Review of powers in consequence of EU withdrawal

Part of Finance (No. 3) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 8th January 2019.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 5:45 pm, 8th January 2019

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I rise to support amendment 7, to which I am a signatory.

My right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames, who is sitting next to me, and I have calculated that we have been in the House, collectively, for 56 years, and we have only ever, either of us, voted once against the Conservative Whip. This will be the second time that we will both be voting against the Conservative Whip, and I want to explain why. First, I want to say one thing about what this amendment is not. Yvette Cooper and my right hon. Friend Nicky Morgan gave eloquent expositions, but what they did not mention is that, in contrast to some things that have been suggested, it has no impact whatsoever on the Government’s ability to prepare for Brexit—it is about what the Government do after Brexit.

Secondly, clause 89 is an item that those of us who have been Ministers for a number of years will recognise as an “abundance of caution” clause. Some group of lawyers somewhere stuck in the bureaucracy clearly alerted Ministers to the possibility that they did not have certain unspecified powers and said it would be a good idea to have some unspecified powers in case the lack of unspecified powers turned out to be important. I do not think therefore that this amendment, in itself, will be likely to have a huge impact, if any, on the Government of this country.

That brings me to the question of why I am supporting this amendment. The answer is that it is most extraordinarily important to make it clear to the Government that it is not just this amendment. It is the precedent that this amendment sets, which is that on any power taken in any Bill in relation to the exit of the UK from the EU, if there is a majority in the House today and there continues to be majority against no deal, it will be possible to bring forward similar amendments. It is my proposal that we should indeed do that. I want to make it abundantly clear to those of my hon. Friends who are thinking of voting against the Prime Minister’s deal, which I shall be supporting, that the majority in this House, if it is expressed tonight, will sustain itself, and we will not allow a no-deal exit to occur at the end of March.

My last point is on why I am so passionate about not allowing such an exit. Many Members, including the Father of the House, have spoken eloquently about the long-term dangers to our economy of WTO trading and so on. My right hon. Friend John Redwood, for example, very much disagrees with that. I do not take a particular view about that. My preference is for a continued free trade deal with the EU, which is by far our largest trading partner, but in contrast to some, I do not want to argue that there would be a disaster in principle if we were on WTO terms. I do not believe it would be disastrous. I think it is suboptimal but not disastrous.

For five long years, I was in charge of the resilience of this country. During that period, I saw many examples of our civil service, military and security apparatus being prepared or not being prepared for certain issues that closely affected the wellbeing of our country. That is one reason why two years ago I passionately argued—my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham will recall an occasion a year ago when I made that argument even more forcefully—that the Government should undertake serious preparation for a no-deal exit. That would have had the effect that some of my hon. Friends mentioned. It would have altered our negotiating position. It was not done.

I have been in awesome detail through the papers produced. I have listened to the briefing for Privy Counsellors. I have consulted senior officials across Whitehall. I know what the RAG ratings of red, yellow and green mean—nothing. I know what it is actually to have prepared for dealing with the gas interconnectors, the electricity interconnectors and the many other details concerned.

Some of my hon. Friends and others in the country believe they can assure that under circumstances where we wreck the deal, refuse to make all the payments that the EU is expecting and falsify its expectations of a reasonable departure, the EU will then reasonably set out to work with us in a calm and grown-up way to ensure a smooth departure. It may be so. I am in no position to deny that it will be. I do not make lurid projections. Anybody who believes that they know it will be so is deluded.

I do not believe that we in this House can responsibly impose on our country a risk that may be severe of serious short-term disruption, for the sole purpose of gratifying the possibility that we avoid certain eventualities that certain Members of Parliament would prefer to see avoided and on which nobody in this country ever voted because they were never asked to. Under those circumstances, I will be voting with the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford against my own Government and very much against my own will, and I will continue to do so right up to the end of March, in the hope that we can put paid to this disastrous proposal.