With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on yesterday’s European Council.
But before I do, I am sure that the whole House will welcome the news this morning that the Metropolitan police have arrested Julian Assange for breach of bail, after nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy. He has been also been arrested in relation to an extradition request from the United States authorities. This is now a legal matter before the courts. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make a statement on this later, but I thank the Metropolitan police for carrying out their duties with great professionalism and welcome the co-operation of the Ecuadorian Government in bringing this matter to a resolution. Mr Speaker, this goes to show that in the United Kingdom, no one is above the law.
Turning to the Council, my priority is to deliver Brexit and to do so in an orderly way that does not disrupt people’s lives, so I continue to believe we need to leave the European Union with a deal as soon as possible. And, of course, this House has voted repeatedly to avoid a no deal. Yet, despite the efforts of Members on all sides, we have not so far been able to vote for a deal, so ahead of the Council, I wrote to President Tusk to seek a short extension to the Article 50 period to 30 June. Critically, I also requested that any extension should be terminable so that whenever this House agrees a deal and ratifies the withdrawal agreement, we can get on and leave. I did this not merely to avoid a further delay beyond ratification of the withdrawal agreement, but specifically to retain our ability to leave the EU without having to hold European parliamentary elections on 23 May.
The discussions at the Council were difficult and, unsurprisingly, many of our European partners share the deep frustration that I know so many of us feel in this House over the current impasse. There was a range of views about the length of an extension, with a large number of member states preferring a longer extension to the end of this year or even into the next. In the end, what was agreed by the UK and the EU 27 was a compromise: an extension lasting until the end of October. The Council also agreed that we would update on our progress at the next meeting in June. Critically, and as I requested, the Council agreed that this extension can be terminated when the withdrawal agreement has been ratified. So, for example, if we were able to pass a deal by 22 May, we would not have to take part in European elections and, when the EU has also ratified, we would be able to leave at 11 pm on 31 May. In short, the date of our departure from the EU, and our participation in the European parliamentary elections, remains a decision for this House. As President Tusk said last night:
“During this time, the course of action will be entirely in the UK’s hands.”
In agreeing this extension, there was some discussion in the Council about whether stringent conditions should be imposed on the UK for its EU membership during this period, but I argued against this. I put the case that there is only a single tier of EU membership, with no conditionality attached beyond existing treaty obligations. The Council conclusions are clear that during the course of the extension the UK will continue to hold full membership rights. In turn, I assured my fellow leaders that the UK will continue to be bound by all our ongoing obligations as a member state, including the duty of sincere co-operation. The United Kingdom plays a responsible and constructive role on the world stage, and we always will. That is the kind of country we are.
The choices we face are stark and the timetable is clear. I believe we must now press on at pace with our efforts to reach a consensus on a deal that is in the national interest. I welcome the discussions that have taken place with the Opposition in recent days and the further talks that are resuming today. This is not the normal way of British politics and it is uncomfortable for many in both the Government and Opposition parties. Reaching an agreement will not be easy, because to be successful, it will require both sides to make compromises. But however challenging it may be politically, I profoundly believe that in this unique situation where the House is deadlocked, it is incumbent on both Front Benches to seek to work together to deliver what the British people voted for, and I think that the British people expect their politicians to do just that when the national interest demands it.
I hope that we can reach an agreement on a single unified approach that we can put to the House for approval, but if we cannot do so soon, we will seek to agree a small number of options for the future relationship that we will put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue. As I have made clear before, the Government stand ready to abide by the decision of the House, but to make this process work, the Opposition would need to agree to this, too.
With the House’s consent, we could also bring forward the withdrawal agreement Bill, which is a necessary element of any deal, whichever course we take. The Bill will take time to pass through both Houses, so if we want to get on with leaving, we need to start this process soon. It could also provide a useful forum to resolve some of the outstanding issues in the future relationship.
Crucially, any agreement on the future relationship may involve a number of additions and clarifications to the political declaration. I am pleased that at this Council, all 27 member states responded to my update on the ongoing cross-party talks by agreeing that
“the European Council is prepared to reconsider the Political Declaration on the future relationship in accordance with the positions and principles stated in its guidelines and statements”.
The Council also reiterated that the withdrawal agreement itself could not be reopened.
I know the whole country is intensely frustrated that this process to leave the European Union has still not been completed. I never wanted to seek this extension and I deeply regret that we have not yet been able to secure agreement in this House for a deal that would allow us to leave in a smooth and orderly way. I know, too, that this whole debate is putting Members on both sides of the House under immense pressure and causing uncertainty across the country. We need to resolve this, so let us use the opportunity of the recess to reflect on the decisions that will have to be made swiftly on our return after Easter. And let us then resolve to find a way through this impasse so that we can leave the European Union with a deal as soon as possible, so that we can avoid having to hold those European Parliamentary elections and, above all, so that we can fulfil the democratic decision of the referendum, deliver Brexit and move our country forward. This is our national duty as elected Members of this House and nothing today is more pressing or more vital. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement. Yesterday, EU leaders agreed to grant the United Kingdom an article 50 extension until 31 October. This means that Britain will now have to start the process of holding European elections in the extraordinary situation of not knowing whether new MEPs will take their seats, or for how long. This has come just three weeks after the Prime Minister told the House that she was not prepared to delay Brexit any longer than 30 June. This second extension in the space of a fortnight not only represents a diplomatic failure, but is another milestone in the Government’s mishandling of the entire Brexit process.
A measure of this could be seen in this House on Monday when one third of her party voted against her own policy to request a short delay and four of her Cabinet members abstained. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the request by the Leader of the House on Tuesday for the EU to reopen the withdrawal agreement has also been rebuffed? The Prime Minister stuck rigidly to a flawed plan and now the clock has run down, leaving Britain in limbo and adding to the deep uncertainty for business, workers and people all across this country.
I welcome that the Prime Minister finally decided to reach out to the Opposition last week and open talks to try to find a breakthrough. The fact that the invitation did not even come at the eleventh hour, but at five past midnight three days after the Prime Minister had missed her own Brexit deadline of 29 March, is a reflection of the Government’s fundamental error in not proceeding by consensus. However, I can report to the House that the talks now taking place between the Opposition and the Government are serious, detailed and ongoing, and I welcome the constructive engagement that we have had. Although this view may not be universally shared on the Conservative Benches, I also welcome the indications from the Government that they may be willing to move in the key areas that have prevented the Prime Minister’s deal from being supported on this side of the House. If these talks are to be a success, resulting in an agreement that can bring our country back together, the Government will have to compromise. That is why it was with disappointment that I read the Secretary of State for International Trade’s letter this week, in what seemed to be an attempt to scupper meaningful talks by all but ruling out Labour’s customs union proposal—a proposal, I might add, that is supported by business and industry bodies as well as by all leading trade unions in this country. It is a proposal that European Union leaders and the Irish Taoiseach just yesterday said is both credible and negotiable.
Labour will continue to engage constructively in talks, because we respect the result of the referendum and we are committed to defending jobs, industry and living standards by delivering a close economic relationship with the European Union and securing frictionless trade with improved rights and standards. If that is not possible, we believe all options should remain on the table, including the option of a public vote. We see no advantage in the proposals of the Secretary of State for International Trade to create distance and divergence in our trading relationship with our largest trading partner.
This House must also bear in mind that after a deal has passed, the current Prime Minister has said that she will step down. We have no idea who may succeed her, so with that in mind, we have to entrench any agreement, because some of those already throwing their hats into the ring have said that they would scrap the Human Rights Act, they would rip up burdensome regulation, or they would even prefer to leave without any deal at all. Some on the Conservative Benches want nothing more than to use Brexit to create a race to the bottom, opening up our economy to US big pharma companies in our national health service and hormone-treated beef on our plates, to slash workers’ rights and consumer standards, and to have the UK become a virtual tax haven on the shores of Europe.
Let me be clear to the Prime Minister and to the country: Labour will not support any deal that would leave us open to such a dystopian vision for the future of this country. It is incumbent on all of us now to find a way forward. We must continue to talk to each other, and if the Government are serious, the red lines must move and we must see a real compromise. I look forward to the discussions in the coming days and, even at this late stage, to working to find a deal that can command the support not only of this House, but, perhaps more importantly, of the public across this country too.
The talks between the Government and the Opposition have indeed been serious. They are detailed and they are being taken forward in a constructive and positive fashion. We did, of course, offer talks at an earlier stage than very recently, but I am pleased that we are now able to sit down in this way.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue about the European parliamentary elections. Of course, had Members in this House voted with a majority to agree the withdrawal agreement on 29 March, we would have guaranteed leaving on 22 May and not holding the European parliamentary elections. At the time, obviously, he did not feel able to support a deal to enable us not to hold those European parliamentary elections. It is still possible to do so, and we will continue to work on that.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the need for us to protect jobs, industry and living standards; indeed, that is what we have been aiming to do with the deal that we agreed with the European Union. But we have been doing that not just in relation to the deal with the European Union. It is this Government who have presided over record levels of people in employment. It is this Government who have helped people with their living standards, with tax cuts for 32 million people.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the future relationship and the need to entrench aspects of the future relationship. Of course, the Government did, on 29 March, say that we would accept the amendment tabled on the Order Paper by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), which would require Parliament to have a role in looking at the future relationship and the negotiating objectives for the future. That clearly makes the case that any Government —any Government—as they are going through those negotiations, will have to ensure that they take Parliament with them in agreeing that future relationship.
On the issue of coming together in an agreement, the point is very simple. I am not prepared just to accept Labour’s policies; the Labour Party is not prepared just to accept our policies. As the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has said, this takes compromise on both sides, and that is what we are doing: sitting down seriously to find a way that enables this House to ensure that there is a deal that commands a majority, so that we can leave the European Union, fulfil the vote of the British people in 2016 in the referendum and do so in a way that does indeed protect jobs, living standards and industry.
May I urge my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to stick to her commitment to lead the country through to the conclusion of the Brexit process, and to ignore some of the vicious attacks being made upon her by our more extreme right-wing colleagues?
Given that my right hon. Friend rightly points out that, in the national interest, the next obvious step is to reach a settlement between the Government and the principal Opposition party on the best way forward, will she indicate that it is clear that the minimum that that requires is some sort of customs arrangement and sufficient regulatory alignment at least to keep our trade as open and free as it has been across the channel and in the Republic of Ireland? Can she negotiate that so that it does actually bind any successor Government in future negotiations?
My right hon. and learned Friend is right that, as we look to that future relationship, we are looking at the customs arrangement that would be in place in that future relationship. We have already indicated, as is in fact reflected in the political declaration, that we want to retain the benefits of a customs union—no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin checks. That is provided for in the political declaration as it currently stands. Of course, we have not been able to enshrine that in legal text, because it is not possible for the European Union to negotiate that treaty with us until we are a third country—until we are out of the European Union—so any commitments that are made here will be about the negotiating objectives that we take through into that process. However, there will still be negotiations to be had with the European Union.
In terms of adding to and clarifying what is in that political declaration, and the position of the UK Government, the EU Council, as I have indicated, has said that it would be willing to look at additions and clarifications to that political decoration.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of her statement. What a total fiasco the past few weeks, months and years have been under this shambolic Tory Government. The UK did not leave the EU in March, and thankfully, given the efforts of SNP politicians and others in this place, and the good will of the European Union, we will not crash out of the EU on Friday. What an irony that it is the European Union that has got the UK out of this mess. Let that be a lesson for Members in this place: it is the EU that has put the interests of our citizens in the UK first—our businesses, our farmers and our fishermen. We should not be lambasting the EU but thanking it.
With the European Union agreeing to a further extension to article 50, the Prime Minister must use this time to hold a second EU referendum, with the option of remaining on the ballot paper. It is now a very real possibility that we can remain in the European Union. There were a total of 133 days between the 1997 general election and the devolution referendum in Scotland. As of today, there are 204 days until the new Brexit deadline on 31 October. Will the Prime Minister now remove the ridiculous excuse that there is not enough time to hold a second referendum, with remain on the ballot paper? Scotland did not vote for Brexit and should not be forced to accept any Brexit deal that will harm our interests. The only way forward is to put the decision back to the people.
Scotland will not support a Brexit deal cooked up by the Brexit-supporting Labour and Tory parties, so let me ask this; yesterday, the Prime Minister ducked and dived my questioning, so a simple yes or no will suffice. Have the Government offered a second EU referendum in talks with the Labour party? Yes or no? Has the Labour party requested a second EU referendum in the talks? Yes or no? Is the Labour party cosying up to the Tories, asking to end freedom of movement as the price for their support for a Tory deal? [Hon. Members: “Yes or no?”]
Finally, will the Prime Minister recognise that she cannot fix this mess alone? She should stop ignoring the people of Scotland and open meaningful discussions with the devolved Governments and civic society. The Prime Minister should start leading by listening and please get her head out of the sand.
The Government have not offered a second referendum. I said to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions that our position on that issue had not changed. A second referendum has been rejected twice by this House. But, of course, once we have agreed a deal and the Bill is going through that puts that in place, I am sure there will be Members of this House—because there are Members who do support a second referendum—who will want to press their case.
There is not an issue of an excuse about timing. I believe it is important for us to deliver on the result of the first referendum that took place in 2016. And can I just say this to the right hon. Gentleman? If he is so interested in referendums, the question is, will he now abide by the result of the 2014 Scottish referendum? Yes or no?
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the anger that her abject surrender last night has generated across the country? Having broken promises 100 times not to extend the time, she knows what I am saying—and she has done that. Does she also accept that this withdrawal agreement undermines our democracy, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, our right to govern ourselves, our control over our laws, and our national interest? Will she resign? [Interruption.]
I think you know the answer to that. I say to my hon. Friend, first, that I do not recognise the description of the withdrawal agreement that he has put before this House. I believe we have negotiated a good deal for the United Kingdom. He references the fact that I have said on many occasions in this House—he is absolutely right, and he and other hon. Friends have been keeping count—that I wanted us to leave the European Union on 29 March, and indeed I did. I voted for the UK to leave the European Union on 29 March. I wanted us to set in train that guaranteed leaving on 22 May. I voted to leave on 22 May. Sadly, a sufficient number of Members across this House did not vote to leave the European Union on those dates, and hence the extension has been requested to enable us to come to a position where this House can agree, on a majority, a deal that we can then deliver to leave the European Union.
May I thank the Prime Minister for putting the national interest above her party’s interest in rejecting no deal and applying for, and agreeing to, an extension of article 50?
We may now have more time, but our businesses face more uncertainty. May I encourage the Prime Minister, during the Easter recess, to take her own advice and reflect on the decisions that need to be made, and then to decide to put her deal to the British people, so that they themselves can decide whether they still wish to leave now that we know the actual choices that Brexit involves or whether they wish to remain, and we can finally bring the crisis facing our country to a conclusion?
As I told the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), neither I nor the Government have changed our view on the need for this House, for this Parliament, to deliver on the result of the first referendum. Let me also say to the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said in my statement, I think it is for all of us across the House to recognise the decisions that now face us. It is for the House to determine whether we are going to deliver Brexit for the British people. We have that opportunity. We can work together to find an agreement that will command a majority of the House, and if we do that in time, we can leave the European Union without holding the European parliamentary elections.
Some car factories in my region are already in a forced shutdown because of the Brexit uncertainty. I thank the Prime Minister for helping us to avoid a no-deal crash-out, and, through her, I thank the 27 Heads of State who supported that decision. Will she elaborate a bit more on her words about creating a forum to establish our future relationship with Europe?
I think that my right hon. Friend is alluding to references that I have made previously to the importance, as we are looking at that negotiation on the future relationship, of ensuring not only that Parliament has a greater role in that process, but that we have wider consultations with civil society, businesses and trade unions. The exact format of that forum has not yet been determined, but I think that it will be an important element of the next stage of the process, to ensure that all voices are being heard and can contribute to the debate on that future relationship.
As the Prime Minister has again acknowledged, notwithstanding her own personal objections the House could choose to attach a referendum amendment to the withdrawal Bill. Bearing in mind the constitutional advice that we shared in cross-party talks a few weeks ago, will she now ask her officials to prepare a timetable, to be completed before the end of October, in which such a hypothetical poll could be conducted if the House willed it?
The right hon. Gentleman is aware of the Government’s position on the issue that he has raised. As I have said, there are those in the House who may wish to press their case on this matter when the legislation is going through, but let me gently remind him that the House has already rejected the proposal for a second referendum twice.
Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to remind the House again that, although the Leader of the Opposition said that he was not invited to engage in talks until five past 12, he actually refused to do so some time ago? If he had not, we could have moved this process on a lot more quickly. Is it not also the case that whatever we may say, the simple fact is that the European Commission has said that the only deal that is available to us is the one that the Prime Minister is recommending to the House?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right on that last point. The question of the withdrawal agreement and the fact that it could not be reopened was reiterated again by the European Council in its decision yesterday.
It is the case that it was some weeks ago that I first offered the Leader of the Opposition the opportunity to talk. We had an initial meeting. There was then not the same level of follow-up meetings and the same level of interest. What I am pleased about is that there is, I think, a change in the approach that is being taken: we are both sitting down seriously, looking at these issues in detail and looking at them constructively.
Until yesterday, the EU was saying very clearly that unless there was a credible plan for an election or a referendum, or a prospect of getting the withdrawal agreement through soon, it would not grant an extension, and that if it did, there would be stringent conditions. In fact, it held to neither of those statements. When it was faced with the unpalatable choice of a no deal, it backed down. Will the Prime Minister learn the lesson of that? She continues to reiterate what the EU has said about the withdrawal agreement, and to praise her withdrawal agreement, but she, and the rest of the Government Front Bench, voted for changes to the backstop and the withdrawal agreement, and the Attorney General, in his devastating critique of it, said that it had not changed the fundamentals of what had been agreed. Will she please examine where she is going with all this, learn the lessons, and come back with something that can actually secure a majority in the House?
On the issue of extensions, will the Prime Minister also bear in mind that the current Session of Parliament is—I understand—due to end fairly soon? There is some talk of extending it beyond two years. I think that many in the House, including those on this Bench, would consider that unacceptable.
We have consistently sought to change the withdrawal agreement, and in particular to change the backstop. The right hon. Gentleman will know full well that we have argued on many occasions for a time limit or a unilateral exit clause, or the replacement of the withdrawal agreement by alternative arrangements. Before the withdrawal agreement was originally agreed in November, the Government pushed consistently for an exit clause, but the EU did not agree to it then. After the first meaningful vote, we raised the issue again. We sought to change the withdrawal agreement, and pushed for it to be replaced by alternative arrangements.
In January, there was an exchange of letters between myself and the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Council. On 11 March, in Strasbourg, the President of the European Commission and I agreed a package which means that the EU cannot try to trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely—that would be explicitly a breach of the legally binding commitments that we have agreed—and there is a legal commitment that both parties aim to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by December 2020. At every stage, we have been working to secure changes in the withdrawal agreement. The European Union has been clear—
The right hon. Gentleman says that the EU has backed down. Yesterday I did put the case in relation to conditionality to which he refers, and there was discussion around the table about the issue. The aspect on which I think everyone around the table focused is that, legally, there is only a single tier of membership of the European Union, and the EU rejected the concept of conditionality on that basis.
The Prime Minister will recall that the Conservative manifesto contained a commitment to negotiate a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement. Does she agree that her political declaration—which has been agreed—and her discussions with the Labour party are being conducted in that spirit? Will she keep going, and try to keep to the timetable that will avoid the European elections? Many of us feel that it is time to get this done.
We are indeed conducting the negotiations in the spirit that my right hon. and learned Friend has described, and I do indeed want to achieve the timetable that he has set. I think that many of us on both sides of the House believe that it is important for us to do all that we can to set this in train to ensure that we can leave the European Union before the European parliamentary elections.
We are in this difficult situation because the Government’s approach has not worked, and simply going round in the same circles or doing the same things will not solve the problem either. It would be helpful to understand how far the Prime Minister is actually prepared to reconsider her red lines. Is she now willing to consider a common external tariff with the EU—which is a key part of any customs union—or does she still rule that out?
Obviously the House has rejected the Government’s plan. The House has also rejected the Opposition’s plan. The House has rejected no deal, the House has rejected revocation, and the House has rejected a second referendum. At some stage, the House needs to come to an agreement on what it can agree on in order to take this issue forward. When people talk about the customs union—[Interruption.] Yes, I am aware of the question that the right hon. Lady asked. I think that there is more agreement in relation to a customs union than is often given credit when different language is used. We have been clear that we want to obtain the benefits of a customs union—no tariffs, no rules of origin checks and no quotas, while being able to operate our own independent trade policy. The Labour party has said that it wants a say in trade policy. The question is how we can provide for this country to be in charge of its trade policy in the future.
The fact remains that we would have left the EU by now on World Trade Organisation terms if the Prime Minister had not extended deadlines. The investment decisions underpinning our strong economic performance in recent years have been taken in the full knowledge that we could be leaving on WTO terms. Will the Prime Minister therefore show more confidence and commit to the House that if this Parliament does not pass a deal we will be leaving on WTO terms—terms by which we profitably trade with many countries outside the EU?
My hon. Friend has continued to champion the concept of leaving without a deal with the European Union. I believe that it is important for this country that we are able to leave in an orderly way. He references WTO terms. We trade with many countries across the world not on WTO terms but on the terms that are determined by the EU trade agreements with those countries.
However, leaving without a deal is not just about our trade arrangements. It is about other issues. It is about our security as a country as well. There are other matters that a deal will cover. I continue to believe that leaving with a deal in an orderly way is in the best interests of this country, and that is what I am pursuing.
In the midst of these important and inevitably contentious exchanges, may I ask the House to join me in warmly welcoming in the Gallery today the former Speaker of the New Zealand Parliament David Carter, accompanied by Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, the honourable Anne Tolley MP. It is a great delight to welcome you both. You come from a country that we regard as a great friend, and David you have been a great friend to us and to me. Welcome.
Does the Prime Minister take any responsibility for the fact that she, a Conservative Unionist Prime Minister, signed up to the backstop originally without ensuring that she would get support in Parliament for it? The only vote that went through with a big majority was the Brady amendment. Has she really done her best to get the backstop removed? It must be removed before the House will support her withdrawal agreement.
As I said earlier, we have at every stage taken this issue of the backstop. We have been arguing with the European Union in relation to this issue. As a result of the decision that was taken by the House, we took the Brady amendment back to the EU. The legally binding changes that were obtained in the agreement in Strasbourg between me and the President of the European Commission were a direct result of reflecting the views of the House. The Government have been clear not only that is there an accelerated timetable to determine alternative arrangements that can replace the backstop but that we have committed to putting money into the work that will ensure that we have those alternative arrangements to replace the backstop.
The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) knows that my view is that the backstop should never be used and need never be used. We need to ensure that we have the relationship in the future. That is why the future relationship is the important way of sustainably ensuring that we meet all our obligations, including those in relation to a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The Government continue in office thanks to the support of our confidence and supply partners. In the event that the withdrawal agreement is pushed through unamended over the heads of those partners, will the Prime Minister be seeking the confidence of the Labour party?
I recognise that reaching across the divide between the Government and Opposition Front Benches to attempt to come to an agreement on a matter is not usual practice. It is virtually unprecedented in the conditions in which we are doing it today. I believe that it is in the national interest for this House to deliver on the result of the referendum, to deliver Brexit for the British people and to do so in an orderly way. I have now voted three times to leave the European Union with a deal. I want to see this House by a majority voting to leave the European Union with a deal, and that is the work we are carrying on. That is where we try to find agreement across the House.
I welcome the extension because it provides time for a people’s vote, and I agree with the words of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) when he says that it is the only way out of the crisis and to end the uncertainty.
Mr Speaker, it will not have escaped you that a number of hon. Members have heard the words of the Prime Minister when she speaks about compromise, but she still refuses to say, or is unable to tell the House, what is her compromise. What are the red lines that she has set down that she now intends to rub out? Prime Minister, please answer those questions. Which of your red lines are you now prepared to rub out?
The whole point of sitting down, negotiating and trying to come to an agreement is that both sides explore where that point of agreement may be. Those are the discussions that we are having. We are entering into them seriously—
Oh, rub out, rub out. I suggest that the right hon. Lady looks at the moves that the Government have already made in a number of areas that have been requested by Members across this House.
The Government, Leo Varadkar, Michel Barnier and Angela Merkel have all said that there will be no hard border even in the event of no deal. So can we now put the idea of a Northern Ireland forever backstop out of its misery and work on mitigating an up-front customs union if a customs union is the price of Labour support for getting something approximating Brexit over the line?
I have talked with a number of those my hon. Friend has cited in relation to the border, but the European Union has absolutely been clear that the rules of the European Union must be applied at the border in the event of no deal. Some of the other comments have been taken out of context in the interpretation that has been given to them. I come back to the position that I set out earlier on the issue of a customs union. We want to see the benefits of a customs union—that is in the political declaration—no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin checks. We also want to see, and this was reflected in the political declaration, an independent trade policy. The Labour party has a position of the benefits of a customs union with a say in trade policy. We are very clear that the benefits of a customs union can be obtained while ensuring that we have the freedom to make those trade deals around the rest of the world that we want to make as an independent country.
I thank the Prime Minister on behalf of my constituents in Exeter for ensuring that this country does not crash out of the European Union without a deal tomorrow. That was in the national interest, and I thank her for that. Does she recognise, in the national interest, that the only way out of this gridlock is to give the decision back to the people: to give them a confirmatory vote on her Brexit deal?
The way out of this gridlock is for the House to identify the deal that it can agree and take forward and that can command a majority of the House. It is for this House to deliver on the result of the referendum that took place in 2016.
Clearly the Prime Minister has won the respect of the European Union leaders. It is really important that we have good relations with our near neighbours and allies. It is essential for our prosperity and security. I urge her to ignore the bullies on our Back Benches, stick to her guns and deliver the Brexit that was in our manifesto so well described by the Leader of the House.
I thank my hon. Friend. We are aiming to deliver what I believe people in this country voted for: a Brexit that protects jobs and livelihoods, protects our security and protects our Union but also ensures that we bring an end to free movement, that we are no longer under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and that we no longer send vast sums of money to the European Union every year. That is what we are aiming to deliver, and I want to see a deal that enables us to do that gaining a majority in this House.
I am grateful for advance sight of the statement. Twenty-seven leaders decided the UK’s fate last night, while the Prime Minister waited for their decision outside. Seven of those leaders represent countries whose populations are smaller than that of Wales, yet we are told here in Westminster that Wales is too small and too poor to have a seat at the table. Does the Prime Minister agree that Wales would be best served in a Union that treats its members as equals rather than staying in this self-harming Union of inequality?
As the right hon. Lady knows well, we work with the devolved Administrations across the United Kingdom in taking forward the issues of particular concern to various parts of the United Kingdom to determine the right way forward. We entered the European Union as one United Kingdom and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom.
Following the referendum in 2016, and given the two major parties’ policies in 2017, we have a collective responsibility to deliver. The rational, responsible, practical way forward is to take the withdrawal agreement, with a majority, through this House and then move on with the best possible customs arrangements. That would satisfy most people—including, I believe, the majority of the people in Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important for us to deliver on the vote in the referendum. He reminds the House that the two main parties in the Chamber both campaigned at the last general election on manifestos precisely to deliver that Brexit, and that is what we should be looking to do.
Prime Minister, we need to use this extension for a purpose. One more heave is not good enough, and it will not work. Neither will trying to con people that we can have all the benefits of a customs union and still have a completely independent trade policy. I ask her once again: does she acknowledge that, even if it is not what she wants, putting her withdrawal agreement to the public is the way to break this Brexit deadlock and get the resolution our country desperately needs?
I genuinely believe that the way to break the Brexit deadlock is for this House to be able to agree on a deal that will deliver on the vote of the British people.
At Prime Minister’s questions on 20 March, when I asked the Prime Minister why she was seeking to extend article 50 having promised 108 times not to do so, she said:
“as Prime Minister I could not consider a delay further beyond 30 June.”—[Official Report, 20 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 1041.]
We now have an extension up to 31 October. Prime Minister, how are you going to honour that commitment you gave to the House on 20 March?
This House and I can honour that commitment by voting for a deal that enables us to leave before 30 June.
The Prime Minister has applied for and now been granted two extensions to the article 50 period. She did that to avoid the consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Those consequences were laid out by the Cabinet Secretary two weeks ago: rising food prices, shortages of food, stockpiling medicine, huge damage to manufacturing and the weakening of our national security. Yet for two years she talked up that outcome, saying that no deal is better than a bad deal. That irresponsible rhetoric helped to normalise those consequences in the minds of the public. Does she regret talking up no deal, legitimising an outcome that she knows is bad for the country and which, through the acceptance of these extensions, she is desperate to avoid?
I stand by what I have consistently said in relation to no deal being better than a bad deal, but we have a good deal. I have voted on three occasions in this House for us to leave the European Union with a deal. All Members of this House who wish to deliver on leaving the European Union need to think about how we can come together and find a majority that enables us to do just that. I have voted to leave with a deal; I hope the right hon. Gentleman will want to vote to leave with a deal in the future, too.
Since the first defeat of the deeply flawed withdrawal agreement, the Government seem to have focused on how to make all other options worse rather than how to make the agreement better. Given that that narrow strategy continues to fail and cross-party talks may not bear fruit, what assurances and outline did the Prime Minister give our EU friends on her plan B, such that this latest extension becomes one with a purpose?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—the point was made earlier about the European Union expressing that it wanted a purpose for any extension. I was clear with it about the approach we are taking, the talks we are having with the Opposition and, as I made clear in my statement last week, that if we cannot come to an agreement with the Opposition such that there would be a proposal that would meet a majority across the House, we would move to a means of ensuring that this House was able to vote on options and come to a decision as to its preferred option of what would be able to get a majority across this House. The extension is there to enable us to put that process into place.
A six-month delay is just 74 sitting days and to waste that on a Tory leadership contest would be an unforgiveable act of self-indulgence—for once, the Prime Minister might agree with me. She has wasted the last two years. Will she undertake not to waste one day further by supporting the immediate establishment of a House business committee so that we might have a chance of having a process that is in the interests of the country rather than of the Tory party, with more votes being pulled at the last minute and more game playing?
No. Arrangements in relation to the business of this House have been changing in recent days, through decisions taken by this House, but I do not believe that the establishment of a House business committee is the right way forward.
The Prime Minister’s first extension was based on the fact that we would ratify the withdrawal agreement, and in what was in effect meaningful vote 3 we turned it down again. Now she has been given another extension—longer than she asked for—yet again on the basis that somehow we will ratify the withdrawal agreement. Perseverance is a virtue, but sheer obstinacy is not. [Interruption.] Prime Minister, if, as I suspect, the Leader of the Opposition strings you along in these talks and then finds a pretext to collapse them and throws in a confidence motion, what will you do then?
I would continue to argue for the Conservative party remaining in government. It is a party that has led to a situation in this country where we see record levels of employment, 32 million people with tax cuts, a modern industrial strategy and 1.9 million more children in “good” or “outstanding” schools. We are delivering for people, and that is why this party should remain in government.
I welcome this extension and the ruling out of a catastrophic no deal. I also welcome the talks going on between our two parties, because it is important that we try to find consensus and attempt to break the deadlock. However, I warn the Prime Minister that attempting to decouple the issue of a deal from whether it goes back to the people for their confirmation will not be acceptable to many people on the Opposition Benches, or indeed an increasing number on her own. Will she recognise that the only way to break the deadlock will be a confirmatory vote, putting this issue back to the people?
The hon. Gentleman will have heard the answers I gave earlier to similar questions about a second referendum. We gave a vote to the British people in 2016 and I genuinely believe that we should be delivering on that. I think that, actually, there is a view across this House that we should be delivering on Brexit. The question is finding an agreement across the House that enables us to do that, to get the legislation through and to leave the EU.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the House comes together to support a deal in a timely fashion after Easter, there would be every reason not need to hold the European elections?
My hon. Friend is right. Obviously, it is a very tight timetable, but if we were able to have an agreement that commanded a majority across this House—obviously, we would have to get the legislation through—my ambition and aim would be to do that so that we do not need to hold the European parliamentary elections.
Whenever the Prime Minister is asked about a second referendum, she is keen to remind us that that option has been defeated twice in this House, but of course her withdrawal agreement has been defeated three times. On its second outing in this House, the motion for a second referendum got 280 votes, which was considerably better than her withdrawal agreement did on its second outing. In fact, if support for a second referendum grew at the same rate as that for her withdrawal agreement, it would win outright if it got a third vote. In recognition of that fact, if the Prime Minister cannot get an agreement with Her Majesty’s Opposition, will she include a second referendum in the number of options she intends to put this House?
The hon. and learned Lady is talking about process in relation to a second referendum. What this House needs to agree is the basis on which we can leave the European Union, which is the substance of our discussions with the Opposition.
Many in this place and, more importantly, many exporting businesses and farmers will welcome the fact that they no longer face tariffs that would threaten their survival, which is what would have happened if we had crashed out with no deal tomorrow night. To that extent, the Council conclusions are very welcome. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that, contrary to the many voices from the Opposition Benches, a second referendum would not be the end but the start of the process, and that in the current climate it would be much more likely to lead to greater division in this country, rather than the healing that we desperately need?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am concerned that a second referendum would increase division in our society and across this country at a time when we need to bring people together. We can bring people together by agreeing the way in which we can leave the European Union, getting on with it and delivering for people on their vote.
Following on from the question asked by the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), it seems that our body politic is increasingly fearful of the electorate. We are held hostage to the 2016 referendum and other public ballots. Is it not true that the tone and conduct of us as politicians and of the Prime Minister as a leader of our country are increasingly important and as important as the policies themselves? Is not now the time for us to sit back, reflect and investigate how we can use public ballots to bring people together as a country, not run scared from public ballots, and to understand how we can lead through elections with rigour and a focus on fact rather than division?
I recognise the passion and seriousness with which the hon. Gentleman has campaigned and championed, in this House and elsewhere, the concept of a second referendum. Nobody is running scared of the electorate. We gave the electorate the opportunity to determine the fate of this country in relation to its membership of the European Union, and they made a decision that we should leave the European Union. If we were to go back to the people in a second referendum, I think that many would fear that that was a sign of bad faith in relation to their politicians and that could damage our democracy.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for all her efforts to remove the nonsense of no deal from the agenda. In her statement she said that if the talks fall—I certainly hope that that will not be the case—she will put to the House a series of votes to determine which course to pursue. Will she confirm that there will be preferential voting system to allow the House finally to decide on one solution to this problem?
What I have said—and this is the Government’s intention—is that if the talks with the Opposition fail to find a point of agreement between us that we believe would get a majority across this House, we would work with the Opposition to identify options and votes to be put to this House to find a way of determining a single result. There are a number of ways in which it is possible to do that. I think it would be important to ensure, were we in that position, that whatever system was chosen was genuinely going to come to a proper reflection of the views of this House.
The Prime Minister knows that full membership of the single market is the only way we can guarantee workers’ rights and the integrity of the Union and do something for the services sector, which represents 80% of the economy. A stand-alone customs union simply does not cut it. In the options that will be presented to us if the talks do not work, can she guarantee that full membership of the single market through the European economic area will be on offer?
I do not recognise the picture painted by the hon. Gentleman. It is not the case that full membership of the single market is the only way to achieve the benefits that he has referred to. He is right that it is particularly important, as we leave the European Union, that we have a care for our services sector, given the significant extent to which it plays a role in our economy. On flexibility, maintaining and recognising the importance of the City of London, particularly in financial services and the risk borne here in the United Kingdom, leads us to want to see that greater flexibility in relation to services.
It is not the case that the only way to ensure that we maintain and enhance workers’ rights in the United Kingdom is through full membership of the single market. This is a Government who are enhancing workers’ rights, because we believe that is what is right in the United Kingdom.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are many other very important issues facing the European Union—including, for the moment, the United Kingdom—particularly in respect of the EU’s crucial relationship with China? Given the extension granted by our European partners, will she confirm that she will direct Britain’s negotiators to use the extra valuable time creatively in relation to trade with China, which when we have left the European Union will inevitably be much harder to negotiate?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are a number of other issues facing the European Union, including its relationship with China. He will be aware of the benefits that the United Kingdom already has from investment from, and interaction of trade with, China. We will, of course, want to enhance that for the future. As a member of the European Union during this extension, we will continue to participate and to operate with that duty of sincere co-operation and fulfil all our rights and obligations.
The Prime Minister has wasted most of the past two years negotiating Brexit with her own divided party. What she actually needs to do is to rub out her red lines to bring this House and our country together. The problem is that she always puts her party before country. Will she now commit to stop flogging her dead horse of a deal, face down the hardliners in her own party and give serious consideration to a people’s vote, which her own Chancellor has said is a perfectly credible proposition?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me, a former Business Minister, that this country’s businesses, on which we all rely, deserve better than this ongoing crisis and chaos, and need the certainty that could be delivered if every Member of this House respected the referendum and a vote to leave in their constituency, and voted for it? Could she also tell me what to tell voters on the doorsteps on 2 May, when my hard-working local councillors risk being thrown out, after four years of really good work on our behalf, for something that they are not responsible for?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of our finding a way through in this House to deliver on Brexit and to ensure that we do so in an orderly way. He should tell voters on the doorsteps that this is a Government who have been working, and who continue to work, to deliver Brexit. When it comes to the local council elections, I am sure that people will recognise that if they want good local services and lower council tax, there is only one way to vote and that is Conservative.
I commend the Prime Minister for the flexibility she has shown in recent days in rejecting a no deal and requesting the extension to article 50 that she had previously rejected. May I ask that she shows a similar spirit of compromise in accepting that one way in which she could get her deal through this Parliament is by attaching to it a people’s vote?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier answer.
I also support the Prime Minister’s efforts in continuing to seek a resolution to this problem, and I share her concerns about being where we are, but I am concerned that the next time we seek an extension it may not be there. In order to avoid the dramatic consequences of that, and in addition to pursuing the withdrawal agreement as she rightly should, will she be as flexible as possible in relation to the alternatives and, if she is to get a true reflection of the House’s view, allow free votes on those alternatives to ensure that we can get an agreement over the line, leave the EU and have the future relationship with the EU that we want?
This is the first opportunity I have had to thank my right hon. Friend for all his work as a Minister over the years.
We are working to see whether we can find a point of agreement with the Opposition that would command a majority in this House. If we are not able to do that, we will want to agree how we can take votes forward such that we identify an opinion across this House that would command a majority and enable us, as he says, to leave the European Union in an orderly way that is good for the UK.
In these negotiations the EU demanded £39 billion, and got it; an unnecessary Irish backstop, and got it; a withdrawal agreement that would tie our hands in future negotiations, and got it; and extensions that go against commitments given by the Prime Minister, and got it. Can she give us any example of any EU demand that she has actually resisted?
I could give plenty of examples, but I will give the right hon. Gentleman just two. We resisted a Northern Ireland-only customs territory in the backstop and made sure it is a UK-wide customs territory. He says that the EU demanded £39 billion. No, it did not. It started off at £100 billion, and our negotiations got it down.
Most Members of this House will have at the forefront of their mind the issue of citizens’ rights. Although I welcome the Prime Minister’s pledge to respect the rights of EU nationals here and the reciprocal rights given by some member states, in the absence of a withdrawal agreement those rights are not underpinned by international law. Will she help arrange a meeting between me, British in Europe, which represents more than 1 million British citizens in Europe, the3million and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to discuss these issues?
My hon. Friend has resolutely championed the cause of EU citizens here in the UK and of UK citizens living in the European Union. We welcome the contribution that EU citizens have made here in the United Kingdom, which is why we have given our guarantee to protect their rights. We are working with the EU27, which has, at various levels, guaranteed the rights of UK citizens living in EU countries. We continue to work to ensure that we have those reciprocal rights, but my hon. Friend has raised an issue of importance, and I am happy to ensure that he and those representatives are able to meet the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to discuss these issues.
The Prime Minister has referred to the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, which I assume is ready to go. Can she tell the House how the Government intend to judge when and whether they will be in a position to bring forward that Bill?
Crucially, we will see how the talks with the Opposition progress. As I have said, there have been further talks today. The talks have been conducted in a positive and constructive manner, and I look forward to them continuing to be conducted in that manner. Obviously, if we are able to reach a point of agreement with the Opposition on the way forward, that is what we will seek to bring to this House.
The Prime Minister has spoken of the need for compromise, so will she undertake, in the additional six months or so that we have been allotted as a consequence of the article 50 extension, to seek to persuade the European Union of the need to compromise and show less obduracy on the issue of the Irish backstop? Will she explain to the EU that, so long as the Irish backstop remains unamended, it is extremely unlikely that the withdrawal agreement will be approved by this House?
As I enunciated earlier, over not just the last few months but in advance of the withdrawal agreement being agreed in November 2018, we have been pressing the issue of the Irish backstop. As my right hon. Friend knows, legally binding changes were obtained in the agreement between me and President Juncker at Strasbourg in early March. Those changes were, of course, brought to this House, and the House then continued to reject the withdrawal agreement. What we are now doing is finding a way through that ensures the deal we have agreed with the European Union can find a majority in this House. Once again, the European Union has been clear that the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation.
The six largest manufacturers in my constituency and the National Farmers Union all pressed to take a no deal off the table, and I am extremely glad that that has happened. When the Prime Minister next looks at the Opposition’s proposal for a permanent customs union, will she bear in mind the example of Turkey, which is in the customs union but also has its own separate trade deals with third countries?
I can assure the hon. Lady that people have spoken to me, both positively and negatively, about the Turkish example in relation to a customs union. In practice, Turkey does not find itself able to have that freedom in relation to trade deals because of its arrangements with the European Union.
I have a timber processing plant in my Ayr constituency and, for the first time in 20 years, it has maxed out its storage and, at great expense, secured additional product storage, all due to Brexit uncertainty. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that these costs cannot be borne indefinitely? Collectively, as a Parliament, we need to get the Brexit deal done to bring certainty to all our businesses.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing home in a very real way the impact that the uncertainty is having on businesses across the country. I want to bring an end to that uncertainty, and I want to do it as soon as possible. We can only do it if this House is able to come together and find a majority for a deal that enables us to leave.
Guy Verhofstadt has said it is “a simple fact” that there is no “big obstacle” to an independent Scotland rejoining the EU, yet the Prime Minister said yesterday that independence would mean Scotland is thrown out of the EU. Indeed, that is what the people of Scotland were told time and again in the run-up to the independence referendum. Will the Prime Minister retract the ridiculous assertion that Scotland will somehow, uniquely, not be allowed to join the EU, despite potentially being one of its richest member states?
The hon. Lady needs to recall the statements that were clearly made by the European Union when Scottish independence was being considered in the referendum. The point is very simple. The SNP said at the time that Scotland, if it voted for independence, could just carry on being a member of the European Union, and the EU was very clear that Scotland would have to apply to become a member. That was very clear at the time of the independence referendum, and it was said clearly by the European Union.
My constituents welcome the fact that the Prime Minister is trying to work across party to secure a final resolution to Brexit. May I ask her, when considering her red lines, to look at the evidence of the ComRes poll that was conducted immediately after the referendum vote, which indicated that only 35% of those voting leave believed that they were voting to leave the single market or the customs union? Will she do a value for money assessment on our confidence and supply partners, when they are both undermining confidence in the UK and failing to supply votes?
When people voted across the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, obviously individuals voted for different reasons, but I think underlying the vote was that desire to ensure that the United Kingdom, as an independent nation, could make decisions for itself in a number of areas where it was previously not making those decisions. What we want to see—what I think people want to see collectively across this House—is us, outside the European Union, continuing to have a good trading relationship with the European Union. I think the deep and special partnership that we have spoken about is important for us, for the future, to have with our nearest neighbours, and that is what we are pursuing.
Prime Minister, today, when the cross-party talks with the Labour party resume, may I suggest that the Labour leader is firmly reminded that he cannot pick and choose the days on which he stands up and defends the Good Friday agreement? Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, he was quite happy to stand up and, quite rightly defend the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, to mark the 21st anniversary of the signing of that agreement. He described it as
“a great achievement…by the Labour Government at that time”—[Official Report, 10 April 2019; Vol. 658, c. 309],
and it was. It brought peace, which we cherish in Northern Ireland and right across the United Kingdom. But the Leader of the Opposition must stand up every day and defend the Good Friday agreement.
Order. May I very gently say to the hon. Lady that questions to the Prime Minister are about matters for which she is responsible. The Prime Minister is not responsible for what the Leader of the Opposition does or does not say, and we have got a lot to get through, so we need it in a sentence.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I urge the Prime Minister, in the cross-party talks today, to remind the Leader of the Opposition that the Good Friday agreement and the protection of the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the consent principle are guaranteed by her Brexit deal, which is therefore something that the Labour party should support?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The Brexit deal does defend the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We are very clear that we will continue to meet the commitments that we, as a United Kingdom Government, have in relation to that agreement. That is recognised on all sides. We have made those statements clearly within the deal that we have negotiated with the European Union, and I believe that is another reason why it should be supported.
How difficult is it to negotiate with our EU partners now, when actions taken by this Parliament and advice given to the Prime Minister by No. 10 mean that my right hon. Friend has no choice but to take whatever she is given by our European partners?
I think this is the first opportunity I have had to thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done. The fact that we have made the preparations that we have for no deal is largely down to the work that he did as the Minister responsible for that in the Department for Exiting the European Union during his time there.
Of course, earlier this week this House did vote to require an extension to be requested from the European Union. It also maintained the prerogative power for the Government to enter into international agreements—to have that flexibility. The House has made known its view on a number of issues; what it has not so far been able to do is actually come to an agreement on the withdrawal agreement and a deal, such that we can move forward and leave the European Union.
It is good, of course, that the Front Benchers are talking to one another. The trouble is that this Parliament is not quite as simple as that. We have had more Members resign from their political parties than in any other Parliament in history. We have had more Members resign from their posts on the Government side and the Opposition side than in any other Parliament in history. So the truth is, we shall have to go on to the next stage fairly quickly. I would just urge the Prime Minister to do that. Will she answer the question that the leader of the DUP asked earlier, about whether it is her intention to keep this parliamentary Session going all the way through to 31 October? That would give enormous amounts of power to the Government, and I think it would be a wholly retrograde step.
My focus at the moment, in relation to parliamentary time, is on seeing whether we can find an agreement that will enable us to do what is necessary to get a withdrawal agreement ratified by this Parliament so that we can leave the European Union.
May I thank the Prime Minister for going out to Brussels, standing up in the national interest and coming back with an extension that means we can avoid the car crash and disaster of a hard Brexit? I commend her for opening negotiations with the Opposition. Will those negotiations have a timetable or structure? Will we know what the process will be when we come back after Easter? I think that would give hon. Members satisfaction and an idea of where we are getting to and, if necessary, what the alternative plan Bs are.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Obviously the nature of our discussions with the Opposition and how they progress will determine the timetable, but I am very clear that if we are to meet the desire, which I certainly have, of not holding European parliamentary elections, then of course there is a time- table that needs to be adhered to, so we will need to make that decision soon. With constructive talks, as they are at the moment, I think it is absolutely right that we continue to see whether we can find the point of agreement between us.
Many of us who are watching the Prime Minister working very hard and diligently believe that, in her own way, she has been pursuing the national interest, and we thank her for it. I welcome the fact that, in the national interest, she has reached out across the parties to get this sorted. May I give her some good news? I feel that, having got the delay, there is now a much more optimistic spirit here—in May I will have been in this House for 40 years, so I have a good feel for this place—and that across the parties we can get more good will and really get this sorted. Let us cast aside some of the red lines and all that stuff and come into the room in a positive spirit. We on the Back Benches will support the Opposition leadership and her leadership, in the national interest, if that gets it sorted.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the optimism that he has shown, and for his reference to the positive mood in the House. I hope that we will indeed be able to do as he suggests and find a way through, because I think that the public want us to do exactly as he said: to get this sorted.
The views of Brenda from Bristol are definitely echoed by those of Beryl of Banbury. The last thing we want is European parliamentary elections. I ask the Prime Minister, even though she has now managed to achieve a longer extension, to do everything she can to ensure that we leave the EU as quickly as possible, as my constituents voted to do nearly three years ago.
Getting the terminability of the extension was very important for us. It means that it is in our hands; we can leave earlier, on a timescale that means we do not have to hold European parliamentary elections, and we can deliver for my hon. Friend’s constituents and constituents up and down the country.
The Prime Minister has now asked this House several times to vote for her deal. The fact is that if she agreed to put it a confirmatory vote, it would sail through. Is the reason she does not want to do so that she thinks it would not achieve a majority and, if so, is that not thoroughly undemocratic? If she genuinely believes that it delivers the will of the people, why will she not ask them?
No, it is not because I am concerned about what the result of such a vote would be; it is because I believe that, having given the decision to the British people on whether we should leave the European Union, it is the duty of this House to deliver on that.
Is not it abundantly clear that anyone who believes that a second referendum will bring the nation together was on another planet during the last one?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. I believe that a second referendum would be divisive, rather than healing.
The deal will require ratification by the European Parliament. The current European Parliament will sit for the last time a week from today, and then after the elections it will meet just once in July to sort itself out. It will not really meet properly until October or November. Is an earlier leaving date not actually an impossibility, because the deal cannot be ratified?
No, it is not an impossibility. It is possible for the European Parliament to ratify in advance of the United Kingdom ratifying.
As a long-term supporter of the deal of my right hon. Friend, I congratulate her on coming back from Europe with an extension that does not have the onerous conditions that we were all told would be imposed. Speaking for the businesses in the midlands, may I say that time is of the essence? They are not getting the bank loans that they need and are going out of business. May I also say, with reference to the Opposition, that it is the Opposition who are being blamed for their intransigence and sheer bloody-mindedness in this matter?
In relation to businesses, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: time is of the essence. It is important that we bring the uncertainty that businesses are facing to a conclusion. That is why it is absolutely right that we do everything we can to find a way through to achieving a majority in this House that delivers on Brexit and that does it in an orderly way so that we give certainty to those businesses.
President Tusk urged the Prime Minister to use the time well and her EU counterparts have urged a duty of sincere co-operation on her. I had hoped that that duty would extend to the cross-party talks, but listening to her replies in this place today, I am filled with a growing dismay that she has failed to understand that the Labour party’s negotiating mandate has been set out by the members at our party conference and that it says that any deal needs to be put back to the people for a confirmatory ballot with an option to remain. I can tell her now that those talks will not succeed unless she hardwires that into the withdrawal agreement Bill; she simply will not get a stable majority for that Bill in this place.
Both sides—both Government and Opposition—are approaching these talks with the aim of constructively looking to see whether we can find a way through this that will command a majority in this House that will then enable us to get the legislation through. The hon. Lady did what other hon. and right hon. Members on both the Labour and the Government Benches did at the previous general election, which is stood on a manifesto to deliver Brexit.
In her statement, my right hon. Friend spoke of the British people being frustrated with the present situation. I can certainly confirm that that applies to my constituents, but they are also angry and feel that our country has been humiliated. Can the Prime Minister give them at least a crumb of comfort by absolutely assuring them that there will most certainly never ever be another application for an extension? Does she agree that the one benefit from the extension is that it gives us even more time to prepare for no deal?
I thank my hon. Friend for the support that he has recently shown for the deal. The best way that we can give that confidence to his constituents is by ensuring that, in this House, we agree a deal so that we are then able to deliver on our leaving of the European Union.
The Prime Minister said a moment ago that the European Parliament can vote to ratify the deal before we can in this Parliament. Presumably, during the interlude, there will be further negotiations to change the political declaration. Will she tell me how she intends to entrench any agreements on the political declaration that are made in good faith between the two parties if not by a public confirmatory vote? Such a vote will make the agreements on the declaration sustainable as it will prevent them being ripped up by a future leader.
We have already indicated our intention to ensure that Parliament has a greater role in relation to the future relationship by accepting, as we said on 29 March, the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell). Elements of this are about the political declaration, but there are also elements that are about what we do here in this House in UK legislation to ensure that we are entrenching objectives for that future relationship. Of course, the negotiation still has to take place with the EU on that future relationship, but there are many steps that we can take here in the United Kingdom to give confidence to Members of this House.
The Prime Minister’s resolve—especially with her lack of sleep—in trying to persuade this House to come up with an acceptable solution to our Brexit problem is to be highly commended. In return, will she continue to resolve to press our European partners for the only thing that has had a majority in this House, namely the Brady amendment combined with the Malthouse compromise?
The position on the withdrawal agreement has been reiterated by the European Council, but of course the point of the Brady amendment was that alternative arrangements should be in place that could replace the backstop. One of the things that we have agreed with the European Union is a timetable for work on those alternative arrangements. As I indicated earlier, the Government have committed funding for the work that is necessary to ensure that we will be in a position such that, at the end of December 2020, the backstop would not need to be used and that, if interim arrangements were necessary, those alternative arrangements would be available.
The 78% of my constituents who voted remain do not want an extension; they just want this business stopped. The ways to break this deadlock are a new referendum, a new House of Commons or a new Prime Minister, so which is it going to be?
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that I believe it is the duty of this House—I believe it is the duty of this Parliament—to deliver on the result of the referendum that took place in 2016 with a deal to leave the European Union in an orderly way, and that is what we are working to do.
This House very much appreciates the Prime Minister’s desire to leave with a deal. However, the Prime Minister will appreciate that a responsible Government must prepare for all eventualities. There are Members of this House who do not favour a no-deal scenario because they feel that the country is not ready to leave in such circumstances. Given that we are now in extended territory in terms of leaving the EU, will the Prime Minister kindly give the House an assurance that she has given instructions to the Government to prepare for no deal, should we reach that eventuality? I hope that she appreciates that doing so not only would strengthen our position as far as the EU is concerned in further negotiations, but would mean, if we did have to leave on a no-deal basis, that we could do so with confidence and without fear.
It is right, as we have not yet agreed a deal on the basis on which we are leaving the European Union, that we continue to make preparations for all eventualities. However, I also say to my hon. Friend that, in a no-deal situation, it would not simply be a question of what the United Kingdom Government had done; it would be a question of what other Governments in the European Union had done. While any preparations would be made to mitigate the impact of no deal, of course there would be elements outwith the control of the UK Government.
The Prime Minister will be relieved to hear that I am not going to ask to dip into her stash of cough sweets, but I want to follow up on something she said to the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman). The Prime Minister said one of the things she wants to do with the time now available to her is to hear what businesses and the public think about all the things in front of us. Does she recognise that the fairest, most inclusive and most democratic way to do that would be to learn from other countries and have a citizens’ assembly?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, particularly given the state of her throat and voice. As we have indicated, we are obviously looking at establishing a more formal forum in which it is possible to bring people together. We have been listening to business, of course, and we have been talking and listening to trade unions and civil society, but we are looking at a more formal way of doing that. Arrangements for that will be set out in due course.
Will the Prime Minister accept the very clear message I got from my fellow commuters from Chislehurst this morning, who I think are pretty representative of my constituency? They say she has done the right thing by the country in avoiding no deal, which would have done real harm to their real world jobs and businesses; they believe that, in the real world, there is no harm in seeking compromise and reaching out—in fact, that is a good thing—and that rigidity and fundamentalism do not work; and they want her to have our support in continuing to see this through and have the matter done.
I thank my hon. Friend and thank the commuters from Chislehurst for the comments that have been brought into the House. That is absolutely right. I think that people recognise the importance of compromise and recognise the importance of working this through, finding a solution, and getting it done.
I feel sure that the commuters of Chislehurst were greatly encouraged to be accompanied on their journey by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill).
The Prime Minister, three years after the referendum, is finally engaged in cross-party talks, but she may recall that as long ago as the week she took office, I wrote to her calling for cross-party working in the national interest and for her to urgently engage the country, through a national convention, on how we move forward. So with committed Brexiteers like Peter Oborne now expressing concern about where we have reached and the risks of Brexit for our economy and our Union, who does she plan to involve in the more formal forum she has described in order to engage the public in how we move forward and use the next six months wisely to bring our divided country together?
We do want to bring our divided country together. First of all, in order to do that, we need to have agreement across this House for a deal that can ensure that we can deliver Brexit and then move on to the second stage where we will indeed be having that commitment both in terms of the responsibilities and involvement of this House but also of businesses, trade unions and civil society.
Given the collective failure of Parliament so far to secure the withdrawal agreement that will allow us to leave the European Union, the Prime Minister is absolutely right to seek cross-party consensus, secure an extension of article 50, and urge us to a resolution of this as quickly as possible to avoid the European Union elections. In that process, the wording on customs arrangements in the future political declaration is likely to be key. I have asked the Chairman of our Select Committee on Leaving the EU to distribute a briefing on this, but could my right hon. Friend also organise for leading representatives of major business organisations to brief Members across the House on the importance of the withdrawal agreement Bill and what their views on the customs union are?
My hon. Friend has made a very interesting and important suggestion, and I will certainly look very carefully at it. It is important that Members of this House have as much information as possible when they are making decisions on these matters, and certainly the voice of business will be an important part of that.
I must thank the Prime Minister for having me round exactly a week ago—it feels like six months ago—for a much more agreeable cross-party dialogue than the confrontational exchanges that we have in here. I congratulate her on her achievement of the wee hours yesterday night, or this morning—whenever it was. In recognition of the spirit of reaching consensus that she talked about—we discussed last week how all our constituents just want this stalemate moved on from—I am now prepared to allow her deal to pass, subject to the small rider that it has attached to the end of it a ratificatory referendum to check that the will of the people in 2016 is the will of the people now. I feel that would imbue it with democratic renewal. That is my compromise—it is a big climbdown from what I have said all the way up to now—and I just wonder if she would tell us what is hers.
I was happy to have a discussion with the hon. Lady last week. I think that in her question she referenced the need that constituents feel to be able to move on from this situation. I just say to her gently that I do not think that holding a second referendum would enable people to move on—it would create further division.
I thank the Prime Minister for all that she has done over the past weeks, days and months, and for what she achieved yesterday. Will she join me in thanking Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s representative at the European Union, and his staff, and indeed many of the fellow leaders at the European Council who showed great good will towards the United Kingdom in coming to this agreement and listening to the points that she made? They are our partners for the future, whatever that holds.
I am very happy to welcome and congratulate Sir Tim Barrow and all his staff on all the work that they have done. They have been putting in long hours on behalf of the United Kingdom and made a really important contribution to the work that we have been doing with the EU in negotiating this particular deal. My hon. Friend is also absolutely right about those EU leaders who were willing to come round the table to get that agreement yesterday. Some broke off from election campaigning. One restricted a trip that he was making to Vietnam in order to come. I was grateful to them for that. They are our partners and they will continue to be our partners.
When, two years ago, the Prime Minister devised a Brexit that reflected the will of the people, I assume that it did not include many elements of Labour policy. If she agrees a blue-red Brexit with the Leader of the Opposition, it cannot, by definition, reflect her interpretation of the will of the people. Does that not make the case for a people’s vote unassailable?