Exiting the European Union
10 December 2018
The Prime Minister (Mrs Theresa May) With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on exiting the European Union.
We have now had three days of debate on the withdrawal agreement setting out the terms of our departure from the EU, and the political declaration setting out our future relationship after we have left. I have listened very carefully to what has been said, in the Chamber and out of it, by Members on all sides. From listening to those views, it is clear that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue, the Northern Ireland backstop, there remains widespread and deep concern. As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be rejected by a significant margin. We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow, and will not proceed to divide the House at this time.
I set out in my speech opening the debate last week the reasons why the backstop is a necessary guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland and why, whatever future relationship you want, there is no deal available that does not include the backstop. Behind all those arguments are some inescapable facts: the fact that Northern Ireland shares a land border with another sovereign state; the fact that the hard-won peace that has been built in Northern Ireland over the last two decades has been built around a seamless border; and the fact that Brexit will create a wholly new situation.
On 30 March the Northern Ireland-Ireland border will for the first time become the external frontier of the European Union’s single market and customs union. The challenge this poses must be met not with rhetoric but with real and workable solutions. Businesses operate across that border. People live their lives crossing and re-crossing it every day. I have been there and spoken to some of those people; they do not want their everyday lives to change as a result of the decision we have taken. They do not want a return to a hard border. And if this House cares about preserving our Union, it must listen to those people, because our Union will only endure with their consent.
We had hoped that the changes we have secured to the backstop would reassure Members that we could never be trapped in it indefinitely. I hope the House will forgive me if I take a moment to remind it of those changes. The customs element of the backstop is now UK-wide; it no longer splits our country into two customs territories. This also means that the backstop is now an uncomfortable arrangement for the EU, so it will not want it to come into use, or to persist for long if it does.
Both sides are now legally committed to using best endeavours to have our new relationship in place before the end of the implementation period, ensuring the backstop is never used. If our new relationship is not ready, we can now choose to extend the implementation period, further reducing the likelihood of the backstop coming into use. If the backstop ever does come into use, we now do not have to get the new relationship in place to get out of it; alternative arrangements that make use of technology could be put in place instead. The treaty is now clear that the backstop can only ever be temporary, and there is now a termination clause.
But I am clear from what I have heard in this place and from my own conversations that these elements do not offer a sufficient number of colleagues the reassurance that they need. I spoke to a number of EU leaders over the weekend, and in advance of the European Council I will go to see my counterparts in other member states and the leadership of the Council and the Commission. I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House has expressed.
We are also looking closely at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government—[Interruption.] To enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely.
Mr Speaker, having spent the best part of two years poring over the detail of Brexit, listening to the public’s ambitions, and, yes, their fears too, and testing the limits of what the other side is prepared to accept, I am in absolutely no doubt that this deal is the right one. [Interruption.] It honours the result of the referendum. [Interruption.] It protects jobs, security and our Union. But it also represents the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU. I believe in it, as do many Members of this House, and I still believe there is a majority to be won in this House in support of it if I can secure additional reassurance on the question of the backstop, and that is what my focus will be in the days ahead.
But if you take a step back, it is clear that the House faces a much more fundamental question. Does this House want to deliver Brexit? [Hon. Members: “No!”] That is a clear message from the Scottish National party. If the House does want to deliver Brexit, does it want to do so through reaching an agreement with the EU? If the answer is yes, and I believe that is the answer of the majority of this House, then we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to make a compromise, because there will be no enduring and successful Brexit without some compromise on both sides of the debate.
Many of the most controversial aspects of this deal, including the backstop, are simply inescapable facts of having a negotiated Brexit. Those Members who continue to disagree need to shoulder the responsibility of advocating an alternative solution that can be delivered, and do so without ducking its implications. So if you want a second referendum to overturn the result of the first, be honest that this risks dividing the country again, when as a House we should be striving to bring it back together. If you want to remain part of the single market and the customs union, be open that this would require free movement, rule taking across the economy and ongoing financial contributions—none of which are in my view compatible with the result of the referendum. If you want to leave without a deal, be up front that in the short term, this would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden. I do not believe that any of those courses of action command a majority in this House. But notwithstanding that fact, for as long as we fail to agree a deal, the risk of an accidental no deal increases. So the Government will step up their work in preparation for that potential outcome, and the Cabinet will hold further discussions on it this week.
The vast majority of us accept the result of the referendum and want to leave with a deal. We have a responsibility to discharge. If we will the ends, we must also will the means. I know that Members across the House appreciate how important that responsibility is. I am very grateful to all Members on this side of the House—and a few on the other side, too—who have backed this deal and spoken up for it. Many others, I know, have been wrestling with their consciences, particularly over the question of the backstop. They are seized of the need to face up to the challenge posed by the Irish border, but genuinely concerned about the consequences. I have listened. I have heard those concerns and I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances.
If I may, I will conclude on a personal note. On the morning after the referendum two and a half years ago, I knew that we had witnessed a defining moment for our democracy. Places that did not get a lot of attention at elections and did not get much coverage on the news were making their voices heard and saying that they wanted things to change. I knew in that moment that Parliament had to deliver for them. Of course that does not just mean delivering Brexit. It means working across all areas—building a stronger economy, improving public services, tackling social injustices—to make this a country that truly works for everyone—[Interruption.]
It means working across all areas to make this a country that truly works for everyone, and a country where nowhere and nobody is left behind. These matters are too important to be afterthoughts in our politics. They deserve to be at the centre of our thinking, but that can happen only if we get Brexit done and get it done right.
Even though I voted remain, from the moment I took up the responsibility of being Prime Minister of this great country, I have known that my duty is to honour the result of that vote. And I have been just as determined to protect the jobs that put food on the tables of working families and the security partnerships that keep each one of us safe. That is what this deal does. It gives us control of our borders, our money and our laws. It protects jobs, security and our Union. It is the right deal for Britain. I am determined to do all I can to secure the reassurances this House requires, to get this deal over the line and deliver for the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab) I thank the Prime Minister for providing a copy of the statement before we met here this afternoon. We are in an extremely serious and unprecedented situation. The Government have lost control of events and are in complete disarray. It has been evident for weeks that the Prime Minister’s deal does not have the confidence of this House, yet she ploughed on regardless, reiterating “This is the only deal available.” Can she be clear with the House: is she seeking changes to the deal, or mere reassurances? Does she therefore accept the statement from the European Commission at lunchtime, saying that it was the “only deal possible. We will not renegotiate—our position has…not changed”?
Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has said it is “not possible” to renegotiate the Irish border backstop, stating that it was the Prime Minister’s own red lines that made the backstop necessary. So can the Prime Minister be clear: is she now ready to drop further red lines in order to make progress? Can the Prime Minister confirm that the deal presented to this House is not off the table, but will be re-presented with a few assurances? Bringing back the same botched deal, either next week or in January—and can she be clear on the timing?—will not change its fundamental flaws or the deeply held objections right across this House, which go far wider than the backstop alone.
This a bad deal for Britain, a bad deal for our economy and a bad deal for our democracy. Our country deserves better than this. The deal damages our economy, and it is not just the Opposition saying that; the Government’s own analysis shows that this deal would make us worse off. If the Prime Minister cannot be clear that she can and will renegotiate the deal, she must make way. If she is going back to Brussels, she needs to build a consensus in this House. Since it appears that business has changed for the next two days, it seems not only possible but necessary that this House debates the negotiating mandate that the Prime Minister takes to Brussels. There is no point at all in this Prime Minister bringing back the same deal again, which is clearly not supported by this House.
We have endured two years of shambolic negotiations. Red lines have been boldly announced and then cast aside. We are now on our third Brexit Secretary, and it appears that each one of them has been excluded from these vital negotiations. We were promised a precise and substantive document, and we got a vague 26-page wishlist. This Government have become the first Government in British history to be held in contempt of Parliament.
The Government are in disarray. Uncertainty is building for business. People are in despair at the state of these failed negotiations, and concerned about what it means for their jobs, their livelihoods and their communities. The fault for that lies solely at the door of this shambolic Government. The Prime Minister is trying to buy herself one last chance to save this deal. If she does not take on board the fundamental changes required, she must make way for those who can.
The Prime Minister I will respond fairly briefly. The right hon. Gentleman appears to argue, on the one hand, that it is not possible to change the deal because the EU has said that this is the only deal and, on the other hand, that the only thing he would accept is the deal being renegotiated. He quoted the European Union as saying this is the only deal, and he went on to say that the whole deal needs to be renegotiated.
The fundamental question that Members of this House have to ask themselves is whether they wish to deliver Brexit and honour the result of the referendum. All the analysis shows that, if we wish to deliver Brexit, if we wish to honour the result of the referendum, the deal that does that, and that best protects jobs and our economy, is the deal the Government have put forward. [Interruption.]
That is the fundamental question for Members of this House: to deliver on and honour the result of the referendum, but to do it in a way that protects jobs and our economy. That is what this deal does.
The Leader of the Opposition talks about a number of issues. He wants to be in the customs union such that the single market and free movement would have to be accepted. He refuses to accept that any deal requires a backstop, because that is our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland. He claims that he wants to negotiate trade deals, yet he wants to be fully in the customs union, which would not enable us to negotiate those trade deals. Finally, he talks about the uncertainty for British business. I can tell him that the biggest uncertainty for British business lies not in this deal but on the Front Bench of the Labour party.
Mr Speaker Order. Before I look to the Father of the House, and then other colleagues, I want to say the following. Although the Government’s intention to halt the forthcoming debate at this inordinately late stage has been widely leaked to the media in advance, I felt it only appropriate to hear what is proposed before advising the House. Halting the debate, after no fewer than 164 colleagues have taken the trouble to contribute, will be thought by many Members of this House to be deeply discourteous. Indeed, in the hours since news of this intention emerged, many colleagues from across the House have registered that view to me in the most forceful terms.
Having taken the best procedural advice, colleagues should be informed that there are two ways of doing this. The first and, in democratic terms, the infinitely preferable way is for a Minister to move at the outset of the debate that the debate be adjourned. This will give the House the opportunity to express its view in a vote on whether or not it wishes the debate to be brought to a premature and inconclusive end. I can reassure Ministers that I would be happy to accept such a motion so that the House can decide.
The alternative is for the Government unilaterally to decline to move today’s business, which means not only that the House is deprived of its opportunity to vote upon the substance of the debate tomorrow but that it is given no chance to express its view today on whether the debate should or should not be allowed to continue.
I politely suggest that, in any courteous, respectful and mature environment, allowing the House to have its say on this matter would be the right and, dare I say it, the obvious course to take. Let us see if those who have assured this House and the public, over and over again, that this supremely important vote is going to take place tomorrow, without fail, wish to rise to the occasion.