[5th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Julian Knight Julian Knight Conservative, Solihull 6:43 pm, 9th January 2019

It is a great pleasure to follow Mr McFadden, who is as erudite as ever.

Like many colleagues—perhaps I am being a little glib here to a certain extent—I did not actually come into politics to bang on about Europe. I am a social liberal and economically of the right—dry as a bone, in many respects. I wanted my political life to be, effectively, advancing that twin track of social liberalism and economic free marketarianism. However, we are where we are.

Before I was first elected in 2015, I knocked on about 30,000 doors during the two and a half years of the campaign, and I have to say that in most instances I found that Europe was probably about No. 10 on the list of issues raised on the doorstep. Much higher on the list was immigration and its conflation with Europe, which the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East spoke about. During the referendum campaign I visited Solihull College, and I was struck by the fact that many of the young students talked about wages and the lack of housing, and they equated that with EU migration in effect. That is one of the key reasons why so many people—a uniquely high number—in the council estates in the north of Solihull came out to vote.

Serving as an elected representative comes with acute responsibilities. I fundamentally believe that we have a duty to honour the clear commitments made by this House before the vote and after it and to deliver Britain’s departure from the European Union. I am especially wary of any effort to put the question to a second referendum. Not only would there be serious practical difficulties in any such effort—not least deciding on the question and simply completing the legislative work needed even to hold one—but it would pose a real problem for our democracy. There is no avoiding the fact that it would stand in a dishonourable tradition of Brussels taking questions back to the voters until it gets the answers it wants, nor that the Government and both the major parties have been quite clear that they would deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum. It may be tempting at this moment in the spotlight to clasp tight the political comfort blanket of a second referendum, but it is a fool’s path for this democracy and this country. It sends us further down the rabbit hole.

We should remember that the EU has evolved since we voted leave. Alex Sobel mentioned the need for change from within, and I argued about that at the time of the referendum. In Britain’s absence, the push towards a full federalist agenda has accelerated and is very notable. That may well be a good thing for the EU in the long run, but it highlights that we want increasingly different things. We have held it together over many years, but those fissures are now widening. Even if we were to somehow get back into the EU by a second referendum or at a later stage, the proposition would be very different from today. Backtracking on the referendum would not sell the British people on the euro or the rest of the federal project, and the tensions that led to the referendum would not only continue but deepen further in the years ahead.

As for the withdrawal agreement, I share the view of the Attorney General that while it might not be perfect, it is temporary. I am deeply concerned by the backstop, both because of its implications for our practical sovereignty and because of its special treatment of Northern Ireland. However, on reflection, I believe that it is sufficiently uncomfortable for the EU that the EU will not wish to trap us in it indefinitely, and article 50 cannot be taken as a basis for a lasting future relationship.

I also need to think about what is best for my constituency. Solihull is a proud exporting town with a real global footprint, home to not only great British brands such as Jaguar Land Rover but numerous manufacturers and service providers that rely on frictionless access to European markets. As the MP for a town that enjoys a visible goods trade surplus with the EU, it is my responsibility to support a Brexit that meets the needs of Solihull’s employers and exporters. This deal, while not perfect, does at least smooth our departure and avoid severe economic disruption in March.

Some Members are convinced by the warnings of so-called “Project Fear”, and it is true that some of the wilder predictions about the consequences of a leave vote have proven far too pessimistic over the last couple of years. However, it would be rash to simply disregard the expertise of the likes of the Bank of England. Those models have a logical basis, and as someone who has been involved in economics and economic theory in the past, I think it is foolhardy to go on this adventure on a wing and a prayer without understanding or at least taking account of the experts whom we fund to supply us with this information. Even if those models are not a certain outcome, they are a real risk to jobs and businesses across the country owing to the inevitable economic dislocation that may last only a few weeks or months but could last years.

I aspire to a future relationship based on a free trade deal with the EU and an ambitious drive to grow our links with the rising economies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, but if we have to take a little longer to get there in order to protect the livelihoods of my constituents, I am prepared to do that. Of course, Labour Members insist that such compromise is unnecessary, and that if only they were in power, they would deliver a deal that avoided all the difficult trade-offs that feature in real negotiations. Their so-called six tests are a mere wish list. It is extremely reckless for self-styled moderates to risk Britain crashing out of the EU by voting against a deal on the orders of leaders who see only an opportunity for political gain in the chaos that that would unleash.

Keir Starmer made a notable and wide-ranging speech earlier. It was incredibly thoughtful, and a prime example of the lawyer’s art. It was also a history lesson, and he danced on the head of a pin. Unfortunately, he did not take an intervention from me, despite my requests. Had he done so, I would have told him that the 9,000 car workers in my constituency—as well as those in the west midlands manufacturing supply chain, which has delivered the second biggest growth of anywhere in the UK over the past five years—and even the unions in those companies all want a withdrawal agreement. They want an orderly exit from the EU, and that should be front and centre in our minds. It should also be on the minds of Labour Members, and I know that it is for many of them.

I want to address my final comments to my own colleagues. Let us deliver Brexit. Let us leave the EU. Let us not, like Samson, bring the temple crashing down around us. Purity is never a fully achieved state beyond the womb, so let us compromise and work together right now to deliver on the referendum promise. Let us protect jobs and let us move forward, because if we do not, we are in serious danger of creating fissures in this country so deep that we will never be able to close them.