Uk’S Withdrawal from the EU

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:42 pm on 27th February 2019.

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Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 6:42 pm, 27th February 2019

There have been a number of excellent contributions to today’s debate from across the House, and while time prevents me from mentioning each of them I do want to single out a number of hon. and right hon. Friends, including my right hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), as well as Dame Caroline Spelman, Mr Grieve and Alberto Costa, who made a particularly passionate contribution.

We find ourselves here again debating much the same issues because we are in an impasse, yet there was little in the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday, or the thoughtful opening speech from the Minister for the Cabinet Office, to suggest that that impasse will be broken any time soon. I think it unlikely but it is of course not inconceivable that the Prime Minister will secure changes to the backstop, yet if she does they will almost certainly be minor, if not entirely cosmetic. They will certainly not be changes of the magnitude necessary to satisfy the very clear instruction set out in the amendment in the name of Sir Graham Brady, supported by the Government, that the Northern Ireland backstop be

“replaced with alternative arrangements”.

That highlights the fact that that amendment was merely a sticking plaster which hid all manner of sins in an effort to generate a temporary sense of unity among the warring factions in the Conservative party.

Now it may be that some of the less cavalier members of the European Research Group have realised what a hostage to fortune the Brady amendment was: perhaps they are now looking for a way to climb down; perhaps they are no longer insisting that the backstop be replaced in its entirety and are prepared to consider the type of reassurances that for so long they dismissed. But I would be amazed if they would satisfy both the DUP and all of the ideologues in the ERG. As such, the fundamental issues have not changed and the Government’s present strategy is likely to continue to fail. What is shameful is that the Prime Minister is fully aware of the risks she is taking yet is ploughing on regardless in an attempt to force this House to blink and accept her flawed deal. Is it any wonder that businesses and individuals across the country, many of whom are already feeling the impact of the Prime Minister’s gamble, reacted with alarm at her entirely self-serving and purposefully reckless decision to once again delay a second meaningful vote?

It has long been obvious to many of us on this side of the House that the UK will inevitably have to seek an extension to the article 50 process and postpone exit day beyond 29 March—my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer has said so repeatedly from the Dispatch Box—yet the Prime Minister has insisted repeatedly that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March, no matter what. Yesterday, she was forced to concede that an extension might be necessary after all, and, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office made clear in his opening remarks, we will now have a vote on a binding motion on 14 March if the House rejects the Prime Minister’s revised deal and again rejects a no-deal exit. This is the right thing for the Government to have done, and we will support amendment (f), tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford, if she decides to press it to a vote, to bind the Government to those commitments.

We on this side of the House will support any and all efforts to prevent a damaging no-deal departure from the EU, including supporting amendment (k), tabled by the Scottish National party. Providing for a means to reduce the time pressure in the article 50 process does not ensure that a no-deal exit is ruled out categorically as an option, but it is a crucial first step in preventing a no-deal exit from happening, either inadvertently or as a matter of intent. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd stated in their powerful contributions, the EU will agree to an extension only if it is for a purpose, and that purpose cannot be more of the strategy that the Prime Minister has adhered to in the 43 days since 15 January. That is why it is almost inevitable that this House will have to explore credible alternatives to the Prime Minister’s deal that might be capable of commanding a majority in this House.

We have set out our alternative in amendment (a), and we know that it is a credible alternative because the EU has said as much, privately and publicly. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras exposed forensically in his opening remarks, it is very different from the political declaration that the Government have currently negotiated. Importantly, amendment (a) would enshrine our new negotiating mandate in primary legislation so that no Government or Prime Minister could renege on it. We will continue to urge Ministers to abandon the pretence and move seriously to engage with our proposal, but we will also put it to the House this evening and ask Parliament to assist us in ensuring that it is the basis for a revised agreement.

I want to end my remarks, as my right hon. and learned Friend ended his, by underlining the commitment made by the Leader of the Opposition on Monday. If amendment (a) is defeated this evening, Labour will then move to propose or support future public vote amendments in Parliament that offer the British people a choice between a credible leave option endorsed by this House and the option of staying in the EU. As my right hon. and learned Friend made clear, we will do that because we have to, in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit of the kind that the Prime Minister is proposing and to avert a disastrous no-deal exit.