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[2nd day]

Part of European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 1st February 2017.

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Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester 4:09 pm, 1st February 2017

I intend to vote in favour of activating article 50 tonight out of respect for the result of the referendum, despite its flaws and despite the deceit of the leave campaign, but I will write no blank cheques to anyone, least of all this simultaneously incompetent and ideological Government. I reject the assertion that the result of the referendum is the will of the people. It is not; it is the will of a slim majority. The use of that sinister phrase “the will of the people” to airbrush out of existence the 48% who voted remain is deeply troubling.

All Labour Members recognise the growing individual and geographical inequality in our country, the growing pressure on public services, the growing competition for low-paid jobs and the fear of cultural change from rapid social and economic transformation, but I certainly do not understand how a hard Brexit and the Government’s vision of a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore Britain is the answer to any of those legitimate concerns. That will destroy jobs, employers and our public finances, and make it more difficult to address the social and economic challenges that we now recognise.

We need a vision of a Britain that is closely integrated with our European partners and the European market, to which we are most close. Our manufacturers, our service sectors, our creative industries and our universities are hugely dependent on those markets and on European skills. If we walk away from Europe out of petty malice, we will cut off our nose to spite our face, and we will destroy livelihoods, opportunities and hopes throughout the land.

That vision is the antithesis of what those who are driving forward the Government’s agenda want. They threaten to create a low-tax, low-public-service haven on the coast of Europe if we do not get a trade deal with the EU, but that is precisely the kind of UK that they want, free from what they see as the constraints of employment rights and environmental protection. They want a UK with low corporation tax, low income tax for the rich, no protection for people at work and minimal public services. The Government have taken the understandable concern about immigration and the justifiable anger about bad employers using cheap imported labour to drive down nationally agreed pay rates, and have used those concerns to drive through their own vision, which, ironically and tragically, would end up hurting most the people who are most concerned about the current arrangements.

The Government are so desperate for a trade deal with the United States that we go cap in hand to the racist President Trump, because we need his good favour to get such a deal. At the same time, we are alienating all the other countries with which, until recently, we shared the values of decency, tolerance and respect.

Tonight I will respect the result of the referendum, but after that, all bets are off. I will not allow good people who voted to leave for understandable reasons to be hoodwinked by the hard right of the Conservative party, and I will not allow our wonderful, beautiful, decent and tolerant country to be abandoned to a vision of ultra-hard Brexit, shorn of the standards we have all come to enjoy and, perhaps, take for granted.