Brexit: Meaningful Vote

14th January 2019

Speaking in the debate on the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, Iain Duncan Smith calls on the Government to go back and get a better deal.

I recognise that time is short, so I will not go on for too long and I will not take too many interventions—but you never know, you might get lucky.

I appreciate the excellent speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but, while I wanted to agree with it all, I have to tell him that I did not wholly agree with it, and I want to address a couple of points. I do not doubt for one moment his sincere desire to make sure that this country is able to strike trade deals around the world and thus make the greatest advantage from the big decision taken back in 2016. The question for me is: are we going to be able to do that, and what does this agreement do to help us—or does it help us?

Alignment is a very big and important issue in the agreement, and we have conceded too much to the EU, which will hamstring us in our future trade agreements. I think my right hon. Friend has actually said that elsewhere, and as he knows, the US ambassador also made that point clear recently. We may want to do financial services deals with other countries, but many other countries, including the United States of America, will want to do more on agricultural and mechanical exports. Agriculture is a big deal in the States and they would like to do that, but in our country there has been a rather supercilious and pointless debate about things like chlorinated chicken. We tend to get a bit arrogant and think that somehow we are fantastically superior—[Hon. Members: “We are.”] Well, on the issue of so-called chlorinated chicken, America has a lower level of death and illness from campylobacter or salmonella than us here in the UK. That is because some of our chicken imports come from way outside the EU and are less than great. So we should not be so arrogant about thinking our standards are higher than everyone else’s.

I want to make three main points about why I am concerned, and then I will conclude. The first concern is the backstop; the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) referred to it, and we have all referred to it. My concern about the backstop is twofold. First, if we go into the backstop it will trap us and take our ability to leave out of our own hands. It will be the first time that, as a sovereign nation, we will have agreed to let others decide whether we can stay in or leave an international agreement. We can leave NATO, we can leave the UN if we wish, and we can even leave the EU at our vote, but in this case we will not be able to leave; there will have to be a joint agreement about departure, and there is no time limit to it.

I was therefore very interested to see what the Prime Minister would come back with on the agreement. I see that the letter from President Tusk and President Juncker to her says, “It’s very, very good and important because it is in fact internationally legally binding,” but they know and we know that that is not the same as being bound in by the terms of the agreement. The agreement overrides every other purpose. It was interesting that when the previous Prime Minister was negotiating, prior to the referendum, he claimed the same about his agreement, but again, it did not override European law. The letter from the European Union actually says:

“As you know, we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement”.

Even more important than that is what the Attorney General has said about this. There was a great moment here when the Prime Minister quite legitimately said that the Attorney General had spoken about the balance and said that we were now accepting that there was some kind of lock in legal terms, but what she did not do was read the last sentence of the paragraph in the Attorney General’s letter, which deals with the EU’s conclusions in relation to the withdrawal agreement, and states

“albeit they do not alter the fundamental meaning of its provisions as I advised them to be on 13 November”.

That fundamental advice was simply this:

“Therefore, despite statements in the Protocol that it is not intended to be permanent, and the clear intention of the parties that it should be replaced by alternative, permanent arrangements, in international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding arrangement took its place, in whole or in part, as set out therein.”

That really reminds us that there is a fundamental flaw in this.

I do not fear us going into the backstop. My real problem is that, when it comes to negotiating our future trading arrangements, the European Union will have a very big stick to hold over us. President Macron made that clear recently when he talked about grabbing back some of the fishing rights that we may well have taken in the course of the early withdrawal agreement. He said that he would simply wait until we got closer to the backstop, because at that point we would do almost anything to avoid falling into it. I do not disagree with him. It would be appalling if we ended up in the backstop. The EU knows it and we know it, and that is the major problem.

That is in line with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s earlier remarks, on which I have already complimented him—I have no doubt of his determination to drive these points through. Also, it is small wonder that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) said in an interesting intervention the other day that he had carefully read many interviews in German and that Mr Selmayr had made it clear that the European Union had got all its objectives for the withdrawal agreement happily sorted out. Clearly that must mean that we did not do so. That is the major problem. It is important not to be in the backstop, but the most important thing is that not falling into it is what changes the pattern of the political agreement and of how we negotiate the trade arrangements. Therefore, with respect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, it is a major problem.

My second point is that we have agreed to pay £39 billion. I am not against us agreeing to pay the European Union in order to stand by further agreements, if they exist. After all, I believe that the EU said £100 billion to begin with, and we have now come down to £39 billion, which suggests that there were not quite so many absolutes in the set of things that we were supposed to be engaged in. I do not want to be mealy-mouthed about this, but £39 billion is a lot of money. One section of that relates to the two-year interregnum, which I accept would cost us money. That is a total of £22 billion over the two years that we would owe the EU—that is part of the budget. The rest is about the future arrangements.

My concern is that, according to this arrangement, the EU would get that money regardless of whether we reached a satisfactory agreement. That is quite an important feature. Back in December, I said on record that I thought the Government would be mistaken to agree to both the backstop and the money without having any idea of what the trade position would be. The Government said, “Don’t worry, we will come on to trade immediately and it will open the door.” Well, it did not open the door, and we only got on to trade a few months before Christmas. We have given the EU the most important negotiating position we have, and it has left us with very little with which to drive the EU into the next element of this, which is the thing we really want—namely, trade.

I do not resile from the point that we want a trade deal with our nearest trading partner. Of course we do. We do not want to end up in some kind of spitting war with the EU; we want a decent, reasonable arrangement, but we also want other arrangements around the world. As it stands, the problem is that the £39 billion is hinged on nothing at all, and the EU will get it regardless. There is not much incentive for the EU to produce the sort of trade arrangement that we would want, and that is what worries me.

My right hon. Friend is making some good points, and he has a great deal of experience from his previous Department, the Department for Work and Pensions. I put it to him that this money is important for keeping our relationship with Europe going and for getting the negotiations that we want. I would not call £39 billion small fry, but I did a calculation last night and found that it equates to just 74 days of DWP spending. So in the grand scheme of things, it is not a huge amount of money for what we are getting out of it and for the relationship that we need to build.

 

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I know that it was well meant, but I speak as someone who eventually resigned because we had to make a £12 billion cut to the welfare budget, and we are now saying that we will spend £39 billion on something else. I think that those two bear a slightly different comparison. I will simply say that there is nothing small about £39 billion. I honestly believe that one of the reasons we voted to leave was to take back control and get most of our money back from the European Union, and to use it for the sort of things that my hon. Friend might well be suggesting. As I said earlier, in principle, and providing that we get something really good from the EU, I am not against meeting our requirements. However, I am against doing that without any commitment whatsoever. That is where my major, and I hope gentle, criticism of my hon. Friend lies.

My third point is about state aid. This issue has not really raised its head much, and those on the Front Benches might want to pay attention. A lot of people think that state aid is just about a few provisions stopping people giving their domestic industries a head start. I have always had a concern about this in democratic terms. I know that many on my side will say, “Oh, it’s terrible; we’re not in favour of giving industries a boost.” Well, we might not be, but we live in a democracy and in reality, others might wish to pitch for a different position. I accept that fully, but I really hope that the public never vote for that. I believe we have a better provision, but there is a democratic problem involved.

However, that is not my main issue, which is the width with which state aid is now being interpreted. I made a speech about this back in 1993 or 1994, in which I said that the Commission knew very well that no matter what it did and failed to get, the Courts would mop up after it because the Courts were bound by one thing and one thing only, which was always to find in favour of ever closer union. Of course they are; that is what they were set up to do. That is very clear, but many in this House do not seem to recognise that fact. The Courts always pick up the pieces. We have only to look at social security spending on people coming into the UK under freedom of movement. Originally, that spending was never in the treaty. It is the Courts, through a whole number of cases, that have widened the provisions to allow those coming into the UK to claim benefits exactly in line with people living in this country. That was not done by the Commission or the Council; it was the Courts.

That is exactly what is happening now. The Commission has had real problems with tax harmonisation. That is its objective for the eurozone and generally for the European Union. The Courts are now entering this area and using the provisions on state aid to find against countries that find new tax advantages. That is where they intend to go, and when we read the summaries of some of the judgments, we can see that they are already moving into this area. I therefore say to colleagues who think that it is all right to sit back passively for two years that there is already a plan to drive that process harder. I have also heard that eight of the 12 people responsible for monitoring the EU’s provisions on state aid have now been moved to cover the UK in the two-year period before we strike a trade deal. I warn my colleagues on the Government Benches that we should be careful what we wish for, because those state aid provisions will bite us on tax harmonisation and of some of the changes we might wish to make in future Budgets.

I will conclude now so that others may speak. We have had a series of scare stories about a whole series of problems that could arise if we do not strike an arrangement. I want to have an arrangement—don’t get me wrong; I absolutely want it—and I think that the Government are in the right place to want to get it as well. I just do not think that this arrangement delivers on the minimum that we require to be able to negotiate and deliver a proper trade deal.

I say to my hon. Friends that we really need to pack up this idea about a total disaster that keeps being pumped around. As my right hon. Friend the International Trade Secretary said from the Dispatch Box today and has made clear before, he does not believe that a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster; he believes that we will manage our way through it one way or another.

The other day we were told that there would be huge queues at Dover because Calais, according to the contingency executive, will have to check every single lorry, taking 10 minutes each time. What did we hear from the man who runs Boulogne and Calais? He said, “We have no plans to and will not check every lorry. We will do nothing more than we are doing at the moment. Any phytosanitary checks will be done 12 km behind the border.” Those on the continent do not want what we say we fear, because it would damage them and their business, and they know that they would lose it. That is just one example of some of the nonsense that has gone on with “Project Fear” over the past few years. It has been constantly banged on about. Far from making people concerned, however, it has made people angry about what politicians do to try to threaten and worry them. Let us treat the people like grown-ups and talk about matters properly instead of trying to frighten them.

 

My right hon. Friend says that his concerns over supporting the Government’s deal and the withdrawal agreement Bill relate to the position that they would leave us in for future free trade agreements. However, without the withdrawal agreement Bill, there can be no future trade agreements. What is his position on that?

 

My position is that we go back and get a better deal. That is the reality, because I believe that that is how the EU works. The EU got everything it wanted first time round, but if it knows that we are not going to take this deal, it will have to discuss it. When I visited the European Commission and met Mr Barnier and Sabine Weyand and their team, it became clear, before we signed up to this deal, that they were fully expecting to take things further once pressed hard—that is to say, they expected that this deal would not pass. They have been waiting for this vote to know exactly where they are going. I genuinely think that the Government will be in a better place to go and say, “Look, this stuff that you’ve given us and this stuff that we’ve got is simply not acceptable, and we will not get it through.” Therefore, if we genuinely want to reach an agreement—I believe that the EU does—we must strike a harder deal with them, and they have to accept that and will do so. That is where we are.

Back in 1992, I realised that the plans under the Single European Act and Maastricht were taking us to a place that we would never be in, because this country would never accept that it would eventually be fully locked into a supranational organisation that was taking powers away from individual Parliaments. That is why I feel upbeat about the referendum vote. I am tired of being told that it was some sort of disaster or accident. When I campaigned to leave, I genuinely and passionately believed that this country would do incredibly well whatever the arrangements. I just wish that many more in this House would stand up for those who voted to leave genuinely—not stupidly and not because they hated people, but because they wanted something to change. They wanted to take back control of their country, and that is what I want to do here.

Hansard