Following this week’s events in the House of Commons I thought it would be useful to update you on where we are in the Brexit process. If you contacted me directly on a specific aspect, such as the Taxation (Cross-Border) Bill or Vote Leave breaking electoral law you may want to skip straight to that particular section of the update. As I have received a significant number of emails on Brexit on related subjects, I have covered them all in this update.
Almost eighteen months after the Government triggered Article 50 they finally met at Chequers to formulate a position on the UKs negotiating strategy with the EU.
You can view the full Chequers agreement here but the main points are:
- Free trade area (single market) for goods BUT NOT services
- Customs regime that would involve the UK collecting import taxes at UK borders on behalf of the EU
- The UK will seek active participation (but not membership) in the European Aviation Safety Agency, the European Chemicals Agency and the European Medicines Agency
- End to freedom of movement but indications there could be more preferential treatment for EU nationals post-Brexit
It is of course to be welcomed that the Chequers White Paper took a slightly more pragmatic approach than the Prime Minister had been indicating up till now. However, there are still aspects of this deal which will decimate sectors of the UK economy. In relation to services, the PM’s refusal to stay in the Single Market means that the services sector, which is so important to Edinburgh and makes up 80% of the UK economy, is not included.
Even these small concessions to reality have been too much for many Brexiteers including David Davis and Boris Johnson, who have both resigned from Government. Since then there has been a slow drip of minor resignations of junior ministers and parliamentary secretaries. The hard-liners have been obsessed by the European issue for their entire careers, it is remarkable that none of them have come up with a practical plan on how to leave.
Fundamentally, it remains the case that the Government’s red lines on ‘no hard border on the island of Ireland’ and ‘the exact same benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union’ are impossible to meet whilst leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. The Government has spent 2 years arguing with itself, only to come up with a plan that has fallen apart after a week, will not get through the EU and doesn’t include the vast majority of the economy.
You can watch my question to the Prime Minister on her Chequers agreement here.
Taxation (Cross-Border) Bill
On Monday night Parliament debated the Taxation (Cross-Border) Bill, which is basically a customs bill. Fresh from their disappointment at the Chequers agreement the group of hard-line Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) tabled four amendments to this piece of legislation. Two of the amendments in particular were wrecking amendments (NC36 and amendment 73), as there aim was to render the Chequers agreement all but irrelevant by directly contradicting it.
Specifically, one of the amendments required the EU to reciprocate the collection of import taxes for the UK Government. A measure which the ERG know the EU cannot agree to.
You can watch my speech on the Bill here.
The Government caved to these amendments by the ERG knowing full well it would totally undermine its negotiating position. The Government majority was wafer thin: winning the vote 305 to 302. Government Defence Minister, Guto Bebb, resigned and walked through the opposition lobby to vote against the ERG amendments. Thirteen other Conservative MPs voted against the Government but it was not quite enough to inflict a defeat. The consequence of accepting these ERG amendments is that the Chequers Agreement is now dead a week after it was published.
We are at the stage where the Prime Minister’s desperation to stay in office is a real danger to the country. Instead of facing down the Brexiteers she rolled over and increased the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit by kneecapping her own negotiating position.
I had my own amendments and sponsored dozens of others to this Bill and I will continue to work with like-minded colleagues, from all parties and none, to try and find a way through this Brexit mess.
Last night the Trade Bill had its Report Stage and Third Reading in Parliament. I sponsored a cross-party amendment to the Bill which would have forced a customs union backstop into the Bill if no deal with the EU was concluded by the end of January next year. This would have required the Government, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to negotiate a customs union with the European Union.
Unfortunately, after some underhand tactics by the Conservative whips and a few missing MPs for opposition parties alongside 4 Labour rebels, we lost the vote 307 to 301. This again brings us closer to the no-deal Brexit that many on the hard right of the Conservative Party secretly crave.
In better news, a cross party amendment requiring the Government to keep the UK in the EU Medicines Agency was passed by 305 to 301. It is simply astonishing that the Government whipped MPs to oppose this amendment given that the consequences could be that vital medicines would be prevented from entering the UK.
In terms of trade transparency, the Government proposed amendments to the Bill to give limited trade transparency and those were passed without a vote. The New Clause 3 to extend these proposals was lost and the other backbench amendments by Tory MP Jonathon Djanogly were not pressed to a vote.
Again, I had my own amendments and sponsored dozens of others to this Bill.
Vote Leave overspend
The recent Electoral Commission report which concluded that Vote Leave broke electoral law is extremely worrying. The watchdog said Vote Leave exceeded its £7m spending limit by funnelling £675,315 through pro-Brexit youth group BeLeave.
The founder of BeLeave, Darren Grimes, has been fined £20,000 and referred to the police, along with Vote Leave official David Halsall.
In a referendum that was won by just 4%, Vote Leave overspent by 10%.
There was Urgent Question in the House of Commons on this issue yesterday. You can watch the debate here. I was unable to get in to ask a question as the session had to be cut short due to a lack of parliamentary time. This was on the same day the Government was proposing to bring forward the summer recess by 2 days to save the Prime Minister from a leadership challenge. This proposal was dropped after the Government realised they couldn’t get it through the House of Commons.
While the Electoral Commission focuses on the officials involved, let’s not forget who publicly fronted this despicable campaign: it was senior Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Johnson has already done a runner from government, cowardly refusing to take responsibility for the tens of thousands of jobs he is willing to sacrifice on the altar of ‘independence’ for Britain, but Gove is still there. Their own personal ambitions to get the keys to Number 10 ahead of the country.
Both of these senior Conservatives must come clean about what they knew and apologise to the voters.
Theresa May’s allies, the new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, Liam Fox, Chris Grayling and Andrea Leadsom, also sat on the Vote Leave campaign committee and must be held to account.
This is the biggest political scandal of our times. With parliament in chaos, there is only one solution: the decision on leaving the EU must be put back in the hands of the people.
It’s time for a People’s Vote on Brexit, and – this time – those who want to destroy jobs and livelihoods will not be allowed to cheat their way to victory by breaking the law.
I will continue to fight for a People’s Vote, and if Brexit actually happens, the softest possible Brexit – protecting jobs and the economy. I will of course continue to keep you update on this hugely important issue.