Thank you, Mr Robertson, while I have contributed to many Westminster Hall debates, it is an honour to lead my first this morning and to do so under your chairmanship.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered negotiations on the UK leaving the EU during this extension period.
In my maiden speech nearly two years ago, I spoke of the delicate gift that is our parliamentary democracy – the sum of the toil and sacrifice that generations before us have made.
This dynamic system has worked on trust, with each cohort of parliamentarians vowing to fine-tune and reform our laws and institutions to reflect the needs and desires of the citizens they represent. I made my own vow two years ago, standing on a manifesto to leave the single market and customs union, in an election at which nearly 85% of votes went to parties promising to fulfil the referendum result. I was elected to a House that had already triggered the two-year countdown to our EU departure, and I took leadership from a Cabinet that repeated in one voice that no deal was better than a bad deal.
We should all reflect with regret, on the eve of European elections, that this generation of parliamentarians is now on the cusp of losing the trust so fundamental to democratic legitimacy. Could there be a more poignant symbol of that devastating loss than the scaffolded shroud that this Mother of Parliaments now wears? How disappointing to those who flock in admiration to this Place that they find not a confident institution, but one where Big Ben - icon of our democracy - is silent, its clockface peeping onto a Palace incrementally being fortified against rising anger from the streets.
I do not wish to downplay the magnitude of the decision to leave the EU, or the complexity of extracting ourselves some forty years after entry. However, it should have been our role as parliamentarians to address and manage those complexities. Instead, it is an indictment of this Place that three years on, the question of whether we shall be leaving at all is not even a settled one. There remains no clear vision of our future relationship with the EU or of our new role in the world to underpin government strategy. In the absence of that vision, we have become increasingly desperate just to deliver the word Brexit, even if an unholy fudge to obtain our withdrawal binds us into the very systems that the electorate rejected while denying our voice in them.
I tabled today’s debate not to argue about the merits or otherwise of leaving the EU, for that decision has been made. Nor to pick over the bones of a Withdrawal Agreement that has thrice been rejected. Instead I want us to take stock, asks ourselves how we got here and then, most importantly, how we make use of this period until 31 October to deliver on the referendum and gear our country to its new future.
There are many and varied reasons why people voted to Leave but one of the turning points for me as a floating voter was the conclusion of the attempted renegotiation of our membership. The preference of many swing voters, in my view, would have been to stay and reform the EU from within. However, the renegotiation was the point at which it became clear that British influence, and the threat of the third largest member walking away, was going to be an insufficient driver in making the EU more dynamic and accountable. Instead, the Eurozone members were likely to require further political integration, creating a deeper divide with non-Eurozone nations and an even more pronounced loss of influence for our nation in addressing the concerns of our own citizens.
We have since spent three years trying effectively to carve a bespoke association agreement with the EU, with Chequers the Prime Minister’s attempt to obtain a half-in, half-out option. The EU dubbed that cherry-picking and, in reading the UK’s political dynamic, has banked our offers of cash and a comprehensive security partnership, while holding us to a backstop in Northern Ireland that will ultimately pull us into a customs union and large parts of the single market in the next stage of talks. Tied into EU rules on goods, we shall find we have no leverage in negotiating access for our critical services either with the EU or with new trading partners.
There is no point in directing our frustration at the EU over this substandard Withdrawal Agreement - we have been out-negotiated, hoisted by the petard of an Article 50 process that British diplomats designed and accepting of this poor outcome through our complicity in its sequencing and design.
But the Withdrawal Agreement has been neither signed nor ratified. So there remains an opportunity to pause and read the writing that the British public - if not its politicians - have seen on the wall for some time. Namely that:
- If we go ahead with this Agreement, we give up our ability to secure an attractive future relationship and will find ourselves in an unsustainable, asymmetric relationship with the EU that will arguably leave us with less say over the rules and regulations that govern us than now. The transition period will only extend political – and therefore economic - uncertainty as we do not know to what we are transitioning, throwing a blanket over an economy that desperately wants a sense of direction. Whatever Bill now comes before us in parliament will not change what has been negotiated in Brussels - we must not waste the next four months attaching funereal adornments to what is a thoroughly dead horse.
- The EU is unlikely to reform any time soon because, fundamentally, the existing system benefits its most influential members. The EU will not, at least in these current negotiations, draw up a bespoke relationship with the UK as it has fundamentally decided that it values the integrity of the single market over frictionless trade with us and determines that it has the leverage to reject our overtures for special treatment.
Parliament has so far done its job in judging this Agreement to be against our interests. But it has not accepted the consequences of that judgement.
Despite attempts by parliamentarians to suggest practical amendment, the Prime Minister and the EU have made clear that there is no other Withdrawal Agreement available. They have made clear too, through the sequencing of talks, that there can be no negotiations on the future relationship - beyond the broad-brush Political Declaration - until we have formally left. Or to put it another way, we shall only be permitted to move to Stage 2 once we have tied our hands behind our backs in Stage 1.
So, it is with deep regret that we are left to face an unavoidable question: will we leave without a formal Withdrawal Agreement, with the economic challenges that presents, or will we vote to revoke Article 50, and face the democratic consequences?
If parliamentarians wish to revoke, let them vote for it and explain to their electorates why they now seek to overturn the inexorable logic of what they themselves put into law. Alternatively, we must face leaving without a Withdrawal Agreement and use this time to do our damnedest to make it work, while leaving the door firmly open to discussions with the EU on an alternative Withdrawal Agreement.
Such an outcome, however, will require more than cosmetic preparation and jingoistic mantras about WTO terms. It will need major policy prescriptions, strong government direction and coordination, and transparency about the state of our preparedness – potentially even a fresh mandate if parliament seeks to frustrate this process. I am grateful to have the Minister for No Deal here this morning so that he can set out with honesty and clarity the challenges we would face in delivery and how we they can best be mitigated, while maximising the leverage of any advantages this freedom might provide.
The urgent priority for government in such a scenario would be to address the absence of underpinning philosophy about Britain’s place in the world. My concern at this absence is reflected in Friday’s National Audit Office report on future trading policy – the UK will not get what it wants if it does not know what it wants.
The Brexit vote has often been misinterpreted as a misty-eyed reflex to return us to Britain past, but I see it instead as a judgement about the future - about where the world is going and whether the trajectory of the EU puts us in the right place to tackle the new challenges ahead. We are moving into an era of substantial regional trading blocs in China, the US and the EU. But the UK has ultimately been unable to reconcile itself to Guy Verhofstadt’s vision this week of an EU empire as the best way to flourish in this era, for we believe that the nation state still has fundamental relevance in maintaining the social and economic pact between government and citizens that safeguards our cohesion.
Leaving the EU must not see us simply jump into the arms of an alternative bloc but set us up as a dynamic, open trading nation like Australia, Singapore and Canada, with strong links to all major powers and cooperation with the most forward-thinking, mid-tier nations on global standards in new technologies and data, rule of law, security and constantly-evolving free trade agreements that break new ground on environmental stewardship, sustainable development and people-to-people exchange. Globally we can be bridge, mediator, thought-leader. Domestically a place of safety, liberty, creativity and prosperity, comfortable with the value of our nationhood and proud of our collective, modern identity.
Second, we would need to move with speed but not haste in drawing up a new independent trading policy, ensuring we avoid entering substandard agreements out of political imperative. We need quickly to establish whether the EU is genuinely interested in rapidly striking a comprehensive FTA along Canada lines or if it would seek to drag progress out to stifle talks with other nations. As things stand, it has been difficult for us to roll over existing FTAs, for example, because third countries are waiting to see the shape of the future UK-EU trading relationship – how much flexibility we shall have, and how much access to the EU market.
Before making that approach to the EU, we must undertake a hard-nosed assessment of our negotiating leverage – be it money, access to our goods and financial markets, cooperation on research and security. Then answer broad strategic questions such as whether we have the capacity to attempt parallel negotiations with other countries and whether to roll DEXEU into DIT so that government speaks with a consistent voice. Immediately after tomorrow’s elections, we would require swift diplomatic analysis of the change in European power dynamic from the new make-up of the parliament and Commission, and the extent to which that alters the landscape of future talks.
Third, we would need to accept that future access to the EU market would unlikely be as good as our current arrangements. Trading on WTO terms is not a cure-all otherwise governments would never seek to improve those terms via FTAs. So, we would need urgently to identify which businesses will be most affected by that change in access and mitigate the impact either through a bold programme of tax cuts, greater regulatory freedoms that can drive competitiveness or specific short-term support packages from the state. I should be grateful if the Minister could advise what cross-departmental work has already been done in this area.
There would need to be an analysis of long-term impacts too. On financial services, for instance, the EU will wish to avoid immediate shocks to their own markets but then will try to create a medium to long-term drag for firms to base themselves in the single market. What is our strategy to provide an even more compelling pull for services firms to retain or move bases here?
How ready is our trade remedies regime, and are we prepared for dealing with our own defensive, producer interests which we have hitherto hidden behind the EU to arbitrate?
Fourth, Northern Ireland would require intensive and sustained focus. All parties have agreed that there must be no hard border, so there needs to be political impetus and financial resourcing given to the Alternative Arrangements working group on how existing techniques to check and clear goods away from the border can be implemented. I should appreciate the Minister’s update on this work as well as the state of preparedness at Dover and other major ports; progress in rolling out authorised economic operator and trusted trader schemes; and HMRC support for businesses dealing with new paperwork requirements.
If we are to take a tighter approach to immigration from the EU, we shall need a major boost to our domestic skills agenda including the adequate resourcing of our vocational education and college system, intensive investment in recruitment to the health and social care sectors, and incentivisation of businesses to train UK workers. What discussions has the Minister had on the preparedness of the labour market to tackle any impact of No Deal?
To make this policy effort work, we would need to rally businesses, citizens and civil service. Enough of the attacks on one another. Civil servants are just that – dedicated, professional citizens with a desire to serve. They cannot compensate for an absence of political direction. Once it has been provided, we must trust them to deliver.
That change of attitude must translate to our dealings with the EU. Enough with the constant wartime references, of speeches made in the UK that we think are not being heard in Brussels. The EU is not an enemy, but an organisation comprised of treasured partners. We would need a reciprocation of that attitude while reassuring the EU that it ought not fear contagion. For Brits, our membership of the EU has always been more transactional as our borders are comparatively well-defined as an island nation. A desire for political stability, even at times at the price of economics, takes precedence for many continental European nations.
This new era allows for a renewal of our relationship that will allow each party to move in a trajectory with which it is more comfortable. This relationship will require the establishment of fresh diplomatic frameworks for dialogue on issues of shared importance, and I should be grateful if the Minister could advise what discussions he has had with the FCO about how we are gearing our presence across the continent. The NAO also identified that DIT is under-resourced for the new relationships we wish to build. Can he advise how quickly we might step-up our presence in those countries with whom we wish to deepen trading ties?
There are many other areas of ‘No Deal’ preparations that require intensive focus, but other Hon Members wish to contribute. So finally, I shall raise a bizarrely under-discussed aspect of Brexit that goes to the heart of this nation’s political malaise. Representative democracy works by citizens effectively subcontracting political decision-making to a class of people in a way that gives them the freedom to live their lives and prosper. They then endorse a framework and strategic direction for those decisions via a General Election, or - in the case of Brexit - a referendum. In many ways, the contempt for the political class has grown these past few decades in line with politicians’ avoidance of the kinds of decisions that they are explicitly elected to make and the insistence on blaming institutions like the EU for failings.
Brexit was a signal to this Place that the public want us to make more of our own decisions and be accountable for them. Yet it is astonishing how few parliamentarians welcome the raft of powers that will soon be making its way across the Channel. We have not even begun to contemplate what that restoration of powers will mean for parliament, and how it can be used to reinvigorate our pact with the electorate. In this vein, I would ask the Minister what urgent thought is being given to rebalancing with the legislature the power that transferred to the Executive from Brussels via Henry VIII clauses in this period as a means of managing short-term Brexit challenges. Such power vested in government may seem expedient now but will rapidly seem less attractive under a Corbyn government.
I fear our political class has harboured for some time a simultaneous inferiority and superiority complex about this nation’s abilities. One group of politicians consistently talks-down our country’s inherent strength and resilience, while another parrots slogans of exceptionalism that diminish the practical challenges ahead. The public believes in this nation’s future beyond the EU but expects us to be clear-eyed in the delivery of it.
The Prime Minister has indicated that she would not take us forward in such an endeavour should her Withdrawal Agreement fail again. So, the duty will fall upon any leadership contender to set out with resolve and in forensic detail their response to some of the issues I have highlighted today. In doing so, I hope they will place service to nation - not personal ambition - at the very heart of their task.
‘Do not waste this time’, warned EU President Donald Tusk of the latest EU extension period. But it is not his wrath about which we should be worried. If we do not employ the lessons we have learned these past three years on the road to 31 October, the electorate may indicate tomorrow that it is more than willing to bestow democracy legitimacy on somebody else.