Making history - debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
This week has been momentous, and indeed follows on from an unprecedented start to 2017 on both a national and international level.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the House of Commons sat for around 18 hours to debate the Government's European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – the piece of legislation enabling the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50, which in turn starts the process of the UK's withdrawal from the European Union.
Lengthy sittings of the House are, by definition, reserved for the most significant pieces of legislation that progress through Parliament. It is right and understandable that many, many Members of Parliament wished to speak and have their views put on record during this historic debate. It gave those who wished to vote against the Bill their five minutes to explain why, those who voted a reluctant yes a chance to offer their thoughts, and enabled those of us who recognise we have to follow the wishes of the people, the ability to support the Prime Minister as she leads the country into uncharted waters.
You can watch my speech here, the text of which is also included below.
'It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who always speaks with passion. However, let me put it squarely on the table that I will never vote for another referendum while I am in this House, given what we experienced last year.
I agree with those who have said that this is a conscience vote; forget the three-line Whips. We asked the people, "What do you want to do?", they said, "Leave," and as far as I am concerned that settled the matter. I will of course be voting for the Bill this evening.
I want to make three very quick points. First, I believe that the Prime Minister deserves personal credit for her leadership on Brexit since she emerged last July. Casting our minds back to the extraordinary events of last summer, we were shell-shocked, not knowing where the public vote would take us. "Brexit means Brexit", she said, "and we're going to make a success of it."
That phrase, much mocked in some quarters, gave a sufficient sense of direction to steady the ship. It became apparent by January that we then needed a more detailed plan, and at just the right time, the Prime Minister gave her Lancaster House speech, which set out a clear, coherent and credible plan for the way forward. It was one of the most significant speeches I have heard in my 25 years in this House, and it was a game changer for me and for many people.
The plan is ambitious and not without risk. In particular, we will be leaving the single market and turning our backs on free movement, but seeking to negotiate a free trade agreement. That is a high-risk strategy, but I recognise that to remain in the single market would not properly reflect the desire of the majority who voted leave to control immigration. It is, however, vital that putting in place a bespoke free trade agreement is successfully completed as part of the overall deal. The one fear that companies in my constituency have is not so much tariffs, bad though they might be, but non-tariff barriers, which can play havoc with sensible trading arrangements and must be avoided if possible.
One part of the Lancaster House speech has received insufficient attention—the reference to transitional arrangements. I know that there are some, and some in this Chamber think that all this can be done in the blink of an eye, but it cannot. It is complex, it will take years, and we have to exercise patience. Once we start detailed negotiations—once we start to consider which parts of the acquis we want to ditch and which to keep—we are probably looking at a 10-year project. We might well leave the EU in 2019, but we should prepare ourselves for substantial transitional arrangements, and thereafter, I hope, a positive working relationship.
Secondly, we must now be brutally honest with the British people about the likely short-term impact of Brexit, not in an alarmist way, but simply making the point that because of uncertainty—because we have now made it clear that we will not be in the single market—there is likely to be an impact on Government spending for the next few years. We know that tax receipts have fallen against forecast since June, and that trend may well continue. There may well be long-term gains from Brexit—I certainly hope so, and we must strive for that end—but there will most likely be short-term pain, especially now that the phoney war is drawing to an end. International companies will weigh the certain knowledge that we will be leaving the single market against the hope of an equivalent free trade agreement, and some of them who crunch that calculation will decide to invest or expand elsewhere. Some financial institutions are already getting itchy feet, so there might not be as much money available for the NHS and social care and schools as we would like over the next two to five years, and we should prepare the British people for that fact.
Finally, living in these very turbulent times when all kinds of things are going on in our world, I encourage those on the Front Bench—those who are negotiating—thus: we have a clear plan, but let us not be slavish about it; let us be flexible and wise.'