In this post, I will try and sketch out a possible speech which the Prime Minister could give in Parliament in the immediate aftermath of MPs voting to reject the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and Political Declaration regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Personally, I believe that the WA is a good and conscientious attempt, in very difficult political circumstances, to achieve Brexit and many of its key aims while retaining a friendly and co-operative relationship with the EU. If MPs do, as Theresa May hopes and implores them to do, and look at what the impact would be if they were to reject the deal, I share her view that voting for the WA would be the best outcome. I appreciate that I am in a minority in that.
But, more pithily, I think what she is really saying to MPs of all persuasions on Brexit is “do you feel lucky, punk?”- if one is a supporter of leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 without a deal, would voting the WA down really lead to a government which could in practice be strong and stable (sic) enough under any leadership, to get through that form of Brexit? If one is a supporter of further renegotiation, a second referendum or some other means of “softening” Brexit or even stopping it, do you, on 11 December 2018 believe that there exists in Parliament today a government which can emerge and deliver that? Even if you do think either of those things, could you bear it if the alternative won out – as a No Deal supporter, would you bear the consequence of voting down the WA being there was No Brexit, as a supporter of No Brexit, would you bear the consequence of a No Deal Brexit? Or is the imperfect compromise on offer in the WA better (however reluctantly and privately you may voice this ahead of going through the lobbies) than the outcome you most hate? We will find out very soon. So, here it is, what I think the Prime Minister should say if (or when) Parliament rejects the WA.
“Mr Speaker, the job of Prime Minister requires many attributes. On a day like today, the two most significant are the ability to face the reality of uncomfortable truths and the ability to make hard choices about how to act when faced with them. The decision by this House to vote against the proposed Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration regarding the UK’s future relationship with the EU is one very uncomfortable truth for me and the Government I am honoured to lead. But it is not the only one which we must all in this place now face up to and it is not in itself a decision about the hard choice we must now all make about the future of the UK.
This Government has worked tirelessly to negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement over the last two years. I pay tribute to my Right Honourable friends, the current and former Secretaries of State for Exiting the EU, for their conscientious efforts in that regard, as I do also to the teams across Government and the Civil Service supporting their efforts. I regret that some Honourable and Right Honourable friends, on leaving Government, have on occasion affected an unawareness of the uncomfortable truths they knew full well while in office.
When I became Prime Minister and started the negotiations for Brexit, I said, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and that we must make a success of it. Since then, I have been clear that our approach to giving effect to the vote of the people of the UK in the 2016 referendum had to be to one which made a success of Brexit itself. Brexit is a process which will have a long impact on this nation whichever way it ultimately plays out. Nobody of conscience carrying out the role of Prime Minister could approach it as merely an instruction to leave the EU with no care for how that should in practice be effected and that is why there was an overwhelming majority in this House for seeking a negotiated agreement to exit the EU even among those who did not personally agree with the decision to do so.
Throughout, the aims we have had were clear and based on the reasons for the majority having voted for the UK to leave the EU. We would be ending free movement of people with the EU and regaining full control over immigration. We would be ensuring a continued close trading relationship with the EU while being free to make trade deals with the wider world. We would be acting in the interests of the whole of the UK by ensuring that there was no hard border between the UK and Ireland and no differential treatment of the different nations of the UK. We would be ceasing to be subject to the European Court of Justice. We would be regaining those aspects of our sovereignty which as members of the EU we had agreed to pool with the other Member States. I believed and continue to believe that the Withdrawal Agreement which this House has rejected satisfied all of those aims and would have enabled the UK to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 in an orderly and beneficial manner, giving effect, as promised, to the outcome of the referendum.
At each step of the process, this Government has worked tirelessly to maintain for itself and the country, the most flexibility possible to enable us to achieve the best available deal with the EU. This is why the Government contested the legal proceedings brought by Gina Miller. It is why it has at no stage done as some have recommended and dramatically flounced out of negotiations. It is also why we resisted to the fullest extent possible the application made to the Court of Justice regarding the unilateral revocability of the notification I made to the EU under Article 50. We have been steadfast in our commitment to negotiate an agreement to leave the EU even to the extent of having had to bear defeats along the way in defending that ideal and that approach.
I also said that ‘No Deal is better than a Bad Deal’. I continue to believe this. But the uncomfortable truth is that the deal which this House has decided to reject was not merely “not a Bad Deal” but a good deal which was far better for this country than No Deal. Another uncomfortable truth is that it is clear from the EU that it has no appetite for any further substantial negotiation and in particular that it will not negotiate any further concession or removal of the back stop. The reality which all in this House and the country must now face is that there is no other deal for the UK to exit the EU under. All alternative deals which may be conceived of, whether they involve seeking to join EFTA or some “different, social Europe” which never existed and is inconsistent with the nature of the EU must include provisions relating to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and so must either indefinitely extend the transition period or have a backstop provision. If there was one clear unifying thread for opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement from the debates before this House it is that any such indefinite backstop or extended transition would be unacceptable. It is therefore now impossible for any government to argue for any renegotiation of substance even if the EU were amenable to it because any form of new deal would founder on the same rocks.
So, as Prime Minister, I am left with the uncomfortable truth that no deal for Brexit will be acceptable to this House. But there is one further uncomfortable truth that some of my Honourable and Right Honourable friends must also face up to. No Deal Brexit, leaving the EU without any agreement with the EU as to the UK’s future relationship, is also not acceptable to this House or to many in the country away from this place.
Some have criticised me for not having planned for No Deal. They have breezily opined that it would be easy enough to manage, just as they thought that we could get an agreement with the EU just by turning up with a sunny disposition and a smile. However, as explained by my Right Honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, even if we just look at the NHS, the immediate impact of a No Deal Brexit, however much contingency planning and mitigation were to be put in place, would be substantial shortages of essential medicines. My Right Honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport has outlined the likelihood of at best 6 months of logjam at our sea ports. Some in this House may look to Venezuela for inspiration for another way of doing things and bearing material privations in basic goods for some greater ideological aim, but I cannot in conscience say that I do. The uncomfortable truth is that the reality of No Deal Brexit is not a reality that most ordinary people in the country would want to have to bear. And nor should they. This is not World War 2. There is no murderous dictatorship raining bombs on our civilian population to unify ordinary people in the desire to dig for victory and sacrifice their health and services to winning the war. This is not Project Fear but reality.
This then leaves me with a hard choice. In the circumstances, an easy choice would be to conduct my own personal Brexit and leave this to someone else to deal with. That would be cowardly. I hope that it is clear that I am no coward.
Another easy choice would be to call for another referendum. But that would merely prolong things and leave the country in a state of uncertainty. I would hope that in a second referendum, the country would agree that the Withdrawal Agreement is, for the reasons I have given many times to this House and in the country, the best and only way to secure a Brexit which provides for the bright future the country deserves. But were they to do so, there is no guarantee that this House, where the nation’s practical sovereignty resides would agree.
Therefore, with regret, I propose that I should exercise the power still available to the UK as a sovereign nation, and in the interests of all, notify the EU of our revocation of the notice given under Article 50. In order to do this expeditiously, my Right Honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU will forthwith introduce before this House a Bill which will provide for a statutory basis for that decision. Further Bills will subsequently be introduced to reverse the legislation for Brexit already enacted. In addition, my Right Honourable friend, the Home Secretary, will publish a White Paper on the future management of migration to the UK within the context of the UK continuing to be a Member State of the EU.”