European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of Business of the House (Today) – in the House of Commons at 6:25 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 6:25 pm, 12th March 2019

I voted Brexit, and so did my constituency, by 62% to 38%. It always seemed to many of us that our job was to try to deliver the decision of the people, but we were aware that unfortunately we were in a minority in Parliament and might have to compromise. It became clear to many of us months ago that the EU was unwilling to unpick the agreement. It also become abundantly clear that we could not get the deal through Parliament. So, what was the way forward? It seemed to me that there was some sort of logical way forward, because the two parties themselves had agreed that the backstop should only be temporary. If the backstop proved not to be temporary, could we not, under the Vienna convention or international law, unilaterally escape from it?

I took legal advice—I am grateful to Professor Peter Willetts, the emeritus professor of global politics at City, University of London—and eventually suggested to the Government that they use the device of a conditional unilateral declaration. It was met with some scepticism at first, but the campaign continued, and I am delighted that the Government have now issued a unilateral declaration.

The shadow Brexit Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition made it clear today that they believe the unilateral declaration is not watertight because the EU has not signed up to it. That is simply not true under international law. We are perfectly entitled under international law to interpret the treaty in the way that the parties appear to want to interpret it, which is that the backstop should be temporary. Once one of these conditional interpretative declarations—that is the term of art used—is issued, it can cease to have effect only if the other party to the treaty refuses to ratify that treaty. Not only has the EU not refused to ratify the treaty, but it has not objected to our declaration.

Our declaration makes it absolutely abundantly clear that there is nothing to stop us exiting the backstop if discussions break down. We do not have to prove a lack of good faith by the EU; we have simply stated in our unilateral declaration that there is nothing to stop us exiting the backstop if discussions break down. In paragraph 14 of the Attorney General’s report, he says that this is

“a substantive and binding reinforcement” of our rights.

Now, of course there is a risk, but life is full of risks, and against the minimal risk of our being trapped in the backstop, which I believe to be minimal because we have issued the unilateral declaration and because of the stated desire of the parties, there is a much greater risk for us Brexiteers that tomorrow Parliament will block no deal, and that the next day Parliament will vote to extend article 50. For those of us who believe in Brexit and in delivering the will of the people, that is a far greater risk than the fairly small risk of our being trapped in the backstop forever. I appeal to my fellow Brexiteers: you may not like the deal, and it is not perfect, but it delivers Brexit. Let’s go for it.