On Tuesday, MPs will at last vote on the deal reached between the UK Government and the European Union, made up of two documents: the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the Political Declaration (PD).
The WA is the legally binding document setting out the terms of our exit from the EU, and covers things like the protection of EU citizens’ rights, and the transition period where we remain in the single market and customs union.
The PD is a non-binding document, which sets out the framework of our future relationship with the EU. It is the more important of the two documents, in my view.
I set out my thoughts on both, and my voting intention, below.
The Withdrawal Agreement
I am broadly content with the WA, but am concerned by the ‘Northern Irish backstop’. This is the mechanism to provide an open border with the Republic, and will kick in if we have failed to find another solution by December 2020.
Under the backstop, the U.K. will remain in the EU customs union, and additional single market rules will apply to NI. The rest of the U.K. can continue to apply them too, or it could choose not to, resulting in divergence between GB and NI. This has the potential to build a regulatory border in the Irish Sea (beyond that which already exists), albeit in areas where divergence is incredibly unlikely (such as industrial goods standards, where the Rules have been pretty much the same for 30 years).
I am satisfied that the backstop will not create any new material differences between GB and NI on day 1, but it provides a mechanism for those differences to come into place and deepen.
The Prime Minister has given a commitment not to allow divergence which I welcome, but there is no guarantee as to how long the backstop will operate. We will be in a constant political battle between loosening ties with the EU and with it NI, or keeping our country aligned and failing to “take back control” in a variety of areas.
The thought of a Labour Government led by Jeremy Corbyn in office for any period the backstop is operating is chilling for me as a Unionist, given his longstanding views on Irish reunification.
Given none of us can see into the future, I am deeply concerned that the backstop does not futureproof the Union in the long-term if we find ourselves using it for more than a couple of years.
However, the fact is that without a backstop there is no deal, and if there’s no deal, there’s no transition period.
I have therefore been continuing to lobby Government ministers to seek one change to the backstop – ensuring that regulatory divergence between NI and GB needed the consent of the NI Assembly and Executive.
There will be areas where NI would likely wish to follow new EU rules, for example to protect the single Irish energy market, but with a ‘lock’ that could not be imposed over the heads of the politicians and institutions of Northern Ireland.
I am pleased that a commitment to this was announced by the Government today, although I will press on whether this can be strengthened beyond introducing domestic legislation and be incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement in some way.
The Political Declaration
Despite being fleshed out in the week before the deal was finalised, the PD is very thin, and provides no clear pathway for what our future relationship will look like. It aims at a looser relationship than I would like, and certainly looser than the Government proposed at Chequers. The PD does not provide for a future relationship based on truly frictionless trade and simply kicks the can down the road on all major issues until the middle of 2020.
This means months of further argument within the U.K. on all these points, before we even start negotiating with the EU, and no clarity or certainty of where we will end. And we will have less leverage. Just as we extrapolated concessions from countries as they joined the EC after us, so too will member states look to secure their priorities as we leave. We must be much better prepared and more strategic in our approach to future negotiation, as that really is the most important part.
Which brings me to fish. We would need a new fisheries agreement with the EU regardless of the sort of Brexit we have. An agreement covering access and quotas is what Norway and Iceland have too. The point is we will be negotiating on an annual basis ourselves as an independent coastal state, with ultimate control of who fishes where, for what, and for how much.
What would be unacceptable, and unprecedented, would be to link that fisheries agreement to the terms of the broader trade deal, or make continued guaranteed access a condition of tariff-free trade in seafood.
The Prime Minister has given strong and comprehensive assurances on this issue, and has received the backing of the industry as a result.
I believe that the deal the Prime Minister has reached is the best deal that could have been achieved, and I do not believe this achievement should be understated.
This deal is a compromise. It is not the deal I wanted, but its acceptance would bring some certainty and allow us to move to the next phase. It achieves many of the things the EU said were not on the table – a bespoke arrangement that maintains industrial tariffs at zero, keeps us closely aligned, but without the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Cherries have been picked, cake has been eaten.
It is a risk to vote it down in the hope that something better materialises. My inbox has been full of constituents asking me to roll the dice to get what outcome they want – “vote it down, take the gamble, push for no deal/second referendum/a myriad of other options”.
But there is a fundamental difference between how an MP should approach this from the individual getting in touch. It isn’t about rolling the dice for you, or for me. It isn’t about whether you or I can afford for the gamble not to come off and end up somewhere worse. An MP has to make that call for every person they represent, where there are wildly different views and personal circumstances. And many people across East Renfrewshire simply can not afford for me to take a gamble with their lives that doesn’t pay off.
If I were to vote against the deal, and no better alternative came to pass, meaning we simply drifted over the cliff edge in March, I would feel personally responsible for the economic impact on your family and community that would result. I will not be complicit in that, and so with no great enthusiasm, I have to support the deal.
A vote against the deal is not a vote to stop Brexit, or else so many Conservative MPs wouldn’t be in such a rush to reject it.
It seems almost certain the deal will fall in the Commons. So what happens next is at the forefront of my mind.
Let’s be clear – I will not support a no deal Brexit.
My preferred outcome remains that of the Better Brexit campaign (www.betterbrexit.org.uk), and remaining in the EEA as a member of EFTA with a bespoke customs protocol to protect the position in Northern Ireland. It would keep us in the single market, and remove any risk of ‘trading-off’ fisheries. Some say it leaves us a rule-taker. But the reality is that you always have to observe the standards of the market you are exporting to, and our businesses still want to export to the EU. The policy has been well explained in a recent paper: ‘Common Market 2.0’ by the Labour MP Lucy Powell, and Conservative Robert Halfon on behalf of the Norway Plus Group of MPs (of which I am one), setting out why it will safeguard jobs, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, allow more money to be spent on our public services and can help begin to reunite our deeply divided country. You can read it here.
We will need the WA, despite its flaws (though the risk of us relying on eg the backstop will be significantly less), because we will need some of the transition period. But it is a clearer, cleaner, better suited destination for our nation. It removes the confusion and uncertainty of the current PD, and provides an established framework – out of the political institutions of the EU but retaining the principles at the heart of why we joined: a common market.
So when it comes to voting, I will vote in the manner that seeks, in the first instance, a sensible and orderly exit from the EU, and sets us on a pathway to a future relationship that works for East Renfrewshire and every part of our United Kingdom. I will vote in the manner that I consider to be in the best interests of this great nation. That is the only way I’ll be able to come home from Westminster and look my constituents (and my children) in the eye, knowing I did what I felt was right for their futures.
My election was not primarily the result of a promise to honour the Brexit vote (either locally or nationally), but of a promise to protect the Union. And in my view, the greatest threat to the Union is a chaotic, no deal Brexit. So if the deal does fall, my message to the people of East Renfrewshire is quite simple: no option is off the table when it’s comes to avoiding a no deal Brexit.
And so whilst I may have a preference as to what happens if the deal is voted down by Parliament, I will re-evaluate my position as matters unfold with an open mind. I believe the Prime Minister should call a series of indicative votes on various options, and allow these to take place a free vote.
You can watch my speech in the video above.