[6th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 5:25 pm on 10th January 2019.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 5:25 pm, 10th January 2019

This is undoubtedly one of the most important votes that I or anyone else in the House will participate in during our parliamentary careers. I agree with my hon. Friend Dr Blackman-Woods that we should not be here. The very fact that we are where we are, having this debate 78 days before exit day, is a sign of failure. It is a sign that the people have been badly let down by the politicians to whom they look for leadership.

Brexit began as a crisis of the Conservative party’s own making. From the red meat of a referendum thrown to Eurosceptic Back Benchers to the red lines drawn up before a Tory party conference speech, for them it has never been about the interests of this country or of the people we have been sent here to represent. The whole process has been characterised by complacency and, indeed, by an astounding degree of arrogance on the part of some from whom we should have expected better. There was the casual approach to the referendum itself—a vote that was called with not a thought given to the consequences of it being lost—and article 50 was triggered when the country was clearly not ready, just so that we could show that we were “getting on with it”. Even then, as the clock started to tick down towards exit day, we were still not putting in the work and still did not have a clue as to what we wanted from our soon-to-be-former EU partners, let alone having a clue as to how we could go about getting it.

We saw Government Ministers display shocking ignorance, whenever they appeared before Select Committees, before the House or in the media, of the potential consequences of Brexit. The Secretary of State for International Trade said that a UK-EU free trade agreement would be

“one of the easiest in human history”.

The former Brexit Secretary, Mr Davis, said:

“It is like threading the eye of a needle: if you have a good eye and a steady hand, it is easy enough”.—[Official Report, 7 December 2016;
Vol. 618, c. 233.]

I assume the right hon. Gentleman is still searching in the haystack for that oh-so-elusive needle, let alone getting round to threading it.

This idea that Britain is somehow—perhaps because of its history or the empire, or perhaps because we have always punched above our weight as a small island—subject to different rules and can do things a different way is a total fallacy. We cannot dictate terms to the European Union. We certainly cannot tell the people of Ireland what to do these days. We cannot demand trade deals entirely on our own terms. They are deals: they require agreement. That seems to me to be an absolutely fundamental, basic point that so many proponents of Brexit have entirely missed. Freedom is nothing unless we have somebody else who agrees with us and wants to go along the same path. The rest of the world is not waiting breathlessly for us to leave the EU. They are not eager to give us exactly what we want just because it is Britain asking. Any future trade deals will involve compromise and lengthy negotiations.

I have something of an obsession with the pig trotter protocol, which we discussed in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee yesterday with the International Meat Trade Association. I have this obsession partly because of its comedy value, although it is not so funny for the pigs involved. It was first talked about in 2008 and then resurrected by David Cameron after he led a huge trade mission to China. We are still trying to negotiate the sale of pigs’ trotters to China. It is a product that we do not need and that China likes, for some bizarre reason.

The fact that it has been so difficult to get a tiny deal like that in place should be a wake-up call to people as to how difficult it will be to get these fully comprehensive trade agreements with all these other countries that actually do not want exactly what we want. Australia and New Zealand have been pressing us about lamb quotas post Brexit. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said that yes, he does want a race to the bottom on standards post Brexit. He does not want to agree to a deal whereby we do not allow chlorinated chicken and hormone-pumped beef into this country. That is why I tabled new clause 1 to the Agriculture Bill so that we can try to avoid that scenario.

I was one of 122 Members who voted against the triggering of article 50. That decision has been more than vindicated every day since that vote. I will vote against the Prime Minister’s deal next week and I will support a people’s vote, should the opportunity arise. It is now the only way I can see to get us out of this mess. That people’s vote would obviously have an option to remain on the ballot paper.

The promises made in 2016 are not going to be delivered, and any Brexit deal will impoverish my constituency as well as the whole UK. No deal would be a catastrophe, but I reject any attempt to use that threat to strong-arm us into supporting the Prime Minister’s deal. Article 50 could be extended or, more sensibly, revoked. Rejecting what is clearly a bad deal does not mean accepting no deal, and it is entirely within the Prime Minister’s power to take no deal off the table.

The choice before us now is not between deal and no deal. The choice is whether we accept Brexit on the terms on which we know it would happen—the terms that the Prime Minister has been able to agree with the EU—or whether, now that we know what Brexit looks like, we still want to do it. This journey began with the British people and it is only right, now that we know the facts, that they choose its final destination.