I have provisionally selected the following amendments in the following order: (a) in the name of Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn); (k) in the name of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford); (c) in the name of the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman); (b) in the name of the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa); and (f) in the name of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper).
I remind the House that reference may be made in debate to any amendments on the Order Paper, including those which I have not selected. Under the terms of the business motion just agreed to, the debate may continue until 7 pm, at which time the question shall be put on any amendments that may then be moved. To move the motion, I call the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the Prime Minister’s statement on Leaving the European Union of 26 February 2019; and further notes that discussions between the UK and the EU are ongoing.
It is a pleasure, as always, to return to the Dispatch Box to debate European policy matters and to see the familiar cast of colleagues on both sides of the House. I start by making it clear that the Government’s political objectives remain to leave the European Union in accordance with the referendum decision of 2016, to do so in an orderly fashion that protects jobs, living standards and investment in this country, and to do so by means of a formal withdrawal agreement under article 50 that includes clear protections for European Union citizens living in the United Kingdom and United Kingdom citizens in the 27 other EU countries, that provides for a financial settlement, and that ensures that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland. We look forward to negotiating a deep and special partnership on trade, security and political co-operation with the European Union—a community of democracies that will remain not only our closest geographical neighbours, but key partners friends and allies in the world.
I thank my right hon. Friend, with whom I have been debating such matters for the best part of 30 years, for giving way. As for this community of democracies, how can he can justify article 4 of the withdrawal agreement, which would subjugate the United Kingdom and require us to pass primary legislation to achieve that objective when the decisions that would be imposed on the constituents of every single Member in this House, by virtue of what goes on in the Council of Ministers, will be decided by 27 other member states? We will not even be at the table and will not have even so much as a transcript. Is that not a complete travesty of democracy?
No. As my hon. Friend says, he and I have been debating European matters for about 30 years —time flies when one is enjoying oneself—but I think his criticisms would have force if they were describing a situation that was intended to be permanent. All that is covered in article 4 of the withdrawal agreement are the arrangements that are necessary to govern the winding down of this country’s membership of the European Union and the residual obligations that derive from that over a period of months.
In recent days, a number of statements have been made by several different Ministers that have left me somewhat puzzled about, first, Her Majesty’s Government’s policy and, secondly, the policy on collective responsibility. Is my right hon. Friend able to provide some clarification to assist the House?
On a more positive note, in order to get the withdrawal agreement through, which we should all want, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not necessary to unpick it? Under international law, we could have a conditional interpretative declaration stating that the backstop is not permanent. If we get that and if the Attorney General changes his mind, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging all my Brexiteer colleagues to vote for this agreement, because the choice is no longer perhaps between an imperfect deal and no deal, but between an imperfect deal and no Brexit?
I am immensely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he aware that the atmosphere in this debate is changing from a massive concern about crashing out and the damage that might do, to, among those of us who want to leave, a worry that we will get no Brexit at all? Therefore, may I through him tell the European Research Group that the choice that we will face when the Prime Minister’s deal comes back is whether we have the certainty of some deal or, as the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, no deal at all?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because this may help us later in the debate. Can he provide some clarity about whether the Government will in fact support amendment (b), tabled by the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa)? As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman has been sacked for doing so, but the Home Secretary is supportive of the amendment. I am confused, so will the right hon. Gentleman set out where the Government stand on the issue?
Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify something following the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday? If the Prime Minister’s deal is defeated when it returns to the House and if leaving with no deal is also defeated, will the time period in the motion proposing an extension of article 50 that will be brought on 14 March be amendable by the House?
Whether a motion is capable of amendment and which amendments are in order is, of course, always a matter for the Chair, rather than for Ministers, but I would point out that, in addition to the opportunities for amendment that would arise on such a motion in the normal course of events—I cannot predict at this moment how the Chair will rule—the obligations on the Government in the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman describes in respect of section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will also remain.
The Minister will be well aware that we are approaching the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement on 10 April, just days after we are due to brexit. I had assumed, and I want him to confirm this, that in the light of the Government’s repeated emphasis on their commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement throughout the Brexit negotiations, and rightly so, the Government have been busy organising and planning a significant event to mark their commitment to the Belfast agreement. Will he shed some light on that anniversary event?
The detail of any event to mark this anniversary would be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to announce. What I can say to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is that the Government, and I personally, regard the achievement of the Belfast agreement and the development of the peace-making and peace-building process in Northern Ireland as one of the most signal political achievements of successive Governments of different political parties in this country during my career in this House.
I remember being called to a meeting in John Major’s office with other Government Back Benchers when he first reported on the message he had received from back channels to Sinn Féin-IRA about the prospect of a process opening up, and I know how much he, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister have committed themselves to that process. I believe that every hon. Member of this House will share that commitment.
Does the Minister agree that the phrase “Government policy” implies not just the offering of a choice to the House but an expression by the Government of a preference as to the outcome of that choice? If he does agree, will he inform today’s debate by saying what the Government’s policy will be on either voting for a no-deal Brexit or extending article 50?
The hon. Gentleman is asking me to speculate about hypothetical events. My energies and the Government’s energies are focused on achieving a negotiated agreement with the European Union behind which a majority of hon. and right hon. Members would be prepared to rally.
In relation to the Minister’s answer to the Chair of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the Prime Minister was very clear yesterday that, if the House voted for an extension, she would bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension. Can the Minister provide some more clarity? Is he talking about, for example, bringing in a statutory instrument immediately after such a vote to make it happen? Or is he talking about some other way of changing the date? It would be helpful to have some clarity on that point.
Does my right hon. Friend agree, further to the point made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), that a good way to commemorate the signing of the Good Friday agreement would be to encourage the European Union to define what it means by “temporary,” as listed in article 1(4) of the Northern Ireland protocol? Without some certainty on that, it is difficult to see how the withdrawal agreement is compatible with the Good Friday agreement.
I agree that the question about the definition of “temporary” is important, particularly in the light of the position, which the European Union has consistently taken in its negotiations with us over the past two years, that a withdrawal agreement negotiated under the terms of article 50 cannot be a secure legal basis for the creation of a permanent partnership with a third country.
If the House will forgive me, I have given way quite a lot and I want to move on to the substance of my speech.
At the end of this afternoon’s debate, this House will have a choice on the Government’s motion and the various amendments that Mr Speaker has selected, but by 12 March, at the latest, the House will have a more important choice when we bring back a second meaningful vote. There has been a lot of speculation, and we have already heard it in the debate this afternoon, about what should happen if the House declines to vote for a deal. Let me start by saying why I am confident that the Prime Minister will be able to put before the House a deal that it can support, and why this House should support such a deal.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke yesterday of the extensive work that has been taking place to make good on this House’s call for legal changes to guarantee that the Northern Ireland backstop cannot endure indefinitely. The House endorsed an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) on 29 January. Since then, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the Attorney General and I have been engaging in focused discussions with the EU, with the different institutions of the EU and with member state Governments to find a way forward that would work for both sides. We are making good progress in that work, with constructive discussions taking place this week.
As hon. Members will also have heard, there have been discussions on the political declaration, including additions or changes to increase the focus and ambition of both sides to deliver the future partnership, which we both seek, as soon as possible. The ideas we are putting forward in those discussions are not simply the Government’s; they reflect the intensive dialogue we have had with Members on both sides of the House. I have met the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) once and am keen to do so again, as he knows, and I have met colleagues from other political parties and colleagues representing all shades of opinion on this country’s relationship with the European Union.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Before he moves on to the question of alternative arrangements, he and the Brexit Secretary are to be strongly congratulated on getting the European Union to accept the need to set up a taskforce of experienced officials on the European side and the UK side to work up the arrangements proposed by our working group. Will he guarantee that, once those proposals are accepted, there will be a commitment in the treaty that is legally binding and will commit the Government and the European Union to a definite and definitive date by which those arrangements will be implemented?
My right hon. Friend has been championing this approach for a long time. I am grateful to him and to other Conservative colleagues for their detailed discussions with my right hon. Friend the Brexit Secretary and others about the alternative arrangements to ensure the absence of a hard border in Northern Ireland. Let us not forget that the term “alternative arrangements” features in both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, so it is already a known concept in the documents that have previously been agreed.
This has led to the consideration of a joint work stream with the European Union that will take place during the next phase of our negotiations. Our objective is to ensure that we have a set of alternative arrangements that can be used even in the absence of a full future relationship deal at the end of the implementation period. The EU has agreed to prioritise what will be an important work stream in the next phase, but we will also be setting up domestic structures to take advice from external experts, from businesses that trade with the European Union and beyond, and from colleagues across the House. This will be supported by civil service resources and £20 million of Government funding.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions a hard border and the backstop. Does he understand why the Irish Government last week produced a Bill, which is going through Parliament, to deal with any problem arising if we happen to go out on World Trade Organisation terms, yet there was no mention of any infrastructure and any hard border? How come the Irish Government can do that, but we are saying that the hard border is such a huge issue?
It is for the Irish Government to explain their policy. We will also have to deal, as I am assuming they will, with the reality of the plans that the European Commission published in December, in which it stated plainly that from the day the UK departs the EU, in the absence of a transitional period, as provided for under the withdrawal agreement, the full acquis in terms of tariffs and regulatory checks and inspections would have to be applied. One striking thing about that Commission publication was that it made no specific reference to, or provided no exemption for, the situation in Ireland. That is something for the Government of Ireland to take up with the European Commission, but it is part of the legal and political reality with which Governments are also dealing.
I wish to pursue the question asked by the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). Would I be correct in understanding that these discussions that are going on about the backstop relate purely to the next phase of the negotiations and what can be done in relation to the political declaration, and do not involve any question of opening up the withdrawal agreement and changing its force? That is right, is it not? If we look at the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, we see that it was all about the next phase—a “work stream in the next phase”, as the right hon. Gentleman just said. Will he clarify that: it is not about opening up the withdrawal agreement?
Let me be clear that when the Attorney General has been talking to representatives of the European Commission this week and when my right hon. Friend the Brexit Secretary has been talking to them, they have been talking about changes to the overall terms of the agreement to facilitate our orderly departure from the European Union.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he did yesterday with the publication of the summary of the no-deal papers—let me put it that way. My question to him is: why are the Government only now, after two and a half years, looking at these alternative arrangements, given that the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs did an enormous amount of work on finding some alternatives—they travelled the world—but came to the conclusion that there are no alternatives some considerable time ago?
I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said about the papers published yesterday. I thought she was being uncharacteristically unfair to the Government in her criticisms about not dealing with this earlier. A lot of official and ministerial time has been spent in the past 18 months examining some of these things. One problem that was identified, which still confronts us today and which we are talking to the European Commission about in the context of these discussions about alternative arrangements, is that we have to deal not only with the problem of the technology itself and making sure there is technology that is fit for purpose, but with the fact that, on the sort of model that has been discussed, we would need to see a significant number of derogations by the EU from its normal arrangements. So there are legal, and not just technical, problems that would have to be overcome.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that because the political declaration is legally non-binding, any concessions he gives on a level of alignment in respect of the single market, a customs union, standards and the environment are intrinsically changeable in the future, and that the only safeguard in place to prevent a slash-and-burn approach by a future Tory Government is the backstop itself?
I place rather more faith in this House than the hon. Gentleman would appear to do, because I do not think there is any appetite in Parliament for what he described as a “slash-and-burn approach” to standards.
We believe that our deal is the right one for this country and no better one is available on the table. I also believe, as do the Government, that leaving with our deal is better than leaving without a deal.
Unfortunately, amendment (j) was not selected, but I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that the Government will have no problem in accepting in principle, and I look forward to hearing about that. Many of us who have wished the Prime Minister well recognise that compromise is required on both sides in these negotiations. The transition period is not brilliant but the backstop does have to be sorted out in respect of its indefinite nature. In recognising that, is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at all concerned that the next steps as outlined by the Prime Minister yesterday might make a good deal less likely, because the EU may hope that Parliament does its work for it by taking no-deal off the table and extending article 50?
I genuinely do not fear that, because what I am finding increasingly in my conversations with politicians in different parts of Europe is that they want this issue sorted out. Frankly, they have politics of their own. They have important decisions to make on a range of subjects: the future of the eurozone; the negotiation of a multi-annual financial framework without a UK contribution; the tensions that exist between some of the central European and western European powers within the EU; and the continuing problem of the very large-scale movement of people from Africa into southern Europe. It would be a mistake for hon. Members to think that the leaders of the other 27 countries spend every waking hour thinking and worrying about Brexit matters.
The right hon. Gentleman is being typically generous in giving way to Members from all parts of the House. He was just referring to the position of other member states. Yesterday, the Prime Minister told us, for the first time, that she would countenance an extension to the article 50 period, but today President Macron of France is quoted as saying:
“We would support an extension…only if it was justified by a new choice of the British”.
“we would in no way accept an extension without a clear objective.”
Is it not the case that if there is to be an extension, it must be an extension with a purpose, rather than for two or three months of the same parliamentary gridlock?
Unfortunately, my amendment (g), which sought to end the whole charade by revoking article 50, has not been accepted, and we have a series of Brexit-enabling amendments before us. I want to take the Minister back to his point about the concessions he is looking for from the European Union on borders. We know that the technology has not been invented and the idea is that we have derogations—so this involves concessions. If the EU is going to give concessions on that border, it will have to give them on every border, and the EU has multiple borders. So why would it not be doing this already? The reason is that we are back to UK pie-in-the-sky, fantasy thinking here—I hope the right hon. Gentleman accepts that.
The flaw in the hon. Gentleman’s logic is that it should be welcome to any Government or supranational authority such as the European Commission if technology and systems are available that streamline border processes, whether we are talking about the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the border across the short straits, or other external borders of the European Union with third countries.
I am glad that the Government have published at least the summary of the no-deal consequences, and hope that they will go much further and publish the detail. Has the Minister seen the detailed paper published in The Lancet this week about the health consequences of no deal? If he has not seen it, will he assure me that he will look in detail at those consequences? No responsible Government could inflict that kind of pain on their people.
I have not seen that particular paper but I will make sure that I look at it and draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I hope it is of some reassurance to the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State has been making these preparations one of this very top priorities. He wrote to the leaders of the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors in December last year, and the NHS executive is working hard to make sure that contingency arrangements are in place to ensure that supplies of medicines continue to be available.
I want to be a little bit helpful. In response to the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), the Minister basically said that he did not see any difference between what President Macron has said and what the Prime Minister said yesterday. There is a huge difference. The Prime Minister said yesterday that she would use an extension for more dither, delay, faffing and kicking the can down the road; President Macron is saying that there has to be a purpose to a delay. The purpose that is gaining more and more credibility across the House is precisely to put this matter to a public vote.
The hon. Lady does not characterise the Prime Minister’s words yesterday accurately at all. The Prime Minister could not have been clearer in many appearances at this Dispatch Box that in every conversation we have had with the European Commission or with Heads of member state Governments, they have said that were we at any stage to seek an extension of article 50, they would want to understand for how long one was being sought and the purpose for which it was being sought, so I do not think that anything President Macron said today came as a shock to us.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will try to give way to him later, but I hope he will let me move on for the moment.
The Government believe that leaving with our deal is better than leaving without a deal. Members who have seen the summary paper published yesterday, and other sources, too, will know that there is no avoiding the fact that an abrupt departure from the European Union without an agreement of any kind would lead to a shock to our economy, and that it would not be possible for a Government, even with the most meticulous planning of arrangements in this country, to mitigate and plan entirely for what might happen outwith our own jurisdiction. In those circumstances we would, for example, be reliant on the readiness of the authorities in France and elsewhere to introduce streamlined checks and procedures, or on the readiness of the European Commission to allow a short-term derogation from its normal rules and practices. As a responsible Government, we have therefore been taking appropriate steps to minimise that disruption and have published extensive information to ensure the country is prepared. We have published and updated 106 technical notices and contacted the 145,000 businesses that trade with the European Union to help them to prepare for no-deal customs procedures.
It is a fact that as long as this House is unable to agree to an alternative course of action and get behind a particular agreement on exit from the European Union, businesses and individuals will have to plan for and take action as well. The Government have taken and will continue to take steps to provide businesses and citizens with advice to help them to make preparations to mitigate the potential impacts of a no-deal Brexit. The paper published yesterday showed that there are more actions that businesses should consider taking and which the Government urge them to plan for as necessary.
I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) first, then to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and then I will move on.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way; I think the whole House appreciates his generosity. As he knows, the meaningful vote needs to return to this House by 12 March. If that vote falls, we will presumably move on the following day to debate whether to rule out no deal. Will my right hon. Friend and other members of the Government vote in favour of that or against it?
I do not blame my hon. Friend for having a good try, but one thing I have learned in my years here, and which has perhaps been reinforced by my observation of events in recent weeks, is that although I may at some stage wish to give advice to my right hon. Friends the Chief Whip and the Prime Minister about whipping for any actual or hypothetical motion, I will do it not from the Dispatch Box but in private instead.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will be aware that a lot of small businesses have not put in place no-deal preparations. Many of them may have been misled or given the impression by comments made in this House that tariff-free trade may be available for 10 years under article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade. The document published by the Government makes it crystal clear that those GATT 24 provisions are not available. I encourage my right hon. Friend to make that clear so that small businesses in my constituency and throughout the country do not rely on what they may think has been publicised as an option when it is not one.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has publicly rebutted the arguments about article 24 of the general agreement on tariffs and trade, and the reference in the paper published yesterday was a reference to his remarks. The Government are stepping up their communications to business about that point. We accept that in this country, and also among our major trading partners, such as France and Germany, it tends to be small and medium-sized enterprises that for all the obvious reasons do not have the capacity to spend a lot of time monitoring what Governments are saying, and therefore may be further behind in their planning than the larger companies. We will do our utmost to try to communicate better with them .
If I may move on—
The question from the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) is so important, because businesses are still worrying and having to move money, jobs and assets abroad because they do not know what is going on. The Minister could give those businesses huge clarity by simply saying that the Government will vote against no deal if it comes to a vote on 13 March. This is really important, because we need to know the status of the commitments that the Prime Minister made yesterday. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has previously dismissed motions passed by this House. He said in reference to previous motions against no deal:
“Frankly, the legislation takes precedence over the motion”—[Official Report, 14 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 1070]
and he also said that the Government’s policy continued to be to leave with no deal on 29 March if a deal was not passed by this House. Will the Minister confirm that as a result of the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, that policy has now changed, and that Government policy is at least to be bound by the will of this House if no deal is passed by 13 March, rather than simply to leave without a deal?
The short answer is yes, but I will flesh that out when I respond in more detail to the selected amendments. The words that the Prime Minister used yesterday were ones that had been discussed and agreed at the Cabinet meeting yesterday morning. On the right hon. Lady’s earlier question to me, I think she is leaping too lightly over the fact that, before we get into any debate or motions about how we respond to a potential decision on exiting without a deal, it is the Government’s clear intention to bring forward to this House a motion on a revised deal and to invite the House to support that. I will be supporting the Government when that vote is brought forward, just as I supported the Government on the previous meaningful vote. That decision will remain the earliest possible opportunity for this House to end the uncertainty that businesses and individuals are now experiencing, as she rightly said.
With the greatest respect, I think the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) is absolutely key to understanding what the Prime Minister said yesterday. I entirely understand that my right hon. Friend is retreating, as the Prime Minister does, to the argument that the aim is to get a withdrawal agreement, and I support what he says on that. If it does not get a majority—it was defeated by 230 at the first attempt—the key thing to know is whether the Government will actually vote in favour of an extension, or whether they will vote in favour of leaving with no deal. The Cabinet must have considered that when they sorted out their differences yesterday in what was, no doubt, a perfectly private, orderly and good-humoured meeting.
My right hon. and learned Friend is asking me to comment on a hypothetical whipping decision on a hypothetical vote that the Government do not wish or intend us to confront. We will be voting as a House in favour of the revised deal, which will reflect elements that this House, on 29 January, said it wanted to see changed in order to be able to support the withdrawal agreement wholeheartedly. Exactly the same challenge that my right hon. and learned Friend has posed would be posed in respect of any hypothetical event on the Bill tabled by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). At this stage, it is too early to make those assertions on a hypothetical situation. What we are focused on, and where our energies lie, is negotiating an agreement with our partners in the European Union that delivers on the conditions that this House set when it passed the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady).
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. Just before he moves on, I would like to ask one question about the no-deal advice paper. When was it prepared, and why did it not mention the use of the transit system, which means that goods can be delivered into Europe without having to be stopped and checked at Calais?
Instructions were given to draft that paper following the previous debate during which the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) agreed to withdraw the amendment in her name calling for the publication of Cabinet papers, following an assurance given from the Dispatch Box by the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris). I then spoke to the right hon. Lady to ascertain the information that she wanted. What we have produced is a thorough document, which I am satisfied can be traced in all details to documents that have gone before Cabinet or Cabinet Committees. Internally, I have been able to footnote every assertion made in that paper. We took the words of the right hon. Lady’s amendment in seeking material that had been given to Cabinet and to Cabinet Committees, and the content of the document was determined by that categorisation.
The right hon. Gentleman is, as ever, being very generous. It is very important to make this clear. I took a sample of the many papers from which this document has been compiled, and I can assure the House that, from my reading of the contents of those papers, it is an accurate and fair summary. Furthermore, the original document that I was given was then edited and updated—that is how up to date it is. I am confident about that. I now want the detail, but that is another matter.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for that.
I will, if I may, move on to the various amendments that have been tabled. Let me move straight to amendment (f) in the names of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and my right hon. Friends the Members for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman).
Order. Just before the right hon. Gentleman starts on this important process of critical analysis, to which we all look forward with eager anticipation, I simply point out to him that, as I am sure he is aware, he is currently on 44 minutes. [Interruption.] A snip, I know, but it is 44 minutes.
I will try to restrain my appetite to take further interventions, Mr Speaker.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister set out three clear commitments to the House that should provide reassurance and clarity about the way forward. First, we will hold a second meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March at the latest. Secondly, if the Government have not brought forward a further meaningful vote, or if we have lost such a second meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March, then we will, in addition to the Government’s obligations—I stress that this is in addition to, not in place of them—table a neutral, amendable motion under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to be voted on by Wednesday 13 March, at the latest, asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March this year. The United Kingdom will leave without a deal on 29 March only if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome.
Thirdly, if this House, having rejected leaving with the deal negotiated with the EU, then also rejects leaving on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement and future framework, the Government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short, limited extension to article 50. If the House votes for an extension, the Government will seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension. The Government are committing themselves to bring forward—and therefore to support—such legislation. These commitments all fit the timescale set out in the private Member’s Bill in the name of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. They are commitments made by the Prime Minister, and the Government will stick by them, as we have stuck by previous commitments to make statements and table amendable motions by specific dates.
May I say that I enormously welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend has reiterated all that from the Dispatch Box? I have personally had no cause ever to doubt that what the Prime Minister states from the Dispatch Box will be anything other than fully fulfilled, but my right hon. Friend repeating it today is helpful, as were the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Brexit Secretary earlier this morning. In light of those remarks, it is my view that there is not a necessity to proceed in the way in which the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and I, with many others, would have wished to proceed in relation to amendment (c) and the Bill referred to in it.
If the Government were to bring forward legislation in accordance with a vote in Parliament, would they—as I presume—vote for that legislation? Will the right hon. Gentleman also explain what the circumstances would be if there were a disagreement between the Government and the EU about either the length or terms of the extension? Would the Government bring it back to Parliament for a further vote, rather than simply dismissing it and deciding to shift to no deal instead?
As the right hon. Lady knows, the Prime Minister said that an extension would be short and limited. It is clearly a fact of law that any extension to the article 50 period would have to be agreed with all the other 27 Governments; that just reflects the treaties. It logically follows that if the Prime Minister has committed the Government to bring forward legislation in those circumstances to comply with what would be the will of the House, the Government would therefore support such legislation.
With the greatest respect, the Minister did not answer the other question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper)—what will the Government do if the EU does not want to agree to a short, time-limited extension? Will they come back to the House with a different proposal? [Interruption.] This is a serious matter. Government Members shake their heads, but we need to know. If the EU were to turn down the extension, what would happen? Would we crash out with no deal or would we have another chance perhaps to ask for a longer extension?
In the absence of either an agreement to extend article 50, to leave with a deal or to revoke article 50 all together, the default legal position under the treaties is that the exit date is two years after article 50 has been triggered; that is a matter of European law. The hon. Lady asks a perfectly serious question. I do not believe that the other Governments of the European Union have either an economic interest or a strategic interest in seeing a chaotic departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. My belief is that there would be a negotiated agreement in those circumstances. But as I said earlier, the new obligation that the Prime Minister announced yesterday is in addition to the ones that would already flow in those circumstances as a result of section 13 of the withdrawal Act—that is, section 13 as modified by the two amendments successfully moved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). Therefore, the matter would come back to the House and there would be an opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to table amendments to urge particular courses of action.
I have listened very carefully to just about every debate on this topic, and I understand that the European Union would give an extension only if it thought there was a reasonableness behind the request; I can perfectly understand that. Will my right hon. Friend tell me what rationale we would give to ask for this very short and limited extension, given that the House will have already rejected the newly negotiated deal? I cannot think what else could happen in those couple of months that would be helpful.
My hon. Friend is asking me to go deeper into the realms of hypothetical speculation. Tempting though that is, all I can say is that a lot would depend on where we had got to in the negotiations, the reasons for which the House in these hypothetical circumstances had rejected the revised agreement and so on.
Nobody has a better understanding of these issues than my right hon. Friend and there is nobody whose word I would trust more completely at the Dispatch Box. But this is very important detail, and he has referred to the fact that the Prime Minister made commitments yesterday that replicated the provisions in the draft Cooper-Letwin Bill, which we are hoping not to have to move as a result. Now, that Bill very specifically sets out what would happen if, having consulted with Parliament and received Parliament’s approval, the Government proposed an extension to the European Union and the European Union came back and said, “We’re not happy to grant that extension, but we suggest a different length of extension.”
The Bill makes provision to come back to the House with whatever had been negotiated with the European Union to seek the approval of the House for that actual extension, and it is extremely important that we have that same provision confirmed here today at the Dispatch Box. If we do not, I for one will feel bound to continue with the process of supporting amendment (c) in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), and then tomorrow supporting the Bill. If we can have that reassurance from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that the House will get a chance to approve whatever final extension length is agreed between the Government and the European Union—if it were different from the one to which the House had previously consented—I will be happy.
The straight answer is yes, of course. Frankly, I just do not see any circumstance in which, if a period had been agreed with the European Union or had the potential to be agreed, the Government would not bring this back to the House. Were the Government not to bring it back, it would be brought back anyway under the provisions of section 13 in the way in which I described in response to an earlier intervention, so I think I can give my hon. Friend that clear reassurance on that point.
I thought that that answer was extraordinarily helpful. I agree with my right hon. Friend entirely that the provision actually already exists under section 13, but I think that his confirmation of the attitude of the Government to that matter settles the thing.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is extremely generous and I also take his word very seriously. He did not quite answer my earlier question about the legislation on the extension that he and the Prime Minister have made repeated commitments to bring forward. What would be the form of that legislation? Would it be possible, for example, for the dates to be changed? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who chairs the Exiting the European Union Committee, also asked, how would such disputes be dealt with?
I do not think that I can go into detail on the legislation at this stage. It would depend a bit on what the outcome of the negotiations with the European Union itself had led to. If it were secondary legislation, clearly there are the normal constraints on amendments. Equally, if it is secondary legislation, it is sudden death in both Houses; both Houses have a veto over secondary legislation. The section 13 provisions do give the House a safeguard that there is always that additional opportunity to bring forward and vote on concerns that the House feels are being overlooked.
Let me turn to amendment (c). I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset for indicating that he thought that this amendment would not now need to be pressed to a vote. If the House will allow me, in the light of his comments, I do not propose to go into detail about this amendment, but if it is brought up further in the debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State can respond to those points when he winds up.
I now want to refer to amendment (b) in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa). On citizens’ rights, he has succeeded in an endeavour that some might have thought was impossible in persuading both the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) to share the honours as lead signatories to an amendment. All Members of this House are aware of how vocally and passionately my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire has campaigned on the issue of citizens’ rights for many months now. This is an area that the Government take extremely seriously. We have consistently put citizens’ rights first in our negotiations. It was one of the very first parts of the withdrawal agreement to have been agreed and had negotiations completed with the European Union. Of course, the best way to guarantee those rights, both for our citizens in the EU and EU citizens here, is to vote in favour of the deal, as my hon. Friend did in January.
But there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding no deal. That is why the Government have already committed that the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK will be protected in any scenario. EU citizens resident here by 29 March would be able to apply for the EU settlement scheme to secure their status. The Home Office has already granted more than 100,000 applications under that scheme and such people will continue to have access to social security and healthcare as before.
Also lying behind my hon. Friend’s amendment is concern about the rights of UK nationals living elsewhere in the EU. In the absence of a deal, this would be a matter for the EU and its member states. Despite the welcome progress made by some member states, there are other areas where the offer to UK nationals, in our view, falls short. Access to healthcare is a particular concern. The Government, led by the Foreign Secretary, are seeking solutions to address these issues through bilateral contacts with member state Governments at the same time as seeking a common EU-wide approach. We should not, though, underestimate the challenge in reaching a joint UK-EU commitment, as the amendment calls for, to ring-fence the agreement on citizens’ rights. The European Union has been very consistent in saying to us that its legal mandate is clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and that its view, if these issues were not addressed in the withdrawal agreement, is that there are significant legal problems for the EU in protecting these rights since, in those circumstances, some of these issues would fall within the competence of member states and not of the EU institutions.
Despite those challenges, we do share with my hon. Friend the common goal of protecting the rights of citizens in the event of no deal. So in view of the fact that our political objectives are the same, the Government will accept his amendment today, and following this debate—assuming that the House endorses the amendment —we will take up with the Commission the arguments embodied in it to seek clarification of the EU position on ring-fencing the citizens’ rights parts of the withdrawal agreement and to see whether it can be persuaded to change the position that it has adopted hitherto.
No. I am conscious that I am disappointing a number of hon. Friends and other hon. Members, but otherwise there is a danger that my speech and associated interventions are going to take up pretty well all the time available for debate today.
I will move on to amendment (k) and then amendment (a). Amendment (k), in the name of the leader of the Scottish National party in Westminster, wills certain ends without any means. It asserts a determination not to leave the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and future framework under any circumstances and regardless of any exit date. It is therefore asserting a power to override what is actually in the European Union treaties but can have no effect in terms of European law and the implications of the article 50 process. While I understand the political motives behind amendment (k), the problem with it is that it ignores the legal reality that, once article 50 has been triggered, the only ways in which to avoid what the amendment seeks to avoid are to agree a deal or to revoke article 50 altogether and commit this country permanently—in good faith, to use the terms of the Court of Justice judgment—to membership of the European Union for the future. For those reasons, the Government cannot accept it.
I have also seen and studied the amendment tabled in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. I would urge Opposition Members to look at what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in her reply to the right hon. Gentleman, because on each of the five points detailed in the amendment, I believe the Government’s deal provides the right answer for the people of the United Kingdom. Let me briefly take each of those five points in turn. First, the amendment instructs Ministers to seek a permanent—
Well, it has been 63 minutes. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is known for the intellectual approach that he adopts, which includes analysis in copious detail of propositions advanced by other colleagues, but I feel sure that he is nearing that peroration, which is keenly anticipated.
It is the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, as well other colleagues across the House, who have been seeking to intervene, and if somebody intervenes on me, I think, in justice, they deserve a considered response to the point that they have made.
Amendment (a) instructs Ministers to seek “a permanent…customs union”, but the political declaration already provides for the benefits of a customs union—no tariffs, quotas or checks on rules of origin. At the same time, the political declaration says that rather than trying to seek a voice in EU trade deals, the UK should have an independent trade policy. Beyond the label of “permanent…customs union”, it is not clear to me what outcomes the Labour amendment is seeking that the political declaration does not offer.
Secondly, the amendment instructs Ministers to seek
“close alignment with the single market”,
but the EU has already said that the deal provides for the closest relationship possible outside the single market, and frictionless trade in goods and agrifood is one of our key negotiating objectives. The truth is, looking at the EU position, that it has said that completely frictionless trade is possible only if we stay in the single market. That would mean accepting both free movement and EU state aid rules in full—things that the Labour party’s leadership has said it does not want to see. That is why, I assume, its amendment is ambiguous about what a “close” relationship really means.
Thirdly, the amendment instructs Ministers to seek “dynamic alignment on rights”. We are committed to ensuring that leaving the EU will not lead to any lowering of standards in relation to workers’ rights. We are prepared to commit to giving Parliament a vote on whether it wishes to follow suit in the future whenever EU standards in areas such as workers’ rights or health and safety are judged to have been strengthened.
Fourthly, the amendment instructs Ministers to seek “participation in EU agencies”. The political declaration sets out how we aim to participate in EU programmes in a number of areas and have the closest possible relationship with EU agencies in the heavily regulated sectors.
Fifthly, the amendment instructs us to seek
“agreement on the detail of future security arrangements, including”
participation in specific EU tools and measures. Anybody who has listened to the Prime Minister speak from the Dispatch Box, whether as Home Secretary or Prime Minister, can be in no doubt about her commitment to the closest, most effective possible partnership now and in the future between police and law enforcement agencies in this country and those in other parts of the European Union.
The amendment ignores the very real negotiating challenge of the EU’s position. It says that, as a third country outside the Schengen area and without free movement, there would be restrictions on the UK’s ability to participate in some EU tools and measures. We do a disservice to the House if we do not recognise the reality of that negotiating challenge.
The deal that the Government have negotiated provides the best way forward for this country to build its future relationship of friendship and deep partnership with the EU outside membership of the European Union. With the work that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General are undertaking to get the changes that this House has asked for to the Northern Ireland backstop, I believe we can come back with a deal that the House should be willing—indeed, eager—to endorse. That way, we will be able to deliver a result that honours the outcome of the 2016 referendum but does so in a way that protects the jobs, prosperity and security of citizens in every part of the United Kingdom.
I rise to support amendment (a) in my name and the name of the Leader of the Opposition. It is two weeks since we last voted on a Government Brexit motion, but nothing has changed. The Government are no closer to making progress, and that is clear from the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday and underlined by the absurdly limited motion before us today. The motion tabled by the Prime Minister states that the House “notes” her statement of yesterday and
“notes that discussions between the UK and EU are ongoing.”
The Government do not even dare lay a motion reflecting the decisions of 29 January, as they did last time. They are frightened to lay a motion even setting out what has already been agreed—namely, the so-called Brady amendment —and the rejection by this House of no deal as an acceptable outcome. The statement and motion just seek to buy another two weeks and note what they are doing, all of this with just 30 days to go.
One thing that has changed is the acceptance of the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa). I want to ask some questions about that, because yesterday the Prime Minster appeared to rule out accepting that amendment. This morning, the Home Secretary was before the Home Affairs Committee, and he was questioned by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). The Home Secretary said, “What’s wrong with the amendment? Nothing.” “So is the Government supporting it now?” “Yes, what do you mean ‘now’? When was the Government not supporting it? When did you hear that?” “Yesterday.” “From who?” “The Prime Minister.” “Did you?” [Hon. Members: “Shambles!”] Well, that is a vignette of how Brexit has been going. The question that the House is struggling with is why the hon. Member for South Leicestershire has been forced to resign when the Government are accepting his amendment.
Last time we had this debate, I set out the sorry history of the Government’s delays in recent months, and I do not intend to repeat that.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I thought he was going to mention the other significant change, which is the Labour party’s policy on a second referendum. As he will know, the Prime Minister warned in January this year that a second referendum could “damage social cohesion”. Does the Labour party believe that the Prime Minister was wrong about that, or is it prepared to take that risk?
I am grateful for that intervention. I will deal with it. I will come to the background and the amendment we have tabled, and I will answer that intervention. If I do not, I will take another intervention to ensure that I do.
There is, it seems, an expectation that between now and 12 March there will be a change to the deal, and I do not think that that is going to happen. Why? Because there has been no progress at all since the vote was pulled on 10 December. That is 79 days ago. That was when the Prime Minister said, “I’m going to seek changes. I know what the House wants.” No progress has been made since the meaningful vote was lost on 15 January, 43 days ago, and no progress has been made since the Brady amendment of 28 January, 30 days ago.
For all the talk of discussion here and in Brussels, the stark truth is that not one word of the withdrawal agreement or political declaration has changed since it was signed off on 25 November last year—not one word. That is 94 days—three months—ago. The expectation that all of that will change in the next 14 days seems extremely unlikely, and it is not going to be fulfilled. When the Prime Minister went off to do that, I said she was building an expectation that she would not be able to fulfil, and I fear that that is what we are heading for.
The deal today is the same as it was three months ago, and it is that basic deal that will be put before us again on 12 March. It may have some warm words around it, and the Attorney General may be asked to say what those warm words mean, but the withdrawal agreement will be exactly the same in two weeks as it is now. We have to face up to that and stop deluding ourselves that it will change in the next 14 days. There are serious consequences if the deal does not go through because it is precisely the same, which is why there has been such questioning this morning about what happens next.
The deal has not changed because the Government have made three central demands. First, they have asked for a unilateral exit to the backstop. That has been roundly rejected every time it has been asked for, and the deal was signed off 94 days ago. Secondly, they have asked for a time limit to the backstop. That has been roundly rejected every time it has been asked for, and it was on the table 94 days ago. The only other ask is that the backstop be replaced by alternative arrangements. The EU’s response to that to the Government has been, “Well, what are you proposing? What are these alternatives, so that we can discuss them?” Nothing has been forthcoming.
We learned from the Prime Minister’s statement and the Minister for the Cabinet Office that a joint workstream will be considered by the EU and UK, which will be an “important strand”. I do not doubt that a joint workstream on alternative arrangements is a good idea. I do not doubt that any country would seek to streamline any checks at the border whatever the arrangements, irrespective of Brexit. That workstream will apparently work until the end of next year. The announcement that that workstream is in existence is hardly a breakthrough. The idea that the deal that was so roundly rejected is now going to go through because there is a workstream on alternative measures seems to me unlikely, and that is why we have to get real about what is actually going to happen in two weeks’ time, and it is why we predict that we will be left with exactly the same deal.
On the alternative arrangements, the Minister for the Cabinet Office says that those words are used elsewhere in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. That is true, but they are used only in two respects with two different meanings. One is that the alternative arrangements are the future relationship. That is one meaning provided in those documents, but that is not relevant to this discussion because if the future relationship is ready, there is no question of a backstop. We all know that.
The only other way in which alternative arrangements are actually used in the documents is in relation to the technology at the border making all the difference. We have been searching for that for some time. I do not doubt there will be advances in technology, but the reason the backstop was put in is that the assessment back in November was that there was no prospect of that technology being ready by the time the backstop would be needed, and therefore we needed the backstop. That was the conclusion.
Since I have been in this role, I seem to have spent quite a lot of my time standing on borders looking at lorries and people going across borders. I went to the main Sweden-Norway border to see what a border looks like where a country is in the EEA, and therefore has single market alignment and free movement, but is not in a customs union. It is a hard stop—with infrastructure, with security, with paperwork—and when it works well, each stop takes 13 minutes. Those two countries are not operating the least efficient system that they can; they think they are operating the most efficient system that they can. I do not doubt it can be improved on, but I doubt that this workstream in the next few months is going to make the progress that many people in this House think is going to happen.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has referred to spending a lot of his time standing at borders. When he was at the border in Northern Ireland, was he able to see the complete and total complexity of that border, with the hundreds of crossing points, and has he grasped the total impossibility of anyone anywhere constructing a hard border that could not be avoided with ease?
I was and I have. I have visited that border many times. I visited it with the Police Service of Northern Ireland many times when I was working there for five years—as it policed the area around the border, which has particular issues—and I have been there since on a number of occasions. I am well aware of the nature of that border. I am also well aware of the fact, in relation to that border, that it is a mistake to think that the only issue is, technically, how to get people or goods over a line in the road. That border is the manifestation of peace: it is a settlement between two communities. Therefore, the very idea that this is just a technical exercise does not understand the nature of that border.
It goes beyond that, does it not? The right hon. and learned Gentleman may share my anxiety that this issue seems to be consistently ducked. We have a pre-existing international treaty with Ireland that places obligations on us in respect of the border. I do worry, and he may share this anxiety, that in this House this is constantly brushed under the carpet, whereas as we are a rule-of-law state that believes in the international rules-based system, we cannot depart from that without reneging on such obligations.
I am grateful for that intervention and I agree with it.
This is really the heart of it: we know what the problem is, we know what the House thinks about the backstop and we know that there is an unlikelihood that those problems are going to be addressed in the next 14 days. When the Prime Minister lost the first meaningful vote, she had a clear choice. Choice 1 was to plough on with the failed deal in the usual blinkered way, and eventually put the same deal back to us. That was option 1. Option 2 was to drop her red lines, and negotiate changes that were credible with the EU and could command a majority in this House. The Government have chosen the first course—blindly ploughing on, rather than really engaging—and, as we have seen from the last few weeks, that path leads nowhere.
That is regrettable, because there is an alternative, and I want to address amendment (a). We have set out this alternative repeatedly over recent months. It was set out in full in the letter from the Leader of the Opposition to the Prime Minister on 6 February, and it is spelled out in today’s amendment (a). I remind the House that the focus of the changes we are calling for are to the political declaration, not the backstop.
The changes are to negotiate a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union. That is the first part. Why is that important? Because it is essential for protecting manufacturing, particularly the complex supply chains, and to avoid the hard border in Northern Ireland. I know that those on the Government Front Bench have, like me, gone to many of the big manufacturing companies to discuss with them their complex supply chains and how anxious they are about protecting the customs union arrangements that allow them to do that. As I said, it is also essential to avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland.
I will just make this point and then I will give way.
The Prime Minister has pretended that her customs proposals achieve that. I listened carefully to what the Minister for the Cabinet Office said about amendment (a). He said that, under the political declaration, the benefits are already there, because it notes that the single customs territory in the Northern Ireland backstop obviates the need for rules of origin checks. So the political declaration notes the backstop, which is the contentious bit of the withdrawal agreement. I concede that that is a form of customs union, because under the backstop that single customs territory obviates the need for rules of origin checks. The declaration goes on to say—this goes to the heart of what the Minister for the Cabinet Office just said—that if we build and improve on that customs union for the future partnership, we can continue to avoid customs checks.
Let us unpick that. If we build on the backstop, which is the bit that, as I understand it, many Government Members do not like, we can avoid customs checks. So, the temporary backstop—hopefully never to be used; only an insurance policy—has to become permanent, turbocharged and the foundation stone of the political declaration in order to get the protection of a customs union. That is precisely what the political declaration says.
I am not sure that the Minister for the Cabinet Office has explained that to all the Members behind him. If his proposition is that the backstop is just a short-term, temporary measure, whereas it is actually an essential foundation of the political relationship, I think that might be met with a particular response. The pretence that the political declaration equals the same as a customs union goes against the Government’s stated aim to be outside a customs union.
I listened with care to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s response to the five principles at the end of his speech. Did it seem to the shadow Minister that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster disagreed with any of the five principles? I do not disagree with any of them. My right hon. Friend tried most of the time to demonstrate their compatibility with the political agreement. He might have hesitated, because in the Chequers policy the Government went beyond that and proposed a single market in goods—for about 48 hours. The shadow Minister raises negotiating points such as new trade agreements with other countries and what this would mean for freedom of movement, but all that will eventually be covered in the negotiations. Would it not help if Opposition and Government Front Benchers agreed on these five principles? That might transform the atmosphere of the debate when we move on to the next stage of the negotiations after the withdrawal agreement has been agreed.
As has been alluded to, I am having discussions with Government Front Benchers, including the Minister for the Cabinet Office. I do not intend to disclose what has been said in confidence in those discussions. They will continue, and we will play our part in them. We are trying to set up the next meeting, which we will hold as soon as possible.
I will give way, but I want to finish answering this question. The point is that, unless and until the Prime Minister changes her red lines, it will be impossible to find any space for those negotiations to progress. I do not rule out something dramatic happening next week. The Prime Minister may come to the Dispatch Box and say she now understands that her red lines were the problem and that she is prepared to change them, but I do not think that that will happen. I have concluded that the Prime Minister will plough on with the deal that she put before us last time, and that she is not willing to drop her red lines, which would allow more fruitful progress in those discussions.
I say that without prejudice to the fact that those discussions will go on between now and 12 March. However, the fact that a date is already set for the deal to come back in two weeks’ time makes me just a little cautious in suggesting that those discussions will bear fruit in those next two weeks.
I am very grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. As he knows, I shall be voting for the Prime Minister’s deal. I think something has changed, which he did not admit at the beginning of his speech: the circumstances of the past 24 hours. I think they may change minds on the Government Benches quite significantly and favourably. But if it does not pass, while I completely agree with him that under those circumstances the Government will need to look again at their red lines to try to get an agreement that is somewhere in the region of what he has been describing, will he also commit that the Labour Front Bench will exercise flexibility? My whole experience of dealing with coalition Government was that it takes two to tango. There has to be flexibility on both sides to get to an agreement.
I am grateful for that intervention. We are playing our part in those discussions with the Government and will continue to do so for as long as is necessary. I do not want to go into what we are discussing, but we will continue to do so as long as is necessary. I am just slightly cautious as to the likelihood that that will lead to a breakthrough in the next 14 days.
I must say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is possibly generating more alarm than he realises. The idea that there is going to be some compromise between the two sides of the House on this question of the red lines raises a very simple question. Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman like to state, on behalf of the Opposition, that they would like to see the repeal of the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972?
I am grateful for that intervention, because what it demonstrates is the point I was trying to make about the customs union. If the Government Front Bench say our political declaration is in effect a customs union by a different name, because we are going to build on the backstop and make it permanent and turbocharge it, I suspect there will be a degree of opposition to that, if I have understood anything about the debates that have been going on here for some considerable time. That is where the difference is.
As for the repeal of the 1972 Act, I have always said—I stand by it—that repealing that Act and putting a date for leaving in the withdrawal Act was a mistake because of the transition period. I have always said that the Act we have passed will have to be repealed before it comes into force, and so it will. The implementation Bill White Paper specifically says it is going to be, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. In other words, between now and the end of March we have got to intercept the withdrawal Act that we have passed if there is going to be any order to leaving the EU and ensure that things like the ceasing of the jurisdiction of the European Court is changed. It was barmy to turn the European Court off at 11 o’clock on 29 March, which is the current law, because you cannot get on to transition. I always said that before that comes into force, if this is going to make any sense at all, it is going to have to be changed, intercepted and repealed. That is exactly what the implementation Bill will do. I am as sure as I possibly can be.
I am going to press on. I will just make some progress. I will give way in just a minute. I do not criticise the Minister for the Cabinet Office, because he quite rightly took interventions from a number of Members who really did want detailed answers, but I am going to try to make some progress. Otherwise, between the two of us, we really are going to get to the wind-ups before we anyone else has got in.
Let me move on to closer alignment with the single market. This part of the Brexit debate is too often ignored. How do we protect our service sector, which is of course 80% of our economy and 80% of our jobs? The second part of this package is also needed, alongside a customs union, to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland. We recognise that if we are going to have closer alignment with the single market we need that to be underpinned by shared institutions and that would require accepting common obligations. What they are would be a matter of negotiation and how we stay aligned would be part of the negotiations. I am not pretending that that would be trouble-free.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office said that that is effectively there in the political declaration, as close as you can get. It is worth going back to the political declaration that the Prime Minister has put before us, because what it actually says is that we should achieve
“a level of liberalisation in trade in services well beyond the Parties’ World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments”.
Well, you cannot aim much lower than that. To quote the former UK permanent representative, that is
“about as unambitious as it can get.”
The third part of the amendment is
“dynamic alignment on rights and protections”.
That means UK standards keeping pace with evolving standards across Europe. Why is that needed? Because we cannot allow UK workers or consumers to see their rights lag behind those in the EU after we leave, or frankly, to allow future Governments to erode those rights. Again, the Minister for the Cabinet Office says, “Well, that is effectively there in the political declaration, or has been promised by the Prime Minister.” There is a world of difference between keeping up with evolving rights and a non-regression clause that simply says they will not drop behind a frozen level, so the answer from the Government simply is not strong enough. They are promising only non-regression—to freeze, not to keep pace. That is a world of difference, and it is no wonder that the trade unions were never going to sign up to that proposal.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said, “Well, don’t worry. What we’ll do is that every time there is an evolution of rights in Europe, we’ll come back here and see whether this House wants to keep up,” but she did not say, “My Government will vote to do so.” That would make a material difference, but she did not, so neither we nor working people are going to fall for that one.
The fourth and fifth elements are clear
“commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes”
“unambiguous agreement on the detail of future security arrangements, including access to the European Arrest Warrant.”
I do not doubt the Prime Minister’s commitment on this. I worked with her when she was Home Secretary and I know how seriously she takes it, but I also know that the political declaration does not say that there has been any progress towards replica arrangements for the European arrest warrant. With the Prime Minister back in, I think, 2012 or 2013, we looked at what would happen if we fell out of the European arrest warrant arrangements and what the old extradition treaties were, and we were horrified by what we saw. Outside the European arrest warrant, it takes about 10 years to extradite someone from a country such as Italy to this country, and there are real-life examples of that. Using the European arrest warrant, it takes about 40 or 50 days. These are material differences and there is nothing in the political declaration along those lines. I understand the technical problems with Schengen and so on, but one of the barriers has been the determination that the European Court should have no role in anything at all in future, thus blocking progress in this area.
I am not pretending that the plan—the alternative—that we have set out is easy or painless to negotiate. I have never pretended that it will be the easiest negotiation in history, but I know that that kind of deal—delivering a close economic relationship with the EU—would prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland, reduce the pressure on the backstop and could be negotiated. The EU has said as much in recent weeks. We have heard in meetings with EU counterparts and in public that the customs union/single market alignment proposition is credible. The EU has said that it is a promising basis for negotiations, and to quote Michel Barnier:
“If the United Kingdom chooses to let its red lines change…then the European Union would be ready immediately to...respond favourably.”
I think it could be achieved. If the Prime Minister is serious about reaching out to the Opposition, she should engage with that proposal. It is clear from her response to the Leader of the Opposition and her blind insistence on seeking further changes to the backstop that that is not her intention, so today we put that plan to the House and ask for Parliament to help in delivering the basis for a credible Brexit offer.
I have been listening with some interest to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s explanation of the five bullet points that are so important in the Leader of the Opposition’s amendment, but most of them are fundamentally to do with the future phase of negotiations and are not specifically to do with the withdrawal agreement Bill. I am therefore still puzzled about what the major difference is between his party and the Government and why it cannot agree with the Government to secure the withdrawal agreement and get it through Parliament.
I think I acknowledged earlier that these points go predominantly to the political declaration and not the withdrawal agreement. Those two documents cannot be separated because they go together. [Interruption.] Well, an example of that is the customs union. The political declaration says that it builds on the withdrawal agreement; we cannot treat them as two separate documents, and the legislation that we will be voting on does not allow us to vote on them separately. But on the general proposition—do we accept that, for example, the backstop, whatever our concerns about it, is inevitable? The answer is yes. I said that when I stood here two weeks ago, and I make that clear again today.
But the Leader of the Opposition has said that he objects to the backstop because it will not be just permanent; it is potentially forever. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman have any qualms about that at all? If he does not, he should be supporting the withdrawal agreement, since most of his amendment, especially point i., is contained within the backstop.
I tried to deal with that question last time I was at the Dispatch Box, but I will have another go. We do have concerns about the backstop. There are concerns about the exit arrangements. There are concerns that England, Wales and Scotland, on the face of it, will fall out of single market alignment when we are in the backstop. There are concerns about the protection of workplace rights, environmental rights, non-regression protections and so on, and the enforcement mechanism is not the same as it is for other provisions, such as procurement. So there are real, deep concerns. Notwithstanding those concerns, though, we accept, because of our commitment to the Good Friday agreement, that at this stage—two years in, with 30 days to go—a backstop is inevitable. I hope that makes that clear, but I do not accept that it is possible to separate the two documents and treat them as separate documents to be voted on separately. In addition, the legislation does not allow us to do so; it requires both documents to go through in order for us to move forward.
Given that Labour party policy on a second referendum was different a week ago from what it is today, may I encourage the right hon. and learned Gentleman to be more optimistic? The Prime Minister could indeed get changes to the backstop—a time limit, or a get-out clause for later on. If she does make those changes—if she is successful—given what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said, will he then support the Government in order that we avoid no deal?
I understand the point and the force with which it is put. Given the conversations that have gone on here and in Brussels, I have to say that I really do not see the prospect that after 94 days of trying, there will be a breakthrough in the next seven days. If there is, we must all come back to the House; there will be a statement from the Prime Minister and we will consider what she says. It will only be on the backstop, and we have accepted the inevitability of the backstop, so it would be more to try to solve a problem on her own Benches than with the Opposition.
However, I have always said that we will look at what the Prime Minister brings back. It was what we did when she brought back the deal in the first place. People invited me to commit beforehand that we would do this, that or the other, but I said I would wait to see what the deal was. I will faithfully wait to see, but at the moment I personally do not think that we shall be standing here in two weeks with significant changes, or any changes, to the withdrawal agreement. I will wait and see. I know that Members on the Government Benches want to be optimistic. My worry is that there is still the expectation of changes that will not happen, and therefore a lack of focus on what needs to happen next. That is why what the Prime Minister said yesterday was significant, because if the deal does not go through, obviously what happens next becomes deeply significant. However, we will faithfully look at whatever comes back and consider it.
A plan of the type that I have suggested is credible. It is a plan that is capable of negotiation, and it is one that the EU is prepared to negotiate. The only question now is, is the Prime Minister prepared to drop her red lines so that there can be a meaningful engagement with that alternative proposition? I invite hon. Members to vote for our amendment tonight, to ensure that that plan can form a consensus or a majority in this House to take us through to the next stage of the process.
I want to underline the commitment that we made on Monday, that if amendment (a) is defeated and the Prime Minister still refuses to negotiate a close economic relationship, Labour will support or table an amendment in favour of a public vote. That public vote would include a credible leave option and remain. It could be attached to the Prime Minister’s deal—what I have called a lock against a damaging Tory Brexit—or it could be attached to any deal that managed to win a majority in the House of Commons.
I will deal with the earlier intervention. It was put to me earlier that we should not adopt that course because of the social unrest that it might cause. There are a number of answers to that. First, this comes at a stage when we are trying to prevent no deal, and I do not think that no deal is going to be orderly and smooth; I think it is going to lead to huge problems up and down the country. Secondly, I think it important for us not to exaggerate social disorder, because to do so can encourage social disorder, and I am really worried about that. I am not suggesting for one minute that that was what the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) was doing—I take her interventions very seriously, as she knows—but I do not think we should casually say that there will be social disorder.
The third thing I want to say is this. I have been in this place for less than four years, but the idea that we would not take the right next step as a matter of principle because we thought that there might be social disorder is a very slippery slope.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that if a Parliament simply guessed what version or outcome of Brexit people wanted, brought it about and then hoped that it was the right one for the British people, that would not be a pragmatic, sensible, sustainable or democratically acceptable way of proceeding?
I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s intervention for two reasons. First, I have been very hard on the Prime Minister, I think justifiably, for the fact that she set out the red lines without any discussion about them in Parliament, or even, I understand, in the Cabinet. It was her almost personal interpretation of the referendum. In my view, many interpretations could have been applied to it, but that was not one of them.
The second reason is important. I am not sure that getting a deal that is not really liked through the House at the last minute is going to settle anything. If, on a sweaty night in March, a measure goes through that no one really likes, the idea that that constitutes closure is very worrying. Of course, we are building up the expectation that if a deal goes through, that will be it, Brexit will be settled and it will all be over. We will still be in the foothills, because all that will happen after that will be the negotiations on the future relationship, which is so thin at the moment.
May I take up the point about social order? I have faced social disorder in my own constituency and rightly condemned it, however hard that condemnation was for some constituents to hear. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that some in our country on the hard right who are suggesting that there will be social disorder forget that this is the country that faced down Mosley at home and faced down Hitler and Mussolini abroad? We can never give in to hard-right pressure.
I too agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). Stoke-on-Trent was the city described by the British National party as the jewel in its crown, and we took no prisoners in fighting its members on the streets to rid ourselves of them.
My right hon. and learned Friend said that there could be a public vote on a deal versus remain at some point in the future. So that I can be clear about our party’s policy, will he outline the nature of the deal that he would like to see on a ballot paper that would persuade him to vote for that deal rather than for remain? It appears to me that at the moment, Labour party policy is actually to revoke article 50 at pretty much any cost.
It is important to appreciate that at the moment, I am pressing an amendment that favours a Brexit deal. In our manifesto we said that, if elected, we would seek to negotiate. We said that we would
“ end Theresa May’s reckless approach to Brexit”,
and that we would
“scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union”,
and we set out why that was necessary. We also said that we recognised
“that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain”,
and that we would
“reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option”.
I have not finished answering the question, and it is an important question.
If that cannot be done, we will be faced in two weeks with what I think will be the Prime Minister’s red-line deal or no deal. In our manifesto we rejected both, and in those circumstances we would either put forward or support a motion on a public vote with a credible leave option—when we tabled a Front-Bench amendment three or four weeks ago we spelled out that that deal or proposition would have to have the confidence of the House—with the other option being remain.
I welcome the Labour party’s movement towards a second referendum. Some people say a second Brexit referendum would be undemocratic, but does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree with Martin Wolf writing in the Financial Times today, who said:
“If democracy means anything, it means a country’s right to change its mind”?
Yes, and I think that was repeated by the first Brexit Secretary on a number of occasions, although I am never quite sure whether I should quote the first Brexit Secretary—[Interruption.] Yes, or the second, but of course I listen carefully to the third every time, and look forward to seeing him yet again tomorrow morning at the Dispatch Box.
I am going to make some progress, as I have now been on my feet for 40 minutes.
We are putting forward a credible plan, and we are making it clear that if it is not carried and we are left with the option of the Prime Minister’s deal on her red lines or no deal, then we will put down ourselves or support a motion in favour of a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit.
I had a section in my speech on extending article 50 and the amendment put down by others to that end. I hear what they say about that and commend their efforts to push the Government on this and to get the commitments we got yesterday and again at the Dispatch Box today. It would not have happened without a concerted effort by Members on the Opposition Benches, along with others across the House. It is extremely important that we now know that should the deal not go through on 12 March, there will be a binding vote on no deal—we have already had more than one indication where the will of the House is—and that if that does go through there will be a binding vote on extending article 50. In those circumstances, I urge all Members to support our amendment.
Order. Before I call the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), I have now to announce the results of today’s deferred Divisions.
In respect of the question on the draft Official Listing of Securities Prospectus and Transparency (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, the Ayes were 317 and the Noes were 280, so the Ayes have it.
In respect of the question on the draft Employment Rights (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, the Ayes were 317 and the Noes were 260, so the Ayes have it.
In respect of the question on the draft Employment Rights (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, the Ayes were 318 and the Noes were 288, so the Ayes have it.
In respect of the question on the draft Employment Rights (Amendment) (EU Exit) (No. 2) Regulations 2018, the Ayes were 317 and the Noes were 288, so the Ayes have it.
In respect of the question on the draft Employment Rights (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) (No. 2) Regulations 2018, the Ayes were 317 and the Noes were 260, so the Ayes have it.
Finally—I know the House is ahead of me on all of these matters, and I am merely reminding Members of the prodigious knowledge they possess on these important questions—in respect of the question on draft Financial Services Contracts (Transitional and Saving Provision) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, the Ayes were 318 and the Noes were 281, so the Ayes have it.
[The Division lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]
It will now be a very great relief to the House to hear Dame Caroline Spelman.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. To be honest, I was not expecting to be called quite so early in the debate, so I prepared a relatively short speech, having been conditioned by the time limits that have usually pertained in these debates. So I do not expect to detain the House for too long with my observations.
I begin by picking up where the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), speaking for the Opposition, left off. In his final words he acknowledged that something important has changed. Indeed his colleague, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), intervened earlier in the debate to say that the atmosphere is changing, and I think he is right. The pragmatism and courage the Prime Minister showed yesterday in making her statement is a very important change. I also welcome the Brexit Secretary’s recognition that, when my amendment carried on 29 January, Parliament demonstrated a clear majority against no deal. I listened very carefully to him speaking on the “Today” programme on Radio 4 this morning, when he set out that, if that majority should be restated, and if the meaningful vote did not carry before 12 March, Parliament would have an opportunity to vote on an extension to article 50 the following day. I am pleased to see that the will of Parliament will now be respected.
I absolutely agree with the deputy Prime Minister that the best way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to vote for a deal. I did just that on 15 January and I will do so again when a deal is next put. I really do appeal to colleagues across the House to do the same. Agreeing a deal would help to ensure an orderly Brexit, which is essential to protect jobs. I have been absolutely consistent on my motivation on this issue, which is to protect the jobs and livelihoods of my constituents and those of my colleagues.
The Prime Minister has indeed repeated ad nauseam that the way to avoid no deal is to vote for her deal, but is it not the case that the way to avoid Parliament voting against her deal would have been to talk to Parliament a year ago to find out what kind of a deal would be acceptable to the vast majority of Members of this House?
As an experienced former commercial negotiator—I know that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is one of those as well—I have learned that, in difficult negotiations of this kind, it is no good harping on about the past. We have to focus on the future and to be relentlessly optimistic and bring good will to the table.
Getting back to the subject that is closest to my heart, I sounded the alarm months ago about the risks to the car industry of a no-deal Brexit. Many workers in my constituency have already lost their jobs, and more recently we heard the sad news about Nissan and Honda. The loss of jobs is devastating, but far more will be risked if auto manufacturers leave these shores. The chairman of Unipart, John Neill, said in the weekend Financial Times:
“If we lose the automotive industry, we lose one of the most powerful drivers of productivity and a powerful source of industrial innovation”.
The UK is now the ninth biggest manufacturing country in the world and we just cannot afford to lose this critical industry.
A no-deal Brexit threatens not only our car makers. Last night, representatives from the CBI, Next, Bosch, Ford, the TUC, Make UK—formerly the EEF—the Food and Drink Federation, the Investment Association and Virgin Media, to name but a few, spoke to a large number of MPs at an event in Parliament. All those organisations fear the chaos of a no-deal Brexit and implored parliamentarians to come together and agree a deal. Those colleagues who think that leaving without a deal is in the national interest must answer the concerns of the industries that millions of jobs depend on.
Chris Cummings, chief executive of the Investment Association, which represents firms collectively managing around £7 trillion, told MPs last night that £19 billion had left the United Kingdom since the referendum. The Investment Association can measure that, because it involves its members. The current run rate of this capital flight is approximately £2.4 billion each month, so the notion that no deal has already been priced into the markets is simply not true. The full consequences have not yet been accounted for.
The human cost of no deal is not just jobs and livelihoods today, which are very important, especially in constituencies such as mine; it will also impact the value of people’s pensions and savings in the future. Having touched on pensions, I want to make a point that is relevant to amendment (b), which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that the Government will accept. Colleagues might recall that I have also sounded the alarm about the plight of UK pensioners living in other EU countries, and especially about the provisions for their healthcare. If the United Kingdom were to leave the EU without a deal, there are at present no provisions in place to ensure that their healthcare would be paid for. Given the size of the contingency fund of taxpayers’ money that the Government have had to make available for the risk of a no-deal Brexit, I suggest to my right hon. Friends that some portion of that could be used to bridge the gap for UK citizens in Italy, Germany, France and Spain who are already receiving letters from the authorities warning them that their healthcare costs will not be covered from 29 March. That is a source of real anxiety and human cost to the people concerned.
Businesses cautiously welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday, which has the capacity to take away the threat of no deal on 29 March, and the director of the CBI described it as a “glimpse of sanity”. She called on the Government to permanently rule out no deal to provide the certainty that business needs. That would de-risk the situation and create the space to secure a pragmatic deal. People often confuse risk with uncertainty, because a binary choice between a deal or no deal with 15 days to go is a high-risk situation, which creates uncertainty. The Prime Minister’s pragmatic response yesterday helped to reduce that risk and creates the space to secure a deal.
The contingency planning for no deal has already cost business millions and the taxpayer billions. Pfizer alone has spent £90 million on no-deal preparations, and that money cannot then be invested or directed to the frontline, so jobs will be lost in the end. The Federation of Small Businesses reports that 85% of its members are not ready for no deal and, as somebody mentioned earlier, very small businesses do not have the capacity to prepare for a no-deal scenario in the same way as some larger ones can.
Last night’s publication of the Government’s assessment of the state of preparedness for no deal did not provide a lot of reassurance on that, so it is time to be pragmatic—the Prime Minister has taken a lead on that—and to deliver an orderly Brexit. We need to come together across parties to try to get a deal over the line. If we cannot do that, we will fail the nation.
If MPs cannot bring themselves to put the national interest first at a time like this, they should consider the risks we face to security, freight delays, air traffic control, visas, food, medicine and energy shortages, healthcare for UK citizens in the EU, scientific research and educational exchange. We have heard more and more about those things, and all that disruption is having and will have an impact on the people whom we represent. As demonstrated on 29 January, there is a clear majority to rule out no deal, and I expect that that majority will increase at the next opportunity. However, we cannot just stand against something; we must urgently build a consensus for a deal that we stand up for in the British national interest.
It is clear that businesses need a deal to deliver frictionless trade and customs co-operation. Are the parties really so far apart on some form of customs partnership? The 2017 Conservative party manifesto mentioned having a special relationship based on a customs arrangement, and the official Opposition are calling for a customs union, so I feel that we are within touching distance if there is a determined effort to reach a consensus.
I would be delighted to hear the right hon. Lady encourage those on the Front Bench to confirm that she and her right hon. and hon. Friends will be allowed a free vote in the event that the Prime Minister again does not win the meaningful vote if we have one before the middle of March. Will the Conservative Government allow Conservative Members to have a free vote in the event of a significant decision about taking no deal off the table?
I cannot commit the Government to that, but it is clear to the House that these are not normal political times. I do not envy the job of my party’s Chief Whip, which must be one of the most difficult jobs on the planet at the moment. The main parties have difficulty in operating as we normally would, and much of what has been achieved has been achieved by building cross-party alliances. I think the public feel reassured when they see that happen, leastways my constituents and members of my party have told me that they like to see us working together in the national interest to try to bring about a resolution to this process, because we need it sooner rather than later.
With good will and determination, I believe we can get there and secure the new relationship with Europe for which people voted. I believe we will enjoy trading on preferential terms with our largest market, while being outside the constraints of the EU institutions to which many object today. That is what more than 17 million people voted for, and that reality is now within our grasp.
Whether Brexit is delivered on 29 March or is delayed for a few months—I am no great fan of an extended delay, as delay means uncertainty and will cost businesses money—it is up to us to back a deal that delivers certainty and protects prosperity and work. I therefore urge colleagues from all parties carefully to consider the amendments before the House today. More than that, as the debate continues in this place, we must now work more closely together than ever before to deliver Brexit.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Here we are for yet another debate and yet more votes as the clock ticks towards leaving the European Union on 29 March, and towards a no-deal Brexit and a cliff edge that everyone knows will be disastrous and damaging. From day one, this has been a lesson in gross irresponsibility, particularly from the Government.
Our amendment (k) is simple and straightforward: it would take no deal off the table altogether. The Prime Minister was uncharacteristically clear in her statement yesterday when she said we will have a vote on 13 March to take no deal off the table for the end of March. Our amendment simply goes one step further.
We know from public statements and from what we hear—Ministers will be well aware of this—that even members of the Cabinet and officials are warning of the devastation that no deal would bring. Everybody knows. This is not a negotiating tactic; it is simply a tactic to hold a fracturing Conservative party together. We have a Government in peacetime who we know are preparing for medicine shortages and food shortages, and who we know have discussed martial law and civil unrest. That is deeply disconcerting to everyone, and it underlines why no deal must be taken off the table.
Our amendment is not just something that the Scottish National party is calling for, and I am grateful to colleagues from the Green party, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats for backing it. I know that colleagues from the Labour party and the Conservative party are calling for it, too, including the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) in the previous speech. We must take no deal off the table altogether, which is why this is such a simple amendment.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that clarification. The amendment standing in my name and that of my colleagues will be pressed to a vote, because we think that as the clock ticks we cannot wait for another two weeks. We have been waiting for “another couple of weeks” or for “another few days” for months and years now. This House needs to take a bit of responsibility for the situation in which we have been left, for which posterity and history will judge us.
On the way that history will judge us, let me talk about the human element of this. I do not want to embarrass the hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa), but I am going to say a few kinds words about him. Three years ago, in Prime Minister’s questions, he asked the Prime Minister not to make him vote against his parents’ interests. We back his amendment about EU citizens, which he has rightly tabled. We back him, and we think he is doing a brave and decent thing. I note the remarks made by former colleagues of his such as Lord Duncan of Springbank about how valuable they thought it was working for him. I hope I have not damaged his future political prospects too much by saying that, but I remark on the decency of what he is trying to do, his own personal situation and the bravery of what he has done today.
What I find incredibly striking is that we have a Government where collective responsibility is breaking down, where a Prime Minister remarks that she does not want a Cabinet full of yes-men because she cannot get collective responsibility and where Ministers have been able to say whatever they like, regardless of what Government policy is, yet you end up sacking a member of Government for agreeing with you. What kind of situation are we in? This is an extraordinary set of circumstances in which the Prime Minister fails to sack Cabinet members for disagreeing with her publicly but sacks a member of the Government whom she has agreed with, whom the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agreed with at the Dispatch Box, although he is not in his place at the moment, and whom the Home Secretary found himself in agreement with this morning. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. Do not worry; I am sure that the hon. Member for South Leicestershire will return to disagreeing with us on other occasions, but I salute what he has done today and the way in which he has conducted himself, with a common decency that we too rarely see in this Brexit debate.
We get told about “Project Fear”, but it is not that when it is a matter of fact. One in three businesses is planning to relocate some of its operations and one in 10 has done so. The UK is seen as a bad choice for investment. The global chief investment officer at UBS Wealth Management has said:
“The consensus among those investors is that the UK is uninvestable at this point”.
That is not good for anybody. We also have a decline in our public services, where we are seeing a dramatic decline of 87% in the number of applications from European economic area nationals for UK registration, according to the Nursing and Midwifery Council. That is a crucial public service, where EU nationals fill gaps in the workplace to provide it. So much damage is being done by this threat of a no-deal. Our amendment is a simple one and I hope that Members will back it, because it is straightforward and it will help to take this away.
The hon. Gentleman tends simply to ignore the fact that the British economy is doing well. We have record inward investment, record low unemployment and record manufacturing output, despite all the so-called “uncertainty”, and the doom and gloom that the SNP predicts. Do not forget that the predictions last time were so badly wrong that the Bank of England had to apologise very publicly for getting it so wrong.
I find that this is the extraordinary thing. The hon. Gentleman knows I have huge respect for him—he and I served on the Foreign Affairs Committee together—but he is telling us that we cannot trust the Government’s figures. Who can we trust any more if we cannot trust his own Government? Who can we trust when we are trying to make a judgment? Who can we trust when we are trying to make judgments about the future? We know that this is having a real impact, and I am going to come on to deal with some of this shortly. We are almost three years on from the EU referendum and I am not even entirely sure why we are doing this at the moment. I have just been reading that, apparently, Poundland is going to be doing burgundy and blue passport covers, and we could all have a choice—they will be a pound a go. Perhaps if the Government decide to buy one for everybody in the UK, we can all have our own choice and it will save us a lot of hassle and be a lot cheaper than crashing out of the European Union.
Let us not lose sight of the gross irresponsibility that has led us to this point. We have a minority Government who are failing to be a minority Government. Other European legislatures manage it, and the Scottish Government manage it. It is not always easy; it is difficult—
The Welsh Government do it. A minority Government must speak to the other parties and engage with the Opposition. We have a Government who are trying to run the show as if they have a majority of 100; for their information, they do not. They lost their majority at the last general election. We did not lose our majority at the last general election, but the Government did.
Let us not lose sight of where we are. It was the charlatans and chancers who backed vote leave on a blank piece of paper. They did not have the decency, courtesy or democratic accountability to put down what vote leave meant, and the Secretary of State was one of them. That is why we are in the mess that we are in today. It is a mess entirely of the Secretary of State and his colleagues’ own making, and one for which not only they but unfortunately the rest of us are paying the price, too.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are seeing business confidence falling and investment falling. These things are matters of fact.
I will come to some more figures in a moment, but first I wish to talk about the UK’s standing in the world. People talk about democracy and the UK’s standing. They talk of unelected bureaucrats, but the greatest number of parliamentarians are the unelected ones in the House of Lords. That is not democracy. The European Parliament is elected, the Commission is accountable to that Parliament, and the Council is made up of the 28 elected Governments as well. That is a damn sight more democratic than this place is.
My hon. Friend is making a good point about democratic accountability. I have been serving on the Committees for countless financial services statutory instruments that will take powers and give them to the Financial Conduct Authority, the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Treasury, and the Government will not give them to MPs in this House.
It has been extraordinary. As usual, my hon. Friend makes an excellent point about how the Government have tried to take powers away. They have tried to take votes from us and they have tried to take away our ability to hold them to account in a way that they just could not get away with in the European institutions, whether they like it or not.
On the lack of planning and that vote leave on a blank piece of paper, I think Donald Tusk was being restrained when he said that there is a special place in hell for those who backed Brexit without a clue about how to get there. For all those snowflakes who feigned outrage about his remarks, this is a man who fought the communists—he was living under a Soviet vassal state at that point, unlike others—and who stood up for and was arrested for his beliefs, yet when he points out the blindingly obvious, he gets dragged over the coals for it. What outrage. It was faux outrage.
I honestly do not think that Slovenia has anything to do with today’s discussion of the withdrawal agreement. The amendment proposed by the SNP, which is what the hon. Gentleman should be referring to, talks about this House being
“determined not to leave the European Union without a withdrawal agreement”,
so will he confirm that the SNP will support the Government deal, which will be on the table before 12 March?
It is extraordinary: I have not even mentioned Slovenia yet, but the hon. Gentleman knows the reference I am making. I know he is a decent Member and has served his country well in the diplomatic service, and I know he will have been embarrassed by the Foreign Secretary’s recent remarks. I want to talk about—[Interruption.] I am a Front-Bench speaker. I want to talk about the UK’s standing in the world of which we are still a part for the time being.
There are those who are quite content to compare the EU with the USSR and cannot handle these remarks from Donald Tusk. Just at the point when we need friends and influence around the world—as the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who works so hard on these things, knows full well—we are losing them. Let us look at some of the reactions to that. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Prime Minister, said that Britain used to be a nation
“providing leadership to the world. Now it can’t even provide leadership to itself.”
Latvia’s ambassador to London said:
“Soviets killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Latvia’s inhabitants after the illegal occupation in 1940, and ruined lives of three generations, while the EU has brought prosperity, equality, growth, and respect.”
I ask Members to please reflect on what our closest friends and allies are telling us. Asked to respond to Hunt’s remarks when he compared the EU with the Soviet Union, the European Commission’s chief spokesman, said:
“I say respectfully that we would all benefit, in particular foreign affairs ministers, from opening a history book from time to time.”
The Foreign Secretary clearly did not listen. He doubled down when he went to Slovenia and referred to it as a “Soviet vassal state” to which the former Speaker of the Slovenian Parliament said:
“The British foreign minister comes to Slovenia asking us for a favour while arrogantly insulting us.”
At a time of crisis, the greatest crisis that the UK has faced since the second world war, we are led by political pygmies who do not understand the history of those countries that are closest to us, never mind the history of the nations of these islands. They have turned the UK into the political basket case of Europe. There is utter astonishment and bewilderment in Brussels and elsewhere at the UK’s decline. There is also astonishment in Scotland at what is going on down here, even by those who, unlike me, backed the Union.
The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) was right to raise a point of order last night and I listened to it carefully. I am glad that, because of her work, we got the no-deal papers released, and I thank her for it. It has to be said that the document was pretty flimsy, a very small document. There is much more to the Scottish Government’s document. Their analysis, which they were happy to publish a long time ago without having to be forced, has shown that any form of Brexit will be damaging for Scotland’s economy. The deal will be damaging to Scotland’s economy, which is why we cannot vote for it, but a no-deal Brexit could result in a recession worse than that in 2008, causing Scotland’s GDP to fall by up to 7%, and unemployment to rise by around 100,000.
The point that everybody in this House needs to understand is that, on Privy Council terms, I saw the entirety of the most recent documents that members of this Government’s Cabinet and the important sub-Committee had seen. I saw a large number of those documents, the contents of which make it clear, in the words of the Business Secretary, that a no deal would be ruinous. Last night, I attributed those words to the Brexit Secretary who was very keen for me to set the record straight. I would have liked him to have adopted that view, but it was the Business Secretary who described no deal as ruinous. Notwithstanding that clear information, which was available to the most senior members of this Government, they refuse to take no deal off the table. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that that is the disgrace. The Government know what a no deal would do to this country, and they refuse point blank to take it off the table.
The right hon. Lady is right, I might regret it. As so often, she makes a powerful point. That is why our amendment today—I hope she will support it—is a very simple one that will take no deal off the table. The Cabinet knows how damaging it will be; business knows how damaging it will be. These papers are there. They have been seen, as the right hon. Lady correctly points out. On top of that, the Scottish Government analysis shows that EU structural funds are worth €941 million to Scotland across the EU budget period, and we do not know what happens next. That is almost €1 billion and we do not know what happens.
There are 4,500 EU national staff facing uncertainty in Scottish universities, and I see that daily in my constituency work. A letter from 150 universities says that
“leaving the EU without a deal is one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced”.
The University of St Andrews, which signed that letter, has been around for more than 600 years, so it has a bit of context; it knows a thing or two.
Do you know what stings? Scotland never voted for this. We were the first to suggest an extension, as common sense. The Scottish Government were the first to propose a compromise, to which the UK Government did not really have the decency to respond. And here we are proposing to reach out and work with the Government to take no deal off the table as well. We did not vote for this process but we have to engage with it, and we have engaged with it. I pay tribute to our friends and colleagues from different parties who have worked with us, because this is the right thing to do.
The Scottish food and drink industry thinks that we will lose £2 billion in sales annually. This does not affect the hedge fund managers or those who have pushed money offshore. It affects the poorest and most vulnerable, as well as small businesses, and it has an impact on unemployment in some of the areas of the United Kingdom that can least afford it.
I hear people saying about the EU as a political union, “Why would you want to be a member of the UK in the EU?” Well, you know what? The EU listens. We are in a partnership of equals in the EU; it cannot force us to do things. We have a Court of Justice, a Parliament and a Council of Ministers—the UK has none of them. The EU is a club for independent, growing and thriving member states. There is no place for independence or a partnership of equals within the United Kingdom.
Our amendment is a simple and straightforward cross-party proposal that rules out no deal all together. Yes, we want to take things out of the hands of the Prime Minister, but we also want her to commit to this because I am sorry to say that, with her twists and turns, it has become increasingly difficult to trust anything the Prime Minister says. Four weeks away from leaving, our amendment seems to be a responsible course of action, as there are so many pieces of legislation still to be passed.
I have raised many points, but I now address the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). We have put £4.2 billion into no-deal preparation. Just think what we could have done with that £4.2 billion at a time of continued Westminster austerity, when our public services are crying out for it and when we should be tackling climate change, poverty and many other challenges. Continuing with no deal is irresponsible, irrational and—I appeal to some of the Tories—very, very expensive. I hope that all Members will join us in backing our cross-party amendment.
I will try to abide by your instructions, Mr Speaker; thank you for calling me so early.
It is customary to say what a pleasure it is to follow the previous speaker, but I must suggest to my friend, the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), that the SNP continually talks down the United Kingdom to such an extent that most people in Scotland do not even listen any more. SNP Members would do well to reflect on this. I gently suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he may be very critical of the UK at the moment—of how the Government conduct themselves and our parliamentary democracy—but we can be proud of the fact that this robust democracy is accommodating a very robust debate. In France, the Government can increase the fuel tax and there are people dead in the streets of Paris. In America, there has not been a Government for months. This is an important debate and there are differences across the House, but we can be proud of our parliamentary democracy in actually accommodating that debate.
As the hon. Gentleman is busy lecturing Scots and Scotland, I hope he will reflect on this point—that in Scotland today the EU is far more popular among the people, by about 18 percentage points, than the United Kingdom. He should bear that in mind the next time he wants to lecture Scotland.
Just wait a minute—sit down. I have taken one intervention. We should look at how badly the SNP is doing in terms of representing the interests of the EU, as it were, with regard to election results.
Let me put the SNP to one side for a second and suggest to my fellow fusilier, the Secretary of State, that, as a leaver, I also accept that there is a need for compromise with regard to the withdrawal agreement. One cannot, after 45 years of integration, move from imperfection to perfection in one bound; there has to be compromise on both sides. That is why, while I have trouble with the transition period—there are many aspects that I do not like—at least it is definite. It is no worse than being in the EU itself—not really. As my right hon. Friend will know, what many Conservative Members have a problem with is the fact that the backstop is indefinite as it is presently constituted. I urge him to ensure that we have a meaningful change to the backstop to address the fact that at the moment we could be locked in an indefinite backstop that only the EU could free us from. No sensible person would enter into a relationship of that sort—it is madness.
When I say “meaningful” change, I mean that it has to have equal standing with the backstop, or the bit that we are changing. The Northern Ireland protocol containing the backstop is an appendix, so there is scope for a further appendix putting this right. It would be face-saving for the EU, if the agreement itself had not been changed. We could put a meaningful appendix into it. I suggest that the Government give that some thought, because it could assuage the concerns of a lot of Conservative Members with regard to the withdrawal agreement. Instead of worrying about where any additional text would go, agreement about the text itself could first being sought. That could be very helpful, because an awful lot of time could be wasted in trying to agree where that text goes before the text itself has been agreed.
That is something for the Secretary of State to think about. I wish him and his team well—genuinely so. I have expressed concern that the Prime Minister’s next steps, as outlined yesterday, may, at the margin, make a good deal less likely because the EU could perhaps hope that Parliament does its work for it by taking no deal off the table and by extending article 50. However, I still wish him well, because it is still within our grasp to achieve a withdrawal agreement that could bring us all together—certainly those of us on the Conservative Benches, and a number of hon. Members on the Opposition Benches—to get this agreement through.
Let me quickly turn to the Labour party’s policy on a second referendum, because that has not been touched on in this debate so far, but it is absolutely scandalous. Labour said that it would respect the wishes of the referendum, and now it is offering a second referendum. In one way, that is good, because it is clear blue water between the Conservative party and the Labour party. However, I would just offer these thoughts to the Labour party with regard to its recent assurances that it is going to offer a second referendum. First, it is a condescending policy—it is saying that people did not understand what they were voting for.
Two days ago, the hon. Gentleman told this House that the United Kingdom already trades on WTO terms with everybody outside the European Union, and the Prime Minister had to correct him. If somebody who led the campaign to have an EU referendum still does not know about the trade deals that we have as part of the EU, what chance have the other 60 million people in these islands got?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman misheard me. I said that we trade with the majority of the world outside the EU on WTO terms—that is a fact—and we trade very profitably with them. That is the issue. While it is clear that most of us would prefer a good deal to no deal, the exaggeration of how bad WTO terms are has to be set in context.
I am sorry, but I am going to finish because I do not think that a third intervention will add anything to my time, to be perfectly honest.
The Labour party policy on a second referendum is condescending because it says that people did not know what they voted for the first time round. The predictions of doom and gloom from the establishment in this country—the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund, the Government and leaflets through the door—and of 500,000 more people unemployed by December 2016 if we voted leave were so badly wrong that most of those public bodies had to apologise.
The policy is condescending, but it is also contradictory, because it suggests that people might not have understood it last time but will understand it this time. Why would they understand it this time if we do not have faith in them to understand it the first time? Why not then have a third or fourth referendum? Finally, it is dangerous, because we made a clear pledge that we would respect that referendum result. I thank the Labour party for its policy, but it is wrong.
We need to begin by acknowledging that we have made a little bit of progress. Yesterday the Prime Minister finally acknowledged that there is no support in the House of Commons for leaving with no deal. It was interesting that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was in most difficulty in his contribution when he was trying to avoid answering questions about how the Government will vote if we get to that point. I will make a prediction to ease his pain: if we do get to that point, I think the Government will vote against us leaving with no deal. How could they do anything other than that given the document released yesterday, which predicts £13 billion of cost to British businesses? For what? To fill in customs declarations, with no benefit to their trade whatsoever. It also predicts rising food prices and delays at the ports. At the moment, French customs officials say, “Go on, go on,” but the moment they put their hands up and say, “Arrêtez”—“Stop”—the chaos will begin.
At the industrial coalition meeting to which the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) referred, the most striking moment for those of us who were there was when representatives of two major parts of manufacturing industry said simply, “If there’s a no-deal Brexit, it will be catastrophic for us.” The thing I always find it hard to understand is why people who do not run things and make things for a living think they know better about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit than people who do.
The other truth that has finally hit home—I hope the Government understand it—is that it does not matter when we are asked to vote against a no-deal Brexit. We will do it in March, we will do it in June and we will do it in October of whatever year, because the House will not allow that to happen.
If the Prime Minister’s deal is defeated when it comes back, there will be an extension to article 50, and the question that has not really been addressed yet is: for what purpose will we use the time? The amendments that probably will not be pressed to a vote today will be very important in the weeks to come, because they will provide us with the means to answer that question.
I think that only three options will face us in those circumstances. The first is to try to reach a consensus on a different kind of Brexit deal. The second is again to extend article 50, to enable us to negotiate the future partnership. The third, if we remain deadlocked, is to take the question back to the British people. None of them will be easy–there are no benefits to the British economy from Brexit. I will turn to each of those options.
The first—Norway plus or Common Market 2.0—would at least minimise the damage to our economy. It would represent a painful compromise for many people, but it would be a much better way forward than the Prime Minister’s deal. Do I think that she will ever agree to it? Sadly not, because she has shown herself to be completely inflexible.
The second option, which is really the obvious thing to do, is to go to the EU and say, “Why don’t we negotiate the future relationship now and extend article 50 for that purpose?” The House refuses to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal because each of us, for different reasons, says that we do not know what the future will look like, and therefore we are not prepared to take this enormous step of leaving the European Union on the basis of a prospectus that is completely vague and uncertain. How do we answer that question? We negotiate the future partnership.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a challenge the House will face the moment it has voted for an extension, because I am sure that is what the European Union will say to us.
I am setting out what I think are the three alternatives that would be available to the House at that point. The first requires agreement. I do not think the Prime Minister is prepared to give that; that is what the evidence shows. The second would require the European Union to change its approach to the negotiations completely. It would be the sensible thing to do, but the EU may not agree. The third—the one we will be left with if we cannot agree—will be to go back to the people and ask them what they think.
I simply want to say that I welcome the decision that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition announced on Monday. It cannot have been an easy decision to make, and I do not at all underestimate the difficulties of holding a second referendum. However, it would in those circumstances answer the question from the European Union about what the extension is for. When it comes to the question in such a referendum, to me it is clear: the only deal that has been negotiated to leave—the Prime Minister’s—even though it would have been rejected by Parliament, and the alternative of remain, because there is not an alternative leave on the table. Let me say to those who might want to jump up and say, “What about no deal?”: first, if we go back to the referendum of 2016, nobody on the leave side argued for leaving with no deal—nobody; secondly, we know how damaging it would be; and, thirdly, why should an option that was never before the British people in 2016 suddenly appear on a ballot paper in 2019, if we have a referendum?
I am sorry to bang on about this, but we are a rule-of-law state and it is an unlawful question to put. If a Government choose to put no deal on a referendum ballot paper, they are in effect saying that they will not respect and have decided as a matter of a policy not to observe their international obligations.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman very forcefully makes one of the arguments for why no deal is not an option in every sense of the word.
In conclusion, we are in a marginally better position than we were when we had the last of these debates, because the Government have been forced to face reality. I pay tribute to Ministers who, we are told, in a series of delegations to the Prime Minister, made her realise that she would not be able to defeat the amendments today if she did not make a concession yesterday.
However, we are still in a very perilous position for the country. I have no doubt at all about our ability to prosper, but our future prosperity depends on the decisions that we choose to make. It is not automatic, as the Brexit disaster is proving. That is why I echo the view of others who have said that those who argued for leave bear a very heavy responsibility for the crisis the country is now in. Parliament’s job is to make sure that, when that moment comes, if the deal is defeated again, we are ready to make a choice about what we are for. The tragedy of Brexit is that the Government have been completely incapable of making those choices. It is Parliament’s responsibility to step up and take those decisions if the Government continue to fail to do so.