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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 Exiting the European Union 4:17 pm, 15th October 2019

I am merely reporting to the House what the witness said to us today. It is the Government’s policy that there would be no tariffs coming this way across the border in Northern Ireland, but of course, as we know, the EU would impose tariffs on goods, including agricultural products, going the other way. That is the Government’s policy in a few days if there is no agreement—thank goodness the House has prevented that from happening.

There has been very little discussion so far of what really matters, which is the future economic relationship. Whatever the details of the backstop, we will have to have a backstop, and the Prime Minister has said he is in favour of a Canada-style free trade agreement. What does that mean? It means that in our relationship with our biggest and most important trading partners, there would have to be customs checks, checks on standards and checks on rules of origin. At the moment, there are none, because we are in the single market and the customs union, and we know how many businesses have built their success on the absence of those checks. That is why last week we heard five really important sectors saying how bad for them, their businesses and their employees a Canada-style free trade agreement would be.

Let us remember that the comprehensive economic and trade agreement does not eliminate all tariffs, has inferior access to the single market and no mutual recognition. We learned last week, or the week before, from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that having to fill in customs declarations would cost British businesses about £15 billion a year. We would not be in things such as the European Aviation Safety Agency or the European Chemicals Agency, which are so important to common standards, and unless we had a backstop, it would of course lead to a hard border in Northern Ireland. The Government also said they were moving away from the commitment to a level playing field. That came as a great shock. How exactly do Ministers expect to secure good quota and tariff-free access to the European Union when the United Kingdom is saying to the EU, “Well, as your nearest and most important trading partners, we might seek to undercut you as our neighbours because we will have different standards and different regulations, even though we want to carry on trading with you.”? I do not think that that is going to work. I hope that the Government are listening, because let us be frank: a Canada-style Brexit would be a hard Brexit; it would be a backward step for the economy; and the Government’s own assessment shows that it would have almost the worst impact on the economy, second only to a no-deal Brexit.

My final point is this. Here we are, meeting on Tuesday, with no idea what will be presented to us on Saturday. We have seen no papers—no draft texts, no political declaration—yet I think that a growing number of Members have come to the view that the only way in the end to resolve this question and to gain consent on the way in which leaving happens, if it is to take place, is to go back to the British people. I know that the Government have said that in no circumstances will they agree to a confirmatory referendum, but let us be honest: there are lots of other things that the Government have said during this Brexit mess that they would never do which they are now doing. Who knows what they are doing in the negotiations as we speak?

I would argue that going back to the British people does represent the compromise position in British politics. Over there are the Government arguing that they are prepared to inflict the damage of a no-deal Brexit on the nation, and over here, sitting near me, are those who argue that the referendum result should just be cancelled—scrapped—because that is what permanent revocation would mean. The moment of truth is approaching for the House. I believe that we will need to enlist the help of the British people, not to get Brexit done but to decide whether to remain or to go ahead, and if so, how.

I have never wavered from my view that Brexit is profoundly wrong for the future of our country and its place in the world—and I say that as an optimist, because the Prime Minister has no monopoly on optimism about our country—but the question is whether the British people have changed their minds. I do not know whether they have, the Prime Minister does not know and the House does not know, so let us ask the people, because they will know.