Nick urges MPs to vote in favour of the EU Withdrawal Agreement

 12.18 pm


Twenty years ago, the euro came into being. I led the campaign to resist the UK joining the euro. The slogan of the no campaign that we launched was “Europe yes, euro no”.
I believed then, and continue to believe, that the UK’s best position was to be in the market but outside the eurozone, and indeed the country prospered over that 20-year period.

I was also a very strong supporter of the referendum. I played a leading role in the referendum campaign of Conservatives In, and I worked closely with the then Prime Minister. But immediately after the result came in I accepted it, recognising that it was narrow but nevertheless decisive and that it was our duty to implement and honour the decision. I believe that the Prime Minister’s deal does that in a pragmatic manner that recognises that the result was narrow, that the subsequent general election did not produce a decisive result, that the country is divided, and that businesses have significant concerns about the implications of our leaving the EU. I regret that the spirit of pragmatism, which should be embraced by more Members in this House, has become lost in the debate over the past few weeks and months.


The right hon. Gentleman said that the general election did not produce a definitive result and the country is divided, but the two main parties both went into the general election saying that they would respect the outcome of the referendum.

Nick Herbert

That is absolutely the case, and I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Two groups of Members of this House oppose the withdrawal agreement, and the irony is that they want exactly the opposite things. Both groups cannot be right, and therefore they are both taking a considerable risk. One group wants less Brexit—perhaps a softer Brexit, or even no Brexit at all. Many of those hon. Members support what is revealingly and euphemistically now called the “people’s vote”. Perhaps scarred by the experience of the referendum campaign, I strongly reject the idea that a second referendum is the way to settle this argument. Why should people pay any attention to the result of a second referendum if we ignore the first? I think the whole process would cause delay and further division. The worst possible outcome—and it would be very likely—is that we end up with a result that is just as narrow, or narrower in one way or another in favour of either leave or remain than we had before, and the issue would not be settled at all.

Those hon. Members who now seek to delay, dilute or even ditch Brexit voted for the referendum. They voted, mostly, to trigger article 50, and they stood behind their manifestos, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. That group are taking a significant risk, because in legislating to trigger article 50 the House set the country on a track, a course, and a timetabled process of exit that means that the default position is leaving without a deal. Hon. Members who seek to oppose the withdrawal agreement because they want less Brexit, or no Brexit, believe that is what they can achieve, but they might not be right. They are therefore risking no deal, and they have crocodile tears in doing so. So many things that are now lamented were foreseeable. The article 50 process was foreseeable and warned of during the referendum campaign. So were the positions of Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and indeed the Union.

The second group of hon. Members who oppose this deal want exactly the opposite thing. They want a harder Brexit, or no deal at all, and they do not believe that it is necessary to have a transition period. I think they are wrong, and that the uncertainty, the potential disruption, and the cost of moving to a World Trade Organisation system would be damaging. Although some of the risks are overstated, I do not think they are risks we should take. I speak as a former police Minister who was involved for a short time in dealing with the potential impact of the fuel protests. That experience was very sobering, just as it sobered my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) when he was in charge of such matters. I think that group undervalue the importance of striking a deal with our largest single market, with which we do half our trade, and they are oblivious to the fact that leaving with no deal would be a huge act of protectionism. After all, if WTO rules are so good, why seek trade deals with anybody at all?

Importantly, the group who oppose the withdrawal agreement because really they want no deal at all are also taking a risk. As we have seen in recent votes, the Commons could prevent no deal and take control, and we could end up with Brexit being diluted, delayed or even ditched. That group have mounted various attacks on the deal, and provided various rationalisations for opposing it, including most of all the backstop. Those objections are so much more theological than they are practical, and it has become not just a question of whether it is likely that we will be trapped in the backstop, but the fact that we could be becomes the fount of all opposition to the withdrawal agreement. There is a blurring of the withdrawal agreement with the future relationship and the possibility of doing a trade deal. It is that end state we should be concerned about. By then, we will have removed ourselves with a sensible transition period and will be able to control our borders, our laws and our money, yet that end state is often described as if it will mean we are a permanent vassal state.

Campaigners on both sides exacerbate division. The no-deal side does so by fetishising betrayal and telling everybody that they are being let down, there are traitors and so on. The people’s vote side does so by encouraging people to believe that this process can be stopped when, less than three years ago, the public voted to leave and, in truth, there has been little movement in public opinion. Opposition has descended mostly to pejorative attack. I say to hon. Members on both sides: “Prepare to climb down, because both of you cannot be right—one of you is not going to get what you want.” The right thing to do is to support a pragmatic exit, which is what the withdrawal agreement offers.