Leaving the European Union — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:53 pm on 1st April 2019.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 6:53 pm, 1st April 2019

I agree that there is anger on both sides. We have not always heard it, but in this debate colleagues have been at pains to make sure that when they talk about the far right, or the scenes outside Parliament last Friday, in no way do they characterise all leave supporters in that way. That has happened in the past, and it is a good thing that we have not seen that this afternoon. I credit hon. Members for making sure they have not in any way allowed that perception to be taken away from this debate.

The number of people who have signed this petition and others, and who have gone on marches and protests in recent weeks, shows how many people feel left out or ignored in this process. That has to be because, after the referendum, the Prime Minister was quick to say, “I will stand up for one side of the argument alone. The 52% will get what they want and to hell with everybody else.” That is a dreadful way to attempt to lead a country. In that situation, a Prime Minister ought to have tried to work through a way that is respectful to the outcome but listens to and bears in mind the concerns and anxieties of the 48%. I am elected but I do not represent just the people who voted Labour. I do not check how people voted before I work on their behalf. We are here to serve the whole country, however they vote at elections and in the referendum.

From what people are seeing, they think that Westminster is not working. They see a Prime Minister who, rather than listening to different views, keeps putting the same deal back to Parliament, hoping for a different result. I hope the Minister reflects on that and will set out how the Government plan to go forward. The Minister and I have been in a few of these petition debates, so I will not get my hopes up, but who knows.

On the first petition, to revoke article 50, we recognise the huge amount of public support and why it has touched a nerve with so many people. Any discussion about revoking article 50 would have to be considered in the context of a final choice between that and leaving without a deal. We recognise that, given the Government’s intransigence, we could get to that point, which was almost inconceivable a year ago. In particular, I have in mind the contribution made by Sir Oliver Letwin in a recent debate, when he said that he used to think that the Prime Minister would not take us out without a deal but no longer holds that view. He knows her far better than any hon. Member here does, and his assessment is that she would consider taking us out without a deal. For that reason, as a final choice, revoking article 50 would be preferable to leaving without a deal, but we are not there yet. I am glad we are not, and I hope we never get to that point.

Our clear preference is for Parliament to have the time and the opportunity to debate credible alternatives that can command a majority in Parliament. The next stage of that begins today in the Chamber. I wish it had begun earlier, and I hope progress will be made. I do not think that Back Benchers should have had to initiate it; the Government should have initiated it or a similar process two years ago, to find a mandate on which they could have negotiated, while being obliged to engage with Parliament if the Prime Minister had managed to successfully negotiate. That is not what happened, and unfortunately we have had to take control as parliamentarians. I hope we produce a positive outcome today from this exercise. We will see at about 10 o’clock this evening.

Revoking article 50 at this stage without consulting the public in either a general election or a referendum, which is what the petition asks for, would not bring the country back together. I can understand why people are so frustrated that they reach that conclusion, but without having some kind of democratic process, that would not achieve the reunification that we should all desire. It is not the preferred approach at the moment, but I recognise it is an issue that we might need to return to in future. That will not be enough for some colleagues, but it is the most straightforward explanation of Labour’s position that I can manage.

The second petition calls for a referendum on the Prime Minister’s deal. Labour would support a public vote, which we would call a confirmatory ballot, to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or no deal. Labour colleagues here will have had several discussions over the months about the desirability or otherwise of another referendum.