(10 months ago)Read Full debate
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 224908 relating to leaving the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. This is certainly not the first petition that relates to leaving the European Union; it is not even the first this month, and nor is this the first debate on such a petition that I have led.
Exactly: we return to it. I will read the petition, entitled “Brexit re article 50 it must not be suspended/stopped under any circumstances”, into Hansard so that it can have its full say:
“The full details are well known to everyone the media has covered it fully, the British people MUST be given the Brexit they voted for anything else is not acceptable to the British public ARTICLE 50 must not under any circumstances be hindered/suspended/stopped for any reason whatsoever the time is here to take action as there has been excessive feet dragging/delaying tactics by those opposed to Brexit.”
The petition ran for six months and received 116,470 signatures.
Obviously this issue continues to exercise members of the public, just as it exercises Members of this House, and it will continue to do so. In recent debates, we have seen that passions run high and that there are different opinions in the House. Similarly, I am sure, colleagues’ inboxes will reflect the number of people saying a variety of things. Although I am a London MP and my situation will be different from that of MPs for other parts of the country, the number of my constituents who want to have a second referendum or stop Brexit entirely is probably equal to the number of people who do not want to go through the process and who want to leave tomorrow with no deal. A whole load of people are in the middle, including myself. I voted leave and campaigned for Vote Leave.
I was happy to support the Prime Minister’s original deal because it did most of the things that I required, although clearly not all of them. It allowed us to leave the EU’s political institutions, to stop paying the huge membership fees to the EU each year, to end freedom of movement—not so we can stop immigration, but so we can have a controlled, better managed immigration system—and to start the process of striking trade deals with countries around the world, and even to ratify them The deal was imperfect because we would not have been able to get started on putting those deals into place until after the implementation period and we had that future relationship agreed with the EU.
The main sticking point that seemed to trouble a number of colleagues was the Irish backstop. Other issues concern some people but, as we saw in recent votes, the Irish backstop seems to be the main sticking point. Having questioned the Prime Minister, Ministers and civil servants, I concluded that I was a bit more relaxed about the backstop than other Members were, because I believe it is not comfortable for the EU to have it, any more than it is for the UK. I do not buy the line that the EU would want to keep us in the backstop forever, through a pseudo-permanent customs union, because if the backstop were ever to come into force, Northern Ireland would suddenly become the most competitive region of the European Union. It would have full access to both the UK market and the EU single market. Economically, that would be very uncomfortable for the EU because it would allow us to cherry-pick. The EU said, right at the beginning of the negotiations, that we would not be able to cherry-pick and break down any of the pillars, but actually the backstop would allow us to do it, because it would allow us to have access to the single market and customs union, without freedom of movement. Imagine a member state such as Hungary allowing that arrangement to stand for any length of time.
The backstop would allow us to have access to the single market and customs union without paying the membership fees. Imagine France, who would bankroll us, allowing that to stand for any length of time. Looking at new trade deals that the EU would want to happen, those countries looking in would say, “Well, hold on a sec. What is happening with the UK?” It would suddenly become Europe’s backstop, because those countries would not be sure about the relationship they had with the UK for any length of time.
That was my thought process, but unfortunately not enough colleagues agreed. The one good thing about that evening’s vote was that it did not take me long to vote and get through the Lobby—there were not enough colleagues with me. Clearly, the House has had its say. Following the second set of votes, including on the so-called Brady amendment, I am pleased that we now have a clear signal to send the Prime Minister back and say, “Okay, fine. I know we spent a long time negotiating this, but if you”—the EU—“just shift a little bit we can get this done.”
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The hon. Lady is generous in giving way. She will be pleased to know that I agree with her, and I go to Prayers, too. Irrespective of religion, I very much believe that it is important to discuss things honestly, accept our differences and come to a conclusion together. If we are delegates, we are just delivering what the people have said, but if we are not delegates, we are representatives. Is it not for us to make a decision according to our conscience and to what we believe is best for our country? That is exactly what we are all grappling with, including the Liberal Democrats. It does not help to denounce one another all the time and to call some people remoaners.
The hon. Lady has made her speech and interventions; if she does not mind, I will leave it there and we will have to agree to differ.
My concern is that we may end up looking weak because we cannot get behind a deal by the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said that he could settle for the withdrawal agreement. When I went to see the Prime Minister before Christmas, I said, “I truly believe you are trying to do your very best on this.” Whatever anyone from any political party thinks, the Prime Minister has a very difficult job. Her tenacity is astonishing. I said, “At the moment, whether people believe in leave or remain, we have the absolute right to walk out the door, shut it behind us and say, ‘We will not put up with any more interference in our legislation from a group of countries.’ We can choose, but we will not be obliged.” We have the absolute right to do that, but I said we were like a load of nervous sheep in a pen.
I cannot hover around the idea of a backstop that 27 other countries may hold the key to. We are trying to get back sovereignty; we must not dilute that sovereignty by giving 27 other countries the whip hand over us. They have their own agendas. Each country would have a veto. It may well be that Gibraltar, or our fishing, comes up on the agenda. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: I do not think the EU will want to keep us in the backstop, but I fear what they will exact to let us out.
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the time, I was very worried about whether there was some undue influence, whether we should have purdah and other things that were taxing our brains at that point. The European Union was advocated for by the leader of the Government at the time; a lot of big names tried to make the case for it, and a lot of money was associated with that. Even so, the British public had 40 years of knowing what they had, and they did not like it. People want to call them stupid or deluded—those are some of the things thrown at my constituents who voted to leave—but they were prepared to take the opportunity to leave.
There was a split decision, but did anyone ever think it would be more decisive than it was? It struck me how many people participated in the referendum—it was overwhelming. When I was out knocking on doors, people told me they had not voted for many a year, but they were going to vote. The referendum galvanised and engaged people in a way that we often struggle to. If we do not get on with this, the public will ask, “What is the point of taking part in any votes whatever? We got ourselves out the door for that special occasion; we were motivated.”
I do not know what motivated some people; they may have had different motivations, but they still wanted to leave the club. That is why they got out the door that morning in vast numbers and went to vote. This petition reflects a frustration; people think that we are cloth-eared in here and did not wake up to the sheer number of people who decided they had to vote to leave. This was a topic that had engaged them, if nothing else, for decades. No party, leaflets or knocking at their door had got them out, but this did. The former Prime Minister would not like to hear that some people did not bother to read his leaflet, but some people felt they had enough personal experience to make up their mind; the leaflet was not going to change that. They were glad of the opportunity of the vote.
I do not believe the European Union will want a “kick the can down the road” delay to article 50. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: if it were for a few weeks, that might well be tolerated, so long as it was just to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. In that respect, I disagree with the petition, but I have sympathy for where it is going.
I could not vote for the withdrawal agreement, and 240 people felt the same way. When I went to see the Prime Minister after the big defeat, I said, “Will I want to pay £39 billion? No; it will stick in my craw, but it is a one-off. Do I want the European Court of Justice to have jurisdiction over us during the implementation period? No, but I can stand it. Can I lock us into a backstop? No.” I have gone through the debates, arguments and thought processes; that has to be fixed.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: Brussels said that it will not tell us what we want to hear, but I believe and hope that it will listen, now that things have been distilled down. I do not wish to be the teenager trashing the flat, as someone said; I wish us to have a good relationship. I do not want us to be rancorous. I hope the people who have signed this petition will accept that we have not ignored the fact that 17.4 million people, many of whom said they had not voted for a very long time, got out the door that day because this was the one thing they wanted delivered. It is up to us to deliver it.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and a rare pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall. Before I was appointed Chief Whip for the SNP, I covered a lot of Brexit debates in here; in fact, we called it the Brexit Minister hall, because we discussed the subject so frequently. It is good to see that has not changed. I do not think I will speak for two hours, but as a Whip this is a rare opportunity for me to speak. As the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said, the Chamber is usually so busy.
The petition is quite intriguing. It jumps out at me the point that article 50 must not “under any circumstances” be extended, whether for technical reasons, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) said, or for a general election, a zombie apocalypse, alien invasion or any circumstances. Brexit must go ahead on 29 March. But that date is not some sort of geological fixture or part of the fundamental laws of physics. It is a date that was put in to a piece of legislation, largely as a sop to Back Benchers. The original European Union (Withdrawal) Bill talked simply of “exit day”, which would be defined by statutory instrument. I wonder if we might be in a much calmer place if the original clause had stood. People are becoming fixated on 29 March—at least that is what the people who signed the petition seem to think must happen.
I want to dwell on the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood). We hear that the British people must be given the Brexit they voted for and that anything else is not acceptable, but what is the Brexit they voted for? All the ballot paper said was, “to leave the European Union.” That might simply mean leaving the political institutions, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said and I suspect a lot of people thought. The hon. Member for St Albans said people had had 40 years of Europe and they did not like it. I have had slightly less than 40 years of European membership—only slightly less—and I have quite liked it.
Perhaps some of the people who voted to leave did not like the bogeyman that the European institutions had become. Perhaps they did not like the political institutions. Perhaps they did not like the political establishment that argued for remain, of which many of us in effect find ourselves a part. It is more difficult to make the case that they did not like their European health insurance cards, which allow them to access medical treatment wherever they go in Europe, that they did not like being able to travel visa-free across the European continent and take advantage of sunnier climates and cheaper holidays, that they did not like the medicines they get access to through the European Medicines Agency and that they did not like the safe regulation of nuclear materials.
Break in Debate
The hon. Lady is right, although she is playing with words, on the Treasury analysis. It is not that the economy would shrink 10% from the point where it is now; it would shrink 10% from the point where the Treasury projects it would otherwise be. The net effect is that we would be 10% worse off through a no-deal Brexit.