Eu: Withdrawal and Future Relationship (Motions)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:57 pm on 27th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman Conservative, Mid Norfolk 5:57 pm, 27th March 2019

I start by sincerely thanking my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, Stephen Kinnock and other Members on both sides of the House who have worked to make this afternoon possible. They and all of us participating in this debate are doing democracy, this House and the Government a favour, although the Government will not admit it. And they are doing the British people, who want us to find a sensible Brexit solution, a favour.

I was a remain Minister in the last Government, but I have been very clear that we have to honour and respect the referendum result both nationally, in my duty as a Member of this House, and locally in my responsibility and duty to the people of Mid Norfolk, who voted 62% to leave whereas the country voted 52% to leave.

I have also been consistently clear that we have to respect the concerns of the 48% who did not want to leave, the legitimate interests of those citizens who could not vote in the referendum, particularly the young whose future we are shaping and who will have to live with the consequences of our actions, and the legitimate grievances of the 52% who voted to leave. One of the great disappointments of the last two and a half years is the almost shattering silence of those who brilliantly harnessed those grievances to deliver Brexit but who have not spoken about how we tackle them—the feeling of blue-collar job insecurity, the lack of proper local infrastructure, the house dumping and the sense that big government and big debt are working against the localities of this country. That agenda of renewal has to be right at the heart of delivering Brexit.

We were told today that this debate—this hunt for indicative votes—was a constitutional outrage, was a remainer conspiracy and was tying the Government’s hands. All three claims are completely false. First, since when is it a constitutional outrage for this House to control its own business? It has always controlled its own business. To those who say that the Government of the day control the business of the House, I say that, yes, they do, because their Back Benchers, normally, automatically grant them the power so to do. The sovereignty over our time has always, since the civil war, been with this House. To hear my hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg pray in aid medieval and Tudor laws against the sovereignty of this House, which I thought he was the greatest champion of, defending an Executive who prefer not to listen, was one of the most extraordinary moments of today.

Secondly, if it is a remainer conspiracy, it is some conspiracy and some set of remainers, because all of us who are working with my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin are supporting the Brexit withdrawal Bill. We are not trying to defy Brexit; we are trying to find a way to get it through. Thirdly, the claim that we are tying the Government’s hands is nonsense. This is an indicative vote to help the Front-Bench team to see where, if, God forbid, this is needed, a plan B or some further concession might be found to carry this Bill through the House if, as I hope they do not, some of my hardline Brexit colleagues, who would prefer a no deal to a deal, continue to hold the Government to ransom. Let us reach out across the House to find a Brexit that the whole country can support. Tonight, I will be voting for motions (d) and (h)—for EFTA—and I will be voting against having a second referendum. If this shambles goes on and on, in due course the British people will ultimately decide, probably in a general election. This House has to lift every rock to find a Brexit deal that can get through.

The arguments for EFTA have been beautifully put by others this afternoon, and I wish simply to make two points. The vast majority of my leave voters in Norfolk said, “Mr Freeman, I voted to be in or I want to be in a common market, not a political union.” They were stunned when they heard that the Brexit vote was somehow going to mean an extraction from all of the single market—from all the trade benefits of being in Europe. That is why EFTA is such a powerful solution. It does require free movement, but it is free movement of workers, not of citizens. I argue that it goes with two key reforms. The first is welfare reform, to make it clear that people who come here to work should not automatically receive the universal benefits that Clement Attlee put in place for those who had fallen on the beaches and paid into our country—they can earn that right. The second is a massive programme of blue-collar skills investment to support those fearing economic insecurity. Mostly, I think EFTA has something that no other solution has: it is a settlement of this question. We would be joining a bloc in Europe whereby, as we joined, we would change the dynamics of Europe. It is a bloc that has been going for 40 years. It is tried, tested and proven, and business can rely on it. I commend it as plan B, should the Government’s deal not go through.