Uk’S Withdrawal from the European Union

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 13th March 2019.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 4:26 pm, 13th March 2019

I am going to be very brief—as brief as I can be. I have already taken longer than I intended.

The argument is that these matters were settled by the referendum, but one of the problems is that the debate at the time of the referendum does not resemble the debates that we keep having, with ever more frequency, in the House. That is not because we are out of touch with the real world. It is because the referendum was conducted in the most bizarre, broad-brush terms, with the leading figures on both sides using ridiculous or dishonest arguments in order to make their case, which had nothing whatever to do with the merits or otherwise of being in the European Union.

Remainers, I am afraid—the key remainers, David Cameron and George Osborne—decided to raise all those fears of immediate catastrophe, which did not actually materialise. That has led people now to say that every future warning from every major business lobby in the country, from the Treasury, from the Government and from everyone else is to be ignored. That is a classic case of crying wolf: one day the wolf actually arrives, and we cannot conduct the government of this country on the basis that we ignore every expert piece of opinion we have, which most of us in fact agree with because we think their warnings are correct.

The referendum gets invoked in all our other debates, too. When I ask my constituents who are leavers—most of them, I am glad to say, voted remain—it is clear that the idea that they were expressing a view on the Irish border and the problems of the Good Friday agreement when they voted to leave, or that most of them were expressing any opinion on the single market or the customs union, is absolute nonsense. Indeed when I talk to members of the public now—who are all expressing anger about the state of affairs we are in—they are still not lobbying me about the Irish border and the single market and all the rest of it. We are having to be engaged in this because our duty is governance; our duty is the medium and longer term better governance of this country, and we have to address the real world of a globalised economy and today’s systems of regulation and the international order in which we have to earn our living against a background of bewildering technological change.

All the arguments about the damage to business and the threat to Ireland, including its constitutional position, and so on have already been addressed by others and I have agreed with every word that has been said. However, I want briefly to give my reaction to that handful—I think it is no more—of Members who seem to think now that no deal is positively desirable and that it is an objective we should have sought from the first. They make it sound very respectable by describing it as “WTO rules”, but I strongly suspect that many who argue that point had scarcely heard of the WTO at the time of the referendum, and I do not think most of them understand what WTO rules actually comprise. I will not go into too much detail, not least because I have not refreshed my own memory too greatly, but there is no developed country in the world that seeks to trade in today’s globalised economy only on WTO rules. They are a fall-back that cover all that international trade that is not governed by recognised free trade agreements. They are designed to ensure that there is no discrimination among countries with which we do not have an agreement. That is why they require a schedule of tariffs, to be accepted by the WTO, and then those tariffs to be imposed on all those countries with which there is no agreement. That means the EU is obliged by WTO rules, now much loved by Brexiteers, to impose the same tariffs on us that it imposes on other third party countries, and we are obliged to impose the same schedule of tariffs on the EU and all other countries with which we do not have a deal.

There are WTO rules that do not allow countries to abdicate a thing like the Irish border. We cannot say we are not going to put any border posts in, so we are going to have organised smuggling become the major industry of the island because we have no idea how we are going to enforce it all. Not only would the Republic be under great pressure from the rest of the EU, but WTO rules would require us to co-operate with policing our border, collecting tariffs, regulatory checks, customs checks and all the rest.

My main worry, however, is not entirely about these short-term consequences, catastrophic though they would be for some sections of our economy including agriculture and the motor industry. My main worry is that, whatever happens in the global economy, the effect of leaving with no deal in the medium and long term and on the comparative economic strength of this country will be that we and the next generation will be made poorer than we would otherwise be. That will be the result if we cannot move away from this no deal nonsense, and I hope a big majority settles that tonight.

Finally, I just want to be totally clear what the Government’s intentions and motives now are. I hope I have been reassured that, if we pass this motion tonight, the Government will in all circumstances take whatever steps it is eventually necessary to take in 16 days’ time to avoid our leaving with no deal. I do not want them to come back in a fortnight’s time saying to the House, “It’s your fault, because you will not vote for the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, so sadly we are going to have to leave with no deal.” We are ruling this out. That really means having indicative votes to give us some idea of what the British are going to negotiate over the next two or three years. Failing that, it means revoking article 50. Speaking as someone who is a diehard European—