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[Day 2]

Part of Burma – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 15th March 2018.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 1:33 pm, 15th March 2018

As we mark the halfway point of this general debate, it is worth reflecting on the fact that we have had a number of thoughtful contributions from Members on both sides of the House. Although I welcome any opportunity for Parliament to debate and, I hope, shape Brexit, no one is under any illusions about the fact that over these two days we are doing anything more than filling time to cover the Government’s legislative paralysis. It is just over a year until we leave the European Union. We have a mammoth legislative task ahead of us, but the Government are holding back the Customs Bill and the trade Bill because they are, understandably, afraid of defeat. They have yet to present Bills on migration, fisheries and agriculture; perhaps they are worried about some of the hard truths in those areas.

The Prime Minister was right to say at Mansion House that we need to face hard truths, on the basis of evidence. Not only do I agree with the Prime Minister, but I agree with her former deputy, Damian Green, who said:

“If analysis is being produced then publish it. And frankly there will be a big political debate about it. Let’s have this argument in public—that’s what democracies do.”

The country faces critical decisions that will define how we live and our place in the world for generations to come. Honesty, openness and hard truths are the very least that people deserve.

That is why the Opposition pressed for the publication of impact assessments and the Treasury analyses of the future of the economy under the different available scenarios. Those analyses, which have now been published, make sobering reading. Ministers have said on several occasions—I think this was repeated yesterday—that the three options that the Treasury modelled do not reflect their desired outcome. But the Minister for Trade Policy, Greg Hands, yesterday told the House that the Government were seeking an ambitious free trade agreement with the EU. I think that that was repeated this morning. The central model in the Treasury analysis was exactly such an agreement—it was described as the best possible free trade agreement—so it has been modelled. What did that model tell us? Over 15 years, such a free trade agreement with the EU would result in a 5% hit to the economy. That would mean 5% fewer jobs and 5% less money for public services. To paraphrase Anna Soubry, this must be the first Government in history who are setting as their ambition reducing the size of the UK economy.

At Mansion House, the Prime Minister was honest about the fact that her plans would result in downgraded access to EU markets. What she did not make clear, and what her Cabinet has resisted making public, is just how damaging that version of Brexit would be to the economy. Initially—this feels like some time ago—we heard Ministers talk enthusiastically about their plans for an ambitious free trade agreement with the United States, which would compensate for the damage to our trade with the EU. But according to the Government’s own analysis, even if they achieved that deal, it would boost GDP by just 0.2%. Let us be clear that that would be in return for dismantling our food health and safety standards, among other US demands. We could end up with nothing but a hard border in Ireland if we diverged from EU agricultural standards, and a US deal would require us to do so. If the ongoing negotiations on open skies are anything to go by, the special relationship will not count for much in the cold, hard light of trade negotiations.

It is fascinating to watch how even the more extreme Brexiteers suddenly decide, as the hard truth of the difficulties involved in a US trade deal dawn on them, that the US is not that important after all. On 4 March, we witnessed the spectacle of Dominic Raab—he was speaking as a Government Minister on Radio 5 Live—dismissing the importance of a US deal and saying that

“the real opportunities of the future will be with…emerging markets”.

US trade deals, the Northern Ireland peace agreement and Treasury economic analyses have all been casually brushed aside by those who long for the deepest rupture with the EU. But Labour will not do that.