Leaving the EU DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Tommy SheppardMain Page: Tommy Sheppard (Scottish National Party) - Edinburgh East)
Department Debates - View all Tommy Sheppard's debates with the Department for Exiting the European Union
Absolutely, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right that we need to put in place everything we can to make this process work for the United Kingdom. That means we need to move from talking about things that we might need to do and having those contingency arrangements to getting things signed and sealed on paper, so that we can move forward, one way or the other, in the future.
However, as I say, if the Prime Minister wants to go back to Europe with a stronger hand, having seen exactly how much feeling there is against the nature of this withdrawal agreement in the Houses of Parliament, and give the European Union one last chance to come with something that we can all get behind and support for the benefit of both the UK and the European Union, then I would absolutely support her in that, and I hope that is what she will do next week. But one way or another, we have to leave.
Britain can thrive outside the European Union. No deal is very much better than the bad deal that is on offer, and I feel that increasingly my constituents are absolutely adamant—as is increasingly represented in the correspondence that I receive—that this place must support us leaving on 29 March, one way or the other.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I just wanted to explain that 4.30 pm on a Monday is the slot that is allocated every week, so there is not a lot of scope for flexibility. The Petitions Committee meets in private, but one of the questions that we often ask about Brexit petitions is whether, because we debate the matter so often in the House, we are just duplicating debates. We try to give people a voice as much as we can, but I take his point.
The hon. Gentleman referred to optimism, and the optimism of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave cannot be ignored. I respect his comments. He and I probably disagree on many things, including this issue, but does he not agree that a second referendum would, by its very nature, be divisive and, unfortunately, engineer more disquiet and anger among the people by totally ignoring the referendum of June 2016, when 17.4 million people said, “We want to leave”? Let us honour that.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I am interested to know the basis for his second point, which is about people changing their minds. If it is opinion polls, we all know that over the past few years opinion polls have been very wrong—those on the referendum predicted a win for remain. Surely, therefore, we cannot trust opinion polls as evidence that people have changed their mind.
In my constituency, people voted 56% to 44% to leave. Over the holiday period, I made it my business to talk to my constituents in fishing, farming, business and ordinary life, and opinion is hardening in relation to leaving the EU. That is happening in my constituency, and I am sure it is happening in others.
Clearly, the EU has no legal right to do that, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is trying every trick in the book to make it as difficult as possible for us to leave, partly because, as the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, it wants to make an example of us to ensure that no one else dares vote to leave.
Does the hon. Gentleman not see the problem in presenting a deal that a petition of 300,000-odd people say is not Brexit, and that Conservative Members have today said does not represent Brexit? Having “Brexit” on a ballot paper does not give anyone an educated choice about what they are voting on.
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.
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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—
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.
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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.
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.