European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:13 pm on 29th January 2019.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 3:13 pm, 29th January 2019

With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend, I think that my approach throughout the last two years has demonstrated that I am prepared to be pragmatic in response to these things. I did not regard myself as bound by a referendum. In the British constitution, referendums are advisory—they are described as such in official pronunciations—but politically most Members of this House bound themselves to obeying the result. That was brought home to me in a parliamentary way, consistent with what I have just been saying, by the massive majority of votes cast for invoking article 50. I opposed the invocation of article 50, but since that time I accept—I have to accept—that this House has willed that we are leaving the European Union.

With respect to my right hon. Friend, I do not concur that we agreed to leave unconditionally, whatever the circumstances, at a then arbitrary date two years ahead. We then wasted at least the first 18 months of the time, because nobody here had really thought through in any detailed way exactly what we were now going to seek as an alternative to our membership of the European Union, to safeguard our political and economic relationships with the world in the future. And we still have not decided that. It looks as though I am going to be remarkably brief by my own standards, but that is probably only in contrast with the frequently interrupted Front-Bench speeches, to which I have mercifully been only mildly, and perfectly pleasantly, exposed.

Where does this leave me, given that I believe I have a duty to make my mind up on the votes that we are going to have today? I am one of those who voted for withdrawal on the withdrawal agreement. That was the first time in my life that I have ever cast any kind of vote contemplating Britain leaving the European project and the European Union. I thought that the agreement was perfectly harmless and perfectly obvious, and could have been negotiated years before, with citizenship rights, legally owed debts that we are obviously going to honour and an arrangement that protected the Irish border—the treaty commitment to a permanently open border.

Lady Hermon is the only Irish Member we have who agrees with the majority of the Irish population, who would prefer to remain. Like me, I think that she accepts the reality, but I know that she thinks the backstop is an important defence of the interests of Ireland with an open border. It is quite absurd to reopen that question. I am glad to say that the Prime Minister is still very firmly committed to a permanent open border, and I congratulate her on that. She is not going to break our solemn treaty commitments and set back our relationship with the Republic of Ireland for another generation. I realise that the Prime Minister has been driven to this by the attitudes of quite a number of Government Members, but I personally cannot see what the vague alternative to a perfectly harmless backstop that we are now going to explore is; nor do I see what the outcome is going to be. Our partners—or previous partners—in the European Union cannot understand quite what we are arguing for either, so we move from having a deal to not having a deal.

Let me just say what I will vote for. I am not going to go through it amendment by amendment, because Members are waiting to move those amendments. I shall vote for anything that avoids leaving with no deal on 29 March. It is perfectly obvious that we are in a state of such chaos that we are not remotely going to answer these questions in the 60-odd—fewer than 60—days before then. We need more time. The Prime Minister says that there are only two alternatives: the deal we have got, which she is now wanting to alter and go back and reopen; or no deal on 29 March. That is not true. A further option—and my guess is that the other members of the European Union would be only too ready to hear it opened up as a possibility—is that we extend article 50 to give us time to actually reach some consensus. I think that it would create quite some time, and there are problems over the European Parliament and so on. I have always said that we can revoke it, while making it clear to the angry majority in the House of Commons that they can invoke it again, with their majorities, once we are in a position to settle these outstanding issues, which, as we sit here at the moment, we are nowhere near to resolving, and we are right at the end of the timetable. The alternative to no deal is to stay in the Union for as long as it takes to get near to a deal that we are likely all to be able to agree on and that the majority of us think is in the national interest.