Leaving the EU

Kwasi Kwarteng Excerpts
Monday 14th January 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Exiting the European Union
Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard

I anticipated that intervention, and the hon. Gentleman will anticipate my response. I said that we would waste no time. I am not going to share with him exactly the way in which that decision will unfold.

I hope that Government Members might recognise at that point that a general election would be a way of resolving the issue, but I recognise that they might not, after their experience last June. I say to those who have signed petitions for a second referendum—we have debated similar petitions previously, and at much greater length—that at that point, if there is to be a general election, we will look at all the options available, including a further referendum.

In that context, it is profoundly irresponsible of the Prime Minister to go around the country rallying the people against Parliament, for the Foreign Secretary to attack the Speaker of the House of Commons in the way that he did on Friday, or for the Transport Secretary to say that if the Prime Minister’s deal is not accepted it will lead to a

“less tolerant society, a more nationalistic nation…open…to extremist populist political forces”.

Their efforts would have been better spent condemning those who are driving intolerance within our politics, and presenting a united front against that sort of extremism. Briefings to the Sunday papers about a coup in Parliament are clearly intended to set voters against MPs, but we in this place should not allow Parliament to be intimidated.

The truth is that there are no easy choices facing us over the next few weeks, and there are probably no good outcomes. We have to make the best of where we are. Those are the difficulties that Parliament is grappling with. We need calm heads. We should not be ramping up the rhetoric, but should recognise the consequences of all the choices that we face. That is what the Opposition are committed to doing, in the interests of all the people we represent.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Kwasi Kwarteng) - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 4 p.m.

I said to myself, I think about halfway through the debate, that I would keep my remarks brief, because we have had an extensive debate, we have had excellent speeches, and frankly we have rehearsed many of these points—

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair) - Hansard

May I say that you have only 45 minutes?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 4 p.m.

I am fully aware of the timescale. You are lucky, Mr Davies, that my hour-long speech will have to be curtailed. I wanted to make brief remarks because many of these points have been rehearsed at length in debates gone by, and I am sure that they will be in the future.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) introduced the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. He read out the petitions and the views of hundreds of thousands of people. It was striking, as he pointed out, that all those viewpoints were, essentially, contradictory. There is a full and wide range of opinion in the country—as evidenced by the petitions—as there are divergent views in the House of Commons. In the Chamber today, with only about nine MPs, we have a wide range of views. We have people who support Brexit but do not like the deal, people who support Brexit but do like the deal, and people who do not like the deal and do not like Brexit. The permutations seem endless, and that is with only nine MPs.

I want to make it clear that that degree of divergence in view—the very different opinions expressed right across the country—shows the level of confusion that there might well be if this exercise of Brexit is not concluded in an orderly fashion. As one would expect, my view, and that of the Government, is that the best way of delivering Brexit in a timely, orderly manner is through the deal in the withdrawal agreement. It is not true to say that it does not deliver Brexit. That is a grotesque exaggeration and caricature of the deal.

I fought very hard alongside many MPs, some of whom are in the Chamber, for Brexit in 2016. I was very clear about the three things that I wanted from Brexit. I wanted to see a drastic curtailment, if not an end, to the club membership—the £10 billion net a year that we were paying indefinitely, and that would have increased as we entered a new budget period. The deal completely prevents that. There is no £39 billion figure in the agreement. That is a snapshot, or a shorthand expression.

It is a lot of money, but it actually equates to only four years of net payments. We were in the EU, or the European Economic Community, for 46 years. Everyone understands that to leave such a commitment—to leave that union after such a long period of membership—will take time. The deal recognises that. It curtails the length of the implementation period. It curtails the money. The £39 billion figure is often quoted, but that is against £10 billion every year from today until kingdom come.

Importantly, one of the big issues in the Brexit referendum was freedom of movement from the EU. Many people, particularly among ethnic minority communities, were saying, “How is it that someone from the EU who speaks no English at all can come to Britain without a job, while my relatives from Commonwealth countries outside the EU do not have that opportunity?” Many others in my constituency, including builders and people working in construction, also mentioned freedom of movement. I remember coming out of Staines station and meeting someone who said that he would vote for Brexit because he had not had a wage increase for 15 years. A clever economist might say that that was simplistic, but that was the view—that was how people felt that their professional experience was developing. Freedom of movement was a big issue.

The withdrawal agreement—the deal that we need to vote on—is not perfect; like any deal in history, it includes some give and take. However, it substantially delivers on putting an end to freedom of movement, and that is why we are introducing an immigration Bill. As I recall, the third big issue in the campaign was about the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice: would it continue to be sovereign over this Parliament? On that issue, too, the withdrawal agreement delivers. It is a good deal, and it largely delivers on what we campaigned for as Brexiteers.

I say to my Brexit colleagues, as the Prime Minister said in her speech today in Stoke, that there is a marked and strong current of opinion in the House of Commons that wants to subvert or reverse Brexit. I know that those are strong words, and people will say, “Oh, we just want to scrutinise legislation.” Forget all that—it is clear to a child that there are MPs in this House who want to reverse the referendum. They have openly said that the referendum result was a disaster and have pledged to overturn it, but they know that the only way that they can do that is by means of a second referendum. It is not that they like the idea of a second referendum because they want to test the robustness of the decision or celebrate the exercise of democracy, but that the way to reverse Brexit is very clear: it has to be done through a second referendum, to give it the authority that the first had. I do not know about our Scottish National party friends, but it would take a very bold remainer to say that the House of Commons could simply unilaterally disregard the referendum.

If one wants to stay in the EU, one has to accept that the only way of doing so is with a second referendum. Hon. Members who sit on the Conservative Benches or who represent leave constituencies have detected a hardening of public opinion, however. As a Member who represents a leave constituency, I concur: even if a second referendum took place, I do not believe that the remainers would get their wish. Nevertheless, I fully understand that that is their only shot—their only conduit to reversing something that they think is a disaster—so it is the route they want to pursue. The Government’s view is that that would be wholly disruptive, divisive and simply a cheat, because it would be an attempt to circumvent the decision.

The vast majority of Members of this House voted to have the referendum, voted to trigger article 50 and voted to pass the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Let us be under no illusions: the debate on a second referendum is simply about trying to reverse the result of the first. The Government simply cannot accept that. We want to move forward and conclude Brexit in an orderly and managed fashion—I was almost going to say an elegant fashion, but I think that that would be pushing things too far.

Tommy Sheppard Portrait Tommy Sheppard - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:54 p.m.

If the Minister is so convinced that he and the Brexiteers, as he calls them, would win a second referendum, why is he so scared of letting the people have a say?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:55 p.m.

What was interesting about the hon. Gentleman’s speech was that about halfway through it, I realised I had heard it all in a speech he gave before Christmas. It was eloquent and well put, but I have heard all the arguments before.

I am not scared of a second referendum; I am simply trying to focus people’s minds on what it means. It is being proposed not by great exponents of democracy or champions of the people’s voice, but almost exclusively by people who are on the record as saying that the first referendum result was a disaster, that they want to reverse it and that they fully accept that the only way of getting their cherished aim of staying in the EU is with a second referendum. I reject that approach because it tries to subvert the result of the 2016 referendum. We can pretend that it is a wonderful exercise of democracy, but it is not; it is trying to go against the clear and decisive vote of the people in 2016.

The hon. Gentleman says that opinion polls have changed, but they have not changed that much. And as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) points out, they are the very opinion polls that said the day before the 2016 referendum that remain would win by 10 points, and that got things consistently wrong throughout the whole referendum campaign. I do not believe that the second premise of the argument made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard)—that somehow there has been a marked shift in public opinion—should precipitate a referendum.

Graham Stringer - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:57 p.m.

I agree completely with the Minister’s point about the motivation for a second referendum, but some of the people who want to subvert the 2016 referendum result have another string to their bow: attrition. By extending article 50, they want to extend the whole process until the House or the public should get weary of it. Will the Minister give us an assurance that under no circumstances will the Government introduce a statutory instrument that changes the date for leaving the European Union that was set in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:57 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. My understanding is that the Government will not seek to extend article 50. That is the Government’s view, but in the light of what happened last week and the fact that we are hearing stories about a potential motion of the House to overturn Standing Order No. 14, it may well be that the House will take a collective view. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), said something to the effect that the House would not countenance no deal—I may be quoting him loosely. That means that the House would take it upon itself to introduce legislation or a motion to bind or strongly encourage the Government to extend article 50.

I know the Government’s position, but given that last week, extraordinarily to me, the amendment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) was made and was allowed to be made, who knows what will happen? The Prime Minister is quite right to suggest—indeed, it is a statement of fact —that Brexit itself is in danger.

If the House votes down the deal tomorrow, we will have about two and a half months. The House may take it upon itself to stop no deal; I suggest to the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) that enough MPs have said publicly that under no circumstances will they countenance no deal. Those people will not simply sit on their hands watching the sand running down the egg-timer until no deal happens on 29 March. They are bright people, skilled in parliamentary debate and procedure, and they will do all they can to frustrate no deal—they have pretty much said that, and their actions have shown it. I feel that a lot of my Brexiteer colleagues are showing remarkable complacency in thinking that all we have to do is sit and wait for no deal to take place. What I am saying is that nobody knows.

I think that the best, clearest, most elegant and simplest way of delivering Brexit is simply to vote for the deal. The deal is not perfect—no deal is perfect—but it takes us forward to the second stage of negotiations with the EU. It means that we leave the EU, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East suggested. He is honest: he says he does not want to leave the EU, which is why he will vote against the deal. It is extraordinary for Brexiteer colleagues to say that they want Brexit but will vote down the deal by marching through the Lobby with people whose sole political aim is to frustrate Brexit. Members who advocate Brexit will, metaphorically, link arm in arm with people who want to frustrate the whole project. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) have radically different views on the nature of Brexit, its purpose and its good effects, as she and I see them, but they will probably go through the same Lobby. Frankly, this is a crazy situation.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Andrea Jenkyns - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 7:01 p.m.

The reason we are likely to go through the same Lobby is, quite frankly, because the Government have failed to listen time and again. Behind closed doors we have all been having meetings with the Whip and the Prime Minister and expressing our concerns for months, but they have fallen on deaf ears. With respect, it is no wonder that we are in this situation, because the Government have put a bad deal to the House.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 7:02 p.m.

That illustrates exactly what I was going to say—in a funny way, it actually makes my argument for me. Two groups of people who think diametrically opposed things have come together to vote down the deal. One group thinks that by voting down the deal it will get to stay in the EU; another thinks that by voting down the deal it will get a perfect Brexit. Both groups cannot be right. They are rational, intelligent people on both sides, yet they think diametrically opposed things will happen, which suggests to me that the deal is probably the best way forward. The unholy alliance between principled Brexiteers—many are close friends of mine, whom I respect—and people who have openly said that they would vote down Brexit shows me very clearly that the deal is the only rational and sensible way forward.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Andrea Jenkyns - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 7:03 p.m.

It takes a lot for somebody who has always been loyal to the party over the past decade or so—and since I have been a Member—to vote against the Government. I have never done so, like many of my colleagues who have resigned as Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Let us not forget that it is the remain colleagues in our party who have been thwarting Brexit and who have voted against the Government so far. To return to my previous point, you have not provided the House with a deal that actually represents Brexit. So many constituents have written to me to say, “Please vote that deal down”. It is you, the Government and the Prime Minister who have done the job of uniting Conservative Members against your deal.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (in the Chair) - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 7:03 p.m.

Just to clarify, obviously it is not me.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 7:04 p.m.

I urge the hon. Lady and her Brexiteer colleagues to vote for the deal. I am not speaking as a Government Minister but as a Brexiteer, and my real worry is that Brexit will be abandoned because the Brexiteers are divided.

I am a historian and someone who loves reading about history. There are countless examples of situations where people have won what they were fighting for and then simply fallen out—there have been divisions. That is a very grave danger for Brexit: having won the argument and the referendum in 2016, we see the Brexit side quite fractured. As a Brexiteer, I support the deal. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, as a Brexiteer, supports the deal. Yet there are other Brexiteers here in Westminster Hall, not to mention in the wider House of Commons, who support Brexit but feel that they cannot support the deal. I urge all Brexiteers, and remainers who want to see their manifesto commitments fulfilled—the entire Labour party, according to its manifesto—to vote for the deal in order to move forward. Any other outcome, as a result of voting down the deal, would add to the chaos and confusion, and it would imperil Brexit.

Thank you very much for your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions to this very high-quality debate.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 7:05 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second half of the debate, Mr Davies. I thank the Minister for his excellent speech, and I thank everybody for their interesting and informative contributions, which have been made in such a constructive, passionate and respectful way. We have had a lot of passion running high around the country and there has been harassment and bullying from both sides. My right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), my hon. Friends the Members for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) and for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) and others have suffered harassment, bullying and worse. It is possible to engage constructively, passionately and respectfully with people with polar opposite views.

When I was on platforms arguing for Brexit, people said to me, “Well, what does your Brexit look like?” I would say, “Actually, I can tell you what mine looks like, but that precludes you from having any say in it whatsoever if that’s how it’s going to be. We need to debate this and discuss it.” A number of people said, “Well, if only it was like the Common Market rather than the extra bits we have had over the last 20 years.” Ironically, the original Chequers White Paper was closer to the Common Market. It is important to remember that this deal is not even Chequers—a lot of that comes in the second half of the negotiations.

We know that a referendum is unlikely to resolve anything. We cannot agree on the question, the timetable or even how we would approach it in this place, so I cannot see how a referendum would work. Revoking article 50 because people find Brexit too difficult—they put it in the “too difficult” box—is not something that people will live with in this country. The thing that has saddened me in this House over the past couple of years is its paucity of ambition for our country to take what will be good about Brexit, whether that be reclaiming control or future trading arrangements. We know there will be difficulties to get to that place in the next few months, but I am confident and optimistic that we can do that. The Minister was absolutely right to say that there are two sides and one is going to be wrong: it will lose, and what happens will be the diametric opposite of what they want.

I will not be a heroic loser. If I am wrong and have blinked too early, I will be the first to shake hands with my colleagues who have spoken. I want to ensure that we leave the EU in an orderly fashion, and I thank everyone again.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the House has considered e-petitions 229963, 221747 and 235185 relating to leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, 232984 and 231461 relating to holding a further referendum on leaving the EU, and 226509 and 236261 relating to not leaving the EU.