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[2nd day]

Part of European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:11 pm on 1st February 2017.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Conservative, North East Bedfordshire 2:11 pm, 1st February 2017

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to speak in a debate that I never wanted to happen, ahead of a vote that I never wanted to cast. This summer, I will have been an MP for 30 years, in which I have supported the pro-European cause with a passion. I do not think I need to elaborate.

I believed that the referendum that forms the basis of the Bill had become an inevitability, and I supported David Cameron’s call. I may have been wrong, and I envy the steadfastness of my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke, and his consequent vote on the Bill. I am in a different place; I voted for the referendum Bill believing that the result of the referendum would count. On the public platforms on which I argued to remain, I made the bargain with the good people of North East Bedfordshire that we would honour the result of the referendum; if we voted to remain, that would be that, and if we voted to leave, I would support the decision if I was required as an MP to vote on the matter. We have, and I will.

I am not giving up fighting. I want the very best for my constituents out of the new arrangements. That is why I stood to be a member of the Exiting the European Union Committee, and it is why I will work with others in Parliament and beyond to assist the Government who have been landed with this in making the best of it. The Bill does not provide much opportunity for the addition of detail governing future negotiation. The Government need a pretty open hand, although one or two amendments might help them to retain parliamentary support.

I will fight for a negotiated settlement, watching carefully for any sign that “no deal” is moving up the agenda. I want the Government to be as open as possible to as many options as possible. The degree of detail to be covered is staggering, both for us and for our partners, and new consequences are being uncovered every day. This is way more complicated than some of our colleagues ever wanted to believe, and not all the consequences will be beneficial.

There is one fight that I want to see an end of, and on which I am calling time. I do not believe there is any realistic prospect of the UK remaining in or rejoining the EU, certainly not in my lifetime in the House. I think it is time for me to place my support for the EU and Europe on a different footing—one that recognises the reality of what we have done. I will work for the future prosperity of the EU, for our partnership relationship with it and for all the things we must continue to do together from that new position. I will defend the EU against those who still wish it further harm—from those misguided enough to believe that the further disintegration of the EU is of some benefit—whether that is those in some quarters in the UK with a viewpoint of malevolence, those with a viewpoint of ignorance in the United States.

I have decided that I will not, at present, fight for the UK somehow to find a quick way back to the EU. Let me be clear: I believe sincerely that the decision of those who voted out was wrong, as was the view of those who led them. I am reconciled to Brexit, but I am not yet persuaded of the wisdom of the decision. However, spending the next few years trying to reverse 48:52 and make it 52:48 does not seem to me to be in the UK’s interest. I do not want an already divided country to become more so. Honest patriotism has merged seamlessly into jingoistic nationalism, and the national debate has become sad and dispiriting. As a confirmed remainer and supporter of the EU, I do not want the next generation of Conservative MPs to have the blight of this argument dogging them, their associations, their members and their voters in the way it has dogged us. It has soured friendships, deepened bitterness and damaged relationships—I swore at a mate in the Tea Room, and I am sorry.

Instead, I want to work towards a new partnership with the EU that will start to command ever-increasing support. We should aim higher than a minimum of support and look towards the vast majority of those in the UK supporting such a partnership. It is possible to be pro-European and not define oneself solely in terms of membership of the EU. It is time to be proud to be British without hating the EU. I hope it will help if some of us who lost take the opportunity to create something better out of what has happened. Although I will vote for the Bill with a heavy heart, that is the relationship I am looking for.