Last week was another chaotic and momentous week in Westminster. As ever, I wanted to provide you with an update on my work and my views. I apologise for the length of this update, but there is much to cover.
The Withdrawal Agreement
In December last year I set out why I was going to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. You can read this statement here, and my thinking remains the same.
All that has changed since the first vote is that the uncertainty has grown and the need to find a way to avoid ‘No Deal’ has become even more pressing. This uncertainty only continues to grow now that the Withdrawal Agreement has been rejected for a second time and seeing this chaos and the impact it is having on businesses reinforces why I voted for the Withdrawal Agreement twice.
I continue to receive letters and emails from constituents from all points of view, some saying this is a ‘Hard-Brexit’, some saying this is “Brexit in name only”, some saying it is a sensible compromise, and many local business owners saying it is necessary to create certainty.
It is important to note what the Withdrawal Agreement is and what it is not:
- The Withdrawal Agreement provides a transitional period, which businesses have been calling for, to allow time for the future relationship to be negotiated. This will keep the UK effectively in the Single Market and Customs Union until 2021, which can be extended.
- It ensures that the rights of EU Citizens currently in the UK and UK Citizens currently in the EU will continue to be protected.
- The Withdrawal Agreement itself does not set out the future relationship between the UK and the EU. That is to be negotiated next. I shall argue for close alignment both on customs and regulation as I have always done – a Single Market and Customs Union style solution. Indeed, I believe close alignment is inevitable given the need to avoid a border in Ireland.
When I vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, I must weigh up the costs and benefits of the Withdrawal Agreement against the risks and opportunities that could arise if it were to be rejected. The options before me are not Withdrawal Agreement vs Remain, it is Withdrawal Agreement vs chaos with no clear outcome.
I remain of the view that the economic certainty provided by the Withdrawal Agreement and avoiding ‘No Deal’ outweighs the huge risks and chaos that would arise should it be voted down.
Weighing heavily on my mind is the fact that if nothing happens, if Parliament and the Government cannot decide any course of action, the UK will leave the EU with no deal eventually; this is the default option and would be a disaster.
If I vote against the deal, and it leads to chaos and ‘No Deal’, I would rightly be held accountable for that outcome. It is not a risk that I am willing to take on behalf of my constituents and the country.
I wanted to vote for the Government’s motion which ruled out ‘No Deal’.
However, this was not possible as the “Spelman” amendment passed. Although the Spelman amendment had good intentions, in the end Dame Caroline Spelman herself decided it would be better not to push her amendment to a vote, though someone else did this.
In her words, “The opportunity afforded by the Government motion of obtaining a really large majority in this House against a no-deal Brexit is greater than that afforded by my amendment which was carried on 29 January”. I agreed and so did not vote for the amendment.
Since the amendment passed, it was not possible to vote for the Government’s amendment, and the Government Whips asked me to vote against the motion, as amended, to reject ‘No Deal’.
I could not do this as I regard ‘No Deal’ as a disaster. Therefore, I abstained, despite being a Government Minister and being well aware I may lose my position because of my actions.
However, to avoid ‘No Deal’ something must be agreed to replace it, a Parliamentary motion is not enough. That is why I have consistently worked with colleagues to act against ‘No Deal’ and a ‘Hard Brexit’, as promised at the last General Election:
- We ensured that Parliament would have control over the Brexit process, by ensuring a Withdrawal Agreement would need Parliamentary approval.
- We ensured that there was a procedure and timetable should the Withdrawal Agreement be rejected. This gives opportunities for the House of Commons to amend the Government’s Brexit motions and have its say. Indeed, the “People’s Vote” campaign can exist because of this.
- We ensured that Article 50 could be extended, firstly by ensuring the Withdrawal Act contains that flexibility, and secondly by persuading the Prime Minister to bring a vote on extension last week.
- I voted to extend Article 50 (see below).
- I have led Parliamentary debates on the EFTA/EEA model and on Customs Arrangements in the hope of finding a consensus for the future relationship.
- I voted for the Withdrawal Agreement twice, which would eliminate the risk of ‘No Deal’.
I have consistently shown that my actions are motivated by a desire to avoid a “Hard Brexit and “No Deal”.
Extending Article 50
Earlier this year I had been working tirelessly with fellow Ministerial colleagues to find a way to avoid the risk of ‘No Deal’ by ensuring Article 50 could be extended if necessary.
I was pleased that the Prime Minister listened to our concerns and agreed that should the House of Commons reject the Withdrawal Agreement and No Deal in March, there will be a vote on whether Article 50 should be extended.
I voted for Article 50 to be extended, to remove the risk of ‘No Deal’ on 29th March.
But of course, something to permanently replace “No Deal” must eventually be agreed. At the moment, it is difficult to see what option will gain a majority in the House of Commons. This is why I do not rule out any options when it comes to avoiding ‘No Deal’ and a ‘Hard Brexit’. However, I am a pragmatist, and so I believe the best solutions are those which can succeed. Therefore, I remain convinced that the best and surest way to avoid ‘No Deal’ and ‘Hard Brexit’ is for the Withdrawal Agreement to be approved.
A few constituents have contacted me about the Letwin-Benn amendment. This would have created a day for voting on a ‘Business of the House Motion’, which could have led to a series of votes on Brexit options.
I was pleased that the Government pledged that it would do just this should the Withdrawal Agreement not pass by 20th March and “would facilitate a process in the two weeks after the March European Council to allow the House to seek a majority on the way forward.” Added to this the House of Commons will vote on an amendable motion on 25th March, which has been made possible by our work to secure Parliamentary control over the process last year.
A further Referendum
A further referendum is being proposed by many people and while a large majority in Wimbledon, like me, voted to remain in 2016, this does not automatically mean they support another referendum now.
I have never argued that a second referendum would be undemocratic, as you will see below my issues are technical and those that must be addressed by those in favour of a second referendum.
Firstly, at a time when the country must come together another referendum is likely to be a divisive process rather than one that heals.
There is no consensus, even amongst supporters of another referendum, over what the question should be, let alone a question that would command the trust of the whole electorate and lead to a conclusion of the European Union issue.
Furthermore this is no consensus between supporters of a further referendum about the best time to put this to Parliament. Both ‘Best for Britain’ and the ‘People’s Vote’ Campaign did not think “Amendment H” on a further referendum last week should have been pushed to a vote. It was their view that last week should have been dedicated to extending Article 50. I agree, and I voted to extend Article 50.
If the Withdrawal Agreement is an option, and wins the referendum, what instruction does this give about the future framework which is yet to be negotiated? There will be the same fighting over the Future Framework as we’re seeing now over Brexit – should it be Norway, Canada, or something else? This new referendum would not resolve those questions at all.
Other matters that would need to be agreed are the franchise, the timing, allowing for Electoral Commission consultation, and an extension of Article 50 which leads to complications with the European Parliament elections next May. With enough political will all these issues could be resolved, but it is in no way easy, and if there is no agreement on a way forward we will be heading towards no deal.
Furthermore, many argue for another referendum given issues with digital campaigning and donations in the 2016 referendum, which is perfectly understandable. However, the head of the Electoral Commission has said no new referendum should take place until the laws around the use of social media and campaign funding have been significantly tightened – another issue that would take serious time to resolve properly – time which we simply do not have.
I understand why some who voted remain are so fed up with this process they would just like another roll of the dice in the hope of a better outcome. But I need to weigh up these risks and come to a decision which is most likely to protect the economy, jobs and livelihoods.
There is absolutely no guarantee that we would get the result we want from another referendum. Colleagues I speak to who have constituencies which voted leave believe their areas would return an even higher leave vote a second-time round.
As ever, if you have any further questions on this or any other issue you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or write to me at the House of Commons.
This is a rapidly changing situation and I will continue to keep you updated.