(Urgent Question): To ask the Attorney General if he will make a statement on options for legally binding changes to the Northern Ireland protocol of the EU withdrawal agreement, which contains the backstop arrangement.
Before I answer the hon. Gentleman, my constituents would expect me briefly to express their dismay and deep concern about Honda’s announcement this morning, which will deeply affect the community. I anticipate the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—
Order. Do not tell me what the situation is. The hon. and learned Gentleman is a Law Officer and a member of the Government. A sentence, but absolutely no more. He should have asked me in advance. He is either on the Front Bench or he is not. It is not for him to presume the right to speak of a matter about which he could speak if he sat on the Back Benches, which he does not.
I am very sorry, Mr Speaker, but I said what I said.
The Government recognise the legitimate desire of Members on both sides of the House to understand the legal effect of the proposed withdrawal agreement. On
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Solicitor General for responding. The reality is that there are 38 days until we leave the EU, and in all likelihood eight days until the next round of voting, and we are nowhere nearer having any further clarity on this issue. All this time, our economy, our jobs and our futures are affected by that uncertainty.
“What I am talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement. Negotiating such a change will not be easy. It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 653, c. 678.]
Can the Solicitor General confirm that it is still Government policy to formally reopen the withdrawal agreement? If not, what positive, concrete proposals are the Government suggesting? Can he confirm whether the Government have actually put forward those proposals as options to the European Commission and the European Council?
“The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, is closely involved with the negotiations too, and he will be making a speech on Tuesday to set out how, in his view, the legal tests that he has set, about ensuring that the so-called backstop cannot be used to trap the United Kingdom indefinitely, could be met and overcome.”
Can the Solicitor General clarify exactly what the Attorney General’s role is in the negotiations and when he will publish those legal tests? Are the Government seeking, as is reported in the media, a “joint interpretive instrument” on the withdrawal agreement, some sort of annexe to it, another exchange of letters, or changes to the political declaration?
We are about to make a momentous decision on the future of our country. The Government need to be clear with this House about precisely what their strategy is. Running down the clock is reckless and irresponsible. Surely this nation deserves better than a Government wandering in the wilderness, not even sure about what their next move is.
What would be reckless and irresponsible is for the Government to provide a running commentary on sensitive negotiations. I would have thought it is as plain as a pikestaff to the hon. Gentleman that that is not the way negotiations should be conducted. Let the Government get on with this work at pace, which is what we are doing.
Rather than criticising from the sidelines, it now behoves the hon. Gentleman and all Opposition Members to work for a constructive solution and end the uncertainty. It is in his hands as much as it is in the hands of the Government.
I understand the dangers of a running commentary, but I have a little difficulty understanding by what process we have reached this point. As far as I can see, the serious negotiations are with the Democratic Unionist party and the European Research Group in my party to see what modifications to the withdrawal agreement we have negotiated they will accept. Ministers then go to Brussels to demand that the European Union accepts the changes and threaten it with leaving without a deal if the changes are not made. As my hon. and learned Friend understands it, are those roughly the tactics being pursued? Why does he think any European politician should accept a situation whereby the permanent open border in Ireland is subject to being terminated by the British Government at any stage they want or having an end date put on it, which seems to me a contradiction? Finally, does he think that the hard-liners in the ERG would accept even that, even if my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General produces some ingenious form of words that seems to make it legally binding?
As usual, my right hon. and learned Friend tempts me down many paths that I dare not take, simply because this is a negotiation between the United Kingdom and the EU. We heard yesterday from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, who has been to Brussels and held a productive meeting with Michel Barnier, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has been playing an important part in these negotiations. May I reassure my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke that the Government remain determined to get on with the job at pace?
This morning, France’s Europe Minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said that there will be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement. In saying that, she was simply echoing what has been said repeatedly by Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Leo Varadkar. That was the position made crystal clear to the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union when we met Martin Selmayr on
May I assure the hon. and learned Lady, who expresses a deep interest in the Attorney General’s diary, that his plan is to make a speech about the issues, but it is not going to be some detailed exposition of a legal position, which he will bring to this House if appropriate? He has already shown an admirable willingness not only to address this House, but to comply with its orders, and I am sure he will continue to work in that spirit.
I am glad the hon. and learned Lady referred to the letter of
As you know, Mr Speaker, I raised this matter urgently with you yesterday. Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that it is essential that when the Attorney General has had his discussions with the EU, he tables, in compliance with his parliamentary obligations, any asserted “legally binding” treaty text, in black and white, in the House itself by Monday
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and both the Attorney General and I take the work of his Committee, a Committee of this House, with the utmost gravity. I assure him that any work that is done with regard to legal texts will of course be shared at the appropriate moment. I think he will understand that I cannot give him an absolute commitment in terms of dates, but I have heard what he said and will certainly bear those comments very much in mind in the days ahead.
If the technology that could keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic as it is today existed, there would be no need for the backstop. The Solicitor General knows that that technology does not exist, and no one can say when it might become available. In those circumstances, will he please explain to the House how the Government can credibly ask for either a time limit or a unilateral exit clause, particularly when he knows that the EU has made it very clear that it has no intention of giving either?
The right hon. Chairman of the Exiting the European Union Committee elides two issues: the existence of the technology and the sensitivities of the communities on both sides of the border. I do not think any of the ongoing discussions relate to new technology in the sense that it needs to be relied on today; there is plenty of existing technology that could be used. The most important point, however, is the communities and their sensitivity. That is well understood by the Government. For the right hon. Gentleman to hang his hat on that as a reason for the absence of any potential termination clause or unilateral mechanism is to simplify things just a bit too far.
Does the Solicitor General agree that whatever agreement is arrived at with Brussels, we must get away from the idea that the potentially forever customs union is seen as basecamp for our future trading relationship?
My hon. Friend is right to remind us that the future relationship document contains a range of options. The negotiation on that will begin as soon as possible; let us get the withdrawal agreement done so that we can have that debate urgently.
Has the Solicitor General seen the study published yesterday by Irish Senator Mark Daly, in conjunction with two UNESCO chairmen, on the danger of a return to violence in Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Given that Senator Daly says that his report
“highlights the responsibility of the UK government to stand by the backstop”,
what weight have Her Majesty’s Government given to the cause of peace in their discussions on the backstop?
I have not seen Senator Daly’s report but will look at it urgently because, like him, I treat the cause of peace with the utmost seriousness. In fact, everything that the Government have said reveals their dedication not only to the letter of the Belfast agreement but to its spirit as well.
The Solicitor General has told the House clearly that the Government will not provide a running commentary on the negotiations—unless, of course, it is Olly Robbins, the Government’s chief negotiator, who can get hammered in a bar in Brussels and give a detailed running commentary to anybody who happens to be in earshot. That is extremely unprofessional behaviour for a senior civil servant. A Minister who did that would be sacked. What disciplinary action has been taken against Mr Robbins? Or does he get away with it because he is teacher’s pet?
My right hon. Friend referred to a newspaper report on which it would be ill-advised for me to comment. Let me say this generally about our civil servants: whatever their role, position or views, they are in a singularly difficult position in that they cannot answer back.
Everybody knows that there is not going to be any hard border in Ireland and, given what Michel Barnier said, everybody knows that even in the event of a no-deal Brexit operational ways would be found so that there were no controls or checks, so all this is scaremongering. It is not going to happen. Anyone who knows anything about Irish politics knows that no Irish Government will introduce a hard border on the island of Ireland. That is the reality of the situation. The fact of the matter is that the Prime Minister has, as the Solicitor General knows, given a commitment to reopen the withdrawal agreement and to seek legally binding changes to the treaty itself. Yesterday, Simon Coveney ruled out legally binding language even outside the withdrawal agreement. Does the Solicitor General accept that some of the rhetoric coming from the Irish Government and others is bringing about the very thing that they say they want to avoid, which is the possibility of no deal?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in his call for everybody to cool it and to calm down when it comes to important issues such as the Irish border. I am not going to make comments about members of friendly Governments, but I will say that this is a time for calm heads rather than hot ones.
On the subject of calmness, I think we should hear from a Lincolnshire knight. I call Sir Edward Leigh.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is really a taster for what will be a very calm debate: my Adjournment debate on Thursday on this very subject, which I am sure will be the highlight of the week. I do not ask the Solicitor General to provide running commentary, but has he noted that many international lawyers have said that if the EU does not want to reopen the withdrawal agreement, it would be entirely in accordance with international law for us to issue, either unilaterally or in agreement, a conditional interpretive declaration proclaiming that there will be an end date to the backstop? It is something that I have been boring on about for weeks now.
My right hon. Friend is anything but boring. He might be persistent, but boring? No. I commend him for his work in looking at this particular aspect of international treaty law and interpretation and urge him to pursue it.
Sir Edward Leigh is quite wrong. He is far too hard on himself. I have known the right hon. Gentleman for 25 years and have never been bored by him on any occasion. Never.
I wonder whether the Solicitor General minds my putting on record, and I hope he will also put on record, the distaste that we felt at that personal attack from the Back Benches—I think from a member of the European Research Group—on a civil servant who is trying to do his job. The job that civil servants are trying to do is a very difficult one and the people responsible for that difficulty are the Government, not the civil servants trying to do a good job.
Does the Solicitor General agree that we need a running commentary in this House? I am glad that he has made this statement today, because the fact of the matter is that at a certain juncture in this dialogue we are supposed to be having to find the answer to this difficult problem, the Government side stopped talking to people. Will he resume the talks so that we can get this sorted?
The hon. Gentleman knows that I am here and always ready to talk, as are the Government, and the dialogue continues. The Leader of the Opposition has of course made an approach, which we welcomed. That is an important sign of the cross-party work that needs to continue.
I have said what I have said about our civil servants. Politicians are here to be accountable and to answer for our actions; civil servants are there to carry them out, nothing further.
I find this urgent question from the Opposition somewhat bizarre, as only last Thursday the Opposition Brexit spokesperson, Keir Starmer, said that he had no problems with the backstop at all. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Solicitor General confirm again that the Government stand firmly behind all their commitments on the Belfast Good Friday agreement?
I will never tire of saying to my hon. Friend or to the House that we remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement. It is as important to me now as it was when it was signed 20 years ago.
The Attorney General made a rather snippy remark, if I may say so, about my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds having made a comment from the sidelines, and then implied that the solutions to this situation were as much in my hon. Friend’s hands as in the Solicitor General’s. He cannot have it both ways. Has the Solicitor General invited my hon. Friend to be part of the solution—yes or no?
I remind the hon. Lady, for whom I have a high degree of respect, of section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, which gives this House the role of ratifying the withdrawal agreement. It is Parliament that has to ratify it and pass a Bill before that agreement is ratified. It is on us all—the buck stops with all of us before we can ratify—so please let us get on with it.
Does the Solicitor General agree with the widely reported comments of Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister’s chief negotiator, who, I believe, spoke in vino veritas when he said that he saw the backstop as a bridge to a future partnership? Clearly, that is a future partnership involving a customs union, which would prevent our having an independent free trade policy. If he does not agree with him on behalf of the Government, why is Mr Robbins still in his position?
My hon. Friend will have heard the answer that I gave some moments ago. I simply say that the backstop is not intended to be a bridge to anywhere. It is to be used only in extremis if we cannot achieve a future relationship. It cannot be a bridge; the bridge has to be with the withdrawal agreement and then our future relationship.
The Solicitor General seeks to justify the problem that is Brexit by insisting that the backstop is the problem. I understand that he wants to sympathise with the manufacturing communities in Swindon, Wales and elsewhere that are waking up to job losses, but it is difficult because he is in the Government. Given the evidence, how can the Government, abetted by the Labour Front-Bench team, continue to defend their myopia, their self-interest, and their talent for procrastination? When will he admit their part in this problem?
I can agree with the hon. Lady to this extent: it is incumbent on politicians from all parts of the House, most importantly on those on the Opposition Front Bench, to work to achieve a solution, rather than to achieve nano-party-political ends. I entirely agree with her. I have seen precious little of the former, and far too much of the latter, but God loves a sinner who repenteth, and I look forward to the Opposition following that advice and helping us all to do our duty and get the deal through.
First, may I thank my hon. and learned Friend for making it clear that there are viable alternative arrangements, which the Government are discussing, arising from the so-called Brady amendment? Last week, President Tusk tweeted that no concrete proposals had been received from the UK Government. Will he now confirm that these proposals have been presented as Government policy to the European Union?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He knows that it would be invidious of me to provide that running commentary that I have been quite properly resisting. May I assure him that the discussions are more than diplomatic niceties? They are meaningful and substantial and will continue in greater depth in the days ahead.
Will the Solicitor General tell us whether the Government have made it clear to the European Union in negotiations that its insistence on the backstop will prove the most expensive financial and political wrongdoing of the past 60 years? There cannot be a hard border because of the complexity of the border on the island of Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman, with his deep knowledge of the border, speaks absolute truth when he talks about its complexity. May I assure him that this Government are dedicated to making sure that the backstop is fully understood and that we understand the importance of making sure that this House can coalesce around a deal that will be acceptable? I think that that is now very much understood in the corridors of Brussels.
It is, of course, entirely reasonable that the Solicitor General should decline to conduct a running commentary on the progress of the negotiations, but can he at least confirm that, in approaching those negotiations, the Government have borne fully in mind the view of this House that the Northern Ireland backstop should be replaced with alternative arrangements—a state of affairs that I suggest would not comprehend a mere interpretative instrument?
Without going through the detail of the protocol, the hon. Gentleman knows that the particular construct of the protocol meant that, for certain items of trade, Northern Ireland was treated as a member of the single market. There would be an effective border if Great Britain changed its rules and there was a difference between the two. That is not our intention. I need not recite the matter any further. He knows that that is one reason why we have been looking carefully again at the backstop bearing in mind the decisions made by this House. It is time for him to come forward, be a statesman and vote for the deal.
I have not yet read the speech, so it would be wholly premature of me to assume what my right hon. and learned Friend, with great style no doubt, will dilate upon.
Will the Solicitor General give us an assurance that, if there is any change to the legal advice that the Government receive about the withdrawal agreement or any related documents, that advice will be given to this House before we have the opportunity to vote on any resolution to which it might be relevant?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very proper point. Very careful consideration will be given to the publication of any documents that might emanate from my right hon. and learned Friend. We are very mindful of the position that we reached in light of motions passed by this House. At the moment, it would be wrong of me to prejudge anything that might or might not exist, but I heard the hon. Gentleman very clearly.
I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that it is not appropriate to provide a running commentary during these negotiations, but does he agree that, during any negotiation, it is not appropriate to remove the option of being able to walk away, because that is what focuses the mind?
Indeed, the Government have been very clear that, when it comes to negotiations, one should not willingly and wantonly abandon the cards that they have in their hand. That is the way that we will continue to negotiate—firmly but fairly and as openly as possible, consistent with our duties to this House.
We have heard all the usual excuses today: blame the civil service; blame Brussels; blame Ireland for what is an entirely British-made problem. As long ago as December 2017, the Government, with the full support of the Democratic Unionist party, gave a binding commitment to provide a solution that would make their customs union red lines compatible with the Belfast agreement. Is it not the case that the only reason that the backstop will ever exist is because the Government have failed to deliver on those commitments? Will the Solicitor General not finally admit that, when it becomes clear that leaving the customs union and the single market is incompatible with the Belfast agreement, the Belfast agreement has to stay and the Government’s red lines have to go?
I have not been seeking to blame anybody. When it comes to constructive negotiations, I believe not in blame games, but in trying to find solutions. It is high time that the hon. Gentleman and his party actually joined the solutions-based approach rather than constantly carping from the sidelines. I am absolutely fed up with that approach. It is time that they grew up and joined the debate.
The Solicitor General is not only a great fighter for workers in his constituency, but a canny negotiator for Government. Does he agree that, rather than Members of this place parroting position lines from EU 27 Government Ministers about how difficult it would be, we need to hold our nerve and keep our best card? That way, we will get a deal and ensure that we deliver democracy at the same time.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the communities that both and I and my hon. Friend Justin Tomlinson serve in the context of Honda. He is absolutely right to say that it is rather rum for people in this House and elsewhere to constantly believe the words of other negotiating parties and other Governments as gospel and refuse to accept anything that Her Majesty’s Government might say as even in the remotest bit true.
The Solicitor General says it is in the fate of the Labour party to help him secure a deal, but that simply is not true. What concessions, if any, will the Government make towards the deal that the Labour party has put down as a potential way through this? He knows that I have given his Government the benefit of the doubt on more than one occasion by not supporting things that my party has asked me to, and actively opposing things on other occasions. I did not support the Government on the Brady amendment, but nor did I oppose it, because I believed it was important that the Government had the space to conduct negotiations to get a deal through. The wording of that amendment quite clearly said that the backstop should be “replaced”, so can the Solicitor General tell me, without equivocation, that when he brings that deal back, the backstop will have been replaced?
I note with care the hon. Gentleman’s position and I have observed what he is doing to represent his constituents. It would be somewhat pre-emptory for me to anticipate what might come back from the negotiation. I assure him that we are trying to get on with it at some speed, so that his position can be as clear as possible, and so that he can, with the rest of this House, make that all-important decision on his constituents’ behalf.
The Solicitor General will recall, as I do, that the House expressed a clear view on
This morning, the Health Secretary said that the NHS is spending £11 million preparing for no deal. In January, this House voted for the Spelman-Dromey amendment to take no deal off the table, so can the Solicitor General explain why the Government are ignoring the will of the Commons by trying to keep no deal on the table, and spending that £11 million unnecessarily?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Spelman-Dromey amendment actually committed us to a course of action whereby this House would not leave without a withdrawal agreement and future relationship. Those are not quite the same things as the assertions that he makes. He knows that I am as anxious as he is to achieve a deal. He represents a constituency that I know well, which has, shall we say, more than its fair share of challenges. I want to help him and his constituents. The way to do that is to end the uncertainty and support the deal.
My hon. Friend knows the Government’s position. The Prime Minister set out a number of ways in which there could be a revision to the withdrawal agreement. Those matters are being actively pursued, and we will come back as soon as possible, and hopefully satisfy my hon. Friend that he will be able to do the right thing and support a withdrawal agreement that will facilitate the Brexit for which he has campaigned for so long.
My hon. Friend puts it in a very attractive way; I commend him for that. He, like me, is a realist, and he knows that he, representing his constituents as ably as he does, will want to resolve the uncertainty. I know that he is very keen to do that, and I applaud him for the constructive approach that he is taking. I very much commend that to him in the days ahead.
Although I recognise the challenging position of many Opposition MPs, does the Solicitor General share my amazement at those Opposition MPs who say they cannot support the withdrawal agreement because it may include a temporary backstop, keeping us temporarily in the customs union but not paying into the coffers and without freedom of movement, and simultaneously advocate a permanent customs union that would stop us from doing international trade deals?
The one disadvantage of that inquiry, as the Clerk, having consulted his scholarly cranium, has just pointed out to me, is that it was not about Government policy, and therefore it does not warrant an answer. The hon. Gentleman has made his point in his own way, but he was asking about Opposition policy, which he knows he should not do.
Rather than having to agree with the European Union whether we have met our obligations to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, would it not be fair and reasonable to both sides to refer the matter to a process of arbitration?
Well, well. My hon. Friend tempts me down an interesting path. He knows that of course the arbitration process is contained within the provisions of the agreement itself. I think that we appreciate that time is of the essence, and that we have to operate within that constraint, which is why we are very keen to come back to this House as quickly as possible.
Last week, I listened with great attention and respect to the former Taoiseach of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, as he gave evidence to the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union. He made the point that leaving with no deal would be extremely damaging to people on both sides of the border, both Republic of Ireland businesses and Northern Ireland businesses—particularly indigenous businesses, not so much international businesses. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that for that reason it is incredibly important that this matter is resolved, and that the withdrawal agreement is passed with support right across this House?
My hon. Friend has long been a keen student of these issues. He is absolutely right to warn us about the dangers of a no deal, which is why he, I and very many others have supported a deal. It is now time for all of us to do just that and end the uncertainty.
Is it not the case that the time for running around Europe with ambitious schemes that will not be accepted is over, that that simply increases the chances of a no-deal exit and that the requests for any changes need to be detailed and precise? So can my hon. and learned Friend confirm that the Government will be going in with a targeted micro-surgery approach, not trying to blast the withdrawal agreement with a scattergun?
I can assure my hon. Friend, who speaks with conviction and passion and serves his constituents admirably, that the Government will be taking a forensic approach. This is a detailed negotiation. The time for platitudes is long gone. We will be adopting his approach in the days ahead.
If it arises from the urgent question, and in deference to the Father of the House, let us hear it.
It is a genuine point of order. In the course of the exchanges, two Members of Parliament on the Government side of the House made reference to a civil servant, Sir Oliver Robbins, who they obviously regard as some sort of political enemy, although he is a non-political civil servant. They not only repeated newspaper rumours about what he was supposed to have been overheard saying, but they did so in terms that suggested he had been drinking too much when he was overheard, of which, as far as I am aware, there has never been the slightest indication, even in any of the newspaper reports on which they were relying.
Mr Speaker, people like that have no opportunity whatever of even knowing that these allegations are about to be made, or replying to them. An increasingly unpleasant personal tone is creeping into debate about Europe, mainly from the right-wing members of my party, and it will get quite out of hand if you do not issue a word of reproof and say that that is an abuse of the privileges of the House of Commons, and is not conduct that should be repeated.
I am grateful to the Father of the House. I have had a discussion about the matter with the Clerk. I will not argue the toss about wording—it is not, strictly speaking, an abuse of the procedures of the House and it is not disorderly; but I think it is extremely undesirable, and it does represent a rank discourtesy, and indeed, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman implied, a coarsening or vulgarisation of the terms of trade in political debate, which we should all strive to avoid. Let me say to the Father of the House that I did not react as quickly as I should have done to Mr Francois when he said what he did. He was absolutely entitled to his point of view, and even to robust questioning of Ministers, of course, but he should not have said what he did about a serving civil servant.
Perhaps I can gently suggest, at the risk of embarrassing the Father of the House, that Members across the House, whatever their political views, would do well to seek to emulate his example. I have known him for 24 years, and throughout the time I have known him, I have always observed one thing: he plays the ball; he does not play the man or the woman. He sticks to the issues—rather as the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee does, on the other side of the House. That is the model that other colleagues should follow. So I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for stepping in; the point he has made is valid.