Leaving the EU

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 21st January 2019.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:35 pm, 21st January 2019

I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning Saturday’s car bomb attack in Londonderry and in paying tribute to the bravery of the Northern Ireland police and the local community, who helped to ensure that everyone got to safety. This House stands together with the people of Northern Ireland in ensuring that we never go back to the violence and terror of the past.

Let me now turn to Brexit. Following last week’s vote, it is clear that the Government’s approach had to change, and it has. Having established the confidence of Parliament in this Government, I have listened to colleagues across Parliament from different parties and with different views. Last week I met the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Westminster leaders of the Democratic Unionist party, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and the Green party, and Back Benchers from both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also had a number of such meetings.

The Government have approached those meetings in a constructive spirit, without preconditions, and I am pleased that everyone whom we met took the same approach. I regret that the Leader of the Opposition has not chosen to take part so far, and I hope he will reflect on that decision. Given the importance of this issue, we should all be prepared to work together to find a way forward, and my ministerial colleagues and I will continue with further meetings this week.

Let me set out the six key issues that have been at the centre of the talks to date. The first two relate to the process for moving forward. First, there is widespread concern about the possibility of the UK’s leaving without a deal. There are those on both sides of the House who want the Government to rule that out, but we need to be honest with the British people about what that means. The right way to rule out no deal is for the House to approve a deal with the European Union, and that is what the Government are seeking to achieve. The only other guaranteed way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to revoke article 50, which would mean staying in the EU.

There are others who think that what we need is more time, so they say that we should extend article 50 to give Parliament longer to debate how we should leave and what a deal should look like. That is not ruling out no deal, but simply deferring the point of decision, and the EU is very unlikely simply to agree to extend article 50 without a plan for how we are going to approve a deal. So when people say, “Rule out no deal”, what they are actually saying is that, if we in Parliament cannot approve a deal, we should revoke article 50. Those would be the consequences of what they are saying. I believe that that would go against the referendum result, and I do not believe that that is a course of action that we should take or one that the House should support.

Secondly, all the Opposition parties that have engaged so far, and some Back Benchers, have expressed their support for a second referendum. I have set out many times my deep concerns about returning to the British people for a second referendum. Our duty is to implement the decision of the first one. I fear that a second referendum would set a difficult precedent that could have significant implications for how we handle referendums in this country—not least, strengthening the hand of those who are campaigning to break up our United Kingdom. It would require an extension of article 50, and we would very likely have to return a new set of MEPs to the European Parliament in May. I also believe that there has not yet been enough recognition of the way in which a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy. We do not know what the Leader of the Opposition thinks about this because he has not engaged, but I know there are Members who have already indicated that they wish to test the support of the House for this path. I do not believe there is a majority for a second referendum and, if I am right, then just as the Government are having to think again about their approach going forwards, so too do those Members who believe this is the answer.

The remaining issues raised in the discussions relate to the substance of the deal, and on these points I believe we can make progress. Members of this House, predominantly but not only on the Government Benches and the DUP, continue to express their concern on the issue of the Northern Ireland backstop. All of us agree that as we leave the European Union we must fully respect the Belfast agreement and not allow the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or indeed a border down the Irish sea. And I want to be absolutely clear, in the light of media stories this morning: this Government will not reopen the Belfast agreement. I have never even considered doing so, and nor would I.

With regard to the backstop, despite the changes we have previously agreed, there remain two core issues: the fear that we could be trapped in it permanently; and concerns over its potential impact on our Union if Northern Ireland is treated differently from the rest of the UK. So I will be talking further this week to colleagues, including in the DUP, to consider how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House. I will then take the conclusions of those discussion back to the EU.

From other parts of this House, concerns have also been raised over the political declaration. In particular, these have focused on a wish for further precision around the future relationship. The political declaration will provide the basis for developing our detailed negotiating mandate for the future and this new phase of negotiations will be different in a number of ways. It will cover a far broader range of issues in greater depth, and so will require us to build a negotiating team that draws on the widest expertise available, from trade negotiators to security experts and specialists in data and financial services. And as we develop our mandate across each of these areas, I want to provide reassurance to the House. Given the breadth of the negotiations, we will seek input from a wide range of voices from outside Government. That must include ensuring Parliament has a proper say, and fuller involvement, in these decisions.

It is Government’s responsibility to negotiate, but it is also my responsibility to listen to the legitimate concerns of colleagues, both those who voted leave and those who voted remain, in shaping our negotiating mandate for our future partnership with the EU. So the Government will consult this House on their negotiating mandate, to ensure that Members have the chance to make their views known and that we harness the knowledge of all Select Committees across the full range of expertise needed for this next phase of negotiations, from security to trade. This will also strengthen the Government’s hand in the negotiations, giving the EU confidence about our position and avoiding leaving the bulk of parliamentary debate to a point when we are under huge time pressure to ratify.

I know that to date Parliament has not felt it has enough visibility of the Government’s position as it has been developed and negotiated. It has sought documents through Humble Addresses, but that mechanism cannot take into account the fact that some information when made public could weaken the UK’s negotiating hand. So as the negotiations progress, we will also look to deliver confidential Committee sessions that can ensure Parliament has the most up-to-date information, while not undermining the negotiations. And we will regularly update the House, in particular before the six-monthly review points with the EU foreseen in the agreement.

While it will always be for Her Majesty’s Government to negotiate for the whole of the UK, we are also committed to giving the devolved Administrations an enhanced role in the next phase, respecting their competence and vital interests in these negotiations. I hope to meet both First Ministers in the course of this week and will use the opportunity to discuss this further with them, and we will also look for further ways to engage elected representatives from Northern Ireland and regional representatives in England. Finally, we will reach out beyond this House and engage more deeply with businesses, civil society and trade unions.

Fifthly, hon Members from across the House—[Interruption.]