Jeremy Hunt is Foreign Secretary and MP for South West Surrey.
For once the cliché is justified: today really is an historic day. The House of Commons is about to vote on an agreement that would change our national destiny and take Britain out of the European Union in just 73 days.
It took a remarkable sequence of events to get us to the verge of leaving the EU after 46 years. There was a referendum that most experts predicted would deliver a victory for Remain. There was an election that left us without a majority. Even so, we now have a 585-page Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated and concluded with 27 countries. It has compromises but not even the Prime Minister’s fiercest critics would doubt her dogged determination that has got us to this point.
But it is clear the opponents of Brexit are not giving up. On the face of it, all the cards are stacked against them. At the 2017 election both the two main parties pledged to leave the EU. They are up against a Government and a Prime Minister committed to delivering on this. And most importantly of all, those who want Brexit stopped are up against the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU, more than for any other cause or party in British history. Like many who campaigned to remain in the EU, that for me is the single biggest reason we must honour the mandate: as one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world it would be a devastating blow both to our national cohesion and our global reputation if the political class succeeded in unpicking what the people had told it to do.
It is of course perfectly principled to take a different view. But the effect of changing the parliamentary rules to prevent No Deal would – whether intended or not – also allow Parliament to stop Brexit altogether. Because you cannot just change the rules of Parliament on one specific issue: once the precedent has been set they can be changed on any issue.
This kind of asymmetric tactic to delaying or stopping Brexit would be significant for two other reasons: firstly because the most likely outcome would not be a decisive shift to a different kind of Brexit, rather a move to constitutional stalemate and Brexit paralysis. Businesses up and down the country desperate to plan would instead be condemned to months more uncertainty. But secondly – and much more profoundly – it would directly pit the will of Parliament against the will of the people.
We have never had a written constitution and that has given us admirable flexibility to move fast at crucial moments. But it has always depended on restraint from parliamentarians, recognising that our role is not to impose our will on the people but to remain faithful to our democratic mandate. After a referendum in which all major political parties promised to honour the result, failing to do so would lead to a potentially irreparable breach of trust.
So why vote for this deal? It has compromises and elements that make many people – myself included – frankly uncomfortable. Yet it does contain much that Leave voters were demanding: sovereign control over immigration, leaving the CAP and the CFP, no large annual membership fees, and only the most limited role for the European Court of Justice. At the same time, it protects businesses and jobs that depend on trade with the EU in the way any responsible government would obviously seek to do. And with skilful negotiation, an independent trade policy will be something we can achieve.
The risk is that by opposing it in the hope of something better, we end up with the worst possible outcome: no Brexit at all.
Why is that? Because those seeking to reverse the Brexit decision have a simple three part plan: defeat the Government in the meaningful vote; then use the deadlock to extend Article 50 and push for a second referendum. It is not scaremongering to point this out: the first part may happen tonight and then with the amendment planned by Dominic Grieve for later in the week Parliament could require the Government to adopt the second.
If Brexit were then to be reversed in a second referendum, how would we look the 52 per cent who supported Brexit in 2016 – and went on to vote Conservative in the 2017 General Election – in the face? They trusted us to deliver Brexit – and we would have failed.
I have many colleagues and friends whom I respect enormously who have taken an honourable decision to accept that risk, but I cannot. This is our moment to deliver on what the British people asked us to do and we should seize it.