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A busy end to the Parliamentary Term

19th July 2018

The last week in Parliament has been one of the most intense and confusing of my entire time in the House, dealing with two Brexit Bills, the Taxation (Customs) Bill and the Trade Bill. Both are important for supporting our post Brexit economy.

These Bills were introduced as early as November 2017 and have been slowly making their way through the House, delayed by the general snail pace of Brexit proceedings. The first Bill provides for setting up customs arrangements with countries (including the EU) and the second provides essentially for “rolling over” to the UK, the 40 or so Free Trade Agreements that the EU has with some 70 third countries.

For the last few months, there have been two key areas of political contention on these Bills. The first related to the, so called, Henry VIII provisions which meant that the government could push future changes to the law through without parliamentary scrutiny. So, for instance, if an existing third country was to negotiate a roll-over with the UK of an existing EU FTA, it might agree to do this but only if the UK included thousands of visas into the bargain. That this could be pushed through by Ministers, without parliamentary scrutiny would clearly be unacceptable. I tabled amendments to introduce scrutiny to such proposals and, after several months of negotiations, the government tabled some 40 amendments which will do exactly that.

The second issue concerned a debate over the best trading relationships to have with the EU post Brexit. Unfortunately for a number of reasons the government had been unable, until a couple of weeks ago, to determine its policy towards our future relationship with the EU post Brexit. My personal position has always been that, if we are to leave, the best scenario would be to join a customs union of some variety, with the EU and remain in the Single Market. To that end I signed amendments, months ago, supporting the position that the UK stay in “the” or “a” customs union.

In the event, things were superceded by the government finally agreeing a policy position on Brexit, as represented in its White paper. This does not support a customs union but, instead, a Facilitated Customs Arrangement policy. This is designed to enable us to trade freely with the EU whilst also striking new trade agreements with third countries. The White Paper has a range of other policies aimed at maximising light regulation and trade with the EU post Brexit, including almost full access to the single market for manufactured goods. To be frank, this was not my ideal position and I remain concerned on a number of issues not least the position for services. However, I accepted that the White Paper does represent a fair and rational offer to the EU that is light years better than the Brexiteer version of a WTO based hard Brexit that would be so damaging for our jobs and future prosperity.
With this in mind, I decided to support the government and not to support the customs union amendments. Furthermore, I remain strongly of the opinion that our best option is to support the White Paper and the Prime Minister’s negotiations.

However, this still raised the question as to what would happen in the event that the government negotiations on the White Paper are to fail; for instance if they were to be rejected by the EU. Keep in mind also that the hard line Brexiteers have publicly rejected the White Paper and wish to see it rejected. In that scenario, I voted to say that if the government initiatives fail then they should support a customs union. My consideration was that the “wait and see” approach favoured by the government was aimed more at placating the Party’s Brexiteers than what is right. The problem is that the existing default position is that we leave the EU in March next year: whether we have a deal or not. For those of us, such as myself, who feel that leaving without a deal would be a disaster, a fall-back position is therefore needed.

In the meantime the hardline Brexiteer ERG group tabled four amendments to the Bills. Two of these were uncontentious, but the other two could be called “wrecking” amendments. In the event, these were carried. I see problems: firstly with the legality of the amendments, i.e. they don’t work, secondly with their undermining of the government’s policy position as set out in the White Paper and thirdly with their creation of further negotiation red lines. This at a time when we have only some three months to go until we are meant to be signing the deal with the EU. Despite the government being bullied into accepting the amendments, after the ERG threatened to destroy the whole Bill, I did not feel that I could do the same and voted accordingly.

Finally, I reply to those that accuse me of being a ‘rebel’. The fact is that anyone who has taken a consistent position on Brexit, as I believe I have, will at some point have taken a position at variance with the government. For instance, in December I voted against the government in defence of parliamentary scrutiny and was a rebel. On Tuesday the government accepted the principle behind my amendments on the same issue so I was not a rebel.

Likewise, before the White Paper there were those that alleged that my policy position was rebellious. However now that the Government policy White Paper is out and is accepted by me I am mainstream and the Brexiteers who don’t support it are the rebels. What I would say is that the only way not to be called a rebel would be for me to remain seated and detached on the backbenches saying nothing and watching things happening in front of me. However, that would probably elicit complaints that I was doing nothing. So, I shall remain consistent and engaged in this key issue for our country’s future.

At the end of this very busy Parliamentary session there are still many issues to be dealt with before Brexit but, by hook or by crook, the government have so far delivered their Brexit Bills and put in place a policy position for negotiations and we should acknowledge this achievement. The key objective, over the summer recess must be to support the Prime Minister and her White Paper as negotiations start with the EU. Getting the best deal for the UK must now be of overriding concern.

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