Anne Main moves an amendment to set a limit to any extension of Article 50

3rd April 2019

Speaking in the debate on the Bill requiring the PM to seek an extension to Article 50, Anne Main moves an amendment to set a limit of any extension as 22nd May.

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I would like to speak to amendment 1, standing in my name, which addresses similar themes to the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who spoke earlier.

I was quite horrified when I read this brief Bill, because it mandates the Prime Minister to seek an extension, but there is no date associated with that extension, as other Members have mentioned. On top of that, as we know, article 50 enshrined the date on which we would be leaving: 29 March. The Prime Minister, as was quite within her rights—my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) said it was her untrammelled prerogative—decided, when she went into her negotiations, that she would accept a new date, which was offered to her by the European Union, having been agreed in a room, in a debate in which she did not participate. She accepted a date that was not of her choosing.

My concern is that, whatever date this House considers to give the right amount of time, if the Prime Minister is not fettered, as the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) mentioned, she is quite within her rights—nobody here is seeking in any way, shape or form to curtail those rights—to accept another date that is offered to her and which might be the only date on offer. Whatever date this House might choose, for whatever associated reasons or purposes, the Prime Minister is quite within her rights to accept—or reject—the date on offer from the European Union.

I find that incredibly worrying. Depending on which side of the argument hon. Members find themselves, they could have the Prime Minister seeking a date in line with the House’s instructions, but not having to agree the date, even if the EU says that she can have it. That would be a rather bizarre scenario, but the Bill would not stop it, so whatever date the House fixed on could, in theory, only be asked for, but then be rejected.

The other side, which worries me far more, is that the Prime Minister could go along with a date—as yet unspecified by this House and with no associated justification—and be offered a date, let us say, two years in the future. I would suggest that at that point most hon. Members would have severe concerns about the legitimacy of whatever was being agreed by the Prime Minister—or any of us in this House—with the date set so far in the future.

Amendment 1, which stands in my name and that of 21 other hon. Members, simply proposes a date that has already been accepted by the European Union—I know that Guy Verhofstadt has talked about the end of June, but the European Union has suggested this date on many occasions—as a date that it would be comfortable extending to. It is also a date that would not oblige us, by default, to fight in the European elections. It would mean that the Prime Minister could accept the date offered to her—to the 22nd—but could not arbitrarily accept any other date offered without bringing it back and discussing with the House whether it met what the House wishes to achieve.

The right hon. Member for Delyn talked about not tying the Prime Minister’s hands, but if the House truly wishes to shape the next phase—I really do not like this process, but I am trying to look at it constructively—it is incredibly important that she does not have carte blanche to sit in a room in Brussels, meekly accept a date that is fixed, and then come back to the House, which will not be able to alter that date. I picked the 22 May date, because she can agree anything up until that point. After that date, with which we are all familiar, we will not have the Prime Minister accepting a date that may end up coming to this House and not finding favour. We are then back in the long grass. We are back to arguing about the date. We are back to arguing ad infinitum, to the great uncertainty for the many businesses who feel that what is going on here today is beyond a farce.

Other Members who have a better legal brain than mine—I have no such qualifications whatever—are looking at the Bill line by line and saying it is shoddily and poorly drafted, and that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The argument that comes back—I have heard it a few times this afternoon—is that, “Well, we haven’t had a lot of time and this is to stop no deal.” My amendment does not do anything to harm the Bill’s objectives. It gives the Bill belt and braces to ensure that the Prime Minister, to whom everyone says, “Let’s give her some latitude and trust”, is not able to accept something that is certainly beyond the wishes and scope of this House or the people who voted to leave the European Union.

I hope my amendment is given serious consideration, since we are now supposed to be engaging constructively with the process in a cross-party consensual way to try to get something through. I would be far more comfortable if the Prime Minister was not allowed free rein, or untrammelled prerogative, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said. As the House may have observed, we have already tried that and it has not got us terribly far. I therefore ask Members please to consider this amendment. It is very small. It does not stop anything. It simply might stop what some Members have maybe not thought through too well, which is the date.

I applaud my hon. Friend’s ingenuity. I am minded to support her amendment this evening and I hope she presses it to a Division. May I ask her about another extension? Clause 1(2), as drafted, does not mandate or order the Prime Minister to do anything—that comes later on in the Bill—but no timeframe is given either. My hon. Friend mentions a timeframe up to 22 May, but, as drafted, the Bill effectively gives no specified time period within which the Prime Minister needs to seek any extension in any event.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Clerks were very helpful when I was trying to draft my amendment. I said, “Surely we can’t have this open-ended situation?” Very helpfully, the Clerks said to me that the Bill can say what it likes, but at the moment the Prime Minister, in the untrammelled way that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said, can do what she likes. That is the situation. We are in fact sending off a Prime Minister who will be reluctant to deliver this proposal.

The Bill is supposed to be incredibly flawed, but what I do not want it to be, as we discovered from the Gina Miller challenge, is a nightmare going through the courts. Our businesses deserve better than to have a piece of cobbled together legislation that is rammed through—I gather it will be rammed through the other place, too—just to make sure we avoid no deal. Have hon. Members not done any adding up recently? This House is the tail that is now wagging the dog. There is no pretence on the Government Benches that this is going to be an easy ride—not for this stage, the next stage or any other stages coming down the road. There might be fears from Opposition Members, but they seem to be able to exercise an awful lot more muscle on the political agreement than we can on Government side of the House; they in effect have the whip hand over the Government. The true nature of the House is that it does not really desire to leave. The House will have masses of opportunities over the coming months to ensure that the political agreement is shaped in a fashion that they would like. That is the one thing about which the European Union has said, “We can open that, no trouble.” What the EU will not open is the withdrawal agreement, and a withdrawal agreement will be required to achieve many of the things that the House wants to achieve. That is why I reluctantly agreed to support the withdrawal agreement when it was separated from the political arrangements.

The Bill that we are considering is poor, and badly drafted. I accept the reasons why, and I accept that we are all scrabbling around to try to improve it, but I am disappointed that the Lords may not have much time to consider any amendments that are made tonight. I hope that the other end of the building does not function like a rubber-stamp machine and say, “It doesn’t matter; this Bill is going through regardless.”

The Bill will come back to haunt the House. If the procedure that we have followed today ends up creating a lawyers’ charter and a nightmare in the courts, it will do huge damage to our industries. Believe me, for every Gina Miller out there launching challenges to make sure that a public vote is listened to in a proper legal fashion, there will be lawyers picking over the Bill and saying that it does not stand up, so can we please ensure that sensible amendments are made tonight?

I would like to think that my amendment is sensible because, as the hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) has pointed out, the only date that the European Union will accept is 22 May. I believe that if we put that date in the Bill, we would be picking a date that the European Union was comfortable with. The House would have the security of knowing that the Prime Minister could not unilaterally accept any other date that the EU came up with, but would have to bring it back for Members’ consideration. If the House chooses to adopt it, fine, and if the House says, “Go back and try harder”, fine, but there will be certainty. I hope that Members on both sides of the argument will support this amendment, because it would give them the certainty of knowing there will be no jiggery-pokery and no clever shifting of dates or times. My amendment would oblige the Prime Minister to come back to the House with any new date, and she would not be allowed to accept a date that did not reflect the will of the House. Surely, that is what the House wishes to achieve.

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