Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:01 pm on 3rd April 2019.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North 4:01 pm, 3rd April 2019

I support the business motion and the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn. The House of Commons is in a very unhappy and unsatisfactory place, but there can be no doubt in the minds of anyone in this House or in the country that we are in the midst of a national crisis and that we face an emergency, not least the real prospect that without affirmative action by the Government—certainly by Parliament—we risk crashing out of the European Union with no deal whatever.

I recognise that no deal is the desired outcome for some Members of this House and for some people in our country, but it is not a future that would command the support of the majority of the people; it certainly does not command the support of a majority in this House, which has ruled out that scenario repeatedly. Even those who argue for leaving the European Union with no deal, believing it to be some kind of pure Brexit—which I do not remember being sold to people during the referendum campaign, by the way—will certainly not enjoy living through it. The immediate consequences would be the complete disruption of supply chains in this country and of the ability for goods to flow across borders. The consequences for every aspect of our society would be huge, from the price of food in our shops to the ability of our businesses to function properly.

That is why, in an almost unprecedented display of unity, the CBI and the TUC have repeatedly warned this House of the consequences of no deal. That is why I am contacted regularly by businesses in my constituency, fearing the prospect. I understand that the ongoing uncertainty is damaging for our country and that by extending article 50 we might be lengthening the agony—it does feel like agony—but we are making decisions that will affect our country for generations to come. It is crucial that we get them right, for the interests of our economy, our national security, and Britain’s place and standing in the world.

The second point is that this is a mess and a shambles entirely of the Government’s making. The simple truth is that we would not be required to pass emergency legislation in these circumstances had the Prime Minister not sought to run down the clock deliberately at every moment, hoping and wishing that she would be able to ram a frankly woeful agreement and political declaration through the House of Commons, even if only by threatening us with the prospect of crashing out of the European Union. It has been “My way or the highway” consistently throughout the process. The Government, through their lack of leadership, have created a vacuum that the House of Commons now needs to fill. It is a responsibility that weighs heavily on the shoulders of every Member of this House, whatever our party affiliation, and however we voted in the referendum.

We are trying to agree a way forward that can bring some kind of satisfactory resolution to a situation that is completely unprecedented in the history of our country. People understandably criticise Parliament for not yet having been able to reach a majority on any proposition, but they should take comfort from the idea that perhaps our representative democracy is functioning quite well, because out there in the country, the people are also deeply divided—in families, workplaces and communities. It is not surprising, therefore, that this House is divided, not just along traditional lines, but within the families of our political parties.

I turn to the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central. On just two occasions, Members of the House, acting in good faith, have tried to see whether consensus can be built around any of a range of options, so that one way or another, we can draw a line under this process of negotiating our exit from the European Union. In just two days, I think we have achieved signs of breakthrough, which is rather more than the Government have done in the past two years. We have seen emerging consensus on the possibility of a deal based around a softer Brexit, and on putting a deal back to the public, so that they are given the final say on the way forward. Those proposals may not yet have achieved a majority, but after debate, proposals on a customs union and a confirmatory vote came incredibly close to securing a majority of votes.

Let us be honest with ourselves and each other: because the votes were indicative and non-binding, and certainly included Government abstentions, lots of Members have not yet had the chance to offer their views, and others, myself included, would be prepared to compromise still further to find some way forward for our country.

What we have been discussing for the best part of two and a half years, be it the Prime Minister’s deal, no deal or any range of soft Brexits, bears little resemblance to what people were sold during the referendum campaign. That is the dilemma that has plagued the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the House of Commons since 2016. A range of promises were made during the campaign, but even the finest negotiator in the history of the world would struggle to deliver in full that complete range of promises. It is simply not possible, because people were never entirely honest about the trade-offs between sovereignty, our economic interests and our partnership with our biggest trading partners—and that is before we get on to the wider geopolitics, and the disruptive world around us.

This has been a difficult process. If we want to break the deadlock and restore some democratic legitimacy to this deeply discredited process, whatever deal the House arrives at with the European Union ought to be put back to the public. That is not because it will heal all the divisions or leave everyone feeling happy; we are not in that place. It is because allowing the people the final say, particularly in a confirmatory ballot in which the deal, having already been done, would not have to return to the House of Commons, offers us the possibility of resolution. That, I accept, is a debate for another day, but unless we pass this business motion and the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central, we may not have that opportunity.

If people want to oppose and vote down the Bill, or table amendments to it, they should do that at its subsequent stages. If they want to oppose any number of proposals that might come forward in an indicative vote, they can do that again, but I think the country will look down on the House of Commons if, at this stage in the process, we do not offer an opportunity of seeing off the threat of no deal and the chaos that would ensue. We may not yet have achieved a majority and built consensus in the House of Commons, but we should show that that is not through want of trying, or through a lack of good faith, debate and deep consideration.

The public have run out of patience with Parliament—I think that is entirely reasonable—but it up to us now in the coming hours, days, weeks and months to begin the process of restoring their confidence in this House of Commons. Whatever our differences, during the referendum or since, it has been my experience in just under four years in this place that the people who serve here are people of integrity, decency and honour who are acting in the national interest and doing what they believe to be right. We may not agree on the way forward, but we can yet build consensus. Finding consensus, agreeing a way forward and, better still, involving the public might be a way to begin the process of healing our deeply divided country.