or the Prime Minister’s Brexit. She was very clear. I have heard other Liberal Democrats add another option. Has she left off her list a staying put option? Can she clarify? I hear both versions and I am absolutely not certain about what the Liberal Democrats are asking for. There could be an argument for asking about the two versions of Brexit, but there certainly is not one for putting the issue back to the people as a three-way referendum.
I want to make progress. Now that we have defined Brexit options on the table, a majority of people—if we trust the polling—would vote to remain. How many people actually voted for a no-deal Brexit? Eight million people? Certainly not as many as would vote to stay in the European Union. How many people would vote for a no-deal Brexit or the Prime Minister’s Brexit? The fundamental flaw of the 2016 Brexit vote, as I insist on saying, was that “Brexit” was not defined.
In all honesty, if we leave and want to do Brexit properly, we have to give the final say to the people, because Parliament is divided. That is why we are here; I believe in Parliament. There is no majority for a no-deal Brexit, yet the people who write to me the most seem to be those who want us to leave without a deal. If we strip the numbers down, however, we see that they are a minority of 30% maybe—not an all-out majority. We need to clarify things with the British people. That is why we need an extension of article 50.
I understand that the European Union will agree to an extension if either a general election or a people’s vote is on the table. I hope that an extension of article 50 would give us and the British people time to properly discuss all the options. That would mean discussion in citizens’ assemblies—as proposed by the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), which I supported—so that we can properly discuss the things on the table, rather than being drowned out by media hysteria and by political interests.
People visiting the Electoral Reform Society website will see that it held a citizens’ assembly in Manchester, post-Brexit, with mostly Brexiteer focus groups. The choice of that citizens’ assembly was for a very close relationship with the European Union—including single market and customs union membership—that I would call “Brexit in name only”. That is what people think we should do because, in the end, we do not want a Brexit that damages our economy or our security prospects. If people want a Brexit that truly serves their interests, they will come to the conclusion that the best deal is the one that we already have: membership of the European Union. But hey-ho! Let us put the choice to the people: a painless Brexit, a painful Brexit or a pointless Brexit.
I believe that people will come to the conclusion that the best deal is membership of the European Union and not the deal on the table. Let us ask the people again; let us have an extension of article 50; let us have proper grown-up discussions with members of the public in proper focus groups; and let us have a referendum and see what the people say. Let us ask for an extension of article 50, to which I think the European Union would agree.
I am pleased to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Hanson, because sometimes those in the main Chamber are so crowded that it is difficult to get in. This is wonderful—I am told we have hours, which is great—because we can really explore the options.
The important thing for me is to look at the petition. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who spoke with great passion. The Liberal Democrats contested my seat hotly at the last election, making it a Brexit election, but to be fair, they have a fixed view: they do not want to leave the European Union. However, as the hon. Lady said, they offered a referendum and—this is on my wall as a poster—Sir Nick Clegg featured in a leaflet saying, “Only the Liberal Democrats offer you a true referendum, in or out.” I thought, “Fair enough, that’s a fair question.” Now, and this was confirmed by the hon. Lady—I wanted to check—the “in or out” talked about in that leaflet is not the referendum that the Liberal Democrats want to offer; the new referendum, if that were to be considered, would be a three-way choice, which would split the vote considerably.
A democracy is a place where things move and are dynamic. The hon. Lady is not being helpful if she keeps harking back to what was said in the past. We are where we are, and we are in a very difficult situation. Is it not important to look at the present, instead of always harking back to the past?
I completely agree, but we have to learn from the past, which forms part of our future trajectory. All I am saying is that the in-out referendum that the House promised the British people is the only way to go. The three-way referendum now supported by the hon. Lady’s party and others would ask people to choose between what she would describe as a hard Brexit—a no-deal Brexit, perhaps—the Prime Minister’s Brexit, and staying in. That could not be countenanced as democratic.
As I understand it, the EU would have no truck—I do not blame it—with us wanting to kick the whole thing into the long grass during a long drawn-out process. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said that the British public would never forgive us; certainly they would never forgive us for trying to twist the arm of the EU, and saying, “Please can we extend article 50, so that we can offer a three-way referendum?”.
That is interesting. The other day in the main Chamber, I tried to intervene on the Leader of the Opposition many, many times. I wanted to know whether the policy of the Labour party is to offer another referendum. The economic collapse, I believe, is a much-hyped fear factor.
The British public had 40 years of trying out the European project, which is certainly not the Common Market that my late parents voted for. That was a vote for one thing. After 40 years of ever closer political integration, the British public were asked if they wanted to re-endorse that membership, or if they would like to say, “We’d like to leave.”
It is not as though we have not discussed the possibility of leaving, or our unhappiness with having treaties foisted on us. The British public have a lot of experience—the history that the hon. Member for Bath does not want to draw on—of looking at how they were treated, how they were talked to, and how they were being sucked into closer integration, which they were not happy with. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who opened the debate, said, that is what many people were unhappy with. The British public knew that they did not like it, so they decided that they wanted to leave and be an independent, self-governing and sovereign nation again. That is the argument that was made.
I campaigned to leave, and I made it very clear to my constituents that I was for leaving—I did not hide that, or take the easy option—although most of them voted to remain. I made it clear that I believed in leave, but that I was only one vote. Those members of the British public who were of voting age that first time around, however, had seen the direction of travel, which was towards ever closer integration, and they did not want to go there, so they decided get off that bus.
I do not like to talk of winning or losing, but the only way to describe a referendum is in those terms. The leave campaign won because there was more heart in the campaign to get back our sovereignty than there was in saying, “We know the EU’s not perfect, that it should change, that lots of you have had grumbles and complaints over the years, and that we keep trying to change things and it never gives us much—but I am sure it will at some point in the future.” That did not cut it.
The hon. Lady makes the important point that people knew what deal we already had, but I take her back to the wording of the petition:
“the British people MUST be given the Brexit they voted for”.
Can she tell me what the Brexit that they voted for was?
The convention is to answer an intervention before giving way again, and I would like to do that. I am sorry.
It was made clear that there would be no second asks—I remember hearing that several times during the campaign—and that if we left, we would take back control of our borders and so make our own immigration policies. I am quite relaxed about numbers, although some people are not, but leaving would mean a level playing field on immigration policy. Also, it was clear that we would deliver on the vote of the British people; Parliament would not tinker and water it down. The referendum was about bringing back a level of control to Parliament—eventually, not right this second—from the European Union. We have got caught up in the argument that that means going back to parliamentarians having control over the people, but the people voted to bring back control from Brussels to Parliament; it was very clear, and they expect us to deliver on that.
The hon. Lady’s answer to my intervention was not what I hoped for. Do not all of us in the House of Commons have different versions of what an acceptable Brexit deal would look like? Some advocate a close relationship with the single market and a customs union; some support the deal that the Prime Minister made; and many in her party say that that is not the Brexit that they voted for. Surely the British public are just as split, if not more so, than parliamentarians here in the Palace of Westminster. If we are to have the trust of the public, we have to present them with a deal and check whether that is the Brexit that they feel that they voted for.
To me—unless someone would like to iterate a different view—it seems that the official opinion of the majority of Labour Members is that they support the view of the Liberal Democrats. They want what they describe as a people’s vote; some would call it a remoaner’s ask. There seems to be a growing chorus of, “It’s in the ‘too difficult’ box, so let’s put it back to the public.” If that happened, I would be the first to call for the best of three, particularly if the wording was not exactly the same as last time, and did not ask, “Do you wish to leave or stay?”. If the wording was different or three options were offered, I would say, “You’re not asking the same question.” To get to the nub of what the petition is about, the public are beginning to be fearful about whether we will honour and do what we said we would do.
I was at Prayers this morning—I am pleased that we have Prayers, because it concentrates the mind for a few moments—and one of the things that we are asked to do in Prayers is not be concerned with the desire to please. In this place, we can try desperately to please everyone, but the reality is that we cannot. We can, however, come to a settled opinion and try to do our best. The difficulty is that Members of Parliament overwhelmingly voted to remain, and are trying to deliver something that they do not really believe in. We cannot get away from the fact that that is a tension. But we have to deliver what we said we would deliver, and not just try to please, which would be the easy option.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way. She will be pleased to know that I agree with her, and I go to Prayers, too. Irrespective of religion, I very much believe that it is important to discuss things honestly, accept our differences and come to a conclusion together. If we are delegates, we are just delivering what the people have said, but if we are not delegates, we are representatives. Is it not for us to make a decision according to our conscience and to what we believe is best for our country? That is exactly what we are all grappling with, including the Liberal Democrats. It does not help to denounce one another all the time and to call some people remoaners.
The hon. Lady has made her speech and interventions; if she does not mind, I will leave it there and we will have to agree to differ.
My concern is that we may end up looking weak because we cannot get behind a deal by the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said that he could settle for the withdrawal agreement. When I went to see the Prime Minister before Christmas, I said, “I truly believe you are trying to do your very best on this.” Whatever anyone from any political party thinks, the Prime Minister has a very difficult job. Her tenacity is astonishing. I said, “At the moment, whether people believe in leave or remain, we have the absolute right to walk out the door, shut it behind us and say, ‘We will not put up with any more interference in our legislation from a group of countries.’ We can choose, but we will not be obliged.” We have the absolute right to do that, but I said we were like a load of nervous sheep in a pen.
I cannot hover around the idea of a backstop that 27 other countries may hold the key to. We are trying to get back sovereignty; we must not dilute that sovereignty by giving 27 other countries the whip hand over us. They have their own agendas. Each country would have a veto. It may well be that Gibraltar, or our fishing, comes up on the agenda. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: I do not think the EU will want to keep us in the backstop, but I fear what they will exact to let us out.
My hon. Friend has been extremely generous in giving way. Does she agree that the myth that people did not know what they were voting for must be dispelled? Prime Minister David Cameron spent more than two years trying to negotiate a better deal for the UK by going around and speaking to the European Commission and all the other member states. He got a deal and put it in a leaflet that was delivered to every single home in the UK. We know that the majority of people—17.4 million—voted to reject that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the time, I was very worried about whether there was some undue influence, whether we should have purdah and other things that were taxing our brains at that point. The European Union was advocated for by the leader of the Government at the time; a lot of big names tried to make the case for it, and a lot of money was associated with that. Even so, the British public had 40 years of knowing what they had, and they did not like it. People want to call them stupid or deluded—those are some of the things thrown at my constituents who voted to leave—but they were prepared to take the opportunity to leave.
There was a split decision, but did anyone ever think it would be more decisive than it was? It struck me how many people participated in the referendum—it was overwhelming. When I was out knocking on doors, people told me they had not voted for many a year, but they were going to vote. The referendum galvanised and engaged people in a way that we often struggle to. If we do not get on with this, the public will ask, “What is the point of taking part in any votes whatever? We got ourselves out the door for that special occasion; we were motivated.”
I do not know what motivated some people; they may have had different motivations, but they still wanted to leave the club. That is why they got out the door that morning in vast numbers and went to vote. This petition reflects a frustration; people think that we are cloth-eared in here and did not wake up to the sheer number of people who decided they had to vote to leave. This was a topic that had engaged them, if nothing else, for decades. No party, leaflets or knocking at their door had got them out, but this did. The former Prime Minister would not like to hear that some people did not bother to read his leaflet, but some people felt they had enough personal experience to make up their mind; the leaflet was not going to change that. They were glad of the opportunity of the vote.
I do not believe the European Union will want a “kick the can down the road” delay to article 50. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: if it were for a few weeks, that might well be tolerated, so long as it was just to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. In that respect, I disagree with the petition, but I have sympathy for where it is going.
I could not vote for the withdrawal agreement, and 240 people felt the same way. When I went to see the Prime Minister after the big defeat, I said, “Will I want to pay £39 billion? No; it will stick in my craw, but it is a one-off. Do I want the European Court of Justice to have jurisdiction over us during the implementation period? No, but I can stand it. Can I lock us into a backstop? No.” I have gone through the debates, arguments and thought processes; that has to be fixed.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: Brussels said that it will not tell us what we want to hear, but I believe and hope that it will listen, now that things have been distilled down. I do not wish to be the teenager trashing the flat, as someone said; I wish us to have a good relationship. I do not want us to be rancorous. I hope the people who have signed this petition will accept that we have not ignored the fact that 17.4 million people, many of whom said they had not voted for a very long time, got out the door that day because this was the one thing they wanted delivered. It is up to us to deliver it.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and a rare pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall. Before I was appointed Chief Whip for the SNP, I covered a lot of Brexit debates in here; in fact, we called it the Brexit Minister hall, because we discussed the subject so frequently. It is good to see that has not changed. I do not think I will speak for two hours, but as a Whip this is a rare opportunity for me to speak. As the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said, the Chamber is usually so busy.
The petition is quite intriguing. It jumps out at me that article 50 must not “under any circumstances” be extended, whether for technical reasons, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) said, or for a general election, a zombie apocalypse, alien invasion or any circumstances. Brexit must go ahead on 29 March. But that date is not some sort of geological fixture or part of the fundamental laws of physics. It is a date that was put in to a piece of legislation, largely as a sop to Back Benchers. The original European Union (Withdrawal) Bill talked simply of “exit day”, which would be defined by statutory instrument. I wonder if we might be in a much calmer place if the original clause had stood. People are becoming fixated on 29 March—at least that is what the people who signed the petition seem to think must happen.
I want to dwell on the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). We hear that the British people must be given the Brexit they voted for and that anything else is not acceptable, but what is the Brexit they voted for? All the ballot paper said was, “to leave the European Union.” That might simply mean leaving the political institutions, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said and I suspect a lot of people thought. The hon. Member for St Albans said people had had 40 years of Europe and they did not like it. I have had slightly less than 40 years of European membership—only slightly less—and I have quite liked it.
Perhaps some of the people who voted to leave did not like the bogeyman that the European institutions had become. Perhaps they did not like the political institutions. Perhaps they did not like the political establishment that argued for remain, of which many of us in effect find ourselves a part. It is more difficult to make the case that they did not like their European health insurance cards, which allow them to access medical treatment wherever they go in Europe, that they did not like being able to travel visa-free across the European continent and take advantage of sunnier climates and cheaper holidays, that they did not like the medicines they get access to through the European Medicines Agency and that they did not like the safe regulation of nuclear materials.
May I give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of my experience? I voted to stay in the European Union when Labour held the referendum in 1975, but I voted to stay in a trading partnership, which is what it was sold as. Of course, this time I voted leave, and I know that a lot of my constituents, and probably a lot of his, feel the same way. As he said, he did not know anything other than the European Union, I thought he might like the benefit of my experience and age. Life did not end before 1972, when we were not members of the European Union.
I absolutely take that point. Of course, if we want to keep going back into history, the European Coal and Steel Community was founded in response to the second world war to link European economies, and peace has prevailed on this continent for longer than at any other time in the past several centuries largely as a result of closer European integration. The hon. Lady says the Common Market back then was very different from the European Union today, but rejoining the Common Market—or Common Market 2.0, which some Members are discussing—is not what the House is currently being asked to vote for. If anything, we are being asked to move further away from that.
Let us look again at what people voted for. They were told by the now former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), that there would
“continue to be free trade, and access to the single market.”
The current Environment Secretary said we would be
“redefining the single market, not walking away from it.”
The current International Trade Secretary said in 2016:
“The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.”
All that is collapsing in front of our eyes. Shortly, the business in the main Chamber will move on to a statement about Nissan in Sunderland and the consequences of our plunging off the cliff with a no-deal Brexit on 29 March.
I take that point. Nevertheless, jobs are at risk and there is massive uncertainty, and it is in large part to do with the cliff edge that we face because of Brexit.
From the SNP’s point of view, three things should happen, two of which are related. One of the effects of extending article 50 would be to rule out a no-deal Brexit. As I said, 29 March was just picked and written on a bit of paper. Frankly, that is true of all the Brexit negotiations. All this comes down to people in a room being willing to talk to one another. It is not rocket science. It is not changing the fundamental laws of physics. It is about there being political will among the negotiating parties to speak to each other and reach an agreement.
Of course, we are still in the European Union. We will continue to be members until such time as something called Brexit does or does not take effect. The easiest option—the simplest, safest and best option—is to continue on those terms. As the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, by definition, the best possible relationship with the European Union is membership; otherwise, nobody would want to be a member. Everybody would want the better deal. Everybody would want those terms and conditions. The point of leaving has to be that somehow we will have more benefits because of our relationships with the rest of the world, but there is absolutely no evidence of that. All the trade treaties we were told we would have simply are not in place.
The hon. Gentleman will correct me if I misheard him, but did he not say that we should stay in the European Union no matter what? He is sending the message to all those people in Glasgow North who voted to leave the European Union that he knows better and we should stay in.
That is highly amusing. They voted to remain under the conditions we currently have. I will come back to what the relationship between Scotland and the European Union should be.
I believe we should remain—I believe that is the best option—but the point is that people should now be given a choice, because we now know what leave looks like. The Prime Minister set red lines—incidentally, I think she did so without the agreement even of her Cabinet; she announced them at the Mansion House or somewhere equally grand up the street. She did not set them after consulting on a cross-party basis, as she is now trying to do, or after putting forward a proposal or a Bill for the whole House to agree. They were set arbitrarily. Having set those arbitrary red lines, the deal now is probably, more or less, the only deal that could have been got. The Prime Minister wants to leave the ECJ, to stop free movement of people, to be able to negotiate our own independent trade deals, and whatever the fourth one is. Those red lines are very restrictive, and they inevitably lead us to a much more damaging relationship than the one we have or one we could have. Nevertheless, if we set those red lines, that is the deal we get.
That deal should be put to the people. Why should they not have the opportunity to have their say? What are the Brexiteers afraid of? If the Prime Minister’s deal is so glorious—if it is going to launch mother Britannia into a new position of ruling the waves, global leadership and all the rest of it—why are they so afraid to put it back to the people? Why would people not vote for it? The Environment Secretary said to me in the main Chamber a couple of weeks ago that other countries would be looking enviously at the United Kingdom’s deal. If that is the case, why would the people of the United Kingdom not back it in a people’s vote?
Can the hon. Gentleman say that, in such a campaign, the remain side would be honest about some of the things the European Union has in store, such as further integration and a European army? Some of those things would be terribly unpalatable to people—even those who want to stay.
The United Kingdom has consistently negotiated derogations, alternative arrangements, opt-outs and so on throughout its history. The point of membership of the European Union is that, within the Union, a country can help to shape its direction and its future. Brexit will take us out completely.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, “We want to become a sovereign country again,” is a completely misleading phrase? All of us in the European Union are sovereign members; we are sharing and pooling sovereignty. That is the whole point about the European Union.
I was going to make that exact point in my peroration. Members can probably guess what that will be.
The problem is that this deal is not good enough. It has already been rejected by Parliament, and the Prime Minister has had to accept that it needs to be renegotiated so that we have these magical alternative arrangements. That in itself demonstrates that if the House—if parliamentarians, whether we are delegates or representatives—cannot agree on the shape and form of Brexit, then it has to be put back to the people, either in a people’s vote or in a general election. I assure the House that the Scottish National Party fears neither of those.
No, because we support remaining in the European Union. That brings me to my final point, which is about the treatment of Scotland in all of the debate. As I said to the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray), 78% of my constituents voted to remain, which was one of the highest proportions in the United Kingdom. I want to listen to and understand the people who voted to leave, but I am not afraid or ashamed to stand up for the vast majority of my constituents. Some 35 residents of Glasgow North signed this petition—it is interesting to look at its geographical spread.
The day after the 2016 referendum, the First Minister of Scotland said that we had to respect the results of both the 2014 independence referendum and the 2016 UK-wide referendum on the European Union. The Scottish Government have consistently put forward alternatives, compromises and ways forward that could respect the result of the Brexit referendum across the United Kingdom. I meant to say at the start that the SNP voted against having the Brexit referendum, as we did not think it was necessary. We are not in the position of the Liberal Democrats, who now want to revisit an answer that they did not like.
The Scottish Government have not been listened to at all. For example, we proposed ways of retaining single market or customs union membership for Scotland—and potentially for Northern Ireland and parts of the United Kingdom that had voted to remain—and none of that was paid attention to. The promises made to people in Scotland, both in 2014 and 2016, have been broken. The major promise in 2014 was that voting no to independence guaranteed that Scotland remained a member of the European Union, which has proven to be false.
In these circumstances, the people of Scotland will come to the conclusion that it is not the European Union that is failing, but the Union of the United Kingdom; they will choose their own course, whether through a referendum or at a general election, and choose to take back control for themselves. As alluded to by the hon. Member for Bath, independent countries nowadays are defined by their interdependence; a country is known to be independent precisely because it is a member of the United Nations, because it has chosen to pool sovereignty through the European Union or because it has chosen to join any number of international organisations. That is the positive trend that the world should be aiming for, but instead Brexit represents a retrograde step.
I think that would be completely unnecessary. Clearly, there are going to have to be arrangements made for the border with Northern Ireland. If it is possible to do that in Northern Ireland, then it ought to be possible to do when Scottish independence comes. The best solution would be to revisit the whole issue through a people’s vote and ultimately give the people of the United Kingdom the option to remain in the European Union.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) on his introduction to the debate. I did not agree with absolutely everything he said, which he will not be surprised to hear, but he set the framework for the discussion in his characteristically thoughtful way, so I thank him.
The hon. Gentleman was right when he talked about the passions around this debate. The number of Members here today reflects the fact that we have had days, weeks and months exercising those passions, and there is an important statement in the Chamber at the moment. There are many issues that we could discuss—many have been touched on—but I will focus on the specific issue of the petition in relation to the extension of article 50.
We need honesty in this discussion. The Prime Minister could have given a lead in her answers over recent days by recognising the complexity of the issue and the different challenges that we face, but on this—as so often before—she has reduced things to a simple binary yes or no: we will or we will not. She has been digging herself into a position, as she has so many times on Brexit over the past couple of years, that will change when she is confronted with a cold dose of reality.
It all started with the phasing of the negotiations. As Members will remember, the Prime Minister insisted that there would be no separation of the discussion on withdrawal from the discussion on our future relationship. Back in 2016, the first Brexit Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), promised the “row of the summer” on that issue, until he rolled over without dissent because he recognised that that was the way that things would inevitably go.
Then there was the transition. Recognising the risks of a cliff-edge departure on 29 March, we argued back in August 2017 that there should be a transitional period and that business should not have to adjust to different sets of regulations as we left. “No”, said the Prime Minister: No. 10 said that was
“a weak attempt to kick the can down the road.”
That comes from the can-kicking experts. When she secured the transition in March 2018, she claimed that it—or, as she then described it, “the implementation period”—was one of the great achievements of her negotiations. Then we had the mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Some of the nonsense around that has fuelled the idea that we might crash out on whatever terms, or in the absence of any terms, on 29 March. It was nonsense, but it was endlessly repeated—“no deal is better than a bad deal”—until the Prime Minister struck a bad deal, which will shrink the UK economy by 4%. Then she slipped into reverse gear, with a new mantra, which said, “Support my deal, because the alternative of no deal would be disaster for the country.”
If the hon. Lady lets me finish the point, she can intervene again. By the Government’s analysis, no deal would shrink the economy by about 10%. The impact would be particularly negative in manufacturing areas, many of which have been left behind in the period of economic change we have seen over the last generation.
As I understood the Government figures, they said that the economy would not grow as much as it would have done, in the short term—not that it would shrink. Secondly, when someone is entering into a negotiation, surely taking their main negotiating lever off the table means they will roll over and cave in. That seems to be the message we are getting from the Leader of the Opposition, and his party.
The hon. Lady is right, although she is playing with words, on the Treasury analysis. It is not that the economy would shrink 10% from the point where it is now; it would shrink 10% from the point where the Treasury projects it would otherwise be. The net effect is that we would be 10% worse off through a no-deal Brexit.
There would be 10% less money for public services, 10% fewer jobs, and we would be 10% less wealthy than we would otherwise be. The Treasury was right to share that with the British people.
As to a no-deal Brexit as a negotiating lever, it has value only if those on the other side of the negotiations believe that it is meant seriously. No one thinks that a no-deal Brexit is in the British interest, and no one believes it will influence the outcome of the negotiations.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way—and his tone is very emollient. I want to reassure him. I was terrified when the Chancellor said each household would be £3,000 a year worse off if we voted to leave, but the economy has done very well. Just have a little faith: that is what I am really trying to say. Such predictions are often way out of kilter.
It is always fascinating to hear Conservative Members rubbishing their own party’s Chancellors and former Chancellors. The economy may not have lived up to the former Chancellor’s worst expectations, but the pound has crashed and we have moved from being one of the fastest growing economies to one that is growing less quickly. There has been a negative impact already but, as the hon. Lady will recognise, we have not left the European Union yet.
It is clear that all Brexit scenarios leave the economy worse off. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the negotiating position of keeping no deal on the table is a little bit like a cartoon that I saw the other day, with the caption “Unless you give me what I want I am going to shoot myself”? Is not that the idiotic negotiating position, which no one believes in anyway?
I did not see the cartoon, but I think that was a line from a Mel Brooks movie, and the hon. Lady is right to characterise things in that way. That is why the idea that threatening no deal would be a great negotiating card for us never had any credibility.
We could measure the pound at different points, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the pound has fallen since we took the decision to leave. That produced a short-term benefit in additional exports, although the consequences are now beginning to have an effect, because the component parts of many of those exports are now coming in at higher prices. We could debate these issues for a long time. However, I do not think anyone has yet argued successfully against my contention—the Chancellor’s contention—that no deal would be a disaster for the country. That, of course, is why Parliament has voted twice now against leaving without a deal.
After what happened with the phasing of the negotiations, the transition and the ridiculous mantra on no deal, we are here again, with article 50. Every time the Prime Minister is confronted with the growing reality that 29 March may not be a feasible departure date, she insists that we are still leaving. She seems to be in some sort of parallel universe, which is not occupied by many of her Cabinet. The Foreign Secretary said on Thursday that we might need some extra time. The Justice Secretary told The Daily Telegraph that he agreed, and it reported that nine Cabinet Ministers believe it, too. The ever-thoughtful Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), wrote yesterday that
“we have to grasp the nettle of an extended article 50 period”.
I shall be interested to know, when the Minister responds to the debate, which side of that argument within the Conservative party he is on.
We will come to that shortly.
When she is questioned, the Prime Minister just keeps hitting the repeat button. She knows it is nonsense and, what is worse, she knows that everybody knows she knows it is nonsense. It did not have to be like this. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has highlighted the original drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. There was provision for multiple exit days for multiple purposes, which was sensible. It was the Government’s proposal.
However, to throw some red meat to those whom the Chancellor described as the Brexit “extremists” of the European Research Group, the Government fixed 29 March on the face of the Bill for all purposes. It was a gimmick, and a time-consuming and irresponsible one. The Opposition told the Prime Minister that it was a legislative straitjacket and that the Act would have to be amended. We tried to help her out, and tabled amendments to that effect, but the Government rejected them. They rejected proposals that would have given Parliament control over the dates.
The Prime Minister is now preparing to return to Brussels, following last week’s vote. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam talks about the EU giving some flexibility. Let us just remember what the Prime Minister is returning to do. She is going to ask the EU27 to change the backstop that they did not want, but that she pressed them hard to accept. The backstop is a UK Government proposal. We can imagine their bewilderment when, having conceded it when pressed by the Prime Minister, they will face her telling them “You know that backstop? We have got to change it.”
I shall be echoing my hon. Friend’s point in a moment.
The immediate task that the Prime Minister has set herself is to reopen the deal that she said, two weeks ago, was unreopenable. On 15 January, she said:
“Some suggest that there is a fourth option…to vote this deal down in the hope of going back to Brussels and negotiating an alternative deal. However, no such alternative…exists.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 1112.]
It is worth remembering, too, with all this focus on the backstop, that the backstop was not the primary objection for the majority of us who voted to reject the deal. It was the impact that the deal would have on jobs and the economy. The hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) is right to say that we have the right to walk away, but we also have the responsibility to the British people to outline the consequences of taking that sort of step, and we have exercised that to some degree in terms of the impact of no deal.
With the country currently despairing of our politics and with business confidence collapsing, the Prime Minister might reflect—to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin)—that it did not have to be like this. At the outset, she could have said, “The British people have voted to leave the European Union, but by the closest of margins; it is a mandate to end our membership of the EU, but not a decision to rupture our relations with our closest neighbours, our main trading partner and our key allies.” She could have added, “Therefore, we will seek a deal that reflects that position: a deal that is right for people’s jobs and livelihoods, in a customs union, close to the single market, in the agencies and partnerships”—some of which the hon. Member for Glasgow North mentioned—“that we have built together over 45 years, retaining the rights and protections for workers, consumers and the environment, and keeping up with those rights and with the EU as we move forward.” If she had said those things, she could have secured a majority in Parliament. She could have united a country that had been so bitterly divided by the referendum, and the issue of the Northern Ireland border would never have existed.
I set out a brief list of the reasons why I voted to leave: leaving the institutions, stopping the payments, stopping freedom of movement and being able to do trade deals. In the customs union that the Opposition are suggesting, can the hon. Gentleman outline which of those would be available?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that freedom of movement has nothing to do with membership of the customs union. Our position is that we cannot be a member of the customs union of the European Union, because we will no longer be a member of the EU, but we should have a customs union that replicates those current arrangements. That means having a common external tariff; it means recognising that we would not be able to negotiate our own trade agreements, but that we would benefit from the trade agreements, which we were part of negotiating as a member of the European Union, that exist with 70 countries, and hoping to have a say—not a deliberative say, but a say—in future trade agreements. Does that answer his question?
The hon. Gentleman raises a much broader question. There would not be fees in relation to the customs union, but, as the Government have acknowledged, there clearly will be payments for other schemes and partnerships that we might want to be part of; the Minister might want to comment on that. There are no fees in relation to the customs union, but there would be if we were to be part of the Horizon 2020 framework programme 9 on research across the European continent. We would pay something in and we would get something out.
There are many other schemes, if we were part of the agencies and partnerships: take Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community. We are spending an enormous amount of money replicating arrangements that we could have continued to benefit from as a member of Euratom. There is no additional benefit to the UK in that; it is just a separation of functions because of the obsession with the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which has never ruled on anything relating to Euratom that would be of any concern to the United Kingdom.
My point is that, at that juncture after the referendum, there was an opportunity to reach out to the majority that existed in Parliament for a sensible Brexit. I campaigned to remain, but I recognise the outcome of the referendum. Instead, the Prime Minister let the ERG set the agenda, set the red lines and box her in, leading to the deeply damaging proposal that the House so overwhelmingly rejected a couple of weeks ago. She is putting her party before her country, just as David Cameron did before her, and the country is facing the consequences.
It is not too late. As an Opposition, we are willing to talk about that sensible Brexit deal—a relationship with a customs union, single market, rights and protections, agencies and partnerships. To answer a question that I was anticipating the hon. Member for St Albans would ask, although she did not: if the Prime Minister will not go there, we will consider the option of a further public vote to break the impasse. Nevertheless, whatever happens over the next seven weeks, we cannot and should not rule out an extension of article 50.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. You have obviously heard my speech many times before; I believe that is why you are just about to scoot off to do better things. I thank you for the generous way in which you have chaired the debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for the thoughtful way in which he introduced the debate. He, like me, campaigned to leave; he, like me, knows that there are many different ways of leaving, but that the British people gave an instruction to their Government, and he, like me, knows that the Government are intent on delivering on it.
I should answer a couple of the points raised in the debate. It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) telling us that we cannot cancel Brexit; in general, the Lib Dem policy is, “We can’t cancel it, so we’ll try any other means whatever, parliamentary or otherwise, of undermining that result.” Realistically, I struggle with the Lib Dems when they say pretty much anything, because I remember in 2010 their campaigning vehemently to get rid of tuition fees and then, as soon as they got into Government, doing exactly the reverse. She says she is not campaigning to cancel Brexit now, but I absolutely know that she is, so I think she should be a bit more honest in the debate.
The Liberal Democrats, including me, have never made any bones about the fact that we think the best deal we can get is staying in the European Union, but we acknowledge that we have had a referendum, so what I am saying is: “We have had a referendum, and we now have a deal, so we need to clarify with the British people whether they think this is actually what they voted for.” That is a very democratic way of going forward. But if there were such a referendum, of course I would campaign to stay in the European Union.
That is remarkably clear for a Liberal Democrat. The hon. Lady mentioned that of those writing to her, the biggest group are people arguing for no deal. That is no surprise, when they have seen the political class argue as we have done. What those on the outside see is people trying to stop Brexit, and that is why they get frustrated.
On a point of clarification regarding the answer the Minister had from the hon. Member for Bath, can he remember any group that campaigned saying, “And when we’ve got the answer, we’ll make sure we come back again and double-check”? I do not think anyone thought we could unpick all this without doing some form of negotiation. Did anyone make the case that we would double-check and then go back to the EU again?
To the best of my knowledge, I did not hear anybody mentioning that in the campaign, or in the debates in Parliament that led to the referendum being granted. I can honestly say that I never heard that until possibly the day after the referendum result. I was going to come on to my hon. Friend’s contribution; as there are now two Chairmen in the room, I should make the point that they both need to go back to Mr Speaker and ensure that my hon. Friend gets higher priority on the speakers’ list, because more people need to hear what she has to say on this subject. She made a huge amount of sense, and I think she underestimates her value to this place and this debate. She said that she campaigned to leave, and that she was but one vote, but she was joined by 17,410,741 others, of which I was one, and that is a decent-sized number.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I completely take my hon. Friend’s point, and that is why I get slightly anxious in some of these debates to ensure that we are not seen to be cloth-eared here. We have a referendum result that we are delivering on. I agreed with pretty much every word that she said, including about my contribution to whatever debate there was around the deal. I absolutely voted for the deal the first time around. With my personal experience of the European Union, I trust it to deliver on matters that it signs up to, so I was happy to go into the Aye Lobby. However, I can guarantee her that the Government will not ignore the fact that 17.4 million people voted in the way they did.
It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who, as the Scottish National party’s Chief Whip, is now too silent. It was a pleasure to deal with him when I was a Government Whip. He is always courteous, polite and completely on the money. He will never go back on his word, and that is true in this case, too. He wears his heart on his sleeve in these matters, and he articulated very well that he is a passionate pro-European. I guess I should ask him to forgive me for being exactly the same, but coming from the reverse position.
I would love to quote parts of the hon. Gentleman’s speech back to him—perhaps I can do so over a beer some time—including the bits about how staying within a Union gives people a chance to shape its future and all that sort of stuff. However, we will leave that for another day.
I absolutely do not. I just wish that the hon. Lady’s party was as honest as her.
I always enjoy debating with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), as I do with anybody from the Labour party Front Bench, because it is interesting to see which part of the Labour party they are from. Is he from the bit that wants a second referendum? Does he agree with his party’s leader that article 50 should have been activated the day after the referendum? Is he part of the democratic socialist movement, which actually believes that the result of the referendum should be respected? Or is he from the authoritarian or the metropolitan intelligentsia parts of the Labour party, which believe that the people got this completely wrong?
The hon. Gentleman is a wise pro-European of long standing and is principled on these matters. I do not doubt his sincerity. However, again, I struggle with his party’s position, which seems to be ever changing. [Interruption.] Those outside must have heard that I had started speaking; I like to get that sort of response.
It is fascinating to see people talk about taking no deal off the table, as the hon. Gentleman did. That is not the wisest thing to do in any negotiation.
Because we are working towards a deal. There is a deal on the table. When Parliament took back control last Tuesday, it actually gave some indication that there is a possible deal out there. The Government want to deliver a deal, but a responsible Government plan for all eventualities. We are planning for a no-deal eventuality, just as the European Commission and the 27 other EU member states say they are in all the announcements that they make about what might happen in a no-deal circumstance. That should give the hon. Gentleman some limited comfort that a no-deal situation will not be as bad as he fears.
The hon. Gentleman wants to take no deal off the table, for the reason that it would be disastrous for the economy. To extend that logic to its obvious conclusion, I take it that he will try to persuade fellow Labour MPs not to contest the 2022 general election. We all know that Labour Governments lead to worsening economic conditions and make people poorer in general. If we should not do anything that makes people potentially poorer, the obvious conclusion is that he should not stand as a candidate in that general election. I thought he might want to rise to respond to that, but I understand if he wants to go for a cup of tea.
I thank all those who participated in today’s debate, and Clive Grenville, who set up the petition. He should be pleased with the number of people who signed it. Fundamentally, it asks the Government to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum and deliver our withdrawal from the European Union, which millions voted for. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam and those who signed the petition that the Government remain committed to delivering on the instruction given to us by the British people to leave. We remain clear that our policy is not to revoke article 50, or to extend it, delay or hold a second referendum on exit.
I will carefully repeat what I just said: we—the Government—remain clear that our policy is not to revoke article 50, extend it, delay or hold a second referendum on exit. Perhaps it will help the debate if I re-outline the now very familiar reasons why the Government have taken this position. I remind hon. Members of the immense progress we have made towards delivering the exit that we, as a Government and as a Parliament, were entrusted to deliver.
First, let me deal with the overarching question of revoking article 50. As I have made clear, the Government’s policy remains that we should not and will not revoke our article 50 notice to withdraw from the European Union. To revoke article 50 would betray not only the vote of the British people in 2016, but the mandates on which the majority of us were elected at the last general election. I emphasise again to hon. Members the strength of the mandate and the clarity of the instruction given to us by the 2016 referendum, which illustrates why we must respect the result and why the Government’s policy is not to revoke article 50.
In the summer of 2016, millions of people came out to have their say, trusting that their vote would count and that, after years of feeling ignored by politicians, their voices would be heard. The referendum enjoyed a higher turnout than any previous referendum, with 17.4 million people voting to leave the European Union. That is the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history, and the biggest democratic mandate for a course of action ever directed at any UK Government. As I have reminded the shadow Minister and the House, the passion with which people voted was quite extraordinary. Those of us who toured polling stations on the day will remember pencilgate: people refused to put their cross in the box using a pencil, for fear that the Government would rub it out. The battles over trying to get a pen into a polling station to vote with were quite extraordinary.
I went round various areas campaigning to leave, and I talked to people who said that one reason why they were voting was because the referendum was a nationwide vote. Some said they did not usually bother voting because there was no way to change the Member of Parliament, so there was no point, but at the referendum, their vote was counted nationwide.
I heard that many a time. [Interruption.] No, it is not a call for proportional representation. Members should be careful what they wish for. I was elected under proportional representation for the first time in 1999. While it was a lovely system for getting me elected to the European Parliament, it is not a good system for voters who want democratic choices to be delivered.
Parliament overwhelmingly confirmed the referendum result by voting with clear and convincing majorities in both Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. Parliament, informed by the will of its electorate, voted to trigger article 50 and leave the European Union. Further still, in the 2017 general election, more than 80% of voters voted for parties committed to respecting the result of the referendum. Not only Government Members but Opposition Members were elected on manifestos committing to respecting the decision of the people.
We made promises and commitments to the people we represent from when we held the referendum to when we as a Parliament voted to begin the process of implementing its result. The British people must be able to trust in their Government to both effect their will and deliver the best outcome for them. As the Prime Minister said:
“This is about more than the decision to leave the EU; it is about whether the public can trust their politicians to put in place the decision they took.”
To do otherwise would undermine the decision of the British people and disrespect the powerful democratic values of this country and of this Government. We therefore cannot and must not frustrate the will of the people by revoking article 50.
Despite that, I understand that there are those who advocate revoking, extending or otherwise delaying our article 50 notice. Parliament is clear that it does not wish to deliver no deal; it expressed that last week in the House. The obvious conclusion is that we must secure a deal to deliver the exit for which people voted. The only alternative, as the Prime Minister has laid out, is revoking article 50. That is not Government policy and it would, as she said, disrespect the biggest vote in our democratic history. The Prime Minister has also been clear that other delays, such as through extending article 50, would not resolve the issue of the deal with which we leave the European Union. Moreover, as she reminded the House this week, the 29 March 2019 exit date is the one that Parliament itself voted for when it voted to trigger article 50. The Government are clear on their notice to withdraw under article 50 as instructed by the British people.
I reiterate to hon. Members that this Government are committed to delivering on the result of the referendum. It remains our policy not to revoke article 50 and not to frustrate the outcome of the 2016 referendum, which I trust will please the petitioners. Instead, we continue to work to overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities to deliver on the result of the vote by the British people in the summer of 2016 to leave the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I will get my 40-slide PowerPoint presentation ready, if you do not mind. No, I just want to take a few minutes to say thank you to everyone who has contributed to the debate. Yes, there has been some knockabout fun, shall we say? But on the whole, this matter has been dealt with in the right spirit—in the knowledge that people are looking to us in this place to hold such debates in this way. We can differ, but we can hear and, more importantly, listen to one another; we can hear a lot of things, but unless we listen, we never learn.
We have to look to the time when this process is finished. Yes, the result was 52% versus 48%. We have to work out how to heal the divide—in Parliament, but most importantly, out there in the country—and ensure that we can secure a Brexit that works for everyone. With regard to securing that Brexit, the petitioners and the 116,000 people who signed the petition can rest assured: the Government and a lot of Government Members certainly do not want to revoke article 50, but we do not want to extend article 50, either.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) agreed with my view that no one is going to die in a ditch about a couple of weeks, if there is a technical position to consider—a few of us have talked about that —but people saw what happened in the voting Lobbies a few weeks ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) were in the same voting Lobby, celebrating the same result. If we do not end up with a deal, one of those people—they are colleagues—is going to be sadly disappointed. They cannot both be right, given the positions that they took at that time. The obvious way to get through this in time to be able to leave on exit day, 29 March, is to ensure that we secure a deal.
I hope, as I said at the beginning, that we put forward a reasonable proposal to Brussels, in a reasonable way that allows people there the space that our colleagues in this place have had over the last week or so, ahead of that vote. That is what I urge. What changed over the previous weekend was that there was more emollient language from people on all sides of the debate, which allowed people to calm the temperature down a little. The hope is that we can do the same with Brussels. If people there are looking at alternatives in order to avoid a hard border and no deal, surely they can just look at this again and give us what we need on the Irish backstop to ensure that we can get a deal through. That would help us, clearly, but it would also help the EU—and without encouraging other people to leave. All we want is to be able to do our thing and to allow the EU to progress in the way it wants to. Let us be friendly neighbours—let us not be awkward tenants—and let us do that in the most clear way we can, so that we can all progress and move on.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 224908 relating to leaving the European Union.