European Union (Withdrawal) Act DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
John BercowMP Main Page: John Bercow (Speaker - Buckingham)
Department Debates - View all John Bercow's debates with the Department for Exiting the European Union
(1 year, 1 month ago)Commons Chamber
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I understand the argument that article 50 can only be a vehicle for a temporary arrangement and not a permanent one. The Attorney General addressed that, and it is obvious to anybody who has read and understood article 50 rightly. However, the point the Attorney General was addressing was the circumstances in which we could bring the backstop to an end once we were in it, as a matter of international law. Whether article 50 permits it or not, or what the Court would do if it were challenged, is an open question.
The Attorney General said that the backstop may be indefinite—he did not say it was indefinite—but he called into question the argument that it will be temporary. I have noticed that the Prime Minister is very careful in the way she puts it: she always says that the backstop is intended to be temporary. I do not think she has ever used any other phrase, presumably because she is bearing in mind what the Attorney General has advised. I am not saying that there does not need to be a backstop or arrangements to protect the Northern Ireland situation, but we cannot simply and casually say that these are matters to which we should not have too much regard. I honestly cannot think of another treaty that the UK has ever entered into that it could not exit in such circumstances. We might say that that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is a very unusual thing to be doing.
I want to address the notion that rejecting the deal somehow leads to no deal. I have never accepted that, and it is deeply irresponsible of the Government to pretend that this is a binary choice. No Prime Minister has the right to plunge the country into the chaos of no deal simply because the deal has been rejected, or to run down the negotiations. I believe that that view is shared across the House. There is no majority for no deal. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and others for the amendment to the Finance Bill that the House passed yesterday. It will not formally prevent no deal, but it will give consequences to a non-endorsed deal.
The amendment is also symbolic, in that it shows that the House will not simply sit by and allow a no-deal exit. I do not think that the Prime Minister would attempt that, because I think she understands that a no-deal exit in March this year is not practically viable. I have been to Dover several times to look at the customs arrangements, and it would be impossible to get from the arrangements as they are today to those that would need to be in place on 29 March in the time available. Whatever anyone else says, it would be impossible to do that. There are plenty of other examples. However, if the Prime Minister attempts a no-deal Brexit, we will fight her tooth and nail every inch of the way.
Every Member of this House has a solemn duty consider the deal before us—not the deal that the Prime Minister pretends to have negotiated or the deal that she promises to change between now and when we go through the Lobby, but the text before us. Labour is clear that the deal is not in the national interest. It does not come anywhere near to meeting our tests, it will make the country poorer and more divided and it will not protect jobs and the economy. I say that with sadness, because I have shadowed three different Brexit Secretaries, and the fact that we now have a deal that is so demonstrably not uniting the country and not able to command the support of this House is a tragic waste of the two years that have been available for negotiations and a miserable end to this part of the process. We will have to vote on the deal next Tuesday. After that, it will be time for this House to decide what happens next.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. We have just heard two heavyweight and extremely important speeches from the two Front Benches. I congratulate the new—he is not really new anymore—Brexit Secretary on his grip on the extraordinary complexity of detail that he so evidently demonstrated at the Dispatch Box. I have only rarely troubled the House with my views on Brexit— I think this is only the second time I have done so— and I have approached the whole process on the basis that as Government Back Benchers, it is our job to try to assist the Government in reaching a satisfactory deal. Our job is to support and assist.
We have some special issues in the west midlands. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) has made it clear that the issue of just-in-time supply is important to us there, but this is not just about cars. It is also about food. Much of the food in this country is not stored in a warehouse, but is on a motorway, so just-in-time supply is a very important matter for us.
I also think the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and the Father of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), and indeed the response from the shadow Brexit Secretary, are a very important start to this resumed debate and need to inform our discussions.
It has always been quite clear that it is the Government’s job to propose and Parliament’s job to dispose. Let me be clear: I have great sympathy for the Prime Minister. I served with her in Cabinet and shadow Cabinet for seven and a half years, and I believe that she has a steadfast determination and integrity. No Prime Minister could have given so much time to the House at the Dispatch Box on this issue. However, I have to say that I have been astonished that she would bring back to the House of Commons a deal that she knows she has absolutely no chance whatsoever of getting through, and apparently with no plan B. I think this is a matter of very great concern.
The Government are accountable to Parliament. We have had the beginnings of a new constitutional strategy: that it should be the other way around, and somehow the House of Commons should be accountable to the Government. That is not the way we do things. While I was unable to support the amendment last night, because I thought it fettered the Government’s ability for Executive action too much, I did support the amendment to the Business of the House motion this afternoon, because I think the House of Commons now has to be very clear that if the deal does not go through next week, this House of Commons has got to reach some conclusions and, if I may coin a phrase, take back control. It seems to be that it should do so on the basis of what my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and my right hon. and learned Friend the Father of the House were saying.
As of today, I cannot understand what the Government’s strategy is or has been. It has all the appearances of drawing on the strategy pursued by Lord Cardigan at the charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea. Indeed, it does not seem to be a strategy at all. As Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese general, said:
“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
The danger with the tactics being pursued was set out very eloquently by the first Brexit Secretary, and they of course relate to the issue of the backstop and of sequencing.
In summary, with the greatest of regret, I am unable to support the Prime Minister in the Lobby next week. Briefly, that is for three reasons. The first is to do with the backstop. The backstop issues have been very well rehearsed. In the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, we had the pleasure of welcoming Arlene Foster to speak, and it was very clear to me that her reservations about the treatment of Northern Ireland on the backstop were extremely difficult.
I would make this point in addition to what has been said already about the position of Northern Ireland. Having now been in this House for nearly 30 years, on and off, I have sat through heartbreaking statements about the situation there, with the violence that so dreadfully afflicted Northern Ireland for so very long and, indeed, that went wider than Northern Ireland. The fact is that there was a hard-won, hard-fought treaty—lodged at the United Nations—which says there shall be no border in Northern Ireland. For me, that is the beginning and the end of the matter.
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I was actively involved in the “Get Britain Out” campaign in the referendum in 1975. I was on the wrong side of that referendum when I voted to leave, and I was on the wrong side of the next one, 41 years later, when I voted to remain. In the meantime, the British people changed their minds in one direction, and I changed my mind in the other. At the same time, mainstream politics, and much of the media, changed its mind as well as the common market evolved into the European Union. In the 1970s, many Conservatives who supported the common market, which many in Labour saw as a big businessman’s club, started to get nervous when the European Union started properly to deliver workers’ rights. At the same time, the Labour movement and the trade unions came round to the view that there were advantages in cross-European standards on equal pay, decent working conditions and, most importantly, good standards of health and safety.
The referendums of 1975 and 2016 have much in common. Ted Heath, the then Prime Minister, had taken us into the common market in 1972 without a people’s vote, so Harold Wilson promised a referendum after he delivered renegotiated terms. The British people went for it, and he won the 1974 election and the remain result in the consequential referendum. Fast forward to 2015, David Cameron, who was becoming terrified of the threat posed by Nigel Farage and UKIP, must have looked back in history and thought it would be a good idea to imitate Harold Wilson by promising a referendum in the forthcoming election. To be fair, David Cameron was successful in that his policy secured a Conservative majority for the first time since 1992. The first part of Mr Cameron’s cunning plan worked, but the difference was that it all went wrong for Mr Cameron because he was no Harold Wilson and was completely unable to persuade the British people to do what was in Britain’s best interest.
When critics say that there should be no second referendum, the fact is that we have already had two. In advance of the second vote in 2016, those who wanted to leave the EU claimed that the public did not understand the consequences of the common market when we first voted in 1975 so, as was their right, they argued for another referendum. Now, the same group who want to leave argue that another referendum—a third one—would be an insult to those who voted three years ago, because it would be tantamount to saying that those who voted to leave did not know what they were doing. The truth is that nobody knew what they were doing in 2016—if indeed they did in 1975. Only a few anoraks, mainly in this place, actually thought they knew what they were doing, and I have to say that some of them—unfortunately, scarily—still think they know what they are doing.
If there has been a mistake in this sad saga it is that we should never have had either referendum in the first place, and that is the fault of nobody but us politicians. We are responsible for this self-inflicted chaos, not the electorate, and we have a duty to resolve it.
If I have learned anything from all of this it is that yes/no referendums are not the right way, not even the honest way, to make complex policy in the interests of our country. They have been deviously misused by politicians to win general elections: the promise of a 1975 referendum won the election for Labour, just as the proposed 2016 referendum won the election for the Tories. What we should honourably do in the future is make it clear in our manifestos what we stand for and then put that to the public in a general election. I reluctantly have to say that Ted Heath was right in 1970 when he put in the Conservative manifesto that he would negotiate to take us into the common market and did so. That is what we should resolve to do in the future.
Where do we go from here? In crisis, we should stay calm and do the sensible thing, not the emotional thing: when in a hole, stop digging. As we stand, we have clear choices: a no-deal Brexit, the Prime Minister’s no-point Brexit, or no Brexit at all. The choices might well look unpleasant and humiliating, but this is where we are as a country.
For my part, I am not a fan of our present-day EU and its institutions, and there is much that we should change: the common agricultural policy is a disgrace; our fishing communities are treated unfairly; the free movement of labour was introduced too quickly without thought or consideration for low-paid workers; and as for the unelected bureaucrats and their unaccountable budgets, they drive me crazy. But to leave in panic with the Prime Minister’s proposed deal while remaining under the yoke of the unelected control of foreign powers is madness; it would be a betrayal, and it in no way honours the will of the British people, even in what was a flawed referendum vote in the first place. We would do better to stay in the EU and give the rest of them hell, particularly the unelected bureaucrats.
To stay where we are is my conclusion to this humiliatingly unsolvable problem, because the fact is that what was promised by the leave campaign in 2016 is not and never was deliverable. We just have to accept in life that there are some things that we cannot do. For my part I always wanted to score the winning goal in a World cup final in the last minute for England at Wembley after extra time, but I have reluctantly come round to the view that it is not going to happen. Likewise to be the first nation to leave the EU in opposition to 27 other countries and get a good deal for Britain at the same time was always, to say the very least, naive.
Some say that the Prime Minister has done her very best and she deserves a measure of sympathy; sorry, but I have none, because my concern lies with the fate of the British people, who have been led by this Government—her Government—into extremely dangerous waters.
The fact is that the Prime Minister has been centrally involved in this circus, all the way through, from the point when David Cameron and his Ministers opportunistically started the process. The Prime Minister should go back to Brussels and make it clear that we will not be bullied. We should leave, if we must, in our own time and on our own terms. And if we need to take up the option to delay or revoke article 50, of course we should do that. We should do whatever is in the interests of the British people, and if that creates uncertainty for our markets and an embarrassment for the Government, so be it.
My dad did not fight his way through the second world war to be humiliated, and I will not be voting for this cap-in-hand deal or any other remotely like it.
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I was fortunate to speak in the December debate, so I will do my best to be brief. It is a tremendous honour to follow the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson). He has made a very powerful case and he demonstrates his tremendously strong rhetorical skills.
I listened to the shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union very closely. In his words, he said that this is not a vote about Labour’s proposals; I agree. We are voting on the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. I agree with the withdrawal agreement and I will be supporting it. I listened to Labour’s desire for a customs union and for a close relationship with the EU to protect our vital Union of the United Kingdom and to protect business and jobs. The shadow Secretary of State agreed with the Government Front-Bench team that there must be a withdrawal agreement to protect citizens’ rights. I echo the words of the Minister for the Cabinet Office that this should not be about semantics. This is not about Labour’s plan, but that is because there have been so many versions of Labour’s plan. The Government have had to come up with a finely negotiated plan, which we are now trying to get through this House.
The shadow Secretary of State said that he had agonised over voting for article 50. That set off a time-limited process, which we had to negotiate with the EU, and here we are; we have nearly arrived at the end of it. During that time, I have never heard a concise, cohesive plan from the Opposition. I can only conclude that despite the deal’s perceived faults—to avoid no deal, and to protect jobs and citizens’ rights, as the shadow Secretary of State agreed a deal should do—and recognising that there must be a withdrawal agreement and, I am afraid, a backstop, Members on both sides of the House, following on from article 50, support the deal. It is the next step so that we can negotiate our future with the EU and the rest of the world. This is in stark contrast with those who simply do not agree with Brexit, although I respect that that is what they campaigned on.
The SNP rejected Brexit pretty well in the same way that it rejected the result of the independence referendum. SNP Members quote figures of doom and gloom, which is disappointing because we are here to be optimistic. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said that that those who oppose this deal could be the handmaidens of a hard deal—of no deal. This disappoints me, because back in 2014, as a consequence of possible separation, the SNP was happy to negotiate with the EU as a third party. That is in tremendous contrast with the suggestion of Armageddon, when we would have to negotiate with the EU as a third party.
Industries in my Gordon constituency have embraced Brexit. In good faith, they expect elected politicians here actually to get on with it, so I implore the SNP and others who reject Brexit to think again, to deliver on what we pledged and to respect the Brexit referendum with a deal that works for business and jobs. These industries want us to make progress and move on to the next step, because the political declaration leaves a great deal of scope. There are not many Members present on either side of the Conservative side of this debate, but the political declaration would allow scope for a deal that would very much accommodate what both sides of the debate on the Conservative Benches and the Opposition are arguing for.
The Government are making no-deal preparations. The Treasury Committee heard from the Bank of England that the financial system is robust in all situations. That is a very good thing and that is what the stress-testing was; it was not suggesting that the economy would drop by 10%. We cannot go back. The country has moved on, but it seems that this place is frozen in time while the rest of the country is moving on, including my constituency. I heard on the radio this morning the chairman of the port of Calais, who said that the trucks will keep moving under all circumstances. The rest of the world and the rest of Europe is moving on, while this place is frozen—stuck back in the EU referendum.
We know that the currency markets and the stock market have built-in risk, and that companies have pent up investment in their balance sheets; as we heard on the Treasury Committee, their balance sheets are in rude health. My good and hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) said that he is a pragmatist. Well, I am an optimist and I believe that there can be a positive result from Brexit, so next week let us give the economy and the mood of a nation a lift. Let us support the Prime Minister’s deal and get on with Brexit.
As we have a little more time than I thought we would, before I get into the substance of my speech tonight I just want to start by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for your support with regard to the harassment and targeting of MPs on and around the estate. The abuse that the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and others on both sides of this House and this issue are being subjected to is truly despicable and genuinely worrying for the stability of our democracy. My worry is that the genie may be out of the bottle and the country may not heal for decades, no matter what happens here. That is why, as others have said, this is probably the most important decision and vote that I will have made in my almost 14 years as an MP, and perhaps may ever make.
I say this as I have had brought to my attention details of a threat that I have just received, calling me
“a traitor who should be hung for treason”.
This threat was not even made anonymously. It was made very publicly and traceably, and the man—I believe it is a man because I have seen a photograph of him—who made this threat must know that it is public and easily traceable, which makes this change in our national and political discourse all the more worrying. My crime that precipitated this threat was to be one of the 213 MPs of all parties to have signed the letter against crashing out without a deal—which we now know, after the vote last night and today, is the will of the majority of Members in this House. I say all this to reinforce the point about the pressure of the political climate that we are all operating in and dealing with. I know that none of us is taking any of this lightly at the moment.
Two years ago, over 62% of people in Sunderland voted to leave the European Union. That is an average across the three Sunderland constituencies. My canvassing told me at the time that the vote in my constituency may have been more in the region of 65% to 67%. The fact that—as I am sure you know, Mr Speaker—Nissan, the most productive car plant in the whole of Europe, is in my constituency explains why that first result on results night had the impact that it did on all of us, not just the three Sunderland MPs. I campaigned and voted to remain in the European Union, and did so because I believed that it was the best decision for the security, social cohesion and economy of the north-east and the country as a whole. Despite this, I recognised that a majority of my constituents had voted to leave, and I set out to respect the result of the referendum.
In that vein, I have largely refrained from commenting publicly on Brexit or speaking about it here—check Hansard!—choosing instead to listen to my constituents to understand the result, the vote. So I ran two surveys on Brexit. I took great care to read all of the significant amount of correspondence I received on the topic. I held three large public meetings. I engaged regularly with major employers in my constituency, such as Nissan, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and others, to hear their concerns about the process as it has unfolded over the past two years. Many of these companies, in particular, have been unnecessarily placed in a position by this Government where they are already spending vast sums of money on preparations for a no-deal scenario—something that none of us here will ever allow to happen.
Voting, and how one votes, is an extremely personal decision, and it would be wrong of us to claim to know exactly what led people to vote in the way that they did. We do know, however, what issues come up on the doorstep, in emails and letters, and through polls and surveys. We also know what was promised to people. As part of the survey that I ran last year—I ran one straight after the referendum and then one again last year—I asked people who had voted to leave in 2016 to rate a number of factors involved in their decision from “very important” to “unimportant”. The three issues with the highest number of people ranking them “very important” were, first, the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK; secondly, concerns that remaining would mean little or no choice about how the EU expanded its membership or powers; and thirdly, the incentive of trade opportunities outside the EU. It will be noticed that in this sample, immigration did not make the top three of the “very important” issues. It was an issue that people could choose but was actually near the bottom of the list in the final analysis. Make of that what you will.
During the referendum, people were also promised that voting to leave would mean more money for the NHS, more controls on immigration, and significant trade opportunities around the world—and ultimately that it would mean “taking back control”.
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Absolutely. That would be one of the biggest ironies of any of our political careers, as we are all finding out that it is anything but simple. It has got to be the most complicated thing I have ever had to try to get my head around.
Can anyone in this place honestly say that the deal on offer delivers any of the things I have listed? Far from delivering back control, this deal means giving up our voice within the EU and becoming rule-takers until at least 2020, at which point the problematic backstop could come into place. The Government’s own analysis shows that the economic benefit of further trade deals around the world is minimal, will not come for a while and will be outweighed by GDP falling by around 3.9% under their deal.
With regard to immigration, the Government’s recent White Paper failed to provide overall clarity on the issue and included plans to disgracefully label workers on less than £30,000 a year as “low-skilled”. That policy will only contribute to existing staffing shortages in the NHS in particular, as it rules out nurses, care assistants and paramedics coming from abroad. As shadow Minister for Public Health, I am well placed to know that the much promised extra money for the NHS—remember the £350 million on the side of that big red bus?—could not be further from the truth.
It is no wonder that all this lack of clarity has left people on both sides of the debate hugely disappointed. Indeed, in recent weeks I have received hundreds of emails, letters and postcards regarding this deal, as I am sure every single Member of the House has. There are people who say that the Prime Minister’s deal fails to respect the result of the referendum and would like me to vote against it. There are people who would like me to vote against this deal and then push for a people’s vote. There are people who would like to bypass another vote altogether and for us to remain a member of the European Union. There are people who would like a Norway or Canada-style deal, and there are people who believe that we would now be better off leaving the EU without any deal at all.
However, it is astonishingly clear from the percentages of 87% to 13% that very few people would like me to vote for this deal. It is no wonder that almost 60% of those who took part in my survey now think that the electorate, as well as Parliament, should have to approve any deal agreed with the EU before it is ratified.
Almost nothing of what was promised and expected has been delivered. People who voted to leave the EU are not happy with this deal. People who voted to remain in the EU are not happy with this deal, and 87% of my constituents who contacted me about this deal are against it. As such, I will be voting against it when the question is put on Tuesday.
The public, frankly, are fed up with this, but they are also worried. I have been overwhelmed with correspondence from my constituents, 69% of whom voted to remain, and many of whom have since changed from leave to remain supporters. They have raised concerns about the treatment of EU nationals and the impact that it will have on the NHS, and they are angry at the tone of the negotiations. Today’s carry-on after Prime Minister’s questions does nothing to restore anyone’s faith in the Government or the Tory party.
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The Minister mentions the issue of trust between the EU, the UK Government and Parliament. I say very, very gently to the Minister that there is also an element of trust between the Government and the Democratic Unionist party. There is trust in what the Government are trying to put forward as a solution, but the solution in relation to the backstop is not acceptable. That has to be addressed.
I do want to make progress. I will just say in response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that, as I have said to his hon. Friends, we accept and understand their concerns, and we will continue conversations with them to try to seek agreement.
All businesses in our country want certainty. Since the deal was announced, organisations in every part of the United Kingdom—large and small, manufacturing, farming and fisheries—have said they want to get on and see a deal sorted, so they can plan for the future. They are aware, too, of the risks that no deal would carry: 40% tariffs for Scottish beef and Welsh lamb exports, 10% tariffs for cars from Sunderland, Swindon and the west midlands, and the inspections, regulations and form-filling that will go with such arrangements under WTO terms.
I believe that what we have now is an outcome that both those who supported leave and those who supported remain should be able to accept. Let us not forget that people who voted to leave the European Union were a significant minority in some parts of the UK, and in some demographic groups in the population, in which the majority in 2016 voted to remain. The deal gives the certainty of leaving the European Union. It removes this country from the political structures of the EU and any commitment to an ever closer union. It ends the automatic freedom of movement under European law, leaving it to Governments and Parliaments in the UK to decide how generous or restrictive our policies should be, and it ends the jurisdiction of the European courts in this country.
For those who voted to remain in the European Union—again, they were a significant minority in those places where most people voted to leave—the deal offers a deep and special future partnership between the UK and the EU, reflecting the reality of our deep-rooted ties of history, geography, culture and democratic commitment, and reflecting, too, the fact that, for as far ahead as any of us can see, the EU is likely to remain this country’s single most important trading partner.
I believe that compromise in politics is not an insult. The deal that we have on the table, endorsed not just by the British Prime Minister and Cabinet but by the 27 other Governments of the European Union, is one that has been the product of compromise. It has meant difficult negotiations and give and take on both sides. Like most things in politics and in life, it is not perfect, but I believe that it provides a good foundation for us to move forward from the divisions and the agonies of the last two years, towards a future in which the United Kingdom and the European Union can work as close neighbours, friends, allies and trusted trading partners for many years into the future.
Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Amanda Milling.)
Debate to be resumed tomorrow (Order, this day.)