Leaving the European Union petition debate

4th February 2019

Anne Main speaks in a debate on an e-Petition debate entitled: “Brexit re article 50 it must not be suspended/stopped under any circumstances” and says we must deliver the Brexit people voted for.

I am pleased to be called to speak in this debate, Mr Hanson, because sometimes those in the main Chamber are so crowded that it is difficult to get in. This is wonderful—I am told we have hours, which is great—because we can really explore the options.

The important thing for me is to look at the petition. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who spoke with great passion. The Liberal Democrats contested my seat hotly at the last election, making it a Brexit election, but to be fair, they have a fixed view: they do not want to leave the European Union. However, as the hon. Lady said, they offered a referendum and—this is on my wall as a poster—Sir Nick Clegg featured in a leaflet saying, “Only the Liberal Democrats offer you a true referendum, in or out.” I thought, “Fair enough, that’s a fair question.” Now, and this was confirmed by the hon. Lady—I wanted to check—the “in or out” talked about in that leaflet is not the referendum that the Liberal Democrats want to offer; the new referendum, if that were to be considered, would be a three-way choice, which would split the vote considerably.

A democracy is a place where things move and are dynamic. The hon. Lady is not being helpful if she keeps harking back to what was said in the past. We are where we are, and we are in a very difficult situation. Is it not important to look at the present, instead of always harking back to the past?

I completely agree, but we have to learn from the past, which forms part of our future trajectory. All I am saying is that the in-out referendum that the House promised the British people is the only way to go. The three-way referendum now supported by the hon. Lady’s party and others would ask people to choose between what she would describe as a hard Brexit—a no-deal Brexit, perhaps—the Prime Minister’s Brexit, and staying in. That could not be countenanced as democratic.

As I understand it, the EU would have no truck—I do not blame it—with us wanting to kick the whole thing into the long grass during a long drawn-out process. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said that the British public would never forgive us; certainly they would never forgive us for trying to twist the arm of the EU, and saying, “Please can we extend article 50, so that we can offer a three-way referendum?”.

The hon. Lady says that the British people would never forgive us for asking them again, but would they ever forgive us for a serious economic collapse as a result of a no-deal Brexit?

That is interesting. The other day in the main Chamber, I tried to intervene on the Leader of the Opposition many, many times. I wanted to know whether the policy of the Labour party is to offer another referendum. The economic collapse, I believe, is a much-hyped fear factor.

The British public had 40 years of trying out the European project, which is certainly not the common market that my late parents voted for. That was a vote for one thing. After 40 years of ever closer political integration, the British public were asked if they wanted to re-endorse that membership, or if they would like to say, “We’d like to leave.”

It is not as though we have not discussed the possibility of leaving, or our unhappiness with having treaties foisted on us. The British public have a lot of experience—the history that the hon. Member for Bath does not want to draw on—of looking at how they were treated, how they were talked to, and how they were being sucked into closer integration, which they were not happy with. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who opened the debate, said, that is what many people were unhappy with. The British public knew that they did not like it, so they decided that they wanted to leave and be an independent, self-governing and sovereign nation again. That is the argument that was made.

I campaigned to leave, and I made it very clear to my constituents that I was for leaving—I did not hide that, or take the easy option—although most of them voted to remain. I made it clear that I believed in leave, but that I was only one vote. Those members of the British public who were of voting age that first time around, however, had seen the direction of travel, which was towards ever closer integration, and they did not want to go there, so they decided get off that bus.

I do not like to talk of winning or losing, but the only way to describe a referendum is in those terms. The leave campaign won because there was more heart in the campaign to get back our sovereignty than there was in saying, “We know the EU’s not perfect, that it should change, that lots of you have had grumbles and complaints over the years, and that we keep trying to change things and it never gives us much—but I am sure it will at some point in the future.” That did not cut it.

The hon. Lady makes the important point that people knew what deal we already had, but I take her back to the wording of the petition:

“the British people MUST be given the Brexit they voted for”.

Can she tell me what the Brexit that they voted for was?

It was made very clear and, for my sins, I watched so much of the debate—

Will the hon. Lady give way?

The convention is to answer an intervention before giving way again, and I would like to do that. I am sorry.

It was made clear that there would be no second asks—I remember hearing that several times during the campaign—and that if we left, we would take back control of our borders and so make our own immigration policies. I am quite relaxed about numbers, although some people are not, but leaving would mean a level playing field on immigration policy. Also, it was clear that we would deliver on the vote of the British people; Parliament would not tinker and water it down. The referendum was about bringing back a level of control to Parliament—eventually, not right this second—from the European Union. We have got caught up in the argument that that means going back to parliamentarians having control over the people, but the people voted to bring back control from Brussels to Parliament; it was very clear, and they expect us to deliver on that.

The hon. Lady’s answer to my intervention was not what I hoped for. Do not all of us in the House of Commons have different versions of what an acceptable Brexit deal would look like? Some advocate a close relationship with the single market and a customs union; some support the deal that the Prime Minister made; and many in her party say that that is not the Brexit that they voted for. Surely the British public are just as split, if not more so, than parliamentarians here in the Palace of Westminster. If we are to have the trust of the public, we have to present them with a deal and check whether that is the Brexit that they feel that they voted for.

To me—unless someone would like to iterate a different view—it seems that the official opinion of the majority of Labour members is that they support the view of the Liberal Democrats. They want what they describe as a people’s vote; some would call it a remoaner’s ask. There seems to be a growing chorus of, “It’s in the ‘too difficult’ box, so let’s put it back to the public.” If that happened, I would be the first to call for the best of three, particularly if the wording was not exactly the same as last time, and did not ask, “Do you wish to leave or stay?”. If the wording was different or three options were offered, I would say, “You’re not asking the same question.” To get to the nub of what the petition is about, the public are beginning to be fearful about whether we will honour and do what we said we would do.

I was at Prayers this morning—I am pleased that we have Prayers, because it concentrates the mind for a few moments—and one of the things that we are asked to do in Prayers is not be concerned with the desire to please. In this place, we can try desperately to please everyone, but the reality is that we cannot. We can, however, come to a settled opinion and try to do our best. The difficulty is that Members of Parliament overwhelmingly voted to remain, and are trying to deliver something that they do not really believe in. We cannot get away from the fact that that is a tension. But we have to deliver what we said we would deliver, and not just try to please, which would be the easy option.

The hon. Lady is generous in giving way. She will be pleased to know that I agree with her, and I go to Prayers, too. Irrespective of religion, I very much believe that it is important to discuss things honestly, accept our differences and come to a conclusion together. If we are delegates, we are just delivering what the people have said, but if we are not delegates, we are representatives. Is it not for us to make a decision according to our conscience and to what we believe is best for our country? That is exactly what we are all grappling with, including the Liberal Democrats. It does not help to denounce one another all the time and to call some people remoaners.

Order. Interventions must be short.

The hon. Lady has made her speech and interventions; if she does not mind, I will leave it there and we will have to agree to differ.

My concern is that we may end up looking weak because we cannot get behind a deal by the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said that he could settle for the withdrawal agreement. When I went to see the Prime Minister before Christmas, I said, “I truly believe you are trying to do your very best on this.” Whatever anyone from any political party thinks, the Prime Minister has a very difficult job. Her tenacity is astonishing. I said, “At the moment, whether people believe in leave or remain, we have the absolute right to walk out the door, shut it behind us and say, ‘We will not put up with any more interference in our legislation from a group of countries.’ We can choose, but we will not be obliged.” We have the absolute right to do that, but I said we were like a load of nervous sheep in a pen.

I cannot hover around the idea of a backstop that 27 other countries may hold the key to. We are trying to get back sovereignty; we must not dilute that sovereignty by giving 27 other countries the whip hand over us. They have their own agendas. Each country would have a veto. It may well be that Gibraltar, or our fishing, comes up on the agenda. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: I do not think the EU will want to keep us in the backstop, but I fear what they will exact to let us out.

My hon. Friend has been extremely generous in giving way. Does she agree that the myth that people did not know what they were voting for must be dispelled? Prime Minister David Cameron spent more than two years trying to negotiate a better deal for the UK by going around and speaking to the European Commission and all the other member states. He got a deal and put it in a leaflet that was delivered to every single home in the UK. We know that the majority of people—17.4 million—voted to reject that.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At the time, I was very worried about whether there was some undue influence, whether we should have purdah and other things that were taxing our brains at that point. The European Union was advocated for by the leader of the Government at the time; a lot of big names tried to make the case for it, and a lot of money was associated with that. Even so, the British public had 40 years of knowing what they had, and they did not like it. People want to call them stupid or deluded—those are some of the things thrown at my constituents who voted to leave—but they were prepared to take the opportunity to leave.

There was a split decision, but did anyone ever think it would be more decisive than it was? It struck me how many people participated in the referendum—it was overwhelming. When I was out knocking on doors, people told me they had not voted for many a year, but they were going to vote. The referendum galvanised and engaged people in a way that we often struggle to. If we do not get on with this, the public will ask, “What is the point of taking part in any votes whatever? We got ourselves out the door for that special occasion; we were motivated.”

I do not know what motivated some people; they may have had different motivations, but they still wanted to leave the club. That is why they got out the door that morning in vast numbers and went to vote. This petition reflects a frustration; people think that we are cloth-eared in here and did not wake up to the sheer number of people who decided they had to vote to leave. This was a topic that had engaged them, if nothing else, for decades. No party, leaflets or knocking at their door had got them out, but this did. The former Prime Minister would not like to hear that some people did not bother to read his leaflet, but some people felt they had enough personal experience to make up their mind; the leaflet was not going to change that. They were glad of the opportunity of the vote.

I do not believe the European Union will want a “kick the can down the road” delay to article 50. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: if it were for a few weeks, that might well be tolerated, so long as it was just to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. In that respect, I disagree with the petition, but I have sympathy for where it is going.

I could not vote for the withdrawal agreement, and 240 people felt the same way. When I went to see the Prime Minister after the big defeat, I said, “Will I want to pay £39 billion? No; it will stick in my craw, but it is a one-off. Do I want the European Court of Justice to have jurisdiction over us during the implementation period? No, but I can stand it. Can I lock us into a backstop? No.” I have gone through the debates, arguments and thought processes; that has to be fixed.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam: Brussels said that it will not tell us what we want to hear, but I believe and hope that it will listen, now that things have been distilled down. I do not wish to be the teenager trashing the flat, as someone said; I wish us to have a good relationship. I do not want us to be rancorous. I hope the people who have signed this petition will accept that we have not ignored the fact that 17.4 million people, many of whom said they had not voted for a very long time, got out the door that day because this was the one thing they wanted delivered. It is up to us to deliver it.


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