Leaving the EU DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Ben BradleyMain Page: Ben Bradley (Conservative) - Mansfield)
Department Debates - View all Ben Bradley's debates with the Department for Exiting the European Union
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.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the vote is lost and we move closer to WTO terms, or no-deal terms, or whatever people want to call it, we must move from contingency planning, which is really important, to starting to negotiate and sign bilateral agreements—that two-way thing—to alleviate some of the turbulence that we have discussed?
It is a pleasure, Mr Davies, to serve under your chairpersonship; I think it is for the first time.
Before I get on to the subject of the debate, I will make two points about the manner in which we are discussing it. First, a great many people have taken the time and trouble to read and sign the various petitions, and Parliament has previously said that it is very respectful and supportive of people petitioning this institution; and yet today, to consider a topic that has gripped the country, during what can only be regarded as a political crisis that has no end in sight, only nine Members of Parliament have turned up.
I know why that is so: the main event is still happening only 100 metres away. However, it is not the first time that this has happened. I remember a very similar occasion before Christmas when I was here to respond from the third party to a petition about Brexit while a big Brexit discussion was going on in the main Chamber.
I do not say that to criticise; I am merely making an observation. I say as gently as possible to the Petitions Committee, the Panel of Chairs and the Clerks of the House that we know that this is not a topic that will go away; it will dominate our politics at least throughout the next year. We know that Parliament sits at 2.30 pm on a Monday; we know that after a weekend of not sitting, there are likely to be statements; and we know that any significant event in this process is likely to happen on a Monday afternoon. If, in the months to come, we receive further petitions relating to Brexit, I ask that we do not schedule debates on them on a Monday afternoon—
Break in Debate
As the hon. Gentleman says, the EU has absolutely no right to do that. It may be concerned about agreeing to certain aspects of the nature of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal, but it has no right to prevent the withdrawal. To suggest that it does is disingenuous.
I am slightly concerned about another thing. People have talked, including here today, about Parliament overturning the will of the people. I ask hon. Members to please consider that language, because it is not particularly helpful. No one is suggesting that Parliament should vote to disregard and overturn the result of the 2016 referendum—[Interruption.] The Minister chunters at me from a sedentary position. Okay, perhaps I cannot say “no one”, but I do not suggest that and neither does my party. I have not heard anyone in this Chamber suggest that Parliament should vote to overturn the decision of the 2016 referendum. What people are arguing about is whether the people who took the decision to leave the EU should be consulted on whether, knowing what they do now, they wish to continue with that decision.
That brings me to what the question on the ballot paper would be, about which there has been some discussion. As I see it, and I am trying to be logical, in June 2016 the people of the United Kingdom voted to start a process. They said, “This is the direction we want to go in. We want to leave the EU and we want the Government to go ahead and do that.” I have many criticisms about how the Government of the day did that, but I cannot claim that they did not engage and commit resources and time to trying to discharge that mandate.
Two and half years later, the Government have got to a position with a deal on the table—let us not even call it a deal; the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) is right. There is a set of proposals about how that 2016 mandate could be implemented, and how it should be discharged and executed. The question is: are those proposals acceptable to the people who commissioned the process in the first place? Is this really what they want to do? They should be given the choice of whether to go ahead or call a halt to the process, in which case the status quo ante would pertain and we would remain in the EU. Those are the two broad choices.
I will take the intervention, because I think I can guess what the hon. Gentleman will say.
But it is Brexit. It may not be the type of Brexit the hon. Gentleman wants—it may not be as hard and quick as he wants—but it is the United Kingdom leaving the EU. The Minister will perhaps confirm that when he makes his statement. I am pretty sure that what we will be voting on tomorrow night is a form of Brexit.
My point is that after two and a half years of intense discussion, argument, negotiation and research, the Government say that this is the best they can come up with. I think it is pretty shoddy and I shall vote against it, but I do not dispute the fact that it probably is the best they can come up with, so that is it. I say to the people who wanted this to happen, “This is what it looks like. Do you want it to happen, or do you not?” That is the question that people should be given.
People have said, “It is impossible to do that by 29 March.” Of course it is. Everyone accepts it is impossible to have another referendum by 29 March. That is why the obvious decision for Parliament would be to say, “We want to go back and consult the people, and we wish the European Union to allow an extension of the article 50 process in order for that to happen.” I cannot conceive of a situation in which the European Union would not, in those circumstances, consent to a three or six-month extension of article 50—however long it would take—to organise a plebiscite and ask people whether they are really sure that they want to go ahead with Brexit. The European Union has said that it would not countenance an extension of article 50 if the proposal were not changed, but the whole purpose of seeking an extension would be to offer the possibility of changing the proposition. I cannot believe that the European Union would deny the United Kingdom the opportunity to do that; in fact, if it did, I would call foul on the European Union, and I might even change my mind about what our relationship should be, so convinced am I that the EU would not take that position.
Some of the language that has been used in this debate is potentially very dangerous. People have suggested, for example, that we cannot possibly allow people to vote on this question again because if the result went a different way, it would not just be divisive, but the people who lose might go out on to the streets, there might be political violence and the far right in this country might increase, taking us back to scenes that we saw in the 1970s, when I first came into politics. However, that will only happen if we tell people that they are being excluded from the decision. If we make it clear that the reason for a people’s vote or another referendum is to include people and involve them all in the decision, I do not see why that should happen; if it did happen, it would be an illegitimate response to any decision that might be taken. I am assuming, of course, that a people’s vote would lead to a change in position, but it might not. In that case, I really think it is better that people get the chance to make absolutely sure that want to go ahead with the process, with all its potential difficulties.
I turn to position of the Labour party, and I would like the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) to clarify something. My understanding is that the party’s position, as several Labour Members have said, is that there should be a general election. Now, we are not going to get a two-thirds majority, but the obvious route to a general election is to place before the House a motion of no confidence in the Government. I ask the shadow Minister when, or in what circumstances, that is going to happen. Will it happen when the Government are defeated tomorrow night? Will it happen after the Labour party has given the Government another three days to come back with plan B—of course, we decided on that last week—or will it never happen unless the Labour party is convinced that it knows the result, because it does not want to table a motion of no confidence and be defeated? As much as we need to get over tomorrow night’s decision before we can move forward, we also need to get over the no confidence question before Parliament and the country can move forward.
The leader of the Labour party seems to have been hardening his position in recent days. He has said that were there to be a general election, he would put in the Labour manifesto a commitment to implement the result of the 2016 European Union referendum—in other words, to proceed with Brexit. Perhaps the shadow Minister could clarify whether that is the case. If so, it seems to me that Labour would be in the position of calling a general election on the question of Brexit without offering people the option of stopping Brexit. I think that would lead to political disillusionment on a scale far greater than that which might be caused by another people’s vote. It would be helpful to have some clarification, because as far as I am concerned, a choice between the Prime Minister’s Brexit and the Leader of the Opposition’s Brexit is not really a choice at all.
I will finish by referencing the situation in Scotland, because we have been trying very hard to play a constructive role in this debate. As I say, we have our mandate: 74% of my constituents told me they did not want to leave the European Union, and that figure is probably now closer to 80%. Some 97% of the thousands of people who write to me about this issue are against going ahead with Brexit, so I am quite clear, but I am not saying, “Stop it now.” For two and a half years now, we have tried to engage in this Parliament, and the Scottish Government have put forward compromise proposals. However, those proposals have been rejected time and time again, because the manner in which this has been gone about has been an object lesson in how not to do politics.
Last week, the Prime Minister had a cross-party meeting with Back Bench MPs, which I attended. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) pointed out, it was a welcome event; it was just a shame that it had not been done two and a half years ago when the vote was initially taken. It really was a case of too little, too late. However, I ask the Minister to clarify whether, in the event of a defeat tomorrow night, the Government—given that they are no longer able to get their own position through the House—will consider working on a cross-party basis and consulting with Members from different parties and with different views, in order to see whether it is possible to reach a consensual and agreed way forward. At the minute, Scotland is involved in trying to stop Brexit—to create a situation in which the UK does not leave the EU—because it is in the interests of the people we represent, as well as the people of all the UK. However, if our voices continue to be ignored, then we have an alternative, and it will be activated once this Brexit dust settles.