The Bill before the House of Commons this week has been described as an effort to prevent the UK leaving the EU with no deal arranged for our future relationship with our European partners, but in fact the Bill sought to do 3 things.
First, it says the Government should get Parliamentary consent for any deal it negotiates. Second, the Bill requires such consent for a no deal exit and third it sets out that, failing either of the first 2 outcomes, the Government should pursue a further 3-month extension to our membership of the EU. My view is that the first 2 of these are unnecessary and the 3rd is undesirable. As such, I could not support the Bill.
On the first point, any agreement reached with the EU would constitute an International treaty. The House of Commons already has procedures which allow for it to authorise such agreements. This Bill is not necessary to achieve that objective.
It is of course in the 2nd and 3rd points that the real importance of the Bill is to be found. The promoters of the Bill have relied on the often-made argument that there is no mandate for no deal, and that it would be illegitimate, without further consents being gained, to proceed on that basis.
It is certainly true that the Leave campaign in the 2016 Referendum campaign did not advocate no deal. That was not its preference and as I understand it, it is not the Government’s preference now, but nor was it put to the electorate that we would leave only if there was a deal with the EU. That could never have been guaranteed. No country had ever left the EU so there was no pattern to follow or example to look at, and it could never have been certain that the EU would put forward a proposal that we found acceptable, or vice versa.
Indeed, some of us who argued we should remain in the EU during that referendum campaign said that, if we decide to leave, we take a leap in the dark. We cannot know what the future will look like and we cannot know what, if any, deal will be offered by the EU or by anyone else. The electorate, as it was their absolute right to do, listened to those arguments, rejected them and decided to leave anyway. It was their decision to make because we, Parliament, by a substantial majority, made it so in the passing of the Referendum Act 2015. In that Act we, Parliament, set out the rules for the conduct of that referendum and in discussing it we, Parliament, made it clear that whatever our position on the issue, we would enact the outcome the electorate chose.
Then, when the electorate had chosen, we, Parliament, by a substantial majority decided to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty which began the process of leaving the EU. Article 50 does not require the leaving country to leave with a deal. Therefore when we, Parliament, decided to trigger the Article 50 process, we either knew or should have known that no deal was a possible outcome. Not one that we wanted or expected, but one that could happen. So I think it is misleading, and frankly too late, for Parliament to say that its consent to departure from the EU is conditional on no deal being off the table.
Incidentally, this Bill does not succeed in eliminating the possibility of a no deal outcome because it could not. The third operative point in this Bill is designed to oblige the UK government, failing a deal or further consent for no deal, to seek an extension to our membership of the EU to allow, presumably, for further negotiation. But even if the UK Parliament obliges its Government to ask for an extension, it cannot oblige the EU to grant it, and in many ways, you couldn’t blame the EU if it did not.
This debate has continued for 3 years now and it is hard to see what new arguments or approaches could be set out in the 3 additional months the Bill would like to add. I take the view however that a further delay without realistic value would not just be pointless but would be damaging. In its tone, the Brexit debate has divided families and friends like nothing I can remember, and in its complexity, it has distracted politics and government from so many other important challenges. Perpetuating this argument for its own sake is not just unproductive, it is irresponsible. We need to get this done and move on, and the longer we wait to do so, the harder it will be to reunite our society as we surely need to do. That does not mean of course that we should accept any available settlement just to bring all this to an end, but it does in my judgment mean that proposals for delay have to be for good reason and purpose. This Bill does not meet that standard.
One more thing. Artificially seeking to rule out a no deal departure may be revisionist history, bad negotiating strategy, unlikely to make recalcitrant MPs more likely to back a sensible deal and impossible anyway, but that doesn’t make a no deal exit a good idea. The way to avoid it though is not to try to reverse the Referendum outcome but to put more effort into leaving with a deal. I will not rule out a no deal departure but I will not support one as long as there is a decent deal that can still be done.
All deals require compromise – a willingness to accept you can’t get everything you want. In my view Parliament’s real failure in this Brexit process has been a failure to compromise. Throughout, I have believed that an imperfect but workable deal with the EU was a better way forward than no deal or no Brexit at all. I voted for such a deal 3 times and would do so again. While I did, I watched MPs on both sides of the argument refuse to put aside hopes of their own personal pure and perfect Brexit, or refuse to accept Brexit in any form, and thereby prevent us all from ending this paralysing process that has already poisoned our politics for too long. To put that right, Parliament doesn’t need a bit more time, it needs a lot more realism.