European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of Business of the House (Today) – in the House of Commons at 4:14 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 4:14 pm, 12th March 2019

The Secretary of State is shaking his head, but I take a different view from him as to whether this is in fact a significant or substantial change.

If we are able to reach agreement on an alternative way forward, the second choice the House of Commons will have to make is whether we should go back to the British people to ask them, “Is that what you wanted?”—especially if we did end up approving something like Norway and the customs union. We could argue that that is rather different from what was argued for by the leave campaign during the original referendum. I suppose the central question on that choice, a point which has been made by others today, is whether the electorate have the right to change their mind and, in the same breath, the right not to change their mind. It would be the people’s choice.

The final point I want to make, because time is short, is to say this about sovereignty, which is really at the heart of the referendum, of the decision we have to make as a House of Commons, and of the choice that we as Members wrestle with in trying to decide how to cast our vote. Last week, I met a group of parliamentarians from North Macedonia. We talked about our troubles to do with EU membership. They said to me, “75% of the people of North Macedonia are really keen to join the European Union and NATO.” I asked them why. They replied with three words: stability, opportunity, progress. Whatever else can be said in this debate, Mr Speaker, you cannot apply those words to our country in its current condition.

The Prime Minister, in opening her speech today, said that the deal says something about our country and what it has delivered. I would say to her that it certainly does say something, because her deal has delivered instability, it will entrench a loss of opportunity and it is not progress. It is going backwards. There is further proof of that today. What has Nissan announced? That production of the Infiniti car in Sunderland will end. The long, slow decline of British car manufacturing, which was once the jewel in our manufacturing industry, has, I am very sorry to say, well and truly begun.

This goes to the heart of the mess that we are in, which is not the backstop—we have spent hours on the backstop—but the fact that, after two-and-a-half years of internal argument during which the Government have refused to make choices, the political declaration is so vague that we have no idea where we are going. The Prime Minister also said on the political declaration that we should look at all the things her deal has delivered. I simply say to her: no, it has not. It is not legally binding and there is no certainty. A new Prime Minister could come along in a month, a year or two years and say, “Forget all that. I am now taking the country in a different direction.” That is the reason I will not vote for this deal tonight.

The Prime Minister ended her speech by saying let us demonstrate what politics is for. I would simply say to her that whatever it is for, it is not this agreement.