[7th Allotted Day]

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 11th January 2019.

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Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Foreign Secretary 2:09 pm, 11th January 2019

This has been an excellent debate to listen to, even though I have the most astonishing feeling of déjà vu about it. Perhaps it is the flu I have been suffering all week, or the massive doses of Lemsip or Berocca I took this morning, but I do feel as though we have been through all this before about five weeks ago and absolutely nothing seems to have changed.

Nevertheless, I am glad to be here and I am delighted to see the Foreign Secretary in his place for the first time this year, safely returned from his recess travels and basking in the success of his new vision for post-Brexit Britain, which he unveiled in Singapore, namely that we are to become the “invisible chain” linking countries across the globe. It is a truly inspiring phrase, but colleagues may not realise that the inspiration has an unlikely source, because the phrase, “The Invisible Chain”, first originated as the Spanish language title of the 1943 film, “Lassie Come Home”. It is a beloved children’s classic: the story of a desperate family who are down to their lowest ebb, with no answers to their problems, but whose fortunes are rescued at the last moment by the return of their beloved dog. Here is the truth: the Cabinet is not waiting for unicorns to come riding over the hill; it is just waiting for Lassie.

It is no wonder that the Foreign Secretary’s vision of the invisible chain has been so enthusiastically embraced by his dog-loving Cabinet colleagues, including the Health Secretary, with his invisible Green Paper on social care; the Transport Secretary, with his invisible ferries and invisible traffic jams; and, of course, the Prime Minister running around Europe obtaining invisible concessions on Brexit.

That brings us to the crux of today’s debate. Here we are, five weeks after we had the same debate, and so many Members on both sides of the House have pointed out that there is nothing in the withdrawal agreement in relation to home affairs and foreign policy, let alone any other subject, that is in any way different from what we discussed on 5 December.

Let me summarise those contributions that have made that point best. My right hon. Friend Ms Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, demonstrated with absolute clarity that this deal jeopardises all the co-operation with the European Union that we have come to rely on in the fields of justice, security and policing, and therefore we cannot accept it. My hon. Friend Stephen Pound made it clear in his typically enjoyable speech that the issues of the Northern Ireland border remain totally unresolved. My hon. Friend Ian Murray made the vital point—I have no doubt that many Conservative Members agree with him—that it remains the case that the deal on the table delivers no control of our laws, no control of our borders, and no control of our money. In fact, it cedes control to Europe by giving us no say on those issues.

My hon. Friend Matt Western made it clear that the lack of changes to the Prime Minister’s deal means that the economic damage it would do to investment and jobs remains unaltered. That point was echoed by my hon. Friend Neil Coyle, who pointed out the major problems over recruitment and retention across multiple business sectors in his constituency that are reliant on migrant labour. We also heard a powerful and important contribution from my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on the hopeless inadequacy of the Government’s proposal to deliver a fair system for immigration.

My hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) made it clear that wherever people are in this country, and whichever of our nations they live in, our constituents overwhelmingly reject this hopeless deal. Yet, as my hon. Friend Luciana Berger reminded us, it would be an even greater disaster for our country—from our factories to our universities—if we crash out without a deal.

All of those contributions, and the many others we have heard from colleagues, have laid bare the fact that nothing has been achieved during the five weeks of delay. Nothing has changed in terms of the withdrawal agreement, and nothing of substance or principle has been done to change the mind of any Member, with the possible exception of my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick—[Interruption.] Just one Member changing their mind in five weeks is not necessarily a huge contribution; Conservative Members should not get too excited. It is still likely that the agreement will be voted down next week.

We have been told that there will be assurances from the European Union—no changes to the withdrawal agreement, no changes written into law, just a set of assurances. I hope we all remember the words of the Prime Minister’s deputy, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, when he spoke from the Dispatch Box in 2015, as the then Minister for Europe, in relation to a similar situation, when David Cameron was supposed to be renegotiating Britain’s membership of the European Union. He said that

“we will not ask the House to rely only on the words of Ministers from the Dispatch Box. We have made a commitment to introduce into the Bill changes that give expression to the assurances that we have given.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2015;
Vol. 597, c. 234.]

This morning we heard the Foreign Secretary say the same thing:

Theresa May has said she doesn’t just want words. She wants something with legal force.”

Based on what he said this morning, and on the position the Government took four years ago, when David Cameron was renegotiating, does the Foreign Secretary accept that the assurances that the Prime Minister is obtaining from other European leaders will not be worth the paper on which they have hastily been written if they are not also written into law? If that is the case, will he confirm that, before next Tuesday, formal amendments will be made to the withdrawal agreement? If he does not accept that and accepts that this will not happen, the Conservative Back Benchers and the DUP will be quite within their rights to reject the withdrawal agreement, just as they planned to do in December, on the grounds that it will remain fatally flawed. However, I am afraid that the Foreign Secretary knows that there will not be legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement over the next four days, so the only real question at issue is what will happen after next Tuesday once the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected. As ever, the Foreign Secretary has given us a multitude of answers on this subject. The problem is that he gives us a different answer depending on what audience he is speaking to. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph before Christmas, he said that if we had to leave without a deal, Britain would “flourish and prosper” in that scenario, but he then told reporters in Singapore that the disruption caused by a no-deal outcome is

“not something that any Government should willingly wish on its people.”

This week, at Cabinet, when the Work and Pensions Secretary said that history would take a “dim view” of a Cabinet that allowed Britain to leave without a deal and the Justice Secretary said that they would need an alternative plan instead, the Foreign Secretary went back to insisting that no deal was the preferred option. And yet here we are three days later with the Foreign Secretary on the “Today” programme saying that no deal will not happen and that the most likely scenario after Tuesday is that Brexit will not happen at all. I ask the Foreign Secretary to give us some clarity today not on what he expects to happen after Tuesday when the Prime Minister’s deal is voted down, but on what he believes should happen after that point. In particular, on the most vital issue of all, can he make it clear whether he is prepared to countenance this country leaving the European Union on 31 March without a deal?