Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
It gives me great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has been incredibly brave and, as a result of her courage, has faced hideous threats. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish her a happy birthday.
I shall try to focus my remarks on the motion and the Government amendment. I fully support Labour’s motion, but for the same reasons as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), I cannot support the Government amendment. In effect, it gives a blank cheque for us to invoke article 50 by March without any of us being any the wiser about the Government’s intentions today.
The Government promise to publish a plan, but it has been clear to me from Government statements and from statements of Conservative Members outside this Chamber in the last 24 hours that that plan will not be the White Paper that the Brexit Secretary once promised. It will not answer the big questions about our vital access to the single market, the rights of UK citizens abroad and EU citizens here, or issues such as tariffs. All the signals from the Prime Minister’s speech to her party conference and since have been that the majority of the Government want and are heading for a hard Brexit. In my view, that would be disastrous for jobs and prosperity in my constituency.
In the Labour party conference just a couple of months ago, we agreed as a party:
“Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum.”
I accept that that does not specifically mention article 50, but it is surely explicit that, unless we start arguing now that article 50 is reversible, we should not support its invocation without having any confidence that the Government’s Brexit would be acceptable—and I have no such confidence.
I also happen to believe that the timescale that the Government have imposed on themselves is unnecessary, unrealistic and unwise. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said yesterday that it would be completed in 18 months, but the French and German elections mean that no meaningful talks will happen until the autumn of next year. That means that, under the current plan, the talks will have to be completed within 12 months—the most complicated negotiations that this country has ever faced completed in just 12 months.
Given that the French and the German elections provide a case to delay article 50 and given that we can only negotiate before article 50—because, afterwards, we just give in our membership card and the Government decide—does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we should delay article 50 until November and then perhaps have a referendum on it?
Mr Ben Bradshaw
I do not agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, but I do think it would make sense for the Government to delay the invocation of article 50 until after the German elections, to give themselves more time to secure a good deal.
The Government have prayed in aid a motion that was agreed by the House, without a Division, on 12 October. The Secretary of State for Brexit prayed it in aid in his speech as well, without making clear that it had said nothing about a March deadline. It is worth my putting that motion on the record. It said:
“this House recognises that leaving the EU is the defining issue facing the UK; believes that there should be a full and transparent debate on the Government’s plan for leaving the EU; and calls on the Prime Minister to ensure that this House is able properly to scrutinise that plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked”.
There was nothing in the motion about a 31 March deadline. It was completely different from today’s Government amendment.
I know it is relatively easy for me, as one who represents a “Remain” seat, to oppose the Government in the Division Lobby tonight, but all of us, as Members of Parliament, are called upon to exercise our judgment on what we believe to be in the best interests of our constituents and the nation. I am afraid that I will not submit myself to a straitjacket of a timetable—an artificial timetable—to suit the Conservative party and deal with its internal problems when that would not be in the national interest, which is why I will oppose the Government amendment tonight.