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European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:17 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd 9:17 pm, 25th March 2019

I will of course follow your instructions, Mr Speaker.

It is a great pleasure to follow Anna Soubry. I agree with everything she said, especially about Saturday’s march. It was a huge privilege for us all to be here in London to march alongside a million people. In our case, there were huge numbers of Labour members and Labour MPs, marching for what we believe is right for our country and our constituents. We have had a great debate this evening, but that has been most missing from today’s speeches, and the debate has been marked by its absence. Perhaps it is a function of the extraordinary times in which we live that there has been so little mention of the fact that a million people, some of whom travelled for many hours to get to London, came from every corner of Great Britain to take part in the march. It ought to have been given much greater attention. I put on record my personal thanks, and the thanks of many of us in the Labour party, to the People’s Vote team who organised the march and who have performed a great service to our country by keeping alive the democratic dream of a people’s vote. I hope they will continue to do so.

I first spoke in favour of a people’s vote two and a half years ago, when I contested the Labour party leadership with the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. Unfortunately, he defeated me, but he did not defeat the democratic dream of a second referendum. I am absolutely convinced by the volume of people who turned out on Saturday that all of us who have kept alive that flame of democracy over the past two and a half years have been entirely right. What people were marching for on Saturday—people who voted leave, people who voted remain and people who may not have voted at all—was nothing less than that. It was a chance to exercise their democratic right, having started Brexit, to end Brexit; and having given the Government a mandate to pursue Brexit, to then have a say at the end of the process when we know what the Brexit reality looks like.

I fear that, marching on the streets on Saturday, what I encountered was a huge amount of frustration and a huge amount of anger gently expressed but powerfully felt. There was a massive degree of despair at the dysfunction of our Parliament and our politics and, frankly, at the breakdown that many people see and feel in our very democracy. I fear that they are to be denied a chance to have their say on the outturn of Brexit, as they had their say on the starting of Brexit. If those people—some of those 1 million people on the march or the 5.5 million people who have signed the petition to revoke Brexit—were listening to today’s statement from the Prime Minister, I fear that they will have been doubly disappointed and despairing, because what they would have heard is more doublespeak. I fear that what they are likely to see tonight is more double dealing, with promises being made to Conservative Back Benchers to try to get them to back off supporting amendment (a) in return for a nebulous promise from those on the Government Treasury Bench that they will offer something similar. The truth is that we have been here before. We have seen countless false promises made from the Dispatch Box, but when it comes to the crunch, we see not just hon. Members but the country let down.

I want to say a few things before I close about the process that we are debating in respect of amendment (a)—the idea of indicative votes. The truth is that we have got to this point far too late in the process. It strikes me as extraordinary that the Government are effectively, in a rushed and desperate fashion, seemingly set to concede at the very last minute a demand that has been made by many on these Benches and across the House for several years, let alone months. I suspect, too, that this will be done in a fairly cack-handed and haphazard fashion. We do not know when it will be debated or what the process will be. The Government say that they cannot lose control of the process, but they are going to afford Members the opportunity to determine what that process is and what the options are. It seems to be an utterly shambolic state of affairs and entirely reflects the way in which the Government have handled—or rather mishandled—this for more than two years.

Worst of all, the most likely scenario and outturn will be a lowest common denominator, second-rate proposal that the Government will not even be bound to follow. Earlier on, we had the extraordinary statement that we were going to have these indicative votes, but then we heard that the Prime Minister was not necessarily going to pay any attention to them at the end of it. Again, that strikes me as entirely reflective of the shambolic way in which the Government have managed this process. If we get to the point where we have a second-rate compromise Brexit deal on the table, it will make with absolute eloquence the point of the 1 million people who marched on Saturday—that if there is a poor Brexit arrived at in this House, the only way in which the Government can honour democracy and honour the will of the people is to give them a chance to cast their vote as to its merit. I hope and anticipate that the people, in their wisdom, will reject such a deal, but they do at the very least need to be given a chance to reject it.

I have one final point on the process. One of the ways in which the Government will, I fear, try to bamboozle Members of Parliament in the coming days is to present a smörgåsbord of options: Canada plus; no deal; Norway; and a customs union. All these things will potentially come alongside options such as revoke and a people’s vote. That is no way to honour the will of this House or to properly conduct the democratic business of this House. We need to be absolutely clear that a people’s vote—a vote on the Brexit deal—is entirely separate from any of the options that we might vote on in this series of indicative votes. It would be completely tricksy and deceitful of the Government to try to confuse those two things in the public’s mind or in Parliament’s mind. The democratic, principled thing to do is to afford the people a say on whatever sort of Brexit deal is agreed on by this House, and certainly not to present an alternative between a referendum and one of those Brexit deals. That would be the wrong way to proceed, Mr Speaker, and I am sure that you will make sure that that does not happen.