Statement on Brexit after the Article 50 vote in Parliament

Following the referendum I have received an exceptional number of e-mails and letters about Brexit, all of which I have read.  I have considered the arguments put to me very carefully, and thought hard about the stance I should now take.

In that referendum my Arundel & South Downs constituents split evenly on the issue, half voting to Remain and half voting to Leave (the analysis of voting by constituency can be found here).  This divide has been reflected in the many representations that I have received, and I appreciate that views are held sincerely and strongly on either side.

As you may be aware, I campaigned to remain in the EU.  Nevertheless, I voted for the ‘Article 50’ Bill which will trigger the formal process by which the UK will leave.  This was certainly not because I was simply following my Party’s line: the issue is too important for that.  Nor have I changed my mind.  The reason I voted for the Bill was because I believe it was essential that MPs respected the decision which the British people took on 23 June.

Some have suggested that the referendum was merely advisory, and that MPs should therefore have voted with their conscience on the issue.  That may technically be true, but morally the referendum could only be taken as binding.  Parliament passed a law to say that the people should decide, and it was assumed by everyone that the referendum decision would be followed.  The majority might have been narrow, but the vote was decisive.  So I believe my democratic duty, irrespective of the stance I took, was to enable that decision to be implemented.

The task now is to achieve the optimal new set of trading and other arrangements for Britain, guided not by ideology but by what is in our national interest.  I believe we need to secure the best possible access to the EU’s Single Market, with which we do half our trade, and ensure that business continues to face as few barriers as possible.

In particular, I think we must guard against the idea that we can simply pivot away from our largest market and instead focus only on new partners far away across oceans.  We should not be choosing between trade with the EU and other markets, but rather recognising that we need both.  I expressed my concerns about a ‘hard’ Brexit in an article last October which you can read here.  Since then, the Government has rightly agreed to set out its stance in a White Paper, which has now been published and is available to read here.

While our future economic success is vital, wider issues were raised by the referendum.  The public sent a very clear message about the importance of controlling our borders, and the Prime Minister has recognised this imperative in the negotiating principles which she has set out.  She has also said that the Government wants to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, together with the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as possible, an issue about which I know many people feel especially strongly.  Above all, I hope that Britain will remain an inclusive and tolerant country, outward-looking and internationalist in its stance, co-operating wherever possible and trading freely with our partners.

The negotiations between the UK and the EU will soon begin.  It is important that the issues are discussed fully, both inside and out of Parliament, and I hope that we can now have a better debate on the choices Britain needs to make without accusations of betrayal.  I will continue to listen very carefully to all the points which are put to me, and I welcome further correspondence on the subject from my constituents.

Nick Herbert