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[2nd day]

Part of European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:18 pm on 1st February 2017.

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Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Conservative, Chippenham 4:18 pm, 1st February 2017

I voted remain in the referendum, not for any nostalgic or ideological love of Europe, but more in the pragmatic belief that it was not the right time for us to leave. However, the point that has sometimes been overlooked in the debate in this Chamber is that this vote on article 50 is different for one reason: it is not our decision. We have a duty as democrats, and a fundamental duty as Members of Parliament, to enact the result of the referendum.

I have not changed my mind, but it is important to remember that the Conservative manifesto—the one on which we Conservative Members were elected—pledged to hold the referendum. I was proud to vote in Parliament to hold the referendum, and I promised my voters that I would honour the result. It was made abundantly clear during the referendum campaign that it would be final, no ifs and buts, and when I make a promise to my voters, I intend to keep it—no ifs, no buts.

To me, this debate is less about triggering article 50, and more about democracy. The mere suggestion that we could consider riding roughshod over democracy, destroying what is left of the British public’s faith in politicians is, quite frankly, absurd. Yes, we can all think of loopholes and justifications to rationalise voting against the referendum result, but we are surely in a sad state if it comes to that. And is it not patronising to claim that people did not really understand what they were voting for?

It is important that we do not distort the meaning of this debate. The vote should not be turned into a pro-immigration or anti-immigration vote. It is simply recognition of how the public voted, in part through a desire to take back control. There has been a lot of talk in this debate about immigration and the end of free movement. Members have spoken about the cultural and economic benefits of immigration, and I echo that message wholeheartedly. However, I seriously question whether that can only be achieved by European immigration. It disadvantages those from the Commonwealth and the wider world, who should have exactly the same rights and opportunities as those living in Europe. Europe has bound our hands and given us no chance to link our immigration to skills. It deeply saddens me that some Members have distorted this debate.

Let us be clear and not misguide the public today. This vote is about starting the process. Yes, we could spend several weeks speculating about what we might be able to negotiate, and what we can and cannot change, but we have a duty today. Our economy and businesses need certainty. The last thing they need is another referendum, or more speculation. Now is the time to get on with the job, be positive, work together and get the best deal for Britain. We have a duty to honour the result and a promise to keep. We need to show the British public that we can listen, can be in touch, and are the Parliament for the people, not a Parliament superior to the people.