Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Advisor to the Conservative Party. He is CEO of Brexit Analytics.
The following speech transcript was obtained from a parallel universe where Jeremy Corbyn resigned as Labour leader following the EU Referendum.
Mr Speaker, today we vote on the most important piece of legislation to come before this House since at least the European Communities Act, if not since the Ernest Bevin’s Bill that gave this country its finest institution, the National Health Service.
That Act was the culmination of years of work, involving serious inquiry, and, it must be admitted, major contributions during the National Government of which the party opposite was a part. That level of thought, debate and scrutiny was what produced an institution that has stood the test of time, even as our society has changed.
In 1972, the Bill taking us into the European Union was debated far more extensively in this House than this short Bill has been. Not only that — not only that — the government of the day saw fit to produce several white papers to explain how entering the European Communities would be made to work.
Yet this time, on what must be, at least as equally important an occasion… I see the Hon members for Woking and Harwich & North Essex shaking their heads. Do they really wish to deny that a Bill to leave the EU is at least as important as the one to enter it? I thought not, Mr Speaker.
Yet this time, we have been given just six days — six days — to debate leaving the EU. And while I appreciate that the Vice President of the United States might think God took only six days to make the world, even he would agree with me, I am sure, that we mortals should devote a little longer to thinking about how we should extricate ourselves from the European Union.
We do so with extraordinarily little knowledge about the Government’s plans for the negotiations that passage of this Bill would instigate. Last week they published what they term a White Paper.
It was finished, the time stamp on the PDF file tells us, at 4.37 in the morning.
We hear much of this Prime Minister’s deliberate style, and how it contrasts with her predecessor’s “Essay Crisis” personality. I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I finished my essays at 4.37AM it was usually because of an excess of something other than deliberation.
The Government’s document contains obvious errors, like getting the number of days of paid holiday to which employees are entitled wrong. Make no mistake, we are the party of worker’s rights, but I would be interested to how many of those seated on the Government benches campaigned to leave in order to increase the burden on employers.
But most extraordinary is the slapdash argument by which the Government justifies its policy. It was Edmund Burke who said in this very House,
“I feel an insuperable reluctance in giving my hand to destroy any established institution of government, upon a theory”
Burke’s case was that major changes to established institutions should only be made to remedy real, practical failures in their operation. One might think that a Conservative Government would pay heed to this principle. One might even think that the Hon member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (whose superb biography of Burke I commend to the Prime Minister) would insist on its application as a condition for remaining in ministerial office. What one would not expect is for a British Government White Paper — even one finished at 4.37AM — to contain the following:
“Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.”
“it has not always felt like that.”
So here we have a Conservative government throwing out an established institution not upon a theory, but upon a feeling. And, I may add, a feeling it just baldy asserts without providing evidence, and which was decisively shown to be baseless by the Supreme Court. Indeed, the very fact we are here debating a bill to notify the United Kingdom’s intention to leave the EU shows that Parliament has remained sovereign throughout.
My party recognises the result of the referendum. Though, like the Prime Minister, I campaigned to remain (and I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, the Rt Hon member for Islington North, for his sterling work in that regard), I voted for there to be a referendum, and it would be perverse to ask the people for their views only to ignore them.
But we cannot forget, as members of what is still somewhat incredibly called the Conservative and Unionist party do, that Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain, or, that London and Manchester, or people under 50 — the people who will have to make Brexit work for all of us in the coming decades — voted to stay in the European Union.
Britain is not, and I dare say that my husband’s former constituents, most of whom did vote to leave would agree, a direct democracy. Our job in this House is not to mechanically carry out the referendum result without thinking of its effects, but to implement it in a way that preserves their interests.
The Government’s plans for Brexit do no such thing. They fall short in four areas. The first, and most obvious, is our economic relationship with the EU. It is our largest trading partner. Our businesses are configured to export to it. Their supply chains stretch across Germany, France, Ireland and the Netherlands, not New York, Virginia, Illinois and New Mexico.
In time, some of our trade could no doubt focus on countries outside the EU. But trade is easier with countries nearby, and it is to us completely perverse to give up certain trading relationships with our nearest neighbours, on the hope of making new ones across thousands of miles of ocean. Indeed, figures published yesterday by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research demonstrate that if we are unable to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU — an outcome the Prime Minister is willing to contemplate when she says “no deal is better than a bad deal”, our trade with the EU would fall by 30 percentage points, and deals with emerging markets and so-called Anglosphere countries would only increase it by five percentage points.
She wants, Mr Speaker, to cut our total trade by a quarter, that’s £180 billion less, and that will lead to job losses in every constituency in the country.
The second issue, Mr Speaker, is a matter of rights. Rights that we currently have to live, work and open a business across the EU. You might think the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would put retaining those rights at the heart of her negotiating aims. She talks about protecting the rights of people who have moved in the past. Fine if you already live in Spain or France. But what if you want to move there? She won’t fight for your right to do so. At the moment, our children have the automatic right to work in 28 European countries. She will restrict them just two: the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Third, there is the National Health Service. Leave won, its strategy director assures us, because of its assertion that by leaving the EU we would be able to spend an extra £350 million a week on the NHS. The fashionable term to describe that assertion, and I hope this is not unparliamentary, Mr Speaker, is as an “alternative fact.” All of us see the pressure the NHS is coming under after six years of Tory Chancellors and Tory Health Secretaries, because even as demand rises because of our ageing population, spending on health care, as a proportion of GDP, is not keeping pace. The public finances are being squeezed extremely tight.
Just two days ago, the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that taxes would need to rise by £34 billion a year, just to keep things are they are. I’d advise the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to begin writing a note. My Hon Friend, the member for Birmingham Hodge Hill, will be happy to help him.
Fourth, let me address the matter of the devolved assemblies. Their leaders, like us on this side of the House, accept that we are leaving the European Union. But this Government — this English Government — has chosen not to take their views into account. This attitude poses serious risks to the integrity of the UK, and we cannot endorse it.
Finally, I want to address the Government’s naive optimism, which has already been shown to be disastrous. The Prime Minister thought at first we would stay in the bits of the EU we wanted while maintaining absolute control of immigration. It’s now clear this cannot be done.
The Hon gentleman shouts “at last, immigration” from a sedentary position. His point is quite right. It is on immigration that the Government has gone furthest from realism. It is quite true that leaving the EU allows us to exercise more control over our immigration policy. But the extent of that control is inversely proportional to the depth of our trade agreements with other countries. There is a balance to be struck, and the Government shows no evidence of even understanding there is a balance, let alone striking it in the right place.
Though we think it is right to implement the decision made in the referendum, we cannot support the Government’s attempt to invoke Article 50 at this stage. Our support is conditional on four tests. We should begin negotiations trying to stay in the Single Market, not abandon it as a negotiating goal at the beginning. We should should fight for British citizens’ rights to live and work in Europe, not give them up in advance. As the campaign was won on the basis that there would be £350 million a week more to spend on the NHS, we will not support invocation until the health budget is increased to give effect to the promise. Nor do we think we should notify our intention to leave the EU until a compromise that protects the interests of the devolved regions of the UK has been achieved.
We cannot, Mr Speaker, support the kind of Brexit the Prime Minister is proposing. Hers is an extreme Brexit, pessimistic about the kind of relationship we can have with Europe, and naive about what we can persuade the rest of the world to give us. It’s driven by ideology rather than the practical interests of the British people. If she comes back to this House with a Brexit plan that meets our four criteria, she will have shown the realism that these tough negotiations will require, and we will then provide our support. But until that is done, in the interests of the United Kingdom, the duty of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, is to oppose.