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European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:52 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 7:52 pm, 25th March 2019

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to follow Margaret Beckett. I can tell her now that I shall be voting for her amendment if it is put to the vote at the end of the evening, as I hope it will be. I shall return to that in a moment.

I am the second signatory to amendment (a), and I want briefly to outline my thoughts on its necessity and why it may help the House. I have obviously approached this in a slightly different way from my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin. As the House will be perfectly well aware, I continue to believe that Brexit is a historic mistake of very great proportions, and I am afraid that at no time since the referendum took place have I felt, despite efforts on my part to do so, that we are moving towards a position where I could ever take the view that the future outside the EU was going to better than remaining in it.

But I certainly voted to trigger article 50. I did it in deference to the result of the referendum and in the full knowledge that we could not even start negotiations unless we did so. Although I have occasionally been characterised as trying to obstruct Brexit, the truth is that, throughout 2017 and 2018, most of the work I did was to try to improve the process because of the concerns I had that it was being shortcut, thereby making mistaken outcomes all the more likely. I think there were only two occasions when I voted on substantive motions about alternatives, but that was because I was rather worried about the extent to which the Government seemed to be self-imposing red lines, and on neither occasion did it come anywhere close to success. I accepted that, and I accepted also that I should reserve my position on what the Government were negotiating and indicated that on a number of occasions in debates.

Where I disagree with or differ from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset is that, when I finally came to look at the Government’s deal as negotiated in December, I thought it was a deal that was going to condemn us to a third-rate future. That is the basis on which I have been unwilling to support it. In saying that, I am entirely mindful of the fact that it has been negotiated in good faith by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I believe that every Member on the Front Bench has exercised as much diligence as possible to get the best possible outcome. Of course, that raises another question. If the outcome secured in December was so unsatisfactory that it was defeated by 220 votes in this House, and defeated because the examination of it from differing directions by Members on both sides of the House found it wanting, that calls into question whether in fact a fundamental error has been made and the entire process has inherent flaws.

A tendency that has crept in ever since the referendum result has been to close down debate on the basis that it is not proper to pursue it, because the referendum result must act as a diktat that prevents such debate from taking place. I have been long enough in this House to have experienced that sort of argument before, sometimes when Governments get very large majorities in general elections. I even remember on one occasion a Member of this House arguing that, because the then Labour Government had such a big majority, there was no real need any more to have the Second Reading debate of Bills, and the matter should be just put through on the nod and we should move on to the detail.

The one thing I am absolutely persuaded of is that we cannot have a working democracy where we close down debates. Democracy is all about the permanent shifting of tectonic plates. It goes on every second of every day, all the time. Just because somebody is defeated on one matter, it does not mean that they have to give up. They can keep going at it—and heaven knows, we have watched Members do just that in this House. In the same way, to argue that the referendum result imposes a permanency that cannot be challenged is, in my judgment, entirely wrong. When I look at the mess into which we have got ourselves, it appears to be at least in part the consequence of pushing that argument and thereby preventing the democratic process from working.

We get criticism that this House is not functioning properly or that democracy is not working. I think that this House has an exceptional capacity to reach sensible outcomes, but, I have to say to my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, it has been consistently prevented from doing its ordinary job by the straitjacket that has been imposed on the extent of what is acceptable to debate.