Leaving the EU DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Alex NorrisMain Page: Alex Norris (Labour (Co-op)) - Nottingham North)
Department Debates - View all Alex Norris's debates with the Department for Exiting the European Union
Therefore, if politicians want to respect the outcome of the referendum, WTO becomes a legitimate option and it is right that we are here today discussing it. The world has benefited hugely from the considerable progress made in trade liberalisation in the past 70 years, but multilateral liberalisation has slowed and it now needs a new champion. The UK can be that champion. The benefits of free trade are clear to see. The world needs a liberalising voice, and the UK can be that voice at a time when open markets are threatened.
The UK will prosper as a WTO member. We can immediately start further liberalisation with other WTO members on day one. I acknowledge that tariffs are a concern for some, but I ask them to keep in mind my desire for fewer tariffs and fewer restrictions to trade. Currently, under WTO rules, tariffs vary significantly by sector, but we need to see the bigger picture. In the 1980s, the EU’s share of world GDP was about 30%. In 2017 it was about 16% and by 2022 it is expected to fall further to 15%. The EU has a shrinking share of world trade, and Brexiteers can see the benefits of trading freely with the rest of the world, which is growing at a much faster rate than the EU.
The organisation Economists for Free Trade recently released a detailed report that considered the many implications of leaving the EU on WTO terms. In my view, the report shows that, although a deal is preferable, we have nothing to fear from leaving on those terms. From an economic perspective, the report showed that under WTO rules, we would be more prosperous as a country than we are now, and a lot better off than under the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, which would leave us worse off by a staggering £100 billion. The report also showed that under no deal, consumer prices would fall by 8% and there would be an additional boost of 15% to the poorest households. I know many of my constituents would welcome that at a time when ordinary families are feeling the pressure.
It is important to note that since the mid-1980s, British exports to WTO countries have grown three times faster than those to the European single market. In fact, our biggest overseas market is America, and we trade with it on WTO terms. All that, taken together, demonstrates that, despite all the fear-mongering and demonisation of no deal, the reality is that there is nothing to fear. We already conduct much of our trade under those terms, which are essentially a set of global, enforceable rules that outlaw protectionist tricks, discriminatory tariffs and bureaucratic hurdles. The result is free and fair trade for us and our global partners.
After we leave, trade between the UK and the EU can move to WTO rules, meaning tariffs averaging about 3%. Some products have higher tariffs, such as cars, at 10%, with a 4.5% tariff on components from the EU. However, car companies can withstand a 10% tariff on sales into the EU because they have already benefited from a 15% depreciation in the value of sterling. Border checks on components from the EU will be unnecessary, counterproductive for EU exporters, and illegal under WTO rules, which prohibit unnecessary checks. The heads of firms such as Dyson, JCB and Northern Ireland’s Wrightbus support Brexit because they see the long-term benefits of our being free from the EU’s red tape. A WTO Brexit can achieve that.
I may have agreed with the decision to leave the EU, but it was the British people, not politicians in this place, who decided to leave, and their decision must be upheld. I was only elected to this place in 2015. I am not a career politician and I never worked in the Westminster bubble before being elected. I may not have had the traditional route into politics, but I strongly think that that is a positive. Trust in elected politicians is vital if the public are to have faith in this place and in the democratic process. I aim to uphold that trust. It is naïve to think that we know better.
My constituents know best: they know how best to run their lives and spend their money, and they know what is best for their country. They voted for Brexit, and Brexit must prevail, be that under a WTO Brexit or under a better deal than that agreed by the Prime Minister. My constituency, the Yorkshire and the Humber region and the country voted to leave the EU. We need to leave the European Union and its institutions and take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit can deliver.
I wanted a deal like the Prime Minister’s vision in her Lancaster House speech, which would have satisfied the referendum result. However, the Prime Minister decided, mistakenly, to no longer pursue that vision. Moving to WTO rules will achieve that global Britain vision. We want to be in Europe but not run by Europe. We want to be a truly global, free-trading powerhouse. That can still be achieved, but only by trading under WTO rules. Let us now look to the future, where we can all be free from the EU, to make our own decisions and to chart our own destiny.
My hon. Friend is right to say that there is no majority in the House of Commons for a general election at present—partly because a two-thirds majority is needed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011—but does he really believe that if the Prime Minister loses tomorrow by more than 100 votes and potentially 200 votes, this Government will have any credibility left at all if the central plank of their existence has failed by so many votes in the House of Commons? Is not the only honourable thing to do to have a general election and see what the public think?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and an honour to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris). I congratulate my fellow member of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), on the way in which he opened the debate on these petitions.
The referendum vote was the single biggest democratic exercise in our nation’s history. More people voted in that referendum than had voted in any election before, and many people who had never voted before voted. I have spoken to many people in my constituency who had never voted before. Some people had voted many years ago and given up voting because they felt that their vote did not make any difference, but they voted in that referendum because they felt that it was their opportunity to make their voice heard and to bring about change. A clear majority voted to leave. As has been well documented, 17.4 million people had the courage, despite “Project Fear”—despite all the predictions of doom and gloom, the world ending, the economy crashing and half a million jobs going—to say, “No, we are voting for change.” They did not vote for things to be almost the same; they voted because they wanted things to be different.
The responsibility is now on us in Parliament to deliver on the result. In bringing about the referendum, we made the position clear to the British public. In fact, the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, famously said that we were putting the decision in the hands of the British people and we would implement whatever decision they made. This was not a decision to be made by politicians—not a decision to be made by Parliament—but a decision that the British people would make, and Parliament would implement what they decided.
That was two and a half years ago; indeed, it is coming up to three years ago, and here we are, in this very significant week in Parliament in the process of us implementing the decision that the British people made in the referendum. We have a huge challenge before us. The challenge is this: are we going to do what the British people instructed us to do, or not? For me, this whole process has become about far more than simply whether we leave the EU. It has become about trust in our democratic process. We need to understand that there is a growing sense among many, many people in our country—I receive countless emails; I get them virtually every day expressing this concern—that we are in the middle of an establishment stitch-up. The view is that there is an attempt to prevent us from leaving the EU—that the establishment will somehow manufacture a technical outcome that means we do not actually leave. I have to say that the events of last week and some of the newspaper headlines in the last few days have heightened that genuine concern. I believe that, the people of this country having been told that we were giving them the decision and the choice, the consequences of us now not delivering on that decision would be incredibly serious for our country.
We are here today to debate a number of petitions regarding our leaving the EU. As we have heard, some are calling for us to leave immediately, some are calling for us to leave with no deal, others are calling for another referendum and others are basically saying, “Let’s scrap the whole thing and pretend it didn’t happen.” Clearly, the petitions reflect the deep divisions in our country at the moment. There are strongly and genuinely held views right across the spectrum as to where we are and what should happen next.
It is interesting to note that the biggest petition by far, with, last time I checked, over 327,000 signatures—more than all the others put together—is the one calling for us to leave without a deal. That generally reflects what I get in my postbag. The vast majority of people, particularly of those who voted to leave, say, “On the ballot paper, it didn’t say, ‘Leave with a withdrawal agreement or a free trade deal.’ It didn’t say, ‘Leave with any strings attached.’ It simply said, ‘Leave or remain’,” and they voted to leave.
The majority of the British people—certainly, the majority of those who voted leave—simply want us to get on and do as they instructed us. If that means leaving without an agreement, that is what they want us to do. We need to understand that that is the legal position. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which this House passed, states that we will leave on 29 March this year. It does not say that we will leave if we can agree a withdrawal agreement or a future trading deal. It simply says—it has established in law—that we will leave. We need to understand that. There are Members of this House who voted for that withdrawal Act but who do not seem to understand that that is what we voted for. There were no strings attached to that decision. It simply says that we will leave.
I do not want to leave without a deal. I desperately want a withdrawal agreement and a future trading arrangement that I can support and vote for. Sadly for me, the deal that the Prime Minister has agreed and brought back to this House is not one that I can support, because I do not believe that it delivers what we promised—delivering on the referendum result. It locks our country into an untenable situation that completely undermines our ability to negotiate a future trading arrangement.
Over the last two years of negotiations, we have had things to negotiate with. Having surrendered those things to the EU, I do not understand how we think that we will get a better outcome than we have manged to get in the last two and half years. We had our £39 billion to negotiate with and we had the ability to say that we will walk away without a deal, and yet we have not made any progress. The withdrawal agreement hands those things over to the EU and leaves us hoping that we can get a decent deal out of it.
The withdrawal agreement works only if we have faith in two things: first, the goodwill of the EU towards us and, secondly, the negotiating ability of those negotiating on behalf of the UK. Given the experience of the last two years, I am sad to say, I would be absolutely foolish to have confidence in those two things—no reasonable person could. The withdrawal agreement would undermine our whole negotiating position and lock us into a situation that we were in great danger of never being able to get out of. Regrettably, I cannot support the deal.
I hope that the Prime Minister will go back to the EU, having lost the vote tomorrow. I believe that a significant loss will give a clearer message to the EU that the withdrawal agreement is completely unacceptable to Parliament, and that the EU cannot tinker at the edges or provide us with reassurances and nicely worded letters to go with it but must come up with something fundamentally far better for our country, or we will have to leave with no deal.
I know people will say that the EU has said time and again that there are no grounds for renegotiation. However, as other hon. Members have said, the EU has a good record of backing down at the last minute when it is up against a wall. I do not think we have really tested the EU’s resolve in these negotiations. Losing the vote tomorrow will give the Prime Minister the opportunity to go back and truly test the EU’s resolve. Is the EU really serious that it will not give ground and renegotiate? Is it prepared for us to walk away without a deal?
Let us be clear that leaving without a deal will involve some huge challenges, but it will not be the disaster that some predict. Time and again, we have heard the doom-merchants say that we will have no medicines and our aeroplanes will not be able to fly, but all the economic predictions have been proved wrong. I find it incredible that people are predicting the impact of Brexit in 10 years, when, in my time in politics, every six-month prediction from the Treasury has proved to be wildly wrong. It is utterly beyond me how they think they can predict 10 years ahead when they cannot get six-month predictions right.
Every scare story has been exposed as being completely untrue. Even the Mayor of Calais has made it clear that there will be no disruption to trucks coming across the English channel from Calais. I am sure that on our side of things, we will not make it more difficult for our exports to go the other way, either. Therefore, I think we can put to bed the scare stories that paint this as an utter disaster. Yes, there will be challenges, but, throughout its history, our country has shown itself to be at its greatest when faced with challenges. I believe in the ability of the British people and British business, if there is no deal, to overcome any challenges as quickly as possible and move on to the future.
It is worth highlighting some of the other things that the petitions call for. There are petitions calling for a second referendum. I certainly do not support that. Not only would it send a hugely damaging message to the British people—that somehow the first referendum was wrong or invalid—and be hugely disrespectful to them, but I fail to see what it would achieve. The first referendum was divisive enough, but in the current climate, a second referendum would be even more divisive and damaging to our society. What will we do if leave wins again? We will have wasted our time. If there is a narrow victory for remain, do we have a third one to make it best of three? I fail to see how it would make real progress.
Over the weekend, I was thinking about today and I suddenly remembered, in the depths of my memory, that the House had actually considered this matter. On 20 December 2017, when the House was debating and voting on the withdrawal Act, an amendment was tabled calling for a second referendum on the deal. I do not know how many hon. Members remember that. Do you know, Mr Hanson, how many Members of Parliament voted for that amendment? I was quite astounded. Having listened to some of the voices from across the House, I thought it would be hundreds. It was 23. When the House had the opportunity to express its view on a second referendum, a whole 23 Members of Parliament—good on them, virtually all the Lib Dems voted for it, so at least they have been consistent—voted for one. That amendment was resoundingly defeated.
As we had the opportunity to vote for a second referendum only a year ago, I find it quite difficult to accept that so many Members of this House are now calling for one. I am not sure what has gone on during that year, but clearly something has. My line is quite simple: the House had the opportunity to vote for a second referendum, the amendment was resoundingly defeated and we should put the matter to bed. Continuing to call for a second referendum after not having voted for one at that time shows a lack of credibility.
Then there are the petitions that say that we should rescind article 50 and scrap the whole thing: “Let’s just cancel Brexit and put it in the too-difficult-to-do pile.” That, above everything, would be hugely damaging to our democracy and would send a disrespectful message to the British people. For Parliament, which voted for the referendum by a huge majority and said, “We put this decision in the hands of the British people,” to now say, “We cannot deliver it. It’s too difficult. Let’s just scrap it and call the whole thing off,” would send a wrong and damaging message to our country.
It is essential that we deliver on the referendum. I am concerned by some of the things that have been said by those, including some Conservative colleagues, who are clearly scheming and trying to find some unconstitutional technical way to overturn it and prevent Brexit. We must be honest with the British people and have integrity. All hon. Members in my party stood on a clear manifesto commitment in the last election that we would honour the referendum and deliver Brexit, so to go back on that and try to prevent it would be hugely damaging and would send all the wrong messages.
I genuinely hope that when it looks as though the vote has been lost tomorrow night, the Prime Minister goes to try to get a better deal that we can support. Let us not forget, however, that the legal position that the House voted for is that come what may—deal or no deal; withdrawal agreement or no withdrawal agreement —we will leave the European Union on 29 March. It is vital that the House delivers on that commitment.