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European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:04 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 8:04 pm, 25th March 2019

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but for the reasons I am about to advance I think the Prime Minister made a very significant statement today, to which many others have drawn attention. What she said bears repeating:

“Unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen.”

I take that to be a solemn and binding commitment from the Prime Minister, and the inevitable consequence, which she did not want to acknowledge in her statement, is that, unless she gets her deal through, she will have to apply for an extension prior to 12 April.

Why has amendment (a) been tabled? We are discussing it because the Government’s deal has been defeated twice, no deal has been defeated twice, and the Prime Minister has said twice and more, “We know what Parliament is against; what is Parliament for?” The purpose of the amendment is extremely simple: it is to give us the chance to show what we might be in favour of. If the Government were doing their job, the amendment would not be necessary; it is because the Government are not doing their job that it is required.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office is a very charming man, but his arguments against the amendment were, frankly, hopelessly confused. I will summarise the Government’s position. They are opposed to the amendment, but they want there to be a process. If the amendment is defeated they promise their own process, but that appears to consist of a debate later in the week and then something later on, the precise form of which we do not yet know. They seem to want Parliament to agree on something, but they cannot promise to accept any consensus that might emerge out of this process. They castigate us for not having reached an agreement, but oppose tonight the very proposal that is intended to enable us to do precisely that. The situation is frankly absurd. If I may say so in his absence, I do not think that the Minister’s heart was really in his argument tonight, because the Government seem to be saying, in effect, “Well, if it passes, we’ll get on with it.” Let us break out of the circular argument—my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer expressed it brilliantly—and get on with it.

I simply want to encourage every Member who has a realistic proposition to put it forward on Wednesday if the amendment is carried. In the report that the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union published the very day after the first defeat of the Government’s plan, it set out the broad options. This is not about the withdrawal agreement, because the Prime Minister could not have been clearer today when she said:

“Everyone should be absolutely clear that changing the withdrawal agreement is simply not an option. This is about the political declaration.”

There was an exchange across the Chamber about that, and there is a fundamental flaw in the suggestion that the withdrawal agreement alone—not the political declaration—might somehow be passed this week. If that happened and the EU responded by saying, “Ah! You have passed the withdrawal agreement alone this week. Okay, we will give you till 22 May”, what would happen if we then asked the EU in the week leading up to 22 May whether we could have a bit more time? The EU would say, “No, you can’t, because you didn’t take part in the European elections.” I am afraid that the proposition of a separate vote on the withdrawal agreement as a way out of the crisis falls at the first hurdle.

On Wednesday, when our pink slips are distributed, I am looking forward to voting Aye to remaining in a customs union with the EU; Aye to a Norway plus-type arrangement, which could embrace Common Market 2.0; and Aye to a confirmatory referendum. Other Members may be looking forward to voting for things that they would be prepared to consider.

My final point is that the word “indicative” is important. This Wednesday is about indicating a direction of travel that Members might be prepared to support. It is not definitive. We may well need to get to that point in the next stage of the process. So Wednesday is not the end, merely the beginning. It is long overdue, and I hope that the House will enable it to happen by carrying amendment (a) tonight.