Leaving the EU: Extension Period Negotiations — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 10:39 am, 22nd May 2019

We are saying that following the referendum and the general election, we need to have a close, collaborative relationship with the European Union. We want the benefits—as were promised by the then Secretary of State—of a customs union and the single market. I do not know—perhaps the Minister can tell us—how we achieve such benefits, particularly of a customs union, without being in a customs union. How do we get frictionless trade? The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster is completely right to say that we will not get frictionless trade via a customs union alone, but we sure as hell cannot have such trade without one.

There is not a customs border between two different jurisdictions anywhere on the planet that does not have infrastructure. That really gets to the heart of this issue. Despite all this stuff about alternative arrangements, no one has been able to tell me what alternative arrangements we could put in place that would avoid infrastructure. We talk about Northern Ireland, because there are very obvious reasons why we want to maintain an infra- structure-free border there, but the same problems would arise at other ports of entry.

Alternative arrangements just do not exist. If somebody could persuade me that alternative arrangements could be put in place that would mean we do not need a border, it would be a really interesting conversation. If we could leave a customs union without infrastructure, and Ministers showed how that could be done, I would be obliged to seriously consider voting for that. However, that case has never been made, and alternative arrangements have never been outlined. We have never seen an example of how they would work. Nobody is persuaded, which is one of the reasons why we find ourselves where we are.

It struck me that hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire, object to the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should have a customs union or another vote. I understand where he is coming from—he is being completely consistent. He thinks we are being offered a customs union and a confirmatory vote, but one of the problems that the Opposition have with the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday is that but we do not think that is what is being offered. The lack of clarity and the attempt somehow to speak slightly differently to people who have different perspectives is one of the reasons we find ourselves in this position. There is a lack of trust, a lack of faith and a lack of confidence that this Prime Minister will be able to see the deal through. I find myself wondering—I am sure I am not alone—whether we will hold a vote on the Bill in the first week of June. It would be true to form to get quite close and then the Government think better of it and withdraw the proposal—in the end, we would not get to vote on it.

I want to give the Minister sufficient time to respond to questions, particularly those from the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster on our preparedness for a no-deal Brexit. Given everything we have learned from listening to industry, I venture to guess that we are nowhere near ready to leave without a deal. We do not have the infrastructure, IT or staff, and we do not have the procedures or any of the things that we will need in place to leave without a deal, certainly not by the end of October. I will be fascinated to hear how the Minister thinks we will leave.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster said one thing that really struck me: she pleaded that service to nation, not political ambition, should drive decision making as we go forward towards the end of October. I worry about that a great deal. Looking at the people who are putting themselves forward from the Conservative party to be Prime Minister, it strikes me that its members might prefer the candidate who takes the hardest position, is the most enthusiastic about leaving the EU without a deal, and promises that we will prorogue Parliament until the end of October to ensure that we get to leave without a deal.

I caution the Conservatives that that would be a disaster for the country and my constituents. I know what industrial decline looks like, and what being cavalier about these things can do to communities. They do not recover for decades, if ever. I worry about that for the country, and for the health of our democracy, too. Our democracy needs a well-functioning multiplicity of parties competing and holding each other to account. If the Tory party did that to itself, satisfied as I would be that it would be out of power for a generation, I do not think it would be the healthiest thing for our democracy. I am surprised to hear myself saying those things, but I really hope it does not elect an extreme no-deal Brexiteer to be the Prime Minister of this country. I look forward to the Minister’s response.