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Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 3:21 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 3:21 pm, 9th January 2019

I understand the argument that article 50 can only be a vehicle for a temporary arrangement and not a permanent one. The Attorney General addressed that, and it is obvious to anybody who has read and understood article 50 rightly. However, the point the Attorney General was addressing was the circumstances in which we could bring the backstop to an end once we were in it, as a matter of international law. Whether article 50 permits it or not, or what the Court would do if it were challenged, is an open question.

The Attorney General said that the backstop may be indefinite—he did not say it was indefinite—but he called into question the argument that it will be temporary. I have noticed that the Prime Minister is very careful in the way she puts it: she always says that the backstop is intended to be temporary. I do not think she has ever used any other phrase, presumably because she is bearing in mind what the Attorney General has advised. I am not saying that there does not need to be a backstop or arrangements to protect the Northern Ireland situation, but we cannot simply and casually say that these are matters to which we should not have too much regard. I honestly cannot think of another treaty that the UK has ever entered into that it could not exit in such circumstances. We might say that that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a very unusual thing to be doing.

I want to address the notion that rejecting the deal somehow leads to no deal. I have never accepted that, and it is deeply irresponsible of the Government to pretend that this is a binary choice. No Prime Minister has the right to plunge the country into the chaos of no deal simply because the deal has been rejected, or to run down the negotiations. I believe that that view is shared across the House. There is no majority for no deal. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper, Nicky Morgan and others for the amendment to the Finance Bill that the House passed yesterday. It will not formally prevent no deal, but it will give consequences to a non-endorsed deal.

The amendment is also symbolic, in that it shows that the House will not simply sit by and allow a no-deal exit. I do not think that the Prime Minister would attempt that, because I think she understands that a no-deal exit in March this year is not practically viable. I have been to Dover several times to look at the customs arrangements, and it would be impossible to get from the arrangements as they are today to those that would need to be in place on 29 March in the time available. Whatever anyone else says, it would be impossible to do that. There are plenty of other examples. However, if the Prime Minister attempts a no-deal Brexit, we will fight her tooth and nail every inch of the way.

Every Member of this House has a solemn duty consider the deal before us—not the deal that the Prime Minister pretends to have negotiated or the deal that she promises to change between now and when we go through the Lobby, but the text before us. Labour is clear that the deal is not in the national interest. It does not come anywhere near to meeting our tests, it will make the country poorer and more divided and it will not protect jobs and the economy. I say that with sadness, because I have shadowed three different Brexit Secretaries, and the fact that we now have a deal that is so demonstrably not uniting the country and not able to command the support of this House is a tragic waste of the two years that have been available for negotiations and a miserable end to this part of the process. We will have to vote on the deal next Tuesday. After that, it will be time for this House to decide what happens next.