[2nd Allotted Day]

Part of Immigration (Time Limit on Detention) – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of John Lamont John Lamont Conservative, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk 7:00 pm, 5th December 2018

It is an honour to follow Wayne David.

Since the EU referendum result in 2016, we have all been grappling with the result and what it means for our constituents and our country, and with how we should best respond in the interests of our country. I believe the public, rightly, are tired of Brexit. For many, it has become an issue that is far too abstract, legalistic and confusing. Frankly, they want us to get on with it, but our constituents are relying on us to get it right. This debate and vote may be one of the most important that right hon. and hon. Members in this place will have to make a decision on. Probably it is one of the most important votes, if not the most important vote, that we will cast in our parliamentary careers.

Almost everyone I have spoken to, whether or not they support this deal, has a huge amount of respect for the Prime Minister and admiration for the job that she is doing. Negotiating a Brexit deal with the European Union was an almost impossible job. I have never doubted the Prime Minister’s desire to achieve the best for our country, and she has poured her heart and soul into every aspect of these negotiations. My admiration for our Prime Minister is making this decision for me all the more difficult. It goes without saying that I am loyal to this Government and to this Prime Minister. Our country is undoubtedly better served by this Government than by any alternative. After 10 years in the Scottish Parliament and 18 months here, I understand the significance of even contemplating voting against my Government and colleagues. However, my job here is also to consider the national interests and those of my constituents. That is why I am listening carefully to contributions from all parts of the House during the course of this debate, and particularly those of Ministers in reaction to some of the concerns that colleagues, especially those on the Conservative Benches, have raised.

Part of my decision-making process has been considering what happens if Parliament rejects this agreement. We have been told it is this deal, no deal or Brexit could be stopped. The default position for this process is clear: we leave the EU at 11 pm on 29 March next year with no deal. That is due to both the EU treaty and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act which, when it was passed earlier this year, was amended to include the date and time of exit. In my view, it is regrettable that there has not been greater clarity from the Government about what will happen in the event, as seems increasingly likely, that this place does not give its support to the withdrawal agreement. We are being asked to support this agreement without any proper understanding of the alternatives. We are in effect balancing risks as part of our decision-making process—the risks associated with this agreement as opposed to the risks of the unknown.

Turning to the withdrawal agreement itself, the fishing industry along the Berwickshire coast in my constituency has been decimated in recent years. I know that many of my local fishermen and women are looking forward to a life outside the common fisheries policy. While I have been reassured by the words from the Prime Minister, I am less comforted by the views expressed by other European leaders, notwithstanding the fact that fishing could still be sacrificed as part of the trade deal negotiations. I am happy to accept the words of our Prime Minister and her commitment to Scotland’s fisheries, but my fear is that the precise arrangements will be decided at some point in the future. No Government can bind their successors, so no promise now will necessarily have any effect in the future.

As a Unionist, I also have serious concerns about the provisions for Northern Ireland, given that there will be at least a risk of Northern Ireland being treated substantially differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. That would certainly be contrary to the articles of Union, as I understand them. The main nationalist parties in Northern Ireland have signed up to the agreement. However, both the Ulster Unionist party and the Democratic Unionist party have said that they are completely opposed to it. That causes me a serious problem. Given the troubled history in Ireland, any constitutional change needs to have the support of both communities in Northern Ireland. Some say that the Unionists in Northern Ireland need to take a pragmatic approach and that they need to compromise. I would suggest that that fundamentally misunderstands Unionism in Northern Ireland. I have every sympathy with those in this place who represent Unionism in Northern Ireland, who have expressed concerns about the potential impact of the agreement on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

My fundamental concern is that so much of the EU withdrawal agreement is an agreement to agree something further down the line. The can is being kicked further down the road. As someone who studied law at Glasgow University and trained and worked at Freshfields along the road from here, one of my lasting memories from law school and from those teaching me how to draft legal documents is the danger of drafting something that could be construed as an agreement to agree. Why is that a problem? My hon. Friend Mr Gyimah touched on some of the political aspects, but the consequence is that agreements to agree lack sufficient certainty to constitute a legally enforceable commitment.

There have been many reassuring words about the high standard imposed by the “best endeavours” commitment in the withdrawal agreement, but the reality is that it is meaningless if the obligation itself lacks certainty. The withdrawal agreement was supposed to be a bridge to a permanent relationship with the EU, but the danger is that it will become the norm. We are putting off so many of the outstanding decisions for a later date.

I have wrestled with this for many hours and have lost much sleep over the past few weeks. I have spoken to many businesses and residents in my constituency. I am here to represent their views as their Member of Parliament. I am trying to reconcile my deep misgivings about the agreement with my loyalty to the Prime Minister and the Government. It is not easy. In fact, it is proving to be probably the hardest decision of my political life. I have until Tuesday to decide what I am going to do, and I am going to carefully judge what—[Interruption.] Perhaps SNP Members could show me some respect rather than mocking my decision-making process—I am wrestling with a very difficult decision on behalf of my constituents and my country.