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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:25 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Independent, Beaconsfield 4:25 pm, 22nd October 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Hilary Benn.

I am conscious that we are at the end of a long process and that we are all very tired and very weary. We have also said some quite hard things about each other, including within our own political parties, so I would not want this evening to pass without acknowledging that those who come forward to argue that we should leave on these terms have a perfectly valid point. Indeed, in trying to honour the 2016 referendum result, they have a powerful argument.

My difficulty in considering this Bill is that I have tried to cast my mind a little forward to what this Bill can and cannot do. Although this Bill is undoubtedly needed if we are going, I think there is a slight tendency to lose sight of some of its realities. For example, I listened carefully to Gloria De Piero, who said that she will vote for the Bill but that she wants to change it. We have to understand that, as this is an international treaty, the scope for changing the treaty is out of the question.

Of course we can provide some safeguards. We can put in a referendum lock and, indeed, I will vote for that in due course, but I do not want to burden the House with that this evening. We can try to change some of our domestic law, but that is a little like a letter of wishes to one’s children—there is no guarantee that the children will decide to carry it out.

If my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wishes to follow the passage of this legislation with a general election, which I can understand—I, for one, will no longer be in this House—the new Parliament, over the next year, will have to reconsider the issues raised by this withdrawal agreement and this Bill, and nothing we do can fetter the rights of this House to change completely the expression of intentions that we may decide to enact.

What is clear is that this Bill reveals a number of things that can be described as truths. First, the intention of the Government, both in the treaty and in the drafting of the Bill, is to take us towards a free trade agreement that, in reality, is likely to be very hard to negotiate, and it will have to be negotiated in the next year.

As a consequence, the risk of our crashing out at the end of 2020 is very great, because otherwise we will have to lengthen the transition, which has been described, of course, as “vassalage.” Indeed, it is a form of vassalage, which is a rather emotive word, but the reality is that we will be bound by rules that we cannot influence.

I see a very great risk that, far from the argument that the Bill will bring our problems to an end, we are just postponing the issues in a way that will continue to divide us, even though I would very much like us not to be divided.