Nick Boles is MP for Grantham and Stamford.
Emerging from a fourth round of chemotherapy isn’t anybody’s idea of a holiday, but enforced idleness gave me plenty of time to follow the Lords debate on the Article 50 bill. As someone who was convinced of the case for us to remain in the EU, and downcast when we lost the referendum, I have nothing but respect for those who still feel that it was a disastrous decision – even if I do not share their bleak outlook. In fact, I find something rather admirable in the declarations by distinguished Conservative figures from the 1980s and 1990s that they have believed in the crucial importance of Britain’s membership of the European Union to our national interest for over 40 years, and are not inclined to change their views just because a majority of the British people took a different one in last year’s referendum. They are entitled to stick to their guns, as I am sure Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin and Jacob Rees-Mogg would have done, had the referendum gone the other way.
What is not acceptable is to try and hijack the Article 50 bill, which implements the people’s referendum decision in a simple and streamlined way. The bill that was sent to the Lords contained no reference to any specific objectives, priorities or “red lines’ for the negotiation, because a large majority of MPs accepted that that would undermine the Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre in a long, complex and dynamic process. The proper place for the discussion of such matters is in the Government’s White Paper and the countless parliamentary debates that have taken place and will take place, as the negotiation unfolds.
The Lords has nevertheless voted to amend the Bill to require the Government to guarantee the rights of EU citizens already living in Britain. The Prime Minister and David Davis have both said that they want to guarantee the status of EU citizens living here, and the status of British citizens living elsewhere in the EU, as soon as possible. A deal could have been struck on this several months ago, if other EU leaders had been willing to do so. But it would represent a breathtaking dereliction of duty for Her Majesty’s Government to abandon the one million plus British citizens who live in the EU to an unknown fate, without any guarantees of their status. Yet that is exactly what the Lords amendment would do. I would be amazed if any of my Conservative colleagues could justify such a lopsided and unfair approach to their constituents. I certainly could not.
The Lords also voted to add a new clause which requires Parliament to approve the “outcome of negotiations with the European Union”. As the Prime Minister has already promised to bring forward a motion on the final agreement with the EU, covering both the withdrawal arrangements and our future relationship, before the European Parliament votes on the final agreement, the Lords amendment is unnecessary. I trust my colleagues in the Commons will not want to support a legislative amendment that is longer than the original bill and entirely otiose.
Especially as the Lords’ amendment would also be harmful to the Government’s chances of getting the best deal for Britain. When the Prime Minister activates Article 50 and starts the negotiation, she will be fighting for Britain’s future. Whether you voted to leave the EU or to remain, every Conservative MP must agree that it is in the national interest that she is seen as a strong leader of a unified government with a broad mandate from her party, Parliament and the British people. If her European counterparts see that Parliament has reserved the right to reopen the negotiation after she and the EU have reached a conclusion, it will undermine their faith in any commitments she gives during the negotiations. As John Major himself once put it: “Whether you agree with me or disagree with me; like me or loathe me, don’t bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British nation.” Theresa May deserves no less today.
I know that the prospect of leaving the EU causes many of my fellow Conservatives real anguish. But the best way to ensure that we emerge from the negotiation with a positive new relationship of cooperation and partnership with our friends in the EU is to give the Prime Minister the strongest possible hand as she walks into that negotiating chamber. We should remove the Lords amendments and pass the Article 50 bill in its original form.