House of Commons

Paul Blomfield MP

After the last couple of days, today’s debate has something of the feel of the morning after the night before. Indeed, it has been a sobering debate, reflecting the depth of the crisis that we are in. Two years on from the referendum, the Government are still unable to speak on behalf of the British people. The most important negotiations the country has faced since the second world war are being led by the most dysfunctional Government in living memory.

It does not have to be like this. The Prime Minister was right at Mansion House to say we had to face up to hard facts, but that meant facing down those in her party who put their ideological hostility to the EU before the interests of the country. If she had faced up to the facts two years ago—if she had said then that the country had voted to leave the EU but by a painfully close margin, and that it was a decision to depart but not to destroy our economy, and if she had said that we would leave the EU but remain in a customs union and close to the single market and the members of the agencies and partnerships we had built together—she could have secured a clear majority in this House and built a consensus in the country, which had been so bitterly divided by the referendum.

But she did not. Instead, she handed a veto to the European Research Group—the people who have sought to undermine not just herself at every step but every one of her predecessors. They are, as John Major commented recently, even more hard-line than those he faced. They are less than 10% of this House but are calling the shots. The tail is wagging the dog. They are demanding the red lines that have held us back—no single market, no customs union, no European Court of Justice, no agencies. To be fair to the Prime Minister, she put that proposition to the British people in last June’s general election. She sought a mandate for an extreme Brexit, but she did not get it. She went into that election with a majority and came out without one.

I remind Mr Baron, who sought to misquote our manifesto, as others have done, that at that election we said:

“We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper”— as we would this one—

“and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses”.

John Baron MP

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paul Blomfield  MP

I will not, because I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s points and we cannot get into a detailed exchange.

The result of the Prime Minister’s approach has been paralysis, not simply on Brexit but on the other crises facing our country. The Government have neither the authority to deal with Brexit nor the ability to tackle the issues that led to it. There has been a dawning realisation from the Prime Minister that those early red lines were a mistake, but each time she tries to step over them, she has been hauled back by the extremists within her party.

At Chequers, it did seem that the Prime Minister was beginning to face up to the hard facts—to break free from the icy grip of the European Research Group. Not far enough, not soon enough, but tentative steps towards reality, towards a customs settlement and a regulatory alignment demanded by business—a point made by my hon. Friend Richard Burden—and also necessary to resolve the issue of the Northern Ireland border.

Of course, the former Brexit Secretary was right when he endorsed Donald Trump’s view that the plan would “kill” the prospect of a US-UK deal; and of course, it was just a starting point, not the end point of negotiations. It would inevitably involve further movement by the Government. Knowing that, the ERG tore it to shreds, and Monday night’s debacle was the last nail in the coffin. Rather than defeat the amendments—as they could have, overwhelmingly—the Government rolled over and accepted wrecking amendments that left their White Paper dead in the water. The Minister shakes his head, but if there was any doubt about its death, Mr Baker laid it to rest today in what was, frankly, a chilling contribution.

While the Prime Minister turns on those in her own party who would welcome the Chequers plan, threatening them, she embraces those who would destroy her, and she continues to bring them into Government. Having resigned, the hon. Member for Wycombe was succeeded as a Brexit Minister by his predecessor as chair of the ERG, Chris Heaton-Harris —who, of course, joins another former chair, Suella Braverman. It is beginning to look as if there is a secondment scheme going on between the ERG and the Brexit ministerial team.

Bill Cash MP

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paul Blomfield MP

No, I will not; I have not the time. I would love to, but I have not the time.

As I say, it is beginning to look as if there is a secondment scheme. So we may yet see Mr Rees-Mogg make his way down to the Front Bench—or perhaps he thinks he has more power where he is.

Sixteen months into the negotiations, the White Paper says that the Government will now

“charge the UK’s negotiating team to engage with the EU’s at pace”.

The time for “pace” was long ago, but better late than never. It is 16 months since the House set the clock ticking, and in three months we need to resolve the deal. Whatever the polls say now, the public will not thank politicians who deliver a damaging Brexit based on false promises.

Without the threats and bullying that Members faced last night, there was a majority across the House in favour of a sensible approach—one that respects the referendum result, one that protects our constituents’ jobs and livelihoods. If the Government are not willing or are not able to deliver that sensible result, in the months ahead it will be the duty of this House to step in.


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