European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:55 pm on 4th September 2019.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Independent, Runnymede and Weybridge 3:55 pm, 4th September 2019

I absolutely agree, but we have heard clearly that we cannot rule out the possibility that the Government will dispute the interpretation of the Bill and that there will be a need for litigation in the courts, to ensure that its effect is delivered.

We need to act because there is no mandate for a no-deal Brexit, and a no-deal Brexit will be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. I remind my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that many of us who are now on the Back Benches have had the privilege of seeing the detailed analysis from within Government about the precise and damaging effects of such a no-deal Brexit.

We need to act for another reason. The Prime Minister repeats two statements. He says that he is sincerely trying to get a deal, and he says that we will leave on 31 October come what may, do or die. Regrettably, those two statements are incompatible. Even if the fantasy deal that the Prime Minister sets out, where the EU concedes to every demand of the United Kingdom and removes every one of its red lines, were agreed tomorrow, it would still not be possible to get through all the stages of process required, including passage through both Houses of this Parliament, by 31 October. So we had to act.

Hilary Benn set out brilliantly the purposes of the Bill and how it works. Time is limited, so I do not intend to rehearse those arguments. I want simply to focus on two claims that are made against Conservative supporters of this Bill—or former Conservative supporters of this Bill—by the Government and seek to rebut them. Presumably these claims have been made as a justification for the mass purge that occurred last night.

The first claim is that, by removing the threat of no deal on 31 October, we are cutting the legs from under the Government in their negotiations with the EU. That is wrong. It is wrong because, actually, there is no negotiation going on with the EU. We have had confirmation from multiple sources across the European Union that nothing is happening, and confirmation from within Government that nothing is happening. The Government have declined to bring forward any proposals or serve any proposals on the European Union. It betrays a deep misunderstanding of the way European politics works. Yes, European politics is every bit as scrappy as British politics, but across the continent of Europe people who are sworn enemies and debate vigorously are used to having to make deals because, for the overwhelming majority of our colleagues in Europe, coalition Government is the norm. They have a different system from our adversarial system.

The EU has taken a remarkably consistent approach throughout these negotiations. On the format of the negotiations, on its mandate and on its commitment to transparency, it publishes everything openly. Nothing that we are doing here is going to undermine the Prime Minister’s ability to negotiate with the EU. The thing that will undermine it is his unwillingness to pursue a realistic negotiating objective. If he tried to achieve significant changes to the way the backstop works, that would be a major concession by the EU, but I do think that my right hon. Friend—as a new Prime Minister, leading a new Government—would stand at least a reasonable chance of getting a hearing and maybe succeeding. However, by setting the bar, as he has, at the total removal of the backstop, he has set the bar at a level that is impossible for the European Union to comply with.

The second claim that is made against us is that by supporting this Bill we are handing power to the Leader of the Opposition. I would sooner boil my head than hand power to the Leader of the Opposition. Most of us will have no truck with the concept of a vote of no confidence. The purpose of this Bill is to instruct this Government and this Administration how to conduct the UK’s future arrangements with the European Union. It is not an attempt to remove this Government and it is certainly not an attempt to hand power to the Leader of the Opposition. It is not we who are heightening the risk of a Government led by the Leader of the Opposition. It is my right hon. Friend by pursuing a course of action that, if unchallenged, can only lead to a no-deal Brexit.