European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:37 pm on 29th January 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 4:37 pm, 29th January 2019

I shall also vote for amendment (j) tabled by my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, and amendment (i) in the names of Dame Caroline Spelman and my hon. Friend Jack Dromey.

Whatever happens, it is now quite clear that we are going to need more time. One day, the Prime Minister will stand up at the Dispatch Box—unless she is required by the House to do so before then—and say, “I am now applying for an extension to article 50.” Although she may not be willing today to face up to the real choices that confront us, the day will soon come when she will have to, because there is a choice to be made in this House about the future relationship that we want.

As the Prime Minister is asking for suggestions, here is mine: we should ask the European Union now to negotiate the details of the future relationship. When the EU says, “Well, we can’t do that; of course we can’t sign an agreement”, we can point to paragraph 23 of the political declaration, which mentions

“no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions”.

It talks about building and improving on

“the single customs territory…which obviates the need for checks on rules of origin.”

Note that it says “no tariffs”, not zero tariffs. No tariffs means a customs union. The problem is that the Prime Minister cannot bring herself to say those words. If we have been able, in the negotiations thus far, to reach agreement on something as specific as no tariffs, there is no reason in principle that we cannot do the same with all the other things that need to be sorted out. If that did happen, the fears on the Government Benches and the Opposition Benches about what the future relationship might look like could be resolved, and at that point, while remaining members of the EU, we could vote on whether we accepted the withdrawal agreement.

While I very much hope that the House of Commons will take control of the process, I absolutely agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, when he said that there is nothing unconstitutional about us doing our job. There is nothing unconstitutional about my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford in effect bringing forward a private Member’s Bill and, through her amendment— if it is successful—putting it on the Order Paper for 5 February.