UK’s Withdrawal from the European Union

Part of Business of the House (Today) – in the House of Commons at 3:13 pm on 14th March 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 3:13 pm, 14th March 2019

I will speak to amendment (i), which stands in my name.

Our country faces a crisis: we have rejected the Prime Minister’s deal twice; we have affirmed that we will not support leaving the European Union without an agreement in any circumstances; and it is now inevitable that the Government will apply for the extension to article 50. Amendment (i) seeks to do two things. The first is to set out the purpose for which an extension would be sought, and that is, very simply, to enable the House of Commons to find the way forward that can command majority support. That should not be contentious. Indeed, I am somewhat surprised that that was not included in the Government’s own motion. The second aim is to enable the House of Commons next Wednesday to discuss how we are going to organise that process.

It would be preferable if the Government, in response to recent defeats they have suffered, had come forward to propose their own specific plan, but they have not yet done so. I listened very carefully to what the Minister said about reaching out in the two weeks after the March Council, but he seemed to be saying that the Government would only do that if it were a long extension rather than a short extension. I do not understand, for the life of me, why it could not happen with a short extension, because the problem is not that the House does not want to try to find a way forward—I think we all understand the responsibility we have—it is that the House has never been given the chance to do so.

We all recognise, however, that whatever view we have about what should happen next—there is a multiplicity of views in the House, and every one of them should be listened to—we have to find a way of agreeing a plan that can command majority support. The Prime Minister is correct when she says that, in the end, the House must be in favour of something. There are a number of different ways in which that can be done, including holding a series of votes on different options—as the Brexit Committee, among others, has recommended, and I support that approach—but the amendment does not specify what the method should be. That would rest with the motion to which the amendment seeks to give priority next Wednesday—a motion that would need to win widespread support to appear on the Order Paper. Members are not being asked to agree the precise process today. All the amendment seeks to do—I am afraid, in the current jargon—is to book a slot so that we have the chance to debate how we are going to resolve this.

In response to the objections raised by the Minister—he read out his speech diligently but I was not entirely sure that his heart was entirely in it—the amendment is not seeking to usurp the role of the Executive. Indeed, if the Executive were doing their job right, then the amendment would not be necessary. It is about enabling the House to debate a way forward and then vote on it. Doing that can never—never—be described as undemocratic; it is us doing our job as Members of Parliament.

The requirement in paragraph (3) of the amendment that at least 25 Members from at least five different parties would need to back a motion is not constructed to deny anybody a voice. As I made clear to the Minister when he kindly took an intervention from me, anyone can put down an amendment to that motion, but the amendment is worded in that way to encourage different Members from different parties to come together to propose a way forward that can win the support of the House.