Iain Duncan Smith congratulates the Government on reaching a compromise agreement to enable and the exit date to be set and the Brexit Bill to pass the Committee Stage.
I shall be brief because I support amendments 381 and 400, advocated by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox). I congratulate them on arriving at quite sensible arrangements. I know others want to speak, so I will not be drawn into the wider debate that the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) initiated with his new clause, and took some pleasure in pursuing—as others have done, too. A lot of today’s debate has been about rerunning the arguments around the referendum and coming to a different conclusion. People are welcome to do that as much as they like, but when they say that the British people have not been consulted, I think they were consulted, and they voted and that vote was binding, and we are now getting on with it.
I congratulate Ministers on their persistence on the Front Bench over the past eight days of debate on the Bill. I believe that they listened carefully to those with different opinions and made many, many changes. I say to many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have disagreed with the Government over this issue on a number of occasions—and even voted against them, where necessary, as I have done in the past—that I am just a touch jealous of them. When I voted against the Government on Maastricht, I knew I did not have a hope in hell of getting anything changed. I was always told, “You can’t change any of this because we have just signed an agreement.” I am jealous because they have actually managed to get some change, so I congratulate them on achieving something that I was never able to achieve 25 years ago. None the less, I hope that tonight they do not necessarily choose to pursue that course of action with the amendments before us.
I say so because I think, in congratulating Ministers and others on signing up to the amendments, they do tidy up something that has been a concern—not just a concern felt by right hon. and hon. Friends who were in a strongly opposed position, but many others. I feel it is right to put the date of our departure in the Bill. I think it is quite right because it makes a statement of reality, which is that we are bound under article 50. The Bill, which is a process, should have the same provision in it. But we have to retain some flexibility within that. Following clause 1, which essentially says that we are repealing the European Communities Act 1972, we do not want to get into a mess where we end up having one set of dates for the repeal of that Act and another set of dates for a final conclusion of any arrangements we make with the European Union.
That conflict of law would have created a bigger problem, and I am sure we would have had to return to the matter on Third Reading, or even after the Bill came back from the other place. I therefore think that this way of doing things is neater and more flexible than the alternative, which would have been to pass a set of primary legislation to modify this Bill, as and when we reach agreements. I think that would have been a bit of a nightmare for my right hon. and hon. Friends. To that extent, I believe that this is a better way to do things.
The words in article 50 are pretty clear. I have read them on a number of occasions—I do read other things as well. Article 50 states quite clearly—it has always been clear—that the treaties shall cease to apply
“from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification…unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”
Article 50 has always been clear that, should there be a requirement for an extension for practical reasons or whatever, it is up to the 28 countries to agree unanimously. To that extent, the amendment achieves that rather succinctly, but I stand by the fact that it was right for the Government to have been firm in wanting to put the date in the Bill. It would have been an anomaly not to have a date in the Bill and they would have had to come back at some stage to put it in. To provide that flexibility now makes it worthwhile.
I have heard that some colleagues do not like the amendment, because they cannot trust the Government to stick to it and to make only marginal changes. The problem for those of us who have supported the Government is that we have had to bite the bullet a lot and give them a great deal of trust. For over 44 years, I have watched successive Governments—I have been a part of some of them, happily, up to a certain point—implement, through section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 and the use of statutory instruments, vast changes to the way we regulate and legislate here in the United Kingdom. The Government’s original position when this was first debated was that they did not think it would lead to many changes being brought in by statutory instrument. I wonder if those who pushed the Bill through, on revisiting the scale of the changes brought in by statutory instruments over 40 years, would think that they had misread what they were actually giving Governments the power to do.
I have a lot of sympathy for those who do not want to be left in the position of trusting the Government—none of us do. One reason why I felt all along that I was prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt is simply because the process has a conclusion beyond which they will not be able to proceed. The process of leaving the European Union will ultimately bring back—this is one of the reasons I am very keen on it—an enhancement of Parliament’s role to a far greater degree than it has been over the years. I have on many occasions watched pointless debates in the House knowing full well there was absolutely nothing we could change—not just Maastricht, but all the other treaty changes and so on—as we in Parliament had no power whatever to call the Government to account on any of these issues. The reality was that they were already bound by a process in another place.
The argument that the use of statutory instruments to push European regulations through the House was legitimate because Government Ministers entertained a debate among Government Ministers within the European Union does not make any sense to me. Those who advance that argument then say they want Parliament to have all the say and that they do not trust the Government on statutory instruments. They seem to be colliding in their own argument from two different directions.
I fully accept that we want to ensure that the Government are not just working on the basis of trust. To that extent, I recognise and accept that the changes will help to ensure that they do not. However, I would say that we cannot just sweep away the past 40 years on the basis that this was somehow okay because Government officials and Ministers discussed these things. Parliament had no say whatever for 40 years. It could not change anything. As I said when I talked about Maastricht, we could not change anything. I knew it was pretty pointless, but I none the less opposed various elements and voted accordingly. I knew there was not a chance of us changing anything because Parliament had no power. Parliament will now again have power over a Government. I think that some of the very poor behaviour of Governments of both parties over the years in being able to ignore Parliament will start to fall away. I hope and believe that Parliament will again reassert itself.
I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends who are concerned about this, the idea—
We have no concerns at all here.
Is my hon. Friend asking me to give way?
Excellent. It is always good to take a sedentary intervention from my hon. Friend.
I said I would be brief, so I will bring my remarks to a conclusion. I support the amendments and I congratulate those who drafted them. I want the Government to get through this as best they can. They should listen carefully where there are changes to be made but, if we have to return to this matter on Report, they will certainly have my support in making whatever changes are necessary to accommodate concerns so that we get a Bill that is reasonable, feasible and puts the power back into the House.
I would make one small point, however, to those who opened up this massive debate about what happened during the referendum and the idea that we can guess what was in people’s minds. It was said again and again, as I recall, by the then Prime Minister, by the then Chancellor, by Lord Mandelson and also by many in the vote leave campaign, that voting to leave meant leaving the customs union and the single market. Now, I understand and accept that people might not want to do that—they advance all sorts of reasons for not doing it—but it was said again and again. On the idea that the British people were too stupid to understand what they were voting for, I say that they were right in their decision and made a decision that was a lot more intelligent than people give them credit for.
When that was said—it probably was said by one or two campaigners on the remain side during the referendum campaign—it was used as an argument against voting to leave. The reaction of leave campaigners was to dismiss it, saying it was the politics of fear, that people were being alarmist in talking about leaving the single market and that in fact our trading arrangements would remain absolutely unchanged, because the Germans had to sell us their Mercedes. That was the role it played in the referendum campaign.
I always like to take an intervention from my right hon. and learned Friend. We agree on many things, but not on this, it has to be said. He will remember that, when he was Lord Chancellor, I supported him in getting through his very good and far-reaching reforms—I wish they had all been put through, but they were not, as he knows. To that extent, I have long supported him, but on this I do not fully agree with him. I think it was clear. It is no good saying that “some” people on the remain side said it. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor were the leaders of the remain campaign, certainly on the Government Benches, but also from the stand point of the country, and they were very clear on this. I do not recall anyone—I certainly did not—saying, “No, no, we’ll stay in the single market and customs union.” I have always made the point that leaving means leaving the Court of Justice, the customs union and the single market. Voters were, I believe, clear about that, but we can all debate and rerun the arguments.
I will undertake to send to my right hon. Friend a list of the various quotes from leading members of the leave campaign who told the British people, “There will be no change in our trading arrangements”, “We’ll do deals in a day and a half”, “We can be like Norway”, “We might want to be like Switzerland”, and so on and so forth. It was made very clear to the British people that the trading arrangements and economic benefits of the EU would remain the same. Does he honestly think that in his constituency of an evening in the Dog and Duck people sat there and said, “I tell you what, you know this single market, well I’m all for out of that”? Does he honestly think they really understood the issue, when there are obviously right hon. and hon. Members in this House who still do not understand what the single market and the customs union are?
That may be. I do not know of the Dog and Duck, unless they have moved a new building into my constituency, but I say to my right hon. Friend that people made a decision to leave, and that argument was debated extensively: it was on television, the Prime Minister was questioned endlessly and others such as Lord Mandelson said categorically that if people voted to leave, we would be leaving these institutions.
We are debating what was said to the electorate during that period, but none of us are talking about what the electorate are thinking now. That is the most important thing. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, as we enter the most crucial part of this stage of the negotiations, the Government should put far more energy into understanding what the public actually think and aspire to for our future relationship with the single market, the customs union and the EU in general and take that into account?
I am all for consulting the British people. That is what we are here for as MPs, right? It is what we do when we go back to our constituencies and talk to people. The honest truth, however, is that we can consult them as much as we like, and we will get different opinions all the time, depending on the question. The biggest consultation I have ever seen took place in 2016: it was called a referendum. The difference between my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and the rest of the House is that he has been opposed to referendums throughout his political life and has never voted for them, whereas most other Members did vote for a referendum. When Members vote for a referendum, they are bound by the decisions that the British people make, and in this instance the British people asked us to leave the European Union.
Much of the debate has been about rerunning the referendum. I fully understand that some people will never be reconciled to the idea of departure or of leaving the customs union and the single market, but what we are talking about today is getting out of the European Union. It is not a question of the date, but a question of the process. We are leaving anyway. I support the Government because I believe that leaving the customs union and the single market and taking back control of our laws is exactly the right thing to do, and I do not think they should listen to the siren voices that tell them otherwise.