Letter to Constituents on Current Status of EU Exit Following the Parliamentary Votes

Thank you for writing to me on the subject of Brexit.

I am writing to set out my position and where Parliament currently stands.

In the run-up to the 2016 Referendum the Government sent a leaflet to every household saying:

“The referendum on Thursday, 23rd June is your choice to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union… This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.”

Similarly, although on the back of Mr Cameron’s deal I supported remaining in the EU on the revised terms, I pledged prior to the Referendum to respect and implement the result, a commitment I repeated prior to the 2017 General Election.  I have consistently honoured this commitment in Parliamentary votes.  

I do not support the concept of a second referendum. The country has voted and determined its position on this issue. To put this back to the country I believe would be to disrespect a democratic decision and would lead to an even more divisive campaign. I strongly suspect that the result would be unchanged. If it was reversed I fear this would lead to an endless series of demands for further votes.

I am clearly far from alone in taking this view – to such an extent that those MPs who support a second referendum chose not to test the will of the House when they had the opportunity to lay an amendment calling for such a vote.

I am content that the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the United Kingdom with the 27 remaining EU states represents a sensible and pragmatic route to leaving the EU and I supported it when it was presented to the House of Commons. Before taking that decision I went through the draft Agreement and political declaration, subsequent side letters and the Attorney General’s advice, in great detail. As well as having the benefit of discussing the future relationship with many in my constituency I also sought out the views of a wide range of informed parties including trade and legal experts; both supporters and opponents of the deal.

It isn’t perfect, no negotiated deal between 28 states is likely to be. However I believe it honours the result of the Referendum and in doing so paves the way to a smooth and orderly exit, avoiding damaging economic dislocation.

The Withdrawal Agreement returns sovereignty to the UK: we will leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ; Parliament will resume full control of immigration policy, law and regulations in the UK; we will take back full control of our own fishing waters and agricultural policy and much else besides.

The Agreement also protects the rights of UK citizens resident in the EU; ensures the Ireland/Northern Ireland border remains open; provides an implementation period to help UK businesses and farmers adjust and guarantees no customs, quotas or tariffs will be imposed on our trade with Europe.

Perhaps the biggest single area of contention on the Agreement on its presentation to the House was the “Northern Ireland backstop”. The backstop arose out of the determination of all parties (the UK, EU, Republic of Ireland and both communities in Northern Ireland) to prevent a hard border. While the objective is shared, the means of delivery are not simple.

As in any negotiation it is important to understand the motivation of our counterparties. The UK is very willing to engage in pragmatic solutions to this border, in the light of our close relationship with the Republic, our recognition as to how this has evolved and our determination to honour the Belfast Agreement. The EU to date have been very focussed on the fact that this will become an external land border of the European Union, granting direct access into its single market. Along the whole of the EU’s eastern land border from Finland down to the Ukraine there are some 50 crossing points ensuring customs are paid and that goods/agricultural products comply with EU regulations.

On the Ireland/Northern Ireland border there are some 300 crossing points. It is vital that creative solutions are provided to prevent a hard border, even a temporary hard border:  as is well understood, the importance of a soft border on the island of Ireland goes well beyond preventing the dislocation of trade. The backstop is intended to be a creative solution to ensure a hard border cannot happen.

I believe that given our starting point of a uniquely close regulatory alignment with the EU there is every prospect of our future trading relationship, with appropriate provisions, being agreed within the implementation period. However if this is not agreed within that period the backstop exists as an insurance policy so that beyond the implementation period we have a temporary arrangement which will keep the border “open” until such time as the future trading agreement is put in place.

The critics of the backstop are concerned that the EU could attempt to “trap” us within it indefinitely. Personally whilst I can understand the concern I do not share it. Given the restrictions it places on a wholly independent trade policy the backstop would be uncomfortable for me and many in the UK but it would equally be uncomfortable for the remaining 27. The backstop drives a “coach and horses” through the market integrity and “four freedoms” that the EU advocate as essential to their political and economic common-purpose.  Lacking certainty as to whether or not the 5th largest economy in the world is, or is not, within their customs union and for how long, would also in effect stymie the current ambitious round of free trade deals the EU is pursuing with third countries.  I do not believe the EU would countenance the backstop being a permanent solution.

Nor do I believe any EU Head of Government would relish explaining to their own electorate why the UK would have customs, quota and tariff-free access to the EU’s single market of some 400m people (the economic underpinning of the Union) while (unlike their own state) not being required to make payments to the EU budget, not being subject to “freedom of movement”, not being subject to the ECJ, having independent control of their fishing waters and not being required to adhere to EU regulations (albeit that if we deviate this would have an impact on friction at the border).

Even were a determination to exist in the EU to keep us in the backstop – notwithstanding the above – it is absolutely clear in the text that this is a temporary solution. The EU is required to act in good faith. We have recourse to arbitration and I do not believe the UK with its close and important relationships with EU states, its substantial economy and role on the world stage would not find the means to secure its early exit from this arrangement were this to be required.

However concern over the backstop was among the range of reasons put forward by MPs as to why they opposed the Withdrawal Agreement when it first came to the Commons and was defeated. Following this the Prime Minister engaged in discussions with a wide range of parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House before bringing the issue back to the Commons.

In subsequent parliamentary votes the House of Commons rejected postponing the date for leaving the EU and rejected the concept of the Commons controlling the legislative calendar. I voted with the Commons (and the Government) on both issues. I believe we need to resolve our relationship with the EU and I believe this will be best executed via the Government negotiating and bringing forward a deal rather than disparate voices of the Commons, sincere as they are, attempting to resolve this via the legislative process.

In an expression of view (rather than legislation) the Commons voted narrowly against leaving the EU without a deal. While it is the Government’s firm intention to leave with a deal the Government (and I) opposed this motion: negotiations continue and saying to the EU that we will only leave with a deal would be to remove an option from the table and undermine our own negotiating position. 

Most importantly the Commons voted to support the Withdrawal Agreement agreed between the UK and the EU – albeit with an important caveat: the Commons has requested the Government to secure changes to the backstop or alternative means to secure its objective.

I welcome this result which provides the EU with a clear route to achieving a resolution. I do not underestimate the challenge of securing the changes the Commons seeks but I know that the Prime Minister and her team are setting out to do so with great resolution. 

Such changes would allow both the EU and UK to agree what I believe is a sensible basis for commencing our future relationship. While I believe “no deal” should remain on the table I disagree with those who believe this is the optimal solution.  It is not.  Mutually agreed reductions in tariffs/restrictions on trade have a proven track record of boosting economic growth and enhancing prosperity, the reverse is also true.  Logically if we were to leave the EU on “WTO” terms our first task as a country would be to secure a free trade agreement with our closest neighbour and largest trading partner:  the European Union.  Providing a route to do so seamlessly without the economic dislocation that a “no deal” Brexit would entail is undoubtedly in the interests of both parties, that is what the Withdrawal Agreement provides.  Leaving with no deal means the UK would become a “3rd Party”, not only would many UK products exported to Europe face tariffs some could be subject to quota restrictions on sale.  From the UK’s perspective, absent active EU co-operation, we would face the choice of either imposing tariffs on EU goods (increasing the price of many items, including food, to the detriment of our consumers) or (under WTO rules) being required to apply the same zero tariffs to all other countries exporting to the UK:  making domestic producers less competitive and making the UK’s task of persuading other nations to reduce tariffs on UK exports significantly harder.  These long term implications of a “no deal” Brexit scenario go beyond the stories regularly carried in the press about the immediate impact on our ports and supply lines which are serious concerns but which I know the Government is doing all it can to mitigate.

A “no deal“ Brexit would also, as they are well aware, have serious consequences for the European Union in general (with the Eurozone currently facing tricky economic challenges) and the Republic of Ireland in particular.  

While, in a no deal outcome, the UK’s flexible and open economy would adapt and evolve, as would our trading links, I do not believe this is the ideal way to embark on our future outside of the EU.

I have no doubt that the proposed Withdrawal Agreement, amended to address concerns over the backstop, is the best way of honouring the Referendum and securing our exit on good terms.  I will continue to support the Prime Minister and Government in achieving this critical objective.