European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of Business of the House (Today) – in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 6:40 pm, 12th March 2019

This has been a very important debate, and tonight’s vote will be one of the most significant votes this House will ever take. I want to thank all those who have spoken in the debate today, and indeed all those who have spoken in the debates on previous occasions. As we go to vote, I also want to put on record my thanks to the civil service and the UK negotiating team. They are dedicated, committed, and have worked tirelessly for the past two years. They deserve our thanks. Too often, they have received wholly unwonted criticism with no right of reply. The verdict that this House delivers on the deal is a verdict not on their efforts but on the mistakes made and political decisions taken by the Government, so I record my thanks—our thanks—to them for the work that they have done.

The mood in the debate today has been lively at times, but also sombre. Members have clearly been contemplating what is likely to happen tonight. The theme has been clear, and has focused on what the Prime Minister said she could deliver—namely, legally binding changes to the backstop. As has been said many times in the debate, on 12 February the Prime Minister outlined her three options for achieving those legally binding changes to the backstop: either a legally binding time limit, a legally binding unilateral exit clause, or the ideas put forward by the alternative arrangements working group. Those commitments—those promises—have been repeated many times by the Prime Minister and by other Cabinet Ministers, so much so that for many Members of this House, not least Conservative Members, this has become a matter of trust. These were promises made by the Prime Minister to them, to Parliament, and to the country.

I have repeatedly raised the question of expectations—the concern that the Prime Minister was raising expectations that she could not fulfil. When I said that last week and the week before, Conservative Members challenged me, saying that I was not optimistic enough when I said that I did not think there were going to be legally binding changes. It is now obvious that the expectations, having been raised, have not been fulfilled and the promises have not been kept.

Among the problems for the Prime Minister and the Government has been that they have been living day to day, week to week—avoiding defeat today by promising something tomorrow. That was what happened on 10 December when the vote was pulled—the Government avoiding defeat by promising assurances on the backstop. It is what happened on 29 January when the Government voted for the so-called Brady amendment requiring that the backstop be replaced. It happened on 12 February when that promise was made about legally binding changes; and it happened two weeks ago when, facing possible defeat on a crucial motion, the promise was made that we would have the meaningful vote today, a vote on no deal tomorrow, and a vote on extension the day after. They were all promises made to avoid defeat today—promises for tomorrow. But as tonight’s vote is likely to show, today has caught up with tomorrow. There can be no more buying time.

I appreciate that in the last 24 hours, the Prime Minister has valiantly tried to argue that she has delivered on her promises and that there are significant changes, but that claim has been tested in argument in this House. There was always a temporary right to suspend the backstop under the withdrawal Act if the arbitration panel found a breach of good faith. That is not new—it has been there since 25 November. There was always a commitment that the backstop would not have to be replicated. That has been there since 14 January in the letter from Presidents Tusk and Juncker.

The announcement that the letter is legally binding was made last night, but the Prime Minister made it clear that the letter had legal force on 14 January, for the first vote. “Legal force” and “legally binding” are the only difference; it is dancing on the head of a pin. That claim has been tested in this debate, and the Attorney General delivered his opinion earlier, with the key conclusion in paragraph 19 of his advice being that there is “no internationally lawful means” of exiting the backstop, “save by agreement.” He could not have been clearer. The Attorney General made much play of the difference between political and legal issues, but the problem for the Prime Minister is that she promised legal changes.

The Father of the House challenged the Leader of the Opposition on the question of the backstop, and rightly so. I make it clear: we have always accepted the need for a backstop. Nobody likes the backstop, but it is inevitable. However, as the letter from President Tusk and President Juncker makes clear, the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration

“are part of the same negotiated package.”