[5th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 5:04 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham East 5:04 pm, 9th January 2019

It is nearly two months since the 585 pages of the withdrawal agreement were published, and it is already gathering a little bit of dust. As we have already heard, despite deferring the vote and pretending otherwise over Christmas, and ringing up Mr Barnier or Mr Juncker on Christmas eve or new year’s eve saying “Please can we have a negotiation?”, the Prime Minister has found that, in that famous phrase, nothing has changed. So here we are yet again facing a Government who are determined to prevaricate and kick the can further down the road.

Earlier today, having seen the Government defer this issue previously, Members realised that once the Prime Minister’s plan was defeated there would potentially be 21 days, and then perhaps another seven days, before the Commons would be allowed to determine what happens next. We had the ridiculous spectacle of the Government objecting to that and saying, “No, Members must not be allowed to vote on moving things forward.” That prevarication is extremely dangerous. It is dangerous to put political calculations above the country’s best interests when we could crash out with no deal on 29 March.

I am glad, Mr Speaker, that you withstood the attempts by a loud and vociferous minority in this place to thwart Members and prevent them from having a say. You have in the past made decisions and rulings with which I have disagreed, but on this occasion allowing parliamentarians to express their views was the right thing to do. Indeed, that proved to be the case, because a majority of MPs said, “No, we don’t wish to wait 21 or 28 days, till the middle of February; we want to get on with things.” The time has now come to decide. The House has instructed Ministers, if the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected on Tuesday, to come forward with a motion three sitting days later, which would be Monday 21 January. We could then make some decisions.

By the way, I do not address my remarks on prevarication only to Ministers. I gently say to those on the Labour Front Bench that they, too, should stop prevaricating on the question of Brexit. The time has come for the Labour party to make some decisions and stop this notion of constructive ambiguity. I know that this complex sequenceology has been constructed to try to avoid having to confront these issues, but the politics should come second to the national interest. We cannot afford to gamble at this stage, given how close we are to 29 March.

The withdrawal agreement is wrong for the country, as is the political declaration that accompanies it. The withdrawal agreement ignores 80% of our economy, the service sector. It might not necessarily provide good pictures for the television cameras, unlike queuing ferries at Dover and so forth, but the service sector is very much where the UK excels, whether in legal, professional, media, creative or financial services. Not only do many of our constituents work in those services, but they provide the engine for the revenues needed for our public services—for our NHS, schools, local authorities and social care. If we ignore the risk of diminished prospects for those sectors in our economy, we will be facilitating a further decade of austerity to come. That is why I say to all Members, across all parties, that we cannot just kick the can down the road and pretend that this will not matter.

The problem with the withdrawal agreement is that it is full of warm promises about what might be agreed, but it does not actually agree many, many things. It contains no agreement on data or energy policy. It says that we will establish a process on transport policy, and that we will talk about the Erasmus programme to allow students to study throughout Europe. It does not resolve the security situation or the question of Euratom. It fudges the question of the Northern Ireland border still further. The withdrawal agreement does not actually settle many of these things.

What is worse is that the political declaration is non-binding on the parties involved, which means that it amounts to little more than warm words. The Government got themselves into this ridiculous situation by embarking on the article 50 process without a commitment that, by the end of it, we would have not just the divorce arrangement settled, but, in particular, a settled plan for an EU-UK trade deal. That should have been part of the negotiation framework.

For us now to be asked to leave on 29 March without having settled our future relationship with Europe is highly irresponsible. Ministers may say, “Well, we intend to do it this way”. European officials may also say that they intend to do it that way, but, of course, they are here today and gone tomorrow, and commitments that are made by those particular individuals will not necessarily bind us on what happens to the UK. Therefore, we will not have the EU-UK arrangement settled down by the time that we are asked to leave, and anything could happen in that process.

There are many difficulties with that, because of course if we do not have the EU-UK trade deal buttoned down, our prospects of doing deals with the rest of the world will have to wait. Other countries, such as Japan, Singapore, Canada, America and others, will say, “We may be interested in doing a trade deal with you, but we would like to see what your relationship is with the EU first. Will you be allowed to reduce tariffs or not?” That arrangement could take two, three, four or five years—an ever unknown amount of time. The Canada trade deal with the EU took seven years.

The idea that the poor old Secretary of State for International Trade is raring to go with all these new deals across the world is, of course, fantasy. That is the delusion of Brexit that so many people are operating under, but the real world is beginning to bite. Businesses know it, and increasingly our constituents see it, and they want the right to determine their own future.

The withdrawal agreement and this settlement would end the free movement of people across Europe. I regard that as a great tragedy. It is a shame that we have not stood up and spoken out for the benefits of free movement. We should remember that free movement is reciprocal, so just as we restrict European movement into the UK, we will potentially be sacrificing UK citizens’ right of movement to the rest of Europe. Let us think of the future generations, their work opportunities, their study opportunities, the freedom we enjoy, the 2 million British people who already reside across the rest of Europe, and the uncertainties that this will create—and for what? What is this great harm? It is a ridiculous proposition, and that alone would be a reason to reject the withdrawal agreement.

There is also the notion that the agreement will allow us to control taxpayers’ money, but we know that we will lose a great deal of money because of the effect on the economy. Members do not need to take my word for that; the Treasury, the Government and the Prime Minister herself have articulated how we will be worse off by going down this pathway. We will be controlling a diminished amount of money. We will be paying out £39 billion, and possibly even more during the transition arrangement, in exchange for what? There is no commitment on a trade with the EU deal going forward, which I regard as a fundamental failure.

The Prime Minister has made a number of strategic errors all the way along this process, such as setting down red lines and interpreting the outcome of the referendum in her own way—for instance, on whether it was to do with the single market or the customs union, when, of course, none of that was on the ballot paper. She has also failed to take the temperature of Parliament. She did not exactly read the runes of the House of Commons from the beginning, and now she faces this situation. Under this arrangement the UK could be left in limbo in this situation for the next four years, and we would not even have a seat around the table to shape the rules to which we would be subject—it is a nonsense. Britain has had a fantastic ability to shape the rule-making arrangements of an entire continent—the whole European Union—for many years, and many of the rules and regulations that we have chosen to adopt have been generated by the United Kingdom. Some of the best ideas that we have had have shaped EU policies, and it is a great shame that we will be moving away from that.

Whether it is because of the failures of the withdrawal agreement or the wishlist presented in the form of the political declaration, which is an almost meaningless document, this House has to reject the Prime Minister’s proposal when it comes to the vote next Tuesday. The House must quickly realise that we have to extend article 50 at the very least, if not suspend or revoke the article 50 process, while we put this question back to the British public so that they can decide, in the full knowledge of the facts and the economic and social impact.

A people’s vote is a solution whose time has come, and increasing numbers of Members on both sides of this House are realising that it is the way ahead. I strongly hope that the Labour Front Benchers will also realise that the people’s vote has the support and is the preference of the vast majority not just of Labour party members, but of Labour supporters and voters. Now is the time to decide. We cannot afford to prevaricate any longer.