Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  4:08 pm, 22nd October 2019 

It is a pleasure to follow Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I give her and her party credit for consistency. No one has ever been in any doubt about where they stand on Europe. Unfortunately, that is not the case for the Labour party, whose leader, as my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith has already pointed out, supported leaving the EU for a long time, fought an election on the wish to respect the result of the referendum and said consistently that a second referendum was out of the question.

Members will be aware that Kevin Brennan was forced to abandon his 60th birthday party as a result of the House sitting on a Saturday. The House may not be aware that he and I were born on precisely the same day and that, as a result of the programme motion, I have now postponed my own 60th birthday party. However—unlike, I suspect, the hon. Gentleman—I regard that as a small price to pay, and one that I am very willing to pay, if the result is that we get Brexit done.

Members have said that the Bill is being rushed through, and that there has not been time to look at it properly. I have been privileged to serve as a member of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union since 2016, and we have spent an awful lot of time scrutinising the process by which the UK will leave the European Union. We looked at the withdrawal agreement as originally proposed by my right hon. Friend Mrs May, and, of course, we have taken numerous sessions of evidence for the purpose of further examination.

As was pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, many parts of this withdrawal agreement are similar to what was presented by the previous Prime Minister. The major differences between the agreement that we are considering today and the previous one are the changes that have been made, first, to the Northern Ireland protocol, and secondly to the political declaration and the direction of travel for our future trading agreements.

Like the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Leader of the House and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, I did not support the Government in the first two meaningful votes, but I did support them in the third, because I wanted us to fulfil the promise that had been made that we would leave the European Union by 29 March.

Photo of Bill CashBill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I just wondered whether my right hon. Friend was aware that the provisions relating to parliamentary sovereignty and those dealing with the protection of vital national interests, both of which are included in this Bill, would not have appeared in the previous Bill.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I was about to say why I regarded this Bill as being a considerable improvement on the previous agreement, and he is right to point that out. The agreement that we are considering this afternoon does address the principal concerns that a number of us had, particularly about the so-called backstop and the risk that this country could be locked indefinitely into membership of the customs union, which would prevent us from achieving one of the great prizes offered by Brexit, the ability to negotiate our own trading agreements.

Photo of Sylvia HermonSylvia Hermon Independent, North Down

I am enormously grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. He has mentioned that the Prime Minister’s new deal contains very different provisions for Northern Ireland. They are particularly different, and very complex, in the context of the new consent arrangements. That being the case, why on earth does the Bill to which we are being asked to give a Second Reading not contain a single sentence explaining those very complex consent mechanisms?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I have heard the hon. Lady express those concerns, I have heard them expressed by our friends in the Democratic Unionist party and I take them seriously. The Prime Minister gave an assurance that these measures were transitory, and that they would be self-dissolving after a certain period. I hope that he will continue to talk to the hon. Lady and to colleagues in the Democratic Unionist party, and will assure them that that is the case. Obviously I hear what she says about the Bill, and I hope that she can receive an assurance on that point.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

If my right hon. and learned Friend will forgive me, I feel that I must press on.

As I was saying, I believe that this is an improvement on what we were offered before, but there are still elements that I do not like. I am not happy with the idea that, for 15 months we will be, in the words of the Leader of the House, essentially a vassal state, taking orders from the European Union without being able to vote on them, and continuing to pay in. I am willing to pay that price as long as there is a clearly defined end point after which we will be free to set our own rules and to reach the trading agreements that I want to see, and no longer subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I must press on.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on having defied all the sceptics. My right hon. Friend Rory Stewart, sitting next to me, at least has had the grace to say that he was wrong when he said that the Prime Minister could never reach a new deal with the European Union. There are others in the Chamber who said that repeatedly but who have been less honest in now accepting that.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I must press on if my hon. Friend will forgive me.

I do believe, however, that, as my right hon. Friend Sir David Lidington said, the European Union has reopened this deal once but it is not going to do so again. When I and my colleagues in the Exiting the European Union Committee—its Chairman, Hilary Benn, is sitting opposite me—have been to see Mr Barnier, Mr Selmayr and Mr Verhofstadt, they have all asked us, “What is it that will get a majority in the House of Commons?” That is what they have wanted to know. That is what I hope we will be able to show them tonight.

There is no question about it: the European Union is as fed up with this dragging on as I think the entire United Kingdom is. It wants to get the matter settled. To be honest, those who vote against tonight will, I suspect, find fault in whatever deal is put forward; actually, their agenda is stopping Brexit. This represents an opportunity finally to settle this matter and to deliver what the people voted for now coming on three and a half years ago. I hope that the House will—at last—vote in favour of the deal that is before us and in favour of the programme motion in order that we can get it delivered and fulfil the promise by 31 October.