Britain's Place in the World

Part of Speaker’s Statement – in the House of Commons at 4:17 pm on 15th October 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, Chair, Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union 4:17 pm, 15th October 2019

If anybody thinks that Brexit has taken too long to get to this point, it is worth remembering that even if the Prime Minister does get a deal and it is approved by the House, it will take a very long time for us to try to negotiate a new relationship with our biggest, nearest and most important trading partners. When one thinks of the list of things to be discussed—trade, services, data transfer, security, scientific co-operation, foreign policy, standards bodies and lots and lots of other things—it is very long. That is why—I say this to Government Front Benchers—the phrase “Get Brexit Done” is incredibly misleading, because we have not even begun to get Brexit done, as the years ahead will prove.

Things could get worse, which brings me to the question of a no-deal Brexit, which the Prime Minister has said he is prepared to inflict on the country if the current talks do not reach agreement. The House does not support that. We have heard what it could mean for the Nissan car plant in Sunderland. Vauxhall has said that it will not build the new model of its car in Britain if there is no deal. We read about Operation Yellowhammer. It is just as well that the House voted to require the Prime Minister in those circumstances to apply for an extension. Given the legal assurances that were finally produced by the Government in the Court of Session in Scotland, I am sure that he will abide by the law.

For the moment, however, the talks continue. Whether they are discussions or negotiations in “a” tunnel or “the” tunnel, we can establish some things. Having previously said, “Here’s our final offer. Take it or leave it”—to which the EU replied, “Thanks very much, but that’s not the basis for an agreement”—the Government now seem to have moved again, and then again. The more we hear about what is being discussed at the moment, the more it reminds every single one of us in the House of the former Prime Minister’s customs partnership proposal—because that is what they are talking about now—only applied just to Northern Ireland, which is interesting because the current Prime Minister resigned from his job as Foreign Secretary saying of that last proposal that it “sticks in the throat” and that he could not support it. That merely proves how times change.

I think that we all understand why it is proving difficult: because a dual customs arrangement is untested; there are risks of fraud and smuggling; there are threats to the single market; it is not clear what consent mechanism Stormont would have; and it is all very complicated. We have to face up to the possibility that all we will get from the summit this week will be the EU leaders noting that some progress has been made and looking forward to further talks, in which case we are probably heading for a further extension anyway.

We know that the backstop is essential because we have to maintain that open border. The Prime Minister got himself into trouble when he announced that he wanted customs checks in Northern Ireland, which was never going to be acceptable to the EU and breached the solemn commitment that the previous Government gave to the EU in the joint declaration: that under all circumstances, there would be no checks, no infrastructure, no controls. That commitment is embedded in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.