European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Tuesday 31 January 2017

It was the country’s first woman Prime Minister—this may of course arouse the ire of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—who said:

“In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

I am extremely pleased that our current Prime Minister is in place, because she is taking on an unbelievably difficult task and delivering it with intellect, grace and clarity. She has made it very clear to this House, regardless of how we campaigned or voted, what the process and the timetable will be, and for that I am truly grateful.

The quote in this case is a little incorrect, because it has been men and women, over many years, who have debated endlessly in this place and elsewhere the European question—something that was a monumental talking point when I first came to this place. Rather confusingly, the debate did not seem to include talking about the issues that face this country and that will continue to face this country after our departure from the European Union, our puzzling and troubling productivity gap in British industry, our lack of skills, our lack of investment ​in education, our problems with the low savings rate that mean that families have so little to fall back on and that the country has very little to draw on for investments going forward. Suddenly on 23 June, we all went from talking to doing. I totally agree with hon. Members that this is not the place to re-run either the referendum or the arguments—people will know that I was a remain supporter.

Like so many who have spoken today, I was appalled by the quality of the debate and of the conversations that took place. We were asking the country to make a very profound decision on the basis of slogans. Extremely complicated questions and trade-offs were boiled down into a single yes or no question. The whole issue was spiced up with anti-immigration rhetoric. I am sorry for hon. Members who believe that that was not what the leave campaign represented. I thought that the breaking point poster of people wanting to come into this country was a particularly low point in the debate. The conversation was also sullied by misrepresentation over funding. We have debated today the £350 million and the £100 million or whatever it was. On foreign policy, what has happened to those conversations about Turkey, which, if we listened to many Members who were campaigning for a certain side, was lined up to join the EU?

Equally, I accept that it was the remain side that gave us project fear. We were not given positive measures on which to campaign. What about staying connected or staying relevant in the world, rather than frightening people with theoretical models, which, thanks to quantitative easing and an interest rate cut, have yet to come true?

Since the referendum result, the Government, ably led by our Prime Minister, have taken the pragmatic approach that we are where we are and that what we need is strength and leadership. As the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said earlier, the major problem facing us and representatives of other western democracies is a crisis of trust in our institutions and politicians. Therefore I will, like so many others, vote with the Government tomorrow night to support the triggering of article 50.

We will never be able to prove the counterfactual: what would have happened if we had not voted to leave, without the depreciation in currency and the changes already happening in the European Union. I, for one, feel ill-informed about this debate. I went back to the debates held in this House at the time when we joined the EU, which started with the publication of a White Paper in 1967 and ended with the referendum in 1975. I have read the speeches given by Charles Morrison, my predecessor but one, who contributed to those debates; he was an arch-European, I am pleased to say. He was given the opportunity to take part in extensive debates over six White Papers in the formation of a manifesto for the 1970 election and in multiple conversations with Parliament.

Indeed, the White Paper presented by the Heath Government in 1971 reported back on the progress of negotiations that had been made until that point between the British Government and members of the then small European Economic Community, and set out what areas still needed to be discussed. Compared with my predecessor, I do not feel well informed about the process and the trade-offs for the British economy. I refute wholeheartedly the idea that people voted one way or another in the referendum based on some perfect ​knowledge of all the facts. I sat through many a hustings in which my opponents said, “It’s not for us to define what leave looks like. You’re the Government—it’s your job. We just know that we want to be out.” Everybody’s view of Brexit is slightly different.

As we near the end of the two-year process, how do we assure ourselves and our constituents that we are making the right decision? First, I urge the Government to be as open and transparent as possible and to bring forward the White Paper before the Bill goes into Committee. When we get to the end of the process and there is a binary offer—we will be either in some form of relationship with the European Union or not—I ask the Government to say what the economic consequences of those deals look like. We cannot possibly sit down and make an assessment of what a free trade world—or, indeed, a relationship with the EU, plus or minus any economic contribution we would be asked to make—might look like without understanding the implications for our country. Perhaps we have made a good decision for all the wrong reasons, but I do not yet feel that we have the right information to justify that to the country.