1st Allotted Day

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 12:39 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 12:39 pm, 4th December 2018

May I begin, Mr Speaker, by congratulating you on your stamina staying in the Chair for more than 12 hours now? I welcome Stephen Barclay in what I think is his first outing in his new role as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. I notice that there is a rapidly diminishing tenure for those in the post—the first Brexit Secretary lasted 24 months and the second five months—so I hope that the new occupant of the post can at least make it through to oral questions on Thursday.

It is a privilege to give the winding-up speech for the first of five days of debate on the Government’s withdrawal agreement, and to do so on a day on which Parliament has asserted its sovereignty so dramatically. Today’s debate has confirmed that the Government have forged a remarkable consensus on one thing at least: opposition to their deal, which fails not only Parliament but the British people.

Labour campaigned to remain in the European Union because we believed it to be in the economic and political interests of our country and of the continent that we share and will continue to share, and for all the reasons that were set out so powerfully by my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn. But we accepted that we lost the referendum, which is why we voted to trigger article 50, setting the clock ticking. The past two years, though, have been squandered, as negotiations with the EU27 have taken second place to those between the warring factions in the Conservative party—and the country is paying the price.

It did not have to be like this. Sir Graham Brady made the point that the Prime Minister has worked hard over the past two years and won respect from many in the country. That is a fair point, but working hard is not enough. The problems that she faces now are the result of the decisions that she has taken. At the outset of this process, we urged the Prime Minister to reach out to the majority in Parliament who would have supported a sensible Brexit, by acknowledging and saying that the people had voted to leave the European Union, but by the closest of margins. I was bewildered to hear her question the legitimacy of the 1975 referendum because one third of people voted against remaining in the EEC, while she is seeking to deliver this damaging Brexit on a result that split the country down the middle.

The 2016 referendum gave a mandate to end our membership of the European Union, but not to rupture the relationship with our closest neighbours, our main trading partner and our key allies. If she had said two years ago that she would seek a deal that reflected that position, and that was right for people’s jobs and their livelihoods—in a customs union, close to the single market, and in the agencies and partnerships that we have built together over 45 years—she could have secured a majority in Parliament, and she could have united the country that was so deeply divided by the referendum. And the Northern Ireland border would not have been an issue.

Our amendment sets out the position that the Prime Minister should have taken. Instead, she let the demands of the management of Conservative party shape her agenda. She set her red lines and she boxed herself in, and the result is this doomed deal that pleases nobody, as Mr Paterson demonstrated so powerfully. The deal fails the six tests that Labour set for it at the outset. I remind Government Members that those tests were based on the Government’s own goals. They were tests that the Prime Minister looked at and said were reasonable, and that she was “determined to meet.”

One thing has changed since the deal was struck, and that is the Government’s narrative. A little honesty is finally breaking out. Those who spent the past two years endlessly repeating the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal are now arguing that this bad deal should be accepted, because the alternative is no deal, which they rightly say would be a catastrophe. We, as an Opposition, will work with the overwhelming sensible majority in this House to prevent that happening. We welcome the amendment passed by this House and moved by Mr Grieve, which provides a framework for ensuring that.

Even more significantly, the Government’s narrative has changed because claims that the country will be more prosperous as a result of Brexit have been abandoned, and rightly so, not least because this deal fails to provide the frictionless trade that we were promised. The Government have confirmed that we will be economically worse off to varying degrees under every Brexit option, and it was a point made by my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett in another very powerful contribution. Instead, the Government argue that this deal should be accepted on the basis that failing to deliver on the 2016 referendum would have serious social and political consequences, and it is a serious point that should not be lightly dismissed, but they should recognise that there will more serious consequences if Parliament votes for a damaging Brexit on a false prospectus. The public will not forgive politicians who do that. This deal fails not just the 48%, but the 52%, too.

As they have discarded the idea of a brighter economic future, the Government say that the deal deserves support because it delivers on the other pledges, particularly to take back control of our borders. Indeed, that is top of the Government’s “40 reasons to back the Brexit deal” on their website. But the expectations unleashed by the rhetoric of “taking back control” are a long way from the reality. The Government have had complete control of non-EU migration for the past eight years and, in every one of those years, net migration from outside the EU was higher than from within it. As last week’s figures from the Office for National Statistics show, falling immigration from the EU, because people no longer wish to come, has simply been replaced by non-EU immigration hitting a 14-year high. On the central issue, the Home Secretary said this week that we are unlikely to see the Government’s plans before next Tuesday’s vote. The long-promised White Paper has been delayed beyond then and it is a disgrace.

On other issues, the Brexit blindfold is tightening, too. Let us take fishing where the rhetoric of being an independent coastal state is not matched by the reality of the new deals that will need to be struck to ensure that we continue to have access to the European markets that buy 80% of the UK’s catch—another issue kicked down the road. However, the political declaration kicks so much down the road. It offers no certainty and it opens the door to a hard and damaging Brexit. A document that we were promised would be “detailed, precise and substantive” setting out clearly our future relationship with the EU is nothing of the sort. After two wasted years, we have no clear picture of our future relationship, as Anna Soubry pointed out. This is a blindfold Brexit. The Government are asking Parliament to take the country over a cliff with no clarity on the safety net, and we will not do it.