Thank you for your correspondence on Brexit.
There have been times throughout this process when I have been able to reply individually to each constituent who has written, and times when emails and parliamentary events have been flowing at such pace that it has been impossible to do so. I am afraid on this occasion I must once more set out my position in one reply, but I wish to assure you that I have read and absorbed every piece of correspondence that has come to me.
For those constituents who are interested, I have detailed my full position below. To summarise, this week I voted against the Withdrawal Agreement and extension of Article 50, and I voted to keep the No Deal option in play. I want to see us leave the EU on 29 March, but the numbers in parliament are contriving to make that extremely difficult. The fundamental choice before me next week is therefore whether I vote for the deeply flawed Withdrawal Agreement (whose problems I set out below) when it comes back to us on Tuesday or hold out for the possibility that parliament and the government will not be able to impose a worse alternative by 29 March. This will not be an easy decision, and I shall be speaking tomorrow to the Prime Minister to press her on a number of my specific concerns.
I appreciate in these circumstances, a number of constituents would like to see a second referendum or the revocation of Article 50. However, I believe it is imperative that we honour the referendum result and try in some way to move our country to the next stage of this process.
I know that some of you will passionately support the position I have taken so far, some will believe I should this week have signed up to the Withdrawal Agreement, and others would like to see Brexit stopped altogether. I regret that I cannot take a position that will satisfy all correspondents – indeed it is clear from the huge divergence of views that this is an impossibility - but I hope in setting out my thinking below that you will be able to understand how I have come to certain decisions.
With warm regards,
How I voted this week:
- I rejected the Withdrawal Agreement, as I did in January. I explain why below.
- I voted to keep No Deal firmly on the table.
- I voted on Thursday to reject an extension to Article 50.
- I also voted to reject a second referendum.
- On a separate amendment to the ‘No Deal’ motion on Wednesday, I supported a compromise proposal that would see us leave the EU in May without a Withdrawal Agreement but pay for a standstill zero-tariff trading arrangement while we negotiated as a third country a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU over the course of three years. There were aspects of this plan that were far from ideal but as a means of finding parliamentary consensus and getting us out of the EU before EU parliamentary elections, I was willing to back it. Unfortunately, this proposal was defeated.
How parliament voted this week:
- To reject the Withdrawal Agreement.
- To remove No Deal as an option. This position is not binding on government and not enough in of itself to stop Brexit happening on 29 March, despite its political significance.
- To permit a request to the EU for an extension to Article 50.
- To reject a second referendum.
- To reject attempts by a coalition of backbench MPs for parliament to take control of the parliamentary timetable to instruct government in its EU negotiations.
Why did you reject the Withdrawal Agreement?
Constituents with whom I have corresponded previously will know that I have profound concerns about the Withdrawal Agreement. Far from being a deal, it is simply a doorframe through which we walk while leaving on the other side a great deal of our leverage to extract a positive future relationship – the deadline of 29 March, threat of No Deal, £39 billion and commitments to issues in which it is in the EU’s strong interest to have continued UK cooperation.
As we enter into the next stage of negotiations on the future relationship, the default position if we cannot reach agreement will be the Northern Irish backstop. Since we have been unable to reach an acceptable agreement in negotiations thus far, with all existing leverage, I assess the political risk of our entering the backstop as very high and the legal risk of our not being able to exit it unilaterally also as high.
The backstop would not only undermine the constitutional integrity of our United Kingdom, but it would tie us into large parts of the single market, the customs union and still ultimately could leave us subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Unlike being a member of the EU, however, we would have given up our place at the table where rules of the single market and customs union are determined. In such a scenario, I fear this risks reducing our sovereignty and I believe it undermines the government’s assertions that we can strike meaningful free trade agreements with other countries.
The government has countered that it hopes we shall never need to enter the backstop. However, should we move into this state in a couple of years’ time, I believe public anger would be profound and we would reach the same political crisis in which we are currently embroiled but potentially of greater magnitude as we would be bound into this arrangement with no unilateral right of exit. My judgement that we would be locked into a customs union was backed up by a meeting I had last week in Brussels with the Irish delegation to the EU, who see the backstop as the blueprint for the future relationship.
When the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by the largest ever margin in January, MPs subsequently coalesced around a motion that said the Withdrawal Agreement could receive parliamentary backing if the backstop was replaced with alternative arrangements. A group of Conservative MPs from all parts of the Party then began working closely with civil servants to set out credible proposals for those alternative arrangements, something which had my full backing.
Unfortunately, it is not clear that the Prime Minister’s negotiating team ever put these proposals forward to their EU counterparts. Instead the EU advised it would not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and could provide only limited additional legal assurances on effectively a good faith basis. Therefore, when the Attorney General came back to us this week, he had to confess that the legal risks within the backstop had not fundamentally changed. The EU had simply been under no pressure to change its position as they knew there were the numbers within parliament to take No Deal off the table or push for an extension of Article 50, and that the Prime Minister was concerned about losing those Cabinet members who threatened to resign if she herself pursued the No Deal option.
The DUP, on the front line of these issues in Northern Ireland, vowed to vote against the second meaningful vote on the back of the failure by the Attorney General to provide enough legal assurance, and I was among many other pro-Brexit MPs who also believed that nothing had changed since January to make the Withdrawal Agreement more palatable. Furthermore, if we lost the support of the DUP, we would not be able to get legislation through parliament anyway.
What next? The political reality
My desired outcome to the Brexit negotiations was always that we would withdraw in an orderly way and be able to strike a comprehensive and wide-ranging free trade agreement with EU partners that would both honour the referendum result, and the commitments in the manifesto upon which I stood to leave the single market and customs union.
I was open to compromise on money, the idea of a transition period and many other items because I accept that leaving the EU was always going to be difficult and therefore it would be preferable to give people, businesses and government agencies time to adjust and manage that change. However, I hoped at the end of the process we would ultimately be an independent sovereign nation, with a continued strong trading and diplomatic relationship with EU allies. I accepted that we might wish to mirror many EU regulations to retain market access, but I should have preferred to see this done through new frameworks for cooperation based on mutual recognition rather than tying us indefinitely to the EU’s rulebook with no say.
No Deal, which remains the legislative default on 29 March, has never been my preferred outcome. However, I believe it is preferable to the Withdrawal Agreement, an extension to or revocation of Article 50, a softer Norway-style Brexit or a second referendum and all the corrosive uncertainty and anger that would bring. I believe from discussions I have had within trade committee, at the WTO and with people in the EU that in a No Deal scenario there would be a range of side agreements and deals would effectively give us a standstill on a number of issues for at least nine months, and that in areas where agreement could not be found, the government would be able to support those businesses and producers most badly affected by changes to WTO tariffs either by targeted financial support or tax reductions that would make the UK a more globally attractive business environment.
Several parliamentarians who share my view entirely on the Withdrawal Agreement believe it is time to face up to the fact that we simply do not have the numbers to get to that destination, that parliament will frustrate that course and that the Prime Minister will ultimately not permit it to happen. Fundamentally, we are in a constitutional crisis that is seeing the direct democracy of the referendum clash against the representative democracy of a parliament where, despite manifesto promises and the triggering of the two-year Article 50 process, too few MPs want to see through the instruction to Leave. As someone who represents a strong Leave-voting constituency and who believes in democracy, I find this profoundly depressing to the point of heartbreak. As I asked the Prime Minister in a recent statement, ‘In seeking to limit us either to an agreement that ties us to the EU without a clear end, an extension of this corrosive period of limbo, or a second public vote, does the Prime Minister share my profound democratic concern that Members of this House are contriving to deny those whom we serve any option that honours the referendum result?’
We some time ago moved into the territory of deciding upon ‘least worst options’ – something I tried very hard for us to avoid by attempting with others to dissuade Number 10 from taking us down the route of this Withdrawal Agreement and providing workable alternatives. But we have not been successful, and I cannot simply wish away that reality.
As I have advised, it remains the default position in law that we leave the EU on 29 March, with or without a Withdrawal Agreement. Some people believe it will be too difficult to get any alternative through parliament that can frustrate that default. Others believe that there are simply not the numbers in parliament to allow ‘No Deal’ to happen, and therefore the Withdrawal Agreement is now the least-worst option.
The Prime Minister has signalled her intention to bring back the Withdrawal Agreement to the House of Commons for a third ‘meaningful vote’ next week. I still do not wish to support it, but I shall have to make a reassessment of risk when making that decision as I want to deliver upon the referendum result and fear that the House will contrive to present a worse alternative than the Withdrawal Agreement if it is not supported or find ways to prevent us from leaving without an Agreement by 29 March. Unfortunately, this is now playing out exactly as civil service Brexit negotiator, Oliver Robbins, reportedly predicted – that MPs will be presented with a choice either of a two year extension or the Withdrawal Agreement. Either option I believe will lead to a sense of betrayal among those who wish to see the referendum result fulfilled.
I went into politics to try to contribute to the restoration of faith in our democracy after seeing at close hand the systematic undermining of trust in our institutions from the financial crisis, expenses crisis, political complacency within the EU and electoral corruption in local politics. I saw Brexit as a way in which we could renew those institutions, bring power closer to people, bear down on the complacency of the political class, and keep at bay the kind of fundamentalist political forces that are springing up across the EU.
It is a source of profound sadness to me that faith in the system is even more fragile after the past two-and-a-half years. I apologise to constituents for the inability of the political class, of which I am now a member, to find a way to break the impasse in which we find ourselves and deliver upon the referendum result. I am grateful to everyone who has written to me to share their views on this most important of subjects, and I shall endeavour to make the best decisions I can in the weeks ahead.
With kind regards,
Julia Lopez MP (née Dockerill)
Hornchurch & Upminster
Hornchurch | Harold Hill | Cranham | Upminster | Harold Wood | Emerson Park | North Ockendon | Noak Hill | Elm Park
* House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA or The Coach House, 133 Hall Lane, Upminster, RM14 1AL
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