With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Government’s proposals for a new agreement with our European friends that would honour the result of the referendum and deliver Brexit on 31 October in an orderly way with a deal.
This Government’s objective has always been to leave with a deal, and these constructive and reasonable proposals show our seriousness of purpose. They do not deliver everything we would have wished. They do represent a compromise. But to remain a prisoner of existing positions is to become a cause of deadlock rather than breakthrough, so we have made a genuine attempt to bridge the chasm, to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, and to go the extra mile as time runs short.
Our starting point is that this House promised to respect the referendum before the vote. More people voted leave than voted for any political party in our history. The referendum must be respected. Both main parties promised at the 2017 election that they would respect the referendum and that there would be no second referendum. This House voted to trigger article 50 and has voted repeatedly to leave, yet it has also voted three times against the previous withdrawal agreement and for repeated delay. So, as I have emphasised time and again, there can be no path to a deal except by reopening the withdrawal agreement and replacing the so-called backstop.
While, as I stand here today, we are some way from a resolution, it is to the credit of our European friends that they have accepted the need to address these issues. I welcome the constructive calls that I have had over the past 24 hours, including with President Juncker, Chancellor Merkel and Taoiseach Varadkar, and the statement from President Juncker that the Commission will now examine the legal text objectively.
The essence of our proposal is a new protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland consisting of five elements. In the first place, all our actions are based on our shared determination to sustain the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the fundamental basis of governance in Northern Ireland, the protection of which is the highest priority of all.
From that follows the second principle, namely that we shall of course uphold all the long-standing areas of co-operation between the UK and our friends in Ireland, including the rights of all those living in Northern Ireland, north-south co-operation, and the common travel area, which predates both the Good Friday agreement and the European Union itself.
Thirdly, we propose the potential creation of a regulatory zone on the island of Ireland covering all goods, including agrifood. For as long as it exists, the zone would eliminate all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
However, fourthly, unlike the so-called backstop, such a regulatory zone would be sustained only with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, as expressed through the Assembly and Executive. They will give their consent during the transition period as a condition for these arrangements entering into force. Thereafter, the Assembly will vote again every four years. If consent were withheld, these arrangements would then lapse after one year.
Fifthly, it has always been a point of principle for this Government that, at the end of the transition period, the UK should leave the EU customs union whole and entire, restoring sovereign control over our trade policy and opening the way for free trade deals with our friends around the world. That is a fundamental point for us.
Under the proposals in this new protocol, Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU customs union, but there will be no need for checks or any infrastructure at or near the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Indeed, I have already given a guarantee that the UK Government will never conduct checks at the border, and we believe that the EU should do the same, so there is absolute clarity on that point.
Instead, under this new protocol, all customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland would take place either electronically or, in the small number of cases where physical checks would be necessary, at traders’ premises or other points in the supply chain. We have put forward a method for achieving this based on improving and simplifying existing rules, trusting certain traders and strengthening our co-operation with Ireland, in a spirit of friendship and sensitivity to the particular circumstances.
While these proposals will mean changes from the situation that prevails today in Ireland and Northern Ireland, it is their driving purpose to minimise any disruption. To support the transition further, we propose a new deal for Northern Ireland that will boost economic growth and competitiveness and set in train new infra- structure, particularly with a cross-border focus.
The previous withdrawal agreement and political declaration would have permanently anchored the UK within the orbit of EU regulation and customs arrangements, and an indefinite so-called backstop provided a bridge to that vision of the future. This Government have a different vision: basing our future relationship with our European neighbours on a free trade agreement and allowing the UK to take back control of our trade policy and our regulations. We propose to amend the political declaration to reflect this ambition. Our proposals should now provide the basis for rapid negotiations towards a solution in the short time that remains.
I do not for one moment resile from the fact that we have shown great flexibility in the interests of reaching an accommodation with our European friends and achieving the resolution for which we all yearn. If our European neighbours choose not to show a corresponding willingness to reach a deal, then we shall have to leave on 31 October without an agreement, and we are ready to do so. But that outcome would be a failure of statecraft for which all parties would be held responsible. When I think of the conflicts that have wracked Europe in the past, of the immense challenges that we have together surmounted, of the 74 years of peace and prosperity that we have together achieved, I believe that surely, we can summon the collective will to reach a new agreement.
This Government have moved; our proposals do represent a compromise; and I hope that the House can now come together in the national interest behind this new deal to open a new chapter of friendship with our European neighbours and move on to our domestic priorities, including education, infrastructure and our NHS. Let us seize this moment to honour our overriding promise to the British people, respect Brexit and get Brexit done. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement, but what we have before us is a rehashed version of previously rejected proposals that would put the Good Friday agreement at risk and trigger a race to the bottom on rights and protections for workers, consumers and our precious environment. Given the seriousness of this issue and the vagueness of the proposals so far, will the Prime Minister tell the House if and when he plans to publish the full legal text that he must submit to the EU?
These proposals would lead to an even worse deal than that agreed by the former Prime Minister. The Prime Minister signed up to the backstop in Cabinet, and as a Back Bencher he voted for the withdrawal agreement. His letter to the President of the Commission yesterday claims that both are now unacceptable, so perhaps he can tell us what has changed. Why did he support the agreement then but oppose it now? The letter makes his intentions clear: it rejects any form of customs union—something demanded by every business and industry body in Britain, and by every trade union.
The Government want to ditch EU standards on workers’ rights, environmental regulations and consumer standards and engage in a race to the bottom. Deal or no deal, this Government’s agenda is clear: they want a Trump deal Brexit that would crash our economy and rip away the standards that put a floor under people’s rights at work and protect our environment and consumers. No Labour MP could support such a reckless deal that would be used as a springboard to attack rights and standards in this country.
The truth is that after three years this Government still have not found an answer to solving the issue of the Irish border and the Good Friday agreement. Where once they were committed to having no border in Ireland, they now propose two borders in Ireland, ripping up the UK-EU joint report from December 2017. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government have now abandoned their commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, which was to ensure no
“physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”
on the island of Ireland? [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I am only quoting what the Government said.
While EU leaders have been lukewarm, the response from businesses in Northern Ireland has been stark. Glyn Roberts, the head of Retail NI, said that the proposal would lead to north-south tariffs with “huge negative impacts” on farmers and the agrifood sector. He went on:
“It would also mean two borders requiring renewal after four years, surveillance in border communities without their consent, and checks north-south and west-east.”
Tina McKenzie, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses Northern Ireland, was absolutely clear:
“All the promises of unfettered access have been abandoned… Northern Ireland is a small business economy and this is a death knell for some of those businesses.”
These plans are simply unworkable. What we have before us is not a serious proposal to break the deadlock. Instead, the proposals are nothing more than a cynical attempt by the Prime Minister to shift the blame for his failure to deliver. We can conclude only that his political adviser was telling the truth when he called negotiations with the EU a “sham”. Will the Prime Minister give a clear answer to one question: if he does not get a deal at the October Council summit, will he abide by the law of this country and the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.2) Act 2019 and request an extension to avoid a disastrous no deal?
The Government’s proposals are neither serious nor credible. Labour consulted with UK industry, businesses and unions about the need for a comprehensive customs union, close single market alignment and robust protections for workers’ rights and environmental standards. We need an extension for a serious negotiation towards the sort of deal that Labour has set out, and then let the people decide whether to leave with a sensible deal or remain.
The current proposals would damage the whole UK economy, and the Northern Irish economy especially, and would undermine the Good Friday agreement. They would lead to a race to the bottom on workers’ rights and environmental rights and strip back even the limited protections that the Prime Minister’s predecessor had agreed to.
Instead of spending the last few months building consensus in Parliament and across the EU, the Prime Minister has put forward proposals he knows will not be acceptable either in Brussels or Westminster and that would damage UK industry, people’s jobs and living standards. The only people who would not suffer are the Prime Minister’s hedge fund donors who are currently betting against the pound and running down our fragile economy. He is doing nothing but seeking to divide and risking this country’s future for his own political gain—an America first deal with President Trump. The proposals are unrealistic and damaging, and they will be—as I think the Prime Minister knows full well—rejected in Brussels, in the House and across the country.
I must confess that I am disappointed by the tone and some of the remarks that the right hon. Gentleman has made, because I think that this is a very good basis for a deal. To take his points in turn, and to take his questions seriously, he asks what the advantage is of this deal over the previous withdrawal agreement. Simply, it is that the objections on all sides of the House to the previous withdrawal agreement were based on the backstop, which would, as he knows, keep the UK locked in the customs union and single market with no say on those arrangements. I listened carefully to hon. Members on both sides of the House during those debates and that was the burden of the House’s objections to the backstop.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a reasonable question about standards and environmental and social protections. I think that it would be the will of the House under any circumstances to keep our standards the highest in the world. The advantage that we have in coming out of the EU, as I am sure he would accept if he reflected on it, is that we can go further. There are some things that we can now do that have been long called for by the British people—for instance, on animal welfare—that would be very advantageous. For instance, we can now ban the cruel export of live animals. I am sure that he will see that advantages will flow from that approach.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about physical infrastructure at the border, and I have been clear many times—and the Government have been clear many times, as were the previous Administration under my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—that under no circumstances would the UK institute physical infrastructure at or near the border.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the concerns of businesses in Northern Ireland. Of course they must be at the forefront of our minds, and we will ensure that their needs are properly looked after. That is indeed why we have made the compromises that we have for the immediate future to protect their immediate interests. He asked about unfettered access to the GB market, and they will of course have unfettered access to the GB market with no checks whatever. That goes without saying. One thing that is certain about those businesses is that they want a deal. I have talked to them, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has. I believe that this is their chance, and our chance, to get a deal.
I listened to what the right hon. Gentleman said about delay and keeping this country in the EU beyond 31 October. That option does not commend itself to me: it would incur another £1 billion a month to no advantage whatever. The people of this country have had enough unnecessary dither and delay. They want to get Brexit done; they want to get on and do a deal. This is a very good basis for a deal, I commend it to the House and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members across the House will support it.
In welcoming indications of progress in the negotiations, does my right hon. Friend agree that the overriding democratic issue is that the referendum result, and the withdrawal Act with 31 October as the end date, confirms the sovereign and inalienable right of the British people to govern themselves and that we need a general election in this country now and to get Brexit done?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Opposition have many times—at least several times—rejected the invitation to have a general election, for reasons that I think will be apparent to most people in this House and most people in this country. We must leave the Opposition to consider their own decision, but what I can certainly tell my hon. Friend is that under this deal, this country will certainly be taking back control not only of its borders and its money, but also of course its laws.
May I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement?
I want to be very clear with the Prime Minister from the outset. These proposals are unacceptable. They are unworkable. They are undeliverable. It is all about blaming someone else, in this case the European Union when his plan is rejected. It is a plan designed to fail. But of course, the Prime Minister knows that. By his own design, this “take it or leave it” threat is yet another push towards a catastrophic no-deal exit.
For Scotland, these proposals would take us out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union against our will. The UK Government’s document talks about the consent of the people of Northern Ireland as being required. Where is the requirement for the consent of the Scottish people, who voted to remain and whose voices are ignored by this Conservative Government? The Prime Minister may have bought the consent of the Democratic Unionist party with these proposals, but every other political party in Northern Ireland and every major business group is not buying it. They are not alone. The Prime Minister does not have the consent of this House, and he does not have the consent of these islands for this doomed deal or for a devastating no-deal Brexit. Let me tell him now: he will never have the consent of Scotland.
Prime Minister, why is it acceptable for Northern Ireland to stay in the single market of the European Union but not for Scotland? This is not a basis for a deal; it is a half-baked plan from Dominic Cummings and his Brexit fanatics. The Prime Minister knows that he cannot get his proposal approved and he does not care, because the truth is that he either has no interest in getting a deal at all or does not grasp the reality of a workable backstop.
The Prime Minister must be reminded that he is duty bound to obey the law and seek an extension to the 31 October deadline. So let me put this to the Prime Minister: the proposed deal was dead even before he left the podium of the Tory conference. The Prime Minister’s contempt for this House—because that is what it is—for democracy and for the people to have their say through their representatives is clear for all to see. This House must take back control, not for us but for the people we serve.
So I want to ask the Prime Minister—and I want him to think very carefully before he answers; I say to him: give us an actual answer—will he obey the law as required to seek an extension, and if not, will he commit today, right here, right now, that he will resign? We will not let the Prime Minister shift the blame—[Interruption.] It is quite remarkable. We are talking about a Prime Minister threatening to break the law and the guffaws from the Tory Benches say it all.
We will not let the Prime Minister shift the blame for his devastating plans for a no-deal Brexit. The responsibility for the catastrophic threat lies solely and squarely at the Prime Minister’s door. That is why I want to put the Prime Minister on notice: the SNP will do everything possible to secure an extension and to stop a no-deal Brexit. I say to the Prime Minister: be warned—secure an extension or resign. If not, the SNP stands ready to bring this Government down.
Again, I must say I am slightly disappointed by the tone the right hon. Gentleman has taken. I would remind him that the people of Scotland voted to remain in the UK and in the UK single market. If he wishes to avoid a no-deal outcome, I respectfully suggest to him that the best way to avoid one would be to vote for a deal that we secure, and these proposals do amount to a very good basis for a deal. Finally, if he wants to remove me from office, the best thing he can do is to work on the Leader of the Opposition, persuade him to call a general election and try his luck that way.
Many of us, on both sides of the House, want to deliver what people voted for, to avoid a no-deal Brexit and to avoid the process being strung out interminably, so I welcome the Government’s latest proposals. Can the Prime Minister assure me that the customs proposals for the Irish border do not involve the construction of any new physical infrastructure, whether at the border or anywhere else?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has taken a keen interest in these matters for a long time and has helped to bring many Members together across the House on this question. I can tell him: absolutely not—the proposals we are putting forward do not involve physical infrastructure at or near the border or indeed at any other place.
If the Prime Minister had bothered to go to the Northern Ireland border, he would know the genuine fear that people there feel about his proposals, which they see will result in physical infrastructure for the border, whether that is actually on the border or, as he euphemistically puts it, at some other point in the supply chain. His plans there have been denounced as the worst of both worlds. Will the Prime Minister now go to the Northern Ireland border and listen to the people and communities there, or does he just not care?
I, of course, understand the concerns of people on both sides of the Northern Irish border and indeed across this country. That is why we are absolutely determined not to have any kind of infrastructure checks at the border or near the border. As I explained to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), they are not necessary. May I invite the hon. Lady also to support these proposals? Perhaps she could ask her Liberal Democrat colleagues to retract their letter to Jean-Claude Juncker urging him not to agree to a new deal with the British Government.
May I commend the Prime Minister’s emphasis on a future free trade arrangement as his desired end state, which is what many of us have wanted all along? Does he recall that, earlier in the year, when the House voted, in the so-called indicative votes, on a number of different options—a customs union, Norway and so on—all those options were defeated bar one? The one option that has ever passed this House, other than the withdrawal agreement as originally presented, was the so-called Brady amendment, the essence of which was to expunge the backstop in favour of alternative arrangements, which passed the House of Commons on 29 January by 16 votes. Does that give the Prime Minister hope that this proposal could get through?
Yes, it does indeed. I thank my right hon. Friend for his point. He is right also in his ambition for what we can do with this deal because it does liberate us to do free trade deals around the world and take back control of our tariffs and our customs. I am fortified by the knowledge on all sides in the House that this has been going on for three and a half years now. The proposal does represent a very good basis for a deal and I hope that colleagues will support it.
For the last three years, it has been Government policy that border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit would not include checks and controls—that is enshrined in UK law—but now the Prime Minister has announced that there will be customs checks in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] Those are the words he used. He has also entertained the possibility that Northern Ireland will never enter the regulatory zone of which he speaks because, if the Assembly and the Executive do not agree to do so, it will not happen. As a result, he has abandoned that commitment and risks a return to a hard border. How is that consistent with the joint declaration of 2017 signed by his predecessor, with the Good Friday agreement and with the peace and stability in Northern Ireland that has been so hard won?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to lay the emphasis he does on the Good Friday agreement and the peace process. In all our conversations, we are driven by the need to protect, and indeed fortify, that agreement and process. The deal we are setting out gives us and communities in Northern Ireland the opportunity to build on that process, but I must stress to him that he is mistaken if he believes that any of our proposals will necessitate any kind of checks at the border—that is absolutely untrue—or indeed any kind of hard border. I must tell him respectfully that that is untrue.
Given that this proposal meets the terms set out in the amendment passed in this House on 29 January, can I urge the Prime Minister to go to his EU colleagues with some confidence and to tell them that there is every likelihood, if not certainty, that this proposition will command the support of the House of Commons and can take us forward and break the deadlock that has been dogging us for so long?
I congratulate my hon. Friend because it was after all his amendment that went to the heart of what I think the House saw as the fundamental problem with the previous withdrawal agreement. These proposals address those concerns and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will get behind them.
Mr Speaker, I am sure you will have observed that the Prime Minister’s predecessor, to her credit, at least got things in the right order. She got an agreement with the EU that commanded support, it has to be said, in Northern Ireland, but she could not get it through this place. The Prime Minister thinks he has got the support of Parliament, but he has not got any support from the EU and he has not got the support of the people of Northern Ireland. I congratulate him on getting a deal with the ERG and the DUP, but I remind him that the DUP does not represent the people of Northern Ireland—and I observe that they cannot even be bothered to turn up today. Will the Prime Minister confirm that not one single other political party or any organisation in Northern Ireland supports his con of a so-called deal?
I am not sure I was expecting support from the right hon. Lady, but I had hoped that she would see the advantages of our proposal. I think that it offers a way forward for the UK, for Ireland and for all communities in Northern Ireland. It offers security and stability and, above all, protects the Good Friday process and a frictionless border. So I hope it will have her support.
When I launched the Better Off Out group in Parliament back in 2006, I could always rely on the now leader of the Labour party to vote for my proposals in the Lobby. I am sorry that he has now ditched the only popular policy that he ever believed in.
May I ask the Prime Minister whether what he has proposed is the final offer to the European Union? Will he confirm that, if the EU rejects his offer out of hand, it will be the policy of the Government to leave the European Union without a deal?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I cannot account for the unaccountable—I cannot account for the Leader of the Opposition’s change of mind on the EU, except that, as I observed earlier, he seems to have been captured by some of his colleagues—but I can certainly confirm to my hon. Friend that we will be leaving on 31 October, deal or no deal.
The Prime Minister’s proposals prove quite clearly that he does not understand Northern Ireland. While he seems to be perfectly happy to dance to the tune of his friends in the Democratic Unionist party, he forgets, or chooses to ignore, the fact—and it is a fact—that the DUP does not represent the majority of people in Northern Ireland. The DUP campaigned for leave, along with the right hon. Gentleman, but the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted remain. The majority of people in Northern Ireland will be extremely concerned by the proposals that he tabled yesterday and has spoken about today, which introduce two borders in Northern Ireland.
I remind the Prime Minister that the people in Northern Ireland certainly do not want the UK to leave the EU without a deal. What people in Northern Ireland really want, all of them, is to continue to enjoy the peace and stability delivered by the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I want the Prime Minister to go through the statement that he has delivered, and pinpoint for the House and the people of Northern Ireland the aspects of his proposals that guarantee peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
The most important thing is that we will abide by every clause and principle of the Good Friday agreement. Above all, there will be no border—there will be no hard border at all—in Northern Ireland. Most important, we will be governed by the principle of consent. I should be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss exactly what I mean, if that would be useful to her. I do accept that these proposals deserve wider circulation and wider explanation, and I should be more than happy to meet her to go through them.
I commend the tone that the Prime Minister has taken today, and the way in which he has answered questions. That fulfils what was my aim when I supported the recent withdrawal Bill, which was to encourage the Government to pursue a deal as by far the best option going forward.
It is clearly unlikely that every part of the Prime Minister’s proposals will be fully accepted, but may I draw the House’s attention to a phrase in the letter that he sent to Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday? He wrote:
“this letter sets out what I regard as a reasonable compromise: the broad landing zone in which I believe a deal can begin to take shape.”
Do his tone and style today suggest that the compromise that he has been able to propose is not yet finished, and that if it is necessary to handle some of the difficult issues that have been raised, he is still open—in that frame of mind—to take this forward? A deal would now seem to be achievable if that tone is continued.
My right hon. Friend is correct in his surmise about our intentions, but I think that the House and people watching the debate should be reminded that what the UK has done is already very considerable. We have already moved quite some way. I hope that our friends and partners across the channel understand that, and I hope that my right hon. Friend understands it as well. We have gone the extra mile. What we are doing both on agrifoods and on goods, with the principle of consent, is, I think, a very considerable move towards compromise.
Will the Prime Minister agree to give evidence on this to the Liaison Committee before the European Council? Will he also confirm that he is proposing to remove the provisions in article 4 of annexe 4 to the protocol, in particular the commitment not to reduce fundamental rights at work—occupational health and safety, fair working conditions and employment standards? Will he confirm that, far from increasing workers’ rights and the protection of those rights as many Labour Members have urged him to do, he is in fact proposing to reduce that protection and make it easier for Conservative Governments to do what they have always done, and cut workers’ rights?
The right hon. Lady is in error if she thinks that that is our intention. We will be ensuring that this country has the highest standards for workers’ rights and for environmental protections. I should be more than happy to meet her to explain what we are going to do.
I commend the Prime Minister on the serious intent and effort that he is adopting. He is proving many of his doubters wrong. Does he agree that the constructive tone that we heard overnight from EU counterparts stands in stark contrast to the tone adopted by the Opposition, who continue to set their face against their own voters?
I thoroughly agree with my right hon. Friend, and I hope that all colleagues in all parts of the House will think very carefully about the terms of the deal that we are setting out. As I have said, I am more than happy to discuss them and to explain what we are trying to do, but I think it is incumbent on all of us to get this thing done and get it over the line, and I think that that is what the overwhelming majority of our electorate want us to do. Whether they voted leave or remain, people want us now to speak up for democracy.
Breaking the Good Friday agreement, putting at risk 20 years of peace, creating two new hard borders and a smugglers’ paradise in Northern Ireland, and scrapping all the labour regulations, environmental standards and other standards in the rest of the United Kingdom: this is nothing like what the Prime Minister peddled to the voters in 2016, is it? So why is he scared of sending it back to the people for their consent in a referendum?
I do not wish to be unnecessarily adversarial today, but that seems a satirical thing for the right hon. Gentleman to say, given that his party is refusing to concede to a general election. I am very happy to discuss these ideas with him. They in no way correspond with the caricature that he has just put to the House. This is a very serious way forward, and it gives the country an opportunity to improve our environmental and social welfare standards.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his clear intent to ensure that we leave with a deal on 31 October. He has set out a detailed and considered proposal and, despite the protestations of the Labour party, I hope that the EU will engage with the proposal constructively.
In this context, the Prime Minister will feel as keenly as I do the continuing absence of a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive. What further steps will he take to get Stormont back up and running, and what assurance can he give to the people of Northern Ireland in respect of the absolute need for political decision making in its absence?
My right hon. Friend has a wealth of experience in this regard, and he did a huge amount of good both for Northern Ireland and in the cause of trying to get Stormont up and running again. Clearly, what this deal would offer is the opportunity for the Executive and Assembly of Northern Ireland, and the people of Northern Ireland, to have even more of a say in their own destiny. In that sense, it takes forward and builds on the peace process, one of the great achievements of the last 30 years. I think that it is full of hope for the people of Northern Ireland. In my view it gives them an extra incentive to get Stormont up and running, and I can assure my right hon. Friend that we are working very hard to do just that.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. May we have a vote on it before he goes to the European summit? In the political declaration, will he affirm what he has said to the House: that this country will be a leader in protecting workers’ rights, consumer rights and the environment?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope that he speaks for many colleagues across the House in wanting to move this thing forward. I will reflect on what he has said about having a vote on this, although it would probably be better to get a deal first. I am confident that we can get one, and I hope it will command the support of the House. I can certainly reassure him on his point about standards for workers’ rights and for the environment: it is the intention of this Government to go higher still.
The publication of specific proposals to deal with the backstop is to be welcomed, as is the Prime Minister’s commitment to not having physical infrastructure in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. His commitment to the Good Friday agreement is also to be welcomed, but could he say a bit more about what obligations he believes we have under the Good Friday agreement to ensure not only that there is no physical infrastructure, but that goods can flow freely between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Of course, what this offer does is take one step further, by consent, in having regulatory alignment for goods as well, so obviating the need for checks on perhaps 30% of the other traffic from north to south in addition to the 30% that we have already achieved by sanitary and phytosanitary alignment. That is always assuming that consent were to be granted, if he understands me.
The principle of consent requires people to be able to weigh up the risks and benefits of the actual deal, as opposed to the promises that were made during the referendum. I am afraid that there are many detailed questions arising out of the Prime Minister’s statement, and they cannot be answered in this format, so may I ask him when he will keep the clear commitment he gave to appear before the Select Committee Chairs in the Liaison Committee, and will he do so before Parliament prorogues?
Most people in this House and in the country want to have a good deal with the EU, so I very much welcome the pragmatic approach and the demeanour that my right hon. Friend has taken today. I look to our European neighbours and, I might say, the Leader of the Opposition to respond in kind. He has set out a new Northern Ireland protocol that would kick in if, and only if, we had not yet concluded a free trade agreement. Is it his expectation that, should the protocol be needed, it would be intended to be temporary? Is it also his expectation that it would involve zero tariffs between the UK and the EU?
With regard to the regulation of goods, as opposed to customs, the Government’s explanatory note says that these arrangements must receive the endorsement of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. Paragraph 13 of the paper states that this must happen
“before the end of the transition period, and every four years afterwards”.
Can the Prime Minister confirm that that means that, even if these proposals were to be agreed by the European Union and subsequently agreed by this House, if they were not then approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly during the transition period, they would last for only a year, following which we would have no commitment to the common regulatory system that is essential for the open border?
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very valid point, but the mechanism of consent is clearly vital and we are in the midst of discussions with our friends about exactly how it should work. I will not hide it from the House that he is making a legitimate point, but we will, I am sure, solve this question during the discussions about consent.
The test of reasonableness is well understood by legislators, and compromise is intrinsic to all negotiations, as the Prime Minister has said already. But what the British people are most frustrated about is what they perceive as displacement, dither and delay, so will the Prime Minister be clear in his decisive determination to continue to personify the spirit of getting on, getting out and getting ahead?
That is exactly what we intend to do. The purpose of this deal and these proposals is to get Brexit done and for us all to move on as a country and move on together. I believe that they represent a very good way forward for the UK. They will enable us to do free trade deals and to regulate our own laws and our own system. Above all, they will enable the UK to leave the EU, as the people of this country were promised, whole and entire, and to protect our precious Union with Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister’s blame game goes down very well on the stage-managed Tory conference platform, but I wonder whether he has stress-tested the technical details of his proposals on the UK’s constitution—or did he require only the DUP’s consent? I note that his proposal claims to equip the Stormont Assembly with the levers to control the direction of Northern Ireland’s national question. Does he not agree that this sets an interesting precedent for the Senedd to be equipped to review Wales’s constitutional relationship with Westminster every four years, too? Or does just he hope and pray that somebody will stop him?
As the right hon. Lady knows, there is a unique situation in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement, and what we are proposing today gives this country the opportunity to develop and intensify that, but I am willing to listen to her pleas for the Senedd and I will consider them closely.
I believe that this represents a significant step towards breaking the deadlock, which businesses and the vast majority of the people want to see. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in the spirit of goodwill now generated on both sides of the channel, he will negotiate 24 hours a day exhibiting every flexibility to get a deal?
Can the Prime Minister not accept that a customs post that is sited 20 miles away from a border still represents a hard border and therefore goes against the Good Friday agreement? Why is he willing to prioritise Brexit against the Good Friday agreement?
I should remind the hon. Gentleman that there has been a fiscal border between the UK and Ireland for many years. Customs checks do not mean customs posts or infrastructure of any kind, as I am sure he appreciates, but if he does not, I am more than happy to share with him our thinking and to explain how it can be done.
I remind my right hon. Friend that I voted remain in the referendum. I have voted in the House to deliver Brexit ever since. I congratulate him on the constructive proposals that he has put forward, and wish him every good fortune that the EU will engage with them as it needs to. I remind the House, and perhaps he could confirm, that existing trade across the border in Northern Ireland takes place with different currencies, and with different VAT rates, as he has just been elucidating, without the need for any physical infrastructure; and customs arrangements, following the excellent work done on the alternative arrangements commission, can do the same.
I am sure that the House, like me, is hugely impressed by the Prime Minister’s attempts to avoid an Irish border—which resulted in him creating two borders! Clearly, he is not familiar with the contents of the Good Friday agreement.
Given that these proposals are doomed to fail on all counts, and as he seeks to blame the EU for his failure, will he confirm that if he cannot secure agreement, he will obey the law as set out in the Benn Act—or instead, will he have to die in a ditch?
I reject the suggestion that what we are doing is not in conformity with the Good Friday agreement; indeed, it is intended to build on the Good Friday agreement. If it would help the hon. Lady, I would be more than happy to talk to her about our plans and to elucidate the matter to her.
On 3 September, I asked the Prime Minister for some evidence of an emerging deal; you will remember it well, Mr Speaker. Last week I asked him again, and I thank him for the outline of the detail that he gave in response to me. Today I do not need to do that, because he has set out some real meat to Mr Juncker in his letter. I am very pleased to see it. I knew he wanted a deal, and he told me he wanted a deal, and I believe him. So can he confirm that consent in Northern Ireland lies at the heart of this over there; and that more importantly, compromise over here, in this House of Commons, is at the heart of getting this done? Can he also confirm that those who want to avoid no deal—like me, like him—now need to do the right thing and vote for a deal?
I thank my hon. Friend, for whom I have a high regard. I well remember our conversation a few weeks ago. He makes his point with great clarity and force. Those who oppose a no-deal Brexit—I appreciate the sincerity of the feelings of those who oppose a no-deal Brexit—logically really should support this way forward, and I hope that they do.
As a former Northern Ireland Minister, I am all too painfully aware of how fragile the arrangements are. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) pointed out, the Prime Minister’s proposals are all contingent on their periodic renewal by the Executive and Assembly. Does he not realise that that will only add to the fragility of the political situation that already exists in Northern Ireland? Is there not a case to consider, given particularly that the Executive and Assembly are not even up and running, for putting the case directly to the people of Northern Ireland in the form of a referendum, to see what they think about it?
I am not sure that referendums have a great history in our country recently of bringing people together. I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s experience and the sincerity with which he approaches this subject, and he is obviously right to raise the concerns of both communities, but I think that this proposal offers a way forward for both communities and it is very important that the views of all communities are respected. That is why the principle of consent is at the heart of what we are proposing.
I commend my right hon. Friend for putting forward these positive proposals, which merit an equally positive response from the European Union. He has mentioned the need for amendments to the political declaration, the significance of which is frequently understated. I assume that that includes the deletion of the reference to building and improving on the single customs territory, but can my right hon. Friend say what other amendments he considers will be necessary?
In due course, the text will of course be made available to right hon. and hon. Members, although this is a negotiation and you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that we have to hold some things back. However, I can certainly confirm that there will be no reference to improving on the customs union in the way that he has described. The purpose of the political declaration will be to set out how we wish to develop our relationship with our European friends in a positive way, protecting standards, as I have said several times, insisting on the highest possible standards in this country, but also giving us the opportunity to develop a fantastic new free trade relationship—and that is what we are going to do.
In an earlier answer, the Prime Minister alluded to the fact that he had support from business for his plan, and yet the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has said that the Prime Minister’s plan is both “unworkable and unpalatable”. Will the Prime Minister point to one business that moves goods into Northern Ireland that supports his plan?
Like my right hon. Friends the Members for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), I warmly welcome the fact that the proposals have been set down, and the constructive tone in which the Prime Minister has undertaken the proceedings today. I am keen to understand some of the points of detail. I understand that there will be a change also to the political declaration, in the form of a free trade arrangement zero tariffs. Can he confirm, therefore, that he intends that those zero tariffs, which will require some checks as well, will not be at the border, and will be of a nature that will be relatively de minimis?
The Prime Minister said some moments ago that the history of referendums in this country was not good, but may I remind him that by 71% the Good Friday agreement was passed by a referendum?
I return the Prime Minister to the detail of his statement today. On page 3, he refers to the regulatory zone for Northern Ireland, and he says that,
“the Assembly will vote again every four years—and if consent were withheld, these arrangements would then lapse after one year.”
Lapse back to what?
Obviously, the default position is that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and part of the UK legal order and part of the UK customs territory, and it will remain part of the UK’s customs territory under any circumstances. What we are proposing is alignment on agrifoods and also on industrial goods. That is to be done by consent. I think it offers a very attractive way forward and I hope that the House will get behind it.
May I ask the Prime Minister a little bit more about the political declaration? Do I understand that it will be changed to say that the UK and the EU will use best endeavours to achieve a fantastic free trade agreement? But if we got to the end of the transition period—when would that be?—what would happen if there was not a free trade agreement?
Well, I think in that very unlikely event, obviously the UK and the EU would revert to WTO terms, but I do not think that that is likely. I think that the UK and the EU—both parties—will be very keen to strike a great free trade agreement. And that is what we will do, and that is what we will set out in the political declaration.
Over a week ago the Prime Minister told the House, in response to a question by my good and hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), that he would publish a new EU withdrawal Bill within days. That is important, because it could form the basis, with amendments, to move forward and break the deadlock—amendments on workers’ rights, health and safety and environmental standards. Will the Prime Minister honour that commitment and publish the Bill?
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on his statesmanship, and indeed ingenuity, in delivering an offer that is serious and credible? If my email is anything to go by, there is huge support in my constituency.
May I take the Prime Minister to paragraph 1b of the protocol note, which makes it clear that 100% of these unique areas of collaboration will continue? Will he find time to ring the Taoiseach and tell him that there are going to be many areas for collaboration on community projects and on pushing enterprise, investment and wealth creation on both sides of the border?
Does the Prime Minister agree that most people in this country are not extreme remainers or extreme Brexiteers? Surely it is his job, and the job of the House now, to look at a deal. What we have heard today is a bit of a deal, but we need a full look. Perhaps we should restart the cross-party discussion so that he can evade the conclusion that he has to break the law and leave without a deal. Can we restart sensible negotiations?
Of course. I have a high regard for the hon. Gentleman; I remember having many useful discussions with him about higher education when I did that job. I would be more than happy to talk to him about what we are proposing and the way it can take our country forward and bring us back together.
As someone who 30 years ago served as Agriculture Minister for Northern Ireland, may I say that both there and in Great Britain the deal and proposed transition matter, and that issues will have to be dealt with whether we crash out or go with a deal?
I hope we do go with a deal, as does the majority in the House.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that it would be a good thing if he arranged to rescind the withdrawal of the Conservative whip from those of my colleagues who should be back on our side fully.
I defer to my hon. Friend for his long-standing experience in Northern Ireland, but the agreement that we have, or the deal that we are proposing, is a very good one for Northern Ireland. As for his suggestion on our colleagues, all I can say is that the consequences of the surrender Act—I use that term advisedly—are very serious for our ability to negotiate. I hope very much that, notwithstanding those difficulties, this House will come together and get a deal over the line. If I may say so, to bring the whole country together and to bring this House together, I think that would be the best way forward.
The Prime Minister has spoken a number of times about consent, but I urge him, particularly as the only representative here in the House at the moment speaking for Northern Ireland is the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), to listen very carefully to what she said. He talks about consent, but it is clear this morning that there is not consent from many of the other parties in Northern Ireland and many people across the different communities, nor from the business community nor from Dublin and the Irish Government. I urge him to listen very carefully to that.
There is a simple way through this, which is to put a credible deal back to the people, including the people of Northern Ireland, for a confirmatory vote. I urge the Prime Minister to look at that closely. Will he confirm how his proposals are in line with section 10(2) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, because I do not believe that they are?
Mr Speaker, they are completely in line with section 10 of the withdrawal Act, and I would be happy to demonstrate that to the hon. Gentleman. On his request for a second referendum, I really cannot think of anything more divisive or more wasteful of this country’s time. [Interruption.] If Opposition Members want an election, why do they not talk to the Leader of the Opposition?
Order. Colleagues, I am very grateful to the large number of people who have come up to the Chair expressing concern about my throat. Their generosity of spirit and humanity are much appreciated, but I want to confirm to the House that the state of my throat, which is purely temporary, is not down to the consumption of a kangaroo’s testicle. I would not eat it; it would probably be poisoned.
Mr Speaker, I am glad to hear it.
The devil will be in the detail, but I very much congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his improved proposals as a basis for a deal. However, in straining every sinew to secure a good deal, will he be resolute not only in his intent to honour the triggering of article 50 by an overwhelming majority in this place, which clearly stated that we would leave with or without a deal, but in ensuring that we are prepared for no deal? It is inescapable logic that being so prepared improves the chances of securing such a deal, despite the fact that that logic escapes the Opposition parties.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The preparations that we have made for that outcome, a no-deal exit—I thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for everything that he is doing—have unquestionably, notwithstanding the surrender Act, concentrated the minds of our friends in the EU and are helping us to get a deal.
Could the Prime Minister genuinely help me? Paragraph 9 of his explanatory note says that
“traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would need… A new notification requirement”
“the nature of the goods in the consignment… people sending (exporting) and receiving (importing) the goods… where the goods will depart and arrive”
and that these arrangements will not be effective until the transition period is completed.
As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said, that is effectively a second border. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many of those transactions he anticipates each year, and what the cost would be to businesses and to the Government in establishing that system?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that in so far as such checks were necessary, they would be done electronically. They would be done by UK officials, and they would be instituted only with the consent of Northern Ireland. That is the important point, but I am more than happy, if he would like, to discuss this more with him in person if that would be useful.
May I commend and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his statement and on his valiant efforts to secure us a deal and get us out of the European Union on 31 October? May I ask him a question that a lot of my constituents are asking me? When we finally leave on 31 October, if it were to be without a deal, is it not the case that there would be no adverse effect on any UK-European defence collaboration, especially in the fields of procurement, manufacture and wider operations?
From the outset of negotiations, the British Government have, understandably, had their red lines. They are long-standing and unchangeable red lines. It is understandable also that our negotiating partners in the EU have their red lines, which they have stuck to rigidly throughout. Today and last night, the Irish Taoiseach has said that the proposals the Prime Minister has laid before the House today break those red lines and are unacceptable. In the words of the Taoiseach, “It’s a non-starter.”
Why has the Prime Minister brought before the House proposals that are simply unacceptable to the EU? They are breaking the red lines that the EU has had from the outset. If the EU had done the same to us, he would be using the most outrageous language against it, yet he has brought something here that is completely unacceptable from the outset. Why?
I hope the Prime Minister can hear the collective sigh of relief, which tends to indicate that this might be the beginning of the end, so will he join me— [Interruption.] Oh, we are nowhere near the end of the beginning! Will he join me in encouraging everybody in this House to come together, whether or not as part of the marvellous group “MPs for a Deal”? Will he reach out to MPs from all parts of the House and deal with their genuine concerns on the details of this agreement in the coming weeks?
I thank my hon. Friend for everything she does to bring colleagues together on this issue. I do not know whether this is the end of the beginning or the beginning of the second half of the middle, or exactly where we are in this process, but there is momentum now behind these proposals. [Interruption.] I am not going to pretend that this will be easy or that this is a done deal. Hon. Members are right to be cautious, but the UK has moved a long way, and I hope that our partners will recognise that and move correspondingly.
As the Prime Minister has repeatedly demonstrated this morning, the information about the political declaration is very vague indeed. It would not protect jobs, rights or security, and does not seek to address the major reasons why Opposition Members opposed the deal put forward three times by the previous Prime Minister. Will this Prime Minister tell us how he thinks the European Parliament will react to his proposals? Has he had any contact with those at the European Parliament? Has he had any indication as to how they are feeling?
Yes, certainly; I have of course talked to the President of the European Parliament, in which the right hon. Lady served with such distinction. I can tell her and the House that what the European Parliament overwhelmingly wants is a deal, rather than no deal, and I am sure that it will see this is the basis of a very good deal.
The Prime Minister knows that my constituency probably had as close to a statistical dead heat of a result in the referendum as was possible, with a tiny margin in favour of remain, which was my view. He also knows that throughout the time and since my constituents and I have urged that this House needs to come together to find a deal and go forward. I therefore welcome what he has done today. I certainly support it, as one who took a different view initially, but does he also recognise the concern and distress that my constituents have that, regrettably, some people in the Opposition seem to rubbish every attempt at compromise and at a constructive way forward? The country and my constituents deserve better than that, and we should give this a fair chance.
I thank my hon. Friend, whom I know to be a passionate pro-European to the depths of his soul. I respect him profoundly for his desire to get on, do a deal, get Brexit done and then build a new partnership with our European friends, which is what we want to do.
Manufacturers in my constituency operate an integrated trading model, whereby they ship goods directly from Manchester to the Republic of Ireland for distribution across the whole of the island of Ireland. Can the Prime Minister explain to me how the deal he is proposing now offers them more certainty, fewer burdens and less cost both than they have now and than they would have had under the backstop?
Is the Prime Minister encouraged, given the empty Benches opposite on Monday when we were debating important Northern Ireland issues, that Members have found their enthusiasm once again for all things Northern Ireland? Does he agree that any customs checks do not have to be done at the border or in customs posts, but can be done at points of origin and destination, as the Northern Ireland Select Committee heard in evidence?
My hon. Friend speaks with the technological optimism that has too long been absent from this debate. That is the way forward, and everybody understands that. That is what we are going to bring to those solutions, and this agreement offers a way of doing that at a pace and timescale that will reassure businesses and agricultural interests on both sides of the border.
I commend the Prime Minister for rare consistency; when he said “f*** business” he really meant it. Manufacturing Northern Ireland has described his proposals as an “existential threat” and as being “thrown under the bus”. Can he confirm which businesses in Northern Ireland he consulted on his proposals and which of them supported them?
All the Northern Ireland businesses that came to No. 10 recently supported a deal, and it would be invidious to pick any one of them. I will not be given any lessons about consistency from the Liberal Democrats, who called for a referendum, and now say that if there were to be a second referendum they would campaign against the result.
I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. May I also welcome his enthusiasm, because for two and a half years there has been so much negativity in this House that we just cannot get this deal through? For goodness’ sake, let us get the deal done. Does he believe it will then lead on to a good trade deal, so that farming, agriculture and business will not have to pay tariffs to the European Union and we can export across the whole of the world?
Of course. I can tell my hon. Friend that Somerset lamb, cattle and beef—[Interruption.] I should say Devon, as he represents Tiverton. [Interruption.] He does farm in Somerset, so I should say that Somerset and Devon’s beef and lamb will have the opportunity to find export markets that they are prevented from finding by our current arrangements, such as those in the United States and indeed elsewhere. We have a glorious future ahead of us if we just take the first few steps.
The Prime Minister seems to be looking for ways for his proposals to pass, and I agree with my near west London neighbour that all our constituents want to move on from this intractable stalemate. I would allow the final version of his deal through, as would many Opposition Members and many Members on his Benches, some of whom he has kicked out of his own party, possibly even his own brother, if it came subject to a confirmatory referendum, disentangled from all the election gimmickry. That would allow people to have the final say. If this is as fantastic as the Prime Minister says it is, he has nothing to fear.
We now glimpse the possibility of a tolerable deal, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has done to make that possible. But will he just reassure me that he is going to be able to make progress towards that advanced free trade agreement which we have both so long wanted to achieve, despite the surrender Act which Opposition Members have voted for?
It is with no little sense of relief that I listened to my hon. Friend, though he and I have talked a lot in the past few days and I knew that that was broadly his view. This is an opportunity to get this done and do it in a way that not only, I believe, satisfies all the requirements we have set out, above all the peace process in Northern Ireland, but allows the whole of the UK to take back control of our tariffs and our customs, and to do free trade deals around the world, in exactly the way that he has described and campaigned for for so many years.
The Prime Minister is clearly trying his best to placate Members on his own side, but please will he stop the pretence that this is a proposal for anything other than a hard border on the island of Ireland? [Interruption.] Well, it has tariffs, checks and inspections, a customs frontier—these are not compatible with the Good Friday agreement. I really do not know who he thinks he is kidding. This is too important—too much is at stake for him to just brush aside the consequences purely for the party political interests of the Conservative party.
As a former shadow Treasury Minister, the hon. Gentleman should know that there already is a fiscal border in Northern Ireland. Far from adding to checks, as he will understand, and as the House understands, we are making a considerable move forward by saying that we will allow, by consent, regulatory alignment for sanitary and phytosanitary goods, agrifoods and industrial and manufacturing. That is a pragmatic way forward, and we are doing it by democratic consent. It is a method of solving the issue that should commend itself to moderate opinion in all parts of the House.
In the referendum, the right hon. Gentleman held out the prospect of frictionless trade with the European Union. I think he has acknowledged that, whatever else one says about the proposals, they would not result in frictionless trade. For what reasons has it not been possible to deliver what was promised?
There will be frictionless trade at the frontier—there will be no borders and no customs checks at the frontier. Of course, there may be de minimis customs checks, but not at the frontier and with no physical incarnation or physical infrastructure. The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, because as the UK comes out of the EU and we go towards a zero-tariff, zero-quota free trade deal, it will be incumbent on us to use the experience that we are currently going through as we develop our relations with the EU as a whole and as we develop the frictionless systems by which UK-EU trade will continue to operate.
It has been a long and frustrating journey—and sadly one that Labour Front Benchers wish to prolong. I commend the Prime Minister on his efforts to break the Brexit impasse and to seek a compromise with which not only Parliament but the nation can live and work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the more voices here in Parliament, especially from the Opposition Benches, express their approval in the national interest, the more powerful the message sent to those in Brussels will be as they meet for that critical meeting next week?
How will the Prime Minister sell this potentially ruinous proposal to the farmers and shellfish producers in my strongly remain Argyll and Bute constituency who will be able to see, just 12 miles across the water, their Northern Ireland counterparts being allowed free and unfettered access to the single market? If it is good enough for Northern Ireland, why is it not good enough for Scotland? Are my constituents simply expendable?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on his proposals but on his ability to bring together all those of us from all parties who wish to leave the European Union with a deal. Our exchanges today will be observed by our European Union friends, and our ability to negotiate a deal will be subject to the question whether they trust the House to pass the deal that is finally agreed. I commend to my right hon. Friend the idea of holding a vote in the House to test his negotiating strategy and demonstrate to our European Union friends that we are behind it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. As I said to the colleague who made the suggestion earlier, I will reflect on that. I think that it would be more conventional to do the deal first—the withdrawal Act prescribes that we do the deal and then bring it to the House—and I think that is probably what the House would prefer, but I am happy to have discussions on that matter.
From listening to today’s proceedings, it increasingly seems to me that this is an internal debate within the Conservative party, rather than a meaningful attempt at international diplomacy. [Interruption.] I hear the outcry from the Treasury Bench, but the reality is that the Irish Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, said this morning that Ireland “cannot possibly” support the Prime Minister’s proposals and that the UK should come back with something “fit for purpose”. Elaborating on that, he said:
“We cannot support any proposal that suggests that one party or indeed a minority in Northern Ireland could make the decision for the majority in terms of how these proposals would be implemented”.
If this plan is to be workable, how will the Prime Minister respond to that challenge?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I listened carefully to what my friend Simon Coveney had to say. We must get the mechanism of consent right so that all communities—both communities —feel reassured about it. I am happy to discuss that not only with Simon Coveney in Dublin but also with the hon. Gentleman.
In Harlow, we have already seen the NHS Brexit dividend, with a brand new hospital. The people of Harlow will feel that those who vote against this excellent deal really just want to stop Brexit completely. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, once we do the deal and leave the EU, we will gain control of our tax rates and be able to reduce VAT and energy bills for our hard-working constituents?
Now that the Prime Minister has established the principle that different parts of the UK can have different EU status, Scotland must at least be entitled to claim her place in the single market and customs union. When will that proposal be put to the EU?
I think most people in the House understand that the Good Friday agreement imposes particular requirements on the governance of Northern Ireland—it is a unique situation. As for the question the hon. Lady raises, the people of Scotland had a referendum in 2014. They voted very substantially to remain part of the UK and were told it was a once-in-a-generation decision.
I, too, welcome the reasonable compromise proposals that we have heard today. Will the Prime Minister please confirm that when we speak of customs checks, we must be careful not to conflate administrative customs procedures that can take place in a warehouse with physical customs checks at a border and that the latter are not required, not proposed in his proposals and not needed even for the excise checks that currently take place?
If I may say so, my hon. Friend has put his finger on the heart of the question and is entirely right. That is the distinction that it is important for all right hon. and hon. Members to bear in mind as they approach this question. We can solve this problem through exactly the means he describes.
The hon. Lady raises one of the crucial questions that the proposals evoke. It is obviously now a matter for discussion with our friends not only in Dublin but around the EU. We do think there is a way forward, and I am happy to keep the hon. Lady abreast of our way forward as we go there. It must be done, one way or another, by consent.
I do not know whether, given his busy schedule, my right hon. Friend will have had time to read the EU’s latest free trade agreement, which is with Vietnam, but even a cursory glance shows that the entire agreement is based on tariff reductions in exchange for market access. Does that not show, first, that it is fanciful to believe that we could somehow leave the EU but stay in the customs union and get these types of trade deals? Secondly, is it not a reminder that when we leave, the EU will be negotiating its own trade deals and that it will therefore be in both parties’ interests to have a technological way to deal with variations in respective territories’ tariff schedules?
I congratulate my hon. Friend, because he speaks with the voice of technological optimism and understands the details of these questions very well. That is indeed the way forward for this country. A wealth of opportunity will open up if we have the courage to take these steps.
The Prime Minister has denied on multiple occasions during this session that what he is proposing involves physical customs checks, but he has just said in his statement—on page three—in relation to the new protocol and customs checks, that there will be a
“number of cases where physical checks would be necessary”.
Is he denying that he said that? Secondly, he refers to the political declaration, but it is a declaration of aspiration with no legal force. Is it not the case that the free trade agreement to which he refers will take at least three years to negotiate? Nothing will be done by this at all.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there already are some checks for epidemiological purposes between GB and NI. If there are to be new checks down the Irish sea, they will be de minimis. They will not be on the GB side, and they will be done by UK officials. And, no, there will be no new border posts or borders; there will be de minimis checks. Whatever checks there may be will be done by consent and introduced only by consent. There will certainly be no checks on the GB side, because we say that this is entirely dependent on whether the EU wants them.
On the hon. Gentleman’s second point about the political declaration, let me say that that will chart a way forward for the UK-EU relationship, which will be ambitious and positive and allow us to build a new partnership. I hope that he will find that invigorating and that he will support it.
I do have a question on the proposal, Mr Speaker, but may I start by countering, with great respect, some of the claims that have been made by the Opposition? Chief among them is the claim from the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who I thought would have mentioned with some gratitude the growth deal for Argyll and Bute, which was announced earlier this week. On the proposals, if the Opposition were to vote for this deal, the problems that the hon. Gentleman describes would not exist. Perhaps, in the event of a no deal, he could perhaps encourage his colleagues in the Scottish Government to pass on some of the money from the UK Government to local authorities for environmental health inspectors. That would be extremely helpful—[Interruption.] I will get on with the question. My question on the proposal for the Prime Minister is that, when this proposal goes ahead and gets accepted, it replaces the backstop, so come the end of the implementation period, will he confirm that that will be no later than December 2020? When we get to that point, because we will have replaced the backstop, there will be no need for any further extension of one year, two years or any extension whatsoever.
That is entirely right. I thank my hon. Friend for that and congratulate him on everything that he does to promote the interests of Scottish fishing, which is where he shows great leadership and vision. Under our proposals, Scotland would take back control of Scotland’s fishing grounds and be able to turn them to the advantage of the people of Scotland. I am sad to say that the SNP would hand back control of Scottish fishing to Brussels.
I know that the Prime Minister is hopeful about restoring Stormont—we all are right across this House— but it is by no means assured. If he miraculously succeeds to secure a deal, but efforts to restore Stormont fail, will this Government implement direct rule in Northern Ireland to enforce the measures in this proposal?
Thank you very much for the personal compliment, Mr Speaker.
The former Liberal Democrat MEP, Andrew Duff, who is the president of the very influential Spinelli group of European federalists, has responded positively to the Prime Minister’s proposals this morning. He said that they are politically astute and that they represent a potential landing zone for a deal. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is positive and that those of us in this House who want a deal and want to avoid no deal now need to respond positively and to engage with his proposals, rather than dismissing them out of hand without even having read the final text?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I do think that there are many people of all political persuasions who are looking carefully at these proposals now and see them as the way forward. I remember Andrew Duff well, and I am very glad that the proposals are finding favour with him.
The world of work wants a deal to be done, but the problem with the Prime Minister’s proposals is not just to do with Northern Ireland, moving, as they do, our country away from half a century of close economic collaboration with our biggest market in favour of a decade of economic uncertainty. But on Northern Ireland, after 40 years of war, there is peace. A terrible price was paid to achieve that. Nothing should be done that puts that at risk. May I ask the Prime Minister a very specific question? On the movement of goods and his assertion that there will be no physical infrastructure, he makes reference in his letter to a small number of physical checks at traders’ premises, or at other points on the supply chain. Where are they, and what are they?
They will be checks in the way that checks are already made for the purposes of invigilating trade in goods that are subject to excise at business premises or elsewhere, but they would be de minimis checks. On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about the peace process, I agree with him totally. The peace process and peace in Northern Ireland, as the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) has already said, is one of the great achievements of our times. These proposals are designed to build on that peace process and to take it forward.
I warmly welcome these creative and constructive proposals and my right hon. Friend’s repeated offer to meet Opposition Members to discuss them further. We will all have to compromise across the House, and would not all right hon. and hon. Members do well to remember the aphorism that those who insist on absolute victory risk absolute defeat?
There again speaks the voice of Cheltenham, and quite rightly so. I do believe that, perhaps, in this conversation this morning people have not paid enough attention to the move that the UK has already made. This is a very considerable advance that we are making in offering alignment in these areas. It is something on which Members do need to reflect. If done by consent, it offers a very positive way forward, and I think the country will understand what we are trying to do.
The Prime Minister has said that Scotland would take back control of fisheries, so does that imply that he will devolve those powers to the Scottish Parliament? All his interviews at the Conservative party conference suggested that he is intent on a power grab and taking back powers and legislating here for issues that are actually already devolved to Scotland.
May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s approach since he has become Prime Minister to getting this matter moving forward? Indeed, may I thank him for spending well over 500 minutes, getting close to 600 minutes, at the Dispatch Box, answering questions on this issue, and I believe that he has approached it with statesmanship, workmanship and a scientific approach to get things done. Yesterday, when I backed my Prime Minister’s deal, I got some—let us just call it—fruity questions on Twitter about how I could be supporting the deal, having always wanted a deal. Does he agree that this is the way to get a deal? For those who want to leave with a deal, this is compromise and it is moving us forward. Those who were quick to bounce down to the media before even the political analysts had a chance to look at the deal gave the game away that they are not interested in a deal and they are not interested in honouring democracy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that it is quite likely that I will spend many more minutes at this Dispatch Box elucidating these matters, and I am very happy to do so. None the less, he is making the crucial point, which is that, of course, many Members of this House are opposed to no deal and what they see as the damaging consequences of no deal, even though, as I have tried to reassure the House, we can greatly minimise those impacts. If Members are opposed to no deal, they really logically ought to support this deal as the way forward. It is very creative and very constructive. It takes the country forward and delivers on the mandate of the people.
But the Prime Minister must recognise that this deal manages to put two borders on or around the island of Ireland while at the same time significantly undermining the north-east manufacturing and exporting economy, and leaving our NHS and our gorgeous landscape open to the depredations of American big business. Is this not just an attempt to put the blame for this ongoing Brexit shambles anywhere but where it belongs—with the Prime Minister?
I had great pride in visiting North Manchester General Hospital the other day and announcing—[Interruption.] Forgive me, I thought the hon. Lady spoke for Manchester. Well, we are investing in the NHS in Newcastle as well, and that is thanks to the hard work that this Government have done to repair the economic ruin of the Labour party. As for her assertion that we are somehow going to do a free trade deal with America that would expose the NHS, she is completely wrong; it is the purest scaremongering and she should take it back.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm a couple of things for me? First, will he confirm that this is indeed a backstop—a replacement backstop—but that it is not the intention to have it, provided that we can negotiate a full free trade agreement that would obviate the need for these particular arrangements? Secondly, will he confirm that the political declaration is indeed a declaration and does not have the kind of legislative force that the withdrawal agreement would have, so in a forthcoming general election it would be up to politicians of all parties to make the case for something—Norway-plus, Canada-plus or whatever—so that, if they form a Government, they can bring forward their particular version of free trade arrangements?
My hon. Friend should know that this is of course not a backstop, because we will come out of the customs union. The whole of the UK would be out of the customs union. In so far as Northern Ireland would remain temporarily aligned on agrifoods and industrial goods, that is by consent, so there is no backstop. But he is absolutely right to say that these proposals offer the opportunity to do free trade deals around the world, and that is a very exciting prospect indeed.
The Prime Minister has recently admitted that it was wrong to cut our police so much that nine in 10 crimes have been going unpunished, his Government are beginning to admit the massive faults with universal credit and he has admitted the deep damage to the NHS. This unusual honesty is refreshing, so when will he get equally honest about Brexit and admit that these plans would leave our country worse off and less secure, that they risk the very future of the United Kingdom and that as such they should never—and can never—be described as being in our national interest?
I think the hon. Gentleman will find that many of his constituents voted to leave the European Union. Indeed, the population as a whole voted to leave the European Union and their wishes must be respected. This House has voted time after time to honour the promise that we made to the British people. We can do so, and I believe—I am absolutely sure—we can achieve a glorious future by coming out with a deal of the kind that we are outlining today.
Moses could have come down from the mountain with tablets of stone, and there would still have been those on the Opposition Benches who grumbled. But it is clear from today’s exchanges that the grumblers are in the minority. Will the Prime Minister set out in due course some more details of the political declaration that is so important in this case, and his vision for free trade agreements not just with the EU, but across the world?
The Prime Minister is promising to get Brexit done at the end of the month. But the EU is not going to sink to the bottom of the sea, and today’s exchanges—lasting almost two hours—have demonstrated that many, many questions are unanswered and nothing has been resolved. Rather than this being “getting Brexit done”, is not this the “never-ending Brexit”?
If I may, I am going to seize on that because the hon. Lady has it in her hands to help us all to get this thing over the line. This proposal is the basis of a deal; it is not a deal. We have to get it agreed with our EU friends and it will not be easy, but if I am able to return to the House of Commons with a deal like this, I hope—from what she has said today—that she will vote to get this thing done.
As with the Malthouse compromise and the Brady amendment, it is difficult to look at these proposals and not conclude that those on the Government Benches are almost exclusively talking to themselves. But taking the proposals at face value, does the Prime Minister accept that even if they do form the basis—however unlikely—for a deal, there is no way that the arrangements set out in this new protocol can be put in place within 14 months, so the logic of what he is proposing is an extension to the transition period beyond December 2020, with all the financial implications that that entails?
That is an excellent question and a relevant point. I am happy to talk the hon. Gentleman through how we could satisfy all our objectives for the implementation period by the end of 2020 and get to the state we want to be in with our EU friends. He speaks about the need to converse across parties, and I am more than happy to do that with him.
The reality is that, in supporting this hotch-potch of proposals, the absent Democratic Unionist party has stood on its head as regards accepting a regulatory border down the Irish sea, and this can only be because the looming no deal from the Prime Minister would be a disaster for Northern Ireland, which voted to remain. So can I ask the Prime Minister: is it not time that the people of Northern Ireland, as well as the rest of the UK, were given a further vote with a much simpler option on the ballot paper, of remaining in the customs union and the single market? What is the Prime Minister afraid of in opposing this suggestion?
This morning’s negative response from both the business community in Northern Ireland and the majority of the political parties there indicates that the Prime Minister has a great deal of work to do if he is to gain the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for his proposals. Does he not recognise that, if he fails to gain the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, he runs a significant risk of visiting damage on the Good Friday agreement, in both letter and spirit?
I appreciate that point. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of getting consensus in Northern Ireland, but that is why we place so much emphasis in these proposals on consent, and that will be a key part of the discussions.
Following the discussions this morning, it is now no longer at all clear which parts of the political declaration the Government actually support, so it would be helpful for everyone if they could set out which parts still exist. This is important because, for instance, the other day I was listening to the Universities Minister trying to reassure some of our senior researchers that we will stay as close as possible to the European research frameworks—overseen ultimately, of course, by the European Court of Justice. Is that still the Government’s position?
Of course we will have a very close relationship with all European projects—whether on research, science, education, or whatever it might happen to be. I will be very happy in due course to share with the hon. Gentleman and the whole House where we are on the political declaration. The objective of the changes to the political declaration is really to set out the difference in this Government’s approach to the future relationship on trade and the customs union, and to set out our ambitions to do global free trade deals.
Could the Prime Minister outline his thinking on the principle of the Northern Ireland Assembly reviewing and voting on these arrangements every four years? Is it because, if circumstances change, it has a right to change its mind?
That is indeed the case, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, but if he invites me to draw an analogy with the people of Scotland, I remind him that the people of Scotland were repeatedly promised that their referendum was a once-in-a-generation question.
In thanking the Prime Minister and colleagues, I would just say that there are issues of substance and issues of tone. The substance of policy is absolutely not a matter for the Chair, but I would like to say that the tone of yesterday’s very important debate on the Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill, and the tone of the exchanges today, represent a huge improvement on last week. I thank the Prime Minister and colleagues.