11th January 2019

Sir Nicholas’s Speech in the Debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

Debate on the European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Friday, 11 January 2019

House of Commons


I agree very strongly with the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) in what she said about the tone of this debate, and I propose to say something about that. I also agree that this debate takes place as we approach a sombre and important moment in the history of our country. I must, however, take issue with her, respectfully, about the disappointingly inept intervention of Sir Richard Dearlove and Lord Guthrie on the question of security. I have taken careful advice on what they said, and looked into it extremely carefully, and I believe that their intervention is not only incorrect, but also inappropriate. I deeply regret it.

We have known many worse times in this country, and some more dangerous times, but as the right hon. Lady rightly said, not since the war have this House and this Parliament faced a more important moment. It is incumbent on us, and it is our duty, to recover our sense of proportion, and restore some dignity, reason and calm to this debate, both inside and outside the House. I very strongly sense that the country is fed up with this debate and desperate for us to come to an agreement, and for their Parliament finally to rise to the occasion and see the country right. In my speech to this House on 6 December I made plain, and I do so again, that I was a staunch remainer, and I believe that our wonderful country has made an historically bad decision. I also believe very strongly that the decision that was made in the referendum of 2016 to leave the European Union must be honoured.

I am genuinely proud to speak in this debate as a Member of Parliament for 35 years, a Privy Counsellor, a former officer in the British Army, and a loyal servant and subject of the Queen. I say that because, like many other Members, I hate being regularly called a “traitor” in correspondence and elsewhere. It is necessary for the language surrounding this debate to calm down, and for more respect and dignity to govern our debate, not necessarily in this House, which should be, and is, robust, but particularly outside where, as the right hon. Lady rightly said, we have seen the most disgraceful behaviour towards Members of Parliament, journalists and especially—because we can take it—towards members of the public.

What we are discussing is but the beginning of a long journey. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said in a very good speech to wind up the debate the other night:

“The withdrawal agreement is the unavoidable gateway whether to a Canadian, a Norwegian or a Chequers destination”.—[Official Report, 9 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 500.]

It is therefore essential that Parliament is not so wet and timid and lacking in will that it cannot find a sufficient consensus to move forward on this first step, and create the architecture and footings for future negotiations once we have become a third country.

I believe it would be quite wrong to postpone the article 50 deadline, and that the House must be prepared to earn the undying contempt of the country if it simply does not have the collective will, discipline and sense of duty to come to an agreement. The House has before it a sensible compromise agreement. Inevitably, it is not to everyone’s taste, but it has been drafted with the greatest care and agreed between all members of the European Union, in order to manage Britain’s exit from the EU with the least possible disruption, while allowing progress and further steps down the road to the good neighbourly relations that we all want in the very different future that lies ahead.

In my judgment, the outcome is plain and clear and staring us in the face, whatever might be our favourite solution. If the House votes against the one compromise proposal on the table, it will with absolute certainty be voting for chaos, with the outcome very likely to be the precise opposite of what it intended. I remind the House that this compromise is the only agreement on offer, and to try to reopen it risks losing even that. I therefore urge the House to take into account that our exit from the EU will take a long time, and I think we should be clearer and franker with the public. We cannot expect arrangements and institutions that have grown together side by side in the interests of all over 45 years, to be separated at one go without grievous damage to each side. It therefore remains my view that the Prime Minister’s plan has carefully and cleverly managed to try to separate Britain from the European Union—45 years of earnest combined endeavour and legislation—with, miraculously, minimal damage to both sides. We must keep it that way, for it is, if only we can grasp it, a golden prize given the circumstances. I must say to my right hon. and hon. Friends and to my many friends on the other side of the House that it would be extremely ill-judged to throw it away. It would, above all, be totally contrary to our national interest.

My late father, a former Member of this House and for a time the Leader of the other place, once said of these debates that if politics is the art of the possible, the art of the statesman must be to make possible that which is necessary. It is my judgment from talking to colleagues on both sides of the House that the real national consensus is for the deal on the table, warts and all, if only we can get there. We should realise that this really should no longer be a party political matter. The public rightly expect us to work together across party lines to achieve a conclusion to this massive problem. Members should be able to see that this is a prospect toward which there can be a gradual advance, with the current compromise deal a good first step.

I conclude by saying again that I am deeply and genuinely sad that our extraordinary country has reached this sorry pass. I feel very strongly that we must not reject this agreement and thus descend into constitutional and, I am afraid, administrative chaos. I am very strongly against what would be a divisive, poisonous and hateful second referendum campaign, and I believe Parliament must do its duty here and now, and come to an agreement.

Let us agree among ourselves. This country is not an island on its own; it is a proud nation, whose success has always been derived from the wider world. Our history and geography have given us great advantages. Our language is the way the world communicates. Our capital is one of the greatest cities in the world, and people in every other international and domestic forum listen to the views of this country because of our great experience and expertise. We really should have the confidence to press on, to cease this appalling and pointless arguing, much of it on the head of a pin, and to preserve and enhance the cohesion, unity and stability of our country. We are a humane, liberal-minded, tolerant, moderate nation, so let us now push on with the task at hand and show our electors and the world the kind of spirit and judgment they rightly expect from us.

Vol. 652
No. 232
Col. 711-713





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