Leaving the EU

Paul Blomfield Excerpts
Monday 14th January 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Exiting the European Union
Tommy Sheppard Portrait Tommy Sheppard - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:19 p.m.

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.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab) - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:26 p.m.

It is a pleasure to wind up the debate for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Davies; I am sure you will deeply regret having missed many of the contributions made earlier in the debate, knowing your views on these matters. I thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for the way in which he opened the debate—he drew on points made by petitioners on both sides of the argument and on different proposals—and for the way in which he explored the complexity of the issues that we face. In that context, I draw attention to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris): the tone of our discussions is so important, particularly given some of the stuff we have seen around the precincts of Westminster over the past week. He was right to say that we are at a crossroads. People are expressing wildly diverse but sincerely held views; the reasons why people voted as they did in the 2016 referendum were sincere, too. We should respect all those views.

The petitions we have debated reflect the divisions in the country, and indeed in Parliament—divisions that have been exacerbated, not healed, by the way in which this Government have approached the negotiations over the past two years. It did not have to be like this. When the negotiations began, we urged the Prime Minister to look beyond the war in her own party, and to reach out to the majority in Parliament and across the country who respected the fact that the people had voted to leave—the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) are right about that—but also accepted that they had done so by a painfully close margin. We urged the Prime Minister to recognise the vote for what it was: a mandate to end our membership of the European Union, but not to rupture our relationship with our closest neighbours, our key allies and our most important trading partner, and certainly not to crash out of the European Union without any agreement.

The hon. Members for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), in disagreeing with the deal, both said that it was the only deal that would be countenanced by the European Union—that, in the words of the Prime Minister, it was the only deal possible, a point that I am sure the Minister will make. But it was the only deal possible within the constraints that the Prime Minister had set herself. The European Union made it clear that there were a range of options and relationships that it was prepared to consider, but the British Government had effectively ruled those out with the negotiating terms that they had set. We regret the fact that the Prime Minister allowed the agenda to be set by what her own Chancellor described as the Brexit “extremists” within her party. She set the red line, boxed herself in and ended up pleasing nobody—neither leave nor remain voters—with the deal.

In December, with the clock ticking, the Prime Minster wasted a further month by delaying the vote on the deal that is doomed to fall tomorrow. So what is her strategy now to get the deal through? Threatening MPs and the country with no deal at all. We have made it clear from the start that we would not accept a blackmail Brexit: the choice of “My deal or no deal.” We will reject her deal tomorrow, confident that Parliament will not allow the country to leave without a deal; that is the clearly expressed view of the majority of Members of Parliament. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made clear, leaving without a deal would be a “terrible” outcome for the UK economy. He compared it with the dark days of the 1980s.

It is not enough to talk about doom merchants or the car industry “bleating”. I say to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay that the stories about stockpiling medicines were not scare stories run by doom merchants. They were the proposals made by the Government in the preparatory papers that those supporting Brexit had urged them to prepare to ensure the country was ready for no deal. It was the Government who said we needed to stockpile medicines and food, and who said they could not continue to guarantee the power supply in Northern Ireland. That is their assessment of the position in relation to no deal.

We should recognise that the voices warning against no deal do not simply come from partisans within this place. They come from the CBI, the Engineering Employers Federation, the British Chamber of Commerce and the TUC—those who are at the coalface of the consequences if we leave with no deal. I have heard it said in this debate, and it is strongly argued by many, that if we leave without a deal, we should reclaim the £39 billion that we are to hand to the EU. Many of the people who make that argument also argue that we should strike out to secure new trade deals with many other countries around the world. The Chancellor was right to ask what country would sign up to a deal with a country that has demonstrated its ability to renege on agreements properly made in good faith.

Graham Stringer - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:34 p.m.

We agree on tomorrow’s vote, but disagree on the objectives. I assume we agree that we all should follow the law. Does my hon. Friend not accept the view of the House of Lords Committee about where our legal obligations start and finish? We do not have a legal obligation to pay £39 billion, and the basis of trade deals is to follow the rules and the law.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:34 p.m.

I obviously agree with my hon. Friend that we should follow the law; there would not be much purpose to this place if we did not accept that premise. The House of Lords Committee expressed an opinion. There are different opinions. I would probably accept that we do not need to pay all of that £39 billion. There are different views, and the hon. Member for Mansfield differentiated between some of them, but reneging on the entire £39 billion, as some Brexit extremists suggest we should, would put us in contravention of agreements.

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:35 p.m.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the EU’s own words, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed? On that basis, we have not yet agreed to the £39 billion. We are not reneging on anything if we cannot come to an agreement with the EU.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:35 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman knows that it was the last but one Brexit Secretary, himself an opponent of the Prime Minister’s deal, who agreed to the sequencing of the decisions, and who signed up to the £39 billion question.

I will move on to another aspect of the no-deal argument. It is important, because those who advocate no deal have said, “If we leave with no deal, it’s easy; we will just slip out on WTO terms. No problem at all.” I highlight the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, which echoed what the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said in his opening remarks: WTO terms cover only a part of our relationship. They do not, for example, cover the critical relationships relating to security and the protection of this country in fighting crime and terrorism.

Even with regard to our trading relationship, there was a suggestion that we could slip into WTO terms easily, seamlessly, and without process, and that those terms are the default position for every member of the WTO. But there is not a member of the WTO that does not have additional trade agreements above and beyond those terms. Our current agreements with some 70 countries are through our membership of the European Union. They were negotiated bilaterally. It is worth noting that some time ago, when the Government’s White Paper talked about expanding our markets around the world, the Government rightly cited South Korea as an example. There have been huge developments in UK trade with South Korea since the EU signed a bilateral trade deal with South Korea.

Those arguing for an easy process have suggested that it will be simple to roll over the agreements in the brave new world, but they have already had to confront the harsh truth that some 20 countries, including allies whom they regularly point to—the United States, Australia and New Zealand—have objected to our simply rolling over agreements because they see an opportunity to gain a commercial advantage. I do not blame them; we would probably do the same in a different situation. The process of simply slipping into the WTO in the way that has been suggested bears no relation to the real situation.

I understand why the idea of no deal has gained in popularity; it is partly because it is a simple and straightforward proposition, but it is partly and very significantly the fault of the Prime Minster. She launched the meaningless mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal” way back in January 2017 at Lancaster House, and she and members of the Government have repeated it endlessly. No wonder people think no deal is a viable option. She justified it by saying,

“We would...be able to trade with Europe. We would be free to strike trade deals across the world.”

However, she failed to make it clear that no deal does not mean the status quo. In that sense, it is not like buying a house, which is how the former Brexit Secretary described it—as someone walking away, after a deal breaks down, with no less advantage than when they entered the negotiations. Walking away in the context of no deal means substantially damaging our position. Yes, it would mean in theory that we had the ability to trade with the EU, but not on the same terms as we currently do. The terms of seamless trade that countless supply chains and just-in-time production rely on would disappear.

Back then, the Prime Minister was happy to suggest that nothing would change in our trade relationship with Europe, but the truth is now out, and she has turned her own slogan on its head. She is now desperately going around the country, and within Parliament, saying that we have to accept her doomed deal because the alternative is no deal. She says that no deal would be a disaster. On that, at least, she is right, but the country deserves better than a choice between shrinking the economy by 4% under her deal and by 8% under no deal.

Clearly, we are in unprecedented times. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay said that the EU27 were trying to frustrate the process. What has frustrated the process more than anything has been the Government’s inability to agree their own position. I have spent some time talking with politicians from across the political spectrum and across nations within the EU27. Time and again they have said, “We’re sorry that the UK has chosen to leave the European Union. We wish you weren’t leaving, but we recognise that you are. We would simply like to be able to negotiate with certainty, knowing what your country wants; and once there was agreement, we would like your Prime Minister to be able to deliver on that, even just within the framework of her own party.” The war within that party has held back the negotiations more than any other factor.

It is pretty clear that the deal will be defeated tomorrow, but what then? The House has made it clear, against the Government’s opposition, that the Prime Minister will have to return within three days with plan B, and cannot try to run the clock down any further. Governments who can no longer govern do not have a place. That is why we are calling for a general election. I will come to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard).

This is the central issue of our time. It is certainly the central issue of this Parliament. The Government have spent two years focused on it above everything. It has caused paralysis in other critical areas of economic and social policy. All the Government’s energies have been focused on the deal, so if that deal is defeated tomorrow, the honourable thing—the right thing, and the thing that would have happened in years gone by—would be for the Government to step down. Owing to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, it is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton pointed out, more complex. After the deal is defeated we will therefore, without wasting time, seek to move a vote of no confidence in the Government.

If the Government run scared from facing the voters, and I understand why they might after last June—

Tommy Sheppard Portrait Tommy Sheppard - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 6:43 p.m.

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard

I will.

Tommy Sheppard Portrait Tommy Sheppard - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 4 p.m.

May I ask for a little more clarity? The hon. Gentleman says that if the deal is rejected, Labour will seek a vote at some point. Will he give us an indication of the Front-Bench thinking on that? Crucially, would Labour give the Government time to present a plan B before it made a decision on a no confidence vote?

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—