SPEECH ON EUROPEAN UNION (WITHDRAWAL ACT)

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth).

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), I was a remainer, but I am a democrat and 72% of my constituents voted to leave. Oddly enough, 10 months later some 60% or so voted for me, but they did that because they thought I would be part of a Government who would deliver on their wishes.

The withdrawal agreement ticks so many of the boxes demanded by the British public and my constituents in 2016: we regain control of our borders, we protect jobs, we will no longer be sending vast amounts of cash to bolster the European budget, and we will be able to strike free trade deals across the globe—hurrah. Like many others, however, I have serious concerns about one particular thing: the backstop. I know, having spent most of the last fortnight speaking to residents in my area—I held a rumbustious open meeting last Saturday—that my constituents share these concerns.

As we all know, the Attorney General conceded earlier this week that there is no unilateral right for either party to terminate the backstop, so if no superseding agreement on our future relationship can be reached during the transition, the backstop would be activated and would subsist even if negotiations break down. So what has been the point of the last two years of uncertainty ​and pain if, in the final analysis, we will still be under the dominion of the European Court of Justice? That, to my mind, is not taking back our sovereignty.

That is why I have tabled amendment (d), which will make the House’s approval contingent on the Government negotiating absolute guarantees within the withdrawal agreement, to ensure that a deal on our future relationship is in place, in full, before the transition ends. Such guarantees would negate the need for any backstop.

I do, of course, recognise that under article 184 both sides are required to use “best endeavours” to conclude an agreement, as far as is possible, before transition ends, but although that means that both sides must do everything in their power to reach an agreement, it does not impose a strict legal obligation. Some might say that the transition period is not long enough to conclude such an agreement, but I disagree, and the Government concur with my stance: the Secretary of State said that it is the Government’s ambition to have a deal concluded by July 2020. That will be a challenge, no doubt, but our negotiating teams have already achieved far more in a short space of time than any of us expected, or, quite frankly, have even given them credit for.

I am of the firm belief that a deal is doable during transition. After all, we all want to do a deal, on both sides of the channel. Therefore, in tabling my amendment I simply ask why we cannot have a guarantee that the agreement will be signed, thereby circumventing any backstop. Evidently, both sides are happy with “best endeavours”; in my view, however, best endeavours are not good enough, as they are not cast-iron.

I hope that colleagues will support my amendment, and should this deal fail to pass the House next week I hope that the Government will look closely at securing these guarantees. Moreover, I believe this change would also address the fears of my constituents, and those highlighted by my colleagues during this debate; and we would, at last, get this agreement over the line and find a way forward that delivers on the result of the referendum. The good people of the sunshine coast of Clacton want a good deal, so let us get this deal done and move towards a brighter future.

Watch the speech here.

Read the full debate here.