[9th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 3:56 pm on 15th January 2019.

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Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter 3:56 pm, 15th January 2019

Given the time constraints, I will focus on what should happen later tonight when the motion is defeated, but I will start by saying that if the UK leaves the European Union under the terms that the Government propose, it will constitute one of the greatest acts of self-harm in our country’s history. We would be poorer, we would have less sovereignty not more, and we would guarantee that the uncertainty and political wrangling that have so disfigured Britain for the last two and a half years will continue for years and years to come.

It is increasingly clear to everyone, except perhaps the Prime Minister, that she and the country will face a choice after tonight’s vote, between reaching out, finally, across the House, to seek a majority for a less damaging, Norway-style Brexit, and putting her deal to the public in a people’s vote. I am extremely doubtful that there is a majority in the House for Norway now. If, after the 2017 general election, when she lost her majority, the Prime Minister had sought consensus, she could probably have got Norway through. Many of us repeatedly pleaded with her to do so. But she stuck to her red lines, for fear of what the hard Brexiteers in her Cabinet and on her Back Benches would do to her. As recently as last spring, nearly 80 Labour Members defied our own party leadership and voted for a Norway-style solution. But we were rebuffed, as we have been repeatedly rebuffed, when we have tried to steer the Government in the direction of the least damaging Brexit.

We are now told that several Cabinet Ministers and others on the Government Benches—and some Members on the Opposition Benches—would like us to rescue this disintegrating Government by backing Norway now. I am sorry, but it is too late. The overwhelming majority of those of us on this side of the House who backed Norway a year ago would not do so now.

The rest of Europe, which has shown commendable patience with the British Government, has said we can have more time and we can extend article 50, but only for a general election or another referendum, not for a tortuous renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement with no certain end point. Labour’s policy, unanimously agreed at our last conference, states that if the Government are confident in their Brexit deal, they

“should not be afraid to put that deal to the public.”

The Prime Minister could, at this late stage, save her deal, by seeking Parliamentary support for it conditional on ratification by the public in a referendum. But, if she will not do so, Labour must act. Britain is facing the most serious political, economic and constitutional crisis in our peacetime history. The time for dither, delay and constructive ambiguity is over. The country is crying out for decisive leadership.

So, let us have our motion of no confidence tomorrow. Let us test Parliament’s appetite for an election. If we do not secure one, let us rule out no deal, test the Norway option if colleagues wish to do so, but then quickly pursue the only rational choice left for our country, which is to give the decision back to the people. I appeal to the Prime Minister for once—just this once—to put the national interest first. If she will not, Parliament must do it for her.