[9th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 2:14 pm on 15th January 2019.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 2:14 pm, 15th January 2019

I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I have no time.

I believe that Britain’s role in the world now is as one of the three leading members of the European Union, and one that has particular links with the United States—when it has a normal President—that the others do not. That enables us to defend our interests and put forward our values in a very dangerous world. We have influential membership—we lead on liberal economic policy— of the biggest and most developed free trade area in the world, which is always going to be where our major trading partners are, because in the end geography determines that they matter to us more than anyone else.

I will not go on, but just in case there is any doubt about where I am coming from, let me say that I am being pragmatic, as we all have to be. The Attorney General was quite correct to raise the need for the House to achieve some kind of consensus and to accept some kind of compromise to minimise the damage, which I regard as my duty. The vote on invoking article 50 revealed to me that there was not the slightest chance of persuading the present House of Commons to give up leaving the EU, because it is terrified of denying the result of the EU referendum. To be fair to my friends who are hard-line Brexiteers and always have been, none of them ever had the slightest intention of taking any notice of the referendum, but there is now a kind of religiously binding commitment among the majority in the House that we must leave. So we are leaving.

Why, therefore, am I supporting the withdrawal agreement? It is a natural preliminary to the proper negotiations, which we have not yet started. Frankly, it should have taken about two months to negotiate, because the conclusions we have come to on the rights of citizens, on our legal historical debts and on the Irish border being permanently open were perfectly clear. They are essential preconditions, to which the Attorney General rightly drew our attention, to the legal chaos that would be caused if we just left without the other detailed provisions in that 500-page document.

The withdrawal agreement itself is harmless, and the Irish backstop is not the real reason why a large number of Members are going to vote against it. One would have to be suffering from some sort of paranoia to think that the Irish backstop is some carefully contrived plot to keep the British locked into a European relationship from which they are dying to escape. The Attorney General addressed that matter with great eloquence, which I admired. It is obviously as unattractive to the other EU member states as it is to the United Kingdom to settle down into some semi-permanent relationship on the basis of the Irish backstop.

In my opinion, we do not need to invoke the Irish backstop at all. We can almost certainly avoid it. It seems quite obvious that the transition period should go on for as long as is necessary until a full withdrawal agreement, in all its details on our political relationships, regulatory relationships, trade relationships, security and policing, has been settled. I do not think that will be completed in a couple of years, however. I actually think it will be four or five years, if we make very good progress, before we have completed all that, and I think that is the view of people with more expertise than me who will be saddled with the responsibility of negotiating it if we ever get that far. I have actually been involved in trade agreements, unlike most of the people in this House.

If we extend the transition period as is necessary, we will never need to go into the backstop. Putting an end date on the transition period is pretty futile, because we cannot actually begin to change our relationship until we have agreed in some detail what we are actually changing to. If this House persists in taking us out of the European Union, that is eventually where we have to get to.