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[5th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 7:20 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Paul Masterton Paul Masterton Conservative, East Renfrewshire 7:20 pm, 9th January 2019

It is a pleasure to be called, Mr Speaker. As a Member who was denied the opportunity to speak first time around, I am pleased finally to get the opportunity to speak up and set out my views on this important issue.

On the withdrawal agreement itself, I wish to focus on my main area of concern, which, unsurprisingly, is the backstop. There is no question but that the backstop has the potential to build a regulatory border in the Irish sea beyond that which already exists, although I accept that it would be in areas where divergence is fairly unlikely, such as industrial goods standards. While I am satisfied that the backstop will not create any new material differences between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on day one, it clearly provides a mechanism for those differences to appear and deepen over time. With no guarantee as to how long the backstop will operate, we will be in a constant political battle between loosening ties with the EU—and with it Northern Ireland—and keeping our country aligned and so failing to take back control in a variety of areas. Given that none of us can see into the future, I am concerned that the backstop will not future proof the integrity of the Union in the long term, if we find ourselves using it for more than a couple of years.

All these issues have been long rehearsed, so I will not dwell on them further, but the fact is that without a backstop there is no deal, and if there is no deal, there is no transition period. That is why I strongly welcome the paper the Government released today, which is probably the most explicitly Unionist statement by a UK Government in at least a couple of decades. I was grateful primarily because of the request I have made of numerous Secretaries of State that the Government continue to work at ensuring a role for the Northern Irish Assembly—and Executive, if it is sitting—as was included in paragraph 50 of the December joint report, in order to ensure regulatory divergence has an element of consent. There are areas, of course, where Northern Ireland would wish to follow new EU rules—for example, to protect the single energy market—but there will be an issue if that is imposed over the heads of the politicians and institutions of Northern Ireland, particularly where it creates new barriers or materially increases an existing barrier with Great Britain. I wonder, however, if the commitment to domestic legislation could be strengthened and whether there is some mechanism by which it could be incorporated into the withdrawal agreement to give the greater certainty that the DUP and the Ulster Unionist party are looking for?

Moving on to the political declaration, Opposition Members are right: it is thin and does not provide a clear pathway to what our future relationship will look like. Instead, it provides a spectrum of opportunities for where we could end up. It seems to point in a direction slightly looser than the Chequers deal, which was a proposal I was quite comfortable with when it was settled on. Ultimately, it kicks the can down the road on all the major issues until the middle of 2020.

We have to be prepared for months of further argument on all these points domestically before we even get to the EU negotiating table, and those negotiations will be tough. I hope the Government have learned some lessons from this first phase of negotiations in terms of how they organise themselves and how they construct a negotiating position and work better with the various groupings in this Parliament so that when they properly start negotiating the second phase, they do so with a strong domestic mandate. That is the only way we will get a meaningful and lasting agreement with the EU that works.

I believe that the Prime Minister has reached the best deal that could have been achieved within the parameters set out in the negotiations. It is a compromise. It is not the deal that I wanted, but its acceptance would bring some certainty and allow us to move forward. It achieves many of the things that the EU said were not on the table. It is a bespoke arrangement that maintains industrial tariffs at zero and keeps us closely aligned but without the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Cherries have been picked and cake has certainly been eaten.

I come back to the fundamental point that it is risk to vote down the deal in the hope that something better will materialise. My inbox is full of emails from constituents asking me to vote down the deal but in order to get a range of different outcomes, and they cannot all get what they want. For me, this is not about rolling the dice. It is not about whether I or my constituents who use 38 Degrees can afford for the gamble not to come off and to end up somewhere worse. I have to make this call in the interests of the 90,000 people of East Renfrewshire, where there are wildly different views and personal circumstances. Many of my constituents simply cannot afford for this not to work out. If I were to vote against the deal, and if no other magical solution arrived and we crashed out in March, I would feel wholly responsible for the economic impact on families and communities in my constituency that would result. I fully appreciate the range of views across the House, but I do not personally feel that I could be complicit in that outcome, and I will therefore support the deal on Tuesday.

A vote against the deal is not a vote to stop Brexit—if it were, dozens of my colleagues would not be preparing to bring it down—but, facing all the facts, I think that it seems likely to be rejected. Let me repeat a statement that I have always made, and which, indeed, I made at my selection meeting in 2017: I will not support a no-deal Brexit. In East Renfrewshire, 75% voted to remain in the European Union. Mine is the highest Remain-voting seat held by a Conservative. My election was not the result of a promise in our manifesto to deliver Brexit but the result of a promise to protect the Union, and the greatest threat of the Union is a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

If the deal is voted down, I will work with colleagues on both sides of the House to put in place an achievable plan B. I will continue to argue for my preferred alternative of remaining in the European economic area as a member of the European Free Trade Association, with a bespoke customs protocol to protect the position in Northern Ireland. I will argue for a rejection of the political institutions of the EU but a retention of the principles at the heart of why we joined: a Common Market 2.0. We will need the withdrawal agreement for that, but I make a commitment to my constituents to re-evaluate my position with a genuinely open mind.

I urge the Prime Minister, if the deal is defeated, to announce immediately that there will be indicative votes on a series of options, on a free vote, so that we can properly test the mood of the House. In the weeks ahead, I will vote in the manner that secures a sensible and orderly exit from the European Union, and sets us on a pathway to a future relationship that works for East Renfrewshire and every part of our United Kingdom. I will vote—not just on Tuesday, but in every vote thereafter—in the manner that I consider to be in the best interests of this great nation. Ultimately, that is the only way I shall be able to go home from this place and look my constituents, and my children, in the eye, knowing that I did what I felt was right for them and their futures.

There are many Conservative Members who, like me, voted to remain but accept, admittedly reluctantly and with some misgivings, that we are leaving the European Union. We have compromised at every stage of the process to try to find a way to make this work, and the deal before us is as far as I am prepared to go. If some of my colleagues want to blow this up in pursuit of an ideologically purist fantasy, fine—go ahead—but I am done. My patience and good will will be gone, along with the patience and good will of many other Conservative Members.

Would it not be something if, when the history books are written, it emerged that it was owing to the arrogance and belligerence of the hardline Brexiteers in refusing to compromise that, rather than ending up with this imperfect Brexit, they ended up with no Brexit at all?