Government’s EU Exit Analysis: 31st January 2018

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)

Keir Starmer
I will give way in one minute, but may I just finish this point?

Having been a civil servant for five years and having engaged in risk assessments, I can say that the purpose of the exercise is to identify the risk, the size of the risk, and the likelihood of the risk. The fourth column, which is always the really important one, is what the Government will do to mitigate the risk. That is why these risk assessments are so important.

Vicky Ford
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. I agree with him on the important work of the civil service. Many real stakeholders, including the digital industry, the banking industry and the legal services industry, have come to me this week to say what a good job our civil service is doing in preparing for the Brexit negotiations. My understanding of this paper is that it suggests that the no-deal scenario is not very attractive and that cutting and pasting the Canada or the Norway deal is also not very attractive, but that is not what the Government are proposing. Does he not agree that it would be better if our Ministers got out of this House, on with their work and deliver a better deal?

Keir Starmer
I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Lady will remember that one question I asked of the Minister yesterday was whether the model that the Government are pursuing has also been subjected to an impact assessment. I did not actually get any of the questions that I asked—I asked about six—answered or even addressed by the Minister yesterday. I hope that some of them might be addressed later on today.

Anna Soubry
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Can he help us with this: has he established the status of these documents? From what I gather, these were not some loosely put together drafts of a document. Has he been able to establish whether these are the documents that were to be made available to members of the Cabinet—next week, I think, if not this week—under lock and key and subject to them not making notes? This is really important. Are these documents the ones that were deemed to be of such importance that the Cabinet should see them?

Keir Starmer
I am grateful for that intervention. I will answer it, and make a second point as I do so. This is a really important point. The second line of defence that was used and deployed yesterday for not releasing these documents was that they are not complete, they are at an early stage, and they are just evolving. As I recall it, that was exactly what was said about the first set of documents that we were trying to have released last year. We have heard that one before. I have not yet ascertained the status of the documents, but, as I understand it, they were being shown to key Ministers ahead of an important Cabinet Brexit sub-committee meeting next week. No doubt, the Minister will be able to confirm that. If those documents are in such a form that they can be shown to Ministers to brief them for an important meeting next week, they are certainly way past the stage of an early script that has not been approved.

Anna Soubry
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have to say that, of all the Ministers, I think he does an outstanding job in exceptionally difficult circumstances. I thank him for the work he does. However, with bucket loads of respect, the Government cannot ​have it both ways. Either these are rather meaningless analysis documents that have not been done on any proper modelling and cannot be relied on and all the rest of it—in which case, publish the wretched things, because they are not of any value to right hon. and hon. Members—or they are indeed of great value and must be kept secret and highly confidential. Which one is it, because at the moment we do not know?

Mr Walker
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, as always, for her kind praise, but I think I have already answered the challenge she sets as to the reasons that some of the information in the report should be kept confidential. That is something on which the two Front-Bench teams clearly agree, because it is in the Opposition motion. I also just want to emphasise that the misrepresentation in some of the press reporting of this leak makes this an exceptional request that the Government agree to on an exceptional basis. They do not accept a precedent for future action.

Finally, it is also for those reasons that I believe that forcing the release of partial and preliminary analysis risks undermining the functioning of Government at a vital moment.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), although obviously I did not agree with much of what he said at the end of his speech.

I am delighted that the Government have had the good sense to agree to the motion. I am concerned about the circumstances in which these documents will now be made available, in some sort of secrecy, despite the fact that they can clearly be read on the internet. Why we are going through that farce, I do not know.

May I gently say to my Government, this madness has to stop. If we were in the middle of the summer, I might say that it was overexposure to a hot sun that seems to have caused a collective outbreak in the Government of a form of madness. Their inability to grasp Brexit and do the right thing, frankly, is now at a point where, as I say, it has got to stop. We have got to start to do the right thing; and the right thing is to get this Brexit sorted out, to form a consensus in this place and within the country, and deliver—deliver not just on the referendum result, but on the hopes and aspirations of our people that we will have an economic future out of the European Union that will be safe and secure for generations to come.

Geraint Davies
Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Anna Soubry
In a moment.

The reality of these documents, of course, is that finally it seems that our Government have decided they are actually going to make some choices; they are actually going to form a view in Cabinet. It has only taken 19 months since the referendum to work out what they want from Brexit.

The Prime Minister told us, in her Lancaster House speech, what she did not want, but what nobody in the Government—in the Cabinet—has told us is what this Government do want by way of Brexit. And if I am agitated—and I am—I can assure the Front Bench that whilst I think most of the people of this country are just fed up to the back teeth, the people of this country are also agitated, because they are worried and they are nervous. And being blunt, there are millions and millions of people in this country who do not believe that either of the two political parties in this country represent their views, and indeed will forward their views.

I see it in these terms. I think there is a group of people—the hard Brexiteers—and you are not going to change them. In my party, my Government believe that somehow they can “manage” the 35 hard Brexiteers, who for decades have been banging on about Europe in ​a way that I think is not, at times, particularly good for their mental health—and they think they can “manage” them. They cannot be managed. Even if they were given what they wanted today, they would complain that it had not been done yesterday. For many of them it is a battle to the death, and they will not hesitate to destroy this party or our Prime Minister to get what they want. They can see the prize and they will be damned if anybody is going to get in their way. The Government need to wake up to that reality. So we have that problem to cope with, and that is the way to deal with it: see it off, build a consensus, and jump into the middle ground and put this country’s interests before anything else. As the CBI said, “Goodbye ideology; wake up to the interests of our country.”

Over on the other side is a group of people who still want to fight the battle of the referendum—they are remainers, they are angry and they cannot and will not accept that we are leaving the European Union—but here in the middle is the majority of people. They are like corks, bobbing around in a sea. They feel queasy and uneasy, and they are worried about their own futures and their children and grandchildren’s futures, yet there is nobody for them—no thing, no vehicle coming along upon which they can jump; a big, warm ship that says to them, “Come on board. You’ve got a great captain at the wheel and we can see the land of our destination over there.” It might be Norway; it could be the European Free Trade Association—actually, I would like it to be the single market and the customs union, but hell, I will compromise. I will take EFTA. Why? Because I want to form a consensus to get the best thing for our country.

That is there, but at the moment there is nothing for people to get into that will save them from what, unless this madness stops, will undoubtedly be a catastrophe. Call it what you will—“walking off a plank” is how I think a noble Lord quite properly described it yesterday. Others have described it as “sleepwalking to a Brexit disaster” or “jumping over the cliff”. Whatever metaphor one wants to use, if this Government—and it can only be this Government—do not get a grip on the situation at the top, we will indeed walk into a Brexit nightmare.

Sir Desmond Swayne
My right hon. Friend said that the Prime Minister had not set out what she wanted. I contend that she has done precisely that. Of course it is arguable whether she will get it, but as for the boat that my right hon. Friend wants to welcome everybody on to, the Prime Minister has set that out.
Anna Soubry
With great respect to my right hon. Friend, that is absolute nonsense, and the good people of this country now require honesty and transparency. Some of us have been over to Brussels. Many people—right hon. and hon. Members, some of whom I can see on the Opposition Benches—have spoken to people at all levels of the 27 nations and to ambassadors from other countries. They have been over to Brussels and spoken to all manner of people, and no, we are not pleased. Don’t patronise; we are not stupid; we know when we are getting a line. We have spoken to disparate people, and every single one of them says, “Wake up, Britain. You’re not going to get a bespoke deal. You’re probably going to get Canada.”​

I do not want us to be like Canada. That is not what people in my constituency voted for. They did not vote to be poorer—and they would be poorer, God help us, if we got a Canadian deal. People have a right to know what the consequences of the various options are. The problem with the Prime Minister’s position is that she has told us what she does not want—the customs union, the single market and the European Court of Justice—and that has seriously reduced the options available to our country. By drawing those red lines and refusing to move, she puts the EU in a position whereby it is limited in what it can offer us. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) that we are deluding people if we continue to peddle this nonsense.

Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
The right hon. Lady is giving a passionate speech. The one thing that the Prime Minister has said she wants is to keep frictionless trade in Northern Ireland. The problem is that that is utterly irreconcilable with what she said she does not want, which is the single market and customs union. Therein lies the fundamental confusion that is causing so much difficulty in the country right now.

Anna Soubry
I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I nearly called him my Friend, although on this he is, because he is absolutely right. The agreement made in December between the European Union and ourselves is such a fudge that it is impossible to put it into a text that could become a treaty. It is a superb fudge, and it has delivered the political outcome, but the reality, which has been accepted by this Government, is that in order to solve the problem in Ireland we are staying in the—not “a”, but “the”—customs union and single market. That is what the Government basically agreed to do in December.

Alison McGovern
The right hon. Lady has hit on the heart of the problem, which is that the Government will not say what they want. However, turning to this issue, does she agree that the reason why the public are in the dark is that we have excellent independent economic forecasters in the Office for Budget Responsibility who say that they simply cannot do their job because we are all in the dark about what the Government actually want? Ought they not to rectify that?

Anna Soubry
The hon. Lady is quite right—she can be my Friend in this debate, because she makes an important point. What responsible Governments do, quite properly, is to say to impartial, objective officials, “Right, these are the options. Cost them out, or assess them, and so on and so forth,” and yet bizarrely the Government did not put forward their own preferred option. What on earth does that say about our Government’s position? What further evidence does anybody want that they have not worked out their position? They have got to do that, because at the end of March the European Union will publish what its position is going to be, and there is every chance that our Government will still be messing about, fighting off hard Brexiteers and not grasping the nettle and doing their duty by the country.

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
I have huge respect for the right hon. Lady on this issue. Does she agree that we would not be hearing any of this stuff about the reports being negotiation-sensitive if the Government could lay their hands on a single report that said there would be economic benefits to Brexit, rather than economic costs?
Anna Soubry
This is an astonishing idea. The right hon. Gentleman—he is definitely my Friend today—seems to be saying that if there was a report saying that going off the cliff or some other madness would be beneficial to our economy, the Government might publish it, because it would help in their dealings with the hard Brexiteers. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.

What the Government have done, to their credit, is to ask the objective analysts to go away and look at the options, albeit apparently not their preferred option—although we have made that point, so I will move swiftly on—and they have come back, having no doubt done their job, as they always do, thoroughly, openly, honestly and exceptionally well. We now know that these reports were prepared, and apparently some Ministers have already seen them. According to reports, I think in The Times, Cabinet Ministers were to go and see them under lock and key. They were to read them, they were not to take in their phones and most certainly not to make any notes, and they were to inform themselves, so that finally our Cabinet could perhaps come to a conclusion about what we want from Brexit. Yet apparently these very same reports are so useless and flawed—they are based on weird modelling and cannot be trusted—that they have to remain top secret. They were not good enough—or were they?—to inform Cabinet members. It is nonsense.

Geraint Davies
The Minister said that these analyses are provisional, incomplete and not fit for purpose, so is the right hon. Lady as amazed as I am that the Prime Minister should conduct phase 1 of the negotiations with no economic analysis? No wonder we are the laughing stock of Europe.

Anna Soubry
Well, no, because I thought the conclusion to phase 1 was actually quite good, so I am certainly not going to undermine it, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

Many hon. Members sat through the many hours of debate during the Committee stage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and, at the end of it, one thing on which those of us who take a sensible approach to this all agreed was that we had had some terrific debates. The dreadful irony was this: if only we had had those bloomin’ debates before the European Union referendum. What is undoubtedly happening is that people are becoming better informed. They understand now the huge complexity that Brexit is. They realise that there are serious consequences to our decision to leave the European Union, and that is why they are darned worried, not just for themselves but for their children and their grandchildren. People have a right to know. My constituents who work at Boots have a right to know the consequences for them and the pharmaceutical sector, based on the different models and choices that are still available to our country. The people who own and run Freshcut Foods have a ​right to know about the consequences of, say, duties on imported fruit and vegetables from European countries and what those will mean to them, in the real world, doing the job that they do.

That is at the heart of all that is happening now. People want to know, because they are finding out about the promises they were made. The £350 million for the NHS is all gone; they were lied to—they were conned—on that. They were told this was going to be the quickest trade deal—I think I am right in saying they were told it would take a day and a half to do a trade deal.

We are nowhere near doing that trade deal, and we will be nowhere near doing it, because the other Brexit reality is this: we are not going to have a meaningful vote in this place—we are not—because there will not be anything meaningful to vote on. What is going to happen, unless the Government get into the right place, is that, yes, we will have an agreement on the divorce—that will be there in the withdrawal agreement—but in terms of the actual relationship we will have with the European Union once we have left, we will have a few woolly heads of agreement. That will mean pretty much nothing—not even to those of us who have spent what feels like a lifetime now looking at these options. We will have a series of heads of agreement. That is not meaningful; that does not give us the ability to decide whether this is in the interests of our constituents and our country. It will have no meaning whatever. Again, people—my Government and everybody else—have to wake up to the reality of what we are going to get in October.

Tom Brake
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way, and I am hoping that she might say that I can be her friend as well, but maybe the question I am about to ask will not allow that to happen. Does she think that we can have a meaningful vote in this House if that does not include the option of voting to stay in the European Union?
Anna Soubry
The right hon. Gentleman and I used to be friends, because we used to be in coalition, so he can be my friend today. [Interruption.]Actually, I am very proud to have served in the coalition, because it was one of the best Governments we ever had, but in any event, we will move swiftly on.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a really good point, because the other danger is that we sleepwalk into some trap that will be set—that if we do not vote for this woolly agreement, the alternative will be “off the cliff”, and, of course, there are alternatives. It would be wrong to say to the European Union, “Can we come back and negotiate?”—the EU is amazing in the way it has put up with so much nonsense and with still not knowing what our country wants—but I do not think we will be in that position. However, the EU has already made it clear that if we want to remain in the European Union, that option is still open to this country; indeed, if we want to remain a member of the single market or the customs union, that option, too, is available to our country. So, in that sense, it should be a meaningful vote.

However, let me just say this. Such is my concern as events have developed that I have come round to the very firm view that it is not just in this place that we should have a meaningful vote; the people of this country, too, are entitled to a meaningful vote. We had a referendum, ​and I have always respected the result and will continue so to do. However, as this Brexit reality unwinds, and as people and even Members of this House—we know that some did not even know what the customs union was—[Interruption.]Oh, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sure I speak on behalf of everybody when I say it is wonderful to have you back. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We know your pain, and we all love and have great affection for you and, indeed, your family. We wish you all well.

That is the view I have come to. It is not for us to undo this EU referendum result, and we cannot; it has to be the people, and this has to be led by the people. The people are entitled not just to know the facts about Brexit but to have a say. I am forming the view, based on conversations I have had with my constituents, that many of them are now saying, “I did not realise how complex this was. I did not realise and appreciate how many cons and tricks had been played on me and how many untruths had been told. As I think about my future and my children’s future, I now want a real, meaningful say in this.”

Joanna Cherry

Anna Soubry
I will quickly give way before the bird lands.

Joanna Cherry
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. She is making a truly outstanding speech, and I really commend her for it. On the point she made earlier about the ability of the United Kingdom to change its mind, does she agree that the olive branch extended by Donald Tusk and Emmanuel Macron means that it is open to this country unilaterally to change its mind and revoke the article 50 notice?

Anna Soubry
The hon. and learned Lady is right—she, too, could become my friend for the day. In all seriousness, she is absolutely right. I am sure that it was a pure coincidence that, the day after certain members of the all-party parliamentary group on EU relations went over to Brussels, Tusk and Juncker—I am not sure whether it was Juncker, but, anyway, Members know who I mean—tweeted in the way that they did. They made it very clear that if the people—and it has to come from the people—want to change their mind, we can stay in the European Union, and if the people want to retain membership of the single market and the customs union, that option, too, will be open to us in October.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
We are starting to have that very important discussion about the fact that, as I put it, the people must finish what the people have started. That is by no means a disrespectful way of looking at the first decision; the two decisions are separate, and we are talking about a review and an update or a confirmation. This is by no means about talking down to people who voted one way or the other; it is about being very mature about the fact that we have all learned a great deal in the last 18 months.

Anna Soubry
I agree with most of what the hon. Lady says. The point in all of this is that this has to come from the people. Arguably, we—as politicians and Members of Parliament—are one of the reasons why the 52% who voted to leave voted in the way they did, ​because they feel so disconnected from us and feel that we do not represent them. Actually, they always think their own MP is rather good; it is just that all the others are not, which is always interesting. It does not quite make sense, does it?

It is really, really important that we get this right. This has to come from the people. As the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, they started this. We gave them the power, and we must let them still have that power and exercise it. However, as I say, my real message today is to my Government and my Prime Minister: get a grip, and let us start leading on this. They should see off those people who do not run this country and who do not represent Conservative voters or the people of this country. They should park them to one side and build a consensus, never forgetting that, if there was a free vote in this House tomorrow or next week, I believe that the majority of hon. and right hon. Members would vote, certainly for EFTA, and also for the customs union. So let us now be big and brave and do the right thing by the people of this country and the generations to come.

Anna Soubry
May I take the right hon. Gentleman one step back? Does he now share the view of many right hon. and hon. Members on the Government side that the other mistake was to trigger article 50 too early as well, and that has not helped us in our negotiations either?

Hilary Benn
In retrospect, there is force in the right hon. Lady’s argument, but since the Government chose the date on which to trigger it, we would have expected them to plan how they would be in a position to be able to negotiate what was required.

Anna Soubry
The one thing businesses want—this is the message I and others have received for a very long time now—is certainty. Of course they know that things can change. Does my hon. Friend not accept that we are in a situation at the moment where British business is going to want to know absolutely that the transition arrangements are firm and will be met to give them that certainty by March? It is in March that they start to make their plans.

Rachel Maclean
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Absolutely: when we have spoken to businesses in the Select Committee hearings, of course they want certainty, but the point I am making is that it cannot be provided, whether it is Brexit or not, in any economic situation to the extent that some people seem to want.