I voted today for the EU (Future Relationship) Bill and I wanted to set out in detail for my constituents why I ultimately choose to do so.
For those of us who campaigned and voted in 2016 for the UK to stay in the EU, who fought tooth and nail for several years to prevent a hard Brexit and who worked in the last Parliament to secure a confirmatory referendum with the option to remain on the ballot paper, there is no question that today’s decision was a difficult one.
I have never doubted that continued membership of the EU is in Britain’s national interest and that any alternative arrangement between the UK and the EU would be inferior to our country’s full and active involvement in the union.
That said, there is no avoiding the painful truth that the argument about EU membership was lost decisively at the last general election. For that reason, I have long since reconciled myself to the fact that we have left the EU and that we therefore need to establish a comprehensive new UK-EU relationship.
Having waded through the bulk of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement over recent days, there is no doubt that the deal that the Government has reached with the EU27 is an incredibly thin one that will inevitably reduce UK economic growth over the long term. As such, while I share the widespread relief that an agreement was reached at the eleventh hour, this limited deal is certainly nothing to celebrate.
Even a cursory examination of its provisions makes clear that, among other things, it will damage the UK services sector, which accounts for 80 per cent of our economy; that it carries with it the permanent risk of tariffs for parts of the automotive and food sectors; that it fails to provide the kind of data adequacy agreement required by many UK businesses; that it weakens our security measures as a result of the loss of access to the SIS II database and the European Arrest Warrant; and that it fails to deliver on the expectations created among Britain’s fishing communities.
For that reason, I am clear in my mind that it will need to be significantly improved upon in the years ahead and I do not view my vote in favour of the legislation today as being at odds with that conviction.
After all, today’s vote was not an up-down one on the principle of whether or not one believes that the deal struck is a good one. It was a vote on legislation to enable the agreement that has been reached with our European partners to be implemented and ratified prior to the end of the Transition Period on 31 December.
In voting ‘aye’ this afternoon, in no way did I convey my support for the deal that Boris Johnson has negotiated nor vote simply to, as some have suggested, have done with the issue. I voted to signal, not least to my counterparts in Europe, my acceptance of the agreement reached as the foundation for a closer UK-EU relationship in the future given that the choice was between doing so and, in effect, voting to end the Transition Period without any agreement whatsoever.
Those who urged MPs to abstain prior to the vote today typically made one of two arguments. The first was that an abstention was cost-free because the Government’s majority would ensure that the agreement passed whatever the Official Opposition decided to do. The second was that voting to enable the agreement to be implemented and ratified will limit the Opposition’s ability to criticise it in future years. I took issue with both and will explain why.
In response to the argument that an abstention was, in effect, a choice without consequence, I would return to the nature of the vote itself which was, in essence, a binary decision between, on the one hand, the agreement reached with our European partners and, on the other, no agreement at all (i.e. trading with the EU from 1 January on WTO terms and an abrupt end to cooperation with the union in all others areas from that date). As Keir Starmer argued from the despatch box this morning, the truth is that all of those who voted against the Bill today, or abstained on it, did not want to see the outcome they voted for actually succeed; they simply wished for others to save them from their own vote and pay the political price of ensuring the international treaty reached between our country and the EU27 was approved. As such, while I fully respect those who in the end chose to abstain, I’m afraid I do not believe that it can necessarily be framed as the only principled choice as some have put to me over recent days.
In response to the argument that voting for the Bill will limit one’s ability to criticise the agreement in future years, I would respectfully disagree. There is no doubt in the public’s mind that the deal Parliament has approved today is Boris Johnson’s and his alone – “ownership” was not therefore, at least to my mind, the crux of the issue and I do not believe that an abstention, at this particular moment in time, was needed to establish the fact that this deal, and Brexit as a whole, has been a project driven by the Conservative Party. Nor am I at all convinced that voting to give effect from 1 January to an international treaty negotiated with our European partners will compromise my ability to continue to ruthlessly expose and contest the implications of the deal in the future. The amendments that the Opposition tabled today (none of which were, unfortunately, selected by the Speaker) set out the broad contours of our critique of the deal and we will build upon that critique in the months and years ahead.
Following the 2019 general election, I registered a principled objection against the Withdrawal Agreement struck by Boris Johnson (rather than merely abstaining) on the basis that, in part, I believed other options were available.
But the truth is that the context felt very different to me today owing to the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, the fact there are less than 48 hours until the end of the Transition Period and given that there are now no other options left.
For me, today’s vote was not about which, if any, voters might value a particular approach come the next general election but what was in the national interest at this moment in time as we stare down the barrel of the worst recession in three centuries and millions unemployed.
Johnson’s deal is undoubtedly worse than the deal we enjoyed as members of the EU but that was not the issue in question today. The choice we faced was a simple one, namely whether we should approve legislation to enable the agreement that has been reached with our European partners to be implemented and ratified.
As inadequate as the deal is, it is better than ending the Transition Period without an agreement and provides the foundation for a much closer relationship with the EU in the future.
For all the reasons above, albeit with a heavy heart, I voted in favour of the Bill today but I am clear that the Government own this threadbare agreement and its consequences and I will seek every opportunity in the years ahead to drive home that fact.