Nick urges MPs to vote for the deal in the second meaningful vote

Nick Herbert

I will support the deal tonight, as I did before. I welcome the further agreement that was struck in Strasbourg in relation to the backstop. We now have far greater legal certainty about our ability to exit it.

The focus of this debate, and of most of the debate in the past 24 hours and previously, has been the legalities of the backstop and of our exiting it. Ultimately, we should care about the real-world risk of being trapped in the backstop, but that has been discussed very little. What are the actual chances that we will be trapped in the backstop, not from a legal point of view but from a political point of view? Is it likely that we will find ourselves in that position? I think it is perfectly possible to argue that it is highly unlikely.

First, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) that our being in the backstop would not benefit the EU at all. The EU would not want us to remain in the backstop because, for instance, while we were in it, we would have many of the benefits of the single market without paying into the EU. The idea that the EU wishes to trap us in the backstop is simply a wrong analysis.

Secondly, we would have several hurdles to jump before we ever got into the backstop. We would only start to consider it as a possibility if a trade deal were not ready. We now have further legal certainty about the efforts to ensure that the trade deal will be ready. It would only start to become a possibility if the implementation period were not extended. That is an alternative. It would only start to become a possibility if alternative arrangements were not completed. Again, we now have more certainty about the preparations for those alternative arrangements. We should stop talking about the backstop as though we are certain to get into it and certain to be trapped.

Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane)

My right hon. Friend is making such a powerful case. Is this not about degrees of risk? We should weigh the minuscule risk, as I see it, of being trapped in the backstop against the far greater risk of not agreeing this deal, which would throw into jeopardy all the good things it should bring this country.

Nick Herbert

My hon. Friend quite brilliantly anticipates my very next sentence. Ultimately, we have a political judgment to make, not a legal judgment. Is the theoretical, highly unlikely possibility that we will be trapped in the backstop really enough to risk Brexit altogether?

Let me say first of all that anyone who is clinging to the hope that no deal could still happen, and is intending to vote against this deal to achieve it—it appeared to me that my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) was thinking of doing that—should forget it, because it is clear that the House will not allow no deal. Whether one supports that move or not, it is about to be taken off the table as an option. We therefore face the clear and present danger that, if this deal does not go through, Brexit will be diluted, seriously delayed, or ditched altogether. That may be what Labour Members want—there is a whole cadre of them who want a second referendum, and others who want to cause difficulty for the Government—but one thing is clear: on these Benches, you cannot talk about gaining control and taking back control, only immediately to cede control to the House of Commons and lose any further control we have to shape the kind of Brexit that we would like. If Conservative Members do not like the deal as it is currently constituted, let them spend the next few months discussing, and then voting on, and then being outvoted on, whether they want a Norway arrangement in which we would become a rule taker, or whether they want a permanent customs union rather than the temporary one for which the backstop provides. That is what Labour Members want, and that is what the House of Commons will give us, whether my hon. Friends like it or not. That is the downside. That is the risk that they are now running: Brexit diluted, seriously delayed, or ditched altogether.

The choice is clear. We can have damaging uncertainty as a result of further delay, anger in the country that we have not implemented the decision that the country took, and the risk—of which my hon. Friends should be perfectly well aware—that the impasse will lead to a general election. Conversely, there is a huge upside to getting this deal through. We avert the risk of no deal, although I think that that is about to be averted altogether. We leave, as promised, on 29 March or shortly after. Business confidence and investment return—and we know that businesses are sitting on cash at present—because we have an implementation period and certainty for those businesses. Resources are released for public services. If the deal does not go through tonight, the Chancellor will have to make clear tomorrow that he must hold on to cash in the event of uncertainty and of no deal becoming a possibility. If the deal goes through, that cash could be released for public services, which every Member in the House would like to happen.

There are Members who voted to trigger article 50 and who voted for the referendum. Although they did that within the last two years, they are determined to oppose this deal because, in reality, they have reached a position in which they want to oppose or dilute Brexit.

Let me say to my hon. Friends that this not a moment to choose ideological purity above pragmatism. This is a pragmatic deal, which recognises that while 17.4 million people—the majority—did vote to leave the European Union, 16.1 million voted to remain, and we have to compromise. It will be a compromise not with the European Union, but with the country: a sensible compromise which recognises that in leaving we must carry the public with us, and carry business confidence with us.

I say to Members that they have a second chance now to support this deal, and if they really want to deliver Brexit, they should do so.

To read the full debate in Hansard, please click here.