Cross-party Talks

Exiting the European Union – in the House of Commons on 28th February 2019.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

What progress the Government have made on cross-party talks on potential changes to the withdrawal agreement and political declaration.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

As this is my first opportunity to do so, may I pay my tribute to the former hon. Member for Newport West? Paul Flynn was a true parliamentarian and he was respected across the House.

The Prime Minister, supported by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and others, has met and continues to meet MPs from across the House to understand what will command the confidence of the House. Those discussions are ongoing.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

I pay my compliments to Paul Flynn. He was a lovely man. He put his arm around quite a few of us in the early days when we were new Members.

We have had months of no progress or compromise on the deal from either the UK or the EU, but there has been some good news. Donald Tusk said that the letter from the Leader of the Opposition offered a “promising way forward” to solve the Brexit impasse. Surely the Secretary of State agrees that this could be the basis for cross-party talks, and that we could crack the need to protect jobs, trade and rights, and even help the Irish border question, through a comprehensive customs union?

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

As the shadow spokesman, Keir Starmer, said yesterday, there have been discussions between the respective Front Benches. I agree with him that it is right that we do not go into the details of those discussions on the Floor of the House, but there have been discussions and I think that that is welcome. Both the Chair of the Select Committee, Hilary Benn and other distinguished Members, such as Frank Field, noted in the debate yesterday that there had been progress. It is important that we continue to have those discussions, but that those of us on the Government Benches stand by our manifesto commitments in respect of not being part of a EU customs union.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

I have heard from people from Plymouth living in the rest of the EU who are sick to the stomach with worry about what will happen to them in the event of a no deal. What meaningful changes can the Secretary of State make to the withdrawal agreement or the political declaration to give them the certainty that these people rightly deserve?

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to secure change. The Brady amendment showed that in terms of the legally binding change to which the Prime Minister has referred. I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, like mine, also want to see us move on. The way that we do that, and end that uncertainty, is to back the Prime Minister’s deal.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union

Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that in the discussions to which he has just referred the EU has made it absolutely clear that the backstop will not be removed from the withdrawal agreement?

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

The EU has made clear that it wants a deal that will pass this House. It has heard the concerns about what it says is a temporary agreement—what article 50 says is temporary—and the concern expressed by the Attorney General in his legal advice that it could be indefinite. It has heard the concerns of this House. That has been very much the message that the Attorney General, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I have expressed in those discussions. The EU is engaging in a discussion on how we can address that.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

There is significant cross-party support to ensure we do not leave the EU without a deal. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister promised that if her deal failed to win support by 12 March the Government would give the House a chance to reject no deal the following day. Can the Secretary of State succeed where the Minister for the Cabinet Office failed yesterday, by telling the House how the Government will vote on such a motion?

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

I admire the way in which the hon. Gentleman asked a question that has been put to the Prime Minister and to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I very much echo the replies that they gave to the House. He also touches on a wider point. The positions of the parties on the winding-down arrangements in the withdrawal agreement are closer than the debate may sometimes indicate. I think that across the House we agree that we should respect our legal obligations. Across the House there is a shared commitment to avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. As we saw yesterday over the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Alberto Costa, there is also cross-party support to protect EU citizens’ rights and the rights of UK citizens in the EU. There is much on which we agree. The question is whether Members across the House will back the deal to end the uncertainty that businesses and citizens face.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

The Secretary of State is right to talk about ending the uncertainty. Frankly, this is not good enough. Business demands certainty and the country needs clarity. This House has already passed a motion expressing our opposition to a no-deal Brexit, so the Government risk being in contempt of the House. Let me give the Secretary of State one more chance: when the motion comes forward, will they vote to reject no deal—yes or no?

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

The hon. Gentleman puts the same question a second time—[Interruption.] The point is that he talks about ending uncertainty, and the way to end uncertainty is for the Labour party not to go back on its manifesto and have a second referendum, because a second referendum will prolong the uncertainty. We may end up with the same result but just a further level of uncertainty as we go through a second referendum. What we need to do is back the deal, move on and give businesses—as he and I agree—the certainty they need.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

Further to the Secretary of State’s comments about a second referendum, does he agree that there is considerable cross-party support opposing a second referendum?

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

As so often on these matters, my hon. Friend speaks a lot of sense. There is no consensus not just about a second referendum, but about what the question would be in a second referendum, because those supporting the second referendum do not even seem able to agree on what question would be put.