[9th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 2:58 pm on 15th January 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 2:58 pm, 15th January 2019

I would give way, but time is very short and many other Members want to speak.

The reason the Prime Minister has got into such difficulty is that, as we will discover tonight, the House of Commons will not agree a deal because of fear, uncertainty and doubt: fear that we will be locked permanently into a backstop; uncertainty about entering into a process where we will be in an even weaker position than we have been in over the past two and a half years; and doubt about where this will all end up, in an age, as the Father of the House, Mr Clarke, so eloquently put it, when it is the quality of the alliances you have that determines the ability to influence what happens in the world in the interests of the people we represent.

Faced with this set of circumstances, what would be the rational thing to do? It would be to seek to remove that fear, that uncertainty and that doubt, and to say to the European Union “Look, the only way we are going to get a deal is not by another exchange of letters or asking for another assurance, but by moving on to negotiate the future relationship now, so that everyone can see at the end of the process what it would involve before we formally leave.” I understand the legal position that in law the European Union cannot sign such an agreement, as the Attorney General pointed out, until the United Kingdom has ceased to be a member state, but it has a choice about its negotiating mandate and we all understand why the EU chose to structure the negotiations in the way that it did: because far from holding all the cards, we have, as the last two and a half years have demonstrated, held hardly any cards at all. But if we were able to negotiate more detail on the future relationship, which I recognise would be very challenging for the EU—and also for the Government, because they would finally have to confront the choices they have been steadfastly avoiding for the last two and a half years—at the end of that process we would know where we stood on the backstop and on the nature of the future relationship.

To do that we would have to extend article 50. If we want to reassure people—we may confront this choice at some point—that extending, or maybe revoking, article 50 is not a device for the House of Commons to overturn the referendum result in 2016, the House of Commons could say to the people, “Don’t worry, whatever the result is of this process we will put it back to you, so you take the final decision.” If we could undertake those negotiations while still a member, from the EU’s point of view, it would not really make any difference at all: we would still be paying the money—we are going to do that under the transition; we would still be accepting the rules of the ECJ—we are going to do that under the transition; we would still be a member of the single market and the customs union—we are going to be under the transition; and we would still be accepting free movement, which we are going to do under the transition.

I acknowledge that that would be difficult, but it would be the sensible thing to do and who knows where the EU will be in two or three years’ time, which we all know is how long these negotiations will take to complete. Indeed, if the EU were to say to other countries, not just to the UK, “You’re not going to get what you want if you leave, but if you remain then there is the possibility of reform,” that would be the kind of leadership that the EU could potentially offer. I do not know whether there is the strategic vision in the EU to do that, but it should provide it because the forces present in Britain are present in all of its member states and reform, including on free movement, would be in their interests as well as in ours.

If this is not possible, and if the Government will not reach out, then we as Parliament must take responsibility. That would not be us subverting democracy in any way; it would be us doing our job—it would be taking back control. The draft Bill I referred to earlier, and which I support, will give us the means to do so. It proposes to ask the Liaison Committee to take a role. It could be amended to give that responsibility elsewhere—