I have been spending a lot of time replying to emails on a variety of matters related to our ongoing withdrawal from the EU and have prepared the following statement covering, as comprehensively as I can, the points that have been raised with me by many constituents. While there is considerable political disagreement on this matter and people continue to have a very diverse range of opinions on the issue of Brexit from don’t leave to leave tomorrow without a deal, I hope this answers your queries to a satisfactory level - even if my own opinion and interpretation does not chime precisely with your own.
The current timetable
As you may know, the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement was rejected by Parliament in January and she has returned to Brussels to try and achieve legally substantive changes to the Northern Ireland backstop, which was clearly the key issue for MPs based on the extensive Parliamentary debates (more on the backstop later). These negotiations are ongoing. The Prime Minister has offered Parliament up to three further votes to move things forward, starting with the next ‘meaningful vote’ on the Withdrawal Agreement scheduled for 12th March.
This flowchart by the BBC is very useful for visualising where the Brexit process currently stands.
The new meaningful vote to be held by the 12th March will ascertain whether Parliament is happy with the changes that the Prime Minister has achieved with the Withdrawal Agreement. If the deal is accepted then we will leave the EU under its terms and move on to negotiating the future trading relationship. If it is rejected again, there will be a further vote on 13th March on whether Parliament would be happy to leave with no deal. If Parliament votes in favour of leaving with no deal then we will default to WTO terms and our current treaty arrangements would be invalidated on 29th March. If Parliament rejects no deal, there will be another vote on 14th March on whether Article 50 should be extended. If Parliament votes to extend Article 50, then agreement on this would be required from the EU otherwise we would leave with no deal regardless. If Parliament does not vote to extend Article 50 then we will leave with no deal on 29th March.
Having voted for what I saw as a reasonable deal in January, the desirable outcome from this process is clear to me. We should vote for the revised deal in the first vote put to Parliament on 12th March so that we can move forward with the more substantive trade negotiations ahead and avoid the potential negative impacts of no deal (which I will discuss later). If we are able to negotiate further reassurances on the backstop, then I would welcome those; but in my political judgement the Withdrawal Agreement will be and has to be temporary anyway.
The original Withdrawal Agreement
A Withdrawal Agreement was concluded towards the end of last year by the government. On 22 November the draft agreement on our future relationship - outlining how trade, security and other issues will work - was also agreed in principle. Together, these documents were the basis of the Prime Minister’s planned exit deal but of course, the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected by Parliament in January.
The deal was not perfect but, in my opinion, no deal was ever going to be. Deal-making is about compromise and I was comfortable with - rather than enthusiastic about - the deal because I believed it delivered on the referendum by taking back control of our money, borders and laws, while protecting jobs, security and the integrity of the United Kingdom. As with the referendum, opinion on the deal in my constituency was divided. But I genuinely believed that the deal delivered on the vast majority of things that people who voted Leave in the referendum said they wanted. I think it also provided clarity and comfort to those who voted Remain that we will continue to be strong friends and close trading partners with the EU.
Crucially, the deal the government negotiated proposed all of the following:
Ending free movement of people.
Guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.
Creating a free trade area for goods with zero tariffs with the EU.
Establishing ambitious and comprehensive arrangements for services - that go beyond World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments.
Giving us the freedom to sign trade deals around the world.
Ending our monetary contributions to the EU. The agreed settlement of £39 billion allows us to meet existing obligations but we would no longer have made payments towards the EU’s budget.
Ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the UK.
Removing the UK from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
Establishing a comprehensive security partnership which includes close reciprocal law enforcement.
I was particularly pleased to see these words in the Future Relationship document: "The future relationship... must ensure the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and the protection of its internal market while respecting the result of the 2016 referendum including with regard to the development of its independent trade policy and the ending of free movement of people."
These two items were amongst the top reasons given to me by people who wanted to leave the EU in the run up to the referendum. People also expressed frustration about the European Court telling us what to do on matters of domestic policy and with handing over billions of pounds each year to the EU. These too will cease with this deal.
I also thought that this deal would help put the minds at rest of the thousands of my constituents who are from the EU as it confirmed their rights to stay here and also confirmed the rights of the nearly 1 million UK citizens who currently reside in the EU. Gladly, my colleague Alberto Costa’s amendment (which I will discuss shortly) has helped cement the Government’s commitment to these rights again.
The Northern Ireland ‘Backstop’
As I have mentioned, the so called ‘backstop’ was the key factor that stopped the deal I have just described from passing. There has been considerable confusion as to what the backstop is and when it may come into force. Let’s be clear, both the EU - including the Republic of Ireland - and the UK want to avoid a hard Northern Ireland border so the ‘backstop’ is a back-up plan (explicitly not a desired outcome) in case they cannot reach a long term trade agreement which does this (ie. avoids a hard border). The intention of both sides is to avoid defaulting into the backstop during the transition period, not to implement it.
Paragraph 19 of the future relationship document that was released in November states: "The parties recall their determination to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing."
Northern Ireland presents a particular challenge because it shares a land border with an EU member (The Republic of Ireland) and is separated from the rest of the UK by the Irish Sea. This means it is difficult to negotiate an arrangement that does not either create a hard customs border (with physical checks) on the island of Ireland or necessitate increased checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A backstop arrangement has therefore been proposed to act as a safety net if no solution to avoiding a hard border is found during the transition period. The backstop would mean greater regulatory alignment between the EU and Northern Ireland in order to ensure a soft border on the island of Ireland. It would also mean a temporary single custom territory between the whole of the UK and the EU until a point at which both agree that this arrangement is no longer necessary.
This arrangement would only come into effect if no solution is found during the transition period as part of the final negotiated deal. I am personally hopeful that a technological solution at the Irish border can be found that ensures that movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is, in practice, frictionless but still meets customs requirements between the EU and the UK. This goal is also expressed in the future relationship document itself.
If such a solution is found the backstop does not come into play and becomes irrelevant. The backstop is therefore not inevitable and it is not true to suggest that the Withdrawal Agreement permanently ties the UK into a single customs territory with the EU. The backstop is not the desired outcome nor, crucially, the intended outcome of either side. Every effort will be made to avoid it. It is especially not in the Republic of Ireland's interests for the backstop to exist as Northern Ireland would effectively be in a preferential economic position - and it would mean the UK remaining part of the customs union yet not paying into the EU coffers - i.e. precisely against the negotiating stance of the EU.
I think it is entirely valid to be concerned about the backstop and the proposed mechanism for exiting it, should it come into place. I have concerns myself and would have, in an ideal world, preferred to see an arrangement that allowed us to give unilateral notice of our intention to leave the backstop rather than by mutual agreement. I hope the Prime Minister can clarify this issue and give greater confidence to MPs in the upcoming votes.
But I thought it was the wrong decision to throw whole deal out and risk no deal on the misunderstanding that the backstop is inevitable or if it did come into place that it would be permanent. I have greater faith in our ability to find a technological solution - and have greater faith in the ability of the EU and UK to come to a reasonable future relationship arrangement than that. I recognise that other people have less faith and therefore are more concerned about the backstop.
It is important to note that many of the alternative models being proposed for leaving the EU do not adequately deal with the issue of the Northern Ireland border either - and it is likely that the EU would insist on similar backstop arrangement under many of these proposals. Of particular note is Labour’s position, which rejects the backstop (a temporary customs union) in favour of… a temporary customs union.
Recent votes in Parliament
Many of my constituents will have seen a number of votes occurring in Parliament and I would not blame anyone for slightly losing track of what they all mean and whether how significant they are to the shape of Brexit. Each vote that we have seen in recent weeks has been on an amendment to motions tabled by the Prime Minister under the terms of the European Withdrawal Act. These motions are all amendable because of a previous amendment to a programme motion tabled by Dominic Grieve. These amendments, however, are not binding on the Government because they are attached to neutral motions rather than primary legislation. So what they effectively represent is the expressed will of Parliament on particular matters (rather than the passage of law).
So what have these expressions of Parliamentary will been? At the end of January amendments tabled by my colleagues Graham Brady and Caroline Spelman were both passed, the former favouring the deal in the event of a renegotiation of the backstop and the latter rejecting no deal. As an expression of will I think this was a clear indication that Parliament is in favour of a slightly reworked deal and the rejection of no deal. More recently, my colleague Alberto Costa’s amendment committing to guarantee the rights of EU Citizen’s in the EU was passed with the support of Government, another encouraging sign of the direction of travel. There is still no consensus on a comprehensive deal but the threads of agreement are perhaps starting to come together. I particularly welcome the unanimous passing of Alberto Costa’s amendment on the nod (without a vote due to overwhelming support) because it showed a unanimous commitment by Parliament to protect the rights of EU citizens here in the UK. This is, though, subject to agreement with the EU, but the fact that the UK is willing to offer these guarantees is reassuring to thousands of my constituents.
The Transition Period and WTO terms
A number of my constituents have raised concerns about the transition period and have questioned why it is necessary to extend our alignment with EU rules and customs arrangements after 29 March 2019. I hope that the section above on the Northern Ireland backstop has gone some way in addressing why this is necessary. A full negotiated deal is something that will take time to finalise and prepare for implementation so it is sensible and necessary to ensure that we do not fall over a cliff edge at the end of the Article 50 period.
If we did not have a transition period, we would leave the EU on 29th March without agreed customs, trade and legal arrangements in place. This could potentially cause uncertainty, logistical challenges and confusion (despite considerable no deal scenario planning) and would mean reverting to the default World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs for many sectors. But WTO is not all encompassing. Vital sectors like aviation are not even covered by WTO rules and complex arrangements would be required to come into place at late notice to ensure such sectors could continue operating smoothly in the event of no deal. This may well be possible but would cause considerable problems for many industries and sectors. Some digital areas and aspects of the financial services sectors are likewise not covered by WTO terms. Furthermore, businesses in my constituency who I have been in contact with (who together employ more than 10,000 of my constituents) have expressed great concern about the possibility of leaving without a deal. They do not feel that they are prepared to leave on WTO terms. This is repeated at a national level where many leading employers have expressed grave concerns about leaving on WTO terms and are strongly lobbying MPs to vote for the deal proposed by Theresa May - or risk job losses. I take these concerns very seriously.
Therefore whilst I understand that many of my constituents want to leave the EU as quickly as possible or on WTO terms, I fully support the agreement of a transition period in this Withdrawal Agreement and am not supportive of leaving on WTO terms in March 2019.
Calls for a second referendum
I understand the strength of feeling on this matter as we saw during the march in London at the end of last year. I know that some people want to have a complete re-run of the initial referendum with an in and out option again; whereas others are looking for a referendum on the precise Brexit terms being negotiated by the government (with or without a remain option).
But I do not support calls for another referendum on Brexit at this time. I think it would have profound implications for our democracy. We can't keep going back asking the same or a similar question until we get a different answer. A second referendum is also likely to be incredibly divisive for the UK. This is notwithstanding, of course, that our legal exit date is now just over a month away and the logistics of another referendum are impossible within the Brexit timeline.
From a personal perspective, I voted in favour of having an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU soon after being elected in 2015. There was an overwhelming demand for this amongst my constituents - as evidenced by the fact that in the end 59% of them voted Leave. I said throughout the referendum campaign that I would respect the result - whether remain or leave - and take it as an instruction and vote in Parliament accordingly. If I had made a different commitment, I may act differently. It is also important to remember that the government sent a leaflet to every home in the country before the referendum where it made a clear commitment to implement the result - whether leave or remain.
MPs voted 494 to 122 in favour of invoking Article 50 in 2017 and it would not be right for us to try and frustrate the process now. I was immensely disappointed when Parliament then voted down the Withdrawal Agreement that the Prime Minister negotiated but I still believe the right course is to work with her and work with Government to achieve as smooth an exit as possible.
The next few weeks will be a challenging time for parliament and the country. To hold a second referendum on whether we remain or leave the EU, or hold another election would be a distraction as well as – again – be incredibly divisive. That is not to say that a public vote on our future relationship with the EU is never again possible. I suspect that within a generation there will be another referendum on whether or not we join/rejoin whatever form the EU evolves into over the next few years - and suspect different political parties may propose alternative arrangements with the EU in future election manifestos.
But for the reasons I have outlined above, I am not supportive of another referendum now.
I believe there is a time and a place for idealism in politics, but now is not it. We need to be practical and realistic and deal with the world as it is, not as we would desire it to be. So we need to be conscious of the timetables that have been agreed to relating to our withdrawal from the EU and we need to be aware of the attitudes and constraints of those whom we are negotiating with.
The choices therefore are not as wide and varied as some would ideally wish. The suggestion that we should start again with the negotiations is not a realistic one. The clear choice at the moment is between this deal and no deal. As I have repeatedly stated, I personally believe no deal is not a desirable outcome, so I want a deal. This is also the overwhelming view of the largest employers in my constituency.
I am aware that some of my constituents are keen on the so called Canada +++ model or for an EFTA/ EEA model. Like all deals that have been proposed at various points over the last few years, they have their merits and their flaws, but the vote is on the government's deal versus no deal; not on any and all alternative options. The precise format of Brexit will in any case be determined by the future relationship discussions and we can not have these discussions until we have concluded a withdrawal agreement.
This governments deal is the only deal on the table and I believe it is a reasonable outcome. If there are creative and practical ways in which we can improve the deal - as discussions on the backstop continue and during the future relationship discussions - then, of course, I will welcome such moves.
The Prime Minister
The Prime Minister has faced one of the greatest challenges of statecraft and negotiation in our country’s history. To have come back with a deal that moves this process forward in a mutually beneficial manner is an achievement for which she has not been given enough credit. She has worked tirelessly for over two years in an unenviable position and come away with a 585-page document that can now unlock the process towards a final negotiated deal.
It would be foolish to undermine her now and risk leaving with no deal at all. Time is short until March 29th and the Prime Minister is best placed to see this process through. Theresa May is a dedicated public servant who has shown great resilience and determination under extremely difficult circumstances. To enter into a leadership contest now would be self-indulgent of the Conservative party and would not alter the position of the EU.
I will therefore continue to support the Prime Minister and hope to see a sensible deal passed in Parliament in time for our exit from the EU.
I am aware that this statement will not satisfy some of my constituents who have very firm views on Brexit. I have received communications from constituents telling me to: back the deal, scrap the deal, back the Prime Minister, sack the Prime Minister, hold another referendum, don't hold another referendum, default to no deal, avoid no deal at all costs - and many more diverse and opposite views. I am afraid I will have to disappoint some of my constituents no matter what decisions I make. But I do take every opinion and view seriously and thank everyone who has taken the time to contact me both recently and over the last few years on this pivotal issue for the future of our country.